★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Bryan Madorsky) and his family (Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt) have recently moved to the suburbs: a new house, a new school, and a new perspective concerning what his parents put on the dinner table. Michael fears his father greatly; it is better not to make eye contact unless it is demanded. While Michael finds his mother tolerable, he also keeps her at arm’s length. Every night, the three of them eat together like most model families in the 1950s. Without fail, Michael pretends to be full because he suspects that the nicely garnished meat that sits on the plate is human flesh.
“Parents,” written by Christopher Hawthorne, is an uncompromisingly bleak dark comedy that I had trouble digesting despite my admiration for its daring decision to thrust a kid into increasingly dangerous situations. But what differentiates the film from being a simple-minded exploitation picture is that it allows us to be with the little guy every step of the way. For instance, since Michael is in a constant state of fear, his subconscious forces him to experience all sorts of vivid nightmares. The camera is always behind or next to him as we see a hand sticking out of garbage disposal, blood seeping out of the refrigerator, and the bed sinking in an ocean of blood.
Madorsky does a wonderful job not just in looking absolutely terrified, especially when the father gives him a suspicious look, but also in reeling in our greatest sympathies. His character is a child who believes that there is no one he can turn to. After sitting through nicely-paced spying that occasionally ends in almost getting caught, we want to see him escape his potentially cannibalistic parents by exposing their extracurricular activities—if they are, in fact, murderers and cannibals.
When Michael is not at home, he is at school, bonding with a girl (London Juno) who is also relatively new. Naturally, the duo eventually make grim discoveries that may or may not only reside in their heads. Bob Balaban, the director, is fastidious in building suspenseful scenes. Because of the uneven beats between action and reaction, images normally considered as clichés end up providing just the right amount of impact.
Moreover, there is variation in the outcomes of Michael’s investigations. Just when we believe he is safe, he gets caught at the final teeth-chattering second. At times, though, when we are convinced that it is game over for the boy, he is saved by a noise or some other unforeseen element without coming off as cheap.
However, I wished that the picture had dedicated more scenes between Michael and Millie Dew (Sandy Dennis), the school psychologist. Their very limited interactions are fascinating. One of the best scenes involves Millie showing Michael a picture and the former asked the latter what he thinks of it. The kid is struck by horror and which implies that something terribly wrong is happening in the photo. In fact, the picture is simply showing two parents tucking in their child for bed.
“Parents,” almost Lynchian in its confident surrealism and irony, is a forgotten gem but it does not deserve to remain that way. It may be hard to swallow at times due to some of the questions it dares to ask about the darkest corners of child psychology but it is worth the uncomfortable viewing.
★★ / ★★★★
In the opening sequence of “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, we observed a group of kids interacting at a park. As one kid walked away from a group, obviously upset, the leader of the group followed. The former kid turned around suddenly and smacked the latter in the face with a long stick. The one who used the weapon was Zachary and the one who ended up on the ground was Ethan. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), Ethan’s parents, invited Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), Zachary’s parents, in their home to discuss, in a calm and friendly way, the issue and what should be done next. Initially, everyone was as serene as a kettle of full of water recently put on a stove to boil. But as the parents spent more time together, they began to turn against one another until the issues they began to discuss were no longer related to the conflict between their children. Based on a play called “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, for a film packed with four excellent and versatile comedic and dramatic actors, it ended up only slightly comedic and barely dramatic. While nuance in the acting was present, I felt as though there was nothing underneath the surface emotions. Having an experience with working with kids and dealing with equally difficult parents, I can vouch that these people were caricatures. Perhaps they were supposed to be, fine, but it seemed as though Polanski neglected to provide his audience multiple angles of each character so that we would be forced to recognize our parents, or even ourselves, in them. While parents may be as self-centered and sensitive as their children, not for one second did I believe that an adult, after being insulted several times, directly and indirectly, would decide not to flee the situation as quickly as possible. Penelope delivered sententious speeches about how much she loved the history of Africa and how she claimed to understand Africa’s suffering. Nancy felt very ill. Michael kept making jokes in order to palliate the increasing unhappiness. Alan was programmed to pick up his cell phone every time it rang. Didn’t it occur to any of them that it just wasn’t worth it? If I’m talking to someone and it’s obvious that my words are going in one ear and out the other, I’ll feel compelled to no longer speak. I’m not going to waste my time trying to get through to someone who’s too stubborn to consider what I have to say. Deep down, Penelope and Michael felt like Nancy and Alan just didn’t care that their child picked up a weapon and struck another person. The very act had a lot of social, emotional, and psychological implications yet none of them were explored. I argue that if they had been explored, the last shot would have been more powerful. Because the screenplay was adamant in remaining loyal the source material, the movie became asphyxiated by contrivances; I found it difficult to engage with it in a meaningful way. Most plays, like movies, are successful because they make the audiences feel something. Since my emotions remained rather neutral, except for a few snickers here and there, I felt the material did not translate to the big screen. What special quality did this picture have that the play did not? The yelling, screaming, and bickering were aimed, I think, to distract us from its insipidity.
Falscher Bekenner (2005)
★ / ★★★★
Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) had recently graduated from the university. With a competitive job market and his lack of enthusiasm during his interviews, he couldn’t seem to snag a job. His parents’ (Manfred Zapatka, Victoria Trauttmansdorff) insistence that he put in more effort to everything he did didn’t quite sit well with him. As a response, he sent a false confession about a crime he didn’t commit. It seemed as though getting away with it was his biggest accomplishment. Written and directed by Christoph Hochhäusler, I knew the message that the film wanted to relay to its audiences. That is, young adults’ minds are irrational, volatile, and curious. However, it lacked important transitions between scenes. Too often were we left with Armin in his room as he stared at his computer, procrastinating instead of working on job applications. Then it would jump to scenes when he would search for Katja (Nora von Waldstätten), a girl who he considered to be his girlfriend but she thought otherwise. When he did find her, he was at a loss for words. What was the relationship between the two scenes? The formula became almost unbearable to sit through. Since the scenes lacked transition, the rising action felt disconnected and the film lacked tension. The movie was at its most interesting when Armin was being interviewed for a job. His voice sounded apathetic and his body language lacked energy but his responses were unpredictable. There were times when I was impressed that he could think on his feet and sometimes flat-out lie about his experiences. But there were instances when I felt like he was drowning in questions, that his mind needed more time to process the situation and come up with a reasonable response. When Armin was most vulnerable, the picture seemed to wake up from its deep slumber. The parenting was another critical strand in the plot. It was obvious that the fathered preferred Armin’s older brother (Florian Panzner): He played sports, sociable, had a career, and about to start a family. Our protagonist didn’t like to show it but he was sensitive to his father’s expectations. What son isn’t? On the other hand, the mother was lenient. She thought that if Armin tried harder, he would have no problem getting a job. She was in denial. I got the impression that it never occurred to her that her son was simply not ready to have a career that he would have, or was expected to have, for the rest of his life right after graduation. Some people just need a bit more time to figure out who they are and what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong it. “Falscher Bekenner” had some decent ideas about society’s expectations of its young minds that happened to be a little lost. However, it desperately needed to snap out of its insularity and not be ashamed to allow us to feel for its main character’s struggles.
Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
Breakfast with Scot (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Sam (Ben Shenkman) and Eric (Tom Cavanagh), a gay couple who chose to pass as straight because of their careers, decided to take in a boy (Noah Bernett)–Sam’s nephew–because his guardian (Colin Cunningham) living in Brazil essentially did not want him despite the fact that the boy’s mother who passed away really wanted the boy to have a good father figure. There was something about this movie that I just didn’t like because I believe it spent too much of its time focusing on the boy’s gay tendencies–from his penchant for wearing bright clothing, putting on make-up and jewelry, to singing showtunes as if everyday was Christmas–as a source of comedy. And then it showed Eric being so embarrassed for the kid time and again that he took away everything that made the kid happy and led him to play hockey to toughen him up a bit. It was supposed to be amusing on the outside but I think it was very sad in its core. For one, I could relate with the kid because when I was younger I was called names by the other kids and the adults in my life at the time made certain decisions (I’m not going into specifics here) so that I could “toughen up.” Like the boy in this movie, the decisions they chose for me made me, though I did “toughen up” in the end, very unhappy and when I got older, I became very angry at not only myself but also to those around me. Essentially, this movie took the safe route because everything turned out for the best in the end. Although it did try to teach a lesson about letting children be who they are, I think it really missed the point when it came to teaching adults the real repercussions of their actions if they did to choose to “correct” their children’s natural behaviors. This movie was thinking short-term instead of long-term and I just didn’t buy it. I think the movie had the potential to really explore a child’s psychology and the self-hatred of a man desperately wanting to appear straight to his co-workers and random people in the streets who could care less about him. Instead, it tried so hard to be cute to the point where it was almost cringe-worthy. Although I must say that the scenes involving the cruelty of children as they tried to find their identities were pretty good. Those were the only scenes where I thought, “Hey, something like that happened to me or someone I know when I was in grade school.” Based on a novel by Michael Downing and directed by Laurie Lynd, “Breakfast with Scot” lacked edge and, more importantly, honesty and believability.
Away We Go (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This movie came as a surprise to me because I remember wanting to watch it in theaters (I wanted to see John Krasinski because I love him on “The Office”) but decided against doing so because I thought it was just going to be another one of those quirky small indie comedies that’s all style and no substance. How quickly I was proven wrong because the story was actually quite poignant. Krasinski and Maya Rudolph decided to travel across the country to find the perfect place to live for their child who was about to be born in three months. Along their travels, we got to see their friends and family members, all very different and all very, very colorful (to say the least). I loved Allison Janney as the mother who had no filter especially when she negative things to say about her children and husband (Jim Gaffigan). Even though she did make me laugh out loud (literally–every time she talked, she was so blunt and umcompromising), there was something about that particular family that was very sad in its core. The disdain and possibly even hatred was reflected in the facial expressions of the children and the husband. I also enjoyed the new age parents played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton. At first I thought they were just quirky but by the end of the visit, I thought they were borderline crazy. Gyllenhaal was absolutely perfect in her role despite her limited screen time. Lastly, I loved the visit with Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey because it showed that families that were really happy on the outside may not necessarily be happy on the inside. That third visit was very realistic and really painful as we got to the truths regarding the characters and the solace that they choose to embrace despite certain hurdles they couldn’t quite jump over. The emotional content of this movie really took me by surprise because it had a certain insight which made me realize that I have a lot more maturing to look forward to. There was that brilliant scene when Krasinski and Lynskey were considering if they were “fuck-ups” prior to their cross-country trip and by the end they realized that they actually had it pretty good. I thought that was a very good message because we often wallow on our own insecurities, when, in reality, others have it so much worse. “Away We Go,” directed by Sam Mendes, is more than worth a hundred minutes because not only did it make me smile and laugh, it made me think and feel hopeful for the future.
Enfant, L’ (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.
Bes vakit (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Bes vakit,” also known as “Times and Winds,” was a story about how three children stopped being kids because of the many responsibilities that their parents thrusted upon them. Ozkan Ozen decided to kill his father because he could no longer take the maltreatment and favoritism toward his precocious brother. Elit Iscan slowly headed for breakdown because her mother insisted that she made herself useful even if the amount of schoolwork was more than enough for her to handle. And Ali Bey Kayali developed on a crush on his teacher, only to stumble on the fact that his own father was spying on her through her bedroom window. I have to be honest and state that this film was particularly difficult for me to sit through because of the many lingering shots on certain objects and sceneries. As stunning as such images were, I personally would have preferred to see more character development, dialogue and conflict among the characters. Without that emotional pull, it’s hard for me to be invested in the movie. I’m not saying that this Turkish film is not at all worth seeing, but it really is more of an acquired taste. Personally, I can withstand slow-moving pictures but this one gradually wore down my patience. The rituals that the children engaged in became a bit too redundant and I failed to see the point of it all. I also felt that the relationships among the kids weren’t established and therefore did not come together in the end. While all of them were obviously unhappy, I needed to see more commonalities among them to further observe them in multiple dimensions. Although I was able to evaluable their motivations and take note of their varying psychologies, there was still a certain detachment that did not quite dissolve as the picture went on. Written and directed by Reha Erdem, “Times and Winds” offered beautiful landscapes and a certain poetry with its tone. However, I hardly think it was strong enough to warrant a recommendation for viewers. I’m afraid this was just one of those coming-of-age films that left a bitter taste on my palate.
★★★ / ★★★★
I think people’s claims that this movie was “provocative,” “unnecessary,” and “crude” should pass as compliments because it was what Sacha Baron Cohen (as the lead character) wanted to achieve. Directed by Larry Charles, the picture tells the story of the recently fired Austrian television reporter named Brüno and his aspiration to become the most popular Austrian since Hitler (his own words). In his quest to achieve his dream, he visits celebrities and politicians for interviews ranging from Paula Abdul, Harrison Ford, to Ron Paul. He also had the bravado to visit the Middle East and interview two men from extreme political parties currently at war with each other; not to mention visiting the home of a terrorist and throwing insults like he was asking to get hurt. If those weren’t enough, he also ended up going to a swingers party, to Alabama in the middle of nowhere, and to a group of people who “converted” homosexuals into heterosexuals. And believe it or not, there were still a handful of things that I haven’t mentioned. Not everyone gets satire. This film satirizes the fashion industry, celebrities from behind the cameras as well as those in the focus of the tabloids, to the very same people who choose to become mindless drones of the television, trying to shape their lives into what’s currently “in” or “hip.” I also liked the fact that it made fun of people who claim to know what they’re talking about when they really don’t (that scene with the two blondes was a riot) and it critiques overbearing parents who desperately push their children to superstardom no matter what the cost. If one really looks into it, there’s a certain thought that was put under the farcical (and downright hilarious) façade that it tries to market. In a way, this movie holds up a mirror to the American society and the very same people who react negatively toward the movie without strong, well thought out reasons are the ones who are being made fun of. And the funnier (or more tragic) thing is, they know it’s all true. The second half was more about Brüno’s homosexuality and how people in less liberal (to say the least) people in America reacts to it. Yes, the character is extreme but I doubt the reactions of such people would have varied that much differently if he wasn’t as “flaming.” At the end of the day, ignorance is ignorance and hatred is hatred. I had a really good time watching this film despite its flaws because it has a certain sharpness to it that I couldn’t help but admire. People say “Boycott this!” or “This should be rated NC-17!” All I can say is that they need to watch more movies and smarten up a bit.
400 Blows, The (1959)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this classic film’s theme of running away in order to achieve some sort of freedom being particularly impressive: running away from an uncaring home (the parents played by Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier), a strict school system, and a juvenile reform center. Alternatively, it can also be seen as an escape from oneself because Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), the lead character, cannot live up to society’s expectations on how he should think and behave. Having known that this story was drawn from François Truffaut’s, the director, troubled childhood, I decided to see this film in a psychological perspective. By the end of this picture, I have never found myself wanting to adopt a character because he is pretty much misunderstood by everyone around him. Admittedly, he did commit petty crimes and purposely did not do well in school but I thought the parents were to blame. The kid’s actions were a sort of signal for help and attention. The mother is disloyal and narcissistic in every way; a master when it comes to getting what she wants whenever she wants and not above bribery in order to keep living her fantasy. The father is not a good male role model for his son because he tackles problems with screaming and yelling instead of sitting down and discussing the problem at hand like a mature adult. The two parents have a few things in common: ambivalent feelings when it comes to their child, inconsistent parenting techniques (such as reward and punishment, lack of unconditional positive regard), and transference of their negative energy from outside the home to inside the home. I immediately thought that neither of them really wanted their son and I felt so badly for him. When it comes to the film’s techniques, I was impressed with Truffaut’s use of close-ups to fully convey what the character is feeling and thinking; the use of natural sound and extended takes made me feel like I was actually that much closer to the characters. The way the story unfolded felt organic–there’s a certain fluidity when it comes to the build-up of conflicts and the eventual release from such conflicts. Even though this was released in 1959, it’s still very relevant today because of the modern disaffected youth and people who are supposed to be parents but not quite know how to fill in such demanding shoes. An hour after watching the film, I still feel that sting of emotion on Antoine Doinels face as he was taken by a cop vehicle, crying behind the bars that portrays his crushed innocence. “The 400 Blows” is deeply powerful and resonant film and it’s a shame that I haven’t seen it sooner. You shouldn’t make the same mistake.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.
Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie contains a powerful story supported by powerful performances. Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr. are great as younger and older Dito, respectively. LaBeouf proved to me that he can carry dramatic pictures as well as action pictures. I really felt for him as a teenager who wants to spread his wings and fly–to actually become someone he can be proud of–but cannot do so because his family and friends tie him down whether they are aware of it or not. Downey Jr. is electric when he conveys his character’s frustration and anger toward his parents (Chazz Palminteri and Dianne West). As a teenager, Dito’s father never really paid attention to him. In many scenes, Palminteri seems to want to get to know about his son’s friend (Channing Tatum) more than his own. And it’s really heartbreaking because LaBeouf couldn’t tell if his father truly loves him. Melonie Diaz as young Laurie and Rosario Dawson as the older Laurie are wonderful as well. It’s interesting because Diaz always reminded me of Dawson, so I found it funny that they actually played the same person. Diaz and Dawson have this uncanny ability of making me smile whenever they’re on screen. They’re so good at embracing their characters and the audiences get to really feel for their plight. Although there are many elements that this movie tried to tackle (some argue that it’s unfocused), I thought it was effective because all the confusion and unanswered questions reflect the craziness of the characters’ lives. But the scenes that really got to me were the parts during LaBeouf and his Scottish friend, Martin Compston, would talk to each other. LaBeouf’s character never really got to be himself around his other friends because it is implied that sensitivity is a weakness. With Compston, they are able to talk about each other’s needs, wants, and dreams. One can definitely translate their relationship in a romantic angle but ultimately I thought it was friendship at its finest. It was so touching whenever they’d talk about running away to California with their band. Although it’s hopeful, it’s also really sad because I could sense the desperation of the characters–to get out of where they currently live. Directed by Dito Montiel (yes, it’s based on real life), this film surpassed my expectations. I thought it the picture would be just about tough neighborhoods but it’s really about wanting to become someone… more.