★★★ / ★★★★
On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.
Hål i mitt hjärta, Ett (2004)
★ / ★★★★
As his father, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck), and his father’s friend, Geko (Goran Marjanovic), shot an amateur pornographic film in their apartment, Eric (Björn Almroth) retreated to his dark room and listened to heavy metal music. “Ett hål i mitt hjärta” aimed to tackle issues like how addiction to pornography could ruin lives but I’m not sure it was successful in doing so in a meaningful way. The picture showed us graphic images of labial reconstruction surgery, S&M in which Tess (Sanna Bråding), a girl from the streets who wanted to be a successful pornographic actress in America, wasn’t informed of, and sex involving food and vomit. But what was it all supposed to mean? With its style of manic editing, the connection between shocking images and the meaning we were supposed to extract from them weren’t established. While it did have quieter moments of Eric wanting to escape his toxic environment but ultimately couldn’t do anything to get away from his father (he didn’t seem to have many friends), it was difficult to sympathize with him at times. For instance, when his dad was sleeping, Eric woke him up and claimed that the kitchen was on fire when it really wasn’t. And when his dad asked for water to drink, Eric took it from the toilet. It was disgusting behavior which was almost unwatchable as Rickard and Geko pressuring Eric to fire an air gun so that he could feel more like a man. I felt humiliated for all of the characters. Just when I felt a glimmer of hope during Tess and Eric’s conversation, the material jumped back to its repetitive technique of barraging its audiences with strong images but with little meaning. Toward the end, a fact was revealed about Rickard which was supposed to explain his fixation toward pornography and violence. However, since the journey toward the revelation was deeply unfocused, it felt more like an excuse than an explanation. “A Hole in My Heart,” directed by Lukas Moodysson, is easy to criticize because of the way it was shot and edited. Perhaps it was done on purpose because it strived to comment on our consumption of reality television. In any case, I don’t mind the technical aspects as much as long as it had a defined center. Its approach was bold and it took some wild risks in attempting to explain how one person’s dysfunction could enable other people’s dysfunction. But without exploring the increasing distance between the tragic characters, especially the lack of bond between father and son, either we don’t feel closer to them in the end or we end up just not caring about them.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.
Good Old Fashioned Orgy, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Thirtysomething Eric (Jason Sudeikis), like his high school days, loved to throw epic parties at his parents’ Hampton vacation house. But when his father decided to sell, Eric, along with his best friend McCrudden (Tyler Labine), invited his closest friends (Lake Bell, Michelle Borth, Nick Kroll, Angela Sarafyan, Lindsay Sloane, Martin Starr) to have an orgy over Labor Day weekend as a last hurrah. “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy,” written and directed by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, embraced its stupidity, which made it enjoyable, but it was reluctant to really push the envelope in terms of being a raunchy sex comedy. I liked watching the dynamics of friendship and each colorful character was given a chance to shine. I particularly enjoyed watching Eric asking romantic advice from McCrudden. It was funny because we all know that McCrudden was the last person who should offer anybody advice but the two were inseparable, almost blind to each other’s flaws. I bought it as an honest element of their bond. I certainly share that level of trust with some of my friends. It may not make sense to another person who doesn’t really know us, but it makes sense between two people who’ve had a lot of history together. What worked less effectively was Eric falling for one of the realtors. From the moment Kelly (Leslie Bibb) appeared on screen, I knew that her potential to be Eric’s girlfriend was going to make Eric feel somewhat bad about coming through with the orgy. She was an unnecessary character because she wasn’t especially amusing. She didn’t stand out. And to be blunt, I didn’t understand why a woman of her caliber would go out with someone like Eric. If the writers had found a more realistic way to explore why the two genuinely believed that their relationship was worth fighting for, it could have had a place in a movie like this. I wished that all of Kelly’s scenes were replaced with the two uninvited friends, married couple Glenn (Will Forte) and Kate (Lucy Punch), angry and bitter with the fact that they weren’t included, coming up with ways to make the others believe that not letting them know about the soirée was a regretful decision. When Glenn and Kate tried so hard to fit in with the others, it worked because Forte and Punch had desperation in their eyes. I’m glad that the filmmakers went ahead with the orgy. However, I felt as though it was a bit restrained. For example, Eric and McCrudden eventually shared a kiss. But it was a kiss so lame (it was barely even a kiss), I felt a bit insulted. The characters were open to having an orgy, drunk off their minds, yet they were extremely reluctant to kiss someone of the same sex? (Between the men anyway.) Give me a break. If the girls could make out front and center on screen, the guys should have been allowed to do that, especially when there was a lack of variety in terms of race and sexual orientation in the movie. “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy” was a sex comedy with teeth but reluctant to bite hard. What good is a sex comedy with an orgy if it isn’t willing to embrace all of the complex elements that makes sexuality so controversial?
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) were left by their girlfriends to visit Europe for the summer. Despite their promises to not have sex with other people, the two saw it as a perfect opportunity to meet other women, experiment with drugs, drink until they pass out, and live easy before school started again. But when they met a beautiful woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding, the boys made up a story about going to an undiscovered beach. To their surprise, Luisa accepted their invitation, unknowing that she wanted to run away from her cheating husband and temporarily forget about her doctor’s grim news. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También” is a peerless example of a sex comedy that uses sex to explore its characters’ friendships, highlight the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, and what it meant to be young and reckless. As most American teen sex comedy have consistently proven, it’s far too easy to use sex as a weapon of perversion instead of staring at it in the eyes and realizing, with respect, that it’s a natural and beautiful part of our lives. To describe all of the elements I loved about the picture would be an injustice because much of its magic had to be experienced. But I do have to mention one scene that, in my opinion, defined the film so perfectly. Near the end of the trio’s road trip, Luisa was talking to her husband in a telephone booth. On a mirror next to the booth, we could see Tenoch and Julio playing foosball. The shot looked simple but, for me, it held a lot of meaning. The booth was lit but the reflection was dim which I surmised was a symbol for their respective knowledge about what it meant to love both emotionally and physically. Tenoch and Julio thought they knew how to pleasure a woman. But Luisa tried to teach them that sex, or meaningful sex, wasn’t about the strength of penetration or how long a man could last without ejaculation but the growing emotional connection and investment between the two parties. The conversation in the booth had a lot of sadness and maybe a bit anger but the reflection held temporary joy by means of friendly competition. I perceived it to be a summary of Luisa and the two friends’ respective mindsets during their travel. Although the two images were different, both were about characters entering a new phase in their lives. Cuarón had a fantastic ear for dialogue and sometimes I wondered if some of the conversations were unscripted. The naturalistic acting was also enhanced by an inspired environment that looked unedited or untouched, something that we would see if we visited a seaside village right this very moment. If more coming-of-age sex comedies were high caliber as “Y Tu Mamá También,” perhaps most people would be able to ask and talk about sex and sexuality without having to be embarrassed or feel judged.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.
No Strings Attached (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Emma and Adam met in their teens. They lost contact over the years but they met again in their late twenties. Emma (Natalie Portman) was completing her residency and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) was an assistant for a “Glee”-like television show. The two were obviously attracted to each other but decided to keep their relationship strictly sexual. Adam found it difficult but Emma handled it with ease. Directed by Ivan Reitman, “No Strings Attached” was an amusing sex comedy that was better than it should have been due to the leading actors’ sheer charm and genuinely funny supporting characters. Portman and Kutcher shared undeniable chemistry. Their awkward sex scenes, especially the one when they were under a time limit, were believable enough to the point where we were comfortable to giggle or laugh when watching them. But it was Emma and Adam’s friends who almost stole the film. Emma lived in an apartment with fellow future doctors: Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling), and Guy (Guy Branum). They oozed sarcasm, shared knowing looks, and menstrual cycle. There was a hilarious scene of the roommates sprawled on the couch because their period thrusted them into depressed moods. One of them claimed it was like a crime scene in her pants. Meanwhile, Adam’s friends, Wallace (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Eli (Jake M. Johnson), were there for moral support and, not atypical in men, bad advice. They were funny in an understated way. The picture often had a crude sense of humor but I enjoyed it. As far as romantic comedies, I found it refreshing that the characters were mature enough that they could talk about sex, penises, vaginas without bursting into laughter. However, the movie lost momentum during the second half. Instead of two people enjoying the joys (and pitfalls) of casual sex, it became about Emma wanting what others had–the idea of normalcy in a form of having a man. It was insulting because the product had mixed messages. It wanted to be both commercial and a statement piece about the freedom of sex regardless of gender. As a result, Emma’s change of heart didn’t feel loyal to her character. The problem was mostly the writing. Emma had to face her sister’s wedding (Olivia Thirlby) and her mother having a new man in her life. I found it obvious and unnecessary. There were other, more subtle ways for Emma to realize that Adam was the right person for her. She didn’t have to feel the threat of having to be alone for the rest of her life. I believe she was stronger than that. It should have been enough that Adam had a big heart, that he was funny, and actually not bad in the eyes. Sometimes the walls we have designed to protect ourselves from being hurt just come down on their own. Something just changes inside of us. It doesn’t require explanation because the feeling is beyond reason.
After Sex (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
“After Sex,” written and directed by Eric Amadio, took a sneak peek at what several couples talked about right after having sex. The couples were diverse in terms of sexual orientation, race and outlook on life which was a good thing because audiences could undoubtedly relate to at least one character. Out of the eight couples, three worked for me. Perhaps the best was with Zoe Saldana as a lesbian and Mila Kunis as a proud heterosexual who was unafraid to experiment. Maybe it was their strong acting (compared to the rest of the cast) but there was something very real about the chemistry between them. The differences in their characters was not what defined their scenes but the subtle similarities and curiosities they had about each other. In return, their scene was sexy, smart and very relatable. The second scene I liked featured Dave Franco and Natalie Marston as friends who decided to lose their virginity to each other. It was arguably the cutest vignette; they may not have anything particularly deep to say to each other because they haven’t yet experienced life but it worked because it embodied real innocence which the other storylines lacked. Lastly, I thought the funniest one was a discussion between Timm Sharp and James DeBello about gay relationships and there having to be a “bitch” and a “butch” in order for it to work. Their rapid-fire exchange was not only very funny but it also felt real. I could imagine myself talking like the way they did to my closest friends. Out of the eight, Sharp and DeBello’s scene was the one I had the most fun with and I even caught myself laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the other five did not quite reach their full potential. While I thought the bit about the college frat boy’s (Noel Fisher) first experience with another man (Tanc Sade) was at times touching, in the end it was preachy and it did not make me think beyond the obvious. The worst was probably the two older folks talking about fisting and the “good old times.” Not only was it very awkward but it did not make much sense. It was unfortunate because the director could have used them as an argument in terms of how it was like to be in a relationship with someone for years and years and still remain friends/in love because the other storylines were more about younger people barely knowing each other. “After Sex” was a mixed bag but it had some good moments that felt natural. While the title might suggest skin and, well, sex, it was really more about one’s definition of a relationship and identity–which is a good quality because it did not settle with the obvious. In its own way, “After Sex” was quite tasteful and not as awkward as it could have been. (But that does not mean you should watch it with your parents.)
Mala educación, La (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favorite directors because he is often willing to take bold risks. Instead of feeding his audiences Hollywood typicalities, he tries to reinvent the formula by challenging us to see movies in a different way. In his film “La mala educación,” two childhood friends (Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez) who fell in love with each other in Catholic school crossed paths after sixteen years of separation. Enrique was experiencing a drought of ideas for his next film so Ángel offered Enrique a story that was half non-fiction (based on their childhood) and half fiction (when they eventually reunited). The only thing Ángel wanted in return was to play the lead character because he desperately needed work. The first time I saw “Bad Education” (which was around 2005) I didn’t completely understand it because it was essentially a dynamic exercise of perspectives. Back then I didn’t have the experience to really hone in on what was really going on underneath the scenes that Almodóvar painted for his audiences. But after becoming more familiar with his work and other movies that may have influenced his techniques, I am convinced that “La mala educación” is one of his best movies to date. The funny thing (and what I love most) about Almodóvar is he pretty much uses the same basic elements in all of his pictures: bright colors that hint on what we should feel and/or what the characters really feel despite their self-delusions, bittersweet irony, awkward camera angles, mistaken identities, razor-sharp dark comedy and eccentric characters willing to go through great lengths to keep certain secrets hidden. What impresses me is he (arguably) just shuffles things around, makes tiny tweaks here and there and voilà!–a new Almodóvar film is born. But what makes this picture one of his best is every scene has a certain focus and confidence so each one contributes to the big picture. In about an hour and forty-five minutes, the director was able to elegantly construct a web of deceit with characters who had questionable morals yet we couldn’t help but care for them because we knew their backstories. Bernal was simply electric. His character is the kind of character I love to watch and dissect because every decision he made had a purpose and would ultimately most benefit himself. He appeared charismatic on the outside but he was capable of great subterfuge. That element of film noir completely enraptured me and I didn’t want the experience to end. “Bad Education” is not the kind of movie one will fully understand in just one sitting. Anyone who claims to have understood everything about it is either lying or has completely missed the point. I highly recommend “La mala educación” for its feverish passion to tell a very personal story which expertly balances ambiguity and complexity. Don’t get distracted by the drag queens and sexual positions because those elements are just half the fun.