The Fourth Kind (2009)
★ / ★★★★
“The Fourth Kind,” written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, was about a psychologist (Milla Jovovich) who started to notice something strange about the stories of her patients which involved an owl and waking up in the middle of the night. Curious of the weird phenomenon, she started to investigate in order to get to the bottom of what was really going on: was the town in Alaska a place where aliens decided to conduct experiments on people or was the whole thing a case of deep hypnotism gone bad? Osundanmi used the technique of blending in “real” footages with dramatization but it did not quite work for me. I believe the style was a double-edged sword: mixing in the live footages gave the illusion that what we were seeing was real, but at the same time, the more the director used it, the less I believed in its realism. The “real” footages had a very convenient way of turning into static just when a person would start speaking in Sumerian and the persons’ bodies being contorted in gruesome ways. If such things were real, in order to truly scare the audiences, those would have been shown. But other than the whole is-it-real-or-is-it-not-real debate, I found the whole picture to be very convoluted. I wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a horror film, a science fiction film, a hybrid of both, or a mystery picture. Since it did not know what it wanted to be, it did not have a solid footing with its story and so it was pretty difficult to sit through. While the acting was fine, I think the main problem was the writing. I didn’t understand why Jovovich’s son hated her so much–in fact, I was just really annoyed with him because he was just a brat. The whole angle regarding Jovovich’s husband being stabbed to death in his sleep could have been completely taken out. In the end, I thought it was just a weak justification that the movie didn’t have enough meat to tell a well-told story. Also, like most terrible horror movies, the director chose to blast the score when something “shocking” happened. And like most bad horror films, I’m going to say the same thing–amplifying the sound is not scary, it’s annoying. It shows that the movie doesn’t have enough confidence to rely on the images being presented on screen. Scaring us with loud music is not the same thing as scaring us when we’re actually seeing something horrific. I don’t know from where Osunsanmi learned to make movies or who he looked up to before he made movies but he needs to go back to Horror 101 and ascertain why classic horror movies gained such status. It’s about simplicity, a well-written script and slow suspense. It’s not about gimmicks and loud music. I wished I was abducted by aliens while watching this movie because it was just that bad.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Lance Hammer, “Ballast” was a powerful film about how three people who lived in Mississippi Delta began working toward a better future after a suicide. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) tried to kill himself after finding out about the death of his twin brother but a neighbor (Johnny McPhail) arrived just in time to call for help. Marlee (Tarra Riggs) was a hardworking mother who desperately wanted to provide for her son James (JimMyron Ross), unaware of his involvement in violence and drugs. As the film went on, Lawrence, Marlee and James had no choice but to be a family and help each other to move forward. I loved the bare bones look of this film because it really got me in the mood to look inside the characters–their motivations, feelings, thoughts and plans for the future. What’s brilliant about this picture is the fact that it’s not just about poor people being poor people and therefore we can’t help but feel sorry for them. It’s about people in poverty who constantly try to provide for themselves even though all hope seems absent. We also got to learn about a certain character’s history with drugs, why Lawrence and Marlee didn’t get along, and why Lawrence was very understanding with James. Even though the movie did not have any soundtrack and had minimal dialogue, when the characters did engage in conversation, the words struck me. I especially was touched by that scene when the mother got fired from her job because of the bruises on her face (and she didn’t have any more sick days so she could take a day off). She said that her appreance shouldn’t matter anyway because she was invisible to everyone else. She had such strength throughout and I couldn’t help but root for her. I’ve heard from people that they were frustrated with the abrupt ending. I had no problem with it at all because it implied that no matter what challenges faced the main characters, they would find a way to overcome them. For me, the picture ended at just the right moment. “Ballast” shows how powerful independent cinema can be. This is not for viewers expecting fast pacing, a defined story structure, or any of the Hollywood conventions. This film is all about the nuances and it was pretty much observing the painful realities that others have to go through from day to day.
★★★ / ★★★★
A lonely man with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who recently lost his father found real connection with a teacher named Beth (Rose Byrne) who recently moved into his apartment building. What I loved about this picture was its ability to show the sometimes comical awkwardness of a character who happens to have Asperger’s but still remain sensitive and accurate throughout. With movies that have such sensitive topics, it’s easy to make fun of the person with a condition to get the laughs. In here, his awkwardness was matched with his romatic interest’s because there were times when she, too, did not know what to say or do. I enjoyed the romance angle of this film but what did not work for me as well was the bit about Peter Gallagher’s character being in court. I thought those scenes dragged a bit. Its connection to Adam’s life was not strong enough except for the fact that Beth and her father were often at odds. Still, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because, from what I learned in school and the reviews I read written by Aspies, it was true to life; how their limited social abilities impact a huge portion of their lives such as making friends, finding the right person they want to spend the rest of their life with, being interviewed for a job or making small talk with strangers. The best scenes are those with Dancy and Byrne being in the same room and trying to connect. At times they may have a wall around themselves but when they do decide to let each other in and really talk about what they’re thinking and try to communicate what it is they want, there’s magic and it works as a love story. And there were just times when Adam found it difficult to be in Beth’s shoes or when he took things too literally. Written and directed by Max Mayer, “Adam” was able to successfully show how it was like for a person who could not express himself the way he wanted to to still find acceptance from others as well as himself. There’s a common mindset that people with autism are all the same, they’re all dumb and are less successful than “normal” people. This picture touched on those three mindsets to show that quite the opposite is true. I was very satisfied with the ending because it was realistic but it wasn’t sappy or heavy-handed. The implications it had were quite touching.
Home Movie (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
After moving their family to house in the middle of the woods, a minister (Adrian Pasdar) and a psychiatrist (Cady McClain) eventually realized that their children (Amber Joy Williams, Austin Williams) began acting strange. At first the children killed their pet fish and put it in a sandwich. Then they put a frog in a vise grip. And then they cruxified the house cat. The events after that became so horrific, I could hardly look at the screen. The children didn’t even speak a word until more than half-way through the movie. When they did, they did so in codes. Written and directed by Christopher Denham, “Home Movie” used the hand-held technique of “The Blair Witch Project” and “[REC].” Unfortunately, it wasn’t as effective because the execution was weak; it felt confused when it should have been confident given its daring material. I thought the picture spent too much of its time focusing on Pasdar acting goofy and putting on ridiculous costumes. The parts I enjoyed most were when Pasdar used his faith to find answers regarding what was happening with his children. The same goes for McClain–the scenes when she used her psychology background were interesting to me because I had some idea about was she was talking about and the influential names she cited (although that Rorschach test begged the question of validity and reliability). The film would have been so much stronger if it had focused on their varying parenting methods and ways to get some answers regarding their children’s condition. I didn’t mind much of the “realistic,” low quality and shaky feel of the camera because I understood what the director was trying to achieve. It’s the writing and the way that the story unfolded were the problems for me. Even though I don’t like watching movies about children hurting and killing others, I have to commend this independent film for trying to do something different. Admittedly, I was really disturbed by some of the scenes but I was glad that the filmmakers cut certain images and reactions out. If one is interested in watching something very creepy, sometimes disturbing and not mainstream by any means, “Home Movie” might be enjoyable. I must also note that this film is not for people who like movies with defined closures.
The Son (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Le fils” or “The Son,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, tells the story of a sixteen-year-old (Morgan Marinne) who is taken under the wing of a grieving carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who lost his son five years ago. As the film goes on, Olivier becomes more and more interested in the teenager and not until we meet Olivier’s wife (Isabella Soupart) do we find out exactly why he is so fixated on his new apprentice. This is probably one of the most bare-boned films I’ve ever seen but it has such a powerful emotional wallop. I can understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by this movie because not a lot of things happen on the surface. The dialogue was minimal and the camera had a penchant for close-ups to really absorb the nuances in the facial expressions of the actors. I argue that the film is very eventful when it comes to the internal rage and depression that each character is going through. Yet they also want to not be angry anymore and to move on with life. Just looking in their eyes made me feel so sad because I felt as though they had a story that they were ashamed of and would do anything to keep hidden. Once that connection is made between the two leads and the audience, each movement was purposeful and had some kind of meaning. I was really curious about whether Olivier wanted to hurt the teenager in some way or if he has something else in mind. The silences that they shared were so painful and awkward to watch at times yet I thought it was very realistic. When I think about it, there are some days when I say less than ten words to another human being because either I’m so into my own thoughts that I don’t even notice or I actively choose not to speak to avoid some kind of collision. The directors really knew how they wanted their story to unfold and it’s a shame because the majority of less introspective viewers would most likely miss the point. There’s a lot to be said about “Le fils” but this is the kind of film worth discussing between two people who have seen it than between a reviewer and someone contemplating of seeing it. The organic manner in which the picture revealed itself to me touched me in a way that it was almost cathartic. If you’re feeling like watching something that doesn’t conform to Hollywood typicality, this is definitely a great choice. My advice is to be patient during the first twenty to thirty minutes. It will hook you in when you least expect it.
★ / ★★★★
I thought this movie, directed by Simon Pearce, was quite emotionally bankrupt despite the sadness and despair presented on the outside. Cal (Wayne Virgo) is a gang member who hides his sexuality from the rest of the group and uses other unsuspecting men (Garry Summers) for occassional hook-ups. Cal is also attracted to Jonno (Tom Bott), a fellow gang member, but the feeling never seems to be reciprocal under the watchful eye of the angry and vengeful Nessa (Alice Payne). When the gang attacks a fellow homosexual (Marc Laurent), Cal jumps in to save him and the two soon develop a romantic relationship. However, that relationship costs him his place in the gang. I thought there was way too much violence in this movie. I get the fact that Pearce was going for realism but that technique could have worked if the picture was sensitive in its core. I felt the director trying to grasp at the real sadness of the various characters but it never reached that level because there were too many distracting elements. Instead of heart, we get these extended scenes of sex which I thought were really unnecessary. For a movie that runs for less than nintety minutes, I expected it to be as effecient as possible. Instead, the first twenty minutes consisted of sex, drugs and violence. Perhaps another reason why I never warmed up to “Shank” was the fact that I just don’t understand the mindset of gangs. From what I read from literature and learned from the classes I’ve taken, there was supposed to be this sort of kinship or sense of family within the group. But in here, I thought they were just really cruel to each other. I seemed like one little slip was enough for one to be kicked out of the group. I felt like everyone was divided so the film never reached some sort of balance or harmony when it comes to both its characters and tone. I even failed to recognize the chemistry between Bott and Laurent. I’m sorry but I just have trouble accepting the fact that a tough silent type like Cal would fall for a flamboyantly feminine guy like Olivier. They were too different; and even if they were, the director did not really explore their potential similarities (interests, point of views, et cetera) other than the fact that they were gay. It’s all too obvious and shallow for me to be really absorbed into the lives of these characters. At the end of the day, I regretted watching “Shank” because the premise had so much potential but the execution was so lazy and typical. If you’re looking for meaning, you won’t find it here.
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
I like Larry Clark’s movies (“Kids,” “Bully,” “Wassup Rockers”) because each one has some sort of lesson in them. But the characters learn (or don’t learn) such lessons in many gritty and very realistic, if not all too painful, ways. I had a difficult time watching “Another Day in Paradise” because it did not start off well. The story was about how two criminals (James Woods and Melanie Griffith)–kind of like Bonnie and Clyde–took two juvenile delinquents (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) under their wing. One could tell that despite how they seemed to mesh well on the outside, something was about to go wrong because each character was driven by his or her own end game or naïveté. I kept waiting for the point of the story where everything suddenly changed but it didn’t quite deliver until the last twenty to twenty-five minutes. The last section of this movie was so powerful, I considered giving this film three stars. There was something about it was so sad and so haunting to the point where it really made me think about the characters and the choices they’ve made that got them into such an irrevocable mess. Such scenes reminded me why I loved Clark’s pictures in the first place because the message had a voice but it was still able to be quite poetic, which reminded me of some of Gus Van Sant’s strongest movies. Even though the movie did look small and was quite rough around the edges, the acting is top-notch especially from the young Vincent Kartheiser. I’ve seen him on the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spin-off called “Angel” and thought he was just fine there, but I didn’t think he would be able to deliver such gravity and emotional power as he did here. If the first hour of the film only focused on the more human and sensitive aspect of the story instead of showing the characters stealing, doing drugs, and risking the lives they obviously don’t value, maybe “Another Day in Paradise” would have been much stronger. In my opinion, there were way too many scenes that featured self-descructive behavior to the point where I got sick of it and just wanted to pay attention to something else. With a little bit more work in the editing room and reshooting some scenes, this would have been a hit for me.