Last Night (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Joanna (Keira Knightley) and Michael (Sam Worthington), a married couple, attended a party but it didn’t go so well. When they got back to their apartment, because of a look Joanna caught across the room, she accused Michael of cheating with his beautiful co-worker named Laura (Eva Mendes). Michael insisted that absolutely nothing happened. The situation wasn’t alleviated by the fact that Michael had to leave on a business trip with Laura the next day. Meanwhile, Joanna bumped into Alex (Guillaume Canet), a former flame from two years ago when Joanna and Michael took a break from their relationship. “Last Night,” earnestly written and directed by Massy Tadjedin, could have been more involving if it had strived to make its protagonists less like caricatures and more like characters capable of defying our expectations. Joanna was written as nagging and paranoid while Michael was stoic and single-minded. We were supposed to relate to these characters but we were given too few reasons to do so. Joanna and Michael were each assigned a box and were not allowed to step out of it which made the experience lacking in flavor and color. One way or another we’ve felt some sort of physical attraction to another person despite being in a serious relationship. However, I found the whole charade both sexist and insulting. The impression I got was cheating equated to physical intimacy with another person. But we all know cheating isn’t just physical. In dramatic pictures, this film being a good example, it’s a problem when we are smarter than what we are watching because we end up feeling less involved or less connected to the characters who are supposedly going through a grueling trial. In any case, physical intimacy, not emotional entanglement, was at the material’s forefront because each scene thrived on questions like “Will she kiss him?” and “Will he have sex with her?” While such questions were legitimate, the physical aspect alone was only half of the equation. I wanted it to compel us to ask questions like what was going on in Joanna’s brain when Alex placed his hand so sensually on her leg, one of the many perfect opportunities for the the writer-director to playe with the film’s tone which was too dour, verging on soporific. When Alex invited Joanna to his room and revealed a second later that he was simply joking, I would have loved to have seen the disappointment in Joanna’s eyes when she learned that the possible attraction that she detected from him turned out to be false. Maybe she ought to have said a joke in return because in reality there are times when pain is nicely wrapped in jest. But the camera failed to make a personal connection with her reactions. We were left to observe at the distance. Furthermore, there was a lack of flow in cutting from one scene to another. Just when a scene reached a climax, the tension was disturbed because we were forced to look at another less interesting scene. Sometimes allowing the camera to linger, even if the conversation had gone stale, could highlight what was really going on underneath shaky formalities and confessions long overdue. “Last Night” felt superficial and at times sitcom-like in its view or treatment of infidelity. While beautifully shot, especially scenes that took place outside at night, its inside felt hollow.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) couldn’t move on from his divorce so his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and her future husband (Matt Walsh) decided to drag him to a party where he could mingle and hopefully meet some single women. After a series of forced and awkward conversations, John met Molly (Marisa Tomei) and the two seemed like a good fit. Although she was very attractive, unlike most women at the party, she wasn’t difficult to approach and didn’t make John feel bad about himself whether it be his physical appearance–he described himself as “like Shrek”–or his job. She overlooked his many imperfections because she loved John’s honesty. However, their relationship came to screeching halt when John met Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s son, who was unnecessarily sarcastic and had a little bit of insanity in the eyes. Having an unhealthy close relationship with his mom, Cyrus’ plan was to drive John out of Molly’s life. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, “Cyrus” would easily have been a disappointment in the wrong hands. What I loved most about it was it allowed the characters to act like people one could potentially meet at just about anywhere. They were conflicted in what they could offer to someone else, sometimes self-pitying, capable of making royal mistakes, and at times readily able to forgive or overlook certain actions. Even though the material was essentially a comedy, it tried to deal with serious issues in a respectful manner. For instance, we didn’t know who Cyrus really was for the majority of the picture. Despite his selfish actions, I might have disliked his actions but didn’t loathe him. It made me wonder whether his fear of being replaced was driven by another factor like a psychological trauma or a chemical imbalance. I saw John, Molly, and Cyrus’ relationship as three people in a canoe attempting to make it from one island to another, like a relationship in a state of critical transition. John and Molly were content in sitting in the canoe in silence. They had excellent chemistry, almost as if the current wanted them to reach the second island. But Cyrus, despite being twenty-one years of age, was essentially a kid. He talked as if he was years beyond his age but he hadn’t reached a certain level of maturity just yet. He craved attention and so he rocked the canoe with all his might, sometimes even found it gratifying to see the friction between his mother and her new beau. Is the canoe going to tip over? “Cyrus” was an interesting exercise of the dynamics of complicated relationships and the happiness that each character desperately wanted to grasp. It’s refreshing to watch understated comedies where its sense of humor was in the characters’ situations instead of the joke being pointed at themselves.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam Sandler should star in more movies like this one because it’s a nice break from his monotonous, painfully obvious and predictable slapstick comedies. “Punch-Drunk Love,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a small business owner named Barry Egan (Sandler) who fell for his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson) after one of his seven sisters (Mary Lynn Rakskub) set him up because the sister claimed he lacked initiative. Meanwhile, Barry was caught up in a scam, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, after he called a phone-sex line. I loved the movie’s dry sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. The romance between Sandler and Watson was offbeat at best; it was difficult to see what they liked about one another because both were so strange. Even though I did not necessarily relate with Barry, I was fascinated with his behavior when things were calm and the way he responded to certain stimuli. He was unpredictable. When challenged, he would either go on scary fits of violent rage or would run away like a mouse. I wanted to know if he had bipolar disorder or whether he just did not have a healthy outlet to release the frustrations he had about his life, especially the annoyances from her overbearing sister. I found Barry’s sister absolutely hilarious but I think if she was my sister, I would just go crazy. Furthermore, I liked how Anderson portrayed what family gathering was really like. In more mainstream projects, members of the family would sit on a table and have hush-hush conversations as the camera focused on the key characters. In this film, everyone gossiped, insulted each other insidiously, laughed at the top of their lungs to the point where one could barely hear his or her own thoughts. The scene was plagued with a loud buzzing sound which caught my attention because it was realistic. I wish the picture had more scenes with the family because it was a nice change of pace from Barry’s isolated space which had a lot of gloom. “Punch-Drunk Love” showcases Sandler’s acting muscles and I was happy to see that he tried to do something different. I did not expect that he was able to go head-to-head with Hoffman because Hoffman had such a presence about him in all of his roles. I expect that a lot of Sandler’s fans would find this movie somewhat distasteful because its humor almost always stemmed from self-loathing and repressed emotional problems which–let’s admit–can be depressing at times. However, I think it’s a smart movie that is willing to look beyond the idiosyncracies of its characters and focus on their more compelling angles.
The Good Guy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Alexis Bledel once again plays an ambitious and smart young woman who was torn between two guys who worked on Wall Street. Tommy (Scott Porter) knew what he wanted, wasn’t afraid to act on his impulses, a sweet-talker and a womanizer. On the other hand, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) was socially awkward, did not have much luck with the ladies, but his insight made it difficult for anyone to not fall head over heels with him. Due to some unforseen circumstances, Tommy enthusiastically took Daniel under his wing and tried to make Daniel be more like a cutthroat businessman than a poet who wore his heart on his sleeves. I enjoyed the movie because it was an observation of modern relationships set in an urban area but I felt like it did not take enough risks. I loved that Greenberg’s character highlighted the theme of the film in which he mentioned that his favorite book was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen because it was about false first impressions. Although the lead characters had clear dominant personalities, I found subtleties in them and I was interested with what was about to happen among the relationship between the girl and the two guys. I wished that their strained relationship was explored more and that the picture had less scenes of Tommy and his friends (one of which was played by the amusing Aaron Yoo) teasing each other and trying to pick up women in bars. I was also interested in one of the guys who worked on Wall Street who said he valued his wife and children more than his job and money. Greenberg had one scene with him which I thought was handled well because they found similarities in each other but it ultimately felt superficial because it wasn’t further explored. Written and directed by Julio DePietro, “The Good Guy” had the right ingredients to make a solid movie about character studies because I came to understand the protagonists’ motivations. But there were far too many scenes that did not need to be in the final product and not enough scenes that should have made it in. It also needed a bit more edge because there were times when the picture reached an emotional plateau. I could easily relate to the characters because even though they were out in the real world, they were still young and trying to figure out who they really were when with friends, with a special someone, or when forced to look at themselves when they had nobody else to turn to.
Dear John (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) met over Spring Break and it was love at first sight. Savannah had dreams of opening her own summer camp one day, while John was a soldier who felt like the battlefield was more like his home. In the early stages of their relationship, they promised to write letters to each other and tell each other everything. But over the years, their love for one another (at least from a romantic angle) dissipated because of distance and circumstances. Or maybe they just matured emotionally. I didn’t read Nicholas Sparks’ novel from which the picture was based on but I think the movie was strong as a stand alone. I understand why people (especially fans of the novel) didn’t like the picture either because it didn’t remain loyal enough to its source or they expected that they were in for a typical romantic movie but it turned out to be a depressing journey. But that’s what I liked about it–it still had elements of sappy romance but it was very sad in its core because the characters made certain decisions which they could never take back. I’ve forgotten that Seyfried was the hilariously clueless girl from “Mean Girls” and Tatum was an actor I didn’t particularly care for. I was invested in their characters and by the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen next. I loved watching the characters change over the years and I believed every major change that happened in their lives. Savannah changed from an idealistic young woman seemingly ready to tackle the world to someone who became sort of defeated and almost closed down. Even though we didn’t see her go through difficult times in her life, the way Seyfried played her character made it unnecessary. Meanwhile, John changed from somebody who would rather surf and not talk to anybody (basically, your stereotypical stoic man) to making a real effort in connecting with his autistic father (Richard Jenkins). Although I didn’t care much about the scenes in the army, there were real touching moments especially when John explained to Savannah, through handwritten letters, why he was like a coin and why his relationship with his father was so strained. Fans of movies like “The Notebook” will most likely be disappointed because “Dear John” is not as romantic. In a way, “Dear John” is more of a story of friendship than a story of lovers. I enjoyed “Dear John” because it was so different from what I expected and it had an honesty that made it feel like I was watching a relationship based on something that could potentially happen in real life.