★★★ / ★★★★
A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.
When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.
But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.
What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.
I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.
The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although “Heavenly Creatures” tells the story of a real-life murder in 1954 New Zealand which involves two teenage girls who share a very close friendship, great humanity is employed in trying to understand the motivations of the killers. As a result, the film is uncomfortable to sit through at times—especially the excellent final few minutes where Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) lead their prey to an isolated location to be murdered in cold blood—but not ever does fail to compel and fascinate.
Lynskey and Winslet in their first feature film are outstanding. If it isn’t for the title credits where it underlines the performers’ first rodeo, viewers might likely assume that the co-stars have plenty of experience. Lynskey plays a teenage outcast with such intensity, perfectly modulated roughness, and honesty, I was reminded of some of the type of girls in my high school who proudly considered themselves to belong outside of the social circle. Winslet, too, shines as a world traveler born in a family with a high level of education and plenty of means.
With the help of an intelligent, insightful and daring screenplay by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, Winslet and Lynskey, even though their characters are worlds apart, successfully find a commonality—and strong chemistry—that is consistently believable, curiously touching, and at times downright horrifying. A handful of elements that typically do not belong in a biography crime-drama work wondrously here.
For example, Pauline and Juliet feel highly connected to the arts, especially when it comes to music and writing fiction. So they construct their own world. They even call each other new names. But instead of the material shying away from fictional elements and techniques in order to avoid taking away emphasis from the murder, it embraces them fully. The film uses special and visual effects quite generously so that we are placed inside the minds of subjects. It is critical that we learn as much as possible about their fantasy world in order to try to make sense of the many factors that lead them to decisions with very real and tragic consequences.
It certainly would have been easier to have painted the subjects as monsters who were in love but Kiwi society was cruel when it came homosexuality at the time and so inevitably the couple was driven to madness and murder. Instead, this is merely one of the many strands which make up the film’s psychological study. There is a recurring theme involving the two girls being highly imaginative but they also happen to share a mental fragility. Look closely during scenes where Pauline and Juliet are challenged—intruded—by various authority figures. Lynskey and Winslet translate the many layers of their characters into a psychological study that demands undivided attention and humanity.
Directed by Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” is able to locate the pulse of what makes the case so fascinating and stays there. And with that powerful final scene—it takes a scalpel onto the surface of where the pulse can be felt and cuts forcefully inwards.
In Her Skin (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Rachel Barber (Kate Bell) was a young woman who had a lot of promise: she was a talented dancer, had an effervescent personality, had a lot of friends, and her family (Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto) loved her. On the other hand, Caroline Reed (Ruth Bradley) felt abandoned by her family (Sam Neill, Rebecca Gibney) which resulted to her eventual self-loathing and crippling depression. Caroline babysat Rachel and her sisters back when they used to be neighbors. Out of jealousy, Caroline lured Rachel to her apartment with a promise in making a quick buck. When she had the opportunity, Caroline came from behind and choked Rachel until she could no longer breathe. Realizing that it was unlike their daughter to not call when she was expected, the Barber household went to the police but their missing person claim was assumed to be just another runaway case. Based on a true story, “In Her Skin,” also known as “I Am You,” wasn’t as strongly executed as it should have been so even though it was based on a true story, I kept wondering, “So what?” The acting, at least in the beginning, felt like it was taken off a bad Lifetime movie. Pearce and Otto either overacted or underacted which was, at times, accidentally comedic. However, the film came into focus and slowly gained dramatic gravity when we were given the chance to observe how disturbed Caroline really was. She craved attention from her father but he didn’t have the heart to admit to himself that he didn’t like spending time with her daughter because she was clingy and highly dependent. He resulted to classic avoidance instead of sitting down with her and talking about their issues which led Caroline into believing that her mother was the reason for all the tension in the family. At work, Caroline was unstable and prone to fits. Her friends used her as a means of convenience. No one respected her on a deep level so she learned to become more comfortable in her fantasy world. She admitted that she wasn’t happy because she was fat and ugly. Perhaps. But I reckon the problem was the fact that she equated happiness with everything having to be perfect. Written and directed by Simone North, I liked that the film tried to make sense, from the perspective of a murderer, of something that was inherently senseless. Yes, it showcased Caroline as annoying, detestable, and hopeless but she wasn’t one-dimensional. Bradley did a good job. I felt her characters’ sadness when she was alone in her room desperately wishing for a better life and her temporary happiness when she earned her father’s approval. The murder scene was raw. It wasn’t meant to be titillating. It was meant to be ugly and it was. “In Her Skin” could inspire audiences to turn the movie off or walk away because of the first few scenes’ unnecessary melodrama. But I say give it a chance. It had an interesting take on being both about a loss of a child and attempting to understand the horror, and ultimately sad reality, of mental illness.
Apollo 13 (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) were supposed to make a trip to the moon. But when Mattingly’s blood work came back, it turned out that his blood had signs of the measles. Mattingly was replaced by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) despite Lovell’s insistence to NASA executives that his team, who trained in the simulator together, should not be broken up. But that was the least of their problems. Prior to landing on the moon, due to bad wiring, an explosion affected the crew’s oxygen storage and other critical elements required for their survival. Without much power to spare, would the trio be able to make it back on Earth safely? Based on a true story and directed by Ron Howard, “Apollo 13” was an exciting adventure about success stemming from failure. From the moment Lovell, Haise and Swigert left Earth, I couldn’t look away from the screen. I enjoyed the fact that it may have been a film set in outer space but it was no science fiction. Howard was careful in showing us just enough special and visual effects to suspend us in awe. It was magical and I couldn’t help but wonder how amazing it would be if one day, all of us could easily take a trip to the moon. I do have to say that there were scenes that I wish could have ran longer. For instance, when Lovell’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan) confessed to her husband that she didn’t want to see his launch because it wasn’t his first time going into space anyway, the director cut the scene right before it captured her husband’s reaction. There was a split second when Hanks had tears in his eyes but he held himself back from saying something that could potentially cause anger between them. If the scene had an extra ten to fifteen seconds to assess the situation, it would have made a grand statement about the relationship between the astronaut and his wife. A similar awkward cut was made when the Lovell’s wife had to explain to her young son that his father had been in an accident in space. Howard should have spent more time with the child’s reaction. In doing so, the film would have had the opportunity to communicate with the child within each of us. Instead, much of the reactions were focused on the adults. I wouldn’t have minded as much if most of their reactions weren’t such hyperboles. As the astronauts became increasingly desperate, there was an increasing number of one- or two-second shots of the wives looking miserable. They distracted us from the astronauts’ plight. It didn’t need to try so hard to tell us that the situation was dire when we could see it for ourselves. Nevertheless, “Apollo 13” had a smörgåsbord of thrills and drama. When we catch ourselves holding our breath, that’s an indication the movie is doing something right.
★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
★★★ / ★★★★
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was hired to coach an Indiana high school basketball team. He used to coach college basketball for twelve years, but he spent the last ten years in the Navy. The small town’s residents seriously questioned Norman’s qualifications and strange methods of training. After all, what could a man who spent his last decade on water impart when it came to basketball? Based on a true story of underdogs, “Hoosiers,” written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, made a sport I thought was uninteresting into an exciting, touching, and inspiring film that also touched upon what it meant to give and receive a second chance. Immediately did I admire Hackman’s character because of his determination to turn a team with raw potential into a force that worked as a single unit. Despite the town’s constant interference accompanied by unwarranted threats, he didn’t question himself and his methods. There was something about his confidence that I found comforting. The way Norman eventually earned his team’s respect felt natural because communication and wanting to change were established as a two-way street. There was no one rousing speech that changed everything the next day. Dennis Hopper as the assistant coach named Shooter was equally strong and compelling. In fact, I believed Hopper delivered two performances. The first was an alcoholic who lived in isolation and the other was a father who desperately wanted to make his son, a member of the basketball team, to be proud of him. We weren’t always certain whether Shooter would be able to defeat his alcoholism. Unlike the game which consisted of rules, statistics and a certain level of predictability, alcoholism was indeed another breed. It was a disease and the person inflicted could be fine one day and a complete wreck the next. The picture was successful in generating tension because its backbone in terms of the drama behind the basketball games was consistently in focus. When the big games arrived, it felt like there was more at stake, that winning would mean something more than a trophy and a title. It meant pride for the townsfolk who didn’t quite reach their dreams but nonetheless loved their town unconditionally. It meant a boost of morale for the players who worked tirelessly to improve their game. It also meant unity between newcomers and a town who didn’t like the idea of change. I only wished the romantic connection between Norman and Myra (Barbara Hershey), a fellow teacher, was either further explored or taken out completely. In a film with already so much heart, it didn’t need to feature a romantic interest in order to get us to care more than we already did. “Hoosiers” is often cited as one of the best sports drama depicted on film and with excellent reasons. Given that I’m not a big fan of basketball, I found my eyes transfixed on the ball and the scoreboard.
★ / ★★★★
Three friends (Brian Presley, Rider Strong, Jake Muxworthy) who were about to graduate from college decided to take a trip to Mexico so they could get laid and get stoned. While they were high on hallucinogens, one of them decided to visit a prostitute he met earlier that day. While wandering the dangerous streets of Mexico, Phil was abducted by a group of satanists looking for the perfect human sacrifice. Directed by Zev Berman, “Borderland” failed to determine the difference between disgust and horror. Based on a true story, I felt anger when it paid so much attention to the violence instead actually attempting to convince us why the story was worth telling. I didn’t need to see a man’s eyeballs being plucked in such a slow and gratuitous fashion. However, I was interested in the film’s anti-American undertones. The three Americans were portrayed as complete idiots. I found no reason for them to be friends. After all, what kind of people would allow their friend to walk in dark alleys by himself while intoxicated by ‘shrooms? Phil, son of a priest, was desperate to lose his virginity that he was willing to pay money for sex. He often gave into peer pressure from Henry, a deluded brat who believed that people were poor because they chose to be poor. And just when I thought Ed was the one worth rooting for, his set of ideals, though noble, was highly influenced by those around him. Instead of focusing more on the satanists that terrorized the community, much of the picture’s running time was dedicated to the trio acting like they’ve never been outside of their protected bubbles. They weren’t smart enough to recognize that the rules they’ve grown accustomed to live by no longer applied to their current and increasingly horrifying predicament. A cop named Ulises (Damián Alcázar), which I believe should have had more screen time, after a year since his partner was murdered by the satanists, became obsessed with finding out more about their practices. Ulises’ endgame was to expose them and find some sort of justice for those kidnapped, mutilated, and killed. If we saw the story through his eyes, the story would have been much more involving because he had access to resources that the three unsuspecting Americans lacked. Two of the three couldn’t even speak Spanish. At least one of them had to survive to tell the story but I found it ironic that they were almost irrelevant. “Borderland” borderlined exploitation. It had absolutely no intention in exploring the history, even very loosely, of the religious cult and their fixation for human sacrifice. It was generic torture porn that had the potential to become so much more.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Becky (Tracy Arnold) recently left her husband so she decided to live with her brother Otis (Tom Towles) and his roommate Henry (Michael Rooker) for the time being. She immediately developed a crush on Henry, not aware of the fact that Henry and her brother stalked and killed unsuspecting women as their extracurricular activity. Directed by John McNaughton, it was easy for me to see why “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” became a cult classic. I admired its cold detachment from its subject just as Henry and Otis treated their victims as less than animals. They obsessively videotaped their conquests and Otis was even sexually aroused as he repeatedly watched the tapes in their apartment. However, I found the first half to be a bit amatuer filmmaking and the project only found its identity half-way through. While the first forty-five minutes’ purpose was to establish the cruelty and analytical nature of Henry’s actions, it eventually repeated itself too often. I wanted to learn something new about the main character who was plagued with the need to kill. The movie came alive when Henry talked about the importance of not having a signature in terms of murdering people. He claimed that a signature was the key to getting caught so it was important to use various weapons when taking a life. That scene was memorable to me because Rooker described it in such a way that it was like a surgeon talking about the instruments he was about to use prior to an operation. The film was able to look the character in question in the eye and note a total absence of humanity. Another scene that stood out to me was when Becky and Henry tried to share something very personal from their past. When Henry shared about his abusive home when he was a child, Becky seemed moved and was able to completely sympathize with him. But when it was Becky’s turn to share, I was convinced that Henry did not feel a thing, that he could only pretend to care about her past. I think much of the movie’s power was the fact that it chose not to paint Henry’s story so that we could understand him better or feel sorry for him. It treated us as smart audiences because Henry was essentially a textbook serial killer. While both Otis and Henry were murderers, there was an important difference between them. Based on a true story involving Henry Lee Lucas’ confessions, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was unsettling movie to watch because there were times when the pointless murders felt downbeat to the point where it felt almost too authentic. It argued that there was nothing romantic about killing in cold blood.
Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
127 Hours (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston that detailed his ordeal in the breathtakingly gorgeous canyons of Utah, “127 Hours” was intriguing to say the least. James Franco played Aron, a man in tune with nature, who loved to explore and to push himself physically and mentally. After helping out two women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) navigate their way through the canyons, Aron slipped and a giant rock crushed his hand. Aron was stuck and it seemed as though no matter what he did, there was no way out of his predicament. I’ve always believed that great actors can give us a moment, even as short as a millisecond, and inspire us to write a thousand words about that specific moment in time. Franco achieved just that with the look of disbelief he had on his face after realizing that he was literally caught between a rock and a hard place. As grim as the situation was, there was a certain comedic effect to it that I find difficult to describe. Perhaps that’s a part of its brilliance. The movie was, without a doubt, challenging to sit through because it expected us to watch a man suffer for more than an hour, but Franco’s likability ultimately carried the film. Through his hallucinations, fantasies, and flashbacks, we had a chance to learn about Aron such as what and who was important to him. I wish there were more scenes with Treat Williams as Aron’s father and less Clémence Poésy as our protagonist’s ex-girlfriend. We learned that Aron was resourceful and smart. I was engaged because he tried the things I would have done if I was the one stuck in his predicament. For instance, creating a pulley to lift the rock to create a greater force instead of simply chipping through it. I had to laugh myself while watching the movie because I kept thinking, “Think Physics!” Furthermore, there were some potential solutions I didn’t think about and I was curious as to what extent it would work (considering I already knew what Aron had to do to extricate himself from the boulder). Director Danny Boyle made an excellent decision to give us little rewards before delivering the intense, flinch-worthy climax. For instance, the gasp-inducing burst of tension when Aron dropped his small knife. Was he physically capable of getting it back? Outside of Aron’s increasingly desperate struggle in the canyon, Boyle created an amalgamation of images and sounds to serve as a contrast to Aron’s experience. Even before Aron got stuck, there was already excitement in the air so I was pleasantly surprised. “127 Hours” could have been fat with clichés or, worse, turned into an unintentional horror movie. Instead, it remained focused in telling a story about the human spirit.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) decided that he was going to be true to who he was after getting in a major car accident. He got a divorce from his wife (Leslie Mann), moved to Florida, met a new beau (Rodrigo Santoro), and lived the fabulous life. But money didn’t grow on trees. This was particularly a problem because he didn’t have a college education. So, he turned to a life of crime pretending to be a litigator, a chief financial officer of a major company, among many things. Steven’s illegal actions landed him in prison where het me the love of his life–blonde-haired, blue-eyed Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). I don’t understand why this picture was shelved for so long. Not to mention it still hasn’t gotten a wide release nor do I hear and see much advertisement for it. I thought it was clever, funny, and completely unbelievable even though it was based on a true story. This was Carrey’s best performance in quite some time. His character’s histrionics suited him well and he probably was the best choice to play such a larger-than-life person. Carrey was smart to inject a healthy dose of charm in his character because being intelligent could only get someone so far. The real Steven Russell wouldn’t have pulled off so many scams if he wasn’t a people-person, the kind of guy we can’t help but trust the first time we meet him. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directors, successfully helmed a whimsical love story even though there were times when I was frustrated with its tone. The film was at its best when it was purely comedic. When Steven and Russell were together, I was drawn to them because it was obvious to me why they were perfect for each other. They looked at one another as if they already knew it wouldn’t last. However, it stumbled when it attempted to be a little more sensitive. There were far too many scenes when Steven would declare his love for Phillip. Once or twice was enough. Did the filmmakers run out of ideas to entertain? Neverthless, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in “I Love You Phillip Morris.” For instance, once the male organ joke was introduced, I found it strange that I felt like I saw phallic symbols everywhere. Just before the film ended, it stated that Russell was sentenced for an unprecedented number of years. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. For a guy who didn’t physically hurt anybody during his wild escapes (when he easily could have), I couldn’t help but feel like his term was a bit too harsh. Sure, he stole thousands of dollars from a company but even criminals who’ve committed the same crime received far lighter sentences. Steven treated the justice system as a joke. Perhaps there’s truth in jest.
Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Michael Apted, “Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey” was about an inexperienced woman (Sigourney Weaver), in terms of interacting with primates, who decided to help out in Africa in order to study and protect the gorillas from extinction. I thought this movie was strong up until the last thirty minutes. I was amazed whenever Weaver interacted with the real-life gorillas but at the same time worried because I knew they were dangerous animals. The movie was definitely at its best during the scenes when the humans would interact with the gorillas and sometimes the gorillas would charge at them. I caught myself holding my breath for the characters because it was so intense. On one hand, I think this is a nice tribute to a person who successfully prevented poachers from driving a certain species of primates into extinction. On the other hand, the way Dian Fossey was presented in the last thirty minutes felt a bit disrespectful to me. I mean, I wasn’t there so I can’t really account to what degree Fossey became obsessed with protecting the animals but did they really have to make her look so over-the-top the point where it was laughable? I had this huge respect for the woman more than two-thirds of the movie but I was a bit taken aback with what happened during the last final scenes. In my opinion, they still could have been honest with what transpired in the mountains but it didn’t have to result to the extremes. I also enjoyed the scenes of the romance between Dian Fossey and the National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell (Bryan Brown). While I admit that sometimes they were a bit cheesy with each other, it was a nice change from the scenes that consisted of mostly observations and no words. I enjoyed watching them because they initially didn’t seem to like each other and they were so different from one another. But at the same time those nice scenes highlighted how limited the script was. I found myself checking the time once in a while so I felt that the movie did not need to be over two hours long. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching the film because it had heart and captured the passion of Dian Fossey’s work. I was glad that the story turned dark whenever it needed to such as the scenes involving the killings and beheadings of the poor animals. Perhaps the picture could have been stronger and more involving if it tackled the politics in Africa head-on instead of just dealing with it from time to time.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Lorenzo’s Oil,” directed by George Miller, was about how Lorenzo’s parents, Augusto Odone (Nick Nolte) and Michaela Odone (Susan Sarandon), invented a treatment for cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) when their son (Zack O’Malley Greenburg) was diagnosed with the fatal disease. The road to finally arriving to a sufficient (but not perfect) treatment was very emotionally draining for me. Admittedly, I cried because it was so heartbreaking to see a vibrant, smart kid who knows three languages turn into someone who couldn’t move, couldn’t express himself and couldn’t even swallow without the help of a machine. The way Miller used the passage of time to establish the cruelty the genetic disease was done with such craft and confidence. I felt like I was there in that house where the parents decided to keep their son for years. As emotional as this film was, I was impressed with how it handled the science. It brought up many things I’ve learned in the university and I was able to follow the scientific discussions and explanations with relative ease. As a Biology major, I often wonder why we have to study the specifics of the mechanisms of every system in the body–both in lower animals and humans; it all feels dry (not to mention pointless!) because the emphasis is on memorization despite the professors telling us that understanding is always the key. This picture made me realize that even though it might feel boring and pointless to us now, details really do matter when it comes to finding a cure for diseases that affect people all over the world. That fact was highlighted when Nolte was shown to spend days and days in the library to make sense of his son’s disease and construct an alternative theory that might lead to a treatment. I guess what I’m saying is that this movie forced me to look at the bigger picture, to want to learn more and it reminded me why I want to pursue a career in medicine. I also liked the fact that this wasn’t just about the disease and how the parents tried to find a treatment. The director had scenes that commented on the dynamics between the slow process of science and the people that desperately need immediate solutions, the importance of emotional intelligence from nurses and doctors, the family and friends that stick with us at a time of need, and the dangers of false hope. “Lorenzo’s Oil” is a challenging and heartbreaking film but it’s undeniably uplifting. Everything about it was consistently strong, especially the performance from the lead actors (Sarandon’s scene when she whispered to Lorenzo, “If you need to go, you fly to baby Jesus as fast as you can” was done so brilliantly.) and some notable supporting actors such as Kathleen Wilhoite and the very underrated Margo Martindale. I am very grateful to my professors who cited this film in their lectures and I am beyond happy that I decided to see it. It’s one of the most rewarding films I’ve seen in a while.