The American President (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), president of the United States, was up for a possible re-election within a year’s time. His team (Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox) believed that by passing a bill, vaguely designed to reduce crime, there was a great chance that he could win another term. But when he met Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), hired to get the president’s attention toward a bill aimed to protect the environment, he was swept by her radiance, intelligence, and fearlessness to speak what was on her mind. Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), the leading conservative figure who had shown interest in running for presidency, took advantage of the budding romance and started to question the president’s character and accused Sydney of being a radical because of a picture taken thirteen years ago. Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, “The American President” was a romantic comedy for adults. While the material milked the obvious, like the first few scenes designed to paint the president as not only an amiable person in the work place but also an active figure in his daughter’s life, it was highly entertaining because of the smart dialogue and wonderful performances. In romance pictures, I always look the moment when one or both persons realize that they just might be falling for each other. There was a wonderful scene in the Oval Office when Bening scrambled to find the words to express how embarrassed she was for insulting the president. As she attempted to clean up her verbal vomit, Douglas gave her a specific look, which lasted for about half a second, that meant she was the one for him. As for Bening, I’m used to seeing her in intense performances so it was nice to watch her let her hair down and smile from ear to ear. She was completely captivating as a smart and strong woman who was rendered defenseless by the president’s charm. She could have played her character as a typical ditz throughout the film but as the couple got more comfortable with each other, we saw how passionate and serious she was about her work. As the events turned for the worse, reflected by rainy weather, scenes shot at night and bad poll results, the issue of public versus private space came into focus. While Andrew and Sydney were a great match romantically, there was growing tension between them politically. We even start to think that maybe it was good idea for them to not be together for a while. It gives me great annoyance when I read reviews claiming that the movie was terrible because it was nothing but liberal propaganda. They completely missed the point. The romance was supposed to be the foreground and the politics the background. It might have been Capra-esque in scope of how the government really worked, but there was confidence in its execution and we invested in the couple to make it through the end. Sometimes that’s just exactly what we need.
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
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.
Cairo Time (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) decided to visit Egypt because she wanted to spend time with her husband who worked for the United Nations. Her expectations involved her husband picking her up from the airport, heading to the hotel, and maybe seeing some unique tourist attractions. But her visit was far from what she expected. Instead, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a coffee shop owner and a friend of her husband, picked her up from the airport because Mark had been delayed in Gaza. The more time Juliette and Tareq spent together, they noticed that there was romantic interest simmering between them. “Cairo Time,” written and directed by Ruba Nadda, was a mature romantic picture that exuded intelligence and insight in just about every scene. It showed that less really was more. The excitement was in the conversations between Juliette and Tareq as they talked about their own lives. Juliette mostly talked about her kids, the time she had on her hands and the freedom she felt now that they no longer lived at home, her career as a writer for a magazine called “Vous,” and the social issues she believed in. On the other hand, Tareq talked about his business and a former lover (Amina Annabi) whose daughter was about to get married. From the moment they met, we immediately felt a possible romantic tension between them because, despite the vast difference between their cultures, they shared excellent chemistry. The way they looked at each other, even if the look lasted for only a millisecond, communicated more than a hundred words. Clarkson was divine. Since she was in every scene, she had to deliver something special in order to successfully keep our interest. I couldn’t help but smile when she would flirt as she talked on the telephone, the way she held herself when someone was being rude or failing to respect her personal space, and her attempt to immerse herself in Egyptian culture. She didn’t have to be edgy to be interesting. Her character’s ordinariness and maturity was enough to make me want to get to know her. The director made a smart choice to showcase the characters first instead of the stunning landscapes especially during the trips to the desert. Despite normally attention-grabbing wide angle shots, twice I caught my eyes transfixed on Clarkson first and then I noticed the breathtaking backdrop. I thought that was a testament in terms of how invested I was in Juliette’s journey in realizing that maybe she didn’t end up with the right person. When her husband (Tom McCamus) finally made an appearance, like Juliette, I felt as though Egypt’s magic and romance was sucked by a vacuum. The car ride toward the pyramids was gut-wrenching in a subdued way. Like our protagonist, it inspired us to think about the many choices we made that shaped our lives to the way it currently is.
Letters to Juliet (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Aspiring writer and current fact checker Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her chef fiancé (Gael García Bernal) went to Italy for their pre-honeymoon. Sophie thought that the two of them would have a great time and set aside their work for a couple of days, but her soon-to-be-husband seemed like he was more excited about the opening of his restaurant than the prospect of marriage and settling down. This led Sophie to go sightseeing on her own and she eventually found a fifty-year-old letter that was unanswered by Juliet, a person who made it her legacy to answer letters written by many people from different cultures who visited Verona’s courtyard. Even though I found the picture to be completely predictable, I ended up really enjoying it mainly because of Seyfried. I find that every time I watch her, I feel a certain warmth and charm that she radiates without even trying. With somewhat of a slow start, the story started to pick up when Sophie finally met the owner (the elegant Vanessa Redgrave) of the one letter she answered along with her disapproving grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan). Since the owner wanted to find her long lost lover named Lorenzo, the three went on a road trip which wasn’t always fun. In fact, it was full of disappointments because with each incorrect Lorenzo they found, I felt the grandmother’s hope to considerably diminish. I thought the best part of the film was the road trip because the three had a commonality. That is, they knew how it was like to lose someone important to them and that was often at the forefront. On top of that, Sophie and the sarcastic and somewhat uptight grandson began to feel a little spark for each other so then they had to deal with that tension even though they initially didn’t want to. However, I wished the last fifteen minutes hadn’t dropped the ball. I thought the reunion could have been handled with more intelligence (maybe even a spice of boldness) and not result to the whole will-she-or-won’t-she formula because we knew what would eventually happen. “Letters to Juliet,” directed by Gary Winick, without a doubt, is syrupy and has a highly idealistic vision of romance. Sometimes it made me roll my eyes because I kept thinking of obvious questions like the grandmother not changing her place of residence for the last fifty years or why did all of the women in the film believed in “true love.” However, most of the time, I was just happy watching it because the storytelling felt effortless and it made me wish for a moment that true love really existed.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Good Will Hunting” was about a twenty-year-old janitor with a gift of photographic memory who spent his days hanging out and drinking with his friends (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) instead of actually using his gift to the fullest. But when he anonymously left a solution to a challenging math problem given by a renowned professor (Stellan Skarsgård), the professor tried looking for Will to push him to reach his potential. I loved this picture because it felt more personal than other movies about people with a certain kind of genius. The script was impressive because it was insightful but at the same time wasn’t afraid to explore the insecurities of the characters, especially the relationship between Damon, Skarsgård and Robin Williams, as Will’s counselor who actually wanted to solve Will’s personal problems first before persuading Will to use his gift to help society. I found it fascinating how Will was so smart but he found it difficult to relate with others (except for his core group of friends) because most people were more drawn to his gift than what he had to offer personally. It made him bitter and trusting others became an issue for him, especially with what he had to go through in his childhood. Another source of tension, which I found was one of the weaker links in the film, was the relationship between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver). Even though they spent a lot of scenes together, I didn’t feel as though they loved one another as the film had suggested. However, I found Skylar interesting as a stand-alone character because she was carefree and independent. Perhaps it was just the lack of chemistry between the actors but I would rather watch the scenes when Damon and Williams helped to explore reach other’s inner demons and grow from their experiences. What impressed me most about “Good Will Hunting,” directed by Gus Van Sant, was how real the characters were. Van Sant’s direction was to be applauded because he wasn’t afraid to let his characters act stupid while adding many layers of dimension to them just like people in real life. For instance, the bar scenes with the friends seemed ordinary but they were actually standout scenes because listening in to their conversations made me feel like it was something I could hear in real life. Even though the topics of conversations seemed dull on the surface, the way the characters interacted and the intonations in their voices suggested how close they were as friends and what it meant for them to have someone have their backs no matter what happened. It’s difficult to sum up the story of “Good Will Hunting” in a couple of words because it was more about a crucial span of time in a character’s life. It was an intimate and powerful experience and it made me feel good because it inspired me to have more control to where I want to go in life.
Valentine’s Day (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Valentine’s Day,” written by Katherine Fugate and directed by Gary Marshall,” was an ensemble romantic comedy with many high-proile names that followed the footsteps of films like “Love Actually.” There are only three things one has to know coming into this movie: all of the characters are connected in some way, it is at times unapologetically cheesy with its typical (but funny) one-liners, and it is a good Valentine’s Day movie to watch with friends or special someone. Even before the film was released, I heard a lot of negative comments about it because people are not keen on the idea of a movie capitalizing on a holiday that “isn’t even real.” I say get over it because such moaning will not stop movie studios from releasing movies such as this; it’s a business and no matter how much you complain, money is money at the end of the day. Personally, the main reason why I wanted to see this film was because some of my favorite celebrities were in it like Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher (even though I change my mind about him quite often), and Bradley Cooper. From the trailers, I knew exactly what to expect and, surprisingly, it was much better than I thought it would be. Even though only two to four characters out of the twenty-one were fully developed (Garner and Kutcher as best friends failing to see that they were meant for each other; Hathaway and Grace as one lacking awareness of the other being a phone sex operator), it was fun to watch because it had a certain self-awareness–that none of it should be taken seriously because the characters’ lives revolved around falling in love. We are smart enough to know (or at least we should be) that the movie was simply trying to provide us an escape from our busy lives, whether our lives may revolve around our studies, our jobs, and countless other circumstances. As for the negatives, I wished that the main characters were cut down to fifteen. Even though I thought the scenes with Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift were amusing, their scenes didn’t do much when it came to the big picture other than comment on the fact that teenage love based on supercifial similarities was a good foundation for a potential heartbreak. (Well, at least that’s what I got from it.) I also wished that Jessica Biel’s scenes with her eating junk food and being neurotic were cut, while preserving her “I hate Valentine’s Day” intact and ultimately seeing Jamie Foxx as a perfect match for her. My favorite storyline has go to be the one with Cooper and Roberts meeting on a plane. I still think Roberts is one of the finest actresses because she has a perfect way of portraying sadness in her eyes. It was pretty subtle but when Cooper voiced out his assumptions that Roberts was on her way to see her special man, that specific look that Roberts gave him immediately made me realize that it wasn’t the case. “Valentine’s Day” is indeed a typical romantic comedy but if you know what to expect and you have an open mind, you will have a good chance of enjoying this flick. But if you come into the film in a bad mood or expecting the worst, prepare yourself to analyze every single flaw and not enjoy the movie. In other words, save your money or buy yourself a box of chocolates instead. Maybe that will make you happy.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I have a weakness for characters who desperately try to keep their families together, especially when they go as far as to sacrifice their own hopes and dreams. Zach, played expertly by Trevor Wright, is that kind of character and I loved him the minute he appeared on screen. Wright plays Zach with such charisma and complexity. I felt like Zach could indeed be a real person: a surfer who genuinely loves his dysfunctional family and wants to pursue his talent for the arts but can’t quite do so because of pecuniary issues… who happens to be gay, instead of the other way around (which what separates this from most LGBT films). There are many memorable scenes but I’m not going to mention them all. But I do want to express how much some scenes affected me. The one scene when Jackson Wurth (who plays Zach’s cute little nephew) revealed that he sees Wright as his father instead of his uncle says a lot about how much Wright acts a parental figure in Wurth’s life. As much as Wright tries to clarify Wurth’s thinking, it’s all for naught because his actions speak louder than his words. Another stand-out scene was when Wright was driving back home in the morning after he and Brad Rowe finally got together. In the car, when Wright finally smiled (he’s so good at playing depressed, I didn’t know he knew how to smile), the camera caught glimpses of light penetrating through the clouds as they hit Wright’s face. That scene, with a little bit of luck, was done so perfectly, it defined the whole film: little pockets of light amidst a Sahara of sorrow.
All of the side characters are very memorable because they contribute to the main character’s already simmering inner conflict. Rowe, who added a much-needed warmth to the story, wants to be with Wright but Wright is not out of the closet. When Rowe tries to kiss him or even merely touch him in a public area, Wright would be so beyond scared/irked. Wright and Rowe’s chemistry is undeniably sexy. On the other hand, I wanted to punch Tina Holmes’ character in the face because she puts herself and other potential husbands in front of her son. But Holmes is a smart actress for putting subtleties in her performance so her character is not viewed as a complete monster. I loved her interactions with Wright because even though their characters are siblings, there’s this awkwardness to the whole thing because all she ever does is ask favors and keep her brother from spreading his wings. Katie Walder as Wright’s girlfriend sometimes breaks my heart because he’s so miserable around her even though all she wants to do is keep him happy. But sometimes it’s just plain hilarious because Wright has this look annoyed/disgusted look on his face whenever Walder tries to kiss him. Ross Thomas as Wright’s best friend is probably the only (deceptively) one-dimensional character because, in pretty much every scene, all he does is either drink beer or surf. I would’ve liked him to have had a bigger role because he is, after all, the best friend.
This is one of the best gay-themed movies I’ve seen in a while because every element worked. If one was to watch this closely, I’d say take notice of the use of color and symbolism to reach a deeper understanding of Wright’s character. It’s so refreshing to see a lead gay character who is not into fashion or going clubbing or money/shopping at all (not to mention no one died of AIDS, no cross-dressing, no suicide attempts). I can relate to Zach because he really is a serious person; I wanted to scream for him because Zach is so trapped due to the expectations of his family and of himself. He endures each hardship with such composure, and when he finally breaks I seriously wanted to cry. If this does become a cult film amongst the LGBT community, I wouldn’t be surprised.