★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★ / ★★★★
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) visited Los Angeles to live in his brother’s home right when he just checked out of a mental hospital due to a nervous breakdown. Coincidentally, he started to have feelings for his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig) as the two of them took care of the family dog that was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. “Greenberg,” like its main character, tried too hard to stay away from the commercial offerings of pop culture. Sometimes it worked but there were times when it became borderline pretentious. During the picture’s mission to avoid attaching to the norm, I felt as though it built a wall around itself and I found it challenging to access its emotional core. Stiller did a good job playing an against type and I wish he had more characters like Roger in his repertoire. I enjoyed discovering the way he hid behind his sarcastic remarks in order to not deal with his insecurities, the way he constantly ran away from his past but at the same time unable to move on from certain broken relationships, and the way he dealt with aging and not having a career that he found meaningful or rewarding. It was easy to feel sorry for him but I was glad that the film made Roger somewhat difficult to like because there were times when he hurt those who genuinely cared for him for no good reason. Gerwig also did a wonderful job trying to find love in all the wrong places. What I enjoyed about her character most was the manner in which she told her quirky stories that led nowhere. This often bothered the lead character because he wanted to see purpose in everything. Some reviews from audiences claimed that they did not understand why this was supposed to be a comedy when there was nothing funny about it. I believe the film had a dry sense of humor which is sometimes inaccessible. I enjoyed its subtlety because it required understanding the characters a little bit in order to see the reason why something was funny when a character was placed in a specific situation. However, even I have to admit that I questioned where the movie was going or what it was trying to achieve. It had some brilliant moments that came few and far between. My favorite scene was when Roger talked about how different twentysomethings are nowadays compared to twentysomethings back in the late seventies or early eighties. The script was compelling because I felt a mix of bitterness, regret, anger and sadness in Stiller’s delivery, which I was not aware that he could pull off because I was used to seeing him in more obvious comedies. It would have also been nice if the film did not leave us hanging even if I understood why it ended the way it did. Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Greenberg” is a movie that is unpredictably bittersweet, sometimes challenging but often a frustrating to sit through. If it did not have so many walls and did not try so hard, I think it would have been much stronger and more memorable.
Entre tinieblas (1983)
★ / ★★★★
“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.
¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (1984)
★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar wrote and directed “¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!” or “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” which was about a mother named Gloria (Carmen Maura) who felt suffocated being around her family in a small apartment. Her husband (Ángel de Andrés López) was mean to her despite trying her best to show him undeserved affection, her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave) was overbearing, one of her sons was a drug dealer (Juan Martínez) and the other slept with much older men (Miguel Ángel Herranz). Gloria only found bits of happiness while being around her friend who happened to be a prostitute (Verónica Forqué). This was not one of my favorite Almodóvar pictures despite its confidence to tell a story that was different (the story also involved a telekinetic girl who lived one floor above the family of interest) because it spent too much time with side stories instead of really honing into the lead character’s condition. Only toward the last thirty minutes did we have a chance to realize how truly miserable Gloria was and what great lengths she would go to escape a family who did not appreciate her sacrifices. No doubt that the material had intelligence because I did notice certain trends such as scenes in which people always asked Gloria for a favor but when it was Gloria who needed help, everyone was too involved in their own problems that they wouldn’t even look at her in the eye. Either they wouldn’t/couldn’t help her or they would help her but their behaviors were almost passive-aggressive and lacked any sort of gratitute. Those scenes moved me because there were times when I felt exactly the way she did. What did not work for me were the scenes involving the husband making some sort deal about certain forged documents. I did not quite see what the relationship was between that scheme and Gloria’s struggle in the home. The family had financial issues but I felt like Almodóvar was hinting at something deeper than pecuniary issues yet it didn’t quite come together in the end. The bit about the girl who had the gift of telekinesis also failed to impress me because I felt like it was more like an obligatory quirk instead of something that felt natural to the storyline. Quirkiness is a quality I love in Almodóvar pictures because they work most of the time and they highlight certain trends and double entendres. In this movie, that certain quirk fell completely flat and it was distracting. However, I’m still giving “¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!” a slight recommendation because it ended at such a high note. When Gloria finally got rid of all the people who made her unhappy, did she successfully escape a period of misery or did she simply created another prison for herself? It was a poignant last ten minutes and I wished the rest of the film was just as insightful and affecting.
Butcher Boy, The (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Francie (Eamonn Owens), a boy with a very active imagination, values two things in life: his parents (Stephen Rea and Aisling O’Sullivan, respectively) and his best friend (Alan Boyle). So when the three important figures in his life were taken away due to varying circumstances, his childhood mischief evolved into an emotional disturbance despite the people in town treating him as nicely as they could. I understand that this can be a challenging film especially to people not used to over-the-top quirkiness mixed with surreal elements. I was able to stick with the story by focusing my attention on the psychology of a child who felt abandoned and betrayed. Further, he did not have a healthy way to get rid of his negative emotions. Instead, Francie channeled his energy toward torturing a kid from the neighborhood along with his mother (Fiona Shaw), who responded by asking other guys to physically assault Francie. The town eventually unable to deal with Francie’s indiscretions, he was sent away for extended periods of time. In such institutions, he failed to face his problems because he had no one to talk to and explain why what he did was wrong. The positive feedback of violence and emotional disturbance pushed the kid slowly toward a mental breakdown. Although the events that were happening on screen were wrapped in comedic elements, I thought it was really sad in its core because nobody understood how to deal with the tragic main character in a healthy way. The theme of the picture was abandonment which culminated when Francie returned from boarding school but his best friend was no longer his best friend. The schism in their relationship was especially painful to watch because earlier in the movie we had a chance to see them so close. They even had a pact to become “blood brothers” for the rest of their lives. The fear and disappointment in the children’s eyes (especially Boyles’) were apparent but they wouldn’t express them to each other because they either lacked the right words to say what they really felt or one did not want to hurt the other. All of the strange images and quirkiness aside, I thought the picture had a clear emotional resonance and I empathized with the main character throughout even though I did not necessarily agree with his choices. Based on the novel by Pat McCabe and astutely directed by Neil Jordan, “The Butcher Boy” was essentially about a childhood gone wrong because the child lacked guidance about life’s contradictions and challenges. Watching it was highly rewarding because its humanity was actually highlighted and not dimmed by dark comedy.