Somewhere Between (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Having just adopted a baby from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton is aware that her daughter will come to ask questions about her roots eventually. In order to help and guide her child in creating a strong sense of identity, Knowlton feels she needs to further her understanding when it comes to the struggles of being adopted. So, the director turns her camera on four teenage girls who are raised by white American parents.
One of the subjects is Jenni, living in Berkeley, California, who, as a child, was found roaming the streets and later sent to an orphanage. Out of the four girls, she is perhaps the most relatable or accessible because she has a way of explaining how she is feeling or what she is thinking in a way that is beyond her age. At one point, she tells the camera that no matter where she is—whether it be visiting China or living in the Bay Area—everyone knows she is foreign.
She delivers this in such a matter-of-fact way that in about a minute or so I realized that there are times when I feel exactly the same about being an immigrant: that no matter how much I’ve assimilated in the “American” culture, characteristics that are ingrained in me—whether it be how I look, how I’ve been raised, how I perceive and process information—can never really be ignored or erased.
Jenna of Murburyport, Massachusetts is an interesting case as well. Being one of the very few Chinese people in her town, she tends to describe herself as being “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” to her friends and to the camera. I dislike descriptions like that but, admittedly, that was exactly how I—and a few friends—described myself during the early years of high school. I think that deep down the commonality is the need to belong. Like Jenni, Jenna—even though she may not admit to it—does not feel good enough in her own skin sometimes. This explains why she feels she has to be best or be in control of whatever task she is given. I know that feeling, too.
The final two girls are Ann from Pennsylvania and Haley from Tennessee. They meet through a program that gives Chinese adoptees a chance to be able to connect with one another. The two are almost complete opposites: the former has little interest in wanting to meet her biological parents while the latter embraces the idea. The film does not judge whether one course of action is better than another. What we do see is how the girls deal with excitement, wrestle with disappointments, and what it is they hope to accomplish in the future with respect to their roots.
I hope to adopt a child one day. Whether or not he or she will come from the same culture as me, I believe the documentary does a good job in raising questions I would not have considered otherwise. The picture makes a point that the answers that each of the subjects comes to terms with are specific to every one of their stories.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
Naked Childhood (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
François (Michel Terrazon) was a ten-year-old boy whose foster family did not want him anymore. The mother (Linda Gutemberg) was concerned about François always getting into fights, having trouble in school, stealing, and not responding to any sort of discipline she and her husband (Raoul Billerey) had attempted. François also hurt and killed animals yet it seemed like he did not feel bad about his actions. The Social Services had to intervene and placed the child with a kind elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) and with another foster child (Henri Puff) now in his teens. Directed by Maurice Pialat, “L’enfance nue” was an unflinching look at a troubled childhood and the system designed to handle children that were abandoned in the streets or given up for adoption. What I loved about the film most was it never offered easy answers. It was easy to judge our protagonist’s first foster family because we didn’t have a chance to observe their parenting skills for an extended amount of time. We were given information about the way they reacted to the child’s behavior, but we all know–or should know–there’s always a difference between secondhand description and firsthand observation. When the mother described their parenting to the director of Social Services, I was bothered by the fact that not once did she cite one instance where she could have done something differently with François. It wasn’t obvious but it sounded like François was a canister of blame. It gave me the impression that they didn’t want the child because it wasn’t the kind of child they dreamed of. Furthermore, it was obvious that the parents weren’t always on the same page. The father had a soft spot toward François when the mother performed a spice of tough love. The turning point was when François was transferred to his second foster family. We observed his different temperaments, wild tantrums, and the way he seemed to relish watching the people who loved him turn red with fury. With Pialat’s sensitive and astute direction, he showed us that François wasn’t an evil child. He was desperate for attention and his cruel actions were his cry for help. His new family was actually perfect for him because they seemed to have endless amount of patience. During François’ calm moments, he was able to make real connection with them. He enjoyed listening to his grandmother’s story about her huge family, the grandfather’s magical ability to fix just about anything in the house, his foster brother’s collection of weapons, and especially the great grandmother (Marie Marc) who read the morning paper with him. When he regressed to his unkind behavior, like a real family, they welcomed him back. I was moved with their ability to forgive and it made me wish that all families were like them. Written by Arlette Langmann and Maurice Pialat, “Naked Childhood” was a difficult look at the reality of abandoned children. It’s a must-see for those who, including myself, plan to adopt and raise their child as if they were our own flesh and blood. We should love them unconditionally and we just hope that they feel the same way toward us.
Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
The Blind Side (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Michael Lewis about Michael Oher’s story being adopted by a rich, white Conservative family, “The Blind Side,” written and directed by John Lee Hancock, had a good balance of comedy and drama so I couldn’t help but enjoy it. In a way, the film reminded me of the movie “Precious” because it was about a person (Oher played by Quinton Aaron) who came from a terrible neighborhood and was so shut down that he barely spoke to anyone. But unlike “Precious,” “The Blind Side” is far more mainstream because, throughout the picture, as the lead character learned to open up a little bit more, it became somewhat of a standard feel-good movie with painfully obvious story arcs. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because the movie managed to have more hits than misses. One of its hits was casting Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense mother who had enthusiasm to spare. I love watching her in any role but I believe this is one of her best performances along with “Crash” because she was given more room to play with the subtleties of her character. She didn’t just rely on charisma because her Mrs. Tuohy was somewhat stern yet it worked for Bullock because there’s a certain cheekiness to the character she played. I also liked that the movie took the time for each member of the family (Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Lily Collins) interact with Oher. Head had some scene-stealing moments as the little brother who was so proud and so excited to have a big brother. If I were forced to point out a problem I had with the film, it would have been a lack of real exploration about where Oher came from. We get a few scenes of him returning to his neighborhood, meet some tough guys but that was about it. The movie mentioned his mother being involved in drugs all too briefly but I felt like we didn’t really get a full picture of Oher’s experiences in that neighborhood. As a substitute for the real source of tension, we get scenes of the mother’s friends making racist comments and some teachers giving up on Oher and labeling him as stupid. Knowing where the story took place in America, of course bigotry and prejudice will be present. I felt like those were good secondary sources of tension but the focus should have been where Oher came from as much as how the Tuohy family welcomed and accepted him. I can understand why a lot of people were inspired by “The Blind Side” and therefore obtaining a lot of hype. To be completely honest, I thought it was a solid movie but I wasn’t really moved in a significant way. Everything about it was nice but it could have used a bit more edge and less predictability.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.
Buenos Aires 100 kilómetros (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this small Argentinean film written and directed by Pablo José Meza. At times it reminded me slightly of “Stand by Me” because it explores a group of friends’ dymanics: the elements that keep them together and the elements that keep them apart. Just like most group of friends, I liked that some individuals are closer than others such as Juan Ignacio Perez Roca (as Esteban) and Juan Pablo Bazzini’s (as Damian) characters. The two of them stand out because their personal battles are explored in a thorough manner. Esteban is forced by his father to take drawing classes so he can one day become an engineer and rebuild the small town where they reside. However, his real passion is to be a writer but no one really supports him except Damian and the girl he has a crush on. I thought the film’s strength lies in the silence whenever the camera just lingers on Esteban’s inner struggle to meet his father’s expectations as well as putting his imagination down onto the pages of his notebook. I could identify with him because my mom forced me to focus on school when I was younger instead of playing outside with the other kids. (Don’t get me wrong–she did let me have fun once I’ve done my part.) Although I immensely thank her now that she did that, when I look back on it, sometimes I feel like I did miss some of my childhood because the idea of responsibility was introduced to me very early on. As for Damian, he’s so obsessed about one of the members of their clique as being adopted. Eventually, he finds out that he’s the one adopted and he doesn’t take it too well. He claims that his adoptive parents didn’t really love him because he feels like they babied him to make up for not telling him the truth. I liked that his way of thinking is a bit skewed because, in reality, that’s how young adolescents think. When the two talk to each other, the film becomes alive because the audiences know why they have certain point of views and their motivations. We understand that, beneath their silliness when they hang out as a group, they are intelligent kids who can flourish as adults if they continue to apply themselves. Unfortunately, the other three friends weren’t fully explored and that’s ultimately the film’s weakness. In my opinion, it could’ve been better if it had an extra thirty minutes or so. Otherwise, this character-driven coming-of-age film is impressive in many respects considering that it didn’t have a big budget. Instead, it relies on its good script, interesting performances and careful observations on how friendships are like in real life.