★★ / ★★★★
“Panic,” written and directed by Henry Bromell, is a commendable hybrid of dark comedy and drama, but it falls short of becoming a truly memorable character study of a man named Alex (William H. Macy) who wishes to leave the business of contract killing. Due to certain subplots not being fully explored or ironed out, the final result is only somewhat satisfying though increasingly hollow the longer one ponders about the work in its entirety.
A subplot that works is Alex’ relationship with his parents (Donald Sutherland, Barbara Bain), the two of them being the ones responsible for getting their son into the business. In small doses, we observe Michael and Deidre’s dark sides manifesting to the surface—often surprising because the jolts are almost always triggered by something relatively small. Look closely during the scene where Alex’s son (David Dorfman) is brought over to his grandparents’ home a couple of days after his birthday. A happy occasion like opening presents is turned into a tension-filled tiptoeing on glass.
On the other hand, an example of a subplot that leaves a lot to be desired involves Alex contemplating to have an affair with a woman (Neve Campbell) who is half his age. Though the writing is able hit a few fresh notes in portraying emotional versus physical affair, I never believed that Campbell’s character, as open-minded and as conflicted as she is, would ever be interested in Macy’s character, not even a remote level of friendship. Toward the end, I felt as though perhaps Campbell was miscast, especially during a would-be emotional scene where Alex finally tries to go after what he wants. She appears as though she is acting rather than feeling the moment and reacting to it naturally.
Flashbacks are used sparingly but effectively. Most informative are those that show Alex being trained to kill by his father, at first a small animal at age seven and then a person at age twenty. There is a coldness and a detachment to these scenes and yet there is a lingering sadness to them, too. The first time Alex murders another human being is memorable because within a few seconds we witness a young man cross a line he cannot uncross.
Macy is made for a role like this because he is a master when it comes to portraying characters on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He is able to find many complex layers in the sensitive, depressed, guilt-ridden contract killer without reducing Alex into some sort of sap who kills just because the script requires him to for the sake of telling a story. Macy humanizes the character to such an extent that we are genuinely surprised by his actions when situations push him to do what he must—to hell with the consequences for the time being.
A confident but limited picture, “Panic” is worth seeing at least once especially—or perhaps only by—those on the lookout for characters who exude a lot of intrigue without much effort. I enjoyed that it is a little bit rough around the edges, which separates it from mainstream flicks that tackle a similar subject minus a convincing sense of reality, and Macy in a role that he is born to play.
★★★ / ★★★★
Claire (Jennifer Aniston) lost her young son in a car accident and she has since suffered from chronic physical pain. Most days, she is on drugs and that makes her quite unpleasant, to say the least, to be around. When Claire learns that a member of her chronic pain support group named Nina (Anna Kendrick) committed suicide, she goes on a mission to learn more about the tragedy.
Based on the screenplay by Patrick Tobin and directed by Daniel Barnz, “Cake” is an undercooked drama but it is uplifted for the most part by Aniston’s wry performance. Although the material does make some fresh decisions like not forging a romantic relationship between Claire and Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington), it requires more detail to become a truly engaging drama. Why is it that we do not learn a bit more about the man (William H. Macy) directly involved in the death of Claire’s son?
The first thirty minutes of the picture is independent drama at its best. It makes us wonder about Claire’s intentions, how her mind works, whether she is capable of empathy even if she is suffering a great deal. Is the reason why she is so curious about Nina the fact that the recently deceased had the courage that Claire simply does not have? Is Claire actually jealous that someone else achieved what she has fantasized about since the car accident? These are very interesting questions that are not easy to bring up and tackle directly, but this film does it with pride, respect, and class. It is true that Claire may not be the most likable character, but these questions feel right for this story—her story. I wanted to know more.
It is most disappointing then that the material begins to repeat itself just before the halfway mark. The bottom line is that the scenes which occur only in Claire’s mind or dreams communicate a mental anguish which then contribute to more physical pain. The script hammers the viewer over the head with this idea which is most unnecessary.
It is unfortunate because the supporting characters are interesting. Silvana (Adriana Barraza) is Claire’s helper and friend. A standout scene involves a trip to Tijuana and Silvana is spotted by friends from the past. Here, we get to observe Silvana and Claire’s relationship at its rawest—that even though Claire may treat Silvana like a maid at times, deep down, Claire considers Silvana to be a good friend. Another character I wanted to know more about is Claire’s ex-husband (Chris Messina). There is a sadness about him as well but the screenplay does not explore this avenue.
To create an effective drama, the details must be present and alive. It is most curious then that “Cake” often seems reluctant to dig deeply into its characters and their circumstances. Claire is grieving but grief never not isolated. Because Claire is miserable, sometimes she lashes out and this is why it is worth getting to know those around her. Claire’s story could easily have been two and a half hours long and it would likely have been much more engaging.
★★ / ★★★★
After a school shooting and their college-aged son, Josh (Miles Heizer), ending up dead, Sam (Billy Crudup) and Emily (Felicity Huffman) get a divorce because they are largely unable to move on from the loss and trauma. Josh was quite a singer-songwriter and, two years later, Sam decides to pass his deceased son’s songs as his own. Impressed by Sam’s performance at a bar, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a musician, approaches the man and suggests that they collaborate to make the songs even better, thus reaching out to even more people. If they are lucky enough, maybe they might make it big.
I wished “Rudderless,” written by Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison and William H. Macy, were a better dramatic film because the songs are so amazing at times, I could not help but think about certain Oasis songs about half a dozen times. Notice that if one were to take the songs away, what results is a deeply unfocused picture with only skeletal-level characterization—if that. It is a disappointment from a storytelling perspective.
Details of the dissolution of Sam and Emily’s marriage is absent which is a problem because there are two would-be moving scenes between the former partners. I felt close to nothing during their interactions because a history between them is not established. I tried to imagine how they must have been like together prior to their son’s death but it is a challenge not only because the screenplay fails to establish the tracks but also because Crudup and Huffman, who are good actors, share little chemistry. It is difficult to believe their characters were married in the first place.
The relationship between Sam and Quentin, who is not coincidentally around Josh’s age, leaves us cold for the most part. Although it is admirable that the material does not go for the expected father-son dynamics, it does not traverse an avenue worth exploring. They are neither friends because of the age difference nor are they sort of a family because Sam is still in deep mourning. So what are they? One gets the impression that by the end they remain strangers. There is no discernible, tangible arc in what they come to share.
When the talking stops, musical instruments are picked up, and singing starts, the movie comes alive. While many of them have an inherent sadness, there is still variation to each of them so not one comes across as repetitive. There are instances when I lost track that I was watching actors performing on stage. Observing them is like being in a real bar and just enjoying the experience of spending time with friends and there happens to be great music being played live.
It must be kept in mind that “Rudderless,” directed by William H. Macy, is a dramatic picture first. The music comes second. Perhaps with a little bit more time drafting the screenplay in order to come up with complex, elegant, and convincing character development, it could have met or even surpassed its potential to entertain and move the audience as a movie, not simply as a soundtrack.
Bart Got a Room (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Steve Kaplan), a senior, has his eyes set on Alice (Kate Micucci), a sophomore, and been wanting to ask her to senior prom. After a handful of seemingly obvious signs that she is also interested in him, Danny finally summons the courage to ask Alice to go with him. It turns out that she considers him only as a brother figure. With only two more months until prom, now that his first choice is unavailable, Danny becomes increasingly desperate for a date. It looks as if everyone is paired up except Camille (Alia Shawkat), Danny’s best friend of eight years.
“Bart Got a Room,” written and directed by Brian Hecker, offers a wildly amusing first half as Danny tries to ascertain whether the girl of his dreams does, in fact, want to jump his bones down to his indefatigable hunt for girls willing enough to go with him. Unfortunately, the screenplay is eventually overturned by an off-putting and unbelievable second half where Danny’s father (William H. Macy) has to get involved to help his son nab a date.
The writing captures the awkwardness of teen hormones and insecurities as well as the strangeness of recently divorced adults going on dates and avoiding their ex-spouses. As Danny converses with his friends (Brandon Hardesty, Micucci), there is a rhythm to their snappy dialogues. In turn, when the adults try to tackle the possibility of starting over with another partner, we are able to feel the desperation in their eyes, wanting to be liked so much because somewhere in the back of their minds, they are afraid to end up alone.
When the teenagers and adults mingle, however, there is not much tension that gather because Danny’s father and mother (Cheryl Hines) are so supportive that with their help, we know that everything is going to turn out all right. Therefore, when comedic punches are delivered, there is little force behind them. It does not end up being funny enough—just cute.
I liked the way Danny and Camille’s friendship is communicated and handled. From personal experience, although you may not want it to, things just… change when a friend informs you that he or she is interested in you in a certain way but you feel incapable of reciprocating his or her feelings. In a way, that is what Danny and Camille have. Although the words “as friends” come up time and again in order for them to be able to mask their insecurities of the situation, the film deals with something slightly beyond friendship.
It is fascinating to watch Camille and Danny navigate their sails as the winds of change force them in conflicting directions. There is no right choice. There are only choices that may or may not feel right for each of them.
The picture might have been more involving it had focused on the pair and done away with the cheesy countdown in terms of whether or not Danny will be able to get a date for the prom. To be honest, I did not care if he did. I cared about his process of attempting to solve the problem. Finally, the last few lines, although touching and brilliant, are not quite as vibrant as they should have been because Camille and Danny do not spend more time in front of the camera.
Still, to its credit, “Bart Got a Room” could have easily turned into a sex romp. While the possibility of having sex after the prom is mentioned, it is not a goal but simply icing on the cake.
Dirty Girl (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Danielle (Juno Temple) is known as the school tramp who cares about her grades as much as she cares about offending her peers. When she sarcastically asks about the pull-out method to her very old-fashioned sex ed teacher (Jonathan Slavin), off to the principal’s office she goes. Seeing that she is unrepentant, Principal Mulray (Gary Grubbs) puts her to a remedial class, a place for so-called misfits and social rejects, where she can, hopefully, learn a lesson in terms of reeling it in so people will cease to think of her as a streetwalker. Mrs. Hatcher (Deborah Theaker) pairs the blonde with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), a gay teen with a bit of extra weight, to work on a project that involves a bag of flour named Joan.
Written and directed by Abe Sylvia, “Dirty Girl” is chuckle-inducing in parts but the story lacks cohesion. It starts off poking fun of high school stereotypes, becomes a road movie backed with great ‘80s tunes on the radio, and eventually goes on to deal with serious issues like parental neglect, physical abuse, and homophobia—all of which are touched upon just before the halfway point.
While I remained optimistic toward Sylvia’s enthusiasm in tackling his many—sometimes wild—ideas, the film needs to slow down, return to basics, and focus on some of the similarities between Danielle and Clarke before taking off on a road trip. It is clear that Clarke wants to escape from his homophobic parents (Dwight Yoakam, Mary Steenburgen) while Danielle wants to meet her biological father (Tim McGraw) in California. But what makes them such a formidable duo that we are able to root for them despite their worst disagreements? Because they come from terrible backgrounds? That is not good enough.
Danielle and Clarke hang out like most friends, typical as they come, but it takes a special kind of friendship for two people to decide to go on a road trip when the stakes are very high. If the trip goes nowhere, it means Clarke is either going to remain seeing a doctor so he can be “cured” of his homosexuality or, to his father’s insistence, he is going to be shipped off to military school in order to be “straightened” out. For Danielle, she will either end up in the streets or become a Mormon because her mother, Sue Ann (Milla Jovovich), hopes to marry Ray (William H. Macy), who very much lives and breathes Mormonism.
The film’s approach to make us laugh is forced and it comes with a price. Scenes of characters dancing salaciously do not take the film very far. In fact, it is cheapened. When something amusing happens, it is almost always coupled with some sad revelation or event. The script fails to provide a natural path from one extreme emotion to another, so when tears well up in the characters’ eyes and their voices begin to shake, the emotions being portrayed feel disingenuous. I felt the material almost begging me to care even if it has yet to provide a good reason for us to invest a little more.
Most of the images speak for themselves but, for example, I wanted Clarke to express what he thinks when his dad’s fists decide to do the talking. And why not allow the father to speak to his son about his frustration, resentment, and feelings of inadequacies for ending up with a gay son? Let him sound like a bigot. Let us hate what he stood for. That way, at least we have an idea where he is coming from. That is much more interesting than just watching someone perform redundant—and unsexy—stripper poses.
Sessions, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mark O’Brien was six years of age, he had contracted poliomyelitis which resulted to his body being paralyzed from the neck down. As a man in his latter thirties, Mark (John Hawkes) wishes to know how it is like to be physically intimate with a woman. Unmarried and a Catholic, he consults with a priest (William H. Macy) to see if such a route is acceptable given his condition. To Mark’s surprise, Father Brendan gives him a green light. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) is hired as a sex surrogate. She informs Mark that they have a maximum of six sessions to have a chance of going all the way.
In the hands of someone who does not understand human drama, “The Sessions” might have turned out to be a cheap and dirty comedy where sex and nudity are treated as something to be feared or ashamed of, but Ben Lewin, the writer and director, proves to have the insight, focus, and vision necessary to turn Mark O’Brien’s story into something that we can all appreciate as people who yearn to connect and be understood.
It is candid in its attitude toward sexuality. The scenes set in the bedroom between Mark and Cheryl have an appropriate balance of awkwardness, at least initially, and sensitivity without being mawkish. Although we see flesh, it is not about creating an air of titillation. The focus is always on the client and the surrogate: what it means for the former to be touched in areas that have grown foreign even to himself and the wall of professionalism that the latter must maintain for the sake of protecting her personal life.
Hawkes and Hunt are most convincing in their roles. Hawkes acts from the neck up–in a lateral position, no less–and evokes, from within is character, a consistently sharp sense of humor about his disability, his friends, and the experience that he feels he must go through in order to lead a complete life. I wished there had been longer close-ups of the actor’s face. Meanwhile, Hunt is so elegant in portraying a woman who struggles to keep up her defenses. I felt her character’s need to want to open up to her client, probably more than usual, but at the same time keeping her private life at a distance without losing grip of it.
One of the most interesting questions it answers is the difference between a sex surrogate and a prostitute. Admittedly, I did not have an answer prior to diving in. I thought that perhaps it is a simple quibble over semantics. However, as the picture goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the two services are very different. I admired that the writer-director is confident with his material that he does not turn it into a debate. After watching the film, a lot of people may still find that both are neither respectable nor acceptable. In my mind, they do not need to be. What cannot be denied is that there is a need for them.
“The Sessions” is tender, insightful, and honest. Although the story involves a person paying another for a service in terms of sexual needs, the bigger picture, I think, is communication. We should be comfortable in telling our partner what feels good and certain things that can use some improvement. Because if these things are not communicated, we waste valuable time and energy reading minds.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Cooler, The (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Cooler” was about a man (William H. Macy) so down on his luck that he made his negative energy into a career as a cooler, a person who stands or walks by someone who’s on a winning streak in a casino ran by a mob boss (Alec Baldwin). But one night, his luck changed for the better when he met a waitress (Maria Bello) who seemed to like him despite his negative self-image and the fact that he was years older than her. What I loved most about this movie was that even though it was set in Las Vegas, it didn’t get caught up in all the glamour and violence. It chose to take the more introspective route as it focused on the relationship and friendship between Macy and Bello and the rising tension between Macy and Baldwin because it seemed as though the happier Macy became, the more he lost his ability as a cooler. In a way, that route made the movie feel small but at the same time it was that much more personal. Furthermore, I loved the use of music because it really captured the changing times and the way the characters desperately hung on to the old ways. I also liked the fact that I got a chance to see Baldwin in a serious role. I read in a magazine that he eventually wanted to stop acting because he believed that none of his works were successful. I disagree with him because I felt like he held this film together; despite his actions, he wasn’t just a mobster who craved nothing but money. The way I saw it was his character didn’t want Macy to go because it meant losing a friend. The way he balanced his toughness and vulnerability was very interesting. Even though there were some distracting elements such as the appearance of a couple somewhere in the middle, the moments where the characters decided to just sit and talk and share secrets about their pasts more than made up for it. Much of the film had an unsurprising sadness and I couldn’t help but stayed glued to the screen. Written and directed by Wayne Kramer, “The Cooler” was essentially a story of fluctuating luck and the way people responded to the circumstances that faced them. The movie had a nice balance of comedy, drama and darkness while the three leads were at the top of their game. I only wished that the distracting elements were fleshed out so it could have more room to explore the only multi-dimensional characters who never failed to surprise.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sam Neill returns as Dr. Alan Grant, a paleontologist who accepted a couple’s offer (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) to give them a tour of Isla Sorna (the second island where scientists conduct experiments of cloning and breeding of dinosaurs) because his research needed funding. Later on, we got to find out that the real reason the couple wanted to visit the island was to find their son (Trevor Morgan) who got stranded there due to a boating accident. Although I did not enjoy this installment as the original “Jurassic Park,” it was definitely a step up from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.” I still enjoyed watching the dinosaurs, the adventures that characters went though, and the campiness that came with the hunt but I felt as though the dinosaurs were secondary to the characters. “Jurassic Park III” did not have the same wonder as the first did. Instead of consistently finding more about the dinosaurs and how they’ve evolved as the picture went on, it was simply stated in the first fifteen minutes of the movie that the raptors knew how to communicate and were probably more intelligent than primates. So, in a way, it took away some of the potentially great suspense that the filmmakers could have utilized by means of surprise when the characters were actually on the island. The return of Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler was more than welcome because she had that constant worry look in her eyes but was more than capable of delivering when circumstances were at their worst. I just wished that her character was used a lot more instead of just keeping her at the periphery (i.e. off the island). Some highlights include the Pteranodon attack, the Spinosaurus attack while the gang tried to contact Ellie, and all the scenes with the Velociraptors. I also very much enjoyed the fact that this film made references to the first two and the characters that were not present on this one. Directed by Joe Johnston, “Jurassic Park III” was still able to entertain but it could have been longer in order to add more heart-pounding scenes and a much stronger ending. I’ve heard rumors that this is going to be the final installment of the franchise, which I really hope is not the case because I can always use more dinosaurs in the cinema. I say they just need a strong script and they should be good to go.
Tale of Despereaux, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of people were disappointed by this animated flick but I must say that I enjoyed it. It may not be as intelligently written or have as deep a story as most Pixar films bit it had enough heart to keep me interested from beginning to end. Matthew Broderick lends his voice as Despereaux, a mouse of small stature with big eyes, big ears and a strong sense of smell. He’s not like any other mouse because he doesn’t know how to be scared of certain things like a typical mouse should. In fact, he thrives on the excitement of acquiring cheese from mousetraps and reading books instead of eating them. I thought the first part of the film was fascinating in a psychological point of view because Despereaux, a youngster mouse, is encouraged to be scared of pretty much everything. Even though he is a mouse, he describes himself as a gentleman who is brave and honorable. The joke/reverse psychology works in its own universe and as a lesson for younger viewers. However, what did not work as well for me was Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Miggery Sow (voiced by Tracey Ullman). Roscuro accidentally “killed” the queen (via drowning in soup or a heart attack?) which drives the king to banish rats out of the kingdom as well as cooking soup, which is the kingdom’s source of happiness. As the kingdom plunges into a depression, Roscuro feels extreme guilt and, like Despereaux, he feels like an outcast and seeks redemption. The third outcast is Miggery Sow who I initially thought had some sort of a mental disorder but, with a little bit of psychoanalysis, I eventually came to a conclusion that she wants to be treated like a princess (instead of actually being one as she portrayed) because she wasn’t loved as a child. Although her character wasn’t as developed as I wanted it to be, what I liked about her part of the story was that it was open to interpretation. I thought it was weird how Roscuro and Miggery Sow, one way or another, become a villain and I wasn’t sure of the filmmakers wanted the audiences to think that. This is one of those films that could’ve benefited more if it had a longer running time. It tried to tackle three main characters but it wasn’t successful because the last two I mentioned weren’t explored enough. Other notable voices include Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins and Christopher Lloyd. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s books, “The Tale of Despereaux” may not have been a critical success but the animation is impressive and it has enough implications for the older audiences if one were to look closely.