Nobody’s Fool (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sully (Paul Newman) seems to be an adolescent stuck in an aging man’s body. Running from responsibility has become a habit so consuming that he is unable to hold onto a steady job, has not formed a family ever since he walked out on his wife and son who was barely a year old many years ago, and finds himself living with his eighth grade teacher. When his truck gets a flat tire while on the job, he decides to hitchhike to get back to town. To Sully’s surprise, the person who pulls over is Peter (Dylan Walsh), the son he barely knows but is nonetheless friendly and willing to make a connection with him.
Based on the novel by Richard Russo and screenplay by Robert Benton, “Nobody’s Fool” has a protagonist who is not at all easy to like since he is as stubborn as a mule, but we warm up to him, at least to a degree, because the execution behind the inevitable changes he undergoes offer intelligence, insight, and sensitivity to make arc worthy of our time.
One of the characters advises another at some point that there are times when less is more. That counsel should have been applied to the picture because it is riddled with too many characters who are interesting but are not given enough time to develop. Officer Raymer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for instance, is mostly played for laughs. We see that he is overenthusiastic about his job but we are unable to ascertain why he is so angry with Sully. Surely it is not just about Sully not paying his traffic tickets. There seems to be an untouched backstory involving the two. Also, Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince) considers himself as Sully’s son despite the fact that they are only co-workers. What justifies him to have these feelings toward Sully? The situations are there but background information is lacking.
When the focus turns on the relationship between estranged father and son, the picture comes alive. There are very strange bonding sessions, like stealing of a snow blower, but we are able to look past them because it is clear what they both want from each other. Though they may not admit it, they want to be loved a little more, especially Sully having realized that he is getting older and Peter’s marriage is going through a rough patch. Instead, the affection that Sully wishes to have had the chance to express to his son is given to his grandson (Alexander Goodwin). Their interactions command fragility. Due to Sully’s history of irresponsibility, we anticipate for him to hurt or disappoint the child.
I craved more dialogue between Sully and Mrs. Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his former middle school instructor. Since Newman and Tandy are very good at concealing and disguising emotions, it inspires us to look closer and dig deeper into what is going on between them. Also, while the performers have the ability to put emphasis on certain words without drawing our complete attention to their techniques, they also have a way of communicating using their eyes only. Because their verbal exchanges are limited, reaction shots become key in understanding the relationship.
If there is a message in “Nobody’s Fool,” directed by Robert Benton, perhaps it is this: it is rarely too late to change the course of our lives for the better. A little bit of luck helps, too. What could have been a cheesy lesson is peppered with great performances and layers among relationships worth looking into. It inspires hope from within instead of shoving it down our throats.
Owning Mahowny (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a gambling problem—and that is an understatement. Promoted by his superiors to assistant branch manager of the bank for excellent record and judgment, little do they know that Mahowny owes over ten thousand dollars and has been using money from clients to sustain his addiction to gambling. Meanwhile, the police begin to suspect that Mahowny, a man who earns just about twenty-two thousand Canadian dollars annually, might be involved with selling drugs. After all, where does he get all the money to frequent casinos?
Based on a true story that happened between 1980 and 1982, “Owning Mahowny,” directed by Richard Kwietniowski, takes a magnifying glass onto the life of a man who has no control over his need to gamble. Although a dramatic picture, it reaches a balance of humor and suspense, from the characters who are convinced they understand what the man is all about to the authorities about to discover that a seemingly ordinary man is committing all sorts of crimes behind their backs. Hoffman plays his character with magnetic intensity.
We feel the gravity of the scene when Mahowny is sitting at the casino table. A person may know nothing about card games and the like, but the picture remains engaging because the camera focuses on Hoffman’s determined and desperate facial expressions as well as dejected body languages—without relying on showing the cards of a given play. The scene unfolds, camera still sticking to the character, and we feel that once Mahowny starts losing thousands of dollars, there is little hope of getting them back.
Less effective are scenes between Mahowny and his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver). There are many expected scenes in the latter first not being aware of the former’s gambling addiction and then discovering it. Although Driver does the best she can with a predictable role, there is little excitement or intrigue in the relationship. One might argue that perhaps that is the point—that Mahowny is seeking thrills somewhere else. But it would have been nice to get an idea as to why Belinda, after everything she learns eventually, chooses to remain in a relationship with Mahowny.
More compelling is Victor Foss, a casino manager (John Hurt) in Atlantic City, a place that Mahowny visits quite often. Foss’ greed is highlighted by the way Hurt engineers to look at Mahowny, like a vulture setting its sight on a dying prey. Scenes that take place in the casino could have been straight forward, but there is humor because of the performances as well as the variation of characters that choose to come along with the main character—often under false pretenses.
The detective subplot goes nowhere even though it is a necessary ingredient which inevitably leads to an arrest. Ian Tracey plays Detective Lock with a level of intensity but there is very little convincing and impressive investigation. It gives the impression that things are falling into place for the cops quite randomly and I found that the subplot obstructs the pacing at times that it becomes frustrating to sit through.
Still, “Owning Mahowny,” based on a book by Gary Stephen Ross and screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, is worth seeing because although the film offers humor and suspense, there is always an underlying sadness just below the surface. Although Mahowny is a liar and thief, we feel bad for him because Hoffman successfully communicates that his character has a disease and is in need of serious help. Before getting therapy, however, he needs to get caught. It might be the only way to turn his life around.
Ides of March, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic thirty-year-old campaign manager, working right below a powerful senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is hired to help Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) win the state of Ohio and secure a presidential nomination.
Recognizing Stephen’s suave confidence and talent for spinning stories, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the opposition’s senior campaign manager, gives him a call and suggests they meet in private: Tom wants to offer Stephen a job, one that he should accept because Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) is ready to give them his endorsement which means a certain victory for Senator Pullman (Michael Mantrell) and a loss for Governor Morris.
Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March” is not so much about the politics but the figureheads, seemingly impersonal and cold, that oil the machine. The center of the ruckus is Stephen and how circumstances force to open his eyes and how he learns to play dirty in order to have a career in a field that he is very passionate about.
Gosling is quite impressive in portraying Stephen, a man of ambition, drive, and a specific set of ideals. The film often reaches a creative zenith when Gosling must spar against acting titans like Giamatti and Hoffman—chameleon-like and fluid in portraying every nuance of emotion and intention. It is a tricky role because Gosling must find a way to come off as somewhat submissive due to his character’s comparable lack of experience in politics yet dangerous enough to pose as a real threat, both as an unstable ally and enemy as well as an eventual blackmailer since he has invested so much in the campaign.
Directed by George Clooney, the tension tightens when the behind-the-scenes drama is intercut with Morris’ speeches about how he intends on steering the country toward progress. While Morris’ supporters eat up his every word, there is a growing sense of unease as things start to go wrong in the campaign—slowly at first then like a landslide in strength and speed.
Although the dueling campaigns are both liberal in stance, the picture is a critique about politics as a whole. While it may seem glamorous and important, especially with all the press conferences and media coverages, the film reminds us that, at the end of the day, being a senator, a governor, a campaign manager, or an intern is still a job. And like certain jobs, the workplace can be a competitive environment where betrayal is like the common cold: it can happen to anybody and reactions to the infection tend to vary. Just because Stephen is smart, charismatic, and hardworking, it does not make him immune to the sickness.
Based on the screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March,” equipped with excellent monologues, may be interpreted as having a cynical message. Regardless, I found it fascinating—which surprised me because politics is not something that captures my interest as readily as, say, science or the movies. Experiencing the film is like closely observing a tight chess match. Some moves are easily foreseen but it has enough genuine surprises meant to inspire contemplation.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Though she has triumphed over the 74th Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which a male and a female are randomly chosen to represent their district of residence and fight against other Tributes—as well as one another—to the death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in a post-traumatic dirge, seeing faces and hearing voices of those who did not survive. Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun to worry about a possible uprising because Katniss has inadvertently become a symbol of hope—toxic to the totalitarian regime.
The point of the yearly custom is to instill fear among the twelve districts but since Katniss’ victory, more are willing to step forward and express their disdain for the status quo. Snow wishes to eliminate Katniss as soon as possible, but a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) explains that if she is killed, people will surely overthrow the government. Instead, he proposes that Katniss, along with her friend and co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), be pitted against past—and deadly—winners for the 75th Hunger Games.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a strong sequel because the main goal of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s screenplay is to expand its dystopian universe while the thrilling action sequences are allowed to fall into place. Upon closer inspection, this approach shares the same genome as superior second chapters, from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to Bryan Singer’s “X2.” Though we are familiar with the central characters, there is a freshness in what we come to experience because there is a consistent and defined point of view. Through Katniss’ anger, guilt, and fear, we learn to appreciate not only who she is as a protagonist but also the type of world she lives in. The filmmakers make an active decision not to simply rely on the good-guy-versus-bad-guy template and assume that just because someone “good” is up against a “big bad” does not mean he or she is worthy of our time. They work for it. Those in charge of the material are willing to go into specifics and so the final product is transportive.
Lawrence has so much range and she is the reason why Katniss is worth knowing—lightyears more interesting than the likes of Bella Swan or Melanie Stryder. For instance, part of the essence of the picture is the characters’ relationship with the media. Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be a couple when the districts and the all-seeing Capitol are watching. Katniss is instructed to smile, be happy, and act in love. Lawrence makes interesting choices on how to present Katniss during interviews. While we see the character following instructions she has been given, there are split-second moments—subtle body movements—when Lawrence allows Katniss to appear uncomfortable and communicate how much she hates participating in the charade. In other words, the actor is completely pulling the strings while her character attempts to put on a show. There is a difference and it is a challenge to accomplish with grace.
It is most interesting that the picture spends well over an hour to expand the circumstances and build what is at stake. When we get to the tournament—which, admittedly, I looked most forward to—it is almost less engaging compared to the machinations and politics in Panem. I found this appropriate. Because the first half gives us a chance to appreciate the film’s universe, the game itself has gone stale, almost shallow. What I wanted to see more is the growing rebellion. President Snow expresses great concern—building up to silent panic—about the government being overthrown but we are not yet provided distinct factions to allow the threat to be personified. The next chapter should prove most fruitful.
I do not mean to suggest that the challenges that the Tributes face in the strange tropical island are not exciting. On the contrary, it offers some moments of real suspense. For instance, it features the most menacing white cloud of terror since Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” I also enjoyed being suspicious of Katniss and Peeta’s competitors. I never trusted any of them (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Alan Ritchson, Jena Malone)—even if a few have proven several times that they are allies. I caught myself looking for the smallest hints—to anticipate the acts of betrayal. A good movie dares to keep you on your toes. I knew then that I was engaged.
Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, “Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is great entertainment because it cares about details not only when it comes to what is seen on screen but also what is felt by the characters and how we feel toward them. Notice the significant contrast between Katniss’ drab grayish-blue world—one that she covets nonetheless because of her family and community—and the pavonine, lush celebrations in the Capitol—a world that does not earn an iota of her respect due to what it represents.
Master, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran, struggles to find his place after the war. Dipsomania as baggage, he is unable to keep a job: first as a portrait photographer then as a cabbage farmer. After another night of binge drinking, he ends up on a yacht rented by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a mysterious philosophical movement called The Cause, for the duration of his daughter’s wedding. Dodd feels a deep connection with Freddie almost immediately, insisting that they had met prior but cannot remember the exact circumstances, so he invites the barely functioning alcoholic to join the group.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master” keeps us wondering what exactly is going on, but it is ultimately a frustrating experience to endure because its content and execution are both so oblique, they never reach the synergy that is necessary for us to have a firm grip on the characters and their own definitions of reality. What could have been an analysis of two extremes–one a slave to his affliction, the other a slave to his delusion–ends up becoming an arrhythmic dance around the fire. It showcases two fiery performances but the hullabaloos are as empty as a drum.
Phoenix and Hoffman feed off each other’s energies. What Freddie and Dodd have is explored via a master-follower relationship as well as a father-son relationship though to a lighter degree. Even fainter is a homosexual undertone. The most memorable scenes involve their characters simply sitting across from one another and ascertaining what the other can offer. Despite Freddie’s alcoholism and Dodd’s charlatanism, not once do we forget that they are intelligent men, so often lost in their own thoughts, with something big to lose and equally momentous to gain. The push and pull between them, as well as the forces around them, makes a compelling watch even though the camera at times cannot stay still when the decibels of the men’s voices reach another level of intensity.
Freddie captured my interest because he reminded me of an abused dog my family adopted when I was a kid. This dog barked and snarled every time someone was near. She would be quiet only when she saw food about to be delivered to her bowl. We had this dog for three or four years and not once did I feel comfortable approaching her or calling her name. I pet her head about twice or thrice and even then I reached out my hand with the most reluctance. Freddie is the same: he has so much anger and personal demons that it is almost impossible to like him. He is fascinating as a specimen but getting close to him is a willful act of setting one’s self up for certain disappointment. I never loved that dog. I disliked having her as a part of a family so much, I thought about maybe “accidentally” leaving the gates open so she would be tempted to run in the street and never come back.
The screenplay is not mindful of its gaps in time. Instead of being in the moment, part of our attention is dedicated to determining how much time has passed since Event C now that Event M is happening. For instance, Freddie has fallen in love with a sixteen-year-old high school student named Doris (Madisen Beaty) before he is sent to war. Some years later, he returns to a reality that we have long come to expect. This romantic strand is a would-be reminder that the protagonist, though hardened, is neither incapable of feeling nor unwilling to open up. For a film with such ambition, it comes off pedestrian. The yearning feels phony and stale. There is a glaring lack of momentum in the unspooling of the events. It is exhausting to sit through.
At least “The Master” gets into some detail about The Cause’s methods and ideologies, from the hypnotherapy sessions designed to recall one’s memories in his or her past lives to believing that the world has existed for trillions of years. Its 1950 milieu is also very convincing, its wide shots accompanied by sparse but memorable score by Jonny Greenwood. However, as hard as I tried, I could not connect with it fully. It tells us a lot but at the same time it does not. I do not like puzzles that are puzzling for the sake of puzzlement.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s general manager, was about to lose three of its most high-profile players to other teams. Instead of wallowing in pessimism, Beane decided that it was a great opportunity to reinvent the team and win games. Given that the Oakland A’s did not have the budget to pay players millions of dollars, Beane focused on statistics to form his new team. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who majored in Economics, the duo challenged the system and figureheads set on thinking a certain way about baseball. Given that baseball is a sport that I never learned to love or be remotely interested in, I expected to be very confused when the characters in the film used baseball jargon to explain why certain decisions were practical or downright negligent. Surprisingly, I had no trouble catching on because the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin was first and foremost a story of a man who was both passionate and tired of the sport. That contradiction in Beane was highlighted by Pitt so convincingly and so lovingly, there were times when I wanted to scream for the GM because no one seemed to understand what he was trying to achieve. With the exception of Brand, everyone was convinced that he was bitter about losing and had decided to sabotage the team. Since the material allowed us to construct an attachment to Beane, we are ineluctably reminded by our own experiences when we tried to make a difference or accomplish something unexpected, but everyone just seemed intent on getting in the way. With every losing battle against his peers (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we had a chance to see a glimpse of Beane’s younger years as a promising baseball sensation. One important conversation was when he had to choose between playing in Major Leagues versus accepting to go to school in Stanford. Obviously, he chose the former given the money involved. But it didn’t work out; he wasn’t the shining star that everyone predicted him to be. Slowly, the audience was given an increasingly complex and interesting portrait of the protagonist and why he was so driven to choose players that were considered out of their primes. Furthermore, the dialogue was easy on the ears because there was a consistent flow in the delivery of the lines. When the flow was interrupted by a silence or a character stopping mid-sentence in order to look at another character a certain way, dramatic beats were appropriately used to maintain dramatic momentum. However, there were about two or three scenes that felt out of place, notably Beane’s interactions with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). While they shared a sweet chemistry, one was more than enough. Scenes like Beane serving ice cream to his daughter felt like an obvious montage of “Daddy Still Cares Even If He’s Busy at Work.” We knew he loved his daughter from their first scene together. We could see it in the way Beane looked at her while she played guitar in public. Directed by Bennett Miller, “Moneyball,” based on the nonfiction novel by Michael Lewis, was a well-made underdog story about the business side of baseball, yet that isn’t to suggest that it was without nifty surprises clandestine enough to appeal to our soft spots.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), while throwing a party with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a girl he intended on marrying, received a cryptic phone call, a signal that he was to meet with a superior to discuss a possible mission. Musgrave (Billy Crudup) informed Hunt that one of his former students (Keri Russell) in the agency had been kidnapped. Normally, a captured agent would be disavowed but the agency believed that she knew crucial information about Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer they had been tracking for some time, so her extraction was necessary. Hunt accepted the mission and was assigned a team (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q) to rescue the kidnapped agent. Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Mission: Impossible III” had a wonderful mix of drama and action. Despite the cool gadgetry and intense physical stunts, it felt believable because what was at stake felt real. The theme of Hunt’s struggle to keep his personal and professional lives separate was at the forefront. It seemed like no matter what he did, there was no stopping the two spheres from colliding. That’s why the heart-pounding first scene worked. We got to observe Ethan helpless at the sight of Davian, a figure of his professional life, putting a gun to his future wife’s head, a symbol of his personal life. Even though we had no idea what the Rabbit’s Foot, an item that Davian was desperate to have, was exactly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the spectrum of emotions Hunt experienced, which moved from confusion to anger then regret, as Davian counted from one to ten, the point when he was to put a bullet into the innocent woman’s head just because he could and he enjoyed watching people suffer. The action sequences, jumping from one continent to another, were as breathtaking and astute as ever. The warehouse scene in Germany provided the template. It was messy, bullets, glass and fire thrown everywhere, but never incomprehensible unlike most poorly edited action movies. Each team member was given something important to do. While Hunt explored the building, someone was underground, another was in the air, while the other was in charge of scanning the perimeter via body temperature. Each time the camera moved from one team member to another, it was consistently interesting. Their teamwork established a healthy synergy of tension that, when threatened, delivered nail-biting suspense. But that isn’t to say that the film was devoid of humor. The scenes with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), a bumbling tech expert, prevented the project from being suffocatingly serious. Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), Hunt and Musgrave’s superior, had an intimidating aura but his lines had a certain snappy irony that went beyond the archetype of a tough-as-nails boss. “Mission: Impossible III,” written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams, looked and felt like it was made by people who love to make movies. It’s amazing how much clichés tinged with a microcosm of originality can feel something new.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam Sandler should star in more movies like this one because it’s a nice break from his monotonous, painfully obvious and predictable slapstick comedies. “Punch-Drunk Love,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a small business owner named Barry Egan (Sandler) who fell for his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson) after one of his seven sisters (Mary Lynn Rakskub) set him up because the sister claimed he lacked initiative. Meanwhile, Barry was caught up in a scam, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, after he called a phone-sex line. I loved the movie’s dry sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. The romance between Sandler and Watson was offbeat at best; it was difficult to see what they liked about one another because both were so strange. Even though I did not necessarily relate with Barry, I was fascinated with his behavior when things were calm and the way he responded to certain stimuli. He was unpredictable. When challenged, he would either go on scary fits of violent rage or would run away like a mouse. I wanted to know if he had bipolar disorder or whether he just did not have a healthy outlet to release the frustrations he had about his life, especially the annoyances from her overbearing sister. I found Barry’s sister absolutely hilarious but I think if she was my sister, I would just go crazy. Furthermore, I liked how Anderson portrayed what family gathering was really like. In more mainstream projects, members of the family would sit on a table and have hush-hush conversations as the camera focused on the key characters. In this film, everyone gossiped, insulted each other insidiously, laughed at the top of their lungs to the point where one could barely hear his or her own thoughts. The scene was plagued with a loud buzzing sound which caught my attention because it was realistic. I wish the picture had more scenes with the family because it was a nice change of pace from Barry’s isolated space which had a lot of gloom. “Punch-Drunk Love” showcases Sandler’s acting muscles and I was happy to see that he tried to do something different. I did not expect that he was able to go head-to-head with Hoffman because Hoffman had such a presence about him in all of his roles. I expect that a lot of Sandler’s fans would find this movie somewhat distasteful because its humor almost always stemmed from self-loathing and repressed emotional problems which–let’s admit–can be depressing at times. However, I think it’s a smart movie that is willing to look beyond the idiosyncracies of its characters and focus on their more compelling angles.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Happiness,” wrriten and directed by Todd Solondz, is one of the snarkiest dark comedies I’ve seen about a very dysfunctional family and several people connected to them. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) thought she had a perfect life but was completely unaware that her husband (Dylan Baker) was lusting over little boys, Helen (Lara Fylnn Boyle) was a successful author yet she could not find contentment within herself and had to turn to a creepy caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with serious sexual dysfunctions in order to feel better, and Joy (Jane Adams) was a struggling musician/saleswoman/teacher who decided to sleep with one of her foreign students in hopes of finding true love. Meanwhile, their parents (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser) decided to separate. This film reminded me of a darker version of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” in terms of the amount of characters it had to put under the spotlight. However, I had more fun with this movie because, while it was not as elegant and subtle in establishing themes, it was quicker and sharper in pointing its fingers at both the audiences and the characters. “Happiness” puts life-in-suburbia movies like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” to shame because it is far less pretentious but funnier because it actively argues that all of the self-denial, sickening realizations, self-hatred were a part of human nature. While it does make fun of those attributes, there were sensitive moments when the characters felt real pain, such as when the father finally admitted to his eleven-year-old son that he molested other children, between the black comedy punchlines. I thought the movie was daring because it was not afraid to push the audiences into watching uncomfortable scenes, slapping us around a bit with tricky verbal masturbation, and making us look and endure through the characters’ decisions–the very same decisions we probably would have chosen ourselves if we were just as desperate and suffocated. Fans of over-the-top social satires will most likely find “Happiness” delectable although I am not quite certain they will be craving for more after two-and-half hours of misery, isolation, and even exploitation. Generally, I have a positive outlook of the world but I love movies that ooze of negative emotions and self-deprecating characters. I’m not sure if most people who share similar outlook will fully enjoy the movie because it is at times difficult to sit through given its many taboo subject matters (there’s also a twisted murder mystery which I wish the picture explored further). However, it cannot be denied that Solondz’ “Happiness” pushed the envelope beyond the laughs and hopelessness.
Pirate Radio (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
British rock and pop music had very little exposure on the airwaves despite their undeniable popularily so the colorful crew members (Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O’Dowd, Nick Frost, Tom Brooke, Tom Wisdom, Rhys Darby, Katherine Parkinson) on a ship decided to broadcast songs every hour of every day. Back in the mainland, England’s minister (Kenneth Branagh), along with his minions, tried to come up with ways to make such broadcasts illegal. Watching this movie was strange because I thought the plot was somewhat weak and unfocused. However, I couldn’t help but love it because the characters were interesting even though some of them were more like caricatures, the humor had a healthy dose of rudeness and crudeness but was never truly offensive, it consistently inspired me to guess what random event would transpire next and, best of all, it showcased my favorite type of music. Essentially, the picture made me want to live in 1960s England so I could be around wicked fashion, freewheeling individuals willing to experiment, and great music that fully defined a generation. Since I felt like the movie was a tribute to people who grew up in the 60s and younger generations who wished they lived in the 60s, I hoped that, despite the movie simply wanting to have fun, the film focused more on Tom Sturridge’s character. He was a rebel (he got kicked out of school for drugs) yet we could not help but love him (he’s still a virgin but lacking experience with girls since he attended an all-boys school) because he was more sensitive and reserved than he let on. I wanted more scenes of him interacting with his neglectful mother (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson) and his supposed to love interest (Talulah Riley). Furthermore, I wanted to see more of his struggles concerning a lack of a father figure. The elements that could contribute to being alienated–and therefore turning to rock and roll–were present but the movie failed to look beneath the surface and offer insight that could surprise or even us. I believe that if “Pirate Radio,” written and directed by Richard Curtis, had a more defined emotional core, it would have been stronger because the risks it had taken would have had stronger payoffs. A movie about sex, drugs and music will fail to grow beyond the obvious if it does not have the heart and the energy to construct three-dimensional characters and storylines. It is particularly difficult for ensemble films but Curtis managed to be successful in “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Nevertheless, I’m giving “Pirate Radio” a recommendation because I appreciated its gesture to fans of British pop and rock and roll. The film was a nice escape because nowadays I can’t even turn on the radio without wanting to bash my head against the wall.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of movie that is frustrating to watch because its ambition got in the way of true emotional resonance. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who one day decides to make an epic life-size play about his whole life. He makes that decision because he wants to know how his life turns out the way it is, to understand why his relationship with the people he loves most simply did not work. There are four women in his life that have impacted him greatly: Samantha Morton, a box-office worker, Hope Davis, a shrink, Michelle Williams, a stage actress, and Catherine Keener, Caden’s wife. The first thirty minutes of this picture is very engaging: I felt how alienated Caden was because he doesn’t feel appreciated by his family and the people he works with. That frustration (and maybe even a bit of rage) begins to manifest physically and he starts to think more negatively about himself to the point where he ends up believing that he’s dying. The point where I started to get confused was when the movie decided to jump forward in time multiple times. I began to lose track of who Caden can still connect with, his motivations, and where he’s ultimately going to end up. On top of that initial confusion, Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director, kept adding elements of existentialism and sequences that might have or might not have happened. The movie got way into itself to the point where I couldn’t relate at all. I’ve read a plethora of critics’ reviews that this is a great film because of its ambition. To me, ambition can only get a movie so far. With ambition, a film must also be able to take its audiences to whether it decides to go no matter how ludicrous the destination. With this film, I felt left out of the loop and constantly wondered what was going on. Even though it’s not as accessible and relatable as I would’ve liked (especially for a movie that’s about life and death), I’m still giving this movie a mediocre rating because I did like some of the elements and issues it tried to tackle.