The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.
My One and Only (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Anne Deveraux (Renée Zellweger) was used to living a wealthy lifestyle. But when she caught her husband (Kevin Bacon), the leading man of a popular band, cheating on her with a much younger woman, she took her two sons, sarcastic George (Logan Lerman) and feminine Robbie (Mark Rendall), on a road trip across America in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible to find herself a new husband for financial support. Along the way, they met colorful characters such as a man stuck in a military mindset (Chris Noth), an old friend with a penchant for dating younger women (Eric McCormack), a real gentleman (Nick Stahl), and someone who appeared normal but quite far from it (David Koechner). From the minute the film began, I was instantly drawn to it. Perhaps it was because of the golden 1950s setting that I’m naturally drawn to or the strong acting particularly by Zellweger and Lerman. It was most likely both. The script was intelligent, nuanced in character development, and had just the right amount of sadness aimed to test how much we’ve invested in our trio. I loved the fact that Anne started off as weak and dependent. With each city they visited, she grew stronger only in small ways but somehow it was enough to make me care and keep rooting for her. Primarily, she wanted to provide for her kids. Living a lavish lifestyle was secondary but it didn’t lose importance. The comedy was often packaged in scenes when the family was running out of money yet Anne couldn’t help but spend. She had great pride in wearing expensive clothing and eating fancy food in the best restaurants. Eating TV dinners was almost a joke to her, a way to catch up with her family. Aside from the pressure of finding a husband for his money, tension grew at a steady rate because Anne looked forward but George kept looking back. We could clearly understand why both of the characters wanted to go in the direction they looked toward. It was nice to see that sometimes they felt chained to one another, but sometimes they were just happy to be together even if nothing seemed to be going right. George loved his father and he wanted his feelings to be reciprocated even in a microscopic way. But the father just seemed emotionally unavailable. Anne wanted to maintain her dignity. And she should. Written by Charlie Peters and directed by Richard Loncraine, “My One and Only” was a funny and touching story about what it meant to be a family. Cleverness was abound and I even caught myself smiling from ear to ear with how certain happenings came into place. The fact that it was inspired by George Hamilton’s actual life experiences was somewhat secondary.
Far from Heaven (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” was set in the 1950s somewhere in the suburbs of Connecticut. Julianne Moore played a housewife who had to deal with two big problems: her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) affair with another man and the community’s distaste in relation to her friendship with an African-American (Dennis Haysbert). Moore played her character with some composure yet remain very complex which was reflected on how she acted when society was peering over her shoulder and when she was with someone who she truly trusted. For me, Moore carried this film all the way through and if I did not feel as connected with her, I probably would have been more unforgiving with this picture because it did at times borderline the Lifetime route. I loved the way the film highlighted the vibrant colors of the houses, the decorations and the clothing yet the script was about the hatred of one’s self and most of society’s passive agreement to inequality. I also loved the fact that even though Quaid was a homosexual struggling to come out of the closet, I didn’t sympathize with him because of the way he used his wife as a crutch time and again and dismissed his children when they enthusiastically greeted him from a long day’s work. There was something about him that I thought was just ugly and selfish. Despite his hardship, the way he treated others was uncalled for. Violas Davis played the housekeeper and I wished they used her more because she really made the best of the scenes she was in. There was something very warm about her and I wanted to get to know her character more. The same goes for Patricia Clarkson as Moore’s best friend and confidante. The element that prevented me from loving this picture was its inconsistent pacing. The first and last twenty minutes were fascinating but the story somewhat dragged on in the middle. Deep in the film, the moments I enjoyed most were when Moore and Quaid really showed their range in acting by arguing not in an in-your-face manner like in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” but in a quiet, almost maddeningly suffocating way to the point where you just wanted to scream for the characters. After all, it was the 1950s and everybody had this idea of perfection regarding how to be a “proper” family in the judging eyes of others, how to act like a “proper” wife, and how to act like a “proper” friend. Half-way through the film, I started realizing that I would never have survived in the 1950s because everything was just so repressed. That’s why I think this film ultimately succeeded: it managed to capture that era not just in terms of clothing and set design but, most importantly, the varying mindsets of its characters.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Day, “Straight-Jacket” was about a popular 1950s actor named Guy Stone (Matt Letscher) who must hide his homosexuality with the help of his agent (Veronica Cartwright) in order maintain his fans’ adoration. When a jealous fellow actor took a photo of Guy being arrested and was accused of being gay, his agent and the studio head (Victor Raider-Wexler) came up with a plan to keep his name clear by means of marrying an unaware fan/secretary named Sally (Carrie Preston). But things didn’t go quite as planned when Guy met a writer (Adam Greer), someone totally different from his type of “big, dumb and blonde.” I detested this picture’s exaggeration of pretty much everything: the slapstick, the wordplay, the acting, the set, among others. I felt as though it was looking down on me because it didn’t let me try to figure out what’s really going on in the characters’ heads because it was too busy hammering me with “this is funny!” moments. I also found this movie particularly difficult to watch because it had great trouble when it came to finding a consistent tone. With all the craziness that was going on screen, a little stability pertaining to the style of storytelling really would’ve done wonders. I like energy when it comes to the comedy but there’s a vast difference between energy and manic randomness. I found no redeeming factor in “Straight-Jacket” but I really have to mention one thing that deeply bothered me while I was watching it. The characters talked about having different kinds of homosexuals out there in the world, yet the film only focused one kind of a homosexual male: good-looking in the face, a built body, with snappy comebacks readily spit out. They’re in Hollywood, for goodness’ sake! Where are the lipstick lesbians, the drag queens, and stout effiminate directors? For a story that touches upon the glamour of Hollywood, this one simply lacked color and diversity. And I guess that’s why I hated this film: it’s unaware that it’s one-dimensional. There are a plethora of bad LGBT movies out there and this one, unfortunately, belongs in that category. What a waste of a hundred minutes.
12 Angry Men (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film was not difficult for me to love at all because it was able to focus on a number of very distinct individuals in one room and really pick apart their own moralities as well as our own… in about an hour and thirty minutes. If that isn’t filmmaking at its highest level, I don’t know what is. Directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” was about an eighteen year-old boy who was accused of stabbing is own father to death, now on trial to be put in the electric chair, and how one juror (Henry Fonda) out of the twelve (Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber) decided to stand up for what he believed to be right–that is, that a person’s life should not be taken lightly, especially when that decision is in our hands. I thought it was fascinating that although we didn’t know the names of the jurors and we didn’t observe each of them in their respective homes, we learned a great deal about them with the way they argued their point of views regarding the case, how they argued against each other whether it was about the case or not, and how they looked into themselves when a really good point was brought up. Anyone who loves hearing great dialogues in cinema would immediately be interested in this film because it was pretty much like dropping in on a real jury who was deliberating behind the courtroom. Nobody is perfect and the arguments are strong yet they each had their flaws–but that complexity is what I found to be the most beautiful and engaging. This is the kind of film that is timeless because most people today absolutely hate it when they would be chosen to participate in jury duty and they would do anything to get out of it. (Sometimes including myself if I have class or a prior crucial commitment, but there’s a tiny part in me who is very interested on how it’s really like to be a part of the jury.) Although made in 1957, those eleven men are not at all different from people today because everyone has their own problems to face and responsibilities fulfilll; worrying about another person’s life who they consider as less important was the last thing on their minds. As the men tried to sort out the details of the crime, we really come to realize the power and the importance of reasonable doubt. Even if one is not interested in the justice system, this is a fascinating classic film about morals, ethics and what it means to live in a democratic society, the latter of which we most of the time take for granted. If I was ever on trial, I would want to show this movie to the jury before they make their decision.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though “Revolutionary Road” is set in the 1950’s, it’s still very relevant today. Directed with such skill by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), he tells the story in a non-linear fashion and it works because the audiences are asked to immediately contrast how the couple was like when they met and after they’ve been together for a couple of years. I will be surprised if Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Kate Winslet do not get nominated for an Oscar. Even though I don’t think this is DiCaprio’s best performance, I think this is one of his most mature and he deserves to be recognized. It’s about time he wins an Oscar for consistently giving us characters that are both memorable and worth caring for. Winslet is magnificient in every movie I see her in and this one is no exception. To be honest, the reason why I loved this film is that I got to watch these two extremely talented actors (with great chemistry) scream at each other for long periods of time; they gave me some sick satisfaction because they are so good at it. I keep reading complaints from reviewers about the selfishness of the characters and how that quality makes it hard to relate to them. I cannot disagree more–I think selfishness is what makes them relatable because that’s a quality that everyone has whether he or she realizes it or not. And it’s not like the characters are selfish for no apparent reason: DiCaprio thinks his job is pointless but won’t quit because he knows that he has to provide for his family, while Winslet is desperate to move out of suburbia because she’s dying on the inside and craving for some excitement. All that frustration is not expressed in a healthy way so they lie, play mind games with each other, and become selfish because they couldn’t get what they need from one another. I thought the film was raw and realistic; at some points during the film, it made me reflect on my childhood when my parents would fight in front of me. Mendes managed to catch the awkwardness, shame and crushed egos after a big argument. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film was the morning after a big fight and how Winslet and DiCaprio pretended like nothing happened. I thought that scene was haunting because that’s when I realized that they act more like strangers when they’re peaceful with each other. In some ways, even though the tone of the film is sad and depressing, there are pockets of darkly comedic moments. I don’t know what it is about me but I always find something amusing when it comes to depressed rich people living in suburbia. This is the kind of movie that I would recommend to couples everywhere who think that they’ve fallen in love after only going out for a short amount of time. In essence, this is a cautionary tale for people who believe in love at first sight.