Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.
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.
The Art of Getting By (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
George (Freddie Highmore), a senior in high school, was in danger of not graduating. Ever since he read a depressing quote about mortality that pushed him to stop caring about doing well in school and forging meaningful friendships, he began to lead his life like a leaf on a stream. But when a popular girl, Sally (Emma Roberts), with whom he had a crush on for years, started to notice and spend time with him, he considered that maybe fatalism was not right for him. “The Art of Getting By,” written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, adopted a passive approach in telling George’s story. While interesting when done right, it failed to work in this instance. There was no sense of urgency nor was there any drastic changes in tone. This technique didn’t make much sense because George was eventually supposed to wake up from his apathy. Even I would have preferred it more if it had taken a more heavy-handed approach. But the lack of logic was not only present behind the camera. George was a young adult who was drowning only he didn’t know it or wouldn’t accept it. Why didn’t his mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards), despite the fact that they had their own pecuniary matters to deal with, choose to be more vocal or proactive about their son’s future? They claimed they wanted to see change in him. But when they saw him laying on his bed instead of attending school, they meekly closed the door because he demanded to be left alone. While he was exemplary when it came to looking sad, what would make sense was for either of the parents to drag him out of bed. A good parent, a parent who genuinely cared, would have. Later, we were asked to sympathize for the parents. How could we when it was so obvious that they chose to neglect their child? As for George and Sally, their relationship was supposed to be romantic down to the final second of the film. But notice that when two bonded while skipping class and stalking men in the streets, the soundtrack took over. Remove the soundtrack and it wouldn’t be easy to see that their interactions were, at best, superficial. Nevertheless, there was one scene between them that I liked. On New Year’s Eve, they went clubbing and drinking with their friends from school. While on the dance floor, Sally allowed another guy to cut between them which caused George to retreat. If she was supposed to be likable or even remotely smart, why did let that happen? Girls, if they have an iota of self-awareness, know when guys are into them. She only later appeared to him after he vomited profusely and claimed that she had been looking for him for two hours inside. I didn’t believe her for a second. Later, George called Sally a “hussy.” I laughed because it was true. I wish there were more scenes between George, his teachers (Alicia Silverstone, Jarlath Conroy), and the principal (Blair Underwood). Out of anybody in the movie, they were the ones who actively took a role in letting George know that his life was about to be in the gutter. They weren’t afraid to perform some tough love either. “The Art of Getting By” was misguided even though its intentions were good. By focusing on trivial things like George attempting to win over a girl who was prone to vacillate, it felt superficial. People like the protagonist are, unfortunately, found in many high schools. If they are to be inspired, they need better material than this.
One Day (2011)
★ / ★★★★
On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduated from university. They were ecstatic because, like most graduates, they were convinced that the world was ripe for their picking. Emma strived to be poetess/writer in London. Dexter was uncertain but he had plans of vacationing/teaching English abroad. Over the course of twenty-something years, the film, based on the novel and screenplay by David Nicholls, checked in on them on the same day each year. While its premise was interesting, the storytelling was disjointed and unconvincing. What Dexter and Emma had was supposed to be an example of a deep friendship. After all, they pined to see or call each other when something important happened in their lives. However, there was a drought of clues in terms whether or not they even saw or heard from each other on any other day except July 15. As a result, as each year passed by, it became increasingly difficult to buy into what they supposedly had. After all, deep friendships are also rooted in going through ordinariness together. Emma had a crush on Dexter even before they formally met. While understandable because he commanded great hair that seemed to come out of a high fashion magazine, Dexter was almost completely charmless. His jokes felt more like personal jabs and he was an unapologetically hedonistic womanizer. He’d go in the direction, without careful thought for the feelings of others, that made him feel good the most. So how could we feel sympathy for him when his career as a television presenter reached a screeching halt? And why did Emma want to continue seeing him for as long as she did? The most obvious answer is that she enjoyed being heartbroken. This was disloyal to her character who initially smart, funny, and always strived to be independent. The best part of the film was Dexter’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her struggles of dealing with cancer and watching her son traverse the path of self-destruction. Clarkson wasn’t given much screen time but each time she was on screen, she provided a fiery complexity that the material desperately needed. When the mother looked at her son, I stared in her eyes and I couldn’t fully determine what took more energy out of her: Was it her illness combined with the chemotherapy or was it her son being blind to the fact he was so far from what he hoped he’d become? Unfortunately, Emma’s parents were nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how they saw their daughter other than a one-dimensional sweet girl, occasionally sporting a great haircut circa 2003, with nice dreams. I waited and hoped that someone practical would just bluntly tell her to snap out of her fantasies and remind her that aging comes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. The fact is, you can’t wait for a man or woman until he or she sees something in you. “One Day,” directed by Lone Scherfig, was supposed to be romantic and inspiring but it was ultimately masochistic. Much of its criticisms had something to do with Hathaway’s English accent. It had bigger problems than that. It’s a movie made for women but I’m afraid it doesn’t have much respect for them beyond the surface level.
★★ / ★★★★
Russ (Tom Cullen) was a gay man with mostly straight friends. After attending his best friend’s party, Russ decided to go to a gay club with hopes of hooking up with a stranger. After attempting to make eye contact with several men as a signal he was willing, Russ eventually encountered Glen (Chris New). Morning came and the two engaged in their first real conversation over coffee. They liked each other enough and thought what they had was worth exploring. But, initially without Russ’ knowledge, Glen was supposed to head to Oregon after the weekend and live there for two years to study art. They now had to make a decision whether their one night stand was viable enough to turn into a relationship. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, “Weekend” could easily, even understandably, appeal to those craving for realistic stories about gay lifestyles. There’s just not that many of them. Great ones are rarer still. The casting was good given that neither looked like a chiseled Adonis. In fact, their appeal was in embedded in the ordinariness of their looks. In return, we were forced to look within–their personalities, motivations, and perception of the world. Given that neither looked like a steroid-obsessed, stereotypically dominant beefcake or a stick-skinny twink, the sex scenes, mostly unnecessary, held a certain honesty: the unshaven corners, fat hanging about the torso, and wrinkles unhidden by make-up. Having the camera so up close to their bodies and faces, we could easily get the sense that the two had just had sex. Like in reality, the morning after is usually far from glamorous. Most of the time, you just want to jump in the shower to wash the night away. However, despite my best efforts, I felt no spark between Russ and Glen. It was critical because they were supposed to be increasingly attracted to one another over the course of the film. The reasons why they wanted to take their relationship on another level weren’t at all clear. Glen was condescending to Russ. He was repulsed by the fact that Russ didn’t like to kiss or hold hands in public as heterosexual couples generously often do. Because of this, he was convinced that Russ was not comfortable with being a homosexual. I was extremely annoyed with what he represented because he felt it was his prerogative as an out and proud gay man to constantly remind people that he was gay. To him, being ostentatiously gay was tantamount to being comfortable with his sexuality. No, it’s not. It means you’re being obnoxious. In the end, Russ subtly accepts that ideology. The supposedly sweet ending left a bitter taste on my lips. It sends the wrong message to audiences, especially to LGBT youths who are still deciding how they want to live their lives. Furthermore, the constant usage of drugs was an issue I had due to its mixed messages. I found it ironic that the two men were supposed to be connecting with one another through sex and deep conversation while snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana. How can you really get to know someone while being under the influence? All the discordant factors and hypocritical implications made me feel angry. While I understood Russ’ loneliness and the dangerous lengths he would go to assuage that emotion, the rest lacked practicality. It’s a shame because I do have friends like Russ who engage in casual sex with strangers and experiment with all sorts of drugs. The film implies that such a lifestyle is A-OK. It’s certainly not okay when you hear news that your friend has contracted HIV or died from overdose.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.