★★★ / ★★★★
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.