Rider, The (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The poetry embedded in every frame and every feeling of “The Rider” is something that mainstream Hollywood pictures can only dream of. It offers a different type of entertainment—one that is quiet, yearning, inspiring the viewer look within, to ponder about one’s place in life and where it is possibly heading, rather than eliciting reductive and evanescent reactions stemming from sudden turns in plot or pacing. From its simple but elegant visual style to its deeply humanist approach of allowing the camera to rest on faces and bodies—including that of animals—writer-director Chloé Zhao has created a work that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. It is a joy that it took me completely by surprise.
One may read plot summaries and jump to the conclusion that the story is boring, perhaps even depressing. But there is nothing boring or depressing about it. Adopting almost a documentary style, even employing real people who play a version of themselves, Zhao ensures that we relate to the drama. The style is so confronting, we look at the physically broken Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) and wonder how we would react when our own bodies are forced to give up our passions. Brady, you see, had just undergone a major operation on his skull because he had fallen off a horse at a rodeo show. Medical professionals advise him never to ride again or risk losing his life.
I found the picture to be uplifting and moving despite the subject matter. This is because the writer-director has a way of catching deeply personal moments that ring so true, I was actually reminded of beautiful moments in my own life, especially the impressions that have made an imprint in my mind and my heart.
One sequence that I found to be unforgettable is Brady training wild horses. Errors in hand placement, pulling the rope a little bit harder than one ought to, or making sudden movements makes the horse react. You can tell that Jandreau has been around horses all his life, that he respects and loves these creatures deeply, because of the way he puts even the most temperamental animals at ease. At times he does so simply by making eye contact with them. I found the psychic connection, or whatever is, so poignant. Meanwhile, Zhao commands control of the camera by simply capturing a person doing his job. As a result, we learn plenty about horse training—what to do, what not to do, and the importance of instinct—by observation. The approach is romantic rather than analytical.
There is even poetry in keeping us at arm’s length. An incredibly touching scene involves Brady having to say goodbye to a white horse named Gus. Observe how the two of them riding across the prairie is shot. Initially, there is no wide shot in which the rider and the horse can be seen together completely. We see images of the horse’s powerful legs galloping across the land. We notice Brady’s exhilaration of being on a horse again after his skull surgery. He doesn’t smile but he holds the experience with pride.
We see the rider, the horse, and the pale light background—but the framing is executed in such a way that there is no full body shot. The incompleteness, so to speak, is done on purpose, you see, because Zhao, I think, wishes to preserve the final intimate moment between the horse and his owner. We are welcome to observe… but we cannot share their moment on the level that they are sharing it. And when finally do see a full body shot of them together, we are still kept at a good distance. So, as you see, there is a lot of thought put into how its images are put together. It makes a world of difference.
“The Rider” is best discovered and so I made sure to touch only the surface in this review. Those with a penchant for deeply humanist stories are certain to be spellbound by its seemingly simple premise and execution. There is a wealth of insight to be found here.
Nights and Weekends (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie (Greta Gerwig) and James (Joe Swanberg) were in a long-distance relationship. Mattie resided in New York while James lived in Chicago. They tried to visit each other once in a while but there was a limit to how much effort they could put into their relationship when distance was clearly an issue. Written and directed by the two leads, “Nights and Weekends” had an excellent first half but fairly weak second half. The first half focused on the romance between James and Mattie. We learned things about them which ranged from the impersonal, like their jobs and the careers they would like to have, to more important details such as whether they would be happy if they turned out like their parents. We got a feel of their personalities. James was patient, a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he didn’t see himself as physically attractive but that didn’t stop him from projecting confidence to the world because he had a mental picture of a more attractive version of himself. Meanwhile, Mattie was adorable but a bit needy. Unlike James, she was more than willing to voice out what she thought was disgusting like when her boyfriend ate the dark brown area of a banana. When she was annoyed, she expressed it. For instance, she didn’t like the fact that she was left in the hall for ten measly minutes because James had to drop something off at work. Yet she was the one who didn’t want to meet his co-workers because she thought it might be awkward. Strangely enough, which is uncommon when it comes to romantic dramas, I related more with the male. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their relationship succeed because, despite the occasional tension between them, they were a very good fit for each other. But then there was a jump forward in time. Everything felt awkward. The tone it established prior was thrown out the window. It was unclear whether Mattie and James were even in a relationship. There was even a heavy-handed metaphor that involved Mattie trying to water plants, a symbol of her attempt to sustain their so-called relationship, but the plants wouldn’t absorb the water. I wondered what happened to the film’s naturalistic approach, something I found very charming and interesting, like the directors’ brazen decision to not reshoot when the actors stumbled over their lines. I liked the picture most when it captured real life. Sometimes our tongues just can’t keep up with our thoughts and we’re embarrassed in the fact that we’re not as eloquent as we would like especially when we’re trying to get a point across. But we continue and pretend that we didn’t make a blunder. I craved the realism it effortlessly seemed to have. Ultimately, the positive outweighed the negative. I admired that the film allowed its characters, in their twenties, to be immature, sometimes shallow, and consumed by their neuroses. The relationship didn’t have to be particularly meaningful or special because Mattie and James were still searching for who they were.
★★ / ★★★★
Eddie (Kellan Lutz) and Shane (Jonathan Tucker) broke into a house they thought was empty and murdered a child in the process. Detectives Noah Cordin (Nick Stahl) and Leslie Spencer (Rachel Nichols), equally determined, were assigned to catch the criminals. As they got deeper into the investigation, Noah started to realize that the persons involved in the murder might be from the small town he grew up in. “Meskada,” written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, was a realistic look on how cops might possibly solve a case. Despite the fact that a child being killed was no small matter, the director made a smart decision not to feature any grand overtures to convince us how important it was. Seeing an innocent and lifeless child on the ground was enough to get our attention and hope that Noah and Leslie were successful in their mission. We saw them unglamorously go through trash in search of evidence, feel frustration because they had no lead, and try to balance the peace when economics and politics came into play. The story was interesting because the cops weren’t just up against criminals. They were up against people who were willing to protect their family, friends, livelihoods, and community. They were also up against themselves as they struggled to weigh short-term and long-term rewards. Sometimes they didn’t always make the smartest and most ethical decisions. For that reason, I also admired that the picture didn’t always offer easy answers. After all, a case being closed isn’t always synonymous with a case being solved. However, what the film needed was more details about the characters, particularly the ones who committed the crime. Shane and Eddie coming from a poor background wasn’t enough to explain why they were desperate enough to steal. Others from their hometown were just as destitute but they didn’t commit robbery. In fact, most of them decided to work together so that a company would eventually decide to build a factory in their town. There had to be something different about Shane and Eddie that made them feel like they had no other choice. Perhaps it was in the way they processed and translated challenges that faced them. We couldn’t be sure exactly because they didn’t share enough scenes together. We weren’t given enough time, unlike with Noah and Leslie, to ascertain the dynamics of their ultimately toxic partnership. Nevertheless, I liked the ambition that “Meskada” proudly wore on its sleeve. It was absent of gimmicks in terms of storytelling but it managed to inject complexity by exploring real human emotions, psychology and error.
Myth of the American Sleepover, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
On their last night of summer, hormonal adolescents, ranging from fourteen to twenty-one, attended their friends’ sleepovers and parties. There was Rob (Marlon Morton), a lonely guy who encountered a girl in the supermarket but failed to find the courage to speak to her. He spent the rest of the night hoping that their paths would cross. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) was a new girl in town. She didn’t have many friends, so when she was invited by Janelle (Shayla Curran) to attend a sleepover, she happily accepted, unaware that Janelle was her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Scott (Brett Jacobsen) was having second thoughts about finishing college. His sister, Jen (Mary Wardell), told him that twins Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey) had a crush on him in high school. Hoping that his fantasy of being intimate with twins would finally come true, he drove up to the girls’ freshman orientation. Lastly, while at a party with upperclassmen, Maggie tried to get to know the pool boy she had been eyeing all summer. “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. On one hand, it wanted to deliver a realistic portrayal of teens: their attitudes about friendship, blooming sexualities, and coming to terms with missed opportunities. On the other hand, none of the parents ever showed up on screen. The most common excuse was the adults were out of town. Did all of the parents plan to leave their kids at home at the same time? I understood that it was a conceit that we just had to accept. I wouldn’t have had an issue with it if the teens eventually managed to express their thoughts and emotions to one another with a certain level of clarity. Instead, they lumbered from one place to another without much purpose. It was somewhat frustrating to watch them because there was a lack of fluidity between their respective struggles. For instance, how was Claudia’s loneliness related to Rob’s? There was no bridge. The parents, during wisely chosen scenes, could have acted as the conduit to their children’s confusion, frustration, and apathy as well as the past and present. After all, the parents used to be young and careless, too. Some things never change. Some things inevitably do. Furthermore, the teens could have used more diversity and executed in a direct manner. Rob’s storyline was most interesting because an African-American girl, his sister’s friend, had a crush on him but he didn’t seem to notice. Rob’s best friend, a guy, had feelings for him, too. I didn’t like how both were handled. Although set in suburban Detroit, the world the teens inhabited didn’t really feel like it was set in a modern age. The potential interracial couple’s scenes felt too syrupy to the point where they actually ended up watching shooting stars. The relationship between Rob and his best friend, as friends, didn’t ring true because of the way the director softened the latter’s homosexuality. I felt like the kid was shoved back into the closet every time he felt like he could finally tell Rob about who he really was. I was saddened, sometimes angered, due the way the script and the camera shied away from certain necessary realities. “The Myth of the American Sleepover” would possibly have been a great movie if it was released in the early 1980s. But as a movie of today, it feels like a masturbartory fantasy of the past.
Great World of Sound (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin (Pat Healy) answered an ad for a small record company, known as Great World of Sound, and was hired to become a record producer. He loved his job because he was passionate about music and he believed in giving talented artists a chance to make it big in the music industry. He was paired up with Clarence (Kene Holliday) who was as equally enthusiastic to sign new artists. But the more time they spent in their new position, they began to feel a gnawing suspicion toward their superiors’ (John Baker and Michael Harding) true intentions. Astutely written by Craig Zobel and George Smith, “Great World of Sound” was a fiercely honest look at the relationship between people who wanted to turn their talent for music into fame and fortune and the so-called businesses designed to help get their names out in the world. The auditions that Martin and Clarence sat through in their motel rooms was like watching the audition week of “American Idol” only thrice the realism. It was funny because most of the artists were convinced they were really good when they actually weren’t; it was touching because a handful of them came from extraordinarily difficult backgrounds; and it was sad because the prospective musicians were being tricked into paying money (for a “producing fee”) for a dream that could never be attained through this specific path. Despite the fact that we spent only a minute, sometimes less, with the artists, we couldn’t help but care for them in some way. I loved the fact that the artists looked like people one could see walking down the street in any small town or city. With Zobel’s confident direction, we could feel the artists’ desperation for wanting to get discovered and finally making it big. Martin and Clarence were complex characters, not necessarily worth rooting for because, initially and unbeknownst to them, it was their job to steal from people, but because we wanted them to do the right thing. We weren’t always sure if they were going to. Martin was a dreamer. He loved the idea of his job but actually doing it was an entirely alien sphere. With each “like” between words and awkward random pauses, we could feel that he was uncomfortable with his job. But he felt that he needed to stick with it because he and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader), also an artist, had bills to pay. Financial issues also plagued Clarence because had children to support. His speech about fairness and doing what was right was inspired, true, and heartbreaking. In a span of a minute, he revealed who he was and how he became such a fighter. “Great World of Sound” was a splendid independent film. It was successful in establishing an argument about the American Dream simply being a carrot dangled in front of us, forever out of reach.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A family of four, led by Daniel and Kristi (Brian Boland and Sprague Grayden), decided to set up cameras all over the house because they believed someone vandalized their home while they were on vacation. Several days after the cameras were set up, the family reviewed the recorded images and started to notice strange things like objects moving by themselves. We observed baby Hunter (played by William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto) focused on something while in his crib in the middle of the night. Ali (Molly Ephraim), the eldest child, initially thought it was cool that the house was haunted so, along with her boyfiend (Seth Ginsberg), they tried to communicate with the spirits using a Ouija board. That’s never a good idea. “Paranormal Activity 2,” directed by Tod Williams, had a solid rising action. It was similar to its predecessor, directed by Oren Peli, because it managed to convey chilling images by showing very little. For instance, when the mother started hearing noises in the baby’s room and found that the weird noise wasn’t there, she headed to the connecting bathroom. Then something small would move near the crib. It obviously wasn’t the wind because the doors and windows were shut. When the mother returned to the room, the object ceased to move. It was scary because it defied physics. A moving object can’t abruptly stop moving without some force acting against it. Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie’s (Katie Featherston) return worked in some ways. Their appearance reminded me of why I enjoyed the first picture so much. They had good chemistry and their interactions were playful and amusing. But when the film started to weave in and explain how Micah and Katie’s story was related to the family in question, it felt forced. It began to feel like I was in a room watching a home movie and the writers were next to me as they attempted to write the script using a loud typewriter. It lacked believability. Once the kitchen cabinets and drawers were flung open at the same time, it was downhill from there because it wanted to increase the ante. But it didn’t need to. I missed the amusing scenes when Martine (Vivis Cortez), the family’s nanny, believed the house was haunted so she tried to let the good spirits inside using various incense and prayers. I also thought it was funny when Ali “researched” haunted houses and seemed to believe everything she read on the internet. The boyfriend just smiled because he knew how silly it was. It was simple, but I think it worked as a commentary for the young and not-so-young’s dependence on computers when we desperately need information. “Paranormal Activity 2” had some good scares and uncomfortable (but fun) chuckles as byproduct of stress (or fear) but it offered nothing new.
Blue Valentine (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) were not exactly what one would call a happy couple. Cindy did not love Dean anymore. Perhaps it was because he acted more like a playdate toward their daughter (Faith Wladyka) instead of a firm parent. Maybe it was because of his tendency to drink alcohol before work. We couldn’t put our fingers on the exact reason why, but that was what I found to be the most beautiful. Sometimes we just stop loving someone and the reason escapes us. Dean was a sensitive man. The couple met when Cindy was in college and dating a guy (Mike Vogel) on the wrestling team. She wanted to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Dean worked for a moving company. He didn’t make much money but all he really wanted was to find the right person for him. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the film jumped back and forth between the couple’s current unrewarding marriage and when their romance was at its peak. However, this was not to suggest that the couple’s current life did not have a drop of romance. Even when they were at a point of great struggle, I found romance in the small ways they tried. The former was difficult to sit through because it felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. It was like being stuck in a car with a friend and her boyfriend who happened to be fighting. No matter how much you turn up the volume on your iPod, you could still hear and perhaps feel or understand how they felt. There was a lot unexpressed frustration and anger between Cindy and Dean, but their aggression were personified in small ways like a snide look or an exasperated sigh. Their body movements said a thousand words. Since they could not communicate with each other in a healthy way, they were left to interpret the unsaid which led to the further dissolution of their marriage. On the other side of the spectrum, the latter was incredibly romantic. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t crack a smile in the way they hung out in the streets of Pennsylvania as Cindy danced and Dean played his ukelele. Their first few interactions were awkward, especially when they ran to each other on the bus, but the wall between them melted with fervor. They seemed destined to be together. The film could have suffered from the typical pitfalls of melodrama. But with Cianfrance’s direction, the switch between different time periods felt seamless and natural. It preserved the emotions from the scenes before so it worked as a tool for our further understanding of the characters and what was at stake if they did ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Each scene was like a piece of a puzzle and it was up to us to determine, not the point where their relationship became sour because all relationships have their rough spots, but the point where one or both of them had finally given up. Is “Blue Valentine” something that couples should see? Absolutely. It may not be typically cute or funny, but it was smart, real, and challenging.
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
★★ / ★★★★
Vengeance was in the air when Richard (Paddy Considine) returned home from the military after he learned that his mentally challenged brother (Toby Kebbell) had been bullied by local drug addicts and dealers (led by Gary Stretch). I love revenge movies but I felt as though this picture somewhat glorified the drugs and the violence. It’s not that I didn’t connect with Richard. I certainly did because if my brother was victimized, as scary as it is to admit, I probably would have done the same thing–maybe even worse. We watch the main character terrorize the drug dealers by breaking into their homes and leaving little warnings on the walls or on their bodies. And then we cut to scenes in black-and-white that showed us why the criminals deserved to be punished. It was heavy-handed and I wasn’t convinced that Shane Meadows, the director, embedded enough complexity in the material to go beyond threat-and-kill formula. As the body count began to rise, I kept waiting for the film to change the formula and infuse real human characteristics in its characters. It would have been more interesting if we saw a part of ourselves in the people who were about to be killed. Instead, none of them personally felt like they deserved what was coming to them. They kept running away, making fun of each other like they weren’t in deep trouble, and putting themselves in vulnerable situations such as drinking in the middle of the night until they passed out when they knew all too well that the person who wanted them dead could easily break into their homes. Their lack of logic made me feel like they were caricatures and when they did die, they made no big impact in my viewing experience. I simply thought, “Okay, so who’s next?” Toward the end, we were given a chance to feel Richard’s pain and his desperation to achieve some sort of redemption but it ultimately felt forced. Despite the anger and sadness in his eyes, I felt like there was a wall between me and his convictions. I felt no catharsis and I felt sorry for everyone involved in the madness. What “Dead Man’s Shoes” needed was complexity in who the characters really were under the façade they showed the world and laser-like focus in terms of exploring varying levels of responsibility and remorse. Although I must say the film’s best quality was its gritty realism. Either the actors were really good or there were some improvised material thrown in. It made me believe that the events that transpired could happen at just about anywhere.
Somers Town (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two lonely teenagers met in London and we have the pleasure to observe them for a couple of days. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and his father (Ireneusz Czop) were Polish immigrants. Marek mostly kept to himself as he slowly nourished his interest in photography. His father worked during the day and drank with his friends at night. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) turned sixteen and his first big decision was to move to London for reasons unknown. He was mugged on his first night in the big city but this did not change his romantic view of it. Marek and Tomo met at a local café where Marek told Tomo about his crush on a waitress named Maria (Elisa Lasowski). Then the two devised ways to get her attention, but one day she left unexpectedly for Paris. Shot in grainy black-and-white, “Somers Town” reminded me of those great movies in the 1960s during the French New Wave era. Its plot was relatively thin but the emotions were so complex that it was hard to say goodbye to the two characters after just 70 minutes of them getting to know each other. Despite Marek and Tomo coming from economically poor backgrounds, I loved that Paul Fraser, the writer, did not harden their hearts and their yearning for attention did not predictably lead to violence. In fact, he went the opposite direction. Tomo and Marek made mistakes as most people their age do but they were sensitive and had a clear view of what was right and wrong. Highlighting their positive qualities was a smart move because the picture’s running time was relatively short. By doing so, I immediately related to the characters and I had a chance to explore the dynamics of their friendship. There were more than a handful of very funny scenes but my favorite was when the duo stole a bag of laundry because Tomo did not have any clothes. The bag mostly contained women’s clothing and I couldn’t help but laugh when Marek told Tomo to look at the brighter side: the clothes may not have been for men but at least they were clean unlike the same clothes that Tomo had been wearing since he arrived in London. In return, Tomo made the clothes work but it was still painfully obvious that he wore a dress. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t laugh or even crack a smile if they watched that particular scene. For a low budget film, I was very impressed with the originality, creativity and imagination that “Somers Town” possessed. It was apparent that Shane Meadows directed his film with passion and zeal because I had fun with it throughout. When the movie finally shifted from black-and-white to color, it felt like my eyes opened for the first time. I guess it was also how Marek and Tomo felt when they finally entered a culture so different from theirs. Suddenly, their futures looked bright.
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.
Day of the Woman (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
An aspiring writer (Camille Keaton) decided to live in a secluded cabin in a small town during the summer to work on her first novel. At first it seemed like a nice place because the people (Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Eron Tabor, Gunter Kleeman) she met were friendly but those were the very same sick-minded individuals who eventually tortured and gang-raped her multiple times. This exploitation flick was definitely unsettling to watch because of its extended realistic violence. However, I thought there was a certain lyricism with its lack of soundtrack and periods of time when the characters did not particularly do anything interesting. It gave me the feeling that the events that I saw could have happened and can still happen to anybody which made it that much more chilling. While the rape scenes were indeed shocking and painful to watch, I liked the way the female lead took her time to systematically plot her bloody revenge. Although the things that were unfolding were dead serious, there was a certain cheekiness and dark humor with the way Keaton used her feminine wiles to lure the men who did her wrong and to push them to their grizzly demise. The second half was stronger not just because of the revenge scenes but also due to one of the characters explaining why they decided to rape her. Of course, the classic argument of a woman “asking for it” was brought up. There was also an interesting metaphor about catching fish and getting a woman. That relationship was compelling to me because the men treated her exactly like an animal. Perhaps worse. Many elements came together in the second half that took me by surprise because, to be honest, I did not expect the material to have much insight or intelligence due to my prior experiences with exploitation movies. I was happy that it defied my expectations. It would have been easier for the picture to rely on the obviousness of the images but it had a surprising amount of subtlety. In the end, I was convinced that writer and director Meir Zarchi successfully made a feminist film. I thought it was funny that the women in the movie were portrayed as smart and strong but the men were idiots and lacked goals. “Day of the Woman” also known as “I Spit on Your Grave” had risen beyond the sadistic and the ugly and actively confronted issues such as blame, responsibility, and entitlement.