★★ / ★★★★
This film reminded me of a very light version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” because it’s about a sexually abused young man named Dean (Matthew Leitch) who pretends he’s the son of an aristocrat (Diana Quick). In his journey to find acceptance and identity, he meets an American (Peter Youngblood Hills) and his lover (George Asprey) who both happen to be interested in Dean. At first this picture was very frustrating to me because, despite watching rich people drugging themselves in order to feel something and being utterly miserable due to a lack of genuine relationships, Dean still wants to become one of them. Granted, his situation at home is egregious because of his spineless mother and abusive father, but I thought he’d want a vastly different alternative instead of merely having a title. But later on, the film evolved into something quite insightful. A particular character actually commented on the issue of working class idealizing the upper class and wanting to be like them even though they really have no idea what it’s like. That self-awareness let me know that Duncan Roy, the director, has a message that he wants to get across. Aside from class warfare and deceit, this also comments on the complexities of finding one’s sexual identity and how the frustration of not knowing can lead us to a downward spiral. Better yet, the film implies that we can have the control we need to steer our lives in the right direction. We might lose that control once in a while but we can wield it again if we hang on long enough and push through next time. Despite all of those positive qualities, I can’t quite give this a three-star rating because the middle portion is bit too saggy. The movie is only about an hour and fifty minutes but it felt longer than that. Cutting about fifteen to twenty minutes would’ve gone a long way. I liked the energy that the actors put in their characters so I’m not against slightly recommending it.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie left me emotionally drained because I was able to feel a whirlwind of emotions as it unfolded. At first it was about Andrew Bagby’s murder in the hands of the psychotic ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner but then it changes gears twenty minutes later. It then begins to document the struggles that David Bagby and Kathleen Bagby went through in order to take care (and gain custody) of Zachary Bagby, Andrew and Shirley’s son, while at the same time trusting the law to do its job by putting Shirley away for the overwhelming evidence of pre-meditated murder. As the film went on, the rug was pulled from my feet once again and the documentary-family portrait becomes something so much more profound and heartbreaking. I can see how some people could point out and claim that the film is a bit amateurish and shouldn’t be trusted fully because it comes from a close friend of the Bagbys. But considering the many years of custody battles and emotional rollercoasters, I thought the way Kurt Kuenne, the director, told the story was very personal (and sometimes too personal; there were some interviews that made me feel like I shouldn’t be watching or hearing what they’ve got to say) and the amateurish production reflected that. It’s also effecient because I noticed that every twenty minutes or so, the audiences get to learn something new and reevaluate the things that were explored prior to that point. As for the criticism regarding its lack of objectivity, being fair is not the film’s purpose at all. Its purpose is to show how much the Bagbys are loved and Canadian government’s inaction regarding a woman who they claim to be “not a danger to society.” Although I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a friend in the hands of another, I found it easy to relate to the people in this documentary via imagining myself in their situation. Those scenes when David and Kathleen were willing face the murderer of their son just so that they could spend time with their grandson really got to me. I honestly don’t know how they got through it or if I could ever go through it if something similar happens to me. I thought this film was impressive in many respects and it reminded me of the revelatory “Capturing the Friedmans.”
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frida” is a biopic that focuses on how Frida Kahlo emerged and evolved as an artist as well as a person who shines despite her many flaws and tragedies. Salma Hayek is simply electric; although pretty much everyone defines her for her beauty, I’ve always seen some kind of inner strength in each of her roles and I was happy that it was at the forefront in this picture. Frida’s relationship with her sister (the gorgeous Mía Maestro), husband (Alfred Molina) and father (Roger Rees) are fascinating because each of those three characters have shaped Frida’s many colorful (and very dynamic) personalities. Julie Taymor, the director, shows her audiences impressive visual effects such as when Frida’s paintings would become a real-life scene and how some real-life scenes would become paintings. I’m not at all familiar with Frida’s artwork but after watching this film, I want to look more into them because they are symbolic in the least. Now that I’m aware of what the events that prompted Frida to paint certain works, I think I’ll be able to appreciate them more. There’s a great atmosphere of culture that pervaded this film and it made me think of my own culture whenever there’s a wedding or a big gathering of some sort. Every actor is so into his or her own character and the film popped whenever they would talk about art, passion, politics and the uncertainties of life. The film then becomes more than a visual experience; it becomes a powerful emotional exprience that has a distinct resonance. However, I wish this film would’ve been entirely in Spanish (except for the scenes when the characters are in the United States). I thrown off a bit when I realized that everyone spoke in English despite living in Mexico. Also, as a Diego Luna fan, I wish he was in it more or was given more to do. Still, this is a very good (if not sometimes ordinary) biopic even though the second half could’ve been stronger by focusing on Frida as an individual instead of other characters that have more to do with politics.
The Sea Inside (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
This picture is based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro and his campaign in support of euthanasia which lasted for thirty years. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, although the issue the film tried to tackle is controversial and serious, he’s smart enough to make the film somewhat uplifting so it doesn’t feel at all heavy-handed. Javier Bardem made me feel so much for his character because of his willingness to die with whatever dignity he has left. Being a quadriplegic, he claims that his life should be treated as a right and not an obligation. Therefore, just like any other right, he should be allowed to give up his right to live and not be forced to stay alive by the government and other groups who oppose euthanasia. I thought the most interesting scenes in the film consisted of Bardem interacting with three characters: his lawyer who has her own share of problems that is similar to Bardem (Belén Rueda), a local woman who falls for Bardem (Lola Dueñas) and a nephew that he sees as his own son (Tamar Novas). Each of those three characters are compelling because even though they have their own opinion regarding Sampedro’s situation, not all of them are able to express their complete thoughts. It’s up to the audiences to interpret the three characters’ positions when they’re on their own or not interacting with Bardem. I also enjoyed the fact that both sides of the subject of euthanasia are able to express their arguments. Personally, I support euthanasia because I believe in our individual rights to do whatever we want with our bodies, especially when we’re in a situation where we no longer want to continue to live. But there were arguments here and there that made me question my own beliefs because we are shown that the issue of euthanasia goes beyond moral and legal issues. This is a rich film because its writing has substance that works on multiple levels and the characters have subtlety that will otherwise be missed if one is not invested in the story. I recommend this film to everyone, whether one may or may not support euthanasia, because it offers no easy answer regarding which side is “right.” It’s main goal is to simply show one man’s life and what he stood for.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.
★★★★ / ★★★★
There’s something about nature films that just touches my heart. I could easily tell that Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the writers and directors, put a lot of effort into this documentary. I was absolutely astounded during the slow motion captures of predators catching their prey, the passage of time as it shows a landscape changing before our eyes and the intricate details of nature that seemingly look simple but are beyond complexity of the human mind. Better yet, I found myself captivated by the addition of humanistic attributes to the featured animals (notably the polar bears, the elephants, the migrating birds and the whales; fully encompassing land, air and water). I read on Internet Movie Database that this documentary had over four thousand days of cinematography. I honestly do not know how they found the time to pick out the greatest pieces to make this film and my friend kept asking, “How did they shoot that?” while I asked myself the same question. Most people shy away from documentaries (which I honestly don’t understand) but this is a must-see because I was at awe from the moment it started until it ended. I really felt for the animals; after the film I wanted to visit the places that were featured because it seriously had some of the best images I’ve seen on screen that is not full of special and visual effects. I’ve also read from other reviews that “Earth” is a rip-off because it’s pretty much the same as the “Planet Earth” miniseries. I don’t like using profanities in my reviews (and I won’t start now) but, honestly, who cares? One doesn’t regularly see images that are found in this film; I say the magic is worth the ten dollars or so and is definitely worth reminding everyone that we must protect the Earth because we’re not the only living creatures that depend on it. I say go see this one if you’re interested. Even if your friends aren’t, go take the children or your elders. I can’t imagine anyone not admiring its emotion and craft.
Maria Full of Grace (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Joshua Marston, “Maria Full of Grace” tells the story of a drug mule (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who ventures into the United States because she wants to provide a better life for herself, the baby she’s carrying and her family in Colombia. I love that this film did not glamorize the drug underworld: it’s presented as scary, dangerous and extremely unpredictable. The director was astute enough to establish Moreno’s plight back in Colombia. She’s a genuinely good person who works hard to earn money so that she can help her family out. When she realizes that she’s pregnant, she has to quickly figure out a way to provide for her future child but at the same time support her family because no one else will. We get to understand the disparate factors that ultimately drive her to lend her body to deliver drugs in America. There were a lot of scenes that were really hard for me to watch. When the filmmakers decided to show the lead character trying to swallow those drug pellets, I flinched multiple times not just because of the image on the screen but also the realization that such images really do happen in real life. The plane scene is also a stand-out when one the girls is trying to convince herself that she’s okay despite the drugs being in her system. This film expertly shows people being in difficult situations and what they’re willing to do they get out of it. But this movie isn’t just about drug mules. There’s a brilliant scene with a fellow immigrant who talks to Moreno about the pride that comes after receiving her first paycheck in America. Even though I’ve never gone through that, I still could relate because my father went through the same thing: he went to America to support me, my mom and brother back when we were still in the Philippines. Although this film had a small budget, I thought it worked to its advantage; this vehicle was driven by powerful ideas that doesn’t stray from reality. That alone is enough to see this picture because most American mainstream films about drugs are sugarcoated.