★★★ / ★★★★
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.