Daydream Nation (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Caroline (Kat Dennings) and her father (Ted Whittall) moved from the city to the middle-of-nowhere suburbs and Caroline was far from happy about it. In order to feel some sort of excitement, she began to flirt with her English teacher, Barry (Josh Lucas), and the two began to share a sexual relationship. Thurston (Reece Thompson), a good kid with a nice family (led by Andie MacDowell as his mother) but stupid enough to hang around stoners, was hopelessly in love with Caroline. With a serial killer roaming the streets and dangerous chemicals began to take over the sleepy suburbs, Caroline had to choose which guy was right for her. Written and directed by Michael Goldbach, “Daydream Nation” tried to be edgy in tackling teenage angst but everything about it felt forced. For a supposedly smart character (she was in the gifted program), Caroline made decisions that no normal teenager would possibly make. Experimenting with sex and drugs was one thing but having an illicit affair with a teacher was a completely different breed of stupidity. She was the one who made the first move. The teacher, already a bit messed up in the head, obliged. Both of them were wrong. I understood Caroline wanted to feel some sort of excitement but couldn’t she have gone bungee jumping or skydiving instead? She was completely unlikable. Caroline reminded me of those girls in high school so desperate to be different that they were willing to hurt others for the sake of entertaining their delusions. She craved attention and she would go in whichever direction that offered her a bigger spotlight. The symbolisms were heavy-handed. For instance, a factory nearby expelled toxic smoke and the wind carried the chemicals to town. People were forced to use masks. The literal masks were supposed to show us that nobody really knew each other. That was probably the reason why the killer had been out and about for so long. I wish the picture had been more stripped down. I wanted to know more about Thurston and his friends. One of them had a seizure in class because his body could no longer deal with the drugs. They were so uninformed and addicted that they were stupid enough to take cleaning supplies from the kitchen and get high off them. That was far more realistic than some girl who wanted to have sex with her teacher just because she was bored. Lastly, the picture had some glaring inconsistencies. In the beginning, Caroline claimed that her father, in a span of a year, would eventually find out that he had cancer. A year had gone by and it was never mentioned again. “Daydream Nation” was cluttered, unfocused and depressing. There was not one teenager who was genuinely happy. Why is that? Its cynicism was bloated and pretentious.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Happiness,” wrriten and directed by Todd Solondz, is one of the snarkiest dark comedies I’ve seen about a very dysfunctional family and several people connected to them. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) thought she had a perfect life but was completely unaware that her husband (Dylan Baker) was lusting over little boys, Helen (Lara Fylnn Boyle) was a successful author yet she could not find contentment within herself and had to turn to a creepy caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with serious sexual dysfunctions in order to feel better, and Joy (Jane Adams) was a struggling musician/saleswoman/teacher who decided to sleep with one of her foreign students in hopes of finding true love. Meanwhile, their parents (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser) decided to separate. This film reminded me of a darker version of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” in terms of the amount of characters it had to put under the spotlight. However, I had more fun with this movie because, while it was not as elegant and subtle in establishing themes, it was quicker and sharper in pointing its fingers at both the audiences and the characters. “Happiness” puts life-in-suburbia movies like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” to shame because it is far less pretentious but funnier because it actively argues that all of the self-denial, sickening realizations, self-hatred were a part of human nature. While it does make fun of those attributes, there were sensitive moments when the characters felt real pain, such as when the father finally admitted to his eleven-year-old son that he molested other children, between the black comedy punchlines. I thought the movie was daring because it was not afraid to push the audiences into watching uncomfortable scenes, slapping us around a bit with tricky verbal masturbation, and making us look and endure through the characters’ decisions–the very same decisions we probably would have chosen ourselves if we were just as desperate and suffocated. Fans of over-the-top social satires will most likely find “Happiness” delectable although I am not quite certain they will be craving for more after two-and-half hours of misery, isolation, and even exploitation. Generally, I have a positive outlook of the world but I love movies that ooze of negative emotions and self-deprecating characters. I’m not sure if most people who share similar outlook will fully enjoy the movie because it is at times difficult to sit through given its many taboo subject matters (there’s also a twisted murder mystery which I wish the picture explored further). However, it cannot be denied that Solondz’ “Happiness” pushed the envelope beyond the laughs and hopelessness.
Far from Heaven (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” was set in the 1950s somewhere in the suburbs of Connecticut. Julianne Moore played a housewife who had to deal with two big problems: her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) affair with another man and the community’s distaste in relation to her friendship with an African-American (Dennis Haysbert). Moore played her character with some composure yet remain very complex which was reflected on how she acted when society was peering over her shoulder and when she was with someone who she truly trusted. For me, Moore carried this film all the way through and if I did not feel as connected with her, I probably would have been more unforgiving with this picture because it did at times borderline the Lifetime route. I loved the way the film highlighted the vibrant colors of the houses, the decorations and the clothing yet the script was about the hatred of one’s self and most of society’s passive agreement to inequality. I also loved the fact that even though Quaid was a homosexual struggling to come out of the closet, I didn’t sympathize with him because of the way he used his wife as a crutch time and again and dismissed his children when they enthusiastically greeted him from a long day’s work. There was something about him that I thought was just ugly and selfish. Despite his hardship, the way he treated others was uncalled for. Violas Davis played the housekeeper and I wished they used her more because she really made the best of the scenes she was in. There was something very warm about her and I wanted to get to know her character more. The same goes for Patricia Clarkson as Moore’s best friend and confidante. The element that prevented me from loving this picture was its inconsistent pacing. The first and last twenty minutes were fascinating but the story somewhat dragged on in the middle. Deep in the film, the moments I enjoyed most were when Moore and Quaid really showed their range in acting by arguing not in an in-your-face manner like in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” but in a quiet, almost maddeningly suffocating way to the point where you just wanted to scream for the characters. After all, it was the 1950s and everybody had this idea of perfection regarding how to be a “proper” family in the judging eyes of others, how to act like a “proper” wife, and how to act like a “proper” friend. Half-way through the film, I started realizing that I would never have survived in the 1950s because everything was just so repressed. That’s why I think this film ultimately succeeded: it managed to capture that era not just in terms of clothing and set design but, most importantly, the varying mindsets of its characters.
★ / ★★★★
Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren were two assassins and lovers assigned to kill a mobster’s wife (Vanessa Ferlito) but instead decided to run away and hide her because she just had a baby. Written by William Lipz and directed by Lee Daniels, I was excited to see “Shadowboxer” because I love the lead actors and the supporting actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Dorff, Mo’Nique, Macy Gray). Unfortunately, the movie fell flat the moment Gooding and Mirren arrived in suburbia. Instead of really exploring what made the characters tick, especially when the sexual tension between the couple was apparent, the movie settled on the question of when Dorff would finally catch up with his wife and the two hired assassins that failed to kill her. I also didn’t like the fact that there was no sense of urgency and tension to drive the story forward. The audiences were supposed to buy that the characters were conflicted about the path they’ve chosen but without really focusing on their respective backgrounds (in the least), it’s ultimately hard to care let alone root for them. For a movie that runs in under an hour and thirty minutes, it felt longer than that because it didn’t have enough meat in its bones for us to delve into. I read a review that says this is far from a movie designed for the mainstream. I thought that review got that part exactly right. However, I disagree when he or she made a point about this film being about the characters’ path to redemption. If this was about redemption, they would realize the errors of their ways and try to change or stop hurting and killing other people. I argue that none of the characters wanted to change. In fact, there was barely any change at all. The movie showed us the reality in its universe without having to let the characters realize the errors of their ways. On the other side of the spectrum, they claim that the movie was so bad that it was good. Let’s not pretend; this movie was a failure and a great disappointment mostly because of its writing. You can cast the best actors in the world but if the backstory and dialoge are flat throughout, there is no way that the film will be successful. Stay away from this one because it suffers a bad case of a lack of substance.
★ / ★★★★
“Lymelife” is about teenagers and adults in suburbia and their differing levels of unhappiness. I failed to enjoy this movie because I couldn’t find a connection with any of the characters. All of them were very damaged in some way and the tone was too depressing for its own good. There was not one well-adjusted character that could provide some sort of relief from all the drama and depression that the other characters were going through. Like typical melancholy stories about suburbia, everyone here was interconnected in some way. Alec Baldwin was cheating on his wife (Jill Hennessey) with Cynthia Nixon. Nixon’s husband (Timothy Hutton) was diagnosed with Lyme disease but was not unaware of the cheating that was going on. As for the young adults, Rory Culkin, Hennessy’s son, was in love with Emma Roberts, Nixon’s daughter, but the feeling was one-sided. Things got even more complicated when Kieran Culkin returned home from the army. I thought this movie was lazy when it came trying to figure out who the characters really were in their core. They were often one-dimensional which frustrated me so much because I felt like the actors could have done better with a stronger storytelling and script. I felt like the whole theme about hiding intentions was simply a set-up for the big argument near the end of the film with a lot of cussing and screaming. It really left a bitter taste in my mouth and in the end, I thought maybe all of the characters deserved to suffer because they were so afraid to break free from their own chains. There was one character I almost rooted for, which was Kieran Culkin’s, because even though he was abrasive and had a tortured soul, there was a certain self-restraint in his actions (especially in his key interactions with Baldwin) which suggested that he was not afraid to take control and avoid actions that might not have been worth it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the picture much. Writer and director Derick Martini should have added some sort of light on the journey toward leaving a dark period in these characters lives. Without that small glimmer of light, I often wonder why I’m watching something, which is almost always not a good thing because it means I’m not buying the situations being presented on screen. Some people might enjoy “Lymelife” if they find some sort of connection with the characters. Unfortunately for me, despite how long I waited, it never happened.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.
★★★ / ★★★★
I had a difficult time digesting this film because even though there are elements I liked about it (such as the quiet chaos that happens in suburbia that of which focuses on an Arab-American main character), I thought the sexual scenes are graphic, especially when Summer Bishil plays a thirteen-year-old girl. Yes, it’s honest in its portrayal of sexual predators, blooming sexualities, and wanting to escape a home full emotional suppression but it just felt wrong to me. But at the same, I feel like it’s necessary to make, show, and watch films like these because they function like a mirror to our deluded society. Most people like to believe this idea of middle schoolers retaining their innocence, but in reality, kids do have sex at a young age nowadays (The thirteen-year-old father comes to mind.). Films like “Towelhead” reminds us what we choose to ignore and (maybe) eventually forget. I also liked this film’s portrayal of Bishil’s sexuality. I know a lot of people will assume that her character is a bisexual or lesbian, but argue that she is not. In my opinion, she is aroused by looking at the magazines of naked women because it’s what she is not: a person who is free to do whatever she wants and looking like a model (despite being heavily Photoshopped). Moreover, since that magazine is the first thing that awoken her sexual curiosity, it’s only natural that she keeps going back to it. Subtle messages like that forces me to give this film a recommendation because it’s trying to get its audiences to dig under the surface. Other good performances include Peter Macdissi as Bishil’s strict father, Toni Collette as the kind-hearted pregnant neighbor, and Matt Letscher as Collette’s wordly husband. I really enjoyed Collette and Letscher’s characters because I found a certain light in them that I otherwise couldn’t find in the other characters (with the exception of Bishil). Most of the time, I love films that push the envelop but I found it hard to love this one; I admire it but I don’t quite love it because it made me feel sick and disgusted. That said, I think it’s a powerful film because it’s able to get a negative intuitive reaction from me–a trait that I haven’t encountered in a long time.