Cairo Time (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) decided to visit Egypt because she wanted to spend time with her husband who worked for the United Nations. Her expectations involved her husband picking her up from the airport, heading to the hotel, and maybe seeing some unique tourist attractions. But her visit was far from what she expected. Instead, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a coffee shop owner and a friend of her husband, picked her up from the airport because Mark had been delayed in Gaza. The more time Juliette and Tareq spent together, they noticed that there was romantic interest simmering between them. “Cairo Time,” written and directed by Ruba Nadda, was a mature romantic picture that exuded intelligence and insight in just about every scene. It showed that less really was more. The excitement was in the conversations between Juliette and Tareq as they talked about their own lives. Juliette mostly talked about her kids, the time she had on her hands and the freedom she felt now that they no longer lived at home, her career as a writer for a magazine called “Vous,” and the social issues she believed in. On the other hand, Tareq talked about his business and a former lover (Amina Annabi) whose daughter was about to get married. From the moment they met, we immediately felt a possible romantic tension between them because, despite the vast difference between their cultures, they shared excellent chemistry. The way they looked at each other, even if the look lasted for only a millisecond, communicated more than a hundred words. Clarkson was divine. Since she was in every scene, she had to deliver something special in order to successfully keep our interest. I couldn’t help but smile when she would flirt as she talked on the telephone, the way she held herself when someone was being rude or failing to respect her personal space, and her attempt to immerse herself in Egyptian culture. She didn’t have to be edgy to be interesting. Her character’s ordinariness and maturity was enough to make me want to get to know her. The director made a smart choice to showcase the characters first instead of the stunning landscapes especially during the trips to the desert. Despite normally attention-grabbing wide angle shots, twice I caught my eyes transfixed on Clarkson first and then I noticed the breathtaking backdrop. I thought that was a testament in terms of how invested I was in Juliette’s journey in realizing that maybe she didn’t end up with the right person. When her husband (Tom McCamus) finally made an appearance, like Juliette, I felt as though Egypt’s magic and romance was sucked by a vacuum. The car ride toward the pyramids was gut-wrenching in a subdued way. Like our protagonist, it inspired us to think about the many choices we made that shaped our lives to the way it currently is.
★★★★ / ★★★★
A spacecraft containing a crew of seven (Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto) was supposed to be on its way to Earth. After waking up from hypersleep, the crew discovered that they were nowhere near Earth because their ship, known as Nostromo, received a transmission. One of the rules of their mission was if the ship received some sort of signal, it was requisite that they investigate the source which most likely could be extraterrestrial. This film held my attention like a vice grip right from the opening credits. There was something eerie and cold in the way the camera scanned the darkness of outer space. It made me feel small and almost insignificant. Even though I knew that Ripley, Weaver’s character, was the hero of the story, I liked that I didn’t immediately notice her. Her character only began to grab my attention when one of the three crew members was infected with an alien larvae and she refused to let them inside due to a risk of infection. Naturally, their leader ignored her sound reasoning and it was only a matter of time until the crew met their gruesome demise. Ridley Scott’s direction took the film to the next level. Stumbling upon an alien planet could have been done in a cliché manner such as showing too much disgusting slime and, worse, showing too many alien creatures in the beginning of the film, taking away some of the effective scares found later in the picture because we would know exactly what the alien looked like. Instead, Scott used the alien planet’s environment to mask certain corners but at the same time highlight the areas closer to a light source. Since it didn’t show too much, it took advantage of my imagination, making what I didn’t see much scarier than what I did see. (But what I was still horrified when I saw the alien in larvae form.) Granted, most of the crew members made some bad decisions. But I think the unwise decisions they made were not equal to brainless teenagers in a slasher film. It was different because the crew faced the unknown and the usual rules did not apply. For instance, there was no way they could have known that the alien’s blood was so acidic to the point where it was able to eat through metal. A major theme I focused on was human instinct being pitted against animal instinct. Both were different because human instinct, represented by Ripley, is capable of being controlled, to an extent, given that the person actively takes a moment to evaluate a situation. On the other hand, animal instinct, represented by the alien, cannot. However, both are similar in that instinct has one goal: self-preservation. “Alien” is an intelligent science-fiction film that expertly mixes wonder and horror. Undertones which comment on feminism and technology can be found but it doesn’t get in the way of first-class entertainment.
Going the Distance (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Garrett (Justin Long) lives in New York and works for a record company whose main goal is to find bands that have the potential to be popular even though they’re not necessarily talented. Garrett finds his job unrewarding because he genuinely loves good music despite a band being non-commercial. Erin (Drew Barrymore) is an summer intern for a newspaper in New York who resides in the Bay Area with her sister (Christina Applegate). Being over thirty years old, she’s still in school because she once derailed her career plans for a guy. Garret and Erin meet and they get into an initially undefined long-distance relationship. Written by Geoff LaTulippe and directed by Nanette Burstein, “Going the Distance” is without a doubt a commercial romantic comedy but has an edge because it is actually believable in terms of how it’s like to be in a modern relationship. The script contained extremely funny lines and situations, the supporting characters (Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis as Garrett’s best friends) were used in a smart way but never overshadowed the leads, and we believe that Garrett and Erin had something special so we are invested in the story. The small details were the things I appreciated most. I liked how the camera consistently focused on the man–the thoughts that were running around in his head and the pain that he must be feeling because he is very attached to the girl. It stood out to me because there were studies I’ve read about, compared to a woman, a man feeling more pain than he lets on when a romantic relationship is broken. And even though it wasn’t addressed directly, there was probably an age difference (Garrett’s age was undisclosed). I thought about why the two main characters valued certain things over others, their maturity levels, and the pros and cons of being in long distance relationship. Even though, on the surface, Garrett and Erin had a lot in common, they also had a lot of differences but somehow the director was able to highlight what great chemistry they have without resulting to being sappy and so we want them to be together even though not all of the characters believed they would make it. “Going the Distance” is an unexpectedly fast-paced comedy that manages to capture the diversity and the hustle and bustle of New York City (I actually liked the scenes with purposely bad lighting because it felt that much more realistic). It’s an intelligent film that isn’t afraid for both men and women to directly talk about sex and address what they really need in order to be happy. The movie even had time to refer to the economy’s impact the job market. I strongly believe that couples, not just the girl, will find themselves enjoying this laugh-and-loud romcom.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Barry Levinson, “Diner” was about a group of friends verging on adulthood who constantly tried to find a distinction between marriage and being in love with a woman. I adored this film greatly because I felt like the guys were the kind of people I could talk to. Even though they were silly and talked about the most unimportant things, they were very entertaining and each had a distinct personality. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) was about to get married, Boogie (Mickey Rourke–who I did not recognize at all) was a womanizer, Modell (Paul Reiser) got on everyone’s nerves, Tim (Kevin Bacon) had issues with his brother, and Shrevie (Daniel Stern) was addicted to music. But my favorite was Billy (Tim Daly), Eddie’s best man, because he was the most mysterious of the group. His interactions with Eddie had a certain feeling of sensitivity to it; the look he portrayed in his eyes made me think that he harbored a secret and I desperately wanted to know what it was. While they all had separate personalities, I liked that Levinson surprised us somewhere in the middle. The picture seemed to have flipped itself inside out and showcased something unexpected about them. For instance, Tim turned out to be someone who was genuinely intelligent despite his sometimes unwise decisions. The biggest strength and weakness of this film was its many colorful characters. Since there were so many of them, I was never bored because it jumped from one perspective to another with relative ease. But at the same time, I wished it had less characters so it could have had the chance to dig deeper within the characters’ psychologies. Nevertheless, “Diner” was very funny because the guys had chemistry. Their interactions made me think of nights when my friends and I would hang out at Denny’s, talk about the most random things, tease each other, and eat until it was either difficult for us to breathe or our mouths were simply exhausted from talking. So I felt like the movie really captured how it was like to be considered as an adult (over eighteen) but not quite reach the maturity level of a real adult. “Diner” is a deftly crafted picture with intelligence despite the dirty jokes, characters who are easy to identify with and a script that flows and sounds natural. I always feel the need to say that a movie may not be for everyone only because the movie is heavy on dialogue. But I think this film is an exception because it knows how to have fun but remain honest so the audiences can feel like they’re part of the inner circle instead of simply eavesdropping from another table.
★★★ / ★★★★
Corey Haim stars as the title character who was a smart fourteen-year-old in high school who fell in love with the new girl in town (Kerri Green). Conflict ensued when the new girl started liking a football jock (Charlie Sheen) who had a soft heart for Lucas. Meanwhile, a fellow band member named Rina (Winona Ryder) obviously liked Lucas but he was too focused on winning over the new girl to feel Rina’s affections. Written and directed by David Seltzer, “Lucas” is a great simple film with a huge heart. It exuded intelligence because even though its subject was high school kids, the characters were multidimensional because the movie took its time to allow them to voice their thoughts about themselves and concerns for each other. There were some red flags that hinted at possibly taking the stereotypical path in teenage pictures because of the bullying. However, the film offered some surprising elements in terms of where the picture ultimately decided to go. Even though some characters were bullies, some were bullied and some were simply left on the sidelines, all of them were pretty much outsiders. All of them felt some sort of pain at that specific time in their lives. I thought that was an insightful look at high school life and it’s so refreshing to watch because most teen movies these days don’t come close to (or don’t even attempt to reach) the level of introspection that this film had to offer. While I did enjoy its critique on the social high school strata, I wish it had more scenes between Haim and Green. The first thirty minutes of the movie was very strong because it felt intimate and there was a certain sweetness to those scenes that the rest of the movie didn’t quite match. “Lucas” started off with a hatching of a locust. As the film went on, I started to realize its symbolism and I couldn’t help but feel moved. There was a really touching scene between Haim and Green in the end when Lucas wondered where they would be twenty years from now and if they would still know each other. That scene was a stand out because it captured the level of intimacy between Lucas and the new girl like in the beginning of the movie. It also managed to wrap everything up in so little words while highlighting the innocence youth and how quickly it could disappear. “Lucas” may not be as consistent as I would have liked (I thought it managed to reach some emotional highs comparable to “Stand by Me”) but it deserves an enthusiastic recommendation. It goes to show that it’s possible to have a simple story and letting the emotional gravity hook us and move us.
★★★ / ★★★★
Two biochemists, Clive and Elsa, (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who worked for a pharmaceutical company (led by Simona Maicanescu) decided to make an animal/human hybrid because they felt that they should push the boundaries of science in order to ultimately free humanity from unsolved genetic diseases. As well-meaning as they were on the outside, I loved the fact that as the film went on, I began to feel detached from the characters instead of feeling attached to them like in most other movies. As astute and gifted as they were, I felt that they were selfish, arrogant, rash and they deserved what was about to happen to them. The special and visual effects kept me glued to the screen. I wasn’t sure how much of the creature (played by Delphine Chanéac) was computer-engineered but I couldn’t take my eyes off her due to fascination and complete horror. From the trailers, I thought “Splice” was going to be a standard sci-fi/horror picture but I was glad it turned out differently. Instead of going for the easy scares (although there were three or four), it took its time to establish the characters and place them (and us) in moral conundrums to see how they would respond to the challenges that faced them. Since the two biochemists were in a romantic relationship prior to the genetically engineered creature, there was something amusing about the way they eventually took on the role of being a parent for the creature including the usual tensions that arise during motherhood and fatherhood. There were even some Freudian implications that became very obvious as the movie unfolded. Having said all that, I felt that the film stalled somewhere in the middle. The movie hinted Elsa’s dark past which should have explained why she treated Dren (the creature) the way she did. But the whole thing was so vague, I felt like I was constantly reaching for something in the dark that may not even be there. As the picture reached its somewhat typical and predictable climax of characters running in the woods and fighting for survival, I waited for some answers about Elsa’s past but I didn’t get any. Instead, there was a completely gratuitous scene that just made me feel uncomfortable and rotten. The last time I felt that badly in a movie theater was when I saw 2009’s “The Last House on the Left.” I know about Vincenzo Natali’s reputation as a director who likes to inject something different in his projects but I strongly believe that the scene in question could have been altered in such a way that it didn’t degrade women. Nevertheless, I’m recommending “Splice” because it exhibited intelligence, its ability to surprise and it worked as a cautionary tale.
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of casual movie-goers were disappointed with this movie because they expected more jolt-inducing scenes that remained in their spine for some time. Meanwhile, critics loved its realism and labyrinthine-like mystery. I wasn’t disappointed with this film nor did I love it as much as the professional film critics when I saw it for the first time. I simply liked it for the following reasons: the two-and-a-half hour span of this movie symbolized the grueling, long-term challenges the real-life detectives went through and Jake Gyllenhaal’s mature performance (as Robert Graysmith who wrote a book about his experiences) about a man’s journey down the rabbit hole. I was fascinated by his obsessive personality; as he got closer to the identity of the killer, the more he neglected himself and his family. But after watching it for the second time, I almost loved it because of the amount of detail that David Fincher, the director, put into the film. There was a certain crispness with how everything was shot yet still remained very atmospheric and implemented the classic Fincher awkward camera angles. I loved how first part of the movie focused on Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. as a cartoonist and writer (named Paul Avery), respectively, for the San Francisco Chronicle. They had great chemistry because they were so different from one another yet they had a common goal. That is, to catch the very elusive and mysterious Zodiac killer that plagued the San Francisco Bay Area. The second act focused on Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi as he interviewed possible suspects. I believe this was Ruffalo’s most complete performance to date because I got to see him change from an enthusiastic man to a man who became so defeated from getting close to the killer but not quite catching him. And the third act was how Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo worked together to get even closer to solving the mystery. I was impressed with the level of suspense this film had despite not having huge explosions and extended chase scenes. Although the violence was brutal, I found that the scenes that left something for the imagination were more haunting, such as the scene when a woman and her baby got into the car of the notorious murderer. Its craft was in the dialogue as we wade through important and unimportant pieces of the puzzle, the unpredictable twists and grueling passage of time as the characters became more and more worn out trying to chase Zodiac. Since I’m from the Bay Area, I think this picture is special because the possibility that Zodiac still roaming around and passing as one of us just chills me to the bone.
Up in the Air (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jason Reitman directed this tale about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) whose job is to fly to various cities across America and fire people who work for different corporations. Ryan enjoys being constantly on the move, collecting frequent flyer miles, and values the isolation and sense of pride that comes with his work. His way of life and mindset are challenged on two fronts: when he met a woman version of himself named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) and a plucky twentysomething named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who wants to revolutionize the way the company works. That is, instead of firing people face-to-face, she argues the corporation can save a lot of money by firing people via a computer. Ryan then has to balance his budding romance with Alex as well as helping Natalie realize that there is a real value in having the courage and putting in the time to actually face the people to tell them that they have lost their jobs. In a grim American economy, I thought this film could not have arrived at a more perfect time because not only did it have a real sense of drama, it had a sense of humor, intelligence, and heart when it comes to the lead characters as well as to those who are recently unemployed.
I thought the director’s decision to actually put real-life people in front of the camera to express how they felt when they got fired was a wonderful idea. It felt that much more real and heartbreaking. Instead of a movie featuring a corporate person (the bully) and the person being fired (the bullied), which is one-dimensional, there was a certain sense of understanding between the two camps even though the people who were being fired were angry and sad when they heard the terrible news. I enjoyed the conversations between Clooney and Kendrick because they were so different. There was real humor when it came to the generational gap, their outlook on marriage and how to deal with people. I’m very happy with the fact that the movie did not result to Clooney being the teacher and Kendrick being the student. They actually learned from each other even though neither of them was a picture of perfection. Even though they were very different, I felt a certain level of respect between them. I also loved the one conversion that Farmiga and Kendrick had concerning what they wanted in a man. That conversation has got to be one of my favorite scenes in the entire film because, in essence, it’s the same kind of question that my friends and I try to answer. It got me thinking about what I really want in a partner ten years from now instead of just focusing on my wants for the present. It also got me thinking about whether I really want to be married. Before watching the film, I thought I knew my answer but now I’m more unsure. I don’t consider that a bad thing at all because the picture really challenged the way I saw certain aspects in being a committed relationship. I saw myself in each of the characters so I was invested throughout.
“Up in the Air” is an ambitious film with great writing and heartfelt performances. Even though the film is essentially a comedy (some unfairly label it as a romantic comedy), it really is about the big questions we have about our life, where it was, where it is now and where it is going. It’s not the kind of movie that tries to be quirky just to feel different. In fact, it follows some of the same structured formula of Hollywood filmmaking. But the material is so rich to the point where it didn’t matter. It felt natural so I thought the characters didn’t feel like they were just characters in a movie. When I look back on the movies that came out in 2009, “Up in the Air” is really one of those pictures that really got it right in terms of reflecting real life.