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.
Annie Hall (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Annie Hall,” written, directed and starring Woody Allen, is considered one of the best romantic comedies in film history even though the couple did not end up together in the end. Alvy (Allen) wanted to determine what went wrong in his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) so we were taken back in time and given the chance to observe the major and minor events in their journey. The film was undoubtedly quirky but its intelligence and insight about how it was like to be in a relationship was what took this film from greatness to being a pop icon classic. My favorite scenes were when Allen decided to use elements that could have disrupted the narrative. For instance, I had loads of fun with the split-screen when the director wanted to compare Annie’s WASP family to Alvy’s Jewish family during a meal. The former was reserved, everyone masticated with their mouths closed, and had perfect posture at the table. On the other hand, the latter, like my family, consisted of many overlapping voices, gossip became a source of entertainment, and all sorts of etiquette was thrown out the window. Allen’s willingness to take risks showed me that he was confident about his project and that’s a key ingredient to make a successful picture. I also admired the film’s many references to pop culture and literature and the energy that drove them forward. I did not live in the 70s nor do I read a lot of classic novels. I did understand more than half the jokes but when I did not, I did not feel dumb or left out. That was when the energy became essential because there were about ten jokes in under a minute so I didn’t have a chance to linger on the fact that I did not “get” something. Furthermore, I loved that the director injected various types of comedy in the material. Some of the comedy were slapstick (the lobster scene), anecdotes (when Alvy vividly described his childhood experiences), blunders (a Freudian slip by Annie), and even some repartee between the two leads in the bedroom and the issue of sex and gender roles were put under the spotlight. Alvy and Annie could have easily been caricatures in less capable direction. Instead, the protagonists had great depth. They surprised us because of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and actions, they kept us watching because they spoke of and did things we, one way or another, had thought of and done, and they moved us because it was like watching two good friends deciding to go their separate ways. Clever in its approach in which irony penetrated every scene, “Annie Hall” was not simply as ode to romance but also an absolute love for creative and inspired filmmaking.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.
Flirting with Disaster (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette star as a New Yorker couple with a five-month-old unnamed baby. Stiller’s character was adopted and he thought it would only be right to find his biological parents (Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin) before naming the baby despite disapproval by his neurotic and self-absorbed biological parents (Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal). So the couple headed for San Diego along with a psychology student (Téa Leoni) who wanted to document the expected warm reunion. It’s a shame this film had been forgotten or overlooked by most as a great comedy. I had such a great time watching it because every minute was laugh-out-loud funny, intelligent and had an element of surprise. All characters had a chance to shine under the spotlight and used to the fullest but they were never exploited. They were made fun of but the sense of humor was never mean-spirited. The filmmakers were obviously aware of the fact that the audiences will most likely see themselves in these characters so the material and execution treated them with respect. The jokes were spot-on and the movie seemed to never run out of them. When the movie ended, I found myself smiling and wishing that it wasn’t yet over. I highly enjoyed the addition of Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as an FBI couple who wanted a baby. Again, it was easy to target these specific characters due to their sexual orientation but the material did not succumb to stupidity or bigotry to generate cheap laughs that ended just as the next scene was introduced. I liked the scene when the characters were stuck in a confined car and the script acknowledged the fact that not all gay men were into anal sex. It may sound obvious reading it now but one would be surprised that not a lot of people are aware of that. Sure, there were stereotypes but it attempted to break the mold by allowing the characters to think and act like real people. Furthermore, the director had a great ear for dialogue. I thought it was true to life because I often noticed characters talking on top of one another. It certainly is like that in my family especially during the holidays when everyone seems to lose their minds. (Or maybe we’re just too happy.) Astutely written and directed by David O. Russell, “Flirting with Disaster” is a highly successful roadtrip picture. If I were to be stuck with a group of people, I wish to be with them because I related to their quirkiness, neuroticisms, and flaws. This sleeper hit makes movies like Jay Roach’s “Meet the Parents” look pedestrian because movies like that rely more on slapstick to generate laughs.
★★★ / ★★★★
A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.
Home Alone (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
The McCallister household was frantic a few days before Christmas because the entire family and a few relatives were about to head to France for vacation. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), one of the youngest of the kids, felt neglected because his siblings and cousins wouldn’t take the time to help him pack his luggage. Not even his parents could take a minute of their time to aid the plucky youngster. So, during dinner, Kevin acted out and was sent to sleep in the attic as punishment. The next day, everyone slept in and had forgotten they had a flight. As a result of their hustle and bustle, they boarded the plane to Europe completely unaware that Kevin wasn’t with them. “Home Alone,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, was a huge success commercially because it played upon one of a kid’s and a parent’s biggest fear (being alone at home while burglars tried to force themselves in and leaving behind a child, respectively). One of the many smart elements about the film was the fact that the two criminals (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) were kept outside of the house for the majority of the picture. Kevin was forced to create many creative and funny diversions to make the robbers believe that the house had people in it. Much to Kevin’s advantage, the two criminals were complete idiots. (Their modus operandi was leaving the water running in the sink after they’ve looted the place.) What made the film much better than a typical child-in-trouble story was Culkin’s energetic and hilarious performance. He was as cute as a marshmallow but he was precocious so he was able to pull off lines that adults might say. His facial expressions–may it be surprise, joy, or teary-eyed sadness were simply priceless. Surprisingly, I found the slapstick comedy thoroughly entertaining. It wasn’t done just because it was convenient. The slapstick was a result of Kevin using household items (and his toys) as a defense against men who wanted to hurt him. When someone slipped on the ice or when someone was hit on the head with an iron, I couldn’t help but wince as if I was the one in pain. But the whole experience was enjoyable because we didn’t want the villains to get their hands on our tiny but brave protagonist. What did not work for me as much was the creepy-looking neighbor (Roberts Blossom) who turned out to have a heart. The scene dedicated to exploring the man’s backstory (a typical one at that) slowed the story’s momentum. Nevertheless, “Home Alone” is a very charming film. More that twenty years have passed since its release, but it still holds up as one of the favorite family movies often played around Christmas. I cannot image anyone not being entertained by its sharp wit, heart, and manic energy.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.