★★ / ★★★★
In writer-director Todd Solondz’ ambitious “Palindromes,” young Aviva (Emani Sledge) woke up from a nightmare and was immediately consoled by her mother (Ellen Barkin). Aviva expressed her concern that she would turn out like her cousin, recently deceased Dawn Weiner, the main character from Solondz’ snarky, brilliant, hilarious “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” but her mother told her that she would never end up like Dawn. It was the moment when Aviva became fixated on the idea having a child. A couple of years later, Aviva was impregnated by Judah (Robert Agri). When her mother found out, she had no choice but to get an abortion. “Palindromes” had an excellent first half but had an unfocused and ultimately unrewarding second half. What made the first forty minutes so strong was Barkin’s relentless performance. She was highly amusing as the mother who tried to convince her child, no holds barred, into getting an abortion. The way the camera transfixed on her desperate eyes hinted at the possibility that not every word that came out of her mouth was the truth. Getting rid of the fetus was a priority. We start to think that maybe she cared more about her family’s image than Aviva missing out on having a life. We didn’t know for sure and I appreciated that it was never answered for us. I also enjoyed Solondz’ decision to cast Aviva using eight different actors. It added depth and questions in terms of why he used a certain girl to be in a particular scene. Did it have something to do with the shape of her body, her temperament, the color of her skin, or perhaps her hair? A boy played Aviva once. But why? However, what I found ineffective was when Aviva met Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) and her adopted children who happened to have all sorts of diseases and disabilities. The family was devoutly religious. They turned to a higher power to give thanks, for guidance, and answers for their questions. I may not be religious but I understood why their faith was important to them. Prior to that point, the scenes lasted between three to five minutes. Such scenes quickly got to the punchline and it ended when it needed to. However, a lot of time was dedicated to Mama Sunshine and her family so the pacing began to feel disjointed. Furthermore, I felt like Solondz started to make fun of his characters instead of the circumstances that surrounded them and how we would react given that we were placed in Aviva’s situation. The conflict between abortion and religion failed to come into focus. The surprising act of violence toward the end was completely unnecessary and the picture began to spin out of control. It felt like it was done for mere shock value. I was surprised, in a negative way, because Solondz usually had control over his material. He had no trouble juggling controversial topics like pedophilia, emotional disorders, and wicked perversions because his characters always came first. This was an exception.
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Invitations were sent to family and friends about Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward’s (Robert Pattinson) upcoming wedding. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) was far from happy after receiving the news so he headed outside, took off his shirt, transformed into a wolf, and ran to ameliorate his rage. During their honeymoon, Bella discovered that she was pregnant. The couple was surprised because it was believed that a human and a vampire could not conceive a viable being. The fetus was growing at a rapid rate and it threatened the life of its host. Despite sensible advice that she ought to terminate, Bella decided to keep the thing inside her. Based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” was the weakest entry in the series. It was divided into three parts: the wedding, the honeymoon, and the horrific pregnancy. There was absolutely no reason for the film to be divided into two halves other than to make money. There was no pretentiousness, which I would have welcomed and possibly interpreted as ambition, or even an attempt of artistic integrity. The movie lacked interesting events, both big and small, designed to challenge who the characters were and what they really stood for. Since Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplay, stretched about half the novel for almost two hours, the pacing felt unbearably slow. It got so bad to the point where the characters actually ended up watching television together because they had nothing better to do. At least it was unintentionally funny. The acting was never the series’ strong point, but I’ve always managed to stick with it. In this installment, I lost my patience within the first few minutes. It was supposed to be Bella’s wedding day. It’s a big day when everyone is supposed to be excited and happy. Or at least pretending to be. Walking down that aisle, Bella looked absolutely miserable, like she was being punished and in pain. Take off the wedding dress and she looked like she really needed to go to the restroom. I understood that maybe she was nervous about marrying a vampire. Maybe she was even having second thoughts about making a monumental commitment. If those were the emotions that the actress wanted to portray, the responsible thing to do was for the director, Bill Condon, to do a reshoot until the right emotions were conveyed through the screen. The director had no control over his material. It looked like the filmmakers did only about ten takes and were forced to pick the best one, which was below mediocre. I’ve seen Stewart’s work in other movies and I know that she can act well given the right script and direction. I wish Jessica (Anna Kendrick), Bella’s friend from high school with whom she never interacted with, had more lines during the scenes prior to the wedding. Kendrick brought a certain energy, a realism and effortless charisma, that the other actors either didn’t have or were unwilling to show. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” could not afford its characters to look bored because the pacing, the script, and the plot were already on the verge of lethargy. For instance, instead of showing the Cullens, Bella, and Jacob just sitting on the couch and watching TV, why not explain the concept of imprinting? It was an important part of the movie, but I found myself having to look up exactly what it was after watching it. Like the parasitic creature in Bella’s womb, that’s not a good sign.
Back-Up Plan, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Jennifer Lopez had been absent from being a female lead actress for quite some time so I was really looking forward to Alan Poul’s “The Back-Up Plan.” Zoe (Lopez) made a proactive decision about having a kid via artificial insemination because she thought she would never find the guy for her. But the moment she stepped outside the clinic, she met Stan (Alex O’Loughlin), a nice, down-to-earth guy who wasn’t bad on the eyes with dreams of leading his own humble business. They didn’t get along initially but after a series of coincidences, the two eventually fell for one another. While I did like the two characters because they were charming and had undeniable chemistry, the material was just not funny. Some aspects of the film that were supposed to be funny but actually dead on arrival include the Single Mothers and Proud support group, Zoe’s incredibly transparent friends, and its lack of commitment in dealing with the serious questions about being a single parent. There were moments when Zoe had a chance to think about her future and whether she really wanted to stay on the path she had chosen but as soon as mood turned a little too serious, the movie would cut to a different scene and deliver slapstick infantile comedy. Not only did it take me out of the moment but I also felt emotionally cheated. The picture also lacked focus. I got the impression that the material was supposed to be from a mother’s perspective but it eventually lost track of its vision by establishing a series of scenes when Stan would meet a stranger at a park and discuss the struggles of fatherhood. While it was nice on the surface, I thought it was completely unnecessary. I already liked Stan and hammering the point that he was a good guy left me impatient. For me, I just saw it as another excuse to not deal with Zoe’s increasingly difficult preganancy, physically and emotionally, as she struggled with trusting Stan to stick around because the father and her child were not biologically connected. I think the movie would have been so much better if it had decided to take either the comedic or dramatic route. In an attempt to balance both, it managed to excel at neither path because every single step was formulaic and uninspiring. In the end, the elements of true exploration about how it was like to be a middle-class single mother were there but it tried too hard to be everything at once. The message of the film was vague–assuming that it wanted to communicate something in the first place. But then again maybe it just wanted to be a typical and too safe a romantic comedy.
★★★ / ★★★★
When Magdalena (Emily Rios) found out she was pregnant without actually having sex with her boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) before her quinceañera, she ran away from her family (Araceli Guzman-Rico, Jesus Castanos-Chima) because they believed she would not own up to her actions. Magdalena stayed with her kind uncle (Chalo Gonzalez) and cousin (Jesse Garcia), a gang member who happened to be gay and experimenting with the gay couple (Jason L. Wood, David W. Ross) next door. This independent film was no “Juno.” Quirkiness and snarky dialogue were absent but it was refreshing because the story was told without glossy pretension. It was not afraid to put its characters in difficult situations and let them deal with their problems without plot conveniences and typical Hollywood offerings about what one should do when one found out she was pregnant. I thought it was also refreshing that the character did not deem her life to be over when she found out she was pregnant at fourteen years old. It was nice to hear that she had plans for her future and I liked the way she stood up for herself when others criticized and laughed at her. I rooted for her because even though she was young, she was brave and she was not afraid to ask for help when she needed a bit of support. As for the subplot involving the homosexual cousin, I enjoyed it for the most part because Garcia could have played his character in an obvious way but he managed to avoid the usual traps about sexual experimentation. His character was a good foil for Magdalena. Even though the two were very different, they found commonality in being (essentially) exiled because their Latino culture have certain beliefs that directly challenged their modern lives. I thought the film was at its best when the two interacted because they found purpose and strength from each other. However, I have to admit that Garcia’s storyline sometimes outshined Rios’. The more the picture spent time on the gay cousin, focus and intensity was taken away from our lead protagonist. Lastly, I loved that the script sounded natural (so natural that sometimes I thought the characters were adlibbing). Having grown up in a very diverse neighborhood, the way the teens spoke and the topics they talked about were to true life. Ultimately, “Quinceañera,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, told a story beyond a fourteen-year-old finding out she was pregnant. It was also about her support systems (and lack thereof), her responsibilities as a young woman, materialism, and traditions of a culture in an increasingly modern society. The film was astute in tackling the issues and it was even sharper in conveying the emotions that the characters would not necessarily outwardly express.
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.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I find it an uncommon experience to watch a movie that really gets involved with my emotions, but it’s rare that I watch a movie that has the ability to completely transport me in its reality. Directed by Lee Daniels, “Precious” tells the story of an pregnant, obese, illiterate African-American teenager (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) who has grown accustomed to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by her mother (Mo’Nique) and how she eventually found strength inside of her to stand up and take her life in a positive direction. A few people who genuinely took interest in Precious were Paula Patton as the school teacher, Mariah Carey as one of the people who works for the welfare system, and Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse who took care of her after she had her second baby.
I have to admit that I choose to ignore or even actively stay away from people like Precious, partly due to fear since she came from a terrible neighborhood and partly due to how she presented herself: very quiet yet volatile and someone that seemed like she had no interest in taking care of herself. That stereotype that I often rely on doesn’t come consciously to me anymore and it was nice, through watching this film, to be reminded that despite physical appearances, everyone has a surprising (and even touching) story to tell, a story that transcends all the stigma and the pain that a person shows and hides. Even though the subject matter of this film was depressing, it found enough moments to insert not just amusing lines and moments but actual hopes and dreams of the lead character’s. Such scenes illustrated that although Precious didn’t like herself (when she looks in the mirror, she sees a completely different person–Caucasian, skinny, happy), she wanted to break out from her violent living environment and ultimately be loved for who she is and what she has to offer.
I thought the scenes of physical abuse from her father were done in a sensitive and insightful way. Instead of actually showing us the act, I admired how the picture chose to dissociate itself from the scene as when Precious would dissociate herself from the experience and think shiny, happy thoughts. From what I learned in Psychology, rape victims, especially those people who were raped ever since they were children, dissociate their minds from their bodies as a defense mechanism. So I thought the film’s craft was spot-on. Mo’Nique’s character was beyond cruel but just when I thought she was a complete monster, the movie shows us that she does indeed have a heart. It’s just that she became angry and bitter over the years because of how she interpreted certain events and how she saw certain realities. Again, I saw this through a psychological lens so her reaction made sense to me even though I do not agree with the way transfered all her frustration and anger (that should have been directed to her husband and herself) to her only daughter. Mo’Nique has been getting a lot of strong Oscar buzz for Best Actress and I believe she should be nominated because out of the many movies I’ve seen in 2009, her performance stands out by a mile.
The reason why I consider “Precious” one of the strongest movies of 2009 is because, despite its gloomy premise, it’s ultimately a very inspiring story about a seemingly hopeless girl from Harlem who chose to break the chains of abuse and find an alternative path so that she could grow as a person and maybe even reach her potential. This is a great film to show to kids from the poorer neighborhoods because it might give them enough courage to speak out and discover a role model that they might not have in their respective homes. It’s been a while since I saw people actually crying in the movies and people talking about it right when we were walking out of the theaters. Even though I saw this film alone (For some reason, I almost always watch the best films of the year by myself), I felt connected with the world and wanting to embrace everyone in it.
Black Irish (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Here’s another indie film that suffers from the Everyone Must be Depressed Syndrome. After all, it’s about an extremely dysfunctional family whose members are emotionally distant from one another. Michael Angarano plays the youngest of the McKay family and is surrounded by people he wants to look up to but are often disappointed with them: a father who keeps secrets and seems to have no positive outlook on life (Brendan Gleeson), a mother who cares too much about what other people would think so she guilts her children into doing the “right” thing (Melissa Leo), a brother who everyone gave up on because he can’t control his criminal proclivities (Tom Guiry), and a pregnant sister who wants to escape her family’s suffocating environment (Emily VanCamp). Even though each of the actor is featured and sewn into the big picture in some way, I felt like it was too forced. Stories about families must be organic because they have a natural connection to one another despite their idiosyncrasies. Angarano is really coming into his own; he’s come a long way from “The Brainiacs.com” and “Will & Grace.” Like in “Snow Angels,” he’s able to add layers and complexity to his character even though the movie is barely above mediocre. As for Guiry, I’m tired of seeing him as a damaged tough guy like in “The Mudge Boy.” Whatever happened to that nice harmless kid in “The Sandlot”? Even though I think he’s extremely talented, I think he’s repeating the same characters. I knew Emily VanCamp would have no problem with the dramatic scenes. Ever since “Everwood,” she proves to me time and again that she can look sad without trying. In essence, I felt that Guiry and VanCamp are merely cruising along and that really frustrates me because I know they can perform at a higher level. Perhaps they could have done so if the writing and direction (both credits go to Brad Gann) are sharper. Since this is Gann’s directoral debut, clichés tend to pile up on one another. But the nice thing about this movie is that it offers the characters some kind of hope at the end of the tunnel. Even though that hope is somewhat bittersweet, it’s what the characters desperately needed (so did the audiences). I also liked the fact that not everything in the film is solved because it gives the picture some sort of realism. I’m not against recommending this film because it does have some memorable scenes. But I’m not going to enthusiastically recommend it either because it has the kind of story that has been featured by better films.