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.
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.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Barry Levinson, “Diner” was about a group of friends verging on adulthood who constantly tried to find a distinction between marriage and being in love with a woman. I adored this film greatly because I felt like the guys were the kind of people I could talk to. Even though they were silly and talked about the most unimportant things, they were very entertaining and each had a distinct personality. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) was about to get married, Boogie (Mickey Rourke–who I did not recognize at all) was a womanizer, Modell (Paul Reiser) got on everyone’s nerves, Tim (Kevin Bacon) had issues with his brother, and Shrevie (Daniel Stern) was addicted to music. But my favorite was Billy (Tim Daly), Eddie’s best man, because he was the most mysterious of the group. His interactions with Eddie had a certain feeling of sensitivity to it; the look he portrayed in his eyes made me think that he harbored a secret and I desperately wanted to know what it was. While they all had separate personalities, I liked that Levinson surprised us somewhere in the middle. The picture seemed to have flipped itself inside out and showcased something unexpected about them. For instance, Tim turned out to be someone who was genuinely intelligent despite his sometimes unwise decisions. The biggest strength and weakness of this film was its many colorful characters. Since there were so many of them, I was never bored because it jumped from one perspective to another with relative ease. But at the same time, I wished it had less characters so it could have had the chance to dig deeper within the characters’ psychologies. Nevertheless, “Diner” was very funny because the guys had chemistry. Their interactions made me think of nights when my friends and I would hang out at Denny’s, talk about the most random things, tease each other, and eat until it was either difficult for us to breathe or our mouths were simply exhausted from talking. So I felt like the movie really captured how it was like to be considered as an adult (over eighteen) but not quite reach the maturity level of a real adult. “Diner” is a deftly crafted picture with intelligence despite the dirty jokes, characters who are easy to identify with and a script that flows and sounds natural. I always feel the need to say that a movie may not be for everyone only because the movie is heavy on dialogue. But I think this film is an exception because it knows how to have fun but remain honest so the audiences can feel like they’re part of the inner circle instead of simply eavesdropping from another table.
Kicking and Screaming (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four friends (Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles) decided to move in together after graduation. The thing was, they still lived very close to campus because they couldn’t quite let go of college and they still weren’t ready to face the “real world” for various reasons. What I appreciated most about this film was its honesty. Although it had many quotable one-liners and very funny dry humor, all of it almost always felt secondary so it didn’t feel gimmicky. It felt modern but realistic. The core of the movie was always at the forefront: the four friends feeling lost and the way they tried to deal with the pressures of essentially getting stuck at a specific point in their lives. I liked the fact that the four characters were smart and had potential to be great yet they found themselves hanging out in the same places and having the same kinds of conversations about literature and pop culture. This was highlighted by a girl always telling them that they talked the same. There was a certain sadness about it all because the characters constantly avoided the main issue of lacking the motivation to pursue their potential. Instead, they distracted themselves by magnifying every small problem to instill some sort of meaning in their lives. Another element I thought was interesting was Eric Stoltz who played a tenth-year student. The four characters recognized that they didn’t want to end up like him yet time and again they made decisions that would most likely lead them in the same path. “Kicking and Screaming,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a story of postcollege angst for astute individuals who are willing to look past the surface and extract meaning from certain glances and dialogues. I read a review stating that this movie was simply a series of random scenes of twenty-two-year-olds being lazy and it didn’t come together in the end. I disagree in some ways. While it did feature random scenes that didn’t add up to anything, I think those scenes reflected the characters’ inner turmoil of not knowing what to do with their lives. After an expensive education, everyone sort of expected them to do something meaningful. Because of the paralyzing fear of living up to people’s expectations, they became stuck; each day blended against the other and the fact that they did the same thing every day didn’t help their situation. As for the way the picture ended, I thought it was borderline great. There was something heartbreaking about that scene in the airport yet something so sweet about the Hamilton’s conversation with the girl who liked to give people money if she believed she wasted their time. “Kicking and Screaming” is not for everyone because it’s heavy on dialogue and Baumbach lets the audiences derive meaning from it instead of spoon-feeding us what to think and feel.
La haine (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“La haine” stars Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as a Jew, an African and an Arab, respectively, who come from the nonglamorous side of Parisian neighborhood. The premise of the film was essentially following the three characters in a span of a day–after a riot in which one of their friends was sent to the hospital–so we could see how they juggled the internal and external violence that faced them. I was impressed with this film because it dealt with the characters in painfully realistic ways without being too heavy-handed or a stereotypical “being in one’s shoes for a day” story. The three friends were so angry to the point where they couldn’t help but stir trouble wherever they ended up. Their personalities were explosive and unpredictable but just when we thought we had them all figured out, the material surprised us. It then begged the question of whether they could rise above the place where they came from; I could see that they wanted to change and that they were tired of having to be (or trying to be) tough all the time. It was the subtle scenes in which the characters expressed their concerns and sadness about where their lives were heading that gripped me until the very intense and memorable final scene. Even though there were a lot of meaningless fights and funny scenes at someone’s expense, I enjoyed the quiet moments when they would just sit on the train and not talk to each other or when they would just visit an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. As alienated as they were, their frustrations didn’t hinder them from trying to live even if the paths they’ve chosen were roads that we necessarily would not want for them to take. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, he really had a knack for playing with the camera and delivering unique shots when something crucial was unfolding before our (and the characters’) eyes. He wasn’t afraid to take some risks and they paid off handsomely; the decision to shoot the film in simple black and white complemented the complex social problems (that we sometimes see in black and white) that the picture tackled head-on. Ultimately a movie about acceptance and corruption, “La haine,” also known as “Hate,” showed that a material does not need to be obvious or touching for it to teach a lesson about urban life. In some ways, the tone and focus somewhat reminded me of the unforgettable “Trainspotting,” only “La haine” was far less manic and more serious in its approach.