★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.
★★ / ★★★★
A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.
★★ / ★★★★
The Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) was a bubbly couple on “vacation” in their beloved big house. Sadly, they died via drowning when their car plunged into a river. A couple of months later, initially unaware that the former owners tragically passed away, the Deetz family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder) moved into the Maitlands’ former home. After a few failed attempts to scare away the new family, the dead couple recruited the nasty Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” with a talent for verbal double entendres. Directed by Tim Burton, “Beetlejuice” was quirky, fast-paced and had a solid grasp of dark and sometimes macabre humor. I enjoyed watching it as a kid because even though it had elements of horror, the scary scenes were light and the irony embedded in the images (such as a skeleton that obviously died from severe burns claimed that he wanted to quit smoking) overshadowed the grotesque. However, seeing the film from an adult’s perspective, it crossed the line between cute and cheesy too many times. I cringed at the scenes when the characters broke into songs. Once was enough because I understood that the characters were being possessed by ghosts but after several times it happened, the joke became stale. I felt like the material was desperate to entertain but it did not need to because it was at its best when the jokes flowed naturally. Small twists regarding our archetype of haunted houses elevated the picture. For instance, I loved the scene when Baldwin and Davis decided to scare the family by putting designer blankets over their heads. I would have expected their strategy to work because if I was the one that saw two figures with blankets over their heads in an empty hallway, I would have ran out the house in record time. Instead, Burton injected a small twist by having Ryder’s character be weird but friendly and open to paranormal happenings in order to show us that there were other dimensions to her gothic high school stereotype. There was one scene that I found touching which I thought could have been explored further. That is, when Ryder’s character decided that she wanted to die at such a young age. It was a shame the material shied away from the sadness in order to deliver more comedy that did not work half of the time. Nevertheless, I believe “Beetlejuice” is worth watching because it had a spectrum of humor that ranged from deadpan, slapstick to slightly disturbing.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin Blank (John Cusack), a professional assassin, had been invited for a 10th year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. He initially did not want to go for two main reasons: He did not want to talk about his career and he was reluctant to face his former flame (Minnie Driver) who he stood up during prom night. Coincidentally, Martin’s secretary (hilariously played by Joan Cusack) informed him of a job in Grosse Pointe so she advised him to attend anyway so that he could tie up some loose ends in his life. “Grosse Pointe Blank,” directed by George Armitage, is a comedy with an edge. While it did have its comedic scenes such as Martin’s interactions with his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) who was reluctant to have him as a patient and a fellow assassin (Dan Aykroyd) who wanted Martin to join his union, it also worked as an exploration of a man having a pre-midlife crisis and the regret of having to leave his youth so soon. There was conflict inside Martin and happiness was something that he couldn’t quite reach to matter how hard he tried to claim it. For instance, there was a spice of sadness when he found out that his former home was now a grocery store and his mother had lost touch with reality. It also worked as an entertaining action flick especially toward the second half of the picture. However, it was still cheeky because the characters never seemed to run out of bullets. The overkills were very amusing but I thought it was appropriate considering the assassins’ enthusiasm (or obsession) with their jobs. Although I must say I did wish Hank Azaria was used a lot more instead of him simply cracking obvious jokes in the car as he tried to stalk Martin around town. The best element about the film was the romantic relationship between Cusack and Driver. A guy coming back for his former lover could easily have been cliché but the writers came up with ways to keep the tension fresh between them. At first I did not feel the connection between the two characters but as the movie went on, I wanted them to be together because they complemented each other’s personalities. “Grosse Pointe Blank” was more than an 80s nostalgia flick. I loved the selection of songs. Even though I grew up in the 90s, it was the kind of songs I listened to while growing up because my parents were adolescents in the 80s. Watching enthusiastic and cooky characters and listening to music that was very catchy which reminded me of my childhood made me feel good inside. Fans of quirky action-comedies with a great script like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” will most likely enjoy this offbeat but highly likable film.
★★ / ★★★★
The first shot of the movie, at least from our perspective, showed a group of people looking at a painting. After a split-second, it was revealed that the individuals were simply waiting for the elevator in which the painting happened to be next to. I wish the entirety of “(Untitled),” written and directed by Jonathan Parker, was more like the opening shot because it took advantage of our expectations and what we were seeing. The film happened to hit good and sour notes. On one hand, I thought it was really funny. I laughed out loud at the scenes when the main character, Adrian (Adam Goldberg), would play avant-garde music with his band and the audiences in the picture were simply shocked with what they heard. Or worse, that they actually paid to listen to it. The music Adrian and company played was like a group of toddlers randomly banging kitchen utensils. It was painful to the ears and most people would just wish for it to stop. Another reason why I thought it was funny was because the lead character took himself so seriously. He had real insight about his place in the art world and I thought his ideas were revolutionary. On the other hand, the romantic angle between Adrian and the posh art gallery dealer (Marley Shelton) felt forced. Their interactions felt too convenient; it felt like an awkward tool that served to keep the plot running along. I thought it was odd that the characters talked about hating commercial work but at the same time the movie they were in, whenever it focused on the romance, felt exactly like a quirky romantic comedy. Instead, I wish the movie had spent more time exploring the sibling rivalry between Adrian and Josh (Eion Bailey). Not just because both men liked the same woman but also because of their style of art. It would have been more fascinating because Josh was everything Adrian was not. I was interested in their history such as the environment from where they grew up in and the various inspirations they embraced that shaped their respective artistic endeavors. As a satire, “(Untitled)” marginally succeeds. Unlike Duncan Ward’s insular “Boogie Woogie” that tackled essentially the same issues, “(Untitled)” was equally about the images and sounds we saw or heard and the people that produced them. Even though everyone was flawed, I understood where they came from and I felt the passion toward their work. There was a wonderful scene near the end when Adrian attended a concert and later he was inspired to actually make progress concerning his own project. The inspiring moments were small but they resonated. I enjoyed at film in a number of ways and I hope others will take a chance to see it.
Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene established Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) to be an observer. While she ate lunch inside a classroom because she didn’t have any friends, she noted that everything had order and everyone belonged in a circle. Except for her. Esther had her own way of dealing with loneliness such as befriending a baby duck. At home, we found out she had a twin brother (Christian Byers) and their lives were always under a microscope as their parents (Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra) observed them from behind the lens. “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger,” written and directed by Cathy Randall, was a different coming-of-age story because it was about children who acted out since they received too much attention. Esther meeting Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a girl from a public school, was a catalyst for Esther’s evolution. As a whole, I enjoyed this movie because it had a bona fide sense of humor and the character, despite turning somewhat into a mean girl, was easy to root for because, essentially, she was an ugly duckling. However, this film was its own worst enemy. In its attempt to impress its audiences, it felt the need to deliver too much of everything. It got to the point where the quirkiness became a distraction and it did not lead to any place where the lead character could discover something new about herself. Instead of the superfluous awkwardness, I wanted to know about the dynamic and the fragility of Esther and Sunni’s friendship, Esther in a public school versus Esther in a private school, and the family seeing a shrink in their attempt to mend what they thought was broken about them. I also thought there was something poignant between Esther and Sunni’s mom (Toni Collette). She was the “cool mom” who rode a motorcycle, let them stay up late, used her body as an instrument and laughed at Esther’s jokes–the complete opposite of Esther’s biological mother. I felt sadness in Esther’s eyes as she questioned herself why she wasn’t lucky enough to get Sunni’s mom. Lastly, the ending did not quite work for me because I felt that it was done mainly to shock us. I didn’t think it was necessary at all; it almost felt exploitative. However, I was glad that Esther did not revert to being a loser during the final scenes. Her evolution, with all the good and the bad, remained intact and I appreciated that honesty. In a span of an hour and forty-five minutes, we watched her grow up even just a little bit. Sometimes small steps are worth it.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the books by Jeff Kinney, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was seen through the eyes of plucky Greg Heffley (played wonderfully by Zachary Gordon) as we followed his often very funny misadventures in middle school. Even though Greg had a lot of attitude toward and opinion about the lameless of the constantly evolving social hierarchy of middle school, he kept looking for ways to fit in and be at the top (or near the top) of the food chain. His schemes that could potentially make him a cool kid overnight were often thwarted by his awkward and corpulent best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), but Greg couldn’t find it in himself to leave him because they’ve been BFFs for as long as he could remember. I loved the main character because I saw lot of myself in him. He was a bit vain but charming, weird but sensitive during the perfect moments, vulnerable yet capable of subterfuge when pushed toward a precipice (or social suicide). Despite his many flaws, I rooted for him because he knew that one day he would be able to look back in time and just laugh about the stupid decisions he made, the shallowness of social climbing, and the ones who took middle school so seriously. There were a number of scenes that stood out to me. One of my favorites was when he tried to persuade us that there was a subtle difference between a journal and diary–that the latter was geared more toward girls while the former was a bit more manly. Another scene I really liked was when he said that fashion was easy and if he wore a tie and a dress shirt to school, everybody would think he was cool. As a person who tried it before (we really did have a lot of similarities), I thought it was absolutely hilarious. However, what did not work for me was when it took the Disney Channel path somewhere around the middle. While I did like the Halloween scenes (like Greg’s, it’s also my favorite holiday), it became too sweet and uninteresting. I wanted more scenes of Greg’s relationship with his obnoxious older brother (Devon Bostick) and the smart seventh grader (Chloe Moretz) who took pictures for the school paper. Even the parents (Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris), as one-dimensional as they were, sometimes showed promise that there was something surprising about them. The symbolism regarding the moldy cheese was obvious but, ironically enough, I didn’t think it was cheesy because the film had a lot of things going for it. For instance, it was able to successfully integrate the characters’ insecurities and apply them to situations where the kids could learn something from their experiences. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” directed by Thor Freudenthal, is one of the best non-animated children’s movies I’ve seen in a while. It was sassy, quirky, imaginative, funny and full of energy. Adults who are a kid-at-heart would most likely find it enjoyable because it was relatable. It’s one of those movies I must have in my collection.