Gardens of the Night (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Gardens of the Night” was about a little girl (Ryan Simpkins) who was kidnapped by an older man (Tom Arnold) and a younger guy (Kevin Zegers) on her way from school. In the hands of the sick duo who was running an underground business involving sex and children, the little girl met a boy (Jermaine Scooter Smith) who became her friend for life. Years later, the little girl along with the little boy (now by played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross, respectively) grew up in the streets stealing, doing drugs and prostituting themselves. In a shelter, Jacobs was adviced by a counselor (John Malkovich) to seek her parents. “Gardens of the Night” started off well because the whole experience involving the two guys’ insidious methods of kidnapping a child was so visceral, it almost felt wrong that I was watching the event unfold. I really felt like I was in the car with the kidnappers and in the room with the kids; no matter how much I wanted to help the children escape, there was nothing I could do about it. But when the focus shifted to the whole prostitution and living in squalor angle, it wasn’t as powerful because I didn’t feel like the main character wanted to make her life better. I felt like she had a defeatist attitude despite her longtime friend (who’s in the same situation as her) offering alternative ways of leading their lives. And since I didn’t feel that strength inside of her, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I was in the beginning. Although the film tried to tackle the issue of redemption with another girl that was about to sell her body for sex, it was so one-dimensional and I could see how it woulld turn out right from the moment that specific character was introduced. I did like, however, the scenes when Jacobs finally decided to see her parents again. However, her reaction to the whole thing angered me because I felt like she had this sense of entitlement–that nobody was supposed to move on despite her absence. I get that the movie was trying to comment on the connection between a child and her parents being no longer there but with such a dark material, the way it unfolded felt heavy-handed instead of natural. It’s as if Damian Harris, the writer and director, did not want anybody to experience a happiness that the lead character so rightfully deserved. “Gardens of the Night” certainly had potential but the second half could have used a little bit more work in terms of pacing and staying true to that poor little girl who was picked up by two strangers on her way home.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve always wondered about this classic western about three men (Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett) who decided to hunt down two other men who cut up a woman’s face (Anna Levine) for the price of $1000, but I was always reluctant to see it because the western genre is my least favorite. I’m glad to have finally given it the chance it more than deserved because it absolutely blew me away. Every scene felt like a crucial piece of the puzzle in order to understand why certain things were happening and why certain things must happen. I truly identified with Eastwood as a man who used to be a drunk and a killer because every fiber of his being was fighting his inner demons regarding the people he killed for no good reason. In every frame, I felt the fierce passion in his eyes, the wounded soul in his voice and the subtleties of his body movements; it made me believe that he really was a changed man. But eventually, it was nice to see why he did not want to be that kind of person anymore, not just because he now had a family, saw the error of his ways, and wanted to set a good example, but because that person really was engulfed in such darkness whose sole motivation was to kill. All of the supporting actors were exemplary such as the villanous authority of the town played by Gene Hackman, the leader of the prostitutes played by Frances Fisher, and the kid who was so enthusiastic about killling even though he had myopia (Woolvett). Although this was a western film, I was surprised because it was very anti-violence. Even though there were shooting involved, a requisite in most western pictures, the thesis of having no honor in killing was always at the forefront. I never thought I would ever be interested in watching more western films, but after seeing “Unforgiven,” perhaps I just might. This film will definitely set the standard of my eventual foray into westerns. I can honestly say that this deserved its Best Picture and Best Director win at the Oscars because despite the film looking a bit dated, the emotions are still raw and quite timeless. Complexity within its deceitful simplicity is this film’s forté and it succeeds in every single way. That’s a rarity.
La Grande Bouffe (1973)
★ / ★★★★
“La Grande Bouffe,” or “The Big Feast,” directed by Marco Ferreri, was such a huge disappointment for me because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, especially from critics and bloggers that I look up to for recommendations. Since my expectations were a bit hyped up, while actually watching it, it was such a letdown because the characters that came from different backgrounds–a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a judge (Philippe Noiret) and a television star (Michel Piccoli)–were so uninteresting for such an interesting premise. The four friends hired prostitutes and had orgies in a massive getaway mansion as they ate more food than they could digest in one sitting. Just when I thought that the story would evolve into something more, I felt like it actually tried to stay in one place and featured more images of sex and gluttony. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person that can endure watching pretty much all kinds of sexual acts but this film made me wince repeatedly. I’m not quite sure if that was the kind of reaction that the director had it mind or if it was supposed to be genuinely sensual or erotic. But since it’s a dark comedy, I’m guessing it’s the former so perhaps, in a way, it succeeded on that level. Morever, for having such a group of supposedly smart gentlemen, they sure acted like adolescent morons for most of the picture. I didn’t see any scenes where any of them offered some sort of insight that made me think of their situation (or any situation for that matter) any differently. I felt like writers just had this one idea of excess but never quite broken from that in order to reach the next level. (And for a picture that ran for more than two hours, there was absolutely no excuse for that.) I also did not appreciate the slapstick that involved scenes with flatulence and excrement. I’m not a big fan of slapstick in the first place because they tend to rub me the wrong way so this film became that much worse in my book. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the final scenes that revealed the fate of the four main characters felt completely forced and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It was a complete waste of my time and I almost wished I never saw it.
No Regret (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hee-il Leesong, the first openly gay director in South Korea who leads a gay-themed film, is someone to watch out for. “No Regret” is about a recently-turned-eighteen orphan (Young-hoon Lee) who leaves the orphanage and heads to Seoul to find a job. Unable to balance school and several low-paying jobs, he decides to work as a male prostitute with the hope of earning enough money to go back to school. The main character meets a rich upcoming businessman (Han Lee) several times including the strip club where he works. Eventually, after a plethora of inner and outer conflicts between the two, they finally fall for each other. But that’s only the beginning of their problems. What I love about this picture is that it didn’t glamorize male prostitution. It managed to paint a picture that people who are involved in such underground jobs are miserable and messed up yet still have human longings that are almost never achieved. They keep telling themselves, “If I earn enough money, I’ll get out of this place and lead a better life” but insecurities of not being good enough for “normal” society soon take over and they get stuck from moving on. Young-hoon Lee impressed me because he can brood really well. When he cried (and he did several times), I felt the sting of his depression and desperation. The moment when I could identify with him the most was when he expressed his insecurities to his lover; mainly that he’s poor and not well-educated. To me, that explains why he initially did not want to get in a relationship with Han Lee’s character. The lead character’s lover is rich, educated and has several options with his life. When they finally get into a relationship, that jealousy never really goes away and it sucks them into a negative spiral. I also thought that the lead character feels guilty for taking away his lover’s opportunities just to be with him. That negative spiral is then aided by Han Lee’s family because they want him to marry a girl despite finding out that their son is a homosexual. The complexity of the situations and morals of these characters are well-integrated in the script so I enjoyed watching the story unfold. However, my biggest problem is the film’s last twenty minutes. The events that transpired were so out of character, I thought the whole sequence was a dream (or a nightmare?). Though the ending did make me laugh in some sick, twisted way (one either loves it or hates it, I suppose), I feel like it could’ve ended better. I felt like the moral implications that pervaded the rest of the film were thrown out the window and, I must admit, I felt a little cheated. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a recommendation because the acting, script, and story are commendable. I’m looking forward to Hee-il Leesong’s next film because he proved to me that he is very capable of telling stories that are both rewarding and unpredictable.