Great World of Sound (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin (Pat Healy) answered an ad for a small record company, known as Great World of Sound, and was hired to become a record producer. He loved his job because he was passionate about music and he believed in giving talented artists a chance to make it big in the music industry. He was paired up with Clarence (Kene Holliday) who was as equally enthusiastic to sign new artists. But the more time they spent in their new position, they began to feel a gnawing suspicion toward their superiors’ (John Baker and Michael Harding) true intentions. Astutely written by Craig Zobel and George Smith, “Great World of Sound” was a fiercely honest look at the relationship between people who wanted to turn their talent for music into fame and fortune and the so-called businesses designed to help get their names out in the world. The auditions that Martin and Clarence sat through in their motel rooms was like watching the audition week of “American Idol” only thrice the realism. It was funny because most of the artists were convinced they were really good when they actually weren’t; it was touching because a handful of them came from extraordinarily difficult backgrounds; and it was sad because the prospective musicians were being tricked into paying money (for a “producing fee”) for a dream that could never be attained through this specific path. Despite the fact that we spent only a minute, sometimes less, with the artists, we couldn’t help but care for them in some way. I loved the fact that the artists looked like people one could see walking down the street in any small town or city. With Zobel’s confident direction, we could feel the artists’ desperation for wanting to get discovered and finally making it big. Martin and Clarence were complex characters, not necessarily worth rooting for because, initially and unbeknownst to them, it was their job to steal from people, but because we wanted them to do the right thing. We weren’t always sure if they were going to. Martin was a dreamer. He loved the idea of his job but actually doing it was an entirely alien sphere. With each “like” between words and awkward random pauses, we could feel that he was uncomfortable with his job. But he felt that he needed to stick with it because he and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader), also an artist, had bills to pay. Financial issues also plagued Clarence because had children to support. His speech about fairness and doing what was right was inspired, true, and heartbreaking. In a span of a minute, he revealed who he was and how he became such a fighter. “Great World of Sound” was a splendid independent film. It was successful in establishing an argument about the American Dream simply being a carrot dangled in front of us, forever out of reach.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Nowhere Boy,” directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, chronicled John Lennon’s difficult childhood. John (Aaron Johnson) was raised by his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle (David Threlfall). Even though he was never close to his aunt because she had a very cold personality, he had a good relationship with his uncle because they shared the same interests. But when his uncle died, John was forced to live with a woman who expected him to abide by her rules without question. After seeing his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) at his uncle’s burial, John began to question where her mother lived, which happened to be within walking distance, and the two got to know each other to make up for the years she’d been absent from his life. This caused great tension between John’s biological mother and the mother who raised him. The film had an interesting second half but a heavy, repetitive first half. The first forty minutes felt like pulling teeth because it shifted from the feelings of frustration and resentment John felt while staying in his aunt’s house to the joy and freedom he felt while spending time with her mother and making music. He saw his aunt as a thorn on his side because she wanted him to stay and school and do well. They barely said a word to each other unless they had no choice but to confront a serious issue. On the other hand, he saw his mother as a gift because she couldn’t care less about his education as long as she spent time with her son. She nurtured his passion for music. The difference between the two households felt so obvious. I had some serious doubts about how much of it was based on actuality. The picture only started to take off when John finally met Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and both began to hone their talents while being in a band called The Quarrymen. Even though their friendship wasn’t as deeply explored as much as I expected, their relationship didn’t feel strained. When the focus was on them, the tone felt more dynamic because the actors fed off each other’s energy. The scenes I found most effective were when the band played their rock ‘n’ roll and their audiences couldn’t help but get on their feet and when John and Paul were just in a room together. But since the film was more about John’s troubled childhood, it had to switch back to the tired family drama. In the end, some big questions I had, such as John’s relationship with his biological father when he was a child, were left unanswered. Why did the five-year-old John choose to stay with his father over his mother? Was John’s biological mother’s illness some sort of a mood disorder and was she a danger to herself? As for John’s aunt and uncle, why did they seem to distant from one another? Those were important questions that should have been answered because John’s relationship with his family fueled his angst and it was what made him an artist with a distinct voice and perspective.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard about Justin Bieber in 2009, on YouTube, and thought he was some eleven-year-old kid who could sing really well. After a couple of months, he became an international sensation thanks to rabid pre-teen and teenage girls. Directed by John Chu, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” documented the events that led up to Bieber’s performance in the coveted Madison Square Garden. Performing on that stage in a sold-out show established the peak of his career. The film started off strong because it gave me information I didn’t already know. It showed us personal videos before he was discovered by Scooter Braun. As a kid, he had a natural talent for playing drums, guitar, and he could sing songs from various genres with relative ease. There were also some interesting moments when Bieber revisited places in his hometown where he used to perform to get noticed. Where he used to play guitar now stood a little girl playing violin. We learned that he was very close with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, and he was just like a regular kid when he returned home. However, the documentary lost its fast-paced energy as the performance in Madison Square Garden got closer. A stand-out scene was when the film actually showed us the famous Bieber hair flip in slow motion. It was cheeky and I was glad the material wasn’t above that because the hair, arguably, was one of the reasons why the pop star reached superstardom. While the picture cited some of his struggles like contracting an infection in his throat, I didn’t understand why the director failed to isolate his subject and interview him. Instead, the adults around him did the talking. It was obvious that they were hardworking people and they cared about the business but I wanted to hear what Justin had to say. The adults spoke of having a plethora of record labels refusing to be in business with Bieber but the more interesting information was how Justin felt at the time. After traveling across the country which led to so many dead-ends, did he feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed? We didn’t know. The documentary was supposed to be about Bieber so I found it strange and somewhat maddening that he was never asked questions about how he felt, for instance, about having to do over a hundred shows per year and rarely taking a break. He claimed he wanted to make it to every single show. If he was a robot, I would believe him. Instead, I had a sneaky suspicion there was something more to his story. When he was given a chance to speak, it was always somewhere along the lines of, “Go after your dreams!” I just couldn’t help but feel restless. Perhaps the managers were concerned about Bieber saying something he would regret later on. But, in my opinion, if they did have such reservations, why make the movie at all? The most likely answer is money. I’m afraid Beliebers would see this film and retain the idea that celebrity happens overnight. I enjoyed the first forty-five minutes but the rest felt too idealistic, too superficial.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Jacques Audiard posed a classic nature versus nurture question about a man in his late twenties (Romain Duris) who wanted to remove himself from a life of crime and to recapture his talent in playing the piano. His time was torn on two fronts: his father (Niels Arestrup) who made dishonest real-estate deals and his piano lessons with a recent immigrant (Linh Dan Pham) who taught him discipline and how to relax. This film had an exceptional use of tone. The push-and-pull forces that the character experienced were often reflected by the music that we heard (electro versus classical) and the images we saw (indoors versus outdoors, night versus day, order versus chaos). Since the film spent equal time between each forces, I understood the character’s anger because nobody believed in him. When he would tell someone of his extracurricular activities, the person would imply that he was too old and he was no longer a talented pianist that he once was. Naturally, his anger was fueled and so did his need to prove that he was good enough. I immediately related with the things he went through so I knew that his biggest enemy was ultimately himself. Since he never received approval from his distant father who only contacted him for favors, he tried to look for approval from other people which involved him sleeping with other women (Mélanie Laurent, Aure Atika) and moving on just as quickly. The reviews I encountered made a point about the movie not really going anywhere and the ideas were much larger than the final product. I disagree because Tom’s journey wasn’t about but life-changing revelations provided by those who surrounded him. Although he tried to look for answers by looking at others, the ultimate lesson was looking inwards and realizing that he had to love himself whether he still had the talent or otherwise. I thought the film was thoughtful about its arguments without spoon-feeding its audiences critical information and had a quiet power that moved me the more I thought about it afterwards. “De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté” or “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” could have easily been an obvious story of a man wanting redemption. Instead, it chose the more intelligent and sensitive path by allowing us to feel for, although not necessarily pity, the tortured protagonist. The film was also successful at asking us about our own lost potential.
Little Ashes (2008)
★ / ★★★★
“Little Ashes,” written by Philippa Goslett and directed by Paul Morrison, stars Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí, a tortured artist who is not afraid to express his political beliefs yet he tries so hard to resist the sexual attraction between him and a poet named Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán). From the synopses I read, I got the impression that this film was primarily about Dalí and his work as an artist and the romance was seconday. I was taken aback because it was really more about the romance between a poet and an artist and barely any of Dalí’s work was shown on screen. What’s even stranger is the fact that Beltrán is in front of the camera more than Pattinson. I do have to say, however, was I bought Beltrán’s performance more than Pattinson because the former had strength in his eyes even though he looked sad, confused, shocked or insecure. With the latter, it was the same note despite the emotion and the drastic physical changes. (Still stuck in “Twilight” phase, perhaps?) His look was intense but with such a complicated and volatile character he tried to tackle, he should have delivered more color and vigor. Another problem for me was their lack of chemistry. Maybe it was the writing or direction but I didn’t understand how someone like Lorca could fall for someone like Dalí. Yes, they both had talent but the way they interacted seemed forced and sometimes quite awkward. There were times when I just felt uncomfortable. Story-wise, it took me a while to get into it but I eventually did. However, it wasn’t particularly strong; in fact, it felt quite empty considering the fact that the two lead characters were so rich in personality and the political backdrop was fascinating. Maybe it tried too hard to appeal to younger audiences, especially younger girls, so that’s why it wasn’t deep or insightful enough. I could only withstand so many hidden kisses and flirtations. “Little Ashes” desperately needed a force to push it forward so that the audiences could feel something. Unfortunately, it was lazy and I felt like my two hours was wasted. With a stronger, more focused writing and a more versatile leading actor, maybe this movie would have worked. I say don’t waste your two hours unless you’re a die-hard Robert Pattinson fan.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Students with talent when it comes to acting, singing, dancing and playing music were accepted in New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts and those who lack such talents were rejected. The very intense audition process was only the first scene and it really showed me that “Fame,” directed by Alan Parker, was going to be a very different musical compared to the ones that have been released in the 2000s. Throughout the film, it had a certain seriousness to it. It started off showcasing naive characters who want to “make it big” but as years went on, some of them made it while the others’ dreams were crushed because they either succumbed to the pressure or they simply didn’t have that extra “thing” to make them stand out. Some of the students that the film focused on were Irene Cara (who wanted to be a singer), Maureen Teefy (who wanted to act), Barry Miller (who wanted to follow Freddie Prinze’ footsteps), and Lee Curreri (who wanted to make and play music that was different and progressive). Throughout the film’s 130-minute running time, the spotlight was eventually under each of their respective struggles and we get some ideas on what made them the way they were. I also liked the fact that none of the actors looked like typical actors or had features that most would deem “beautiful.” In fact, all of them looked kind of geeky or nerdy so that spice of realism really helped the picture to become more than another forgettable musical. As four years went by, the characters matured (while some were fixated) in both overt and subtle ways and their problems had more gravity. Granted, the pacing became a little slow (and somewhat depressing) toward the end but I was more than willing to forgive that flaw because there were a plethora of memorable scenes and fun dance sequences. I wish that Cara had more scenes, however, because I really did love her songs. I wished that the film showed more of what personal events and experiences inspired her to write. This movie’s remake is to be released this year (2009) and I can only hope that it is able to retain some edginess and realism that this one had. I also hope that the remake would not lose sight on this picture’s theses–that talent is a good template but far from enough to be successful; and those who attain fame are not necessarily safe because it’s a constant challenge to rise above the pressures. The movie’s ability to take the audiences back to the 1970s was a bonus.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, this animated film showcases a charming tale of a girl named Shizuku (Youko Honna) and her passion for writing. I liked the fact that as the picture went on, we got to see how the lead character evolved from a girl who spent most of her time reading books (and not studying for her high school entrance exams) to a girl who wanted to do something with her talents so decided to pursue writing a book. Of course, side stories were expected such as her relationship with her best friend, the boy from the same grade who likes her, and the mysterious guy who checks out the same books as her named Seiji Amasawa (Kazuo Takahashi). I also enjoyed watching another layer to the story by showing us the dynamics in her home–an overbearing sister, a literary father, and a mother who is going to school–because it explains why Shizuku is such a self-starter, naturally curious regarding her surroundings, and has a natural taste for adventure. Since it was written by Miyazaki, I have to admit that I thought there was going to be more fantastic elements to the story. There were some of that, such as the strange coincidences and when the audiences had a chance to see what the lead character was imagining. But I was glad that this was grounded in reality and it really showed how it was like to make that transition from being a child to being an adolescent. Questions such as what she wanted to do in her life began popping up in her head when she met Seiji, who knows exactly wanted to do with his life. I admired her persistence in turning her insecurities into achievements. There were definitely times when I was inspired. My one problem with it, however, was it did, in fact, run a little too long. Perhaps if twenty minutes were cut off, it would have been much more focused and powerful. Regardless, I am giving this a recommendation because it made me think about where I am in life. It was sweet but not sugary; though it had its sad moments, it was never melodramatic.
Step Up 2 the Streets (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Jon Chu directs the sequel for “Step Up” and I must say that although the dancing was much more incredible than the first, the story did not quite hold up. Briana Evigan decides to audition to attend Maryland School of the Arts with the help of Channing Tatum (a more than welcome return). In the school, she meets a geeky kid (Adam G. Sevani) who has a passion for dancing but decides not to pursue it because he doesn’t think he’s good enough and an all-star charming guy (Robert Hoffman) who’s sick of the school’s way of structuring/limiting certain styles of dancing. Evigan and Hoffman team up and gather outcasts who have a talent for dancing in order to compete in The Streets, an underground hip-hop battle of dance. Aside from the first scene when Tatum reprises his role to pass the torch (and for the audiences to find out what happened to him after the first film) and the final dance scene in the rain, the rest of it was pretty weak. The dialogue was laughable because even though it makes fun of pop culture such as “The Hills” and the “High School Musical” franchise, they resort to the same type of drama that defined such references. So, in a way, the sequel’s jokes worked against itself. Other than the two leads, we didn’t really get to know who the outcasts were outside of their stereotypes. Although they might have said one funny line or two, they were still one-dimensional. I almost wished that the picture could have focused more on the relationship between Evigan and the strict dance professor who wanted to mold her talents (Will Kemp). I felt like there could have been a two-way street connection between the two to highlight the fact that there are teachers out there who truly care for their students. That would have been a much better film because such an issue is concrete and universally relevant. The bit about the rivalry between groups felt too forced at times. Still, if one is in the mood to see impressive dancing, then by all means, see it. If one cares more about the story, I suggest to watch its predecessor instead.