Lean on Pete (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although the plot involves a fifteen-year-old boy deciding to rescue the titular racehorse from being put down because it is no longer deemed profitable by its owner (Steve Buscemi), it is not what the movie is about. It is about a young person without an anchor, without a home, and little hope for the future. The horse, I think, is a metaphor for his willingness to fight and take his life toward a direction that makes sense—even if the road required to get there may not make a whole lot of sense to us. I found it achingly beautiful, poetic, and moving.
“Lean on Pete” is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin—and it shows. Notice that nearly every single adult Charley (Charlie Plummer—perfect for the role) knows or comes across has been chewed up and spit out by life, from his own father (Travis Fimmel) who pays more attention to wooing women than ensuring the well-being of his son, a female jockey (Chloë Sevigny) who has had her share of broken bones but cannot seem to care deeply about the horses she rides, to the pair of young soldiers (Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain) who just returned from the Middle East. A humanist writer-director, Andrew Haigh underscores the loneliness and sadness that these characters attempt to cover up. So even when someone makes a cruel decision, we do not hate them for it. It can be interpreted that their actions are based upon what life has taught them.
And then we look at Charley—quiet, hardworking, smart, and not yet hardened by life despite the near poverty of his household. We suspect what might be in store for him, the challenges he will face once he takes the horse in the truck and drives to nowhere. Particularly impressive is how the second half rests on Plummer’s shoulders and there is not a moment that rings false. It is interesting how the writer-director keeps sentimentality at bay, often choosing to highlight the boy’s inner fire, his ability to push through even when he must sacrifice a bit of his innocence just so he can take one more step toward his destination, than the tough circumstances that plague his journey. Lesser filmmakers may likely have opted for tear-jerker moments.
I read somewhere that the movie is not for children—which surprised and frustrated me. I cannot disagree more; it is exactly the kind of movie, I think, that children will connect with, especially because they will have questions. But the questions, I think, will not be about plot points but why certain things are happening, why there is death, why children are neglected or abandoned by their parents. These are tough questions. I believe that those who think that the movie is not for kids are people who are not ready to face and answer the challenging questions for someone else. We often underestimate what children can process.
“Lean on Pete” is a story of a boy who does not have a home. He looks to the people around him: his father, a horse trainer, a jockey; to the gentle animal considered to be old and useless; to the strangers capable of both kindness and inhumanity. They offer no home. He even looks inside himself and finds nothing still. And so he forges on, looking to the past to see if remnants of comfort remain. As the minutes trickle away, we look at Charley, desperately hoping he’ll be all right somehow even if he doesn’t find what he’s looking for.
Parting Glances (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert (John Bolger) is set to live in Africa for two years due to a work-related assignment. His boyfriend, Michael (Richard Ganuong), is not exactly happy with the upcoming change especially since it means Robert will not be present when Nick (Steve Buscemi), Michael’s best friend whom he also happens to have romantic feelings toward, inevitably goes through the late stages of AIDS.
“Parting Glances,” written and directed by Bill Sherwood, is neither a cheap LGBTQ picture where the dramatic elements function on a level of soap opera nor is it a comedy where the jokes have easy targets and the situations can happen only in fantasyland. Instead, it finds a pulse that rings true: the fear of losing a friend.
Dropping into the lives of gay men in New York City, the film is not interested in clean introductions and proper resolutions. It goes where Michael goes—the apartment Michael and Robert share, a dinner with Robert’s boss (Patrick Tull), a goodbye party thrown by Joan (Kathy Kinney), Nick’s depressing apartment—and we are there with him as he engages in conversations with people with something or nothing at all to say. When the camera stops moving and there is little noise in the background, Michael—and the audience—is reminded of the sadness and frustration he tries to keep at bay.
The picture could have had an unnecessary subplot but the writer-director is one step ahead of our expectations. Although a character named Peter (Adam Nathan), a college student who works at the record store that Michael frequents, is introduced and on screen for a good amount of time, there is not one scene where he is forced into the plot. He suggests to Michael that they ought to go out on a date, but he gets brushed off on more than one occasion. Peter is not told why but what matters is we know the reason.
Buscemi does not play his AIDS-infected character as a pathetic, wilting figure. He makes a fresh choice by not showing Nick as physically sick. Remove the dialogue and it is highly unlikely one can guess he is living with a fatal disease. By playing the character like a healthy person—having us see him full of life—it underlines what will soon be taken away.
The story touched me because the images reminded me of a friend who was taken too soon. In a way, I saw myself through Michael because he gets to do things I wish I had done. He gets to embrace his friend tightly. He expresses how much he loves Nick and how much he will miss their friendship.
Saint John of Las Vegas (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
John (Steve Buscemi) is a Las Vegan who has run out of luck. This is not ideal because he happens to have a gambling addiction. So, he moves to Albuquerque, New Mexico and gets a job at an insurance company. Hoping for a raise, he comes into work looking dapper and speaks to his boss (Peter Dinklage). But instead of giving John a raise, Mr. Townsend assigns him on a case with Virgil (Romany Malco), an insurance fraud investigator. It is believed that a wheelchair-bound stripper, Tasty D Lite (Emmanuelle Chriqui), has made false claims about a car accident.
Having cast performers who are game to deliver the funny, “Saint John of Las Vegas,” loosely based on “Inferno” by Dante Alighieri, does not possess the requisite wit, meat, and energy to allow the actors to actually do something with the material. For the most part, I found it mostly tolerable and only peppered with occasional high points. I was drawn into the way Buscemi tries to do so much with so very little.
One of the film’s quirks is the revolving door of quirky characters. From John’s neighboring cubicle buddy and romantic interest, Jill (Sarah Silverman), to a man in a carnival whose suit happens to spontaneously combust every ten seconds or so (John Cho), each one, in theory, has the potential to put a stamp on John and Virgil’s bizarre road trip. Instead, once the duo meets a colorful individual, there is a lack of emotional variety between their interactions. The exchanges are mostly toned down with John and Virgil skirting along whatever it is they are there for. It begins to feel repetitive after a while.
The best scenes showcase John’s crippling addiction to gambling. It is a serious matter but it is played mostly for laughs. The first scene is particularly memorable. John going up to a gas station employee and eventually telling her that he wishes to buy a thousand dollars worth of Instant Jackpot Madness tickets is both hilarious and curious. Initially, I thought he was joking. I probably would have reacted the same way as the employee. But as the scene is allowed to unwind, we learn that he is dead serious. We look at him a little closer. I noticed the grime on his face and shirt.
Final shots tend to (or should) leave a lasting impression. By shirking from what needs to be shown, it fails to deliver a potentially high level of irony, the biggest kick to the stomach, the final nail on the coffin. Instead, we are subjected to the protagonist admitting to us what he has learned during the past couple of days. What a bore.
Buscemi has such a magnetic uniqueness about him that I was never exasperated with “Saint John of Las Vegas,” based on the screenplay and directed by Hue Rhodes. No, not even with the odd and misplaced dream sequences. And I usually hate it when the ol’ reliable dream sequences, especially when a six-year-old can interpret them with ease, do not work. I just hoped that Buscemi got paid a good sum for this well-intentioned but mediocre project.
★★ / ★★★★
Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has been a cop for twenty-four years. The Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department is currently under investigation due to people’s complaints of police brutality, planting evidence, and other unethical behaviors when Dave is caught on film severely beating a Mexican after the two had been in a car accident. Suddenly, the cop finds that all eyes are on him and the dirty laundry of his past, including a possible murder of an alleged serial rapist, is under a magnifying glass.
“Rampart,” written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman, is not complete character study but it benefits greatly from Harrelson’s performance. As a corrupt cop set on going down a self-destructive path, it is a challenge to identify with Dave but the contradictions that Harrelson brings to light made me wonder if there is some kind of hope for the man. Even though I suspected that he probably will not change over the course of the picture, I wished that he would for the sake of those he cares about and those who cares for him.
As Dave meets with various figures in the police department (Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Robert Wisdom), we learn a little bit more about him—that beneath the sarcasm and seeming lack of remorse, he is a stubborn but very eloquent man. When he is offered to issue a public apology about the recorded incident and retire early, he refuses because it is important for him to remain a cop or, more importantly, to be in a position of power.
Though the film has spots where the tone and pacing are off, it remains interesting on some level because even though Dave is a bigot, a racist, and a sexist, he is not without humanity. His relationship with his daughters (Brie Larson, Sammy Boyarsky) are nicely executed. The pain in the disconnection of the kinship is always at the forefront. Although Dave is always on the attack whenever he interacts with fellow adults, it is refreshing to see him on the defense when his children are watching. He is convinced that if he is caught doing the wrong thing, he will lose them forever. But they already know that he is not a perfect man. He is not even a good father to them; the girls are always in fear whenever he is near.
As the picture goes on, however, it does two things: it begins to recycle its basic ideas and it is unable to find alternative routes when it encounters dead ends. Since we eventually have a complete impression of Dave’s personality and what great lengths he will go to endure the controversy and be a cop on the prowl again, it is only natural that we come to expect what is next. Unfortunately, the screenplay offers nothing. A third act is not there.
Despite its initial promise, “Rampart.” directed by Oren Moverman, ends up being a big disappointment. Although an interesting character study, the important dramatic arc—the answer to “So what?”—is absent. As the screen fades to black, I was left with furrowed brows.
Messenger, The (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a newly recognized war hero, was assigned to the Casualty Notification division with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a man who adhered without fail to the rules of telling the next of kin that their loved one had died or went missing in the war. Directed by Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” had proven that movies about the Iraq war can still be relevant and moving without having to be condescending or syrupy. I’m used to watching Foster and Harrelson playing characters who are volatile and larger-than-life so it was nice to see them playing characters who are masters when it came to internalization. Even though they didn’t always vocalize the things that bothered them about the war or the way they saw the civilian world after serving overseas, I felt their pain and anger. In small ways, they managed to tell their stories without sacrificing complexity. With each visitation of the next of kin, I loved that the family members had different responses so Will and Tony had to constantly adapt, sometimes finding themselves out of their depths. Prior to the film, I thought that the scenes that would impact me most emotionally were the ones when the family members (Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta) would break down externally via screaming, yelling or being violent to themselves and others. Surprisingly, the ones that really got to me were the characters (Samantha Morton) who were obviously sad about the news yet they were almost gracious that Will and Tony found courage from within themselves to deliver the difficult news. The anticipation of family member members’ reactions were without a doubt even more compelling than films about the Iraq war plaqued with gratuitous explosions and typical dialogues. Lastly, the heart of “The Messenger” was the bond between Tony and Will. They seemed to not get along at first but it was always apparent that they respected each other. But after being around each other, the two slowly opened up which led up to the key scene when Will explained why he didn’t consider himself a hero. That scene would most likely have failed with a less intelligent script but I liked the way Moverman used silence and let his audiences absorb every word, pause, and sigh that Will expressed while telling his very personal story. There was also another brilliant scene applied with the same technique when Morton’s character talked about opening her closet one day and her husband’s shirt fell on the floor. “The Messenger” was engaging every step of the way because it went beyond being a traditional war movie. I didn’t feel emotionally cheated because it respected us, its characters, and our troops. It knew that it didn’t need to be political; it just needed to be honest.
Youth in Revolt (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) was obsessed with losing his virginity to the point where his id, appropriately named Francois Dillinger (also Cera), pitied Nick and decided to take matters into his own hands. Nick, his mom (Jean Smart), and her boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) decided to temporarily move away in order to escape angry sailors who wanted their money back. Convinced that he would not have a good time during his mini-vacation, Nick was surprised when he met Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a girl who had substance and had similar interests as him such as foreign films and music. “Youth in Revolt,” based on the novel by C.D. Payne and directed by Miguel Arteta, was one of those films I decided not to see after watching the trailer for the first time because it just did not make any sense. From the trailers, I somehow got the impression that Francois was some sort of an evil twin. I’m glad I decided to give this movie a chance because it actually entertaining and the characters, though not fully explored and some were more like caricatures, exhibited intelligence unlike most teen flicks about losing one’s virginity (Sean Anders’ “Sex Drive” immediately comes to mind). The strongest part of the picture for me was the first twenty minutes prior to the appearance of Francois. Though I did somewhat enjoy the conceit regarding the alter ego, there was something very refreshing about the unpretentiousness of two lonely souls meeting and sharing something special, which may or may not be love. Cera and Doubleday did have chemistry but the picture did not rely on that initial and lasting spark. The material bothered to show more tender moments between the couple and I felt like I connected with them even though it was instantaneous. The rest of the picture, on the other hand, was not as strong. It used Cera’s very awkward mannerisms as a crutch instead of using his acting skills as a base to present terrific material that was focused but unpredictable, funny yet sensitive in its core. Although the film did have its darkly comic moments, it was too obvious with its comedy such as Justin Long drugging everyone in his path and Jonathan B. Wright, as much as I love him, finding ways to make Nick’s life unbearable. It was too safe and safe, in this case, was boring. The only side character I thought had potential was Nick’s dad played by Steve Buscemi. I wanted to know more about him and I wished he and Nick had more scenes together because I saw the son’s qualities in his father. If “Youth in Revolt” had a lot more edge and darkness, it would have been a much more memorable film. Although a part of it was slightly different than Cera’s other roles, the majority of it was more of the same.
Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.
Big Lebowski, The (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I usually don’t like screwball comedies because the characters are stupid without any sort of redeeming qualities, the jokes are rude and sometimes mean-spirited, the story has no idea where to go, and I quickly get bored watching them because they fail to get me to think. Strangely enough, I enjoyed “The Big Lebowski,” written and directed by the Coen brothers, because of such qualities except for the fact that it is far from mean-spirited. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude, whose real name was Jeffrey Lebowski, a guy who was mistaken by two miscreants as the millionaire Lebowski. Since the two didn’t get what they wanted from The Dude, one of them decided to pee on his carpet. What started off as a story about a slacker who wanted compensation for his carpet ended up being about a lot of things: a kidnapped woman (Tara Reid), an artist who had intentions of her own (Julianne Moore), nihilists who craved money, and the dynamics among bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman). All of such disparate elements came to together in a way that didn’t necessarily make sense–in fact, sometimes I had no idea what was going on–but it was very funny because each character was driven by well-defined motivations (no matter how strange they might have been). I did not expect this kind of movie from the Coen brothers because I’m more familiar with their thrillers (“No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Simple”) and dark comedies (“Intolerable Cruelty,” “Fargo”), but after watching the film I was glad that I got a taste of their lighter side. The only real complaint I had with this picture was it had no reason to run for almost two hours long. Somewhere after the half-way point, I began to wonder when it was going to be over because at that point it still did not try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The characters were still too busy running around like children and it made me restless. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I still enjoyed watching this movie because of the characters’ funny fixations and interesting mistaken identities. And considering I detest stoner comedies, I think it’s a solid accomplishment.
Monster House (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rewatching this animated film three years later since it came out in 2006, I still think it’s pretty scary for children. Directed by Gil Kenan, “Monster House” is about three teenagers–sarcastic DJ (Mitchel Musso), portly but hilarious Chowder (Sam Lerner) and precocious Jenny (Spencer Locke)–who learn that the house in front of DJ’s home is alive as it starts taking inside it whatever and whoever it thinks to be trespassing (intentionally or unintentionally). So the three form a plan to finally put the evil house to rest. And who says that defeating a scary living house is an easy feat? What I love about this animated flick is that whenever I watch it, I’m instantly reminded of my childhood. When we were kids, my cousins and I had several adventures while pretending to enter a haunted abandoned house just like the characters did here. The dialogue between the three leads reminded me of those teen movies in the 1980’s (and the fact that the parents are barely on screen), while the soundtrack reminded me of the “Goosebumps” and “Tales from the Crypt” television series. Everything about it just brought me back and I guess that’s the main reason why I instantly fell in love with it the first time. I mentioned that I think this is somewhat scary for children. If the premise of the film that plays on the archetype regarding scary houses next door and the creepy people that live in them is not enough, it also has scenes of the house’ shadows being able to transform into anything as it visits a child’s bedroom, a dungeon-like basement with a shrine that reminded me of those indie creepy serial killer movies when the killer preserves his victims, and more. I’m torn because, at the same time, I’m very impressed with its creativity and willingness to not baby the childreen too much just in case they might get bored. Also, there were jokes about the teens, especially Chowder, not reaching certain developmental levels proposed by some theorists in psychology and I found them to be really funny. Other voices worth noting that added an extra spice to the film are Maggie Gyllenhaal as the babysitter, Jason Lee as the babysitter’s friend/boyfriend, Kevin James and Nick Cannon as the two police officers, Jon Heder as the videogame freak, and Steve Buscemi as the creepy neighbor. “Monster House” is a strong animated movie that should have been seen by more people when it was released. Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers and I did notice some of his signature styles of storytelling. Even though it can get a bit scary, I’ll still show this movie to my future kids.
★★ / ★★★★
“Delirious,” written and directed by Tom DiCillo, is a satire about paparazzis, tabloids and celebrities. Although it had a certain bite from time to time, it lost its way somewhere in the middle only to find its core once again toward the end. I really enjoyed watching Steve Buscemi as a photographer who wants to prove to everybody that he’s the best as what he does. There was a brilliant scene when he visited his parents’ house and neither the mom nor the dad approved of his job. Although Buscemi is convinced that what he does is art, that void inside him is never really filled because he always wants somebody (regardless of their overall importance) to tell him that he’s doing a great job. When no one feeds his ego, he goes off on rather amusing temper tantrums yet still retain a certain sadness to his situation. I also really liked Michael Pitt as an initially homeless aspiring actor who Buscemi takes under his wing and eventually rises to superstardom. Even though he eventually gains a status among celebrities and the media, he remains true to himself and that was nice to see. In most movies, characters like him get corrupted so it’s refreshing to see that change. As tension rises between Buscemi and Pitt, (Buscemi’s character declares that Pitt’s character is ungrateful for all the things he’s done when Pitt was homeless–completely unaware to the fact that he’s been nothing but a jerk/parasite) themes such as jealousy, envy, self-reflection and companionship are explored in meaningful ways. My problem with this picture is that a scene is either really good and focused or it’s really irrelevant to the overall scope of what it’s trying to satirize. If DiCillo had tweaked the middle portion a bit more (such as minimizing the “love” aspect between Pitt and Alison Lohman which felt superficial at most), this would’ve easily been a solid film. Still, this is an interesting movie with funny cameos and interesting subject matter. It’s not that I didn’t like it–I just think that it could’ve been a lot stronger with its smart script and talented actors.
★★ / ★★★★
I really got my hopes up after watching this animated flick’s trailer for the first time but after actually seeing the movie, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Igor (John Cusack) wants to be more than a deformed lowly assistant so he figures that he can get the recognition he deserves by creating an evil monster for the Evil Science Fair. Instead, Igor ends up creating a harmless monster who was eventually brainwashed to be an aspiring actress (voiced by the lovely Molly Shannon). The conflict comes in when Dr. Schadenfreude (Eddie Izzard) decides to steal Igor’s invention and pass it as his own in order to be the king of Malaria. One of the many problems that this film has is its many references to “Frankenstein.” Since the filmmakers’ audiences are children, I don’t think they will be able to fully appreciate the references because most of them probably haven’t read the novel or seen any “Frankenstein” films. Sure, the obvious slapstick and winking at the camera are present but those elements won’t satisfy astute adults who want to experience something more rewarding like in “WALL-E” and “Ratatouille.” Another problem I had with the film is the way the story unfolded. I think it spent too much of its time preaching the importance of choosing good over evil (especially toward the end). Actions speak louder than words and the filmmakers could’ve been more efficient by showing the audiences why choosing good is better than evil instead of making big, somewhat meaningless (and cliché) speeches. My favorite part of the film was its most sensitive: when the monster decides to give Igor, Brain (Sean Hayes) and Scamper (Steve Buscemi) gifts. Scenes like that made me not dislike this animated movie as much. Another negative is that sometimes Brain and Scamper outshined Igor. Those two are way too hyper and loud which made them more interesting than the lead character. I did like the syle of animation because it reminded me of “Corpse Bride” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” However, it goes to show that without strong writing, colorful animation can only entertain so much.