Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
“Some Kind of Wonderful” was about two best friends named Keith and Watts (Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson, respectively) who initially failed to see that they were perfect for each other. Watts being a hardcore tomboy certainly did not help their situation. But after popular girl Amanda (Lea Thompson) and popular rich boy Hardy (Craig Sheffer) broke up, Keith wanted to take Amanda on a date and Watts started to feel uncomfortably jealous. I did enjoy the movie as a whole but I think it came up short on delivering something unique. I love the whole 80’s thing going on with Keith’s eccentric family, the divide between the rich and the poor students, the big hair, and the nostalgic soundtrack but by the end of the movie, I didn’t feel like I knew the main characters that well. Since the picture was written by John Hughes, compared to his other projects, his characters in this film felt one-dimensional and the way the story unfolded (like most 80s teen movies) felt painfully obvious. But what made this movie work less for me was the fact that it didn’t even try to surprise me in terms of delivering something I didn’t expect from the characters. I also thought it was weird that I didn’t get emotionally involved with the characters’ lives. All of the drama was on the outside so as much as I tried to like it on another deeper level, I just couldn’t. Although there was tension between Keith and his dad (John Ashton) because Keith did not want to go to college, it felt like a distraction because the movie was more about (or should be more about) the relationship between the two best friends. I didn’t feel much chemistry between Keith and Watts so I thought it was necessary for the film to prove to me that there’s a compelling reason for the two of them to be together. There were times when I thought Thompson’s character outshined Masterson’s because of the popular girl’s shame of desperately trying to hide where she came from to the point where she was willing to hang out with snobby rich girls who could care less about her. I was more interested in Thompson’s character because I could see the pain she was going through and the reasons why she decided to make certain decisions. Although Watts had her share of insecurities in the locker room, I needed to know more about her, especially if Keith was going to choose her in the end. Still, there were some funny scenes especially when Elias Koteas (as a bully who looks like a skinhead) was on screen. Directed by Howard Deutch, “Some Kind of Wonderful” needed more sensitive moments that weren’t necessarily expressed in a highlighted manner. Sometimes, subtelty can go a long way. Ultimately, it’s a nice movie but there’s a fine line between sensitive and cheesy. At times it stepped on the latter’s territory.
Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Real Women Have Curves,” directed by Patricia Cardoso, was about a smart Mexican-American teenager (America Ferrera) who wanted to go live her life by seeing the world and getting the best education she can but couldn’t because her family and the family business needed her at home. I thought this movie was very accurate in portraying a person who was capable of so much but was often limited by family responsibilities. I knew people like Ferrera’s character back in high school and I think this movie was great at showcasing someone who was torn between what a teenager wanted to accomplish and what a teenager expected to accomplish. One of the main driving forces of the film was Ferrera’s relationship with her mother (Lupe Ontiveros) who was as dramatic as the characters she watched in her soap operas–which made me laugh because she reminded me of my mom and her Filipino soap operas–and her extremely hardworking sister (Ingrid Oliu) with a surprising amount of depth and heart. The way the three women interacted with each other was fascinating because although their interests often collided, there was a certain level of respect and love that was always present. I also found Ferrera’s connection with her teacher (George Lopez), who pushed her to apply to Columbia University, and a romantic interest (Brian Sites) interesting but they were a bit underdeveloped. With a running time of less than an hour and thirty minutes, that was expected but the picture would have been stronger if those elements were fully realized. After all, as much as the movie was about family, it was also about Ferrera’s struggle to want to reach outside of her community. I found it easy to relate with this movie because I also wanted to see things outside of my Filipino community back when I recently immigrated to America when I was eleven. Although my parents were not strict about sticking to our roots, there were some little things that caused tension between us that were directly related to our culture. I was impressed with “Real Women Have Curves” because it was a solid coming-of-age story that seemed to tackle multiple subjects at once including important issues like body image and self-esteem. There was a hilarious scene in the sewing shop that involved women comparing the amount of fat they had in their bodies. That dose of reality was refreshing to see especially when teen movies nowadays always feature teenage characters who are built and/or skinny but are not at all smart and/or sensitive. And if they were portrayed as smart and/or sensitive, most movies directed for teens felt forced and superficial. But in this picture, it felt genuine and that much more powerful.
Private Dicks: Men Exposed (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary, directed by Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, managed to cover a variety of topics that ranged from sexuality, why men don’t talk about penises, puberty, circumcision, sexual performance, sexually-transmitted diseases, penis sizes, to fertility in a span of less than an hour. Although it started off as hilarious because I was so shocked with how direct the interviewees were, I was touched because the film eventually focused on sensitive issues, such as being a transgender, with such insight and sensitivity. I loved that this documentary featured people from many backgrounds: gay, straight, transgender, bisexual, Asian, black, white, hispanic, old, young, middle aged. But what I loved most was the fact that it wasn’t afraid to show people with bodies that are not so-called ideal. I thought it gave the picture a new level of realism and honesty because more than half of Americans are not as glamorous as the people we see on television and films. However, if I were to pick out a weakness, it would definitely have to be a lack of depth. Although it was very organized because it was divided into chapters, the chapters only lasted for about ten minutes. Just when I was getting the feeling that we’re really getting to the meat of the issue (pun intended), it pulled away as if it was on a rush (pun intended again? I’m on a roll). This was particularly problematic for me when the transgendered people were being interviewed. Since I don’t know much about them, I was fascinated and I wanted to know more about their experiences–how they saw sexuality and what it meant for them to live in a society were being themselves is taboo. Perhaps another thirty minutes would have taken this movie from just good to pretty great. I also enjoyed the fact that even though there were a lot of jokes and funny anecdotes thrown around, it really emphasized the importance of health. More specifically, the importance of practicing safe sex. I particularly admired the segments when a guys would admit to having some sort of STDs; even though it wasn’t obvious, we could see in their eyes that maybe they would have done things a bit differently given the chance to go back in time. This may be a small film but I think it had some sort of an importance. It gives people a chance to showcase men’s sexual perspective and that we, too, like women, are willing to talk about sex in a direct, mature and fun way.
Pianist, The (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can say a lot of things about Roman Polanski since his personal life is often torn apart among the tabloids but you cannot deny that the man knows how to make movies. Not just typical movies that happen to be commercially successful, but movies that are personal, have artistic merit and have distinct emotional resonance. In “The Pianist,” Polanski focused on the survival story of a Polish Jewish survivor named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in Warsaw in the middle of World War II. I thought it was interesting how the picture started off with him and his family (Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay as his parents, Jessica Kate Meyer and Julia Rayner as his sisters, and Ed Stoppard as his brother) and then shift the focus on how he was able to survive on his own with the help of kind strangers and adoring fans (Emilia Fox). Even though this was set in WWII, I thought it felt a little different because we spent the majority of the time observing him from indoors–how he saw the war from his window somewhat from an outsider’s perspective yet still caught up in the middle of it. We also observed how he moved from one place to another and the dangers (and repercussions) of certain decisions he had to make in order to subsist. Back when I saw this this film for the first time in 2002, I did not understand what was so special about a man trying to hide in an apartment instead of joining his comrades to fight against the Nazis. But seeing this movie seven years later, I thought that Szpilman’s experiences were really painful because he had to live with the guilt of surviving as his friends and family were murdered. Yet at the same time, it took a lot of courage for him to want to keep living despite the fact that there were times when he caught serious diseases, hasn’t eaten for days on end, and how the lack of company almost drove him into madness. I was really touched whenever he would play the piano after hiding for so long; it was kind of like watching a man coming back from the dead. I thought it expertly embodied the idea of music being an elixir of life. My favorite scene was toward the end when he played the piano for the Nazi that chose to help him (Thomas Kretschmann). I would never forget that scene because I felt like a lot of things were communicated between them even though they weren’t engaged in a conversation. With such great acting from everyone involved in this film, “The Pianist” was an emotional experience I can only try to describe. I believe everyone should see it at least once because the many layers are worth exploring. It was melancholy, suspenseful, dark yet it was sensitive and truly remarkable.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.
Naissance des pieuvres (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Naissance des pieuvres” was about three fifteen-year-old girls–Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adele Haenel)–in the middle of adolescence swimming, hanging out, and laying about in the middle of summer. Marie wants Anne but Anne initially doesn’t even consider Marie to be on her level. Marie is best friends with Floriane and Floriane is interested in Anne’s crush/boytoy (Warren Jacquin). This leaves Marie in an awkward position because the other two are too cooped up into their own worlds to notice that Marie is suffering on the inside. I really felt for Acquart’s character because she can’t quite express who she really is both because of her own insecurities and expectations from other people. She’s a complex character because I felt like she doesn’t really try to hide who she really is; she’ll actually quite easy to open up as long as someone bothers to show interest. I can relate to her the most because her shyness and calculating nature sometimes gets the best of her. And better yet, she knows it but can’t quite do anything about it. I thought her relationship with Anne was very interesting to watch because I wasn’t exactly sure how it would turn out. Just when I think it’s going to go one way, it takes the opposite direction so I constantly had to reevaluate my expectations. However, the whole thing remains fluid and poetic instead of feeling forced. The biggest weakness I could find was that the film did not spend much time developing Floriane. I felt like she should have had more layers instead of merely crushing on a guy. There were times when I thought, “What about the third girl? What’s her role in the bigger scheme of things?” And those questions were not sufficiently answered. I think the defining scene of this picture was when Marie was watching Anne and her team practicing for a competitive synchronized swimming. We see elegance and beauty above the water but we see quick constant kicking underwater. I think it reflected what the characters were going through at the time of their respective challenges. This is a coming-of-age story that is astute, observant, sensitive and sometimes downright sexy.
Dernier jour, Le (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about this movie that I loved. The story was about an eighteen year old Simon (the stunning Gaspard Ulliel) who happens to meet a girl on a train (Mélanie Laurent) on his way back home for the holidays. She invites himself to his home, which at first turned out okay, but the longer she stays there, the more frustrated Simon becomes. Emotions escalate when Simon’s friend (Thibault Vinçon) enters the picture because Laurent starts to fall for him. I think this film was deceptively simple. Even though the dialogue was minimal, the film had a plethora of interesting imagery and stiffled emotions that kept bubbling over the surface. The prime example of this was Ulliel’s character. Simon was such a sensitive character and I felt like a lot of things could tip him to the breaking point. However, he managed to find inner strength time and time again to deal with another painful reality and so I was able to sympathize for him. Even though he was sad and bordeline desperate for affection, we rarely saw him cry, which I think made him that much more lovable. What did not work for me as well, however, was the storyline regarding his mother (Nicole Garcia) and her much younger lover (Bruno Todeschini). I didn’t quite see the connection between that story and Simon’s plight. If the commonality was about loneliness and the suffocation they felt, I think that’s too superficial. If this film had been longer to further explore that bond, I think this could have been a much more powerful picture. Indeed, this was a slow-moving film but I found it to be rewarding because it was thoughtful with its approach. This is farthest from a Hollywood film which typically has defined conventions of a genre. “Le derniere jour” was more like an artistic take on what it was like to be in someone’s shoes who felt like everybody was slowly drifting away.
Three Dancing Slaves (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Gaël Morel, “Three Dancing Slaves” was about three brothers who tried to cope from the death of their mother. The story started off with the middle child (Nicolas Cazalé) who got caught up with drugs and thugs who want their money. They wanted payback in the most cruel way possible. Also, his ever-growing lack of respect toward his father began to shake the foundation of the family. The middle portion of the picture was about the eldest son (Stéphane Rideau) who recently got out of prison. Unlike the middle child, he was done with partying and hanging out. He actually wanted to turn his life around so he could serve as a model for his brothers and ultimately be proud of himself. Last but not least was the youngest son (Thomas Dumerchez) who tried to keep his secret hidden. He seemed tough at first glance with all his tattoos but he actually turned out to be one of the most sensitive characters. I’ve read a number of critiques about this film and a lot of them mentioned its potential but it didn’t quite deliver. I disagree; I think it did deliver by showing us what each of three characters were going through at specific periods of time. In a nutshell, this was another one of those slice-of-life pictures that most people find difficult to get into because its seemingly lack of strong consistent storyline. It worked for me because it had an emotional core: the death of the mother and how the three brothers responded to it. They may have had other things going on in their lives but it never lost track of that center. I also liked that the tone changed whenever it switched its focus from one brother to the next. The first one felt enigmatic and dangerous, the second felt both depressing and hopeful, and the third felt sensitive and reflective. And justifiably so, the respective tones matched each of the brothers’ dominating personalities. I just wished that the third act could’ve been explored more because it was the shortest. I’m giving this film a strong recommendation because I was interested in it from start to finish. I thought the direction was insightful and I was happy that not everything was spelled out for the audiences.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story, “Sybil” is about a woman (Sally Field) who has dissociative identity disorder (DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder) and how her psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) helps her by digging up the past and confronting her inner demons. Having some sort of a background in psychology, I knew what to look for to see if what was really being portrayed on screen was DID. I have to say that it was spot-on: from when it was triggered by certain objects that reminded her of her abusive mother, to when her condition got worse to the point where it started to ruin her life, up until she finally finds some sort of a resolution (but not a cure). Field was tremendous in this film. I was so impressed whenever she would switch from one personality to the next; I completely forgot that she was just playing a character. While the acting was obviously emotionally draining, it must have been physically draining as well because of the very physical counseling sessions when she was required to move around in order to portray how conflicted Sybil was. Woodward also deserved recognition because I immediately felt like she was the kind of person that Sybil would eventually trust since she was very nurturing and accepting. There was not one moment where I thought she would give up and that was important to me because it meant that she was willing to follow through with her patient’s condition. I also liked the romantic angle between Field and the late Brad Davis. It was so sad because Davis fell for a personality (though some may argue he really did fall for Sybil) and Sybil was pretty much scared of human contact due to her traumatic past. That was scene in the subway with Davis and Field was strangely romantic even though something felt wrong about the whole thing. I mention all these people to highlight the fact that the film focused on Sybil and her relationship with others. Instead of telling a story of a mental disorder, the picture was about a person who happened to have a mental disorder in its core. And that subtelty is crucial because people find it difficult to separate the person from the disease or condition. To me, that message had a true resonance because of the sensitivity of issues that come with mental illnesses. As for the scenes regarding the abuse, even though it did not show blood and guts, I still thought it was pretty graphic, not just with the film’s consistent sinister tone, but also the tools that were shown and what the mother did to Sybil during the flashback scenes. Watching those scenes made me really angry because I was reminded that such things still do happen and the abused children will most likely have psychological problems in their futures. Ultimately, I think this is one of those films that will stick with me for a very long time because of how faithful it was with reality. It goes to show that even though the mind can be a very powerful coping mechanism, if pushed hard enough and again and again, it can break into pieces and may cause irreversible devastation toward both the owner and that person’s inner circle.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I am more than happy to say that one of the most outstanding pictures of the year (so far) is a romantic comedy. However, it is far from a typical one. The always impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Latter Days,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Brick,” “The Lookout”) plays Tom Hansen, a greeting card writer who has a passion for architecture but never quite followed it due to some of life’s circumstances. The lovely Zooey Deschanel (“Almost Famous,” “Elf,” “Flakes,” “The Happening”) plays Summer Finn, a new secretary who does not believe in the concept of love and values independence to the fullest. The two are complete opposites, which serves as an ideal template for romance with genuinely awkward moments on the side. But as the film warns us during the first three minutes, it is not a love story, which can mean that a happy ending may not be on the horizon.
The movie was told in a non-linear sequence. It started with Tom confiding to his precocious sister (Chloe Moretz) and two best friends/apartment-mates (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) about his fear that his relationship with Summer might be over. I liked the fact that the film immediately jumped into getting to know the characters. That scene showed that Tom was not your typical macho guy who considered girls as mere conquests; he actually had a heart, a brain, and a soul, someone who was not afraid to cry and fall apart in front of people who mattered to him most. That sense of efficiency pervaded the 95-minute running time as it jumped from the 300th day to day 1 and back to 164th. As the audiences jumped back and forth in time, we get a fuller picture about the dynamics (and not always reciprocal feelings) between Tom and Summer. He slowly realized that Summer was someone who he could never have no matter how much effort he tried to put into the relationship because Summer simply did not feel the same way. But I liked the fact that the picture did not make Summer look like a bad person. Like Tom, she had her own values and ethics and varying capability to do good and bad things. Marc Webb, the director, always strived for complexity with regards to characterization and I appreciated his efforts because most romantic comedies of today are too sugary, one-dimensional, or the characters become more like caricatures instead of reflecting actual individuals in the world. In my opinion, Webb managed to capture how it was like for a twentysomething to feel lost in the world but still have that glimmer of hope that things would ultimately turn out for the better. Maturity is one of this film’s biggest strengths and it was always at the forefront.
There were some storytelling techniques that could either annoy audiences and think that the picture was being somewhat pretentious or impress audiences in every way. I was one of the latter group for several reasons. I absolutely loved the foreign language scene because I thought it represented the disconnect between Tom and Summer. I think it served as a metaphor when two people are constantly at odds to the point where they stop trying to understand each other because every sentence of justification feels like a foreign language. Another scene that stood out to me was when Tom attended Summer’s party. The split-screen between what Tom hoped would happen and what actually happened had a great balance of comedy and tragedy. And I think it painfully reflects real life. There were a lot of similarities between the two split-screens but there were also a plethora of glaring differences and others were quite subtle. Lastly, I admit that I am not a very big fan of dancing in movies but it worked here. It was amusing when Tom, because of extreme happiness that he cannot express with words, started dancing in the park and everyone else started joining him (including an animated bird!). Such scenes mentioned proved to me that this was an edgy picture with a purpose, which was different than an indie movie simply trying to be edgy for the sake of being different.
In a nutshell, “(500) Days of Summer” is a picture for movie lovers who love watching films showcasing real-life instead of films imitating real-life. There is a subtle but important difference between the two and this one is well aware of that line it daringly treads. By the end, others may be saddened by Tom’s journey from naiveté to awareness or be uplifted with the possibilities that face him. I belong with the latter because I believe in the necessity of sacrifices for the learning experience. This is the twenty-first century “Annie Hall” and it should definitely not be missed.