Solitary Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Six and a half years ago, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a successful and influential man in the car business, had a physical examination. His doctor expressed concern about his EKG and recommended that he returned for further tests. Ben never went back. Fast forward to the present, the man pretty much lost everything: he is no longer a magnate of his profession, he has lost all his money in order to avoid jail for being a grifter, and his relationship with his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Jenna Fischer) has essentially fallen apart. Ben has a girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), very rich and loyal, but he just cannot help but sleep with women in their twenties. Ben leads a life not worth living—a life of unhealthy addictions and bad decisions—only he is unaware of it.
Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Solitary Man” takes an aging character who is difficult to like, despite his smooth words, due to his overconfidence and bouts of overcompensation and convinces us, even just a little bit, that he, too, deserves a bit of happiness. The many dramatic elements avoids in drowning the film in syrupy romance or possibility of family reconnection. Its positive messages about redemption, or least an attempt at redemption, are in small, sometimes muted, ways.
Douglas’ performance is hypnotic. I enjoyed the way he carries his character with pride when Ben is surrounded by people, especially young adults (Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby), but he is a complete mess when there is no one around to impress. In some ways, he is a bit like you and me, only more exaggerated to the point of emotional self-destruction.
The best scenes involve Ben taking Allyson (Imogen Poots), his girlfriend’s daughter, to her college interview in Boston and the two of them having to spend the night together. Their flirtation over drinks feels so wrong, obviously because of the wide age difference and, more importantly, that they are potentially each other’s step-father and step-daughter, but I wondered and was excited about how far the filmmakers will be willing to go to explore their relationship, whether it be physical, emotional, or both.
The way it plays out is handled with a satisfying balance of elegance and sadness. Poots does a great job holding her own. She looks like a French fashion model who is completely aware that she looks good and that she can have it all, but she injects her character with many insecurities like feeling the need to get back at her mother for reasons so vague, I could not help but wonder if she, too, has the makings of becoming a vindictive and very unhappy adult—a female version of Ben.
I wished, however, that the protagonist is given more time to interact with his girlfriend and ex-wife. Both women have less than three scenes each which is unfortunate because knowing them a bit more is necessary to understand why Ben feels the need to go back to them and, since they have known him for some time, what they saw in him in the first place. His relationship with the two women and how he is with them might have provided us different information compared to when he is with much younger women.
Though Ben has successfully avoided prison for committing fraud, he has allowed himself to become a prisoner of his own age. With some, like Ben’s wife, aging is a freeing experience. But for him, aging is a constant upstream battle and he is deluded enough to think that he can win against time if he tries just a little bit harder.
Robot & Frank (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hunter (James Marsden) lives about five hours away from his dad, Frank (Frank Langella), whose dementia is starting to deteriorate at a much faster rate. In order to help him out, the dutiful son buys his father a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to function as a health care aide. Although Frank meets the gesture with resistance, he warms up to it eventually given the fact that not only does it make things easier for him, it is also proves to be quite a reliable companion. Frank being a former cat burglar, he soon decides to train Robot to pick locks and other requisite skills to pull off successful heists.
Written by Christopher D. Ford and directed by Jake Schreier, while some will be compelled to consider “Robot & Frank” to be a story about a man with dementia, this is misleading because it is actually more about an unusual friendship, if one decides to call it as such, between man and machine. Frank’s gradual and then sudden memory loss is an important tool for us to want to believe in the relationship forged over a period of time.
It is easy to buy into the picture’s reality. The story is set in the near future where robots are found in homes and at work but the machines do not look polished. They look very manmade, angular and blocky, so it is not at all a stretch to imagine that they are creations meant to serve specific purposes. Also, there are no flying cars or wild fashion to catch our attention. So when Frank and Robot interact in public, for instance, we are drawn to them instead of what might be happening on the background.
Langella injects his character with a gruff sense of humor. Despite his character’s age and declining memory, I enjoyed that his personality is as vibrant as someone half his age. By playing him in such a way, the character is not seen as victim of a disease. When he talks about his plans of stealing from a rich yuppie, he look forward to how he and Robot will manage to pull it off and not how it might fail because of the memory problems.
The robot, too, is interesting. At one point, Frank and the machine get into the topic of self-awareness and what it means to be alive. Robot admits to Frank that it knows that it is not alive and so it does not care about, for example, having its memory erased. It is easy to see the limitation in the duo’s relationship. As humans, we value our experiences and our ability to remember them. Machines, on the other hand, remember information because that is the way they are programmed, not because they want to. Machines do not even want. They do as they are instructed via direct commands or patterns.
“Robot & Frank” is not without moments of genuine dramatic heft. While Frank’s interactions with his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), verged on annoying, I wished that there had been more scenes between Frank and the librarian named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) with whom he crushes on. The protagonist’s interactions with the latter have a lot of sweetness even though we suspect that it probably will not work out considering the circumstances. There is a dramatic punch involving the two in the back half, but it would have had more of an impact if we are given a more defined portrait of their relationship. Still, the film is not handicapped by a lack of depth in the romance because it is first and foremost about Robot and Frank.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Miller (Richard Gere), in the process of finalizing of his company’s sale, is in a heap of trouble. When he is informed that there is a copper mine in Russia that is worth billions, Robert signs over four hundred million dollars to help execute the excavation. Although this risk proves profitable overseas, the billionaire is unable to touch the healthy yield. But there is a problem because now there is about half a million missing from the company’s account with a loan from a friend temporarily masking the fact. To add to the pressure, the police have reason to believe that Robert has been involved with a burnt corpse.
Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, “Arbitrage” moves elegantly and smoothly as it shuffles one plot twist after another. I expected it to revolve around fraud from a technical viewpoint and I was pleasantly surprised because it is actually more about a man so used to being on the top of the financial food chain, we wonder if there is any line he dares not cross because some battles just aren’t worth the trouble.
Gere’s performance is central to the story because he pretty much inhabits every square inch of the picture. We see his character cajole, harangue, and censure his colleagues, partners, and family. But he has such a strong presence, possibly helped by the performer’s good looks, that at times it almost feels like we should be rooting for him even though we can see that his actions are consistently driven by self-interest. Although he has big scenes in which he is required to yell at people and put them in their place, Gere is at his best when he plays his character with quiet hubris. He can simply be sitting in his leather chair but I could feel the machinery in his brain rumble, a similar feeling we can detect when we play chess against an opponent and he or she is deep in thought.
The film works as a suspense-thriller because the main character is surrounded by equally smart supporting characters. The game is for Roger to outsmart them but it isn’t as simple as winning or losing. Many of the situations involve ethics, professional and personal, as well as intense risk assessment. For instance, Brooke (Brit Marling), Robert’s daughter, notices that there is something not quite right about the company’s financial repots. As a young ethical professional, what level of responsibility does she have toward her scheming father versus doing the right thing in order not to jeopardize her promising career?
What the picture needs iron out is the role of Ellen (Susan Sarandon) in terms of her awareness involving her husband’s deceit. I suspected that the character was not as oblivious as Robert believes her to be not because the screenplay leaves enough bread crumbs that lead to a practical conclusion but because of the casting choice given that Sarandon has consistently played strong, eloquent women with fiery personalities. While she proves more than game for the role, her character is not given enough time on screen in order for us to feel the impact of her catharsis.
“Arbitrage” showcases a man struggling to juggle his highly profitable business, short gasps of pleasure, and personal life. He’s used to having them all but one of them has got to give since too many mistakes have been made. Though it is apparent that he is not going to let one of them go without a fight, the longer he waits, the more he risks to lose.
White Palace (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Max (James Spader) ordered fifty White Palace burgers for his friend’s bachelor party, but when the guys opened some of the boxes, it turned out that six of them were empty. Max, being a man of principle, ignored his friends when they said it was no big deal and actually drove back to the burger joint to either get a refund or claim the missing burgers. Nora (Susan Sarandon) happened to be manning the cashier and she was not at all the type to be pushed around. After the night was over, out of pure coincidence, Max and Nora ended up drinking in the same bar. The power of “White Palace,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and Alvin Sargent, can be found in the way the filmmakers focused on two damaged souls and why they were potentially each other’s healing agents. Their devotion toward each other was so intense at times, it bordered on obsession. I liked not knowing whether I should be happy for them or be concerned that something was about to go very wrong. Every time the characters spoke about himself or herself and to each other, there was a piece of information given to make us consider reasons why Max looked so sad and Nora felt the need to put on an air of false confidence to remind herself that she was good enough. Since Nora and Max were initially strangers to one another, hearing them speak so vividly and openly about their personal lives was like going on a journey with them through their beautiful but tragic memories. Spader and Sarandon, although the two exercised different approaches to communicate what grief meant to their respective characters, were equally consummate performers in that each time the lens of the camera focused on their faces, the act of recollecting the past and discussing those they loved was like opening a gash that desperately wanted to heal. I felt their pain, rage, and disappointment toward an imagined life that would never be. I was most impressed in the way the material dealt with passion. Its rawest form was Max and Nora having sex and working to reach an orgasm. I found it titillating–sexy but not pornographic–mainly because the camera didn’t linger on the body of one gender. Most often, the two bodies shared a frame as to highlight their need for connection in a physical as well as in an emotional way. I enjoyed and admired that Luis Mandoki, the director, allowed the sex scene to play out without resulting to sleaze. The direction was so assured, there was even a nice comedic touch about a sandwich found on the floor. Equally commendable was the scene in the bar where Nora tried to seduce Max. It showcased Sarandon’s acting as Nora slinked from her initial lonely spot until she was able to place her hand on Max’ thigh. I just loved the idea of an older woman and the possibility of her taking advantage of a younger man. I was so intrigued by that sense of danger, I caught myself hoping the characters would put deposit more drinks down their throats just to see how far they would get with one another if all the red lights they lived their lives by suddenly turned green. But “White Palace,” based on a novel by Glenn Savan, was more than painful pasts, sex, and seduction. Although slightly less surprising, it was also about class differences experienced through Nora not having a college education and “just” being a waitress. With all the eyes that judge, it was no wonder that not only was she a fighter, she was a survivor.
Little Women (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
The March household consisted of a matriarch (Susan Sarandon) and her four daughters: Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes), Jo (Winona Ryder), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst, but later played by Samantha Mathis). The patriarch participated in the Civil War as part of the Union Army. We observed the girls bask in their innocence as they starred in their own plays to pass the time and the way they responded to life’s small and big challenges that threatened their bond. Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott and directed by Gillian Armstrong, “Little Women” captured how it was like to be young and the feeling that we had all the time in the world to play, laugh, and be loved despite our imperfections. The film started off strong because each sister was given the chance to shine. Meg was concerned that she might never get married. She wanted to marry for love, but being around girls her age, most of them from rich backgrounds, made her realize that perhaps marrying for money was a more practical approach so she could provide for her family. Beth was the quiet and innocent one. It seemed like the only time she stood out was when she played the piano during the holidays. Jo, our protagonist, was the firecracker. She wasn’t like other girls. She was unafraid to roll around in mud and yell at boys from a distance. Older folks, like Aunt Match (Mary Wickes), were seriously concerned about her prospects for marriage. Boys just wouldn’t want to be with girls who acted like boys. Amy was the unpredictable one. Being the youngest, she was a keen observer. She didn’t like being poor and she made a personal promise that she would marry a rich man. The film’s first half was intriguing because there was complexity among the sisters’ relationships with each other and the men (Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz) they interacted with. Unfortunately, the second half didn’t feel as strong because there was a certain tone of detachment. Instead of focusing on the sisters’ relationships, the story turned its focus on the uninspiring romance between Jo and Friedrich (Gabriel Byrne), a German professor, while in New York. Since Jo’s story was supposedly based on the author’s life, I expected the screenplay to pay particular attention to Jo’s struggle in trying to become a woman writer in the big city. There were only approximately scenes which showed us that it was difficult for her to get published because nobody was interested in her “fairytale” stories. There was dramatic weight in the way she put her dreams at bay, that is, writing literature, and instead resulted to writing fantasy stories about vampires and beasts because she needed the money. Even though she was published, she felt like a failure because she wasn’t published for the right reasons. I felt as though there were a lot more meaningful things that needed to be said about Jo’s career. The romance felt unnecessary because it offered no excitement or spark. In fact, the romance almost felt like an antithesis to the film’s feminist undertones. Once scenes of reckless abandonment of youth passed by, the film never looked back and there was an off-putting lack of closure.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
As Jeff (Jason Segel) relaxed on the couch in the basement while smoking hookah and watching television, the man on the infomercial urged his viewers to pick up the phone. A beat later, the phone rang. Perplexed by this coincidence, Jeff, a man who believed in everything happening for a reason and a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” picked up the call. The man on the other line was looking for Kevin, but no one lived in that household other than Jeff and his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Given a favor by his mom to pick up supplies at Home Depot, Jeff ended up following various clues as to who Kevin was and how that person was connected to him. Based on the screenplay and directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, despite being submerged in coincidences, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” was clearly about love and family. This was dealt with in three fronts: the crumbling marriage of Pat (Ed Helms) and Linda (Judy Greer), Sharon and the instant messages sent to her by an anonymous co-worker who claimed to have a crush on her, and the barely existent bond between the two brothers, Jeff and Pat. Because the human element was believable, even though strange coincidences piled on top of one another, it was always easy to relate to the characters. What I found most interesting was most of them viewed themselves as painfully ordinary and they defined their lives by the ordinariness of every day. There was talk of dreaming about eating at fancy restaurants, living The American Dream, and visiting exotic, faraway places– all of which promised excitement and self-fulfillment. And then there was Jeff, happily ensconced in the possibility of small magic embedded in the routine. He was the heart of the picture and Segel embodied his character with quiet pride. Although Jeff towered over people in stature, he wasn’t domineering in terms of physicality and comportment. He looked soft and slow-moving. I liked that he felt he didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Naturally, since he and Pat were almost complete opposites–one a dreamer, the other a pragmatist–there was tension in their relationship. Although not an exact parallel, it was an angle that I could relate with because my brother and I differ in about every respect. When Jeff and Pat argued, there was an obvious sense of humor in their disagreements yet the resentment they had for one another was consistently hidden underneath pointed words and phrases. The script stood out not just because it had an ear toward how people really talked but it wasn’t afraid touch sensitive truths that may go unnoticed to, for instance, people who are an only child. The film’s weakness, however, involved Pat and Jeff spying on Linda because she was potentially having an affair. It went on for too long and most of the clichés didn’t have enough twists in them to make the subplot interesting all the way through. At times it felt so convoluted that it began to affect the pacing of what was going on in Sharon’s place of work. I also wished Greer was given more to do because she has such range in comedy and drama. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” showcased a thirty-something protagonist with not much aim in life–probably not many of us can relate to. But he wanted to be understood and surely everyone can relate to that.
Middle of Nowhere (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Middle of Nowhere” was an indie drama about two teenagers who wanted to escape their lives. Dorian (Anton Yelchin) was sick of his wealthy family and their expectations of his eventual responsibility of running the family business. A problem child, he was sent to his uncle to learn discipline. Grace (Eva Amurri) wanted to go to college to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor but was unable to get financial aid because her mother (Susan Sarandon) took out unpaid loans under Grace’ name. The mother claimed that the answer to all of their problems was for Grace’ younger sister (Willa Holland) to enter the modeling industry. Dorian and Grace worked at a waterpark and eventually became partners in selling cannabis. I enjoyed the film mostly because of the performances. Sarandon was great as the mother who didn’t quite know how to be a responsible parent. I understood the many predicaments she was in, especially her financial instability, but I didn’t pity her because she was supposed to be the leading figure in the family. Unlike her eldest daughter, she wasn’t focused in accomplishing something she was responsible for. Yelchin and Amurri were equally interesting as teenagers whose lives were in a standstill. I admired that the script infused sexual tension between them but they never got together in a sexual way. That was important because their relationship was about business first, friendship second, and everything else was tertiary. Instead, a potential beau (Justin Chatwin) for Grace entereed the picture. They seemed like a perfect fit because he was worldly, smart and had substance. But was he too good to be true? As usual, I enjoyed Yelchin’s cooky side. A less charming actor would have looked like a complete fool while dancing in a laundomat. Amurri successfully made me want to root for her character. Although she was tough and sometimes cold, I understood that she had to be because she learned at an early age that nobody would ever just hand her what she wanted. I saw some similarities between the two of us but she definitely had a more unpleasant background. Unfortunately, the film hit a few bumps on the road. Half-way through, I began to feel as though the melodrama had completely taken over. I kept waiting for the tone to change up, surprise, and offer some laughter, especially during the scenes of Grace and Dorian’s odd occupation, but it remained painfully one-note. Written by Michelle Morgan and directed by John Stockwell, “Middle of Nowhere” had a good amount of intelligence and heart but I wished it was more playful with its tone because with such a somber material, the line between self-reflection and narcissism was often crossed.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.