Unmarried Woman, An (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
Erica (Jill Clayburgh) thought she lived a fruitful marriage. Although there were times when little annoyances pushed Erica and Martin (Michael Murphy), her husband, to the edge, they had ways of detaching themselves from the situation and hung onto what was more important. But when Martin suddenly confessed to Erica that he had been seeing another woman, a twenty-six-year-old teacher he met at Bloomingdale’s, for about year and had fallen in love with her, divorce seemed like the only option. Written and directed by Paul Mazursky, “An Unmarried Woman” was an exhaustive experience seen through the eyes of a woman who lost what she believed was the best thing she had and learned that there was a rewarding life outside of marriage so long as she kept an open mind. The way the film moved into a dark period of our protagonist’s life and eventually out of it could have been executed so tritely but it remained fresh due to the performances, especially by Clayburgh, and the way the filmmakers remained true to life’s unfathomable formula of painful and amusing ironies. The scenes I looked forward to involved Erica talking to her friends (Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, Patricia Quinn) about seemingly pedestrian bourgeois topics of conversation. The closer I listened and observed, the more I learned about what was important to them through their jokes, snide remarks, down to the way they looked at someone who offered an opinion they didn’t agree with. The camera was placed so perfectly that at times it gave the illusion that we were either a part of their group or complete strangers who happened to be sitting next to them. The chemistry among the women was wonderful and it felt refreshing to be around them. Furthermore, I enjoyed that the writing remained honest in terms of the dynamics of friendship. Certainly in my group of friends, although I feel some sort of camaraderie with all of them, there is always one special person that I feel I can confide in more than the rest. In this case, newly vulnerable Erica trusted the tough-talking Elaine (Bishop). Their contrast and the way their roles changed over time fit very well in the picture’s theme of balance being the key to a life of contentment. I chose not to delve too much in Erica and Martin’s marriage because the film simply utilized it as a device to encourage a change in Erica. However, that isn’t to suggest that the two did not share powerful scenes. The husband’s confession was handled with maturity and elegance, despite the tears, mixed with a pinch of first-rate suspense. As Martin discussed his extramarital affair, the camera focused on Erica’s face so tightly, I expected her to lash out at him mid-sentence. I was impressed with Clayburgh’s face as it turned from concern with a dash of confusion to intense anger and disgust. The masterstroke of that key scene was allowing our protagonist to physically walk away after the revelation. As we watched her create distance between herself and the man she loved for years, we could almost feel their special bond being gnawed by pangs of betrayal. Rarely do we get to see the simple act of walking away carry so much emotional resonance. “An Unmarried Woman” were slow in parts, especially the scenes that took place in the therapist’s office, but maybe it was supposed to be. After all, one can argue that starting over and adopting healthier habits don’t happen overnight.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) were deciding what to order in a restaurant. Cal wanted crème brûlée. Emily wanted a divorce. Top to it off, she admitted that she had slept with one of her co-workers (Kevin Bacon). Almost immediately, Cal moved out of the house while his kids, Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and Molly (Joey Kind), stayed with their mother. Having no one to talk to about how he felt about the separation and how quickly it happened, Cal went to a bar to meet women. Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a posh womanizer, saw something in Cal that made him want to help the sad sack, starting with his wardrobe. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” written by Dan Fogelman, could have been an enjoyable romantic comedy if it had been severely trimmed. With a running time of almost two hours, the fat was heavy and uninteresting. The weakest portion of the film was its core. That is, the dissolution of Emily and Cal’s marriage. It was difficult for me to care about their separation for two reasons. 1) We didn’t yet know them when the news was thrown on our lap and 2) The sad parts, just when they were about to hit their peaks, were interrupted by comedy. For instance, while on the way home as Emily attempted to explain why she wanted a divorce, Cal decided to exit the car while it was moving. It was supposed to be funny but I didn’t laugh. I just felt sorry for him because he wasn’t equipped in terms of how to properly the digest the information he was given. He would rather jump out of the car than deal with the problem. What kept the project afloat were the energetic supporting characters. They were the ones who consistently made me laugh. Robbie, a thirteen-year-old, had a gigantic crush on Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), his seventeen-year-old babysitter. His public proclamations of his feelings toward her were downright embarrassing but sweet. Jessica wasn’t able to reciprocate due to their age difference and, more interestingly, she lusted over Cal, who was probably three times her age. I also loved watching the scenes between Hannah (Emma Stone), a law student, and Jacob. They shared intense chemistry so their scenes, which ranged from silly to sexy, felt effortless. It made me wish that the center of the movie was young love and how crazy, stupid, silly, naive it all was. While Cal’s wardrobe make-over and various attempts to get women into bed were necessary elements so that Cal would eventually realize his value as a father, as a husband, and as a man, they took up too much time. I wanted to know more about Emily and how her decision affected who she was as a strong woman with a career and as a mother. It wasn’t the actors’ fault. They did the most with what they were given. The problem was the script. It was reluctant to really delve into the pain of separation so it settled with spoon-feeding us so-called funny skit-like scenarios that not only did not flow together, they also consistently crossed the line between simple coincidences and forceful twists. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” will appeal to those who like their comedies very light and cutesy. And that’s okay. But for those who like to watch characters who make decisions that make sense, they should keep walking.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Helena (Gemma Jones) decided to see a fortuneteller (Pauline Collins) after the divorce between her and her husband (Anthony Hopkins) had been finalized. She claimed she needed direction, but we quickly realized that she was clingy, didn’t know how to keep certain opinions to herself, and was hopelessly gullible. Maybe the divorce was a gift or a breath of freedom for her husband. Sally (Naomi Watts), Helena’s daughter, was also having trouble with her marriage. Roy (Josh Brolin), Sally’s husband, was having a difficult time finishing his book and was weighing the possibility of having an affair with a beautiful woman in red (Freida Pinto), his muse, across their apartment building. On the other hand, Sally was considering to have an affair with her boss (Antonio Banderas) while working in an art gallery. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” written and directed by Woody Allen, was a missed opportunity. The story was interesting, the coincidences didn’t feel heavy-handed and the various ironies between and around the characters were accessible. However, the film felt like a satisfying but incomplete novel. Just when Allen needed to deliver the punches involving the consequences that the characters had to live with due to their unwise actions, the screen abruptly faded to black. It left me wanting more but not in a good way. The picture’s lack of resolution highlighted its flaws, especially its highly uneven tone. Allen spent too much time trying to convince us that what we were seeing was comedic. As a result, he was stuck in highlighting the characters’ quirks instead of exploring other dimensions that would make us want to get to know more. For instance, the relationship between Hopkins’ character and his young girlfriend (Lucy Punch) was mostly played for laughs. The former’s quirk was, despite his age, he was convinced that he was still in his thirties. Like his ex-wife, he was inclined to self-delusion. The latter was a classic golddigger who loved to buy expensive clothing and accessories in exchange for sex. She was a former callgirl but, in reality, she never left her profession. The film only turned darker toward the end when Hopkins’ character, after the woman revealed that she was pregnant, threatened her that the baby better have been his or else. The comedic element was gone and we were left to stare at the character’s desperation, hurt, and anger in his eyes. Unfortunately, that was the last scene between the old man and the golddigger. The same hustle-and-bustle applied to the other characters and were left in the dust wondering what happened next. Not unlike Helena, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” needed a strong direction with clear vision. The important questions it brought up about life were cheapened and it ultimately felt like Philosophy 101.
Beautiful Boy (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) were about to get a divorce. They lived in the same house, able to carry on a conversation, though nothing deep, eat at the same table, but couldn’t bear to sleep on the same bed. When their eighteen-year-old son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), called from college one night, it was a final contact. The next morning, Kate and Bill found out that their beloved son had killed over a dozen of his fellow students and, eventually, himself. Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku, directed by the latter, “Beautiful Boy” worked both as a life-changing tragedy and as a marriage drama, which was interesting because there was not one image of Sammy using a gun was ever shown. Instead, the picture focused on how the couple reacted to the news which was heartbreaking to the say the least. The bereaved questioned themselves what they did or didn’t do as parents to have raised such a depressed child who eventually gathered so much rage and alienation. Kate hated the fact that Bill was always emotionally unavailable due to the nature of his work, while Bill begrudged Kate for picking at every single flaw whether it was about a household item or person with feelings. But in my opinion, neither of them, as well as the real families of those teens who went on a rampage in their high school and college campuses, was to blame. Sometimes kids just can’t cope and their decision to allow others to feel their pain is beyond explanation. Though their action begs for a sound reason, no amount of psychology is good enough to ameliorate the grief of everyone involved, directly or indirectly, at least for the time being. The first year of university and being hundreds of miles away from home is difficult. I know this from personal experience and I believe that the film, in only two or three scenes, captured the yearning of physical contact while parents and their child conversed via telephone. Like most people, I was able to get through the demanding first year by making new friends, being open to new experiences, embracing changes, but still staying true to who I thought I was. College students break down more often than most people would probably like to think. And it’s not just those who flunk out. Just because a student is still in school, it does not mean that the student is necessarily healthy. A whole lot of students engage in reckless casual sex as a substitute for real connection, some decide to stay in bed all day and neglect hygiene altogether, others take refuge in the party scene and drown their problems with alcohol, a handful try to overcompensate and take on more responsibilities than they can handle. I know because I’ve known and lived with those kinds of behavior. The very few who go on a shooting rampage, in my opinion, is an extreme form of that behavioral (and most likely hormonal) imbalance. That’s what they are to me: behavior. Behavior does not necessarily (nor accurately) define a person. That’s what I believed the film tried to communicate about tragedy by allowing us to watch Bill and Kate to try to make it through one day at a time. It managed to do so in an elegant, contemplative way sans judgment.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.
★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) couldn’t move on from his divorce so his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and her future husband (Matt Walsh) decided to drag him to a party where he could mingle and hopefully meet some single women. After a series of forced and awkward conversations, John met Molly (Marisa Tomei) and the two seemed like a good fit. Although she was very attractive, unlike most women at the party, she wasn’t difficult to approach and didn’t make John feel bad about himself whether it be his physical appearance–he described himself as “like Shrek”–or his job. She overlooked his many imperfections because she loved John’s honesty. However, their relationship came to screeching halt when John met Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s son, who was unnecessarily sarcastic and had a little bit of insanity in the eyes. Having an unhealthy close relationship with his mom, Cyrus’ plan was to drive John out of Molly’s life. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, “Cyrus” would easily have been a disappointment in the wrong hands. What I loved most about it was it allowed the characters to act like people one could potentially meet at just about anywhere. They were conflicted in what they could offer to someone else, sometimes self-pitying, capable of making royal mistakes, and at times readily able to forgive or overlook certain actions. Even though the material was essentially a comedy, it tried to deal with serious issues in a respectful manner. For instance, we didn’t know who Cyrus really was for the majority of the picture. Despite his selfish actions, I might have disliked his actions but didn’t loathe him. It made me wonder whether his fear of being replaced was driven by another factor like a psychological trauma or a chemical imbalance. I saw John, Molly, and Cyrus’ relationship as three people in a canoe attempting to make it from one island to another, like a relationship in a state of critical transition. John and Molly were content in sitting in the canoe in silence. They had excellent chemistry, almost as if the current wanted them to reach the second island. But Cyrus, despite being twenty-one years of age, was essentially a kid. He talked as if he was years beyond his age but he hadn’t reached a certain level of maturity just yet. He craved attention and so he rocked the canoe with all his might, sometimes even found it gratifying to see the friction between his mother and her new beau. Is the canoe going to tip over? “Cyrus” was an interesting exercise of the dynamics of complicated relationships and the happiness that each character desperately wanted to grasp. It’s refreshing to watch understated comedies where its sense of humor was in the characters’ situations instead of the joke being pointed at themselves.
Eat Pray Love (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Liz (Julia Roberts) decided that she wanted a divorce from her husband (Billy Crudup), with the support of her friend (Viola Davis), she bought tickets to Italy, India and Bali in hopes of finding true happiness. In her journey, she met many interesting people who, like her, were going through their own quest to find self-love and forgiveness. Italy appealed to the stomach, India to the mind, and Bali to the heart. Most audiences’ critiques I read about this film was that they felt like the story was painfully self-centered. I expected to Liz to be a spoiled, uncultured American who had no genuine reason to complain about her life. That wasn’t the case at all. I thought she had a brain and I liked the fact that she wanted something more than spending the weekends buying material possessions on credit. Instead of wallowing in her problems and not doing anything about them, she decided that she wanted to take control of her life and to be open to new kinds of perspectives from individuals who grew up in various customs. Of course, not everyone has the means to travel across the globe to sort out their problems, but I believe that a lot of married people are unhappy with the way things are. Most of them just won’t admit to it. Or worse, some of them have accepted that unhappiness is the norm and there isn’t a thing they can do to get out of a bad marriage. Adults, perhaps more female than male, will most likely find themselves able to relate to Liz’ identity crisis from body image to society’s expectations about what makes a convenient versus a happy marriage. We saw the story through Liz’ eyes so why shouldn’t the film have the right to be self-centered? I found the performances to be subtle and involving. Roberts was radiant as she played a character who felt like she had to fill a hole inside her in order to feel like she was truly alive. She had such ease weaving her character in and out of various places and dealing with polarizing personalities. I did not expect her to have much chemistry with James Franco but they were able to pull off their doomed relationship quite swimmingly. Even when Roberts was just in a scene by herself, I couldn’t help but smile. For instance, when she ate those saliva-inducing Italian food in slow motion, I could feel her having fun in her role. I wish she was in starring roles more often, especially these days, because there aren’t a lot of actors who can balance control and reckless abandon so beautifully and elegantly. Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, “Eat Pray Love,” directed by Ryan Murphy, is ultimately about the big questions more than the answers. Liz may have gotten answers fit to her lifestyle. By providing them a possibility, perhaps adults stuck in unrewarding marriages would be inspired not necessarily to leave the country and live the life they’ve always imagined but to find something better than what is.
★★ / ★★★★
A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.
It’s Complicated (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) had been divorced for ten years. In that time period, Jake married a much younger woman and Jane established herself as an independent woman by running her own business. But the two began having an affair during their son’s (Hunter Parrish) college graduation and that’s when things began to get complicated (and convoluted). The picture had good focus when it tried to explore the dynamics of the relationship between the two former married couple. There was a certain energy about it that felt fresh because the two actors were clearly having fun in their roles. The script may not have been as realistic as I would have liked but I found myself smiling at the fact that two people of a certain age could still be romantic and have fun. Streep and Baldwin had good chemistry because both were so colorful and both could deliver power in their scenes when they really needed to. I also enjoyed Jane’s relationship with her charming architect played by Steve Martin. Spending time with him made her realize things she’s somewhat forgotten such as letting go of control once in a while and just have fun. However, whenever the film shifted its focus to the impact of the romantic entanglements on the children, I just didn’t believe it. I found it difficult to accept the fact that none of the three children (not including John Krasinski as the future son-in-law who was sometimes amusing, sometimes distracting) had the maturity to accept the fact that former couples can fall for each other again. Haven’t they had past relationships themselves? They didn’t act their age (the youngest was in college) and I cringed at the scene when Streep was forced to explain and justify her decisions to them. I felt like all three of them had the same brain and I wished that they weren’t in it at all. The kids dragged the movie down instead of adding a new dimension to the story. However, I did admire the way the movie ended because, just like the three leads, it handled the complicated situation in a mature way and it was able to impart some sort of wisdom regarding trust and fragility of relationships. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, “It’s Complicated” offers a nice perspective concerning people in their 50s and what it means to find and rediscover romance. I was glad that it took the time to focus solely on Streep and Baldwin initially and eventually just Streep and Martin. It highlighted the positive and negative qualities of both men and it explained why Streep was torn between them. “It’s Complicated” is not a bad movie because it has charm and is accessible. However, it too often suffered from almost tried-and-true sitcom-like set-ups especially the scenes involving the family.
Serious Man, A (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.
★★ / ★★★★
This second part of the trilogy confused me. It started off with promise because it focuses on the ugly divorce between Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski. Even though I thought the story would revolve around Delpy, Zamachowski is interesting because he’s vulnerable but he’s not above not taking revenge for the hateful things that Delpy did to him. After the divorce, Zamachowski ended up back in Poland and began acquiring wealth. He then hatched a plan to answer the questions that have been bothering him and decided to return to Delpy’s life. The first and last part of this picture were effective because it embraced its atypical way of telling the story. One moment it’s a marriage drama but the next it’s a well-told dark comedy. However, the middle portion was too aimless for my liking. I constantly found myself trying to figure out where the story was going or if it was even planning on going anywhere. Zamachowski’s character who has been kicked around like a homeless puppy by a handful of individuals spent too much time feeling sorry for himself. It works in some segments of the film because it makes the audiences root for him, but spending too much time in a depressed state can lead to audiences’ ambivalence. Even as he started to gain wealth and power, he still felt sorry for himself. Whatever happened to a depressed but strong protagonist like from its predecessor (played with such craft by Juliette Binoche)? I also missed the astute use of music and color in order to reveal certain layers of a character. This one barely had any and that frustrated me. If one is looking for an unconventional film that straddles the line between drama and dark comedy, this is the one to see. But if one is looking for something that’s rich in implications and technical ways of revealing certain aspects of characters without using words, avoid this one because it will disappoint.