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All reviews - Movies (204) - DVDs (1)

Ceremony

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 13 March 2011 09:26 (A review of Ceremony)

The majority of moviegoers are awfully comfortable with their overly traditional notions of gender roles. As progressive as some people claim to be, there are too many restrictive ideas out there about what men and women "should and shouldn't do" that it's inevitable that, when it comes to romantic comedies (arguably the film genre in which we're supposed to see male/female dynamics displayed nicely), we're gonna see those close-minded notions play out. CEREMONY is a solid example of that. If a movie is about a romance between an older woman and a younger guy, the reaction is "Haha, that's funny, poor guy trying to score with a MILF," whereas if it's an older man and a younger woman, the reaction is more along the lines of "Eww, gross. Why would she want to do that?" Since Hollywood is all about obliging mainstream viewers, you won't be surprised to know that CEREMONY depicts the former scenario.

But here's what's even more interesting. This isn't even the first time that Uma Thurman and the younger, not-as-famous Michael Angarano have each shown up in this type of film. Thurman starred in PRIME in 2005 (a film that was decent, mostly thanks to Meryl Streep's presence), and in the same year, a teenaged Angarano led the cast of ONE LAST THING, in which he played a dying kid whose final wish was to spend his last day with a supermodel (despite the film's appealing premise, it's utterly mediocre, and I can't recommend it at all). As dispiriting as it may be that Hollywood isn't too interested in taking risks, and as awkward as it may seem that they don't even want to have variety in terms of actors who take on a certain type of role, the good news is that CEREMONY isn't too bad. It opens in indie theaters in April, so if at that point you're still frustrated about having to wait till the summer for multiplexes to show anything decent, this could be a good alternative.

Sam (Angarano) picks up his buddy, Marshall (Reece Thompson) for an apparent road trip. It seems that Sam and Marshall haven't hung out in a long time, and Sam criticizes the fact that Marshall "hasn't been out of his parents' house in over a year!". Marshall immediately comes across as one of these awkward-yet-witty-and-interesting characters (that I personally love to see in movies), and the film seems well on its way to being an interesting two-man dialogue-based show. But that changes when Sam seems to have an unnatural interest in crashing a private party that's being held in one of those fancy beach-side houses. The two guys blend into the party quite well, and suddenly, that moment we see in every romantic movie seems to take place: when a guy and a girl see each other and all of a sudden everything is in slow motion and passion-filled background music plays (Roger Ebert calls this the "Meet Cute" scene). But the film plays a trick on us. Sam seems to be captivated by the older Zoe (Thurman), but we soon discover that they've actually known each other for a while: "What are you doing here?!", she asks, completely shocked. It gets even more complicated when we discover that the party is actually a wedding reception, and yes, you guessed it, Zoe is the one getting married, and to a guy who's closer to her age than Sam.

What I immediately liked about the set-up of CEREMONY is that it doesn't force us to go through the motions of most romantic comedies. We meet the lovebirds when they've already known each other for some time, and from the moments they have together during the film, we can imagine what the earlier stages of their relationship were like. You may think it's a bad thing that we don't get to SEE those earlier stages, but considering how bad a job most romantic comedies to at displaying the development of the "courtship" phase, CEREMONY may actually be doing us a favor.

The film is interested in capturing the awkwardness of how these two guys try to fit into a situation in which they're clearly out of their element, in terms of both age and social class. I like films that care about exploring that sort of dynamic. What makes things even better is that Sam chooses NOT to tell Marshall that he's here because he's in love with Zoe, so Marshall continues believing that this is simply a place they randomly crashed. One of the film's best moments comes during a scene in which they're in a room talking about all the things that happened during the evening. Oh, and this only happens once in a blue moon in romantic comedies, so let's savor it: for once, a "penis joke" is actually subtle and believable rather than lame and crass. The line is delivered with a jokester-type honesty that differs a lot from other movies in which it feels like you're being begged to laugh.

The movie does have its share of hiccups in the final act. The characters start playing a game, and the running joke is "I don't get what this game is about!", which would've been funny if the audience weren't even more confused than the characters themselves and if the scene seemed to have some sort of purpose other than filling in the running time. Even worse, there's a completely unnecessary scene in which someone nearly drowns that seems too much of an obvious way of giving closure to a secondary character's emotional arc. Finally, there's a moment towards the end related to some wedding vows that is good in terms of the sense of redemption it provides as the film comes to a close, but it also can't help feeling somewhat corny.

If you've seen the indie film SNOW ANGELS, you know that Michael Angarano is a solid actor. In CEREMONY, he has to play a character who is initially annoying for not taking certain things as seriously as he should, but Angarano doesn't overplay it, because that would make the film's final act too hard to believe. Talking about Angarano just makes me look forward to RED STATE even more (I have mixed feelings about Kevin Smith as a director, but the controversial comments that have already surfaced are enough to tickle anyone's curiosity). It continues to be quite difficult for me to appreciate Uma Thurman in all these vanilla roles. I know you're not supposed to let one character define how you view an actor from that point forward, but during CEREMONY, there were times at which part of me was half-expecting Thurman to pull out a Hatori Hanzo sword and limbs to start flying during the movie's titular scene. No such luck. Needless to say, CEREMONY's not that type of movie. But you could do much worse.


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The Adjustment Bureau

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 4 March 2011 01:45 (A review of The Adjustment Bureau)

Water is such a powerful thing (when you think about it, it can save your life but it's also powerful enough to kill you) that it doesn't surprise me that it's often used as a contrivance in movies, or as a way for movie heroes to overcome some of the obstacles that the plot presents them (remember SIGNS, anyone?). That's the case in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, a film in which water is used as a way to circumvent what's getting in the way of our leads, though if the fact that that's so ridiculous were the ONLY problem I had with the film, I'd still recommend it, because it's a minor point. But the bigger problem comes with the fact that THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is a film that has maybe one or two interesting ideas about the debate between free will and predestination, but those small ideas get diluted into an overly ponderous and abstract film that doesn't end up offering much in the way of insight.

The film would still be recommendable if it at least delivered on its "Love conquers all" philosophy. You see, that's not a philosophy I agree with, but I take no issue if a film believes in something that I don't... as long as it does an effective job at displaying that belief. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is one of those dozens of movies in which the two lovebirds fall in love in the first 5 minutes of knowing each other. You may argue that, since a movie is only less than two hours long, it can't waste that much time with showing the two leads going through the courting motions. And my response is that, if a movie's payoff is supposed to be "Love conquers all" then yes, we DO need that development. This isn't a silly romantic comedy we're talking about here - it's a movie that believes in the power of love, and because of that, it needs to make us believe there IS love in the first place.

The titular organization works to ensure "things happen according to plan," and part of the adjustment bureau's plan involves controlling the political future of young Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon). David is in love with Elise (Emily Blunt) and really wants to be with her, but for reasons we don't find out till later, the adjustment bureau can't allow that to happen, because it would have a huge effect on David's political career. This synopsis and the film's trailer will probably lead you to believe that the members of the adjustment bureau are a couple of badasses you wouldn't want to mess with, but that's hardly the case. Actually, these people look like they've all come out of a bad 1940's thriller. One of the worst scenes takes place when David is on a boat with one of the "adjusters" who is explaining how the organization works, and the dialogue is horribly stilted and pathetic: the lines "There's something about water" and "Are you an angel?" are said one after the other, and the way they're delivered is almost laughable. You see, the "adjusters" aren't nearly as mean as the trailer would have you believe (they're conflicted weaklings, at best). In a ridiculous plot turn, one of them actually becomes interested in HELPING David, and when David asks him "Why are you so different from the others?", I thought he was going to respond "Well, 'cause I'm the token black guy in this movie, so I obviously HAVE to have a heart of gold, while all those white, corporate-looking guys HAVE to be evil."

In the midst of all the blabbering the film does about whether humans are free to make choices or not, there are two ideas that I did find interesting. The first is the idea that perhaps at ONE point something was meant to happen but then it STOPPED being meant to happen, but after it stopped being meant to happen, there are still "remnants" of that unfulfilled event that may be trying to trickle into your life. The other thing I found interesting is a scene in which one of the "adjusters" literally goes through the world's ENTIRE history (from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance to all the armed conflicts of the 20th century) and talks about the way in which "adjusting" was (or wasn't) involved in those particular events. The script makes some very interesting and accurate observations here about the way humans have gone and where they are now - if I could say something like that about the rest of the lines that are delivered in the film, we'd have a surefire winner here.

The other strength in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (and the reason why I certainly can't call it a bad movie, despite not being able to recommend it) is, not surprisingly, the performance quality offered by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. For Damon, the role is less showy than what he's had to do in some of the more action-packed films he's been involved with, which I think actually makes this role harder than, say, Jason Bourne, and he handles it well. Blunt is luminous as ever, and to be honest, thank God for her, because considering how hard the film makes it for audience members to truly believe that David could be so desperately in love with Elise, if the actress playing her had been bad or annoying, the film may have bordered on insufferable.

There's no doubt that the debate as to how "free" we are to do (or not do) things is great fodder for cinema because you could come up with countless movie situations to explore the subject. I won't spoil the ending of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, but I will definitely tell you that I'm annoyed that the film's ultimate message is so overly optimistic and motivational (the final voiceover might as well have told us: "Come on! You can do it!"). Life isn't that simple, and I'm aware of the fact that movies aren't necessarily meant to accurately capture the complexities of life, but when a film TELLS you that it's interested in exploring such a heated philosophical topic, I don't think it's too much to ask that it deliver on it. On a personal level, I don't think the "free will vs. predestination" is a worthwhile debate to have: if you're happy with what you're doing, who cares if you're deciding to do it or if there's some hand guiding you towards it? Still, I don't mind it when a film makes a decision to explore the question, but it has to do it at least reasonably well, and not in the muddled and half-assed way that THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU goes about it.


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The Housemaid

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 4 March 2011 01:44 (A review of The Housemaid)

If an above-average movie is released during these early months of the year, chances are that it's either a foreign film or a huge American surprise. THE HOUSEMAID happens to be the former, although there's definitely an element of surprise involved here, too, because what looks like a steamy, soft-core porn-ish foreign film (just look at the poster) turns out to be an uncommonly interesting exploration of social classes and of the manipulation by those who are economically powerful over those who are more disadvantaged. At one point during THE HOUSEMAID, one character says of another "He's had everything he's ever wanted. He doesn't even know what the concept of NOT being able to get something is." THE HOUSEMAID explores that cold and detached mindset of upper-class people who cold-heartedly think anything can be solved with money, but that exploration is done through the eyes of an outsider who is completely unfamiliar (and shocked) by this new world she has suddenly fallen into.

Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) has a low-paying job at a restaurant, but she manages to get hired as a nanny by an extremely wealthy family of three that is soon to be a family of five. Eun-yi has been hired to care for the one kid in the house, Nami (Seo Hyeon-Ahn), but the mother is currently pregnant with twins, which means that Eun-yi will eventually have her hands even more full. On the first day that Eun-yi meets Nami and is gearing up to start looking after her, we can tell that Eun-yi is perfect for the job, as she's super playful and kind (like most kids, Nami is initially hesitant but eventually relents and starts to care a lot for Eun-yi). The mom is very pleased with Eun-yi, who is also great at taking care of her in her pregnant state and seems to look forward to the idea of having two additional kids to take care of.

But all of a sudden, a drastic change occurs in Eun-yi's work functions, when the father of the house takes a physical interest in her. An early scene tells us that the mother's pregnancy has affected the couple's sex life, which is perhaps a way to explain why he does it, but that doesn't take away from how shocking it is that Eun-yi is used in the way that she is. You see, as opposed to most other movies, this isn't a situation in which the man of the family ends up having feelings for the maid and choosing to be with her instead. There's no doubt, right from the beginning, that this is a strictly carnal thing, and that Eun-yi's paycheck is partly compensating her for the, um, services she's providing him. The sex scenes never make you feel like you're watching one of those gratuitous foreign films in which sex is used as an excuse to give off a deceptively arty and sophisticated air, but the scenes are certainly heavy on eroticism and even pretty graphic dialogue at one point. When all hell breaks loose and a mother-in-law figure enters the proceedings, things get delightfully intense and interesting.

THE HOUSEMAID has no interest in concealing its thesis that power does much more than just corrupting. It gives the person the idea that they can simply do anything, and that the people in front of him/her are mere pawns that have to be moved in whatever direction will most benefit them. When one of the powerful people in the film attempts to commit a murder at one point and fails at it, the person's frustration is more along the lines of the frustration you have when you try to land a piece of crumpled paper in the trash can and you miss - nothing more serious than that.

During the last half hour or so of THE HOUSEMAID, the cattiness is a pure treat, although there are times at which the dialogue feels more soap-operatic than it should (but since I was reading subtitles, I'm giving the movie the benefit of the doubt and not pointing this out as too much of a big problem). Any misses in the dialogue, though, are off-set by how terrific and wonderfully unpredictable the film's final moments are. We expect a straight-up revenge sequence in which all the "bad guys" get what they deserve, but that's extremely far from what we actually get. One critic commented that Eun-yi's ultimate fate seems like straight out of a David Lynch film. I can't say I disagree - and that's a good thing. With the dross of uninspired movies that get dumped into multiplexes during these initial months of the year, arthouse movie theaters are sometimes the only place where you have a shot at finding something very good so early on in the year, and THE HOUSEMAID is great evidence of that.


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No Strings Attached

Posted : 6 years, 10 months ago on 24 January 2011 03:41 (A review of No Strings Attached)

My final review for the year 2010 was of the much-better-than-anticipated LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, a romantic comedy that rejects a lot of the conventions of that genre and that has a very interesting take on what can happen when two people decide to be "fuck buddies." As luck would have it, I'm starting the new year off with a supposedly similarly-themed film. Unfortunately, I can't share the same amount of excitement for NO STRINGS ATTACHED that I did for LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS. Then again, let's be honest - despite what the title and trailer are trying to tell you, NO STRINGS ATTACHED is not really a film about what it's like to be involved in a "friends with benefits" situation. During the film's first 20 minutes, Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) make an agreement to only be sex friends... immediately after that, we get a quick montage featuring snippets of them having sex in lots of locations (each others' houses, workplaces, etc)... and guess what comes after that. No, not more sex (you wish). What comes after that is everything you've seen a dozen times in other romantic comedies. The only difference here is that the guy who's trying to get the girl has already had sex with her. Does that make a big difference to you? It doesn't to me.

The interesting thing is, though, that despite the movie's descent into romcom cliches after the first 20 minutes, I should've easily been able to recommend NO STRINGS ATTACHED, because the two leads actually do have a decent amount of chemistry throughout the film's second act. The bigger problem with NO STRINGS ATTACHED is that it's half an hour too long. The final act is too drawn out, and the fact that most of it consists of the two main characters not sharing the screen together makes it worse. What makes the film lose even more credit here is the fact that there's a haphazard attempt to provide the male lead with another female love interest, which would be fine, except that the character that is selected to fulfill that role is one of those "annoyingly funny" characters who are usually amusing enough if they stay in the background and don't show up in that many scenes, but not if all of a sudden the film wants the character to acquire substantial importance (think Alison Pill's character in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD). This sudden attempt at giving Adam a new love interest feels rushed, and because of the character's personality, the scenes feel horribly awkward and misplaced. The final act of NO STRINGS ATTACHED becomes ruined to the point that it won't really matter how satisfying the "getting back together" scene between the two lovebirds is, because it won't make up for it.

Oh, and just to give you an idea of the "great" female supporting characters that are given to us in the film, let me tell you about Emma's friends. One of them wears a pair of panties with the word "WHORE" on the back side. Another one tells Emma "Hey, let's go out tonight. Remember, we're sluts!" (oh, and she's supposed to be a med school student). The even sadder thing about this is that a woman wrote the film's screenplay. It's kind of dispiriting to think that we're in the year 2011 and lines like these are still being spoken in movies. Will it only get worse?

Still, the film is far from being terrible. There's a particularly funny scene in which a character does a perfect rendition of Drew Barrymore (it's one of those moments in which you wish rewind buttons were available in movie theaters so you can rewatch a scene). But more importantly, the fact that Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman are able to exhibit a decent amount of chemistry during the film's middle section keeps the film at least above the level of mediocrity. Kutcher acts a little bit better than he has in his other films (if that means much to you), and as for Portman, I can't imagine this film will threaten her upcoming Oscar win. It's rumored that, back in 2007, Eddie Murphy lost his all-but-assured Oscar win for DREAMGIRLS because of the fact that NORBIT was released shortly before the Oscars. Rest assured, since NO STRINGS ATTACHED is far from being a terrible film and Portman's performance in BLACK SWAN is eminently Oscar-worthy, she won't suffer the same fate here. There's nothing special about her performance in NO STRINGS ATTACHED because she's not really asked to do much other than act initially hesitant and stoic and eventually lovestruck and desperate, but it's not a performance that'll taint her career either.

I imagine that "fuck buddies" have existed for a while now, so I'm not sure why there's a sudden string of movies about the subject. We got LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, now NO STRINGS ATTACHED, and later this year, we'll get another similarly-themed film starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, which is very un-originally titled FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (and yes, apparently, all films that are about that subject need to feature insanely attractive leads). As much as some romantic comedies can be good, what I think I'd really be interested in seeing is a more serious film that really explored how troubling it can be to walk the fine line between having "sex-only" interaction with someone while trying to avoid deeper feelings to surface. The main problem with NO STRINGS ATTACHED isn't just that it fails as a serious exploration of that dilemma, but that it fails as a comedic one as well, because it tosses the "friends with benefits" issue aside in its first 20 minutes, then moves straight into Romcom 101 material, and then finishes it off with an ill-conceived final act. Therefore, the situations that are meant to be funny turn out to be flimsy and overly familiar rather than fresh or insightful. But hey, if it's worth something, it's one of Ashton Kutcher's best films.


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Love and Other Drugs

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 7 January 2011 02:38 (A review of Love & Other Drugs)

A romantic comedy will generally take one of two approaches to the subject of sex. If the movie is one of the dozens of cutesy and generic PG-13 efforts that get released every year, it'll likely skirt the sexual topics and focus only on "clothed" romance (which is, of course, unrealistic). The other approach we see often is that of the R-rated crude sex comedy in which sex isn't really explored as a serious subject, but more like a gratuitous gag; in those films, we'll often see naked women for no reason other than to please the teenaged boys in the audience, and if we ever see a guy naked, it'll often be in humiliating circumstances that are "meant" to be funny. The reason why LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is such a refreshing cinematic experience is that it rejects both of these alternatives. Sex is a very important aspect of the film's plot, but the film neither sanitizes the subject to make for a "cleaner" romcom nor does it treat it as something dirty and silly to get cheap laughs. The frank conversations that the two lead characters have about relationships and sex in the film are very much rooted in adult reality. Teenagers who have had sex but haven't been in serious relationships, or who are only interested in watching the film to see the leads naked, have no business attending a film as mature as LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS.

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a pharmaceutical sales representative, but the more important thing you should know about him is that he's a gargantuan schmoozer. He knows exactly which buttons to push when speaking to women and isn't afraid to let others know about his expertise. You'll be astounded by the logic he comes up with when he explains to his friend the reason why he keeps calling a woman by the wrong name every time he sees her. But Jamie may have finally met a woman who sees right through all his plays. One day, while Jamie is at a medical office trying to get the doctor to prescribe the samples he's selling, Jamie meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway), who is a patient. She suffers from stage 1 of Parkinson's disease, which means that she's completely normal, except that sometimes she has a hard time holding certain objects, opening containers, etc. After the requisite hesitation, Maggie agrees to go on a date with Jamie... and here is where the delightful unconventionality begins. During their date at the cafe, Maggie lays out all the things that she already knows Jamie was planning to tell her and all the motions that she knows he was going to go through to get her to have sex with him. At this point, we think "Oh well, guess he's not getting laid"... but surprise of surprises, Maggie wants the same thing Jamie wants. The term "friends with benefits" isn't mentioned, but it's exactly what they get into... that is, of course, until feelings start to develop and we discover that Jamie isn't really the smug and superficial guy we met at the beginning and that Maggie has issues that go way beyond her Parkinson's.

What I adore about the movie is that it's a genuine in-depth look at what happens in the bedroom during a relationship. And no, I don't mean the sex. Quite frankly, some people have overhyped the amount of nudity in the film, as if that were all that the film is about. There may be more nudity in the film than in other movies, but none of it is gratuitous. The intimacy that we get a wonderful look at in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS has to do with the insecurities people face when deciding how serious they want to get with someone they're with, and more so, when you don't really have any actual control over how far you want your feelings to go and other impulses do it for you. Maggie calls Jamie by his last name, which is an indirect way of trying to keep a distance from him, and not letting their relationship become too close and informal, and she tells him "I really like sex with you. Let's keep it that way." But a few days later, when Jamie has a slip of the tongue and says, "This is nice," he quickly becomes paranoid, and asks "Am I allowed to say that?"

There are two moments in particular that could've easily descended into crass romcom territory (since they both involve the lead male's penis), but LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS handles both of them with oodles of class. When Jamie's feelings for Maggie start going deeper than mere sexual desire, he suddenly has a hard time getting an erection, but instead of having this be a generic "Come on, dude!" mock sequence, we get something much more authentic. The pair of lovebirds stop their attempts at lovemaking and simply lay down and converse for a while. Note to other people out there who are writing/directing romcoms: this is what we call character development. Later on, there's the obligatory sequence in which someone takes a Viagra pill and ends up having a difficult time getting rid of the erection. The pleasant surprise here is how un-exaggerated the gag is - in fact, I was shocked that, once he arrives at the hospital, the film simply moves on to something else. But it was the best kind of shock, of course.

Oh, I haven't talked much about the "other drugs" yet. I'll admit that there's nothing special about the film's ostensible criticism of the medical drug industry. If there's supposed to be any solid criticism, the arrows are a little bit blunt. One may also argue that there's a bit of contrivance involved in Jamie having to suddenly change his approach to things, when he has to switch from being the arrogant drug salesman to the worried boyfriend who needs to get his girlfriend cured. Still, when you have a relationship that is so great to watch unfold smack in the middle of the film you're watching, it's easy to overlook those things. If LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS had focused exclusively on Jamie and Maggie's struggle to walk the fine line between being "friends with benefits" and being in a relationship, the movie would've easily been great: a more sexual version of BEFORE SUNRISE. I would've loved that.

Earlier this year, Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher committed the reprehensible sin of banking on their attractiveness to make for an appealing pair in KILLERS, a film that deserves to be forgotten (and with such a humdrum title, I can't imagine it'll be too hard). Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway could've easily done the same here, but they avoid it at all costs, and thanks in large part to their work, I can guarantee that LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS is a movie title that I'll remember much longer. The leads here don't let their looks get in the way of allowing them to represent vulnerable, relatable characters, and one of the reasons why that is so obvious is that, in the scenes that involve nakedness, we care more about what they're saying to each other than about the fact that they're naked. Oh, and the film has a terrific ending. No, it doesn't end with an over-the-top romantic final scene in which they kiss while the camera zooms out. It ends on a more subtle note, with some voice-over lines that capture more realities about people and relationships than a lot of films ever have.

It feels kind of like a breath of fresh air to have watched LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS after the much more somber and tragic BLUE VALENTINE. Both films are incredibly accurate in their portrayal of relationships, but LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, while not a rosy movie in the least bit, is about how to find happiness in spite of all the bad stuff that often afflicts couples. As I get ready to post my year-end blog and come up with my top 10 list for 2010, I can at least say with certainty that LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS will get an honorable mention, and for a romantic comedy that got a wide release, that's high praise. It's one of the funniest, most delightful and honest romantic comedies I've seen in a while.


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Blue Valentine

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 4 January 2011 10:41 (A review of Blue Valentine)

In a holiday season that has been full of so-called "Oscar contenders" that have been mostly decent yet nowhere close to greatness, BLUE VALENTINE has come along as the most refreshing of exceptions. Easily 2010's most powerful and devastating drama, the film benefits greatly from its unflinching commitment to realism and from two of the most raw and blood-curdling performances you'll see in the entire year. It's too bad that BLUE VALENTINE has gotten such a limited release, which may well affect its ability to be seen by awards voters, thus keeping it from getting the heavy amount of recognition that it absolutely deserves. Two years ago, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD gave us an amazing depiction of the implosion of a marriage in the 1950s, and now BLUE VALENTINE does just as expert a job at giving us the implosion of a modern marriage. This is the best example of painful-yet-emotionally-cathartic cinema that I've seen this year.

BLUE VALENTINE plays with the timelines (quite brilliantly, I should add), so for purposes of the synopsis, I'll just talk about what happens when we're first introduced to our characters. Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are a lower-middle class couple living with their daughter and dog. He works for a moving company and she works as a nurse in a doctor's office. There's a definite strain in their relationship, almost as if their marriage has lost the life it used to have. Perhaps to try to remedy that, Dean (who still gets as excited as a child whenever he comes up with a fun idea) decides they should leave their daughter with her grandfather for a night, and that they should go to one of those romantic "fantasy rooms" that they have in certain motels. The embittered Cindy, who resents Dean for still being so infantile and for not exploiting his "potential" as much as he could, skeptically agrees to go on the foray. As you might imagine, what happens at the motel isn't as rosy and romantic as what you would see in the dross of "relationship movies" that Hollywood doles out every year. The issues between Cindy and Dean are quite complicated, and the sexual dynamics here have devolved into something that will inevitably cause you to cringe.

Suddenly, the film starts cutting back to earlier times, and rather than going directly into showing us the sweet beginning of Cindy and Dean's relationship, we get the background on each of them individually before they meet. Dean is helping an old man move into a nursing home, while Cindy is there visiting her grandmother, and that's where it all begins. It turns out, though, that Cindy's future was a lot brighter at this point in time: she dressed a lot better and she had plans of going to medical school. It all gets complicated, though, when Dean starts wanting to date her, without knowing that Cindy's having sex with her teaching fellow, Bobby (Mike Vogel), who turns out to be a particularly vicious character. Cindy finally relents to Dean's charms and starts going out with him. It looks like Bobby's now out of the picture. When Cindy discovers something that seems to throw a wrench into everything and Dean decides to stick by her in spite of it, the relationship blossoms into something that we'd all like to think would last forever.

The first substantial conversation between Cindy and Dean happens during a bus ride, and the conversation is a freaking delight to listen to, not only because it sets up the goofiness that Cindy will initially be won over by yet eventually grow tired of, but because there are oodles of hilarity and reality in it. Dean makes a comment about how women who are as attractive as Cindy don't have to do much, and they can just be "crazy and unfunny" without caring about the consequences of that. Cindy wryly comments on how amazing it is that Dean can both compliment and insult her at the same time, and to prove him wrong about being unfunny, she tells a joke about a child molester that you will inevitably laugh SUPER hard at, regardless of how "wrong" it feels to find it funny. But then again, that's a good way to describe the overall experience of watching BLUE VALENTINE. It's incredibly sad and heart-breaking, yet it's impossible not to laugh at times, maybe because we find some of the situations familiar or maybe because, as everyone should know, you can find something amusing in even the darkest of circumstances.

BLUE VALENTINE ends on a somewhat jarring and indefinite note that makes the audience be unsure as to what's going to happen next with Cindy and Dean. Because of the way this moment is edited (still intercutting between the past and present), I have my own interpretation of what'll happen, but I can't really discuss it here without spoiling it for those who haven't seen it. What I WILL reveal to anyone reading this is that I got a feeling during the final moments of the movie that I haven't gotten in a long time while watching a film - in fact, the last time was 5 years ago, with Noah Baumbach's THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. I was sad that the movie had ended and that I couldn't spend more time with these characters. It's not often that I want a film to be longer, but there's no doubt that I would've wanted BLUE VALENTINE to go on for another half hour at least. On the one hand, it feels like a flaw of the movie, because it has left you wanting more, which would mean that it didn't satisfy you as much as it could've, but on the other hand, saying "These characters were so great that I wanted to spend even more time with them" sounds like nothing but praise - and it is. The only real problem that I had with the film has to do with its skimpy and haphazard development of the character of Bobby. We only get a glimpse at him, but the glimpse just portrays him as a one-dimensional frat boy type. The scene in which he and some buddies go to Dean's workplace to beat him up feels generic and like it doesn't belong in the film. Still, that's only a minor point.

It severely grates me that BLUE VALENTINE's limited release may mean no Oscar nominations for Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who give two of the most raw and honest performances of the year. If I had to pick what was the most difficult scene for me to watch in any movie this year, it would undoubtedly be the scene at the abortion clinic (and no, that's not a spoiler - watch the movie and you'll see why). Sure, the subject matter alone would've been enough to make for a disturbing scene, but Williams makes the scene as painful as nails on a chalkboard. Her fear and desperation are dreadfully palpable. By this point in the film, we've gotten to know Cindy and we care deeply about both her and Dean, and we don't want her to suffer. If you go see BLUE VALENTINE and don't feel as engrossed by it as I was, I plead with you to stay right until the end to witness Gosling's performance in the final moments in the kitchen. In this scene, Dean's implosion as a character is simply devastating. It's almost too much to take. Everything that he had been holding in during the film, hiding it under all the goofiness, comes out like venom. That's great acting in my book.

Though people have different tastes when it comes to films, if there's one thing that's a certainty, it's that going to the movies is escapism. It doesn't matter if you're going to laugh or to get scared or whatever: you're still getting away from your world and entering another. Some may see that as a bad thing because it might mean that you're avoiding your reality, but I don't see it that way. I like the world I live in, but I feel that going to the movies has the potential to be a fantastic, magical experience because you can plunge into a world you're not familiar with, and you can feel and learn things you wouldn't otherwise be exposed to. What a film like BLUE VALENTINE demonstrates is that you don't need the "movie world" to be fantasy-based for it to be a powerful experience. In fact, BLUE VALENTINE is as close to harsh reality as it gets, but that doesn't make the experience of watching it any less searing or affecting - quite the contrary. The film's naturalistic approach is terrific precisely because the emotional demons that emerge during the film are so authentic and relatable. BLUE VALENTINE is like a dark cousin to last year's (500) DAYS OF SUMMER in that it portrays the development of a relationship by playing with its timelines, sometimes exposing very interesting parallelisms/comparisons between what is happening in the present and what had happened in the past. While the two films are equally good, there's no doubt that this one is a lot less light-hearted. As dark relationship dramas go, BLUE VALENTINE is nothing short of amazing.


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Rabbit Hole

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 4 January 2011 10:39 (A review of Rabbit Hole)

For obvious reasons, RABBIT HOLE can't be recommended to any parent who has lost a son or daughter. As one character wisely puts it at one point, it's the type of tragedy that becomes easier to bear as time goes on, but it never really goes away. A parent who has been in that situation would be easily devastated by the memories that the film would bring back. But for the rest of us, RABBIT HOLE proves to be an engrossing and effective suburban drama. It may not be great, and it may not be the most heart-wrenching film you've ever seen, but considering how treacly most movies of this ilk are (I'm looking at you, MY SISTER'S KEEPER), RABBIT HOLE is a welcome surprise.

The film centers on Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), a couple living in a nice suburban house. Instead of tossing information straight into our face, the film chooses a subtle and gradual method to let us know that, a few months ago, they lost their 4-year-old son, Danny. It takes even longer for us to discover the "Why?", "Who?" and "How?" of Danny's death, and that's one of the aspects that makes RABBIT HOLE occasionally fascinating. It slowly reveals its layers until we finally get the entire story and understand the magnitude of the tragedy. Becca and Howie start going to a group therapy session, but on their first night, Becca is incredibly put off by the whole dynamic and decides not to go to the group anymore. Howie, on the other hand, likes the group and decides to start attending the meetings by himself. This leads him to start getting acquainted with Gaby (Sandra Oh), a woman who is also in the group and whose husband has also decided not to attend the meetings anymore. Meanwhile, although Becca is supposed to play the role of stay-at-home housewife, she chooses to spend her days in certain different (unexpected) ways. I'd rather not spoil it, because it's easily the film's most interesting aspect, but suffice it to say that she starts stalking a high school senior, Jason (Miles Teller), for reasons we're not initially aware of.

We get three "types" of scenes during RABBIT HOLE: 1) Becca and Howie's conversations and arguments at home, as they both clash with each other due to the different ways in which they're coping with Danny's death, 2) Becca's interactions with her mother and sister, who try to help alleviate Becca's grief, but the attempts sometimes have the opposite effect, and 3) Becca and Howie's forays when they're not with each other. The first two "types" of scenes work decently well, but often enter way too much into melodramatic territory (yes, even for a film about coping with the death of a 4-year-old). A few of the scenes feel "obligatory" in the sense that they feel like scenes that NEED to be included because of the fact that it's a film about parental bereavement. A good example is a scene in which Becca randomly lashes out at a woman at the grocery store because of how the woman was treating her son; many audience members will probably find the scene amusing, but for me, this felt like a moment that was obviously inserted to rouse the viewers more than anything else, almost as if the film felt the need to have a more action-based moment in order to give the audience a reprieve from all the dialogue-based scenes.

Without a doubt, though, RABBIT HOLE is at its strongest when it gives us a glimpse at what Becca and Howie individually go off to do when they're not with each other. It makes the film feel more like a character examination of how each of them is handling this dire situation (whereas the other two types of scenes just make it feel like too much of a straightforward suburban tragedy). There's nothing surprising about the quasi-relationship that materializes between Howie and Gaby, but their moments together are still very much pleasant to watch. A sequence involving their smoking weed and its consequences for how they react to people's comments at the meeting is particularly funny. However, the VERY best aspect of RABBIT HOLE comes with the interactions between Becca and high schooler Jason, whom we soon find out is the person who accidentally ran over Danny with his car. This is the most unconventional relationship between a culprit and the victim's loved one that I've ever seen in a movie, and if most of the film's running time had been dedicated to that, RABBIT HOLE would've easily been a great film. The conversations that these two have are great, in particular the one they have towards the end involving parallel universes, in which the two characters, without directly saying this to one another, feel some hope that maybe there's some other universe in which their situations are better than the sad reality they're facing.

The cast is uniformly good. Nicole Kidman has been getting a lot of acclaim for her performance, and while I agree that she's very good, I'm going to concur with what an IMDB user said about it on the message board for the film: "It's the kind of performance we've become jaded to." Hey, at least I was honest and didn't pretend like I came up with the comment. But it captures my feelings perfectly because when you've already been so mesmerized by someone's performance elsewhere (EYES WIDE SHUT and THE HOURS in this case) it's a little difficult to be too impressed with something that isn't AS great.

When RABBIT HOLE steps outside of the comfort zone of the familiar melodramatic scenes between husband and wife and instead takes us on the individual journey that each of these two characters goes through, the film has hints of greatness. But those moments don't account for the majority of the film's running time, which is why I can only go as far as saying that RABBIT HOLE is a good, albeit sometimes too mechanical, piece of dramatic filmmaking.


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Catfish

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 4 January 2011 10:39 (A review of Catfish)

It's AMERICAN TEEN all over again. I don't have that much of a problem if a documentary's authenticity is highly doubtful - sure, it goes against the very definition of the genre, but if the filmmakers can do something interesting with it, even if (in the case of a documentary) it looks like there was a bit of manipulation going on, then that's perfectly fine. What I DO have a problem with is if, aside from the documentary being an obvious hoax, the material it presents has already been treated and examined much better in other films (documentaries or not). It happened in 2008 with AMERICAN TEEN, and the makers of CATFISH have followed suit.

AMERICAN TEEN was a supposed "documentary" about high school kids and the drama they experience with their friends, families, their efforts to apply to college, etc. That's all fine and well, except that 1) many of the scenes were obviously staged and scripted, and more importantly, 2) we've seen all the cliches of high school dramas plenty of times in movies, TV shows and other documentaries. If AMERICAN TEEN had given us some insight on teenage angst, despite not being a "real" documentary, I would've easily recommended it, but alas, I couldn't do it. The same happens with CATFISH. It's a story about a guy who develops a long-distance relationship through the phone and Internet chatting with a girl who, from the pictures, looks gorgeous and right about his age.

The manipulation quickly becomes evident as the filmmakers are able to "capture" all the facebook updates and chats that the guy has on the computer with the girl, and we even get to hear her on the other line during the phone conversations (more on that later). There's a scene later in the film in which the guy and his friends are at a restaurant and a waitress just randomly starts talking about how people often lie about who they are on the Internet. If we didn't know what was coming by this point, these particular (clearly scripted) lines of dialogue by the waitress should be a clear clue.

The reason why I can't give a lot of credit to CATFISH is that, aside from clearly not being a true documentary, this is essentially plagiarism from stories that have been documented elsewhere, often much more effectively. Two recent films, EASIER WITH PRACTICE and TALHOTBLOND (the last of which is actually a documentary that is much better than CATFISH, and I have no doubt of its authenticity) have treated the exact same subject. CATFISH has just taken the story portrayed in those two films and pretended to make a "real" story of its own.

As you'll have predicted, the supposed hottie doesn't turn out to be who she was claiming to be. The worst part about this supposed revelation is actually the fact that you can't LEGALLY record a telephone conversation without the other person's consent (let alone for a documentary). So, apparently, even though the person on the phone was a "fake", he/she gave their consent to the filmmakers to record the conversations in which he/she was pretending to be someone else. Right on.

Sure, just like AMERICAN TEEN, the film is still entertaining. AMERICAN TEEN was enjoyable in the way you would enjoy an episode of a contrived high school sitcom, while CATFISH is enjoyable in the way you would enjoy an episode of "48 Hours Investigation" in which you're being told a true story, but you get occasional scenes in which some actors "dramatize" what happened. As much as we can predict what's gonna happen at the end of CATFISH, it's still somewhat interesting to see it pan out. But that alone isn't enough to make for a good film; I think moviegoers have a right to expect something of higher caliber than a "48 Hours Investigation" episode.

To make matters worse, the final act of CATFISH is thoroughly cringe-inducing. There's a scene in which the culprit apologizes for the deception, and well, considering that we've accepted that CATFISH is totally fictional, I'll admit that the person does give a good performance as he/she breaks down at the end. But during that scene, it's hard not to think about how obvious it is that the lines this person is delivering were clearly written out. To put it simply, this isn't how people talk in real life. But the film has even worse problems in its final act. There's an obviously tacked-on, incredibly forced scene in which a character delivers an out-of-the-blue monologue in which we're supposed to get the connection of the film's title to the overall story. Needless to say, this falls flat on its face, lacks any authenticity and feels insulting more than anything else. Even worse, the film contradicts itself in its coda, first going to great lengths to humanize its "villain," yet making a total u-turn in the obligatory captions that come up before the credits. If you're going to "make up" a story and try to sell it as real, at least look up the definition of "catharsis" and do some research on how to tie up a story's loose ends.

Because the interactions between the long-distance lovebirds happen mostly through Facebook, CATFISH could've actually served as a great companion piece to this year's magnificently timely THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Alas, despite not being an actual documentary featuring the real Mark Zuckerberg, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a million times more effective and carries much more honesty than the hoax that is CATFISH could ever offer us. Just like AMERICAN TEEN, the film offers an entertaining story, but it's one we've heard dozens of times already, and to make matters worse, it insults the audience by trying to trick them into believing it's real. It's time for filmmakers out there to realize that we're smarter than that.


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Conviction

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 29 December 2010 12:24 (A review of Conviction)

CONVICTION will surely play in the Lifetime Movie Network sooner than we expect. This film is a fine way to pass the time for those who don't actually CARE much about movies and simply go to the theater on a random Sunday afternoon in which there's nothing else to do. Those people won't mind the fact that they'll always be two steps ahead of CONVICTION. This film epitomizes the whole "going through the motions" routine. There's not a single revelation, not even the tiniest plot point that comes as a surprise or that is grounded in anything original and/or creative.

Sure, some may argue that, since it's based on actual events, the film can't help being truthful to the events and showing them exactly as they happened, even if the progression of those events is identical to plots we've seen a hundred times. However, when I criticize CONVICTION's predictable and vapid nature, I'm not referring so much to the outcome of the whole story as I am to the NUANCES of each particular scene. Every scene in the film feels so damn procedural and obligatory. This is one of those cases where if you've seen the trailer, you've seen the movie, and this was particularly dispiriting for me, because as a frequent moviegoer, I had seen the trailer for CONVICTION more times than I cared for. You can imagine how disappointing it is to watch a full-length feature that hardly expands on the trite three-minute trailer you had already seen so many times.

The only reason why CONVICTION headed directly to theaters before hitting the Lifetime Movie Network is that it's got a stellar cast, full of Oscar nominees. Because of that, the acting is top-notch, but that hardly matters. When something is this pedestrian, Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell can work their magic all they want and give us occasional respite, but "occasional" isn't enough to warrant a recommendation. Juliette Lewis is particularly strong playing a grimy, beat-up character who becomes crucial towards the film's denouement, but her screen time is too limited for me to go as far as saying that she "saves" the movie.

CONVICTION has all the ingredients in it to be a powerful motion picture. While I can't say that it's "powerless," the film lacks that extra oomph to make it a worthwhile drama. This is the type of plot that is supposed to make us feel like a lot is at stake, yet there's an incredibly dissatisfying feeling of "safety" throughout the entire film because it all feels so straightforward and belabored. A waste of a great true story.


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True Grit

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 24 December 2010 01:50 (A review of True Grit)

I try not to let expectations get the best of me when it comes to movies, but sometimes it's impossible to avoid it, especially when you're looking forward to the work of one of your favorite directors (or, well, two of them, in this case). Ethan and Joel Coen don't just direct and write their films; they also produce them, which isn't necessarily something that everyone will notice. Why is it an important detail? If they're the producers, they surely have some say in whether their films will be released in small independent venues first, or if they'll simply go on wide release right off the bat. The Coen brothers chose the first alternative when they released two of their most recent (and most magnificent) films: the 2007 best picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and last year's A SERIOUS MAN. But they chose the second option for their latest film, the straight-up Western TRUE GRIT. Why? Accessibility. I'm not referring to physical accessibility. I'm talking about how "accessible" a film is to the general public: is the movie mainstream enough, or is it too quirky for people's comfort?

And that, I'm sorry to say, has a lot to do with why for the first time ever, I find that I have to give a rotten rating to a Coen brothers movie. I hate to do it, because I do think that TRUE GRIT is reasonably entertaining, and as is always the case with their films, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. But those two things alone aren't quite enough to warrant a recommendation. Maybe they would be if this film had been made by someone else, but as I said, as much as I want to be objective, it's very difficult to avoid the expectations I develop when I'm looking forward to the work of filmmakers I love. I rejoiced in the delightful unconventionality of films like FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN, and even of 2008's not-as-great BURN AFTER READING, but when I watch something as straightforward and un-quirky as TRUE GRIT, I can't help feeling like something is missing.

The film is a tale of revenge in which a 14-year-old girl, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), sets out to avenge the death of her father. This had all the potential to be the type of story that the Coens could easily do something great with, because of how unexpected it is to have such a young character who is tough-as-nails. I think the main reason why I simply can't give TRUE GRIT a recommendation has to do with some of the things that the film wants the audience to simply "accept" as givens. Right off the bat, we're supposed to believe that Mattie is this fast-talking, incredibly-smart-beyond-her-years character. I have no problem suspending my disbelief for a juicy story, but I do have a problem if the WAY in which I'm asked to suspend my disbelief makes it hard for me to do so. We're supposed to believe that Mattie knows what the word "braggadocio" means, and that she's got the brain of a law school student, as she knows what a writ of replevin is and the difference between malum in se and malum prohibitum. In this year's earlier KICK-ASS we were also asked to suspend our disbelief and accept the fact that an 11-year-old girl was a cunning, deadly human weapon. That film earned it. I can't say the same for TRUE GRIT - in this case, the Coen brothers' usually delightful smart dialogue makes the experience awkward because it's difficult to believe it coming from this character's mouth.

There's absolutely nothing unpredictable about Mattie's pursuit of her father's murderer or about her experiences with the people who accompany her on this expedition. Like I said, I wouldn't normally mind this, but because the Coen brothers thrive so much on unconventionality, it's dispiriting. I felt a twinge of hope towards the end when, in an unexpected turn of events, it SEEMS that Mattie is about to be left alone with her father's killer and it seems that perhaps these two characters will be forced to sit alone and talk to each other without being able to physically attack one another. At this point, I was PRAYING that right here we would get a Coen-like dialogue exchange in which the killer's perspective on things would offer us something enlightening or surprising, but no. All we get is a typical final showdown, and to make things worse, the way in which the murderer is dispatched is kind of lackluster and will easily give viewers a deflating feeling: "I've been waiting an hour and a half for THAT?"

Thankfully, at certain points during the film, there are certain hints of the Coens' signature humor, which is why I'm still giving TRUE GRIT a middling review. An early scene in which Mattie engages in a battle of wits over money with an old man is hilarious, and the final outcome of the battle is brilliant. A witty moment involving the misspelling of the word "futile" is particularly funny, but then again, it made me nostalgic of the much better quips like that that we got to hear last year in A SERIOUS MAN. Some may argue that it wasn't possible for the Coens to inject the same type of quirkiness into TRUE GRIT that they have into other movies because the brothers are limited by the fact that the film is a Western and that it's based on a novel, but that argument isn't valid, because ANY filmmaker (especially people as intelligent as these two sibling directors) can cannily use creative license to give a fresh spin to a story. The Coens already did it with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (a more modern Western, sure, but it was also based on a work of literature) and the results were amazing. There was no reason not to do the same with TRUE GRIT, except perhaps to satisfy mainstream audiences and disappoint those of us who want something more sophisticated.

There's nothing wrong with young Hailee Steinfeld's performance as the little fireball in TRUE GRIT, except for the problem that I expressed already: the fact that it's impossible to believe the character's verbiage makes it impossible for the performance to go the extra mile. Jeff Bridges is getting much buzz for his performance, though it's hard not to feel like this is something he could've done in his sleep. He just plays the "mean, slightly drunk guy" routine, and during the entire film, we only get to see one of his eyes, so it's not like he has much space to exhibit much range. You certainly can't compare this to the greatness of his performance in last year's CRAZY HEART, for which he won a much-deserved Academy Award.

If you read my review of last year's A SERIOUS MAN, you may be able to understand why my feelings towards TRUE GRIT are so different. Say what you want, but there's definitely a reason why a film like A SERIOUS MAN was only released in arthouses whereas TRUE GRIT can be found in any multiplex. The former film is so much more nuanced and intelligent, and it teems with great dialogue. It's my kind of movie, and I realize that the mainstream audience doesn't feel the same way and I accept it. TRUE GRIT is a film that takes a lot less risks and is not difficult to understand at all. Most people will love it as a source of entertainment in the holiday season. But to me, it's frustratingly bland and dull. Considering what a severely weak year in cinema 2010 has been, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that TRUE GRIT turned out to be a disappointment. Unless I'm wowed by a few of the films that I'll be watching during the next few weeks, my top 10 list for this year may be one of the dreariest I've compiled in a long time. I was hoping that TRUE GRIT would be on it, but the film underwhelmed me to no end.


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