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.)
Sex Positive (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Prior to this film, I didn’t know who Richard Berkowitz was. I decided to watch the documentary because I’m always interested in learning more about diseases and their impact in society. In “Sex Positive,” directed by Daryl Wein, the focus was on Berkowitz’ contribution in promoting safe sex in order to protect everyone, especially the members of the gay community, from transmitting different factors that could promote AIDS. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the credit he deserved. What I enjoyed about this movie was it was essentially about activists of the LGBT community disagreeing about elements of a certain issue–the mechanisms regarding how one can get the infection, prevention, and the relationship between promiscuity and the epidemic. Most of the documentaries I’ve seen about AIDS and homosexuality were from heterosexuals’ perspective so it was a nice to observe and listen to the issue from a different angle. The documentary felt personal and sometimes too revealing because we got to learn about Berkowitz’ sexual history. There were some outtakes in which he was reluctant to talk about his history with S&M because he wanted to focus on the issue of activism and promoting health. Those outtakes were important for me to see because it showed me that Berkowitz was more than hustler. He deeply cared about his community and he was willing to go great lengths in promoting safe sex, sex positivism, which was the middle-ground between two camps: anti-sex (celibacy) and pro-sex (sex without using protection at all). He also highlighted the roles of our choices and our personal responsibilities in terms of sex, that our lives are in our hands and we should always be aware of the consequences. However, I thought the documentary was a little too short and too quick with the facts. Specifically, I wanted to know more about progress (if any) of promoting safe sex in the late 80’s. I felt as though the movie only covered the early 80’s up and the early 90’s. I also wanted to know more about the papers Berkowitz published about sex and the LGBT community while he was in college although the movie did spotlight the fascinating pamphlet “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” Toward the end, Berkowitz providing insight by revealing certain statistics was simply icing on the cake. “Sex Positive” is a solid documentary with a very interesting subject and I highly recommend it. I just think it needed an extra thirty to forty minutes to develop some ideas so it wouldn’t have felt as rushed.
Bad Education (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.
Sex Drive (2008)
★ / ★★★★
A virgin (Josh Zuckerman) decided to drive across the country using a car he stole from his hypermasculine brother (James Marsden) with his best friends (Amanda Crew, Clark Duke) to finally lose his virginity to a girl (Katrina Bowden) he met online. I expected this movie to be somewhere along the lines of “Superbad” because it essentially had the same premise and sense of humor. It turned out to be much worse because, unlike “Superbad,” “Sex Drive” was stuck in the slapstick approach and unfunny sex jokes instead of eventually telling a story that was entertaining and worth sitting through. One of the biggest problems I had with this movie was the fact that the three lead characters spent too much of their time being stranded on the road. How could a road trip be fun if the audiences were forced to watch characters doing absolutely nothing? Sure, the movie had Seth Green as an Amish person who loved being sarcastic (he was one of the two good things here along with Marsden) but other than the scenes with Green, the rest of the supposedly funny scenes fell flat. I also think that the movie didn’t take advantage of its premise. Online hook-ups are becoming more common these days (I actually know some people who participate in it) but instead of really commenting on that issue by balancing seriousness and comedy, it took the one-dimensional route of best friends finally realizing they had feelings for each other. It was like watching a rated R version of a Disney movie where everyone learned a story in the end. It wasn’t refreshing or amusing so I just wanted it all to end. Directed by Sean Anders, “Sex Drive” was definitely an effort to sit through with infuriating characters teeming with unnecessary insecurities. They had no redeeming qualities because they kept making bad decisions that wouldn’t ultimately help them become better individuals. It made me wonder if people like them really existed and if they did, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. I kept waiting for Zuckerman’s character to realize that everyone he knew who made fun of him for being a virgin were losers and they would always be losers. Unfortunately, he didn’t so the picture didn’t have that edge and angst I was looking for. In the end, he was just a very bland main character wh also happened to only have a one-track mind when it came to sex. While it did have funny moments with Marsden and Green, those weren’t enough to convince me that “Sex Drive” was worth seeing because it lacked heart and an iota of intelligence.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I loved this film the first time I saw it when I was about seventeen because it taught me that it was okay to take so-called friends out of your life when all they did to you was slow you down as you strived to reach for your potential. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremmer and Kevin McKidd star as four friends (three of which were initially heroine junkies) as they fill their empty lives with drugs, sex and violence. They also hang out with a violent older man played by Robert Carlyle who detested drug addicts but, funny enough, kept drinking alcohol to the point where he constantly got in trouble with the law. One of the many things I loved about this film was, unlike the overrated “Requiem for a Dream,” it was not preachy in terms of overcoming addiction to hard drugs. Instead being obvious about its lessons, it simply showed us the circumstances of the characters’ lives and, more importantly, the choices they made that ultimately landed them in either bliss or misery, temporary as they may be. I also liked the fact that it managed to touch upon the issue of the importance of parenting and that parenting doesn’t end when the child turns eighteen. So as hardcore as the lifestyles that were featured in this picture, there undoubtedly was heart underneath it all and it was constantly at the forefront. Furthermore, I enjoyed the fact that the four characters were never really on the same stage of addiction: when one was clean, another one was not, while the other straddled the line between being a slave to the drug and being a master of his life. The film also commented on the dynamics of their friendships. Even though they spent a lot of time with each other because they were getting high, they did not talk about the important things to one another. Each of them felt scared and alone as if they were rats trapped in a maze–constantly living in survival mode and trial-and-error. As serious as the film’s core was, I thought the movie was very witty and very funny. Danny Boyle, the director, made sure that the memorable lines were not just cool in itself but also meaningful and infused with double meanings. Boyle also impressed me with certain shots because the images epitomized the definition of cool and careless disregard. “Trainspotting” will always be one of those films that will stay with me because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. For me, its core was not about how drugs are bad for you. It was about the deeper meanings of friendships and having a strong internal locus of control to lead your life the way you want to. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, “Trainspotting” is an ambitious and imaginative film that is not afraid to tell the hard truths.
Gardens of the Night (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Gardens of the Night” was about a little girl (Ryan Simpkins) who was kidnapped by an older man (Tom Arnold) and a younger guy (Kevin Zegers) on her way from school. In the hands of the sick duo who was running an underground business involving sex and children, the little girl met a boy (Jermaine Scooter Smith) who became her friend for life. Years later, the little girl along with the little boy (now by played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross, respectively) grew up in the streets stealing, doing drugs and prostituting themselves. In a shelter, Jacobs was adviced by a counselor (John Malkovich) to seek her parents. “Gardens of the Night” started off well because the whole experience involving the two guys’ insidious methods of kidnapping a child was so visceral, it almost felt wrong that I was watching the event unfold. I really felt like I was in the car with the kidnappers and in the room with the kids; no matter how much I wanted to help the children escape, there was nothing I could do about it. But when the focus shifted to the whole prostitution and living in squalor angle, it wasn’t as powerful because I didn’t feel like the main character wanted to make her life better. I felt like she had a defeatist attitude despite her longtime friend (who’s in the same situation as her) offering alternative ways of leading their lives. And since I didn’t feel that strength inside of her, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I was in the beginning. Although the film tried to tackle the issue of redemption with another girl that was about to sell her body for sex, it was so one-dimensional and I could see how it woulld turn out right from the moment that specific character was introduced. I did like, however, the scenes when Jacobs finally decided to see her parents again. However, her reaction to the whole thing angered me because I felt like she had this sense of entitlement–that nobody was supposed to move on despite her absence. I get that the movie was trying to comment on the connection between a child and her parents being no longer there but with such a dark material, the way it unfolded felt heavy-handed instead of natural. It’s as if Damian Harris, the writer and director, did not want anybody to experience a happiness that the lead character so rightfully deserved. “Gardens of the Night” certainly had potential but the second half could have used a little bit more work in terms of pacing and staying true to that poor little girl who was picked up by two strangers on her way home.