★ / ★★★★
Three queen bees rule North Gateway High: Fawcett (Sasha Pieterse), empress of the rich and the popular, ‘Shley (Andrea Bowen), a Mormon goody two-shoes who is always perky, and Caprice (Xosha Roquemore), head of the drama club. The goal is to be elected prom queen but there is one important must-have fashion trend that each of them lacks: a gay best friend. This is where best buddies Brent (Paul Iacono) and Tanner (Michael J. Willett) come in: one of them is about to be accidentally dragged out of the closet which means a fast pass to the top of the high school social hierarchy.
Obviously inspired by Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” it is most disappointing that “G.B.F.,” written by George Northy and directed by Darren Stein, lacks an iota of its muse’s sharpness. While the premise is silly and ridiculous, it never really takes off. Amusing one-liners does not save a movie that is devoid of genuine emotional gravity.
There is a lack of genuine consequence in every character’s action—at least not the kind that aperson, who eventually must realize that he or she has been wrong all along, will remember ten or twenty years due to a lack of judgment or sensitivity. While understandable that it is a comedy by heart, great movies about teenagers—and for teenagers—achieve a balance of humor and moving moments. This picture, for the most part, tries to be funny by delivering sassy lines but, like many fashion trends, they are outdated eventually. Human element is one that does not age.
The screenplay is too easy on the characters and that is boring. The three popular girls do not learn a thing about objectifying another human being. The second half is particularly strange because suddenly we are supposed to like one or two of them when there has been no form of redemption. Teen pictures most often rely on an arc for emotional resonance because that is how a viewer gauges the changes—big or small—in the character. Here, a person’s personality can change in a snap. It comes off disingenuous.
We do not get enough of Brent and Tanner’s relationship. The supposed friction in their friendship does not come to a boiling point because we are not provided enough information on how good they are to and for one another. It is as if the screenplay was afraid to deal with real feelings—complicated ones—like two gay guys who do want physical intimacy (perhaps emotional as well) but at the same time believing that the only way to preserve a friendship is to not pursue a romantic direction. Halfway through, I wondered: Does the writer really understand the subtleties of gay friendships? Human psychology in general? What makes a duo—friends or otherwise—worth rooting for?
I understand what this movie is going for but I wanted a little more. In this day and age, we deserve a little more. Specifically, there ought to have been intelligence behind the enthusiastic performances. The adults need not be caricatures who enter and exit the frame once the punchline is delivered. After all, they have real thoughts and emotions, too. My personal observation is that many LGBTQ pictures tend to want to achieve less for the sake of being “now.” Sadly, this is one of them.
★★★ / ★★★★
In Bixby, Oklahoma, two brothers are left by their father to fend for themselves. Since their mother had passed away from pneumonia years prior, Mason (Jim Metzler), nineteen, feels it is his responsibility to try his best to take care of his fifteen-year-old sibling, Tex (Matt Dillon), who makes matters worse by constantly getting in trouble at school. Not receiving a dime from their father (Bill McKinney) for several months, their financial situation has gotten so desperate that Mason has no choice but to sell his as well as Tex’ beloved horse to pay the bills and have food on the table.
The brilliance of “Tex,” based on the screenplay by Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter, is that although it touches upon the topic of abandonment, it has a knack toward being just light enough in order for it to remain appropriate for younger audiences. After all, it has important lessons about empathy, responsibility, and forgiveness. This is mostly accomplished through Tex’ relationship with people who care most for him.
Most crucial is the bond between Mason and Tex as the former clumsily walks on the elder sibling shoe on his left and substitute parent shoe on the right. Mason leads with his right which causes friction between the two. I enjoyed that when they get into an argument, it is difficult to take sides. Tex is young and wants to experience life by experimenting so blaming him for not having the autonomy to become more responsible does not feel fair at times. And yet there are instances when he makes very stupid decisions which made me want to shake some sense into him.
On the other hand, Mason, as much as he tries to embody the role of the father figure in the household, has his share of young adult problems, too. A talented basketball player, there is a good chance that Indiana University might give him a full scholarship given he remains at the top of his game, fills out the forms correctly, and keeps healthy. To fulfill each category is at times a challenge because of the every day stresses he is subjected to. He is the easiest character to root for because of his seemingly endless ability to give, not only restricted to his brother but going as far as offering kind words to a friend even if he himself did not necessarily believe it.
I wished that the director, Tim Hunter, had given Metzler more close-ups in order to force us to feel closer to Mason. For instance, during scenes of showing how Mason really feels when Tex is either blasé or downright ungrateful toward his efforts. Having us tight and close might have given us the more subtle emotions like frustration, anger, and perhaps even the nagging feeling of wanting to quit being the caretaker of their family.
The less impactful scenes involving Tex’ best friend, Johnny (Emilio Estevez), and crush, Jaime (Meg Tilly), have nice and brief touches to them. When Johnny and Tex have a fight, the resolution is very true when it comes to male friendships. Sometimes no apology is necessary because a perfectly timed positive gesture can clearly communicate a chance to wipe the slate clean and allowing the butting heads to move on.
Jaime, the only female voice in the film, has a sharp tongue but she is smart. Each time she speaks, I was interested in whatever she has to say. I understood why Tex is attracted to her. Maybe if I knew a girl like her, she would have grabbed my attention, too. Sure, Tex wants her because he is young and curious but there is also a genuine sweetness in their friendship.
Based on the novel by S.E. Hinton, one can argue that “Tex” could have been more powerful if its emotions weren’t so muted. I counter its emotions are muted only outwardly. Watch Tex and Mason long enough and one can almost feel them wanting to break out of their lives, out of Bixby, Oklahoma.
Below are my choices for the Top 10 Films of 2014. It must be noted that the list may change slightly if I happen to come across great movies I had missed prior to this post. The same rule applies to all of my annual Top 10 Lists. In other words, my lists are updated continually. My hope is to provide alternative movies that are absolutely worth seeing that may not or will not necessarily appear on “Top Critics” picks. Underneath each picture is an excerpt from my review which can be found in the archive. In the meantime, dive in and, as always, feel welcome to let me know what you think.
“Having seen Michael Apted’s tremendous achievement called the ‘Up’ series, where the same seven-year-olds are interviewed and filmed every seven years so we can learn the many different directions their lives have taken, I was more nervous and anxious than excited to watch Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood.’ I was concerned that given the two projects’ similarities, it would be difficult to sit down and absorb Linklater’s work as is without the gnawing need to compare… It is a most pleasant surprise that [this film] offers enough originality and confidence to separate itself from the aforementioned behemoth of a project…”
David Gordon Green
“Every once in a while a movie comes along and manages to hit all the right notes without ever hitting a wrong one. One waits for the film to stumble somehow—whether it be a performer stepping outside of his character for less than a second or a shot that lingers for a beat too long—but it never does. David Gordon Green’s ‘Joe’ is that kind of film… [The] keen screenplay by Gary Hawkins eradicates the expected trappings by focusing on the specificities of the characters. Because we are emotionally invested in who they are, what they have to say, and what they will do next, we are left unguarded when it comes to just about every turn of event. It is a rural drama with a powerful gravitational force and once one is caught up in it, the claws of suspense is deeply embedded in our spines…”
The Raid 2: Berandal
“…American filmmakers who wish to have some sort of a hand-to-hand combat in their work should look up to this movie for inspiration. It is generous with wide shots, the editing is never choppy so we can actually appreciate each punch and kick thrown, it knows when to use silence so we can wince at every blow, and the style—whether in terms of location, style of clothing, sort of weapons wielded—changes with every big action scene. It is such a joy to watch this level of creativity. [Writer-director Gareth Evans] knows his material is over-the-top but he has fun with it. Thus, we enjoy what’s projected on screen…”
Juan Carlos Maneglia, Tana Schembori
“…What impressed me most is the level of detail of the marketplace. I have not been to the specific outdoor market where the film was shot, but I have been to others like it. While growing up in the Philippines, my mother, brother, and I would go to the market just about every weekend to buy goods—from fresh fish, meat, and vegetables to local spices, knickknacks, and school supplies—and there are three things I will never forget: the buzzing of the crowd, the stench of the products and hardworking people, and the heat that envelops every square inch of the outdoors. Based on personal experience, this film gets those details exactly right and it is a joy to see a version of my memories of childhood being represented on screen…”
“Writer-director Mike Cahill creates a love letter to the spiritual but scientifically-inclined…”
Lars von Trier
“…There is a level of irony to it. Through a solemn narration, we learn that Joe is expecting a sexy and steamy encounter since the language barrier will force them to focus on their bodies and to determine what they need from one another telepathically. Instead, it almost turns into some sort of farce. Body parts flopping about—utilizing quick close-ups of sexual organs from time to time—made me snicker and then laugh uncontrollably. The scene has a two-fold function: to take us out of the situation by creating a lightness and to leave us off-balanced for what is about to come…”
“…[Director Gareth Edwards] gives us more than just repetitive shots of the monster roaring or screeching and destroying landmarks. [His] work is an antithesis of movies like Colin and Greg Strause’s nonsensical and brain cell-destroying ‘Skyline’ and all of Michael Bay’s painfully generic, boring, unambitious, waste of time, and maddening ‘Transformers’ sequels. Here, while we are able to see chaos and destruction, the key is that we are given time to appreciate them. It is done through humor, camera work that does not shake relentlessly when our eyes are supposed to be transfixed on a particular point, and a sense of perspective.”
“Standing out almost immediately in ‘Nightcrawler,’ written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is the way nighttime hovers like a thick gloom in downtown Los Angeles—beautiful, curious, eerie, and dangerous all rolled into one vivid dream of a filmmaker with a keen eye for not only what looks good on screen but also how certain images, framed just right, can allow the audience to feel or think a certain way. In this sense, the picture is an achievement in presentation and execution. It is made for people who crave looking closely at things, just like the main character played exceedingly well by Jake Gyllenhaal…”
“…[Jenny Slate] has a way of pinpointing the comedy in the sadness and distress from what is supposed to be funny. Already, this sets her ahead of performers who are unable to find the contradiction in their characters and build something from it. This is why when [the main character] skewers the details of her personal life up on stage, most of the remarks are funny but we recognize that they stem from not only awkward situations but real feelings like disappointment, regret, feeling out of one’s depth. Thus, the humor is not one note. It is sharp sometimes, raunchy at times, and just plain silly in other instances…”
Ekspeditionen til verdens ende
[Expedition to the End of the World]
“…Each person we meet is a storyteller. No one is mentioned by name but we remember their faces. Particularly memorable is the man who notices a pile of bones along the shore and addresses us to try to imagine a former life that was once there. Along with his enthusiastic voice, he employs his limbs and hands to help paint a picture in our minds. He directs us to the location of the campsite, where the adults prepared food, and where children played. It is likely that those bones had been there for hundreds of years—maybe thousands—and it is so moving that he is able to grab the audience and allows us to see through someone else’s eyes for a couple of seconds…”
Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, The (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Following the bombings in 1941 London, Headmistress Hogg (Helen McCrory) and Ms. Parkins (Phoebe Fox) take their eight remaining schoolchildren to the country to keep them safe. During their first night in the Eel Marsh House, quite a drive to the nearest populated area, Ms. Parkins suspects that they are not living there alone. She claims she has seen a woman in the cellar although they never get a chance to speak. Meanwhile, one of the children, recently orphaned Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), captures the attention of a particular presence inside a room that is supposed to be locked.
“The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death,” based on the screenplay by Jon Croker and directed by Tom Harper, is both an enjoyable and a slightly disappointing horror picture. While it does not have very many scares that truly get under the skin and inside the mind, its images are so alluring at times that it is like peering into an old, worn down painting. As a visual experience, I admired it. As a horror film, it is engaging enough but it offers nothing particularly special.
Would-be love stories within this genre are usually of a big annoyance to me because many of them tend to be syrupy, forced, the actors devoid of chemistry. Here, an exception can be found because of two reasons. First, the romance is not central to the plot so when it comes around it is most welcome. Second, Ms. Perkins and the pilot she meets on the train, Harry (Jeremy Irvine), are highly attractive together. Fox and Irvine play their characters with genuine sweetness and empathy, not wooden caricatures of two characters who just so happen to be attracted to one another in a horror movie.
Visually, scenes that take place indoors and outdoors are equally beautiful. The house is so worn down and dark inside that one can believe no one has set foot there in years. It is the opposite of scary movies that look and feel like they are shot in a studio. Here, one is inspired to explore through the dusty bookshelves, piles of rubbles, holes on the floor. It is a creepy place, to be sure, but it is also inviting. We get the impression that if we did get a chance to look through the house more carefully, we would get a pretty good idea about who used to live there and how they lived.
The perimeter of the Eel Marsh House inspires one to either start cleaning and pulling out the weeds or playing tag and hide-and-seek. The cemetery looks appropriately haunted. while the marsh that surrounds feels cold and unfriendly. Cinematographer George Steel establishes the place to command a presence.
The scares are sometimes weak, many of them relying on things jumping suddenly in front of the camera, accompanied by loud music. I preferred it when the camera dares to sit still while the character is standing on the foreground, the shot not at all trying too hard to get us to pay attention on the background… until something begins to move.
A surprising element comes in the form of the paranormal entity named in the title. Mainly, the story is not about her. Rather, she functions more as a catalyst when it comes to our protagonist being forced to deal with and move on from something that happened to her when she was younger.
Living End, The (1992)
★ / ★★★★
Jon (Craig Gilmore) has just been informed by his doctor that he is HIV-positive. The news is a shock to him because he has made it a habit to use protection when he engages sexually with other men. As he drives downtown, Luke (Mike Dytri), running away from three gay-bashers, jumps in front of Jon’s car, desperate for a getaway ride. Jon, still in shock from the bad news and what is happening in his car, decides to take Luke back to his place until it is safe. The next night, Luke’s new friend, covered in blood, confesses that he had just killed a cop and Luke is invited to run away to San Francisco.
“The Living End,” written and directed by Gregg Araki, is so drenched in cynicism, mostly everything about it got under my nerves. While understandable that the script wishes to focus on a counterculture involving the mindset that lies somewhere along the lines of “Live fast, die young,” the experience of watching it might have sustained our attention if it had given us a protagonist who is conflicted but morally strong despite his ailing health. Instead, Jon is pathetic almost every step of the way.
Each time Luke takes off his shirt or pulls out a gun for the sake of being macho, Jon becomes weak in the knees. This could have been somewhat amusing if Luke had something surprising to offer other than his physicality and homicidal tendencies. He has no sense of humor. We never get a feel of how he thinks. Even though there is something about him that feels empty, it is not enough to warrant consistent interest and make us wonder about where he comes from or how he comes to be the way he is.
Most of the time I found him rather boring watch or listen to. He is neither intelligent nor brave, caring nor passionate about anything of substance or value. When he expresses that he does not care about anything or anyone along with his desire to die young so he will never have to be “fat and old,” I did not feel a thing even though I knew that I should.
However, there is a point when the material comes close to how good it could have been. As Jon and Luke become intimate in the shower, unlike the other times when they share each other’s flesh, there is a tenderness and comic timing about it. Despite the negativity that surrounds them outside the shower and the dark thoughts that haunt their minds, it is refreshing to see them happy even for only a few minutes.
“The Living End” provides very little dramatic pull that we can engage in. After all of its conflicting messages, does it mean to imply that just because one is HIV-positive, one can or should live his or her life so recklessly as though there are no repercussions? Its doom and gloom is not only not all that stylish visually. More importantly, the material fails to provide the required substance to get us to care about the subjects and their trials.
I Origins (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Mike Cahill creates a love letter to the spiritual but scientifically-inclined.
Ian (Michael Pitt) is a twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student who works in a molecular biology lab. His project involves finding a way for colorblind mice to see color. Karen (Brit Marling) is a new rotation student in the lab but she proves to offer great ideas that can potentially move Ian’s project forward. Meanwhile, Ian, outside of the lab, obsesses over a stranger’s pair of eyes—eyes of a woman he met at a party but never had a chance to get to know further. When he starts to encounter the number eleven seemingly everywhere, he is convinced these are signs that will eventually lead him to those eyes.
Although the picture begins with the feel and tone of an independent romantic comedy-drama in that the characters are not paper-thin in substance, situations are realistic and at times challenging, while audiences are slowly coaxed into thinking more optimistically toward rather impossible odds, it is able to change gears seemingly without effort, particularly halfway through when the material crosses from the sphere of science to the realm of the spiritual. As the material unfolds, it is difficult to guess what will happen next because it is constantly evolving. There is excitement because, like the characters, we feel as though we are on the verge of a great discovery.
Pitt plays a scientist-in-training in a way that is believable. Ian is not depicted as a hyperbolic intellectual who is socially inept, ridiculed for being smart and constantly having his nose buried in a book, or one who lives as a hermit. However, we do get the impression that he is curious of the world around him. It is in the way the performer looks at objects with his eyes, how engaged he is with someone who is speaking to him, and the way we can feel him thinking even when his eyes are not looking at something in particular.
Since he is written and played with humanity rather than comically or an exaggeration, there is a fluidity in the character that we wish to explore. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays the woman with the curious eyes and she is exotic, attractive, and has a strong sense of self. We are drawn to her and so it makes perfect sense that Ian will be drawn to her, too. Not only is Sofi utilized as a tool by which we can get to know the scientist further, but the character creates the foundation of mysterious things to come.
To reveal more is to cheat the audience of an experience. And so I will leave with this:
You know, a scientist once asked the Dalai Lama, “What would you do if something scientific disproved your religious beliefs?” And he said, after much thought, “I would look at all the papers. I’d take a look at all the research and really try to understand things. And in the end, if it was clear that the scientific evidence disproved my spiritual beliefs, I would change my beliefs.”
Let’s Be Cops (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Tired from getting a lack of respect in their every day lives, best buddies Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Ryan (Jake Johnson) decide to pretend to be policemen when they realize that the uniform means power. Although they are able to have laughs and get into all sorts of relatively harmless trouble, eventually they find themselves facing mobsters who are not at all perturbed by men in uniform.
Written by Luke Greenfield and Nicholas Thomas, “Let’s Be Cops” is a one-note semi-joke stretched into a hundred minutes of near laughter-less experience. While Wayans Jr. and Johnson do share a bit of brotherly chemistry, their characters are nothing but caricatures—the white guy and the black guy who happen to be best of pals and do stupid things together. Would it have been too much if the writers strived a little bit more—to actually give us genuine underdogs worth rooting for?
The comedy is painted in broad strokes. It works occasionally and, admittedly, I had a few chuckles. None of the jokes are particularly clever, but the lead performers are so willing to go to extremes that I sort of admired they are willing to go there. Twice or thrice I laughed at Justin’s silly dance moves and one-liners. It is too bad that the movie does not have anything particularly meaningful to say about male friendship. One wonders why the material is afraid to go there.
When there is a hint of the duo being close to one another—whether it be physically or emotionally—it is almost always roadblocked by a “gay joke.” It is as if the writers grew up in the late 1990s or early 2000s when it was still socially acceptable to say, “That’s so gay” or “That’s so retarded.” Because of the type of humor presented on screen, I found the filmmakers to be juvenile, even sub-mental at times. Is this the best they can come up with? It is insulting to the audience.
The villain, played by James D’Arcy, is poorly written and executed. He appears either to look menacing or inflict pain and then he disappears almost immediately. We are neither given a clear and defined information about his backstory nor what he hopes to accomplish in the long run. Thus, like the protagonists, the villain is not worthy of our time and attention. He is more like an afterthought than an active ingredient in the story.
I was not out to analyze the movie given its apparent low ambitions. However, it has to offer the audience a certain level of intelligence because comedies do not equal braindead. Comedy works effectively when there is a relationship between the material and the audience—specifically, truths that we not want to deal with directly.
Case in point: Ryan and Justin feel like they do not get the respect they deserve. The writers fail to ask why they don’t get it and what the characters must then do to attain it. Instead, “Let’s Be Cops,” directed by Luke Greenfield, is content in circumventing the real issues. Therefore, the movie is like eating bad, unbuttered popcorn—nothing but air.
Sentinel, The (1977)
★★ / ★★★★
Although they have been together for two years, Alison (Cristina Raines), a fashion model, does not yet feel ready to move in with Michael (Chris Sarandon), a hotshot lawyer, and get married. Having a history of attempted suicide, twice, she feels that she first needs to prove to herself that she can function as an independent woman. With the help of Miss Logan (Ava Gardner), a real estate agent, Alison finds a place that seems peaceful, with a nice view, and quite spacious. For only $400 a month, Alison just has to take it. But the keyword here is “seems” for the apartment holds something sinister. Just after Alison has moved in, she begins to have fainting spells.
Based on the novel and screenplay by Jeffrey Konvitz, “The Sentinel” has a slow, appropriate pace but is ultimately held back by its inconsistent build-up of horror. I enjoyed that it pays special attention to the identity of our protagonist. We learn that even though she comes from a palatial home, it is important for her to work hard for her money. This piece of information is significant because it helps us to believe Alison’s motivation with regards to her not wanting to jump into marriage and be defined by a man who can easily have taken care of her financially.
We are also shown that she is very good at her job. When she goes on a go-see and a client looks through her model book, the camera immediately adopts the perspective of the client. We see the contents of her book and each page features her on a cover of a popular magazine. This, too, is important because it communicates to us that she is a person with drive. So when she eventually encounters the paranormal, it makes sense that she does not want to seek help as long as she feels she is in control.
Elements of horror are present only periodically in the beginning which is smart because if they had been present the entire time and we did not have an idea of who the characters were, the film would have felt cheap or unconvincing. However, about halfway through, the scares start to feel desultory, sometimes forced. I caught myself admiring the make-up of the ghouls more than the director’s execution or control of the terrifying situations that Alison faces in that apartment complex.
Several supporting characters are sidelined. They are introduced but never seem to have any real impact to the plot. This is best exemplified in the all too brief appearances of Detectives Gatz (Eli Wallach) and Rizzo (Christopher Walken). Wallach is great as someone who asks a lot of penetrating questions about Alison running out in the street at four o’clock in the morning, claiming that she has murdered someone.
Walken is very enigmatic as the quieter half who mainly uses his eyes to communicate that some bits of information do not quite add up. Both characters are very professional and seem to know what they are doing. I wished they had been in it more. For a duo that relies on physical evidence to solve cases, it would have been interesting to see how they might have fared if faced by the paranormal.
Directed by Michael Winner, “The Sentinel” has plenty of great ideas that pertain to the horror surrounding Alison but some needed to be excised so the ones that do remain can be expanded upon and really get under our skins. Even though it is not necessarily an exemplary horror picture, I enjoyed that it is open to interpretation. There is a theme involving the subjugation of women. Notice that if Alison had won or lost against the evil brewing in the apartment, her identity, something she values deeply, would still have been taken away from her.