New World, The (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
English settlers landed on Louisiana in 1607. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) was to be hanged, on the grounds of mutiny, the moment they reached land. But Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) changed his orders because he knew Captain Smith was a good explorer. He just needed to be controlled. When Captain Smith met Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of an Indian leader, the two began a forbidden love affair. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” moved at a deliberate slow pace in order to highlight man’s relationship with nature. It worked most of the time. I saw beauty in the way the director captured the wind caressing the grass, the way the characters leaned into the magnificent trees, and the elegant movement of the water as the ships heaved its way onto land. Pocahontas had two men in her life and the emotions were dealt with complexity. In the end, I was convinced she loved them both in different ways. When she was with Captain Smith, I noticed that they always looked into each other’s eyes. The way the camera lingered as the captain taught Pocahontas English words held a sweetness and innocence. As their bodies slowly inched closer to one another, we felt their concern that someone could be looking. There was an understated joy when they touched each other’s skin. When Pocahontas was with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the two spent their time looking at a distance, as if transfixed at the sight of the future. But when they did look into each other’s eyes, they shared an outward passion whether it be in a hut or out in the garden. Through the men in her life, we saw the way she changed. She left her culture because she was a dreamer. But leaving didn’t mean forgetting. She was curious of the life outside of her sphere and she felt as though her sarcrifices were worth it. Like Captain Smith and John Rolfe, she was an explorer. But my favorite scene didn’t have anything to do with a shot involving a gorgeous scenery or her interactions with the two most important men in her life. It was when Pocahontas handed a homeless man a coin and gently touched his cheek. It held a great meaning for me because it was reassuring. Even though her style of clothing and the way in which she carried herself had changed, she was the same person we met in the beginning of the film. She was playful, compassionate, and connected with the Earth. It’s understandable when I hear people say that the film is just too slow for their liking. It wasn’t plot-driven. Most movies are but they don’t need to be. “The New World” was an exercise of the senses and, in my opinion, how we can relate our personal experiences with it. As an immigrant, scenes like Pocahontas smelling a book because she had never seen one before had meaning for me. I grew up in the Philippines not having a computer in my home. When I moved to America, I didn’t know how to type on the keyboard or even use the mouse to click at an icon to go to the internet. In small ways, I saw myself in Pocahontas. Sometimes small is enough.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger still living in the Philippines, I had this idea that America was a great place where everyone was happy because everyone had an equal chance to get what they wanted in life. But now that I’m a little older and living in America, I’m beginning to see this country for what it really is: a machine designed to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer. When I talk to my friends who came from different countries in Europe about how different things are in America, especially about healthcare and education, I can’t help but feel like America is a second-rate nation and that progress (if there is any) is too slow. “Capitalism: A Love Story,” written and directed by Michael Moore, tackled the topic of capitalism and the many components that drives it forward. I’m not going to mention all the points he brought up even though they are indeed very interesting ones, but there were three things from the film that struck me: teenagers being sent to private juvenile facilities for extended amounts time (without any sort of hearing involving extension changes) because they committed so-called crimes that I think were mere inconveniences or just a part of youth, companies buying insurance policies for their workers (without the workers knowing about it) so the companies can get money in the event of their workers’ death, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s touching speech at the end of the documentary which summarized what America should be. What I didn’t like about the film, however, was that sometimes Moore was too enthusiastic about getting his point across to the point where he got too cheesy in terms of using certain movies or television shows. It was all very dramatic but I did not find those elements convincing. In fact, I found them a bit distracting. I thought his strongest points came about when he actually interviewed members of the Congress (with real footages from Congress and the frustrations of various politicians about the current state of the country) and people who are taking a stand for the things they more than deserved (such as payment for the time they put in at their jobs). If those dramatic–sometimes cartoonish–footages were taken out, I think this film would have been more focused than the riveting and insightful “Sicko” (probably my favorite film by Moore to date). I found a lot of reviews discrediting this film for the fact that Moore directed it and everyone assuming that he’s just going to target Republicans. Well, he also showcased Democrats making deals and promises that are, from my perspective, not only dishonest and unethical but ultimately immoral. I say “immoral” because they’re making decisions for the American people and not just for their own private lives. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is an incisive and honest look about some of the (biggest) injustices in America. One may or may not agree with that statement but one cannot deny the current unhappiness of the American people. And what’s sad is that the unhappiness is only growing.
American Zombie (2007)
★ / ★★★★
I thought this mockumentary about zombies started off really well. We get to see zombies being friendly, having jobs, falling in love and establishing institutions so that society can view zombies as a part of them. But as the film went on, I thought it had one joke which gets bad to worse to egregious after its first twenty minutes. Grace Lee’s direction (playing herself) could’ve been effective if the script had been more focused. Instead, her initial friendly portrait of zombies turned sour after Lee’s crew visited a zombie festival where they gather in order to celebrate who they are. Instead of keeping the zombies under a positive light, the zombies became monstrous and ravenous by the end of the picture just like other zombie movies out there. And that’s the problem: It’s obvious that Lee wanted to do something different but she ultimately made a generic flesh-eating picture. I thought the best part of this mockumentary was Suzy Nakamura’s character, a zombie who has “hopes and dreams” (coming from her own words) adn eventually falls for a living human. There was a certain sadness in her character because she doesn’t accept being a zombie. She surrounds herself with the essense of living or being alive such as pictures of people getting married and abstaining herself from eating meat. Whenever Lee confronts her regarding how she feels about being a zombie, she shrugs as if she doesn’t want to talk about it. In a way, I saw Nakamura’s character as someone who rejects her own race and wants to conform to what white America considers as the “norm.” Those scenes are so well-done but the rest of it was weak and uninvolving. It has great ideas about exposing subcultures in a different way and it does relate to how other minorities are marginalized. The fault is ultimately in the script and the execution. If those two elements had been fixed, “American Zombie” would’ve been really good.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary focuses on the students at Stuyvesant High School–the most competitive high school in America–and how they campaigned to be the student body president. What I love about this documentary is its very naturalistic feel. I felt like I was back in high school during the classroom and hallway scenes–none of that “Gossip Girl” glamour and serialized drama that’s all over the CW and MTV nowadays. Since most of the students are very intelligent book-wise (the school’s average SAT score is 1400, if that means anything), I was interested to see how the race would be different to “typical” high schools in the United States. Upon watching this film, I thought it wasn’t really all that different except that the students here are more articulate, even though some of them do not yet know how to correctly use some vocabulary words in a sentence. While there are four candidates, the film focuses on three because one barely put the effort into campaigning. After the primaries were over, the competition got a lot tougher and it was much harder to determine who was going to win. In the first five minutes, I had an idea (more like a bet) on who was going to win but as the film went on, that person’s flaws political-wise became apparent to me to the point where I wasn’t sure if he or she is the right person to lead the student body. I also liked the fact that Caroline Suh, the director, did not shy away when students started talking about the importance of race in the election because the majority of the school is Asian-American (as did my high school). Suh astutely divided the time between the (initially) three bona fide candidates and I felt like I got to know them in some way. Even though the candidates themselves are very flawed, that’s what makes them fascinating to watch. “Frontrunners” and “American Teen” are both documentaries but are very different in many ways. However, if one enjoyed “American Teen,” she will most likely enjoy “Frontrunners.” Ultimately, my favorite theme that this documentary tried to tackle was the idea of hardwork sometimes not being enough to acquire something. To me, the most heartbreaking scene in this film was the reaction of the student who didn’t make it to the final two. That was a prime example of the common conception of America being a land of competition.