★★ / ★★★★
In writer-director Todd Solondz’ ambitious “Palindromes,” young Aviva (Emani Sledge) woke up from a nightmare and was immediately consoled by her mother (Ellen Barkin). Aviva expressed her concern that she would turn out like her cousin, recently deceased Dawn Weiner, the main character from Solondz’ snarky, brilliant, hilarious “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” but her mother told her that she would never end up like Dawn. It was the moment when Aviva became fixated on the idea having a child. A couple of years later, Aviva was impregnated by Judah (Robert Agri). When her mother found out, she had no choice but to get an abortion. “Palindromes” had an excellent first half but had an unfocused and ultimately unrewarding second half. What made the first forty minutes so strong was Barkin’s relentless performance. She was highly amusing as the mother who tried to convince her child, no holds barred, into getting an abortion. The way the camera transfixed on her desperate eyes hinted at the possibility that not every word that came out of her mouth was the truth. Getting rid of the fetus was a priority. We start to think that maybe she cared more about her family’s image than Aviva missing out on having a life. We didn’t know for sure and I appreciated that it was never answered for us. I also enjoyed Solondz’ decision to cast Aviva using eight different actors. It added depth and questions in terms of why he used a certain girl to be in a particular scene. Did it have something to do with the shape of her body, her temperament, the color of her skin, or perhaps her hair? A boy played Aviva once. But why? However, what I found ineffective was when Aviva met Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) and her adopted children who happened to have all sorts of diseases and disabilities. The family was devoutly religious. They turned to a higher power to give thanks, for guidance, and answers for their questions. I may not be religious but I understood why their faith was important to them. Prior to that point, the scenes lasted between three to five minutes. Such scenes quickly got to the punchline and it ended when it needed to. However, a lot of time was dedicated to Mama Sunshine and her family so the pacing began to feel disjointed. Furthermore, I felt like Solondz started to make fun of his characters instead of the circumstances that surrounded them and how we would react given that we were placed in Aviva’s situation. The conflict between abortion and religion failed to come into focus. The surprising act of violence toward the end was completely unnecessary and the picture began to spin out of control. It felt like it was done for mere shock value. I was surprised, in a negative way, because Solondz usually had control over his material. He had no trouble juggling controversial topics like pedophilia, emotional disorders, and wicked perversions because his characters always came first. This was an exception.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since the mid-1970s (and most likely years prior), Father Oliver O’Grady had been sexually molesting children that ranged from infants to pre-adolescents. The Catholic Church was well-aware of his sickness but instead of kicking him out of priesthood, the Church simply moved him from one area to another, which allowed him to molest other children when it could have been prevented. As the film went on, we had a chance to learn that O’Grady not only took advantage of hundreds of children but he also had sexual relations with some of their parents. I was raised Catholic so I understood the importance of the feelings the parents and the children, now adults, felt when they discovered that a person from the Church, an institution that they are willing to give their lives to for the sake of their god, committed the ultimate betrayal. I don’t consider myself belonging in a specific religious group, but when I saw the families being interviewed about how O’Grady ruined their lives, I could not help but imagine my own family and relatives in their shoes because it could easily have happened to any of us. The film made a smart decision to take the blame and the shame from O’Grady to the higher figures in the Church. It was a maddening experience because there was plenty of evidence regarding the Church’s attempt to protect the priests guilty of pedophilia. According to the statistics, the Church spent a billion dollars (and counting) to cover-up many families’ search for justice. To know that those people who are considered by the Catholic community to be the prime example of purity, to commit such acts is not only criminal but also immoral. If hell did exist, in my opinion, they are certainly deserving to go there. The higher folks in the hierarchy, indirectly involved as they may be, knew of the disease in their community, they had tools to prevent future crimes from happening, yet they chose the path of indifference with impunity. Written and directed by Amy Berg, “Deliver Us from Evil” was not simply about one religion or faith. It’s about human rights. Imagine if you’ve raped by a member of the police force and the government, designed to protect its people, turns a blind eye to the fact. I make the comparison because the film successfully showed that the Catholic Church functions like a government with its bureaucracies and failure to serve its people even in the most fundamental ways. This is a must-see film because popular culture makes a lot of jokes about priests molesting kids. A lot of people laugh off the issue but what about those who have to live with the experience and had not found some sort of closure? Do we dare laugh in their faces?
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in my high school Psychology course when we learned about the ethics of dealing with patients. It was a particularly memorable chapter because Kevorkian and his methods sparked a rousing debate about his methods. Like in the film, students who did not support euthanasia, assisted suicide, argued mainly from the perspective of religious dogma. I distinctly remember thinking that it was such a weak argument because it lacked common sense. The reason why I support euthanasia was not about living or dying. It was all about choice. I’d rather jump off a fifty-foot story building than to allow the government to choose when and how I should die. I admired the film, under Barry Levinson’s swift yet careful direction, because it painted Dr. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) as Dr. Kevorkian and not as Dr. Death, as the media and his enemies unjustly labelled him. While the media and government played an integral role in Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle, the picture took a more personal route and allowed us to get to know the medical practitioner in question and his biggest supporters such as his sister Margo Janus (Brena Vaccaro), one of his oldest friends Neal Nicol (John Goodman), a fellow activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), and a lawyer named Geoffrey Fiegler with a flair for the dramatic (Danny Huston). All delivered very strong performances with utmost conviction and devoid of cliché. By showing us scenes not easily found in books or covered by the media, despite my support for the issue of euthanasia, I learned something new and surprising facts about Dr. Kevorkian. There were many scenes that moved me but one that I will not forget for a long time was when Dr. Kevorkian decided to be thrifty regarding the gas required to make the person unconscious prior to stopping the heart. That was an important scene for me because it marked the point where I thought Dr. Kevorkian crossed the line. While he did regret it afterwards, it was unethical because the crux of euthanasia was to allow a terminally ill person to die in a peaceful and humane manner. During that scene, the person was uncomfortable and experienced pain. However, I was glad that the filmmakers added that scene because it showed us that Dr. Kevorkian, despite his best intentions, was far from perfect and that his willingness to push the envelope without fully thinking things through was ultimate downfall. Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian was excellent. Although his portrayal was denitely not as eccentric as the actual person, I believe it was one of his most mesmerizing roles in years. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Adam Mazer, deserves to be seen especially by those who do not quite know where they stand in the issue. It just might help to put certain things into perspective.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.
Answer Man, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Arlen Farber (Jeff Daniels), the author of the very popular book “Me and God,” decided to hide from the world because he was sick of people coming up to him and asking him questions about the being above and what they should do with their lives. When his back went out, he decided to see a chiropractor (the always charming Lauren Graham), unaware of the author’s identity, who happened to be a very protective mom of a boy (Max Antisell) who believed his father would come back for him in two weeks (he actually hasn’t returned in three years). Furthermore, a recovering alcoholic (Lou Taylor Pucci) learned who Arlen was and constantly asked guidance concerning where his life was going. The film had a very slow start and I have to admit that I almost gave up on it. Luckily, things finally started coming together in the last two-thirds of the picture and I eventually had an idea about what the movie tried to say about coincidences versus the actions we put in to achieve certain goals. However, the movie was supposed to be a comedy. I did not find it particularly funny or witty. I thought it was unfortunate because spirituality was a big part of the picture but it did not take advantage of that topic. It could have easily have been a satire (millions of people worshipped Arlen) but the movie had no idea what to do with itself. In the end, it was just a series of scenes that were sometimes awkward, sometimes cooky (considering Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings had small roles but both characters were very underdeveloped), and often forced. There was supposed to be a romantic angle between Daniels and Graham but they were in critical need of chemistry. I did not see why they would be interested in one another in the first place so when one of them finally made a move, I had a difficult time swallowing what I saw. I thought the movie worked best when there was friction between Daniels and Graham or when Daniels was just being a much-needed father figure for the boy. Written and directed by John Hindman, “The Answer Man” would have been a stronger project if it offered more answers than questions. For the past twenty years, Arlen lived a life of a recluse but the movie did not really peel away his layers. For instance, why was he so compassionate toward Graham’s character (aside from the fact that he had a crush on her) but the opposite toward others? Thinking of all the missed opportunities for the movie to be great makes me feel more disappointed. It had small moments of brilliance but they were not enough to save the entire work.
Entre tinieblas (1983)
★ / ★★★★
“Entre tinieblas” or “Dark Habits” was about a singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) who retreated in a convent because her boyfriend passed away after she provided him drugs. The singer believed that she was safe in the convent but little did she know that nuns (Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, Lina Canalejas) harbored secrets such as drug addictions, obsessive-compulsions, a tiger in their garden, and that one of them fell in love with her. This was far from the strongest Pedro Almodóvar film because it was too colorful but it did not have an ounce of substance and the way the story unfolded was too all over the place. Potential scandalous storylines were present but I did not feel as though the director exploited the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Instead of challenging the characters by putting them in situations they were not used to, the characters were stuck in their own worlds and it felt like time went by so slowly because the comedy came few and far between. When the ironic scenes arrived, unlike Almodóvar’s sharper projects, I merely chuckled instead of laughed. I would have been into the story more if it had taken its time to focus on each nun and her relationship with their new guest. It was obvious that they saw her as a light of hope because prior to her decision to stay in the convent, the ennui of every day slowly killed their spirit. The only dynamic relationship in the movie was between Pascual and Lampreave’s characters. They were different from one another but shared a big commonality: They wanted to live a life that was free and they believed that the first step to achieving that goal was to leave the convent. The power in the scenes they shared was above their eccentricities and that’s when the picture felt alive and interesting. Almodóvar obviously wanted to expose some of the hypocrisies in terms of devout individuals, which I thought was fine because he respected his group subjects, but I wished he moved beyond the one-joke premise and defied our expectations half-way through the film. It desperately needed a change of tone in its half-way mark because it straddled the line between annoying and soporific. In the end, “Entre tinieblas” did not work for me because I saw its potential to become so much more enjoyable if it had more focus and acidic scene of humor. However, I think fans of Almodóvar should still watch the movie (there are familiar elements here that contributed to his later work) to see how masterful he has become as a filmmaker over the years.
Book of Eli, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Book of Eli” was about a man (Denzel Washington) whose goal was to protect a book and journey toward the west of post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, he met a friend named Solara (Mila Kunis) who was enslaved by a power-hungry leader (Gary Oldman) in desperate search for the very same book that the mysterious man held. The picture started off strong and it immediately looked great. I believed that I was really looking at a world so ravaged by starvation, desperation and a lack of ethical and moral conduct. It reminded me of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” in terms of its tone and sadness elicited by the gray environment. Unfortunately, the middle section felt interminable and it lacked a sense of isolation that the first twenty to thirty minutes had. It was painfully obvious that the film tried to establish a contrast between Washington and Oldman’s characters. For a movie about faith and retaining that faith against all odds, the easy answers came quick so the material ultimately lacked subtlety and I slowly lost interest over time. As for the action sequences, they came few and far between but only one stood out to me. I was impressed with the almost western-like stand-off in and out of the house of an old couple (Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon) who happened to be cannibals. I wished more action sequences were similar to that scene in terms of tension and delivering dynamic (sometimes awkward) camera angles. Furthermore, I craved more interactions between the protagonists and the couple who offered them human meat to eat as a meal. There was something very sinister during that part of the film but at the same time it felt darkly comic. It would have been nice if Washington and Kunis forced themselves to eat the human flesh just as they felt forced to drink the tea offered to them prior. At the end of the day “The Book of Eli,” directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, blended into other more recent post-apocalyptic movies with religion as an undercurrent instead of standing out via using similar works as templates to avoid making similar mistakes. I would have liked the movie a lot more if it offered us answers that were vague but surely make us think like haunting ending that Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” had. I just wanted to be challenged instead of spoon-fed.
Last Exorcism, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) agreed to have his last exorcism to be documented on camera. In the first few minutes, he admitted to us that exorcism was only real in the minds of religious Christians plagued by something they cannot explain. In other words, the placebo effect guided the effectiveness of an exorcism. Despite Reverend Marcus being a sham, strangely enough, I understood why he made a career out of it because he had an obligation to provide for his family, especially his son who had difficulty hearing. Understandably, people feel the need to compare the movie to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” because of its faux-documentary style. But I say it was more like John Erick Dowdle’s chilling remake “Quarantine.” However, I think “The Last Exorcism” had its own identity and therefore its own strengths and weaknesses. The film was its best when it described the history of the practice, the circumstances in which one should get an exorcism, and the religious heretics so willing to go to the extreme to the point where they became blind to more conventional explanations such as the so-called possessed person having an undiagnosed disease or mental disability. I was also happy with the fact that it acknowledged the cruel act still happening today in various forms depending on the culture. The picture thrived on the build-up of strange information especially when we finally met a farmer (Louis Herthum) with a creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) and “possessed” daughter (Ashley Bell). The rising action of the girl sleepwalking, killing animals, being violent and making strange noises was unsettling and sometimes downright horrifying. However, the movie’s weakness was its own conceit. The faux-documentary style did not always work because there were times when the daughter, in an altered state, would pick up the camera and we saw what she saw and did. I loved that the film was purposely comedic, especially in the first half when the techniques of the scam were revealed, but the comedy and horror did not always complement each other in one scene. Instead of feeling scared, I felt detached and I almost felt the need to laugh because there was an underlying message that the devil despised the constructed false (if not almost illusory) reality like in movies mentioned earlier and reality shows on television. I also found some inconsistencies such as the addition of music during the scarier scenes (it was supposed to be a found footage!) and camera angles that only one cameraman can normally accomplish. Although I give kudos to Daniel Stamm, the director, for infusing a sense of (sort of campy) fun and intelligence in his project, I wanted more scenes where I find myself cowering in my shoes. I suppose that’s the reason why a lot of people did not like the movie: they wanted to feel more scared. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed “The Last Exorcism” because it was concise, confident with where it wanted to go and what it wanted to achieve, and its constant build-up was elegant. It made me think of respectable horror pictures from the late 60’s and ’70s.
Paradise Now (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I expected a typical war movie with a lot of violence because it was essentially about suicide bombers so I was surprised when it turned out to be quite low-key yet still have some sort of power that drives the story forward. Two friends named Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) were ordinary mechanics but later decided to take on a mission when a friend (Amer Hlehel) convinced them that there is a way for them to lead a meaningful life. Frustrated with the current state of things, they made their decision without putting much thought into it. However, they found themselves toying with a plethora of emotions as they had a final dinner with their families and lying about the nature of the job they’ve taken in Tel Aviv. My problem with this film was not the story or its lack of tension. It’s just that even though I felt bad for the two lead characters, I didn’t feel connected to them because I didn’t agree with the paths they’ve chosen. And I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with them. Maybe we were simply supposed to sympathize with their circumstances. The highlights of the film include the scene where they recorded messages to their families explaining why they chose to do what they did and the scene where the lady (Lubna Azabal) that Said was romantically interested in told Khaled that their idea of a paradise was only in their heads and could never be a reality. I admired this film’s intelligence. Instead of taking us to the path of the obvious (for instance, suicide bombers being total heartless monsters), it managed to offer an explanation on why they felt like they were obligated to perform such drastic actions. The characters often talked about their religion. Since I don’t identify myself with any religious group, I guess sometimes it’s difficult to understand that some people consider their religion very seriously. I can imagine that it’s also just as difficult for someone who identifies with a very different religion to relate to the characters in this film. However, I did think that sometimes this movie had moments of preachiness; I preferred it when Hany Abu-Assad, the director, let the images do the talking so it was up for the audiences to interpret what they think of the movie’s message. “Paradise Now” is a small movie with powerful moments sprinkled throughout and brilliant use of contrasting images and ideas. I just wish it had been more consistent.