True Adolescents (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Amy (Laura Kai Chen) broke up with Sam (Mark Duplass), none of his friends would allow him to temporarily stay at their place. Not having much of a choice, the thirty-four-year-old musician, whose band was on a verge of booking a record deal, called Aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo) for free lodging. Coincidentally, it was the weekend that Oliver (Bret Loehr), Sam’s cousin, was supposed to go camping with his father. However, a last-minute cancellation forced Sam, out of guilt, to accompany Oliver and his best friend, Jake (Carr Thompson), during the trip. “True Adolescents,” written and directed by Craig Johnson, may not have the most creative plot but it nonetheless piqued my curiosity because it was so proud and so open in allowing its characters to behave like any teenager or teenager-at-heart we could randomly pluck off the streets. And because the characters were not given a typical arc in which they were required to learn something from their experiences, I enjoyed watching and listening to them without the need to be on my toes as to when they had reached a turning point. Its naturalistic performances made me feel warm. Particularly impressive was Leo as the caring aunt because although she wasn’t in front of the camera for very long, I felt like I already knew her. This was probably because the spirit that Leo embodied reminded me of my favorite aunt. Whenever I need something, all I’m required to do is ask and problem solved. Leo’s radiant smile, especially when it was directed to Sam, was infectious. During the pauses in their conversations, I wondered what she really thought about her nephew’s unstable life and career choice. Duplass, too, was very easy on the eyes in his own way. Approachable more than typically handsome, his sometimes scathing sarcasm paved the way on how he essentially viewed himself. Like the hormonal teens he had to take care of, he wrestled with a lot of conflicting thoughts about his place in the world and how people valued (or not value) him. Sam, Oliver, and Jake were full of insecurities and the script had a way of letting us feel their anger, frustration, and disappointment when things didn’t go their way. Out of the three, I was able to relate with Jake most. He reminded me of how I was during the first year or two of high school: when confronted with conflict, I chose to walk away, turned inwards, and asked what was about it about me that other people felt like they could get away with treating me like their own emotional punching bag. It was not a good feeling and each time Jake walked off, I knew exactly how he felt: the rage he bottled up inside his scraggy frame and the thirst to unleash it somehow. Jake became my emotional compass. Although there were a lot of uncertainties and vague resolutions, I knew that he would turn out okay just like I did. If there was one thing that “True Adolescents” needed more of, it would be scenes similar to Sam giving Oliver a lecture on what constituted good music. I may not always be on the same wavelength as Sam but we can agree that Sonic Youth is a damn good American alternative rock band.
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a hardworking bartender who had to support two teenage boys, decided to put herself through law school so she could get her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), out jail for being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983. Written by Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, the film immediately established why, aside from the fact that they shared the same bloodline, Betty Anne would go to great lengths, even as to sacrifice her entire life and family, to free Kenny. Although it focused on their childhood, it was done with brisk pace and the techniques employed were not melodramatic. I could imagine kids from a broken home being separated to be raised by different foster parents respond in the same way they did. Swank had a challenging role. She had to balance being tougher than a leather Prada bag yet still remain sensitive so we could understand that her decisions of sometimes putting her family aside for the sake of her brother really did took a toll on her. Failing to reach that critical balance while making it look easy could have made Betty Anne look more like a caricature than a real person. Despite some formulaic elements, like scenes in the courtroom designed to make us feel that the murder was an open-and-shut case, the film was spearheaded by Swank’s nuanced acting. The way she held back her character emotionally was equally powerful as the explosive celebrations–like when we learned that she passed her bar examination and, along with the friend she met in law school named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), when she found DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenny of the crime. The picture was exciting for me because I never followed nor heard about the Waters case. Despite the DNA evidence, there was possibility that Kenny really did commit the murder. There was a feeling that maybe Betty Anne’s quest of more than sixteen years would not result to Kenny’s freedom. I wish the film took a moment to acknowledge that DNA evidence was not an easy solution: It could be tampered with while in storage and scientists were capable of human error. Such instances were not unheard-of. The filmmakers were smart in deciding not to inject too much humanity in Rockwell’s character for the sake of mystery. While there was a small evolution in his character, we were never certain whether or not he committed the crime. What mattered most was Betty Anne’s determination to fix what she thought was a crime in the justice system. Another fascinating character was a corrupt cop played by Melissa Leo. The one scene that Leo and Swank shared had deep tension that could scar. It look forward to seeing them star in the same film in the future. “Conviction” left some unanswered questions such as how Betty Anne was able to support her two boys with a bar-tending job while putting herself through law school and still living in a nice house. Her ex-husband might have supported or perhaps she took out a loan. Were her adoptive parents wealthy? It wasn’t clear. Regardless, the film had an inspiring story supported by the filmmakers’ defined vision and strong acting from the cast.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
Fighter, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) were half-brothers who had a talent and heart for boxing. Dicky was the older one who spent his time reliving his former days of glory. His family, led by Melissa Leo as the matriarch and manager, believed Dicky could make a comeback as they turned a blind eye toward his drug addiction. Mickey, after his family guilt-tripped him into fighting a boxer much bigger than him and being beaten to a pulp, began to think about accepting an offer for a year-round training, with pay, in Las Vagas. This didn’t rest well with the rest of the family except Mickey’s father (Jack McGee) and new girlfriend (Amy Adams) who offered full support. Directed by David O. Russell, “The Fighter” had all the elements to make a truly inspiring film about a man eventually overcoming all odds, but it fell short because Mickey was overshadowed by those who surrounded him. With such spicy personalities offered by Bale, Leo, and Adams, Wahlberg’s character was simply there instead of shining above the rest. He played the mediator, someone who held his tongue just in case someone would get offended by what he had to say, so he ended up boring. He was a bland wall; everyone else were colorful spots on it. I wasn’t convinced that Wahlberg had found a way to make Mickey’s silent suffering relatable or endearing. Some critics’ comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of the intensity and realism of the boxing matches were hyperboles. I suggest the same critics watch Manny Pacquiao’s boxing matches if they want to experience first-rate edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The boxing sequences in this film were commercial and the emotional impact was diluted by quick cuts and obnoxious soundtrack when it should have been primal. I kept waiting for the many distracting elements to subside, especially during the key final match, but the director opted to assault our senses. Sometimes less really is more. I thought the drama behind the scenes, particularly the mother’s increasing awareness that she could no longer manage (or control) her son’s career, were far more interesting. Furthermore, I found Adams’ performance magnetic as she tried to stand up for herself and Mickey against the family matriarch and sisters who had a pack mentality. I’ve never seen her so edgy, so stripped down. Lastly, Bale was excellent as someone who was torn between his addiction and complete adoration for his brother. He was perhaps the most complicated character because there was no doubt in our mind that he wanted the best for Mickey, yet the decisions he made were not always smart. It’s too bad his addiction was more often played for laughs. “The Fighter” was very good in terms of acting but it desperately needed to find focus on the themes it wanted to tackle. It didn’t feel like a complete work.
Frozen River (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Courtney Hunt’s screenwriter and directoral debut blew me out of the water. “Frozen River” is about a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who tries to keep her family afloat after the father of the family leaves and takes all their money with him. Not knowing what else to do because her part-time job is not enough to keep up with the bills, Leo teams up with a Native American (Misty Upham) to smuggle immigrants into the United States for $600 per person. This movie left me so overwhelmed because it’s very efficient with its time. Each minute adds a piece of the puzzle regarding why the characters choose to do what they do. And that’s the key: The characters choose to do what they do even though they very well know that such actions are illegal, yet we still very much sympathize with them. I think that’s where Hunt’s talent comes in–she makes her character so raw to the point where I can imagine the events actually happening in real life. The acting all-around is top notch. Leo and Upham are initially pit up against each other yet they share a common bond that’s strong enough to overcome their differences. Leo definitely deserved her Oscar nomination because, right from the first frame, I sensed a certain complexity from a mother who will do anything it takes to provide for her children (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly). There’s this one scene when they have nothing else to eat other than popcorn and orange juice. It made me think that, if I were in Leo’s situation, I would also smuggle illegal immigrants despite the risks. Also, she has only a few simple dreams for her family (such as getting her children presents for Christmas and buying a new house) but she cannot quite achieve them. While she does tend to blame herself once in a while, she always decides to get up because no one else will solve her problems for her. In a nutshell, the lead character is very flawed but I could not help but admire her resolve. I was also surprised by how suspenseful it got during the smuggling scenes. There’s a lot of political elements that come into play whenever they have to escape such as the differing rules when one is in an Indian reservation. By the end, I was so emotionally drained but I still wanted the film to continue because I was curious about what would happen next to the characters. This is a superb film in every respect; it may be small in scope at first glance but it’s truly quite universal.
Black Irish (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Here’s another indie film that suffers from the Everyone Must be Depressed Syndrome. After all, it’s about an extremely dysfunctional family whose members are emotionally distant from one another. Michael Angarano plays the youngest of the McKay family and is surrounded by people he wants to look up to but are often disappointed with them: a father who keeps secrets and seems to have no positive outlook on life (Brendan Gleeson), a mother who cares too much about what other people would think so she guilts her children into doing the “right” thing (Melissa Leo), a brother who everyone gave up on because he can’t control his criminal proclivities (Tom Guiry), and a pregnant sister who wants to escape her family’s suffocating environment (Emily VanCamp). Even though each of the actor is featured and sewn into the big picture in some way, I felt like it was too forced. Stories about families must be organic because they have a natural connection to one another despite their idiosyncrasies. Angarano is really coming into his own; he’s come a long way from “The Brainiacs.com” and “Will & Grace.” Like in “Snow Angels,” he’s able to add layers and complexity to his character even though the movie is barely above mediocre. As for Guiry, I’m tired of seeing him as a damaged tough guy like in “The Mudge Boy.” Whatever happened to that nice harmless kid in “The Sandlot”? Even though I think he’s extremely talented, I think he’s repeating the same characters. I knew Emily VanCamp would have no problem with the dramatic scenes. Ever since “Everwood,” she proves to me time and again that she can look sad without trying. In essence, I felt that Guiry and VanCamp are merely cruising along and that really frustrates me because I know they can perform at a higher level. Perhaps they could have done so if the writing and direction (both credits go to Brad Gann) are sharper. Since this is Gann’s directoral debut, clichés tend to pile up on one another. But the nice thing about this movie is that it offers the characters some kind of hope at the end of the tunnel. Even though that hope is somewhat bittersweet, it’s what the characters desperately needed (so did the audiences). I also liked the fact that not everything in the film is solved because it gives the picture some sort of realism. I’m not against recommending this film because it does have some memorable scenes. But I’m not going to enthusiastically recommend it either because it has the kind of story that has been featured by better films.