Peter and Vandy (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Jay DiPietro, “Peter and Vandy” (Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler, respectively) told the story of a couple who initially got along great during the beginning of their relationship but as time went on, the little things that bothered them about each other erupted into big fights and it got to the point where they could no longer stand each other. Told in a non-linear manner, since we started in the middle, we immediately get to see the turning point of their relationship and determine what exactly went wrong as the story inched toward how they met and how they broke up. The more I watch Jason Ritter’s films, the more I am convinced that he knows how to pick independent projects with potential–projects with a certain quiet power that movse and makes me think beyond what was presented on screen. I liked the fact that DiPietro had characters who were charming and likeable but flawed. Therefore, it makes it difficult to pick sides regarding who was in the right or wrong. The scene that stood out to me most was the peanut butter and jelly scene. It was emotionally devastating because everyone knows that what they were fighting about was not about how to properly make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was about how suffocated the characters were of each other. It was about the fragility of the front they put up just so that they wouldn’t have to argue especially when they took up the same space 24/7. It was also about how two people are just not right for each other and no amount of effort could change that fact. Although that scene was very confrontational, oddly enough, I found it to be amusing as well. I was impressed with how something so serious could have elements of silliness. Like the highly successful “(500) Days of Summer,” this film relied on two things: the non-linear structure that aims to reveal its many layers and the strong acting. The two leads know how to use their eyes to convey a specific emotion which differs from the words coming out of their mouths. In other words, the movie treated its audiences with respect because it didn’t settle on the obvious. Although definitely not one of the most romantic movies, I think “Peter and Vandy” is a good movie to watch during Valentine’s Day or whatever-month anniversaries because it was painfully honest in its portrayal of modern relationships. Instead of showing us just the good, it shows us the bad as well which sometimes makes our relationships stronger once we overcome the hurdles. With a running time of only eighty minutes, “Peter and Vandy” was effecient with its time and I actually wanted it to last longer because I wanted to know more about the characters.
An Education (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.
All the Real Girls (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This very earnest and honest love story between a virgin (Zooey Deschanel) and a womanizer (Paul Schneider) may have been difficult to swallow but it was rewarding. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, the style of storytelling of this film was at first distracting because it constantly made quick cuts from one scene to another. But as the picture went on, I realized it was effective because the characters had to quickly say what they wanted to say even if the words that came out of their mouths were not exactly the truth. The first scene was very cute so I was instantly hooked. The romance between Deschanel and Schneider reminded me of the chemistry of the lead characters in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” That scene was funny, and best of all, it felt real–like a conversation that I might overhear while waiting at a bus stop. I also liked the supporting actors such as Shea Whigham as Deschane’s older brother who did not approve of the relationship and Patricia Clarkson as Schneider’s mother. Although Clarkson was not the focus on the movie, she made the most of the material she was given. That is, a mother who worked as a clown to provide his son and as a mother for was concerned and frustrated with where her son’s life was heading. She played her character with such grace because she balanced sadness and strength really well. Lastly, I enjoyed the picture’s autumnal feel and its use of symbolism. Its complexity might easily be overlooked because of its initial distracting style but once one really gets into its rhythm, it really is quite keen when it comes to what it means to fall in love and be loved. Just when I thought the picture was borderline turning into a syrupy romance, it changed gears and commented on the relief and pain that comes hand-in-hand with being honest with one’s self and wanting to change so bad to be accepted by someone. It also had a chance to tackle issues such as the breakdown of communication when distance is involved, the dynamics of friendship and what it means not only to love someone but also respect them. This is a smart sleeper film that doesn’t give us the easy and sugary answers we want to hear. But it is the kind of film that assures us that it’s alright to be confused and to question what and how we really feel toward someone important to us.
Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.
Paper Heart (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This mockumentary chronicles Charlyne Yi’s quest to find love. Just when Yi was convinced that she would never feel the passion of romance because there was something innately wrong with her, she met Michael Cera and sparks immediately flew. But it wasn’t all fun and games because the presence of the cameraman and director (Nicholas Jasenovec) eventually put a strain on their relationship. I don’t understand why I lot of people hated this movie. I thought it was funny, honest and cute even though the scenes that involved the paper dolls were a little corny. What I love most about this picture was not the relationship between Cera and Yi. It was the many different types of people she interviewed from all kinds of race, gender, sexuality, age and the stories and point of views they had to offer. There was something genuinely honest about this film and that’s why it won me over even though it did have its flaws. Unlike most romantic comedies out there, this movie didn’t have dramatic arcs. It simply constituted a series of scenes that eventually forced Yi to look inside herself and realize that her not finding or not feeling romantic love has got nothing to do with emotional or chemical defectiveness. There’s a good message embedded in this film for those on the same page as Yi. That is, if you actively look for love every minute of the day, it’s never going to come. But if you just open yourself up to the value of experience, sooner or later, without even realizing it, it just might happen. As a person who doesn’t really care about being in relationships or finding “the one,” I can honestly say that I thought this movie was not going to be entertaining. I was so wrong; I actually saw Yi from under a different light. She’s not just an annoying girl who thinks she’s a comedienne who happens to make YouTube videos. There was a simplicity about her reflected in her reckless abandon. The awkwardness between her and Cera, especially the scene in the diner, was very amusing and relatable. Admittedly, I thought the last fifteen minutes of the movie could have been a lot stronger but the rest of it was strong and it made me feel warm. It’s been a while since I smiled so much while watching a movie.
Funny People (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Funny People,” written and directed by Judd Apatow, stars a bunch of funny people: Adam Sandler as a senior comedian who discovers that he has a fatal disease, Seth Rogen as an aspiring comedian who Sandler hires to write jokes for him, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Rogen’s flatmates, Leslie Mann as Sandler’s ex-lover and Eric Bana as Mann’s unfaithful husband. Unfortunately, the material was not as funny as I expected it to be. In fact, it was quite serious because the lead character was obviously depressed because of his doomed fate. There were a few jokes with chuckling from here and there but there were no laugh-out-loud funny moments as they were in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up.” If Apatow was aiming for some sort of a dark comedy because it did (or was supposed to) have jokes about death, then I believe it completely failed on that level. I had major problems with Sandler’s character because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel sorry for him. Not for one second did I feel bad for him because he was a jerk even to those who obviously cared for him. When his character finally met up with Mann after years of not seeing each other, he fell in love with her all over again but I didn’t buy it. After all, how could a guy who didn’t value himself and his friendships value some kind of a romantic relationship (and a flimsy one at that)? The film wasn’t logical and it should have been because this picture was supposed to be for adults. I was more interested in the angle regarding what it took to be a successful comedian instead of Sandler’s so-called plight. I enjoyed the cameos from Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Charles Fleischer, Eminem, Ray Romano, and others. With such a brilliant cast who are very funny in other movies, this film failed to take risks. Instead it featured one contrived and sometimes uncomfortable moments on top of one another. If it weren’t for the breathers (such as the cameos) that had nothing to do with the drama in the character’s depressing lives, I would have been harsher with this picture. If you’re a fan of any of the names mentioned, then by all means, see it. However, I warn you to not expect too much because it doesn’t have enough meat to carry a two-hour-and-thirty-minute feature.
Couples Retreat (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Peter Billingsley directs this comedy about four couples who decided to go on a tropical resort that, according to one of the characters, “looks like a screensaver.” Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell were having trouble with their marriage so they asked their friends (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis, Faizon Love and Kali Hawk) to come along with them to an island for a relationship therapy because it was cheaper to come as a group. I enjoyed the first few minutes of this picture because it was fun and it clearly established the many dynamics of romantic relationships. Although boys will always be boys, there were enough subtleties to keep me interested and observe how it would all unwind. Unfortunately, with a running time of almost two hours, the movie ran a little too long so there were parts that lagged and definitely could have been cut to make the movie more focused. I like all of the actors in this project because I think they were all very funny in other movies but the script wasn’t strong enough to push through the typicality of marriage comedies. It really bothered me when the very same people who were having trouble with their own marriages gave (supposedly) insightful advice. If they were so wise, they wouldn’t have been so deep into a troubled relationship in the first place. However, there was one particular scene that stood out to me. When Vaughn and Akerman were talking to a marriage counselor, the counselor picked them apart; even though they seemed to be happy and content (and having the healthiest relationship in the film), there was still a certain level of resentment underneath it all. They got so used to their habits that they forgot to live life in such a way where hardwork should be met by rewards. During that scene, there was this great silence in the movie theater. It really made me think about where I am in life–that maybe I’m slowly turning into that kind of person. If “Couples Retreat” had more moments like that, I would’ve liked it a lot more. Either that or the comedy should have been consistent from beginning to end instead of most of the laughter being clumped in the first twenty minutes. In “Couples Retreat,” a hit was followed by two misses so I can’t quite give it a recommendation.