Tag: scott mechlowicz

Undocumented


Undocumented (2010)
★ / ★★★★

A group of graduate students (Scott Mechlowicz, Alona Tal, Greg Serano, Kevin Weisman) go to Mexico to shoot a documentary about illegal immigration. Contacting and paying off the right people, they foolishly sneak into the United States with undocumented Mexicans who hope to create a better life in America. Everything starts to go terribly wrong when their truck is intercepted by radicals, led by Z (Peter Stormare), utterly delusional in their attempt to keep the country free of “illegals.” The captives are then taken into an isolated compound where illegal immigrants are tortured until they die. Meanwhile, the young and hapless American students are forced to record every bit of sadism.

“Undocumented,” written by Chris Peckover and Joe Peterson, is humiliating to sit through, a testament on how difficult it really is to pull off violence and horror with social commentary. I wanted to like the students because they really do mean to shed light on the plight of Mexicans crossing the border. However, we get the sense that they have no idea what they are doing right from the beginning. If they are not intelligent enough, what is there to excite us or keep us interested in their journey?

In the first scene, the characters appear as though they are going on Spring Break in Cancun. There is a lack of an aura of seriousness in the van so we get the impression that they consider their thesis to be a joke. When they are kidnapped, I found that I did not care about what would happen to them. They scream, yell, and protest when someone they know is tortured and put to death but there is nothing concrete about any one of them. It is near impossible to discern which person is supposed to be our hero or heroine.

While some of us might wish for the students to find an escape and report to the proper authorities about what is going on in the building, their action support that they are not very smart. Too many people whisper and whimper as they make their way across dark corridors. Isn’t the idea not to get caught? Is it really too much for the director to tell his actors to try to act more more clandestine? It turns into a depressing experience real quick.

The scenes involving the extremists delivering grandiose speeches about what being a true American patriot means to them are appropriately gag-worthy. I would like to be able to say that their portrayal and arguments are ridiculously cartoonish but I have actually met some people in college who held similar hatred toward illegal immigrants.

Watching masked men walk from an area of the room to another is unsettling. Do they move around because they need to shake off their feelings of guilt or being uncomfortable? Or is it that walking around allows them to peek inside the torture chambers? Maybe they feel that they get a piece of the action by watching. There is a lot of brain-smashing, accompanied with squishy sounds, and bloody bats.

The film might have benefited from script polishing. For example, while the extremists are supposed to be against illegal immigration, they often come off as only being against illegal Mexicans. While the violence in “Undocumented,” directed by Chris Peckover, is difficult to stomach, the glaring holes in its concept and lack of specificity are even harder to endure.

Mean Creek


Mean Creek (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” does something in special in that not once does it look down on its subjects: young people who must make a choice after something that cannot be taken back has occurred. The moral calamity these characters veer themselves through commands a seriousness that many movies about responsibility hope to delve into but ultimately only graze.

The only way to tell the story of what happens to these kids is with directness and simplicity. By stripping away potentially distracting elements like quirkiness in the dialogue, teleportation between perspectives, and turning on a soundtrack that gives a hint on how we should feel or what we should think, it makes room for introspection. We understand each of them–where they come from, their dominant personalities, what it is that hurts them most–and so we are given a chance to be honest with ourselves. We relate with them–even to the ones who appear to be the most despicable.

Sam (Rory Culkin) is attacked by George (Josh Peck) at school. Believing that fifteen minutes of detention for a week is not a good enough punishment for the wounds on Sam’s face, not to mention the social embarrassment, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), Sam’s older brother, is convinced that something else has to be done. But he is smart. Rocky tells Sam that they need to hurt fat George without really hurting him, at least not a kind of punishment that leaves a mark. So, a plan about a boating trip is made and George is invited. Since George does not have many friends, he happily accepts. He figures that maybe this time is a true opportunity for him to belong in a group.

There is a portentous aura that brews during the car ride to the river and when the boat is making its way downstream. Silence between dialogue is utilized when it counts. The water gently sloshing against the boat might as well be the kids’ guilt banging on drums. We wonder if they will ultimately go through with the plan. Sometimes the conversation is friendly. For a while, the game of truth or dare is full of laughs–as it should be. But there are other times when conversations turn ugly. George expresses his disgust about Clyde (Ryan Kelley) having two fathers at home. And then there is Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), the eldest of the group, whose life at home has been difficult since his father’s death. George has a knack for pushing everybody’s button. Something’s gotta give.

When the picture takes a dark turn, it is dealt with honesty. The kids who return home from the trip are changed somehow but the accompanying scenes are not predictable. There is no hyperbolic crying or screaming, just a feeling of exhaustion, disbelief, and wanting to hide from the world and oneself. The shame takes root and yet, surprisingly, I think it is what gives them a chance to recognize what should be done even if there is pressure to pretend like nothing important happened that day.

“Mean Creek” shares a similar consciousness with pictures like Larry Clark’s “Bully” and Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” because the story revolves around complicated choices before and after an irrevocable thing. In some situations, there is right and wrong. While choosing the wrong thing can be perceived as a moral tragedy, so is allowing oneself to become unaware of the fact that there is always an alternative.

Waiting for Forever


Waiting for Forever (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Will Donner (Tom Sturridge) didn’t have a home. He wandered from place to place, often hitchhiking because he didn’t have a car, because he was set on following Emma Twist (Rachel Bilson), an actress and a childhood friend, like a love-sick puppy. People were often touched of his stories about how much he loved Emma and how he planned on marrying her. The fact was the two haven’t spoken to each other since they were kids. Written by Steve Adams and directed by James Keach, if I could describe “Waiting for Forever” in one word, it would be “misguided.” I wasn’t convinced that it was a love story even though it tried desperately to be one because the sentiments were heavily one-sided. Emma, like myself, was creeped out by Will because his rationalizations involving why they should be together felt completely detached from reality. The screenplay begged us to feel sorry for him instead of identifying with him. His parents died when he was little, his brother (Scott Mechlowicz) looked down on his nomadic lifestyle, and he always wore the same pajamas. I guess he didn’t have any other clothes. His excuse was the pajamas felt comfortable. I found it insulting that the majority of the women melted after hearing Will’s stories. I agreed with the men: Will needed some help, possibly a one-on-one session with a counselor or a psychiatrist. It was difficult to judge him this way because the filmmakers confused child-like and childish. An adult’s child-like quality tends to momentarily sprout from its hiding shell. It happens without a person being aware of it. An adult is childish when he jumps on chairs, tables, and counters just to be “cute.” Will was certainly the latter. Sturridge was partly to blame. He needed to tone down his character’s ticks so we could focus more on his personal struggles instead of how hyper he was or how well he could juggle. The only believable people on screen were Emma’s parents, Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Miranda (Blythe Danner). Richard had terminal illness and Miranda hid her sadness by overcompensating with happiness. There was dramatic weight in the way they interacted with each other. Some words were ugly, some looks were undeserved but I felt like there was history between them. There was a memorable scene in which Miranda finally exploded at the man she no longer thought was the man she married. The way the camera was so close to their aging bodies and the way the purging of emotions was handled, it felt like I was intruding in their very personal moment. I wished the movie had been about them. I liked the last line in the movie because the joke had a punchline. That and the painful experience of constantly wondering why the characters chose to do what they did was finally over.