Star Trek (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
While investigating reports of lightning storms in space, U.S.S. Kelvin, a Federation vessel, is attacked by a gargantuan Romulan ship. Nero (Eric Bana) demands the U.S.S. Kelvin’s captain (Faran Tahir) to reveal the location of Ambassador Spock. Meanwhile, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is assigned to oversee and ensure safe evacuation of the ship. As luck would have it, his pregnant wife (Jennifer Morrison) goes on labor.
Infused with wild energy, charming performances, and an imaginative script, “Star Trek,” directed by J.J. Abrams, made me pay attention to a franchise I had no interest in whatsoever. It understands the art of intrigue. While names like “Kirk” and “Spock” are easily recognizable names, it is a curiosity–to non- or semi-fans anyway–how these characters so opposite in personalities will learn to set their differences aside and form a team that saves lives both human and alien.
After a moving opening sequence, a parallel is immediately established between James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). They struggle to keep their emotions in check, an element that they must learn to reroute and control if they were to successfully become leaders and partners in the U.S.S. Enterprise. As a child, it is suggested that Kirk has a lot of anger due to not having a stable father figure. Over time, he drinks and gets in trouble with the law. Meanwhile, Spock is bullied for being a half-blood, his father a Vulcan and his mother a human. His anger for being considered less than festers within.
Despite the non-stop action after revving its engine and flying into the depths of space, the script has enough humor to keep it grounded, from Jim pursuing Uhura (Zoe Saldana), an ace xenolinguist, to physical stunts that go awry somewhat or completely off the rails. The comedy usually functions as release during the more intense sequences. The scene involving three characters diving through the atmosphere and attempting to land on a drill that works as a signal jammer has an excellent balance of thrill and laughter.
The more overt visuals are spectacular, but I was most impressed during the early scenes that take place on Earth. I liked the way a flying cop vehicle feels so right chasing a kid driving a car clocking in at over eighty miles per hour–with the Beastie Boys blasting from the speakers, no less. There is also a bar where humans and aliens can go to have drinks. A feeling of integration, I think, is crucial if we are requested to buy into a universe where humans can time warp and explore various alien worlds and cultures.
It might have benefited from establishing a more interesting villain. Nero does a lot of snarling and bossing around but at times I was bored by him. The talk about his planet and family–yada-yada-yada–get old after a short while. Not once do we see him step off his ship and actually do what he needs to be done. If I wanted to hear more yelling, I would rather watch more in-fighting within the U.S.S. Enterprise, the power struggle between Spock and Kirk.
“Star Trek,” written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, emphases how disparate characters come together to form a team that we, as intelligent audiences who care about motivations as well as stellar sci-fi action, can stand behind and root for. We remember the adventures not because things explode–since those are a dime a dozen–or implode–less common–but because we understand and feel the chemistry among the key players.
All the Days Before Tomorrow (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Wes (Joey Kern) and Alison (Alexandra Holden) are late twenty-somethings who had the possibility of sharing something more but they ultimately settle for being friends–nothing more–because the circumstances that surround them are never quite right. Wes is woken up by a telephone call from Alison who suggests meeting and catching up before her flight to Tokyo the following morning. Wes agrees, albeit reluctantly, because they have not seen each other for a year. Then the film presents two flashbacks: one from two years ago when Wes and Alison first meet in Canada and one from a year ago during their road trip across a desert.
“All the Days Before Tomorrow,” written and directed by François Dompierre, is supposed to be romantic but it fails to grab my interest by overturning, even in the most minute ways, what is to be expected within its sub-genre. It relies on us, on our own experiences, to make assumptions about whatever the central are supposed to have (or not have) and or feel (or not feel) in their “relationship.” We might as well be staring at a mirror. It is not specific in terms of what it wishes to convey. There is a lot of whining, a trial to sit through.
I liked Wes; he is a bit reserved, has a laid-back attitude but never disinterested, and he knows how to respect other people’s space. On the other hand, Alison is very annoying. She loves to talk about her ex-boyfriends and how much fun she had with them, she touches everything that captures her attention (and lacks the common sense to put the objects back to their respective places), and most of the things that come out of her mouth are either lacking in tact or are completely offensive. She considers herself as “honest”; I thought she was foolish, rude, and lacking in self-esteem.
Perhaps the point is they are opposites and, according to the saying, opposites tend to attract. But not in this case. The guy is charming and has genuine insight. He deserves better than a woman who is vapid and inconsiderate. When Alison notices that one of Wes’ habits is putting moisturizer on his face, she calls him a metrosexual; in her own words: that he is “gay but likes women.” I caught myself rolling my eyes and scoffing at her because it is clear she has no idea what she is talking about. She also has other put-downs directed to the guy who she supposedly considers her friend. For example, she claims that it is impossible to take good pictures of him. Did it occur to her that maybe she is just no good behind the camera?
Never mind my problems with Alison. The film starts gratingly awkward and it ends pretty much the same way. Despite the flashbacks, there is no arc or a realization that maybe we are judging a character too hastily, easily, or harshly. The screenplay is malnourished.
And what is with Wes’ dream sequences involving a man called El Doctor (Richard Roundtree)? Not only did the dreams disrupt the narrative, they come off pretentious because the characters essentially speak in circles and metaphysical code. It is a tangential quirk that tries too hard to seem original.
If “All the Days Before Tomorrow” shows us anything it is that creating a believable romance requires more than the basic ingredients of a man, a woman, and the two having opposite personalities or perspective of the world. It is about the actors having fun with each other and turning that awkward energy into something cute or sad or tragic–anything but boring. They must have chemistry. You know that a would-be romantic film is not working when you desperately hope that the better half will eventually meet someone at a party and leave the other in a pathetic puddle of well-deserved shame and self-pity.
★★★ / ★★★★
The driver of a stagecoach (Andy Devine) and a sheriff (George Bancroft) on the lookout for Ringo Kid (John Wayne), a man who has recently broken out of prison, are ready to take their passengers from Tonto, New Mexico to Lordsburg. But just before they are about to leave, a military lieutenant (Tim Holt) warns them that if they decide to go on their journey, they are likely to encounter a group of hostile Apache Indians.
One of the central motifs in “Stagecoach,” based on the screenplay by Dudley Nichols and directed by John Ford, consists of opposite elements colliding–the splendor of the desert landscape and its disregard for those who trek across the heat, the wildlife, and strangers with unknown intentions–the contradictory byproducts the reason why the story feels so vibrant and alive.
For example, some of the men and women in the stagecoach, especially Ms. Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), are considered “uncivilized” by members of their community. The two are essentially banished from Tonto for being a lustful woman and a drunkard, respectively. But as the group crosses the unknown “savage” territory to get to another “civilized” town, it is shown that although they are treated like pariahs, they are just like everyone else in that when thrusted into the wilderness, they must react to and do whatever is necessary to survive and get through another day.
The heart of the film lies in the growing romance between Ringo and Ms. Dallas. Both carry an unwanted label, a criminal and a prostitute, but Ringo is not aware of Ms. Dallas’ line of work. Pain is seen in her eyes as he tries to get to know her but she remains reluctant, always on the defensive, to reveal all of herself to him. She is embarrassed of her background and she cannot find the courage to disclose her shame. Hiding it, though it keeps them apart, is, for her, an act of loving him back.
There is an excellent scene between Ms. Dallas and Doc Boone in the hallway, after Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) has given birth, where she asks the doctor if it is a good idea to accept Ringo’s marriage proposal and run away to Mexico. Doc Boone, uncharacteristically sober and without comedic jolt that is found in many of his scenes, looks at her with tender intensity as if she were his own daughter and says, even though they know almost nothing about each other, that it is a good idea. It is irrelevant if Doc Boone does or does not believe his own answer. What matters is, although he is constantly under a state of insensibility, he recognizes that it just might be what Ms. Dallas wishes to hear at the time.
Eventually, the colorful characters find themselves being chased across the desert by the Apaches. The scene is shot with effervescence, increasing momentum, and lyricism. The approaching Apaches can be interpreted as a symbol of the characters’ sins catching up to them. For a long time, it seems like no matter how hard or creative our protagonists try to evade their pursuers, the Indians just kept on coming like a tidal wave. It is thrilling, even scary at times. Every time the camera moves inside the horse-drawn vehicle to get a reaction shot, the claustrophobia reaches a peak.
But the film, I think, is evokes a small but important layer hope. That is, if one has the determination to swim against the ugly prejudice of others as well as one’s own, winning the battle becomes a real possibility. The rest just might fall into place.
Blues Brothers, The (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) picks up his brother, Jake (John Belushi), from prison, they head straight to the Catholic orphanage they grew up in. They are told by the nun who raised them (Kathleen Freeman) that the place owes five thousand dollars worth of taxes to the county. The church chose not to pay this money so that, if the bill is not settled within two weeks, the place would have to be sold to the Board of Education. Jake and Elwood have an idea: get The Blues Brothers Band together, which will be a challenge because the former members are holding new jobs and leading new lives, and throw a concert for lovers of good ol’ rhythm and blues.
Written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis, “The Blues Brothers” is musical comedy with flavor, pizzazz, and a sense of humor so infectious, what might seem silly or absurd on paper translates beautifully onto film. Its willingness to take risks constantly, like pushing a twenty-second gag of car chases to about five minutes utter destruction (sans casualty), sometimes longer, without losing its vigor, creates many scenes worth remembering. It establishes a universe that is fun to look at and even more enjoyable to listen to.
As plenty of comedies have shown, it is tempting to rest on a one-note joke. A couple of crooks deciding to earn money honestly is rife with irony so it is easy to recycle the elements that makes the situation amusing. Instead of traversing a well-worn path, it attempts to break out from the template by living up to the oddities in the screenplay. For instance, as Jake and Elwood visit various places, they are followed by a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who seems intent on killing them. She wields a bazooka, is knowledgeable about setting up explosives, and she even has a flamethrower. Who is this woman and how does she know exactly where her targets will be?
Part of the charm of the brothers is that although we are told that they have a long history with getting in trouble with the law, there is an innocence and goodness about them. They wear black suits, black hats, and black sunglasses but there they are not especially tough or mean. They walk in and out of places and through people’s lives and they appear almost incorruptible. Interestingly, although many wild occurrences unfold around them, they command an endearing calmness. They bicker twice or thrice but the film holds onto their love for one another. Jake and Elwood come alive, almost like different people, when performing on stage.
The songs are joyous and brilliantly performed. My favorite was by Aretha Franklin, playing as one of the owners of Soul Food Cafe, as she tries to convince her husband (Matt Murphy) to think twice about rejoining the dismantled band. I loved that it takes place in a simple but comfortable cafe, the wife singing her lungs out, dancing in stained clothing, and even less fancy footwear. I was so into the moment, I wanted to sing along and dance. Also, I could not help but imagine how it would be like if people actually burst into songs to express how they really feel or think. It creates a fantasy. The medium is created in the first place to accomplish this very thing.
Directed by John Landis, “The Blues Brothers” has plenty of surprises, from the most unlikely cameos to the way an increasingly complicated situation unspools. The level of humor, too, is fluid in changing gears depending on the personality of the character, or characters, being targeted or breaking a mood on its way to becoming stale. On top of it all, it never loses track that music is a reason for celebration.
Räuber, Der (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), incarcerated for armed robbery, has been released from prison. A parole officer (Markus Schleinzer) is assigned to guide and take note of how well he is integrating to society. Those who know Johann know that he has a passion for running in marathons. Even when he was in prison, he remained focused on his training. But what they do not know is that one of his hobbies involves putting on a mask, having a shotgun in hand, and robbing banks all over Austria. It is based on a true story.
“Der Räuber,” based on the screenplay by Benjamin Heisenberg and Martin Prinz, plays the extraordinary events rather small, personalizing rather than sensationalizing, so it works as a drama about a person who is haunted by an overwhelming addiction, it seems the only way he will stop is when he is dead.
The reason why Johann robs banks is never clear. A few might say it is about the money because he is without a job, but not once do we see him spending it. Some might consider that it is a way to relieve stress, but running for long distances can accomplish the same. Others might claim that it is for the sake of adrenaline, a race against time, as he does when he trains, before the cops arrive and put him back in jail. No matter what the reason, however, we see the physical, emotional, and psychological ramifications of his obsession.
His desire to push what he is capable of to the extremes costs him potentially healthy and meaningful relationships. Though he gets into a relationship with Erika (Franziska Weisz), a woman he knew prior to his incarceration, their interactions are often cold. Their love scenes indoors are not sexy, shot under a shade too dark to see anything, to see if the experience is enjoyable for either of them. While outdoors, they act more like strangers or, at best, acquaintances. A case can be argued that Johann’s loyalty is not to her but to whatever it is that forwards his goals most.
The robberies are shot in a very clinical way. Our attention is on the event, while still anticipating that something might go wrong, because there is no score or soundtrack that distracts. Because of the silence, with the exception of nervous shuffling of employees demanded to fill the black bag with cash, there is natural sense of urgency is created. Similar qualities can be observed during the chase scenes. When he is not safe, we hear nothing but breathing, footsteps hitting the pavement, occasional chatter from onlookers, and his body hitting objects like doors, walls, and bodies that happen to be in the way.
What I found strange is that even though I knew that Johann is wrong to rob banks, I found myself rooting for him not to get caught. Perhaps this would not have been the case if the screenplay showed Johann committing murder in cold blood–like the real person, Johann Kastenberger, in which the main character is based on.
Based on the novel by Martin Prinz and directed by Benjamin Heisenberg, “The Robber” is an appropriately muted picture that inspires the audience to drill deeply into the mind of a person so unwilling to let others into his life due to the possibility of disrupting his routine. One way or another, we know someone like him. Even I saw a part of myself in him from time to time which might explain why I did not want to see him back behind bars.
Parental Guidance (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Having not taken a vacation as a couple for five years, exhausted Alice (Marisa Tomei) and Phil (Tom Everett Scott) are in desperate need for someone to take care of their three children for a week. Phil calls his parents but it turns out they have made prior plans. Alice, who is not very close to her parents because they often disagree about parenting, telephones her mom and dad, Diane (Bette Midler) and Artie (Billy Crystal), and the former half is ecstatic. Diane sees it as a perfect opportunity to bond with her grandchildren especially since they have not seen each other in over a year. Artie surrenders to the idea.
“Parental Guidance,” written by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, goes for all sorts of laughs, from disgusting bodily projectiles to clever double-sided compliments that pack a wallop, so it is easy to appeal to the entire family. As a whole, its ability to tickle is largely hit-or-miss. When it is funny, its tickles linger but when it isn’t, it is deserving of groans for trying too hard to make something out of nothing.
Each character on screen has a specific personality or quirk. When it comes to the children, Harper (Bailee Madison) is the high achiever, Turner (Joshua Rush) is the stutterer, and Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) has an imaginary friend that happens to be a kangaroo. They are brats at times but they are not completely unbearable so the eventual changes the screenplay require them to go through do not feel too forced. Each gets enough time to spend with both grandparents, but I liked that a kid becomes closer to one more than the other. It is like that in real life.
The type of parenting in the smart house’s household frustrated me at times and this is a good thing. I liked that I had a strong reaction to it. Call me traditional but I scoff at the “modern” parenting these days. It feels too lax. For example, this is a family that employs techniques that include telling a child “Consider the consequences” instead of a more authoritative “Don’t.” It is not a surprise, at least to me, that the parents are tired and the kids have so many problems. I was brought up in a family with defined rules and I think I turned out okay. While it seems jokey here, I have met and know parents like Alice and Phil and the children they have are… incorrigibly wretched. Not always but often.
There is a subplot involving Artie being fired from his job as a baseball announcer. His employer thinks he is not “modern” enough: he does not have a Facebook, owns not one app, and does not even know what “hashtagging” means. The termination hurts him because his job is his passion and I would like to have seen his sadness communicated more deeply. There is a wonderful scene between Artie and Turner that involves closing their eyes and listening to the New York Giants’ victory over Brooklyn Dodgers in ’51. There is a real connection there that goes unstated and it made me miss my late grandpa. I wished we had at least one chance to talk about his passion, his career in law enforcement.
Directed by Andy Fickman, the stars of “Parental Guidance” are, without a doubt, the grandparents played by Crystal and Midler. Their exchanges are funny and at times corny, but it is easy to recognize why Artie and Diane have stayed married over the years. Nothing in or about the picture is especially deep but it is occasionally funny and rarely dull.
★★ / ★★★★
Griffin (Kevin James), a zookeeper, takes his girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), to the beach on a horseback to propose marriage. She declines because she feels that he being zookeeper, though cute because of the uniform, is not a respectable profession for someone she hopes to spend the rest of her life with.
Five years later, Griffin is single and still a zookeeper. On his brother’s wedding, he spots Stephanie in the crowd and his feelings for her begin to resurface. It turns out the animals in the zoo (voiced by Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph, Bas Rutten) can speak to one another and understand human language so they hold a meeting on how to help Griffin get the girl.
Directed by Frank Coraci, “Zookeeper” has several snappy dialogue, mostly between the animals, but it does not quite reach its full comedic potential because it is often weighed down by a romance that is dead on arrival.
Griffin is a kind person, one who will go out of his way to make sure that a friend or an animal is doing well, but he is a pushover and somewhat unaware of what people think of him as well as what they really want from him. The picture spends most of its time showing Griffin desperately trying to win Stephanie back. She is so unlikable, the complete opposite of Kate (Rosario Dawson), the zoo’s veterinarian and Griffin’s good friend, to the point where their scenes leave me either cringing or annoyed.
Would it have taken much effort from the writers to have written both women as having good and bad qualities? That way, allowing a certain level of uncertainty might compel us to feel more involved. Since the characterization is so thin and one-dimensional, from the moment Kate appears on screen, we know that Stephanie will get what she deserves.
I wanted to see Griffin interact more with the talking animals. The film does a good job in allowing Griffin to get to know Bernie (Nolte), a sad gorilla who has isolated himself from the other animals. Their trip to T.G.I.F. is completely ludicrous but it worked for me because it shows Griffin’s ability to sympathize and accept unconditionally, qualities that Stephanie does not (or cannot) show toward our protagonist.
It is not and should not be about whether the situation is believable. If the material has talking animals, the filmmakers better be confident in going all the way. They are and, in its own peculiar way, it works. I wished the screenplay had also given Griffin a chance to interact with the other animals in a meaningful way. For example, there are several lines which suggest that the elephant is teased by the other animals for being overweight. Since the movie is supposed to be for kids, there could have been a lesson or two about making fun of someone for being too fat or too tall or too weird.
Nevertheless, “Zookeeper” manages to keep itself afloat. Some of the dialogue, like the line involving parrots, is smart and it is easy to root for Griffin to find happiness. It just requires a little bit more rhythm in balancing the offbeat and the charm.
Drive Angry (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Milton (Nicolas Cage) breaks out of Hell to return to the land of the living in order to rescue his granddaughter, an infant, from being sacrificed by a religious cult leader, Jonah King (Billy Burke), the very same man who murdered Milton’s daughter because she wanted to resign from the cult. While sipping black coffee at a diner, Milton takes notice of a kind but tough waitress, Piper (Amber Heard). He asks her to give him a ride and she decides to help. Before she knew it, she is an integral part of Milton’s mission to hunt down the zealots. Meanwhile, The Accountant (William Fichtner), Satan’s right-hand man, is assigned to bring the escapee back to where he belongs.
Written by Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier, “Drive Angry” is not without ambition but it is so sloppily put together, there is barely a glimpse of a story we can invest in. Its many attempts to exude excitement comes in a form as basic as shooting and blowing things up.
Milton is supposed to be a grandfather on a bloody rampage and will do absolutely anything to save the baby. His mission might not have been so unbelievable if he isn’t so easily distracted, especially by the opposite sex. For someone who has literally escaped Hell, his weakness is women? Really? When a blonde waitress at a bar makes passes at him, the very next scene shows them having sex. As Jonah’s henchmen come barging in like wild animals, Milton grabs his gun with one hand and uses the other to keep the woman attached to him until all the assailants are dead and bloody.
But it does not stop there. The whole thing is shown in painful slow motion. Since we can see where the attackers are located prior to raising their weapons, tension is sucked out of the scene. It looks pretty, I suppose, but only for about five seconds. It glorifies violence by making it look like an elegant dance. As many of us should know, violence is anything but.
It leaves a confusing message. The woman releases moans of pleasure during the shootout yet she is left traumatized after the fact. If the writers had managed to put the same amount of thought in the implications as much as the visuals, they might have had a film worth cooking and it might not have been insulting. Other scenes run similar to this, only increasingly less interesting due to diminishing returns.
And then there is the question involving Milton’s state of being human. Yes, he is unable to die, but what is so special about him that he is one of the very few to have escaped from the land of the dead? Not enough backstory is given to us and Cage’s somewhat relaxed–some might say narcotic–performance does not help. Following Milton on his journey is like watching a robot doing the same tricks over and over again. For someone who has broken out of Hell, he sure does get boring fast.
“Drive Angry,” directed by Patrick Lussier,” tries to be cheeky in order to have variations in tone between action sequences, but it fails to work because every event feels contrived. Instead, it comes off so desperate, it forces some characters to actually wink at the audiences before doing something naughty, like they need our approval.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tommy (Matt Smith) and Rebecca (Eva Green) met when they were children while the latter is temporarily staying at his grandfather’s house. Her family has plans of immigrating to Tokyo, Japan. Twelve years later, Rebecca visits Tommy with hopes of continuing their special friendship–one that might lead to romance. The reunion proves to be a breath of fresh air for both of them. On the way to cause mass hysteria in the city involving cockroaches, Rebecca tells Tommy she needs to urinate. Tommy pulls over next to a field. As Rebecca walks away, she hears Tommy getting out of the vehicle, the accompanying sudden halt of another vehicle, and a deafening thud of a lifeless body hitting the pavement.
Written and directed by Benedek Fliegauf, “Womb” is surprising in that it avoids hyperbole considering its subject matter. After Tommy’s funeral, Rebecca decides to clone her deceased lover, carry the child in her womb, and raise him as if she were his own. There is a pool of questions worth bringing up and answering, like how the cloned Tommy would be different given the disparities in the environment where original Tommy was raised, but it focuses on one issue: Can romantic love be turned into love for one’s “child”? And if so, as an audience, do we consider it acceptable or morally repugnant? How about when the child turns into an adult? Is it still distasteful? Let us not forget that Rebecca and the clone do not share the same DNA. Is it considered incest?
The film is shot in a way that inspires us to turn inwards. There are plenty of scenes that take place indoors and the howling of fierce winds can be heard from within. We get the impression that there is something ominous brewing outside. And perhaps there is. We get a taste of regular folks’ discrimination toward “copies.” As many of us know, discrimination can lead to hate and hate can lead to violence.
Colors are drained of their vibrancy. Rebecca’s world feels like a never-ending winter. The snow can symbolize her grief. Though she is able to, in a way, being her lover back to life, the clone is not the same person. The clone loves her… but as a mother, not a partner in life. Green is quite good in evoking the need to love the child emotionally while struggling to keep the physical aspect out of it. We watch closely as her character is enticed to cross that line. Through the quiet and slow unspooling of the screenplay, we are mesmerized and fascinated about what goes on in Rebecca’s mind. If she can clone her lover, carry him to term, and raiser her as her own, what line is she not willing to cross?
“Womb” gets some interesting critiques. More than a few have expressed feeling disturbed that the camera shows nakedness of children. (No private frontal part is shown, just one shot of buttocks, a boy who is shirtless and at times wearing nothing but underwear.) I did not feel wrong about it because I think it ties into the story.
For example, in the latter half, when Rebecca looks at her “son” who may or may not be wearing much, we wonder what she might be thinking. Is she thinking about her time as a girl when she and Tommy innocently slept in the same bed? Is she thinking about something that could put her in jail? With the former half, I chalk it up to the writer-director’s intention of creating a world that feels realistic despite the fact that human cloning is very possible. When I was a kid, I would just be in my underwear at home sometimes. It doesn’t feel exploitative. It certainly is not pornographic.
A better question is not whether the film leans toward pedophilia from a technical standpoint, but how come none of the residents around the small town recognizes that Rebecca’s “son” looks exactly like the original Tommy as a child? That bothered me a lot more, if you ask me.
Xi yan (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Tired of his parents’ nagging about marriage and grandchildren, Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), a businessman nearing his thirties, informs them that he is going to marry Wei-Wei (May Chin), an artist. However, it is a ruse. Wai-Tung actually lives with his caucasian lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), and Wei-Wei is a tenant who needs a green card. It is believed that a false marriage will benefit everyone: traditional Chinese parents will be happy, Wai-Tung will get a tax break from an upcoming business deal, and Wei-Wei will not have to get deported. If Wai-Tung is happy, so is Simon. When Mr. and Mrs. Gao (Sihung Lung, Ya-lei Kuei) decide to visit their son, however, the ploy turns exponentially complicated.
There are plenty of movies that focus on either the comedy or drama of an LGBT person’s fears about parents finding out about his or her secret lifestyle, but there are very few that manage to do both, often simultaneously in one scene, while maintaining a complex level of insight and control. “Xi yan,” also known as “The Wedding Banquet,” directed by Ang Lee, tackles a specific perspective, the homophobia in an Asian culture, and allows it to unfold with a right balance of lightness and seriousness, tradition and modernity.
The humor is savage and quick, very rarely lingering on a joke that may inevitably turn a situation sour. A recurring technique involves the camera cutting onto an image or action that is slightly amusing or downright funny during a serious conversation, most commonly employed when a meal is shared by the five central characters. It is true to life. All of us have been in a situation where a pleasant conversation turns into a heated and forceful expression of opinions over lunch or dinner. It is awkward to get up from the table and eat some place else, especially if it so happens to occur in a restaurant, so we remain seated and give others who are not involved that look of, “Oh, here we go!” or “Can you believe this is happening right now? Awkward!”
The smaller a situation is played, the funnier it gets when punchlines are delivered. However, there are moments of genuine sadness, too. The gift-giving scene that takes place between Wai-Tung’s mother and Wei-Wei and then Simon and Wai-Tung’s parents is an exercise in contrast. With the former, it is more touching than comedic; the handing and receiving of the gifts has an air of formality, very dignified, traditional. It underlines how important it is for Mrs. Gao that the wedding is going to happen, that her only son will have a shot at her definition of happiness.
With the latter, it is played mostly for laughs but not entirely. Simon hands over his gifts as he would to a friend. He is so nervous, he actually tells them what is inside instead of waiting for them to open it. Mr. and Mrs. Gao barely touch their presents and do not quite know what to do with them. So when Wei-Wei enters the adjacent room in the background, there is an excuse to escape the situation, the gifts are quickly set aside, and the parents run to her. An image of a traditional Chinese family rests in the background (the fantasy) while the white gay lover remains alone on the foreground (the reality), his back facing the camera and observing what he can never offer Wai-Tung’s family–no matter how hard he tries.
This image defines the picture. Even if Wai-Tung finds the courage to tell his parents that he is gay and Simon is his partner, a gift that he can give them because it communicates honesty and trust, it is a real possibility that there is always going to be a part of them that will hope their son will “change” and lead a heterosexual life. There are fewer tragedies than parents not really knowing their children for who they really are. Even sadder is some parents actually choose this route and make it a traumatic experience for everyone.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Noah Taylor) does not exactly fit in in an all-boys boarding school. Unlike everyone else, he fails to feel the excitement toward, for example, watching a football game. He would rather spend time reading books by renowned writers, philosophers, and scientists while yearning for interactions with women in an all-girls boarding school located just across the lake. His peers notice his distance and sees it as a sign of weakness. They bully Danny, both in significant and small ways, in order not to stick out themselves. Something changes when Danny meets Thandiwe (Thandie Newton), a girl from Uganda, after a rousing school debate about human passion and intellectual pursuits. He is in love.
Written and directed by John Duigan, the beauty of “Flirting” is that it does not feel like a sequel to its predecessor, “The Year My Voice Broke.” It stands on its own because the growth the characters experience, not restricted to the central boy and girl in question, feel believable. Each person is insecure about something whether it be about their body, the way they come off to others in social settings, or weighing their worth as young people still in the process of trying to find their own voices.
The romance between Danny and Thandiwe is worth rooting for because there is a certain innocence in the way they interact even though crave to do more with each other physically. Sometimes they are able to hide their emotions and intentions convincingly. Part of its brilliance is that we see the couple being uncomfortable through their body language but they are unable to see it in each other because they are too busy measuring and trying to hide their own fears. Yet there are other instances when they become very comfortable with each other. Their friends come up to them, ask what is going on, and the couple admit, “We were just flirting” so matter-of-factly. There is something about that directness that feels new and unpretentious compared to other teenage romantic movies that try too hard to be complicated through will-he-or-won’t-she tango of torpid triteness.
Danny having white skin and Thandiwe having dark skin is an issue. They are smart enough to expect a certain level of backlash. The racism is not dealt with directly given the story’s time and place but it is certainly there. Since the filmmakers at times place the issue between and under formalities, the racism’s ugliness become that much more maddening when the central couple encounters them.
The more obvious scenes of discrimination involve the girls telling Thandiwe that she belongs in the zoo and that her appearance is comparable to a monkey’s. “Does anyone have a banana?” asks one of the girls with a smile of bigotry painted across her plain face. Less obvious affront involves the headmistress giving Thandiwe a rather serious–and misplaced–lecture about representing her country of origin, accompanied by a punishment, after she is caught walking around school grounds during a dance at the boys’ school. I argue that if Thandiwe had been white, while there would still have been some sort of punishment for ignoring the rules, the headmistress would not have talked about where the girl came from and who or what she represented.
“Flirting” is a wonderful film because the characters and the screenplay have something meaningful to bring up and talk about. It is not just about someone being swooped off her feet. It is about fighting the tide because someone out there is worth it.
★ / ★★★★
In 1940, residents of Friar, New Hampshire left all their possessions, with the exception of nice suits and dresses, and hiked along a trail with their friends and families. Some of their bodies were found frozen, others were butchered, while the majority were never found.
Teddy (Michael Laurino) acquires investigation records of the strange incident and hopes to write a book about it. With the help of a movie theater employee, Liv (Laura Heisler), Teddy and his team (Anessa Ramsey, Cassidy Freeman, Clark Freeman, Alex Draper, Tara Giordano, Sam Elmore) are able to find the trail that the doomed residents followed.
“YellowBrickRoad,” written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, has an excellent premise, a genuine curiosity, but it fails to obtain a solid footing in terms of what it wants the audiences to take away from watching it.
It offers some interesting scenes. For instance, I was curious as to why Walter (Draper) interviews his friends on camera and asks them to do strange things like recite the alphabet backwards or speak gibberish until he gives the signal to stop. Later, the curiosity is ameliorated somewhat when an answer is given to us, an answer that makes sense with respect to its own universe.
However, for the majority of the time, the characters are shown as lost lamb, frustrated, or crazy. Its purpose is apparent: the writer-directors wish to show what probably happened to the men, women, and children who met their demise in the woods. It would have been engaging if it was executed with fluctuating levels of mystery, intensity, and horror. Instead, despite the bizarre occurrences, it is one note and boring. The only scene that disrupts the rut is when two characters decide to get high because they pretty much acknowledge that no matter which direction they traverse, they will not find a way out.
Although it is sort of amusing to watch them skip around the woods, it also has a hint of sadness especially with the way it is shot, utilizing bleak colors when some of the characters have given up their will to live. Their instruments inform them that they are in Guam or Australia when they have crosssed no major body of water, they start to develop murderous thoughts, and loud music, which feature popular songs in the 1940s, is heard everywhere for hours on end.
While the material acknowledges that the whole thing might be a case of group hallucination (after all, dangerous berries are prevalent in the wilderness–hallucinogenic in small servings but toxic in large amounts), I observed not a smidgen of effort in putting the scientific method into practice. These people are supposed to be scientists and historians. They want to gather hard evidence, whether it be on paper, camera, or found artifacts, so that they can write a book or publish their findings. Instead of coming off as smart, they simply appear ill-equipped.
“YellowBrickRoad” is an ambitious independent film. Disparate elements designed to pique our interests are there. It is most unfortunate that bridges which allow us to make sense of the elements as a whole are not. The characters want to shed light on the strange event in Friar. But watching the movie is like reading a report with black Sharpie blotting out the most critical information.
Benny’s Video (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benny (Arno Frisch) loves to spend time in his room and watch videos. The most recent video that he takes great interest in, to the point of obsession, is the one he recorded while he and his family visited a farm. It shows a butcher taking a gun and shooting a pig in the head. Once the dead pig is dragged off the frame, Benny rewinds the tape to watch it again. And again. In slow motion.
“Benny’s Video,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, is able to look at evil, in the form of a boy’s lust for violence, and explore it fearlessly, without apology. We see what Benny sees, experience what he experiences, so in a way, for a time, we are him.
When his parents (Ulrich Mühe, Angela Winkler) are away one weekend, Benny notices a girl (Ingrid Stassner) outside of his favorite video rental place. He invites her to come over and ends up killing her. The lack of score is immediately noticeable. In most movies with sudden outbursts of violence, music is used to make our hearts a little bit faster, to suggest that that we have seen is terrible and it should have, and will most likely have, consequences. But not here. The lack of score allows us to question how we feel about what we have just witnessed.
There is an element of horror in it. Most of us will feel bad or shocked with the events that happen in the picture. But consider that there are a select few with personality disorders who will not be affected by the images. It isn’t that they choose not to feel. They are born that way, perhaps like Benny. With Haneke’s assured direction, he is able to create that division without sacrificing the implications and difficult questions.
Benny’s actions are curious and frightening. After he kills the girl, he goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, and eats yogurt. I imagine that if I had killed someone, accidentally or not, I am not sure dealing with hunger would be at the top of my to-do list. Thoughts about possibly getting caught would run around my brain. I would probably take a second to gather myself and plan my next course of action.
Not Benny. After eating, he tries to clean up the puddle of blood, using a small rag, so slowly to the point where it seems like he is either enjoying it or does not care. When he notices blood on his torso, he wipes it all over his chest and stomach as if to relish it. Although disturbing, I could not take my eyes off the screen. I felt like I was being dared to keep watching, to question how much more I could handle.
And then there is the parents’ reaction when they find out that their son has committed a heinous crime. Again, the material is rich with implications. Perhaps Benny is not born with a chemical imbalance. Perhaps it has something more to do with who raised him and how he was raised. The writer-director is careful not to give us direct answers.
Though some may claim otherwise, “Benny’s Video” is not created for mere shock value or to encourage controversy. It has something to say about two things: our relationship with violence as a society and what violence means to us personally, when no one is looking at us and judging. It is not just about what we do, it is also about what we choose not to do.