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Remember Me (2010)
Surprisingly compelling and impacting
Remember Me is not a unique romantic drama. Nor is it a special romantic drama. In fact, it's really not a romantic drama at all. It is the story of the lives of two 21-year old New Yorkers who are still dealing with their grief over deceased family members. One is Tyler Hawkins (Pattinson), a lost and rebellious bookstore employee who blames his dad for his older brother's suicide and is "undecided about everything". The other is Ally Craig (de Ravin), a college student who witnessed her mother's murder at a young age and now lives with her overprotective cop father (Cooper), living her life to the fullest and eating dessert before her entree at every dinner in order to make sure that if she were ever to meet an untimely death during her meal, she would at least have made it to one final indulgence.
The film focuses primarily on Tyler, observing the many problems he must endure, ranging from coping with the inescapable memory of the loss of his brother; an 11-year old art-prodigy sister (Ruby Jerins) who is unfairly teased and tormented by her classmates; and a cold, distant father (Brosnan) who ignores him and his sister both to the troublemaking antics of his roommate, Aidan (Tate Ellington), and a broken deadbolt.
After his inability to keep his mouth shut lands him and roommate Aidan in jail for a night- courtesy of none other than Ally's father himself, Tyler makes a deal with Aidan to sleep with Ally and then subsequently leave her to get revenge on her father. Of course, this devious and mean-spirited ploy sets into motion a relationship that transcends all of Tyler's childish intentions, but at the same time, brings even more troubles into his life.
As I mentioned before, despite misleading trailers and marketing campaigns, this film is not primarily a romantic drama. While it's certainly difficult to convince one of this notion with words alone (and given what seems to be a very romantic drama-ish plot), it's an important reminder to remember when seeing the film. Many- both common moviegoers and critics- have cited their disappointment with the movie's ending because it supposedly strayed from the film's romantic tendencies. However, the ending reveals the movie's true essence and conveys its intended message. In an effort to keep the review spoiler-free, I will refrain from elaborating on the ending any more, because- while I won't guarantee that your viewing experience will be undermined by knowing the nature of the ending ahead of time- it is certainly crucial to the intended impact of the film that you don't know about it beforehand. I'll get to more on my thoughts about the ending later, for those of you who have seen the movie already.
In other departments, the film hardly ever excels above and beyond a simply decent production, however, certain aspects absolutely exceeded my expectations. Robert Pattinson's acting didn't blow me away, but managed to reconcile him from my list of actors who don't deserve to be in the industry at all (if you're wondering who's still stranded on that unforgivable list Zac Efron, Gerard Butler, Jessica Alba, Megan Fox, and Keanu Reeves are just a few of the top candidates I would vote out of the Hollywood tribe). I'm not about to jump the bandwagon of spellbound tweenage girls and run out to buy an Edward Cullen poster to plaster on my wall, but I will say that I was impressed with his abilities here. It's true that he's one of the best at brooding and sulking and even if that's all he's great at, at least it's something. Emilie de Ravin isn't quite as exceptional, but still puts in a strong performance. In the grand scheme of things, Chris Cooper and young rising star Ruby Jerins were the standout performers in my opinion as the loving but conflicted father and the misunderstood, too-mature-for-her-age sister. Pierce Brosnan, too, is exceptional in a way that makes you incapable of resisting your inner urge to hate his character and then find yourself sympathizing with him just a little bit, even if you don't want to.
Some interactions breed a tad too much melodrama, the writing is far from flawless, and the dialogue is not without the occasional line that borders the edge of too-cutesy-to-hold-back-the-laughter, but these are all things you have to expect (not necessarily forgive) in a film that deals heavily with the relationship of two 21-year olds. For first time writer Will Fetters (who wrote the script several years ago when he was only 22) and small-time-experience director Allen Coulter, the execution and production value of the film are enough to engage you for its full 113 minute runtime and feel satisfied with the time you spent. But if there's any one element that sets it a step ahead of most other films of a similar nature (other than the ending), it's probably the film's ability to feel genuine on many of its several layers. More than anything, the relationship between Tyler and his sister is admirably real and the chemistry between the two actors is particularly apparent. And on a greater scale, almost the entire cast give performances that feel collectively authentic, which is perhaps what allows the movie to create the meaningful effect that it does and leave you stunned by the ending.
In the end, the product that Coulter, Fetters, and their noteworthy cast accomplish is a well-constructed and dare I say captivating story of the lives of seemingly real New York individuals and the ways they deal with their unfortunate hardships and interactions, without pretending to give us the answers to our own problems or ostentatiously displaying to the audience how relationships are supposed to work. It's flawed, but its strong points outweigh the weak ones, giving it the weight it requires to make an impact.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Paul Thomas Anderson gets Sandler to prove he can do drama too
After Magnolia and before There Will Be Blood, came Punch-Drunk Love in Paul Thomas Anderson's arsenal of movies. In this dark and odd romantic dramedy, Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan, a childish adult man who is still shy around women and whose seven manipulative sisters criticize and torment him into uncontrolled bursts of anger. His wholesale plunger business keeps him busy, despite the fact that he never seems to do anything productive at his office. Rather, he spends his time exploiting a loophole in a special Healthy Choice promotion by buying large amounts of pudding in order to rack up millions of free frequent flyer miles that he has no specific use for (a story that is based off of that of "Pudding Guy" David Phillips). Boring and aimless as his life may be, Egan endures with only minimal broken glass windows and few crying episodes. However, all of that changes when an interested woman becomes intent on meeting him and a phone sex hotline operator becomes violently vengeful.
Adam Sandler performs like you've never seen him before, and at the same time- just like you've always seen him. His natural childish persona is preserved, but instead of being channeled into awkwardly unfunny jokes that would more likely be heard in a middle school cafeteria, Paul Thomas Anderson finds a way to use Sandler's juvenile behavior powers for good. Together, the two create an air of loneliness and constant distress that manages to engage the audience and evoke a sense of sympathy for the protagonist. And with added exceptional performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mary Lynn Rajskub, Punch Drunk Love is something that prevails in its own way.
Admittedly, the movie's dream-like nature and unconventional quirkiness isn't quite for everyone and some might come away feeling as if they simply didn't get it. However, those who appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson's general quality of work and are curious to see a different side of Sandler's abilities will certainly be charmingly pleased. To give a fair evaluation, it's not particularly a film that most will love or hate. Moreover, it's simply a respectable piece of work that's well worth a viewing, at least for the experience that Anderson creates.
Comedic look at high school drama with great performances
Matthew Broderick, now on the other end of the high-school society, stars alongside Reese Witherspoon in Election, a witty and occasionally dark comedy about the troubles that can emerge during high school student council elections. Director Alexander Payne (Sideways and About Schmidt) manages to find a beautiful balance between intelligent satire and compelling drama in a way that never stops being comically enjoyable. It's as peculiarly captivating as Little Miss Sunshine and as innocently entertaining as Ferris Beuller's Day Off.
Election time for Washington Carver High School is right around the corner and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) already has her eye on the glorious prize the position of student body president. Tracy hasn't even the slightest reason to worry. She's a confident and hardworking overachiever who has become a part of every major organization the school offers; she'll happily raise her hand to answer any question in any class; she evens arrives to school extra early to prepare to campaign for the student signatures she needs to enter the election- a campaign complete with a corny slogan and a manipulative bowl of gum for enticement. And most important of all, Tracy has no competition in the election (not that that stops her from taking the whole matter as seriously as if it were our nation's presidential election itself). In fact, there's really only one tiny tidbit that could potentially harm her chances She recently got out of a secret, but very intimate affair with a teacher who was subsequently fired after the administration found out.
Enter Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick)- a young teacher whose life has played out just as he had hoped. He's everyone's favorite teacher, he's involved in the social scene of the school, and he's one of the most highly valued supporters for the athletics department. Tracy Flick just might be the one thing that dampens his days, with her boring and rigid personality that frames her goody two shoes attitude. Even if he can't explain it, there's just something about her that rubs him the wrong way.
So naturally, when Tracy becomes the leading (and only) candidate in the election, Mr. McAllister, the student council administrator, can't help but be disgruntled by her overwhelming involvement in everything. In the hopes of adding a more democratic element to the election, the three-time Teacher of the Year winner convinces injured football star Paul Metzler to enter the race, assuming that his popularity will give Tracy a challenge. And as if by domino effect, a third candidate joins the two opponents. Paul's sister, Tammy, sees her participation as a perfect opportunity to get revenge on her brother for stealing her beloved girlfriend. Ironically, the student body responds most emphatically to Tammy's anarchic tendencies and apathy towards school issues.
Tracy's stress level reaches a whole new level as her desire to win nearly drives her over the edge, Tammy displays her passion for vengeance, Paul shows his embarrassingly pitiful political skills, and Mr. McAllister gets tied up in a complicated affair; all the basics of your typical high school election are carefully mixed for a remarkable end product.
The quirky atmosphere of the small town and its dysfunctional inhabitants never relents and the story utilizes such simple stereotypes in an unconventional way that makes the characters' interactions a joy to watch. Comedic dialogue and entertaining twists around every corner, this caricature-driven work is wholeheartedly a fun film that will be especially enjoyed by those who prefer intelligent comedies with just a dab of drama. And perhaps most admirable of all, Election introduces a new type of high school comedy that drops the sleaziness and instead develops an experience that engages audiences with a story that creates plenty of laughs for those with the required number of brain cells. Not to mention, if the comedy ever falls short, it's amusing enough just to draw parallels to the juvenile affairs of the politics of our own government and certain recent presidential elections in the U.S.
Roger Dodger (2002)
A strong look at human relationships without being too much of a character study
Jesse Eisenberg's first ever major film, Roger Dodger, is a unique coming-of-age story with enough simplicity on the surface and enough complexity beneath it to take the form of an impressively entertaining study of the social interactions between men and women. As writer/director Dylan Kidd's first project and winner of the Best Feature Film Award at the first ever Tribeca Film Festival in 2002, this surprisingly well-done little gem will leave you wondering why it wasn't a bigger commercial success and why Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, The Social Network) is the only member of its production that you still see in the business on a regular basis. (No discredit to Jesse; if there's anything Roger Dodger does reinforce, it's the fact that he deserves every bit of success that he's achieved).
"Sex is everywhere," Roger Swanson, played by the show-stealing Campbell Scott (Dying Young, Big Night), tells his socially lost, 16-year old nephew, Nick (Eisenberg). Nick has traveled alone to New York City in the hopes of convincing his smooth-talking Uncle Roger into teaching him the ways of seduction so that he might end his romantic troubles by finally getting a girl and losing his virginity. While Roger is overwhelmingly cynical, incessantly arrogant, and often brutally forthright (blatantly exemplified by the motto he applies to the advertising business "You can't sell a product without first making people feel bad"), there is no one who knows the rules of the game better. He solidifies his tactics with an impeccable track record; he takes a woman home "every night".
Originally reluctant to open up his one man band to the prospect of apprenticeship, Roger agrees to spread his wisdom to Nick. What follows is a night out in the city that never sleeps in a crash course in charming women. From hilariously ridiculous scenes of the two scouting out women on the streets to unexpectedly profound conversations at a bar, the night proves to be an open examination of these two previously mysterious characters.
However, the movie is far from simply a character study. While Scott's and Eisenberg's performances are near-perfect, the execution of the film ensures that its value is not dependent upon the quality of the acting. Behind a simple plot and seemingly simple characters is a noteworthy script that delivers witty, realistic dialogue and intriguing conversations. Free from Hollywood-ized n0nsense and feel-good drivel, the scenes between the two guys and the two women they engage at a bar are perhaps the film's best, showcasing not only Roger's subtle tricks and Nick's charming innocence, but also the natural chemistry between Scott and Eisenberg and the vulnerabilities they both carefully expose with their characters.
The chaotic events of the night lead to an ending that, while it strays slightly from the tone of the rest of the movie and perhaps comes a bit too suddenly, is perfectly raw and unexpected. I can't remember being more satisfied with an ending in a good while.
All in all, Roger Dodger teaches the common moviegoer that not all good indie flicks have to be about vibrant colors, trendy folk music, and quirky families (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno). And more importantly, this smart man's American Pie (even if that sounds like an oxymoron) proves that not every coming-of-age, cherry-popping comedy (or maybe more dramedy, in this case) has to be sullied with sloppy and overdone high school stereotypes, eye-rolling dialogue, and unlikable characters of both genders.
I'm hooked, Jesse. Keep making movies.
The Lovely Bones (2009)
Tries too hard to be many things without developing a good focus
The Lovely Bones is quite a complicated film that can best be described in quite simple terms: a cinematic mess. Perhaps unfair expectations were placed upon the project because of Peter Jackson's past work, but his effort on this one seems to be considerably less apparent. Nearly everything about the film's structure and execution seems to fall apart at some point and almost the only thing about it worthy of significant praise is its vivid and colorful visuals, which don't even seem to fit in or provide much purpose to begin with. And in the end, sadly, this film, that originally seemed like it had such potential, ends up virtually nowhere and leaves the viewer considerably unsatisfied.
The story is a unique tale of a young girl's murder and the aftermath, including her family's subsequent emotional breakdown, her father's relentless search for the murderer, and her journeys through the odd, colorful limbo she's trapped inside of until both she and her family willingly move on. The story is accompanied by quite an impressive cast and crew list. As mentioned before, Peter Jackson directs with his usual writing crew- Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens- who took on the responsibility of adapting Alice Sebold's 2002 novel of the same name. British breakout star Saoirse Ronan plays the protagonist, 14 year-old murder victim Susie Salmon. Mark Wahlberg plays her obsessive father, Stanley Tucci is the creepy and deceptive killer, Rachel Weisz plays Susie's mother, and Susan Sarandon takes on the role of the eccentric grandmother who provides comic relief in the way she manages to down at least one sip of alcohol in almost every scene she's in.
And while the story is certainly unique and the cast list makes one hopeful, something just doesn't go right in the execution of it all. The pace jumps around far too often for the viewer to keep up, the tone never seems to officially establish itself and stay consistent in any way, and the dialogue is simply dreadful at times. The acting potential was certainly present and Saoirse Ronan, Wahlberg, and Tucci all seemed to provide strong efforts, but they received no assistance from the script whatsoever. In fact, the consistently bad dialogue and frequently changing atmosphere seem to bring down the performances and make everything seem too over-dramatic an unfortunate result of such potential. As a whole, the film just seemed to try too hard to be too much.
The film's focus is all over the place and at certain times, within a span of just five minutes, it might switch between the perspectives of three or four different characters. And while the film is certainly long enough to take on such a feat of presenting multiple important characters to the audience, it never quite manages to do so in a substantial way. Instead, the movie ends with none of the several major characters completely developing and the audience walks away with no true care for any of them. And this is perhaps the film's biggest problem it never does appear to know just what it is trying to accomplish. Even if it does prove to be even slightly emotionally engaging, it's not without odd and out-of-place scenes every other couple of minutes. Focus frequently switches from Susie Salmon's fantasy-like encounters in limbo to her father's desperate attempts to find his daughter's killer to the comedic acts of the grandmother to the sudden dramatic breakdown and exodus of the mother. Perhaps the editing is partly to blame as well, but it's hard to believe that a film crew can't find a way to use 2 hours and 16 minutes to evolve and develop a couple of characters without throwing too much at the viewer in each couple of minutes. It seems half-hearted and incomplete.
Adding to the jumble and confusion, each character's short-term and long-term conflicts seemed, at times, unclear. In fact, much of the time our supposed "main character" spent her time standing around in the beautiful limbo that's been so carefully crafted (perhaps too carefully), not doing anything apart from giving narration that sounds like poorly written spiritual poetry from the Victorian era that eventually amounts to nothing and seems like filler. In a similar fashion, I think it's fair to say that the entire movie came off as a pretentious "artistic" film that no one understands and that the filmmakers are apparently too brilliant to have to clearly explain. One may argue that the audience isn't supposed "to understand" it all. "But the audience is supposed to experience Susie's confusion and share her feeling of being lost" is not a valid counterargument. There's a fine line between captivating the audience with a world of wonder and majestic daze and leaving so much unexplained that causes them to lose interest out of boredom and confusion. And if you ask me, on top of all of those flaws, the amazing and vibrant visuals of Susie's "in-between" serve no purpose but to provide some indication as to where $100 million went with this film's production. Although I haven't read the novel, I have heard that these colorful landscapes do help to capture the tone of Sebold's story.But Peter Jackson overuses them to the point where they simply seem out of place- as if their repetitive appearances were only meant to charm the audience into a false feeling that the film was somehow improved by them (*cough* Avatar) and to act as a constant reminder that Jackson's team knows how to use their computers (and if you saw any of the Lord of the Rings films, let's face it, you already knew that).
In the end, The Lovely Bones is just a mess of plenty of things that could have amounted to something but never really do due to lack of focus and development. Peter Jackson and his team should stick to epic war battles and dramatic tales of world danger.
--The Motion Picture Underground
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Strong contender for best movie of 2009
Quite easily the best movie of 2009 and the best war movie since Black Hawk Down and maybe even beyond that, The Hurt Locker does something that few other war movies seem to be able to do. Rather than focusing on rapid-action combat scenes and the oh-so-emotional mental breakdowns that all soldiers seem to dramatically endure in Hollywood (Platoon, much?), it emphasizes the relationships of soldiers and the intensity of everyday living in Iraq intensity that doesn't diminish when the guns are holstered. And that's where you'll see the real difference.
The film introduces a seemingly new and unique idea by following a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team as they go around defusing potential bombs all around town a concept that allows the typical fast-action war theme to take a backseat to the dramatic intensity of the three team members' escapades and arguments. It's all about survival and this time around, it's the calm, isolated atmosphere and the feeling of never being truly safe that creates the ever-present suspense. The exceptional editing is partially to thank for such constant energy and pace. Quick transitions ensure that there is never a dull moment and the audience is always thrust into the middle of the action. Plus, director Kathryn Bigelow employed some amazing cinematography (thanks to Barry Ackroyd, United 93) and some of the best shaky hand-held-cam and zoom work I've seen yet. It seems that, for some, this might be a turn-off, but personally, I believe those who complain about shaky cam need to take a closer look at its purpose and realize that it's far more effective in establishing a documentary-like feel for raw and engaging films such as this one.
The interaction between the soldiers is a key point of the film and the entire project is clearly intended to be largely character-driven. You will more than likely find yourself sympathizing with all of the main characters at some point and several others along the way. More than just observing a character's breakdown at the scene of war such as in films like Jarhead, The Hurt Locker immerses the viewer in the world of the characters themselves and practically forces you to care for them and I mean that in the best way possible. And perhaps the difference is also partially distinguished by the quality of acting. And if there's anyone who deserves recognition for their acting, it's most certainly Jeremy Renner, who surprises with a top-notch performance as Staff Sergeant William James. His performance will have you laughing at bits of humor scattered throughout, gasping in disbelief at one point, shedding a sympathetic tear at another, and yelling at him in exasperation in yet another scene. The characters are never two-dimensional and the film always manages to provide constant reminders that all of the soldiers are just normal people in war situations, driving its purpose home even more effectively. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are impressive in their own roles and share great chemistry both with each other and with Renner. The relationships between the three follow no stereotyped guidelines and their interactions are almost always unpredictable. Further down the billing, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes also give solid performances worth mentioning.
Overall, The Hurt Locker is a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way through and packs a visual and cinematographic punch without the over-the-top Hollywood action scenes and special effects. While the storyline may be inaccurate when it comes to certain little details (as many war vets have noted), it's a unique one and allows for much more realistic and well-rounded characters. You'll walk away with your heart still beating fast for a good while after the credits roll and it'll make you think for an even further extended period of time. Everything about its design and execution will stick with you.
--The Motion Picture Underground