★★ / ★★★★
Jamie (Jim Sturgess) was born with a heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face. It turned him into a self-conscious person because people did not want anything to do with him and his teratoid appearance. After his mom (Ruth Sheen) was killed by hooligans who wore monster masks, Jamie was intent on taking revenge. But when Papa B (Joseph Mawle), possibly the devil himself, offered Jamie to live a life without his birthmark, Jamie reluctantly accepted. If he was beautiful, he figured he could finally ask an aspiring model (Clémence Poésy) out on a date. But his newfound beauty didn’t come without a price. Written and directed by Philip Ridley, “Heartless” started with a heavy-handed premise about true beauty being found within but it got stronger over time because it wasn’t afraid to take us to many surprising directions. I must admit that I had a difficult time believing that Sturgess was ugly just because he had a birthmark on his face. It was almost laughable because his character’s shyness was reflected by his habit of wearing hoodies and always looking down on his feet. And, just to top it all off, he spoke ever so softly. It didn’t require much effort to see that he was still handsome. However, once Jamie made a deal with the devil, the movie became much more interesting. We had a chance to observe what he was willing to go through in order to keep his face unblemished. When asked to kill, a part of his payment, there was something darkly comic about the whole ordeal. I particularly relished the Weapons Man’s (Eddie Marsan) visitation of Jamie’s flat as he explained what kind of weapon our protagonist had to use to murder, the type of target he must get his hands on, and the ridiculous rules he had to abide by. Even more amusing was the potential victim Jamie had actually chosen. I liked that there were vast shifts in tone because the Faustian fable was something we’ve already seen many times. However, I wished the filmmakers held back on using shrieks when something scary would appear on screen. It felt too Horror Movie 101, more distracting than horrific, and it took away some of the originality it worked hard to reach. Lastly, the picture would have benefited if Timothy Spall, who played Jamie’s deceased father, was in it more. Jamie obviously missed his dad not just because he was family but because Jamie saw his father as a role model, someone he’d always aspired to be. “Heartless” may not have reached its ambition by tackling the deeper angles of broad issues like religion, physical beauty and social decay, but I appreciated its well-meaning attempt and solid performances by Marsan, Spall, and Sturgess.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Océans,” directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, explored the interplay between nature and mankind. This documentary caught me by surprise because I thought it was just going to be about the creatures that lived in the ocean. But it also turned out to be a commentary on how humans, despite living on Earth for a relatively short period of time, have negatively affected the ocean in shocking ways and the animals that depended on the ocean for survival. The movie showed absolutely breathtaking images of predator-prey relationship, notably when the birds would dive underwater at lightning speeds and try to capture fish. That particular scene was so intense, it was like watching an action movie only it was actually real and it happens every day. But my favorite scenes have got to be the ones shot in the ocean floor. I love those scenes because the strangest-looking creatures appeared on screen. There’s something about creatures that can expertly blend in their surroundings and make surprise attacks that have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of waiting for a kill (or the hunt), I’m not exactly sure, but I can watch those scenes for hours. However, my problem with “Océans” was its lack of focus. I felt like the movie jumped from one type of living thing to another without any smooth transition. It would have felt more organic if the first fifteen to twenty minutes were only dedicated to fish, hard shells the next, penguins the next and so on. The movie jumping from one group to another and then back took me out of the experience. Perhaps the directors decided to do it for people with short attention spans but it just doesn’t work for people like me who can pay attention to one element for about an hour (given that the material is interesting). Regardless, “Océans” is worth seeing for the stunning images and the emphasis on the world being bigger than us so we must take care of it the best we can. There was this brilliant line in the film that stated something like the humans’ indifference is utimately nature’s downfall. It certainly made me want to commit to recycling instead of only sticking to it only if I felt like it. This is also a good movie to show to children (especially those in elementary school) because it has a clear way of showing concepts like the aformentioned predator-prey relationships, symbiosis and pollution. Plus, it had really cute clips of sea lions that almost had human qualities in the way they nurtured or played with their young.
Under the Sea 3D (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m sure everyone had seen movies they wished would last for hours and hours. “Under the Sea 3D,” written and directed by Howard Hall, was one of them because of its great ability entertain and enlighten. In just a span of forty minutes, the deep sea documentary was able to capture lives of sea creatures ranging from small harmless fish, creepy sea snakes, turtles that love to feed on venomous jellyfish to rare sea dragons and cute sea lions in New Guinea, Indo-Pacific, Southern Australian waters. The movie was also able to comment on humans’ impact on the environment. However, it didn’t feel heavy-handed because the focus was really more on the animals and how they depended on their respective habitats (and vice-versa). What I liked best about this film was its ability to create suspense by creating danger for certain animals. For instance, in one scene the innocuous creature was the cute-looking one that you just want to pet but in a few minutes, it turned out being the predator with an amazing speed in terms of capturing and swallowing their prey whole. The film’s technique of turning our expectations upside down made the movie consistently interesting and engaging. It was unpredictable in the best way possible. I even caught myself thinking “What’s next?” with such enthusiasm. I felt like a little kid again who just had his first lesson in grade-school Biology. The living things under the sea were so magical-looking (to say the least), it sometimes reminded me of “Finding Nemo,” especially the coral reefs. I thought it was amazing how much the creatures relied on each other in order to survive. Concepts such as symbiosis, mutualism and commensalism were illustrated nicely, especially how one of the crabs used a jellyfish as “a hat” (as Jim Carrey, the narrator, puts it). Although they were quite simple concepts, the way they actually worked made me feel like everything had a purpose. “Under the Sea” was also one of those movies that made me feel humbled. I couldn’t believe some of the creatures existed even before the age of dinosaurs. Realizing their resilience and effective hunting techniques, it made me want to learn more about the different creatures–creatures that are thriving now and those that are not thriving now but might thrive in the future. I think this is a great film for kids because not only did it have bright colors and strange-looking animals, it was able to educate and inspire. I wish I saw it in the big screens (IMAX or 3D) because it was already stunning on television.
Good Hair (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I look at people, the first thing I notice about them is their hair. Directed by Jeff Stilson, “Good Hair” follows Chris Rock as he interviews all sorts of people from the United States and India about hair: how natural African-American hair is now regarded as less valuable and less appealing as European and Asian hair. I thought this documentary was absolutely fascinating. I learned so much because I don’t have the kind of hair that African-Americans do so I don’t really know much about their experiences and the pressures they feel about getting “good hair,” a type of hair that the media glamorizes. For me the film reached its highest point when Rock went to India and tried to learn about why so much hair was coming from India. I didn’t know that some Indians viewed having hair as a vanity so they sacrifice their hair for a higher power. While in America, hair symbolizes power and directly correlates to one’s self-esteem. I thought that contrast was so nicely done by Stilson and I realized that, despite the film’s amusing look at the hair industry, there was an inherent sadness about it all. I couldn’t believe that hair cost thousands of dollars and some women would rather pay for a weave than make sure that they have food on the table. On the other side of the spectrum, women choose to buy very dangerous “relaxers,” which is pretty much sodium hydroxide, a very strong chemical. I loved the way the picture showed an experiment where a can was placed in a container full of NaOH with varying rate of exposure. (I’m a sucker for science experiments.) I was so shocked when one of the cans literally melted when exposed to NaOH for about five or six hours. The movie then connected the usage of sodium hydroxide to health–how some parents choose for their children, who are barely three years old, to undergo such extreme (and painful) chemical application for the sake of having so-called good hair. What didn’t work for me, however, was the whole hair competition angle. I thought it made the picture very convoluted and it took away some of the movie’s power because the pre-competition and competition scenes lacked momentum. I wanted more scenes of very funny conversations among Chris Rock, regular folks and celebrities. I thought it was a laugh riot when the film switched its focus to men and how they felt pressure to give their girlfriends money for a weave. All these elements show that having “good hair” is not just a woman’s issue nor is it even a race issue. It’s about increasing number of individuals adapting to a particular mindset of society regarding what is considered beautiful and what isn’t.
America the Beautiful (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
I was reluctant with giving this documentary a mediocre rating because I did enjoy watching it. However, as a movie that tried to explore the issue about the American society’s standard for beauty, I felt that the arguments were all over the place and sometimes contradicted itself. Written and directed by Darryl Roberts, he mostly targeted the fashion industry, its unrealistic expectations when it comes to its models and the messages that they knowingly impart on people, especially children, on what is considered beautiful. For me, one of its biggest flaws was that it failed to admit to itself that the fashion industry is, in fact, a business and a good one at that. When it makes the argument that the industry treats its models like nobodies, that’s not anything new or insightful (at least for me because I’m familiar with fashion to an extent) because the models work FOR the fashionistas and they ARE products that needed to be as glamorous as possible so that money would be made at the end of the day. Placing most of the blame on the fashion industry is a bad move because there are other types of media out there that are arguably more influential (like music artists and music videos). The movie also tackled what was shown on television and magazines. Now, I think it did a pretty good job showing younger people perusing through magazines and pointing out the media’s unrealistic expectations on how to have the “right” look. However, I thought the film became evasive once again because it didn’t really explore or even mention personal responsibilities. An interviewee made a good point about the act of choosing to open up a magazine but it was as if as though Roberts had already put the interviewee under a negative light so what the interviewee said was pretty much thrown away the minute she stopped talking. I was very alarmed by this because when Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”), from the opposite spectrum, was being interviewed about the media and its effect in society, I got the feeling that the director wanted us to listen to her and really think about was she was saying. Granted, what she said about the media’s subtle ways of influencing people was indeed quite smart. However, my point is that the documentarian was obviously biased. I would have given this movie a less forgiving review if it wasn’t for Gerren Taylor’s journey from being a frontrunner to becoming the next supermodel to “just another model” who can no longer get booked (especially in Paris) because she was “too fat.” Personally, I think she’s thin. You don’t have to major in Biology to be able to tell that a girl who is six feet tall and has a waist of 96 centimeters is skinny. (The agencies wanted her to be at most around 90 centimeters.) This documentary had its ups and downs but I’m giving it a mild recommendation because either way, one will have a strong opinion about it when it’s over.