★★★ / ★★★★
A pregnant queen was terminally ill and the only thing that could cure her was a magical flower. But Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), obsessed with reclaiming her youth, kept the flower for herself because it only gave back her good looks for a short time. When the royal soldiers found the flower, the queen was cured and she successfully delivered a baby girl. Villainous Gothel snuck into the castle, discovered that the child absorbed the fantastic properties of the flower, kidnapped her, raised her as her own child, and kept her in a tower for eighteen years. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) yearned to experience life outside of her home but couldn’t find it to do so because her so-called mother convinced her that the world was dark, selfish, and cruel. Based on the fairy tale of Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, “Tangled” was a joy to watch because it radiated positivity but wasn’t afraid to take a dark turn when it needed to. There was a good amount of humor for both kids and adults. I laughed at Flynn Rider’s (Zachary Levi) vanity, Rapunzel’s purloiner of a prince charming/wanted man. I liked him because he was a different kind of lover that a girl ended up with in most Disney movies. He was modern, almost a parody, but he had good qualities that convinced us that he was a great fit for a girl like Rapunzel. I also enjoyed the chameleon, Rapunzel’s pet and only friend, and the horse determined to catch Rider and his thieving ways. The chameleon and the horse were more than just animals for us to think of as cute. They had human qualities. They were capable of giving begrudging looks, had the tendency to be bossy, and were capable of being sweet. They couldn’t speak, unlike Sebastian the crab in Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid,” but they didn’t need to. Their facial expressions and body languages said it all. The songs were catchy and they always related to the story. I particularly enjoyed two songs: the time Rapunzel cleaned her house and the visit in the pub full of ruffians. Listen to the lyrics and there was a wink or two aimed directly at our pop culture. The style of animation kept my eyes fixated on the screen. I especially admired the scene in which the characters had to run away from the powerful water after the dam had collapsed. I felt like I was with Rapunzel and Rider when the camera showed the raging water in the background as the duo ran toward us. I mentioned the film having a dark side. It showed Gothel holding a knife. The manner in which she held it with malice suggested murder. There was even a scene in which someone was stabbed in the back. I’m glad that the filmmakers were brave enough to show them. With all kinds of violence featured on television, I think kids of all ages should be able to handle it. “Tangled” wasn’t very deep but it didn’t need to. It just needed to feel magical.
Totally F***ed Up (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Gregg Araki’s “Totally F***ed Up” focused on six homosexual teenagers and how they responded to the every day challenges of being young in Los Angeles. Andy (James Duval) was a lonely virgin but, unlike most of his friends, he treasured that aspect of himself. When he met the charismatic Ian (Alan Boyce), Andy seemed to fall in love for the first time. Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill) were in a relationship and they wanted to have a baby despite the fact that they would not be able to support it. In one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes, they gathered their gay friends’ sperm to perform “artificial insemination.” Tommy (Roko Belic) abhorred gay stereotypes. He was proud with being a masculine homosexual but his parents weren’t aware of his sexuality. Lastly, Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May) were also in a relationship. One had to deal with gay bashing while the other wrestled with guilt because he had sexual intercourse with another man. Despite the film having a number of great ideas, I was not convinced that Araki had successfully explored what made each character tick. In order for an ensemble to be effective, each subject has to be fully or close to fully realized. We knew that the group of friends in question liked to nap all day, party all night, and try all sorts of drugs in order to remind themselves they were still alive. But what else was there to them? The reason why they were friends in the first place wasn’t clear to me. Surely their friendship was based on something deeper than carnal and chemical pleasures. I didn’t feel like they could depend on each other because they were too preoccupied looking out for themselves. I hope the writer-director didn’t mean to imply that LGBT friendships were shallow and unrewarding. There were far too many scenes of teenagers “doing bad things” so their redeeming factors were overshadowed by their habits. I also wanted to know more about the protagonists’ life at home and their relationships (or lack thereof) with their parents or siblings. I was most interested in the characters when they started to talk about their home lives and why they felt like they needed to move away and seek solace with other strangers. They looked at the camera and talked about the hateful heteronormative society but they failed to offer any deep or unique insight about what LGBT teens at that specific time period had to go through. In the end, their struggles felt far away instead of prevalent regardless of one’s sexuality. “Totally F***ed Up” wanted to go in so many different directions that it ended up not going anywhere. Although it managed to capture the loneliness of youth in some parts, the scenes designed for mere shock value turned this film into a run-of-the-mill, independently-made urban teen drama.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
Good Guy, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Alexis Bledel once again plays an ambitious and smart young woman who was torn between two guys who worked on Wall Street. Tommy (Scott Porter) knew what he wanted, wasn’t afraid to act on his impulses, a sweet-talker and a womanizer. On the other hand, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) was socially awkward, did not have much luck with the ladies, but his insight made it difficult for anyone to not fall head over heels with him. Due to some unforseen circumstances, Tommy enthusiastically took Daniel under his wing and tried to make Daniel be more like a cutthroat businessman than a poet who wore his heart on his sleeves. I enjoyed the movie because it was an observation of modern relationships set in an urban area but I felt like it did not take enough risks. I loved that Greenberg’s character highlighted the theme of the film in which he mentioned that his favorite book was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen because it was about false first impressions. Although the lead characters had clear dominant personalities, I found subtleties in them and I was interested with what was about to happen among the relationship between the girl and the two guys. I wished that their strained relationship was explored more and that the picture had less scenes of Tommy and his friends (one of which was played by the amusing Aaron Yoo) teasing each other and trying to pick up women in bars. I was also interested in one of the guys who worked on Wall Street who said he valued his wife and children more than his job and money. Greenberg had one scene with him which I thought was handled well because they found similarities in each other but it ultimately felt superficial because it wasn’t further explored. Written and directed by Julio DePietro, “The Good Guy” had the right ingredients to make a solid movie about character studies because I came to understand the protagonists’ motivations. But there were far too many scenes that did not need to be in the final product and not enough scenes that should have made it in. It also needed a bit more edge because there were times when the picture reached an emotional plateau. I could easily relate to the characters because even though they were out in the real world, they were still young and trying to figure out who they really were when with friends, with a special someone, or when forced to look at themselves when they had nobody else to turn to.
★★★ / ★★★★
Corey Haim stars as the title character who was a smart fourteen-year-old in high school who fell in love with the new girl in town (Kerri Green). Conflict ensued when the new girl started liking a football jock (Charlie Sheen) who had a soft heart for Lucas. Meanwhile, a fellow band member named Rina (Winona Ryder) obviously liked Lucas but he was too focused on winning over the new girl to feel Rina’s affections. Written and directed by David Seltzer, “Lucas” is a great simple film with a huge heart. It exuded intelligence because even though its subject was high school kids, the characters were multidimensional because the movie took its time to allow them to voice their thoughts about themselves and concerns for each other. There were some red flags that hinted at possibly taking the stereotypical path in teenage pictures because of the bullying. However, the film offered some surprising elements in terms of where the picture ultimately decided to go. Even though some characters were bullies, some were bullied and some were simply left on the sidelines, all of them were pretty much outsiders. All of them felt some sort of pain at that specific time in their lives. I thought that was an insightful look at high school life and it’s so refreshing to watch because most teen movies these days don’t come close to (or don’t even attempt to reach) the level of introspection that this film had to offer. While I did enjoy its critique on the social high school strata, I wish it had more scenes between Haim and Green. The first thirty minutes of the movie was very strong because it felt intimate and there was a certain sweetness to those scenes that the rest of the movie didn’t quite match. “Lucas” started off with a hatching of a locust. As the film went on, I started to realize its symbolism and I couldn’t help but feel moved. There was a really touching scene between Haim and Green in the end when Lucas wondered where they would be twenty years from now and if they would still know each other. That scene was a stand out because it captured the level of intimacy between Lucas and the new girl like in the beginning of the movie. It also managed to wrap everything up in so little words while highlighting the innocence youth and how quickly it could disappear. “Lucas” may not be as consistent as I would have liked (I thought it managed to reach some emotional highs comparable to “Stand by Me”) but it deserves an enthusiastic recommendation. It goes to show that it’s possible to have a simple story and letting the emotional gravity hook us and move us.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger still living in the Philippines, I had this idea that America was a great place where everyone was happy because everyone had an equal chance to get what they wanted in life. But now that I’m a little older and living in America, I’m beginning to see this country for what it really is: a machine designed to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer. When I talk to my friends who came from different countries in Europe about how different things are in America, especially about healthcare and education, I can’t help but feel like America is a second-rate nation and that progress (if there is any) is too slow. “Capitalism: A Love Story,” written and directed by Michael Moore, tackled the topic of capitalism and the many components that drives it forward. I’m not going to mention all the points he brought up even though they are indeed very interesting ones, but there were three things from the film that struck me: teenagers being sent to private juvenile facilities for extended amounts time (without any sort of hearing involving extension changes) because they committed so-called crimes that I think were mere inconveniences or just a part of youth, companies buying insurance policies for their workers (without the workers knowing about it) so the companies can get money in the event of their workers’ death, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s touching speech at the end of the documentary which summarized what America should be. What I didn’t like about the film, however, was that sometimes Moore was too enthusiastic about getting his point across to the point where he got too cheesy in terms of using certain movies or television shows. It was all very dramatic but I did not find those elements convincing. In fact, I found them a bit distracting. I thought his strongest points came about when he actually interviewed members of the Congress (with real footages from Congress and the frustrations of various politicians about the current state of the country) and people who are taking a stand for the things they more than deserved (such as payment for the time they put in at their jobs). If those dramatic–sometimes cartoonish–footages were taken out, I think this film would have been more focused than the riveting and insightful “Sicko” (probably my favorite film by Moore to date). I found a lot of reviews discrediting this film for the fact that Moore directed it and everyone assuming that he’s just going to target Republicans. Well, he also showcased Democrats making deals and promises that are, from my perspective, not only dishonest and unethical but ultimately immoral. I say “immoral” because they’re making decisions for the American people and not just for their own private lives. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is an incisive and honest look about some of the (biggest) injustices in America. One may or may not agree with that statement but one cannot deny the current unhappiness of the American people. And what’s sad is that the unhappiness is only growing.
400 Blows, The (1959)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this classic film’s theme of running away in order to achieve some sort of freedom being particularly impressive: running away from an uncaring home (the parents played by Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier), a strict school system, and a juvenile reform center. Alternatively, it can also be seen as an escape from oneself because Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), the lead character, cannot live up to society’s expectations on how he should think and behave. Having known that this story was drawn from François Truffaut’s, the director, troubled childhood, I decided to see this film in a psychological perspective. By the end of this picture, I have never found myself wanting to adopt a character because he is pretty much misunderstood by everyone around him. Admittedly, he did commit petty crimes and purposely did not do well in school but I thought the parents were to blame. The kid’s actions were a sort of signal for help and attention. The mother is disloyal and narcissistic in every way; a master when it comes to getting what she wants whenever she wants and not above bribery in order to keep living her fantasy. The father is not a good male role model for his son because he tackles problems with screaming and yelling instead of sitting down and discussing the problem at hand like a mature adult. The two parents have a few things in common: ambivalent feelings when it comes to their child, inconsistent parenting techniques (such as reward and punishment, lack of unconditional positive regard), and transference of their negative energy from outside the home to inside the home. I immediately thought that neither of them really wanted their son and I felt so badly for him. When it comes to the film’s techniques, I was impressed with Truffaut’s use of close-ups to fully convey what the character is feeling and thinking; the use of natural sound and extended takes made me feel like I was actually that much closer to the characters. The way the story unfolded felt organic–there’s a certain fluidity when it comes to the build-up of conflicts and the eventual release from such conflicts. Even though this was released in 1959, it’s still very relevant today because of the modern disaffected youth and people who are supposed to be parents but not quite know how to fill in such demanding shoes. An hour after watching the film, I still feel that sting of emotion on Antoine Doinels face as he was taken by a cop vehicle, crying behind the bars that portrays his crushed innocence. “The 400 Blows” is deeply powerful and resonant film and it’s a shame that I haven’t seen it sooner. You shouldn’t make the same mistake.
West Side Story (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★
“West Side Story” is pretty much an updated version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Montagues vs. Capulets, it’s the Sharks vs. the Jets, Puerto Rican immigrants and second generation Americans, respectively. I’m not very interested in musicals but I had to see this one because it’s considered a classic. Although I was pleasantly surprised with how well-made it was, I was also disappointed because it’s not very consistent in its quality. After it delivers one great scene, a pointless and aimless scene comes right after it, which balances out into mediocrity. Although the songs are memorable and some even made it to the modern media consciousness, there were some musicals numbers that tried to do too much. For instance, in one shot the characters are singing in a dimly-lit backdrop; the next frame introduces a glaring use of color in order to symbolize certain emotions when it really didn’t need to do it. Certain techniques like that became distracting and they took me out of the emotions that I was feeling at the time. Natalie Wood as Maria (a Shark) and Richard Beymer as Tony (a Jet) had strong chemistry so I was interested in what was about to happen to their relationship. I wish the film had focused more on them instead of the rival gangs. I think Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the directors, spent too much time on the gangs just hanging about, bickering, and acting stupid. Not to mention those scenes were a bit lame (in this day and age) so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I got what the directors were trying to do: To paint a picture that youth is the time to make mistakes and how teenagers are forced to grow up once they learn to take responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that they should spend about half the movie trying to get that message across. I felt like this movie could’ve been condensed from two hours and thirty minutes to an hour and forty minutes. Still, I’m giving this a recommendation because some parts were very strong such as when the film tried to tackle the issues of immigration, racism, groupthink, and us vs. them. Those social themes made this a musical with a brain even though it may not seem like it at first glance.
Brideshead Revisited (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I really wanted to like this film more than I did because it has elements that instantly grabbed my interest: a period story with a love triangle that happens to comment about the limitations of religion. But for film that runs for about a hundred and thirty minutes, it should’ve been stronger. I thought the first half was very good because it has a mystery regarding why Matthew Goode’s character claims that he doesn’t know himself or what he wants in life. We are then taken back a couple of years when Goode meets the rebellious Ben Whishaw and the elegant Hayley Atwell–two siblings that he fell in love with. We also got to see Emma Thompson as their extremely religious mother and how the way she raised her children had negative consequences. But somewhere in the middle, the story got too cluttered: some characters leave without some sort of closure; then we are suddenly propelled to the present as we try to figure out each character all over again. It was an exhausting experience because I was so invested with the three leads during the first half of the film. I wanted to know more about their lives in the past than I did in the present. Another fatal mistake that the filmmakers had was near the ending. I’m not sure if I should blame Julian Jarrold, the director, or the actual novel itself (I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know) but there was a scene where we’re supposed to question Goode’s true intentions. After watching that scene, I felt like a rug was pulled from under me and I didn’t know whether I should still care for the character or not. Maybe if the director had done it in a much more subtle manner, it would’ve worked but I was really taken aback. This film offers gorgeous architectures, paintings, and clothing but the story didn’t make much sense because of the way it unravelled in the second half. The best part of the film was watching the chemistry among Goode, Whishaw, and Atwell; how their youth got the best of them even though they had all the potential in the world to become gods of their own destinies.
Swing Kids (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
After wanting to cry so badly for about an hour, the ending was done in such an over-the-top way to the point where I really wanted to laugh. That said, I really liked this picture not because it’s particularly accurate or even about an important group of people that changed the tide of World War II, but because I truly felt the emotions it wanted to convey. It’s about three friends and their love for swing music. As Nazism grew, their friendship is challenged in a meaningful way: one did not compromise his beliefs and remained a civilian opposing Hitler (Frank Whaley), while the other two joined in a training facility for Hitler’s army (Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale). I thought it was interesting how Leonard and Bale were being corrupted for a while; at some point one of them managed to wake up but the other one did not. There’s so much drama involving Leonard’s character but the one I found to be most involving was his relationship with his family. It was painful for me to watch the family implode because they are essentially good people caught in circumstances where they have to make the tough decisions in order to survive. But the one jarring thing that made me almost give up from even giving the movie a good review is for about forty to fifty minutes, no one voiced out that by joining Hitler’s army, despite one’s belief that it’s wrong or one is only using it for the perks, it’s basically supporting something evil. For me, that was the most obvious fact and when no one was saying it out loud, especially by characters who are questioning their identities and what they stand for, it’s a big misstep. Thankfully, at some point someone finally said it and that’s when the core of the picture started to show. If the director, Thomas Carter, has established the core sooner and made room for a more subtle ending, this film would’ve been more powerful. Instead, “Swing Kids” becomes a movie that has a powerful middle but a weak beginning and ending. Still, I’m giving it a three out of four stars because it made me care about what would happen to the characters even though they were one-dimensional in the beginning: kids who oppose Nazism and love swing music. I would also recommend it for the fans of Leonard and Bale who want to see them look really young. It made me wonder how big of a star Leonard would’ve become if he didn’t star in “House, M.D.” because he can outshine Bale in many scenes.
Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’ll just come right out and say it: I think this film is a masterpiece. Hsiao-hsien Hou did an amazing job in directing and shaping this homage to “The Red Balloon.” I can’t really make comparisons with that classic children’s film because I haven’t yet seen it while writing this review. However, from what I read from people’s blogs who have seen both, they claim that it captured the original’s main themes. All of the actors were impressive in their own way. Juliette Binoche is still electric even though she’s a bit more broken down here than in her other movies. I liked the pluckiness of her character but didn’t like the fact that she pays more attention to her career than her son. Simon Iteanu, who plays Binoche’s son, is sublime as a lonely boy but doesn’t make us feel too sorry for him. He shows that he’s strong in some ways, whether it comes to distracting himself with pinball machines or playing a role in his nanny’s movies. Fang Song plays the nanny who I think made the movie that much more interesting. Her style of acting is so nonchalant but there’s something about her that’s caring and welcoming. I wanted to be her friend by the end of the movie. Several other plot elements include Binoche’s conflict with her tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) and, of course, the mesmerizing observation of the red balloon, which symbolizes youth, friendship, and loss. The classical piano music that accompanies some of the scenes and the use of bright colors made the picture that much more poetic. Most people will say that “nothing much happened” but that’s the point: to watch a slice of life. Watching this homage is like eating and savoring my favorite kind of cake–pretty much everything about it worked and I have nothing negative to say about it, which is very rare.