★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) were best friends. They relished vintage fashion, enjoyed watching classic films, and quoting respectable poems. But those weren’t all they had in common. When they met Nicolas (Neils Schneider), a curly-haired blonde with a bone structure of a Greek god, the foundation of Francis and Marie’s friendship was tested. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Les amours imaginaires” told its story through the senses. Slow-motion shots were prevalent for a reason. Francis and Marie’s rivalry was mostly shown in an insidious manner. It was only natural that two friends would hide their jealousy from one another to avoid hurting each other and themselves. The slow movement of the camera magnified the little things like a fake smile or a judging look. It also highlighted the pain when reality did not meet one’s expectations. For example, when Francis and Marie greeted Nicolas at a party, Francis noticed that Nicolas hugged Marie for much longer. Francis tried to play it off as if it was nothing but we knew better. The slow motion revealed to us the many questions in his head. Did the Adonis adore Marie more than him? Dolan’s use of bold colors was quite Almodóvar-esque. A scene shot in which red reigned supreme suggested fiery passion, perhaps even obsession. Green signified jealousy as Francis shared a bed with another man knowing that Nicolas and Marie were probably having a good time together. Lastly, I felt the need to point out the lack of a gratuitous sex scene. I admired that the material remained true to itself. The relationship between the trio wasn’t about sex. It was about the longing for someone who may or may not be willing to reciprocate. The fact that the writer-director chose to explore the funny, awkward, painful space between the three characters instead of allowing them to get together sexually proved to me that he was confident with his project. However, what I found less effective were the scenes that involved broken-hearted romantics who pondered over men and women who hurt them. I felt like I was in group therapy where no one made sense. Instead of relating to them, I ended up somewhat disliking them. Most recalled waiting for someone they were interested in and the person being late for over thirty minutes. It was suggested that they felt used waiting when the relationship ultimately didn’t go anywhere. If I was supposed to meet someone for the first time and he or she was thirty minutes late, that person could forget about it. I was there on time so I wouldn’t place the blame on myself. Either those scenes should have been excised or someone should have criticized their way of thinking. Despite its weak miniature intermissions, “Heartbeats” pulsated with creativity. I was addicted to its beauty.
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.
The September Issue (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Anna Wintour, the extremely influential editor of Vogue magazine, stated it perfectly in the very first few minutes of this documentary: Most people are scared of fashion and that’s probably why they make fun of it. Personally, I don’t think fashion is a ridiculous subject at all because it covers every aspect of beauty–something that is very important to me–not just when it comes to the clothes but the attitude that comes with them. Directed by R.J. Cutler, he documented all the hardwork, the conflict, the stress and the funny moments of what it took to release the September issue of Vogue. Two people are at the forefront: Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, the editor and the creative director, respectively. I love that the movie covers the history of the two so we get some sort of idea where they came from and what it took for them to be where they are now. Although Wintour and Coddington have very different personalities, both of them are aware with how brilliant the other person is. Instead of competing with each other, they constantly push each other to be more critical and to continue to redefine beauty. While Wintour is truly a very intimidating ice queen, she’s not a total diva like how fashion editors were presented in motion pictures. She has her more tender moments, especially when she spends time with her daughter. On the other hand, I found Coddington to be very admirable because she’s not afraid to push for what she wants to be included in the magazine even if Wintour says “No” to her ideas time and time again. She’s a romantic and she remains to be a sweet individual despite the harsh realities of the fashion industry. While the two giants do have their disagreements, they share one crucial bond: They are very passionate with what they do and they want the magazine to be at its best. I was so engaged with this movie because there were times when I agreed with Wintour and there were times when I agreed with Coddington. I found it fun to see which photos would make it to the magazines, which was really hard at the same time because the photographs were stunning. This documentary is obviously targeted for people who are interested in fashion. However, for those who could care less about fashion should see this as well because it will undoubtedly show them that fashion is not a joke (though sometimes it can be). Like other more traditional jobs, it requires a lot of long hours, heartbreaking rejections, stress due to everything not going according to plan, and best of all, a thick skin.
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by and starring real-life friends Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory essentially star as themselves in “My Dinner with Andre.” Wallace/Wally agreed to meet up with his old friend for dinner and admitted to the audiences that he had not seen his friend in years. The whole film took place in a real-time conversation over dinner between the two actors as they discussed practical and philosophical questions. While both of them were able to offer very insightful questions and commentaries throughout, I had a big problem during the picture’s first thirty minutes. Andre pretty much talked non-stop for several minutes without Wally uttering more than two sentences. I thought that the premise of the film was about two friends who were at an equal intellectual level but very different outlook on life. However, the first thirty minutes did not reflect that. Instead, I intially felt as though Andre was the wiser of the two and Wally was a child getting an education from an elder who has been all over the world. Eventually, however, Wally was given the chance to speak and it was refreshing because even though he did not sound as formal or worldly (or pretentious?) as Andre, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the points he brought up because he expressed his thoughts in simple and frank manner. I thought the film reached its peak when the two stopped agreeing with each other and began expressing how differently they viewed the world. In a nutshell, Wally did not believe in fate and that things were simply an accumulation of random coincidences. Andre, on the other hand, believed in fate and that having a purpose was not always necessary because purpose almost always equated to habit and habit was the lack of awareness and therefore a lack of “real” living. They were able to tell each other a plethora of stories that covered the two basic themes and it was fascinating to sit through. This movie made me think of how many friends I could converse with in a similar level and even I have to admit that there are not a lot of them. Younger viewers and people who are not that into plays may not understand the references that the characters have made (it would probably help for a deeper understanding) but it was still an enjoyable rumination about the beauty and ugliness of life. I could certainly connect with both of the characters so I did not at all find it difficult to keep paying attention with the words and the little nuances in their voices. This is an art-house film, which may mean it is not for everyone, because it “only” consists of two people talking to each other like in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” (which was definitely influenced by this picture). That said, “My Dinner with Andre” is highly rewarding.