Billy the Kid


Billy the Kid (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

A lot of critics really liked this documentary but a lot of casual moviegoers did not. I think it’s always a challenge watching a slice-of-life picture because most people will think about the movie’s purpose (even though there might not be one) to the point where they get distracted from the film altogether. For me, when I watch slice-of-life movies, I almost always relate them to my life; I learn to accept the inconsistencies of the story, the rough edges of direction, and the all too ordinary images. In a way, I treat it less like a movie and more like a diary, per se. And like a diary, this movie made me sad, laugh-out-loud and everything inbetween. There were times when the protagonist would say really awkward things to the point where I noticed myself squirming in my seat… And then I just start laughing because I was amazed by how engaged I am into this 15-year-old’s motivations and ways of thinking. What’s even better is that he’s funny but he doesn’t know that he’s being funny. I heard from a few sources that Billy was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome after the film was shot, which made sense because he’s a very smart kid (I love his references to films), but he’s very awkward socially. In a way, Billy reminded me of Heather Kuzmich of “America’s Next Top Model” Cycle 9. As for the documentary’s deeper moments, I was interested hearing about Billy’s family, specifically how his biological father treated his family back then, how some people get alarmed when Billy would check out books about serial killers, and the work he had to go through to potentially have his first girlfriend. Billy has a defined set of principles that makes him relatable and interesting. But I have to be honest: When I was in high school, Billy was the kind of person I avoided (I feel so mean now that I look back on it!) and thus not be friends with because I felt like they don’t know when to stop talking and respect other people’s space. So, in a way, this movie got to me; maybe I should’ve been more understanding because some people are so eager to make friends to the point where they seem like they’re trying too hard or they’re being fake. I got really sad when they showed Billy’s silent moments. Even though he has a great mom who supports him 100% and some friends he can talk to, I feel like he’s still alone. I can relate with that (and I think so do most people) and that’s why I found this movie to be truly genuine.

Angels in America


Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★

Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…

On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.

As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.

This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.

Flight of the Red Balloon


Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’ll just come right out and say it: I think this film is a masterpiece. Hsiao-hsien Hou did an amazing job in directing and shaping this homage to “The Red Balloon.” I can’t really make comparisons with that classic children’s film because I haven’t yet seen it while writing this review. However, from what I read from people’s blogs who have seen both, they claim that it captured the original’s main themes. All of the actors were impressive in their own way. Juliette Binoche is still electric even though she’s a bit more broken down here than in her other movies. I liked the pluckiness of her character but didn’t like the fact that she pays more attention to her career than her son. Simon Iteanu, who plays Binoche’s son, is sublime as a lonely boy but doesn’t make us feel too sorry for him. He shows that he’s strong in some ways, whether it comes to distracting himself with pinball machines or playing a role in his nanny’s movies. Fang Song plays the nanny who I think made the movie that much more interesting. Her style of acting is so nonchalant but there’s something about her that’s caring and welcoming. I wanted to be her friend by the end of the movie. Several other plot elements include Binoche’s conflict with her tenant (Hippolyte Girardot) and, of course, the mesmerizing observation of the red balloon, which symbolizes youth, friendship, and loss. The classical piano music that accompanies some of the scenes and the use of bright colors made the picture that much more poetic. Most people will say that “nothing much happened” but that’s the point: to watch a slice of life. Watching this homage is like eating and savoring my favorite kind of cake–pretty much everything about it worked and I have nothing negative to say about it, which is very rare.

Quarantine


Quarantine (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

This movie genuinely scared me. It is comparable to “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” because of the zombie-like creatures that are fast and extremely menacing; “Cloverfield” comes to mind because the entire picture is seen through a hand-held camera. Despite the content of the film, without Jennifer Carpenter (“White Chicks,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Dexter”), this movie probably would’ve failed. Providing a character that’s real, good-natured, and one of the boys (established during the amusing first fifteen minutes), we ultimately care about her when the creatures roam about the apartment complex. She really amazed me during the last few scenes because not only can she scream and look good doing it, I wanted to reach out into the screen and help her escape. Another stand-out is Jay Hernandez (“Hostel,” “Planet Terror,” “Lakeview Terrace”) as a firefighter who is both strong and approachable. I wish he and Carpenter had more scenes together because when they interact, the movie feels more alive. As for the scares, a lot of them are memorable: whether something is moving in the background, strange noises coming from a dark room, or bodies falling from above–all of it worked because the characters are trapped in one place. Danger is always around the corner and it doesn’t let go until the credits appeared. I thought the use of lighting is excellent. Most of the time, it makes me want to look closer because the “thing” that we’re supposed to be looking at is shrouded in darkness. Therein lies the trap because once you look closer, something pops out–your heart starts beating and your eyes try to look for an escape. This is one of the better horror films to come out recently and I’m glad to have seen it in the cinema with a friend and enthusiastic horror fans.

Testosterone


Testosterone (2003)
★ / ★★★★

For some weird reason, ever since I saw David Sutcliffe in “Gilmore Girls,” I knew he’d be a good actor to play a gay character. However, this is not a good movie by any means. The plot is convoluted because of the many manipulative characters and plot twists. I found it hard to feel for Sutcliffe because there wasn’t enough backstory for me to know what really is at stake. His character is the definition of one-dimesional because the only factor that drives his character to do what he does is the mere fact that he’s searching for a boyfriend that left him for no apparent reason. If someone leaves you, you don’t go all the way to Argentina to find out why (and acting like a stalker). You do some soul-searching and hopefully come to a conclusion that the person that left you (if you’re a good person) is not worth it. The main character is just too illogical to be believable. However, I did like that the picture looked like it was filmed in South America. On a different note/problem, I’m all for the fusion of genres but this one tried way too hard to be both comedic and thrilling. I feel that since it couldn’t even master being amusing in the first place, it had no reason to pull the rug under the audiences and suddenly become a thriller. It gave me the feeling that David Moreton, the director, had no idea what he was doing. The only aspect I truly loved about this movie is the casting of Sonia Braga, who played Jennifer Garner’s evil aunt in “Alias.” Every time the camera was on her, I could feel her passion and dedication. It made me wish that the movie was all about her instead of the (boring) gay main character. I should’ve listened to the reviews on Netflix because this really is a horrible picture.

Milk


Milk (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This film made me so proud to be a part of the LGBT community. Sean Penn. Emile Hirsch. Josh Brolin. Diego Luna. James Franco. Alison Pill. Victor Garber. Joseph Cross. Lucas Grabeel. When I saw the aforementioned names a few months ago on IMDB when they were still filming in San Francisco, I knew I had to watch “Milk” and that I would love it unconditionally. Thankfully, it managed to surpass even my highest expectations. Gus Van Sant have directed impressive films in the past (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Elephant,” “Paranoid Park”) but I thought he would tell the story of Milk with a more commercial style. I was elated when I saw his signature awkward camera angles, forcing the audiences to watch crucial scenes via a reflection on a whistle or mirror and everything inbetween. Having seen the brilliant 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” I knew of the events that are about to transpire in Van Sant’s film, but that never stopped me from hoping that somehow reality and fantasy will trade places and give me a happy, satisfying ending.

The performances are nothing short of electric. Sean Penn deserves an Oscar nomination because he fully embodied Harvey Milk. From the clips the documentary showed, Penn had the mannerisms of Milk to a tee to the point of disbelief. From the majestic speeches he delivered to the more intimate moments with his lovers, I found myself thinking that I’m not watching Penn act like Milk, he IS Milk. He delivered his lines with such quiet power and wit, sometimes it’s difficult to tell if he’s simply joking or poking fun of someone (or both). It was also refreshing to see him smile so much because I’m used to seeing his more serious side (“21 Grams,” “The Interpreter,” and particularly in “Mystic River”). As for Emile Hirsch, who plays Cleve Jones, I’ve seen every movie he’s in and loved all of them (“Imaginary Heroes,” “The Emperor’s Club,” and “Into the Wild” stood out to me), but this is the film that he shines in every single frame when he’s not the main actor. He has this rare talent of mixing energy with quirkiness to make an extremely charismatic character, despite his (sometimes horrendous) hairdos. Last but certainly not least, James Franco, who plays Scott Smith, made me feel safe every time he speaks. He understands his character’s complexity so whenever he and Penn would kiss or hug or converse at the dinner table or the bedroom, you get this feeling that they’re made for each other.

Despite all of the actors’ positive qualities, their characters are far from perfect. Milk is especially flawed because he has the tendency to put his goals in front of his friends and even his own well-being. He cares so much for the advacement of everyone else’s rights that he forgets that he’s not invincible, that it’s alright to take a break once in a while and get away from all the political madness. As for Brolin’s Dan White, he’s not portrayed as a complete monster. He is portrayed as a man who cares and desperately wants to provide for his family; a man who stands up for his beliefs but at the same time suffocated by such beliefs; a man who sees so much changes before his eyes, that he’ll do anything in his power to stop such a powerful force. If we can learn anything from both Harvey Milk and Dan White, it’s the fact that one person can make all the difference.

My friend who I went to see “Milk” with said that he wishes that this film came out before people got to vote on Proposition 8 in California, which aims to “restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry” (Wikipedia). I was amazed with the many parallels that this film had with today’s issues (Milk and his army battles Proposition 6–which would have called for the state to bar gays and lesbians from being teachers). On one hand, it makes me feel like we’ve come so far from the 70’s when it comes to accepting, not just gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders, but all types of minorities. On the other hand, it makes me feel like we haven’t progressed much at all because society is still stuck in this false idea of heteronormativity.

Putting my political views aside, “Milk” is definitely one of the most important films of 2008 because discrimination is still a monster we have not defeated. We might have scratched it a bit or even cut off its arm, but it recovers every time the envelope is not pushed. People have the tendency to forget something when that something is not in front of them. Even if one does not approve of homosexuality, the film’s craft should be appreciated; Van Sant’s decision to sew in actual footages from the ’70s worked wonders because I felt like I was living in that time period. Astute implications regarding politics and the fusion of public and private spheres are enough to qualify this for a Best Picture nomination. Not to mention Danny Elfman’s majestic score really makes the audiences feel how much is at stake. At some points during the film, I literally wanted to get up from my seat and rally on the streets of San Francisco with them. Definitely see this one with friends or just random people in the cinema (just make sure you’re not alone) because there are a lot of jokes and laughter that are worth sharing. By the end, of course it’s a tearjerker because we get to witness losing the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the gay rights movement. The ending of the picture really put tears in my eyes because the story of the great Harvey Milk is finally put on the spotlight (there were a plethora of behind-the-scenes drama since the 1980’s on how the story should be told, who will direct, et cetera). Maybe this film will even inspire those who are sick of hiding from true selves to come out. I cannot help but smile a little more, stand up a little straighter, put my head a little higher, every time I imagine Harvey Milk declaring, “I am Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!”

“You’re going to meet the most extraordinary men, the sexiest, brightest, funniest men, and you’re going to fall in love with so many of them, and you won’t know until the end of your life who your greatest friends were or your greatest love was.” — Harvey Milk to Cleve Jones