How to Die in Oregon (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In 1994, Oregon was the first state in the United States to legalize physician-assisted suicide. “How to Die in Oregon,” directed by Peter Richardson, took the issue of euthanasia and cogently argued that although one should always question whether he or she should go through it, it should never be feared. In other words, choosing to die needed to be a practical decision. Its first few minutes instantly grabbed my attention. We watched Sue Porter, one of the most active Compassion & Choices volunteer in the state, handing a glass filled with white liquid to an elderly man. Surrounded by his family, the man took the glass, gulped the substance, and claimed it tasted “woody.” Before he slipped into a coma, he expressed his gratitude and love for his family. There was a calmness among everyone as it happened. Though I was far from calm, I understood that perhaps the passing was harmonious because the sick man had accomplished everything he felt he needed to do before choosing to end his life. I liked that the film didn’t result to extremes in order to get its points across. The subject was polemical enough; there was no use in creating a bigger chasm between those who supported the issue and those who didn’t. Instead, it spent its time explaining the main differences between physician-assisted suicide and Death with Dignity Act. The former involved a doctor physically putting a substance into his patient’s body while the latter allows the patient to administer the drug into himself. I admired the film because the director unwaveringly treated the issue and those dealing with it, voluntary or otherwise, with respect. Those who argued against Death With Dignity Act were not portrayed as crazy people who shouted obscenities against supporters during a rally. Their concerns needed to be addressed and their questions should be answered. The film followed two women who had a lot of fight in them. First, there was Nancy Niedzielski who promised her husband before he died that she would help legalize Death with Dignity in Washington state. He died naturally from a brain and spinal cord cancer and all the pain and suffering that came with it. One of the most shocking details in his battle was his change in appearance in a span of one year. He looked pretty young a year before his body succumbed to the disease. Days before his passing, he looked like an eighty-year-old man. Second, there was Cody Curtis, a fifty-four-year-old woman with a pear-sized tumor on her liver. We watched her change from exuding so much life up to when she decided her life was no longer worth living. It felt very personal because we went to her doctor’s appointments, got to know her family, and discovered some of the things she needed and wanted to do before she died. I thought she and her family were very brave. Cody’s enthusiasm and strength reminded me of my mom. If my mom had cancer and she was given an estimate of the number of months she had left to live, I’m not sure if I can handle it. But one thing is for sure: if or when Death with Dignity becomes legal all over the country, I’ll be happy she’ll have a choice if or when she’s going to go through with it. I support euthanasia, Death with Dignity being one of its subtypes. It continues to bother me that a lot of people welcome (sometimes very enthusiastically) the idea of convicted felons being lethally injected yet they oppose the idea that suffering people should have a say on deciding when their lives are no longer worth living. For me, it’s never okay to force someone to die just because the law says so. I don’t care if it’s the law of the land. I don’t care if it’s the “law” of religion. It feels immoral to me. But to have an unlocked door available because a person no longer wants to suffer from an unmanageable pain (despite the best drugs) and untreatable disease? That’s a choice everyone should have.
★★ / ★★★★
Enoch (Henry Hopper), nicely dressed in a black suit to go with his solemn demeanor, took the city bus to attend a boy’s memorial service. But he didn’t know the deceased. We came to know that dropping in on strangers’ memorials was a hobby of his. Pixie-haired Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) noticed Enoch and approached him. She knew the boy who died from cancer because she claimed that she volunteered at the hospital. As they got to know each other over a few days, she revealed to him that she, in fact, did not work at the hospital. She had cancer and the doctor gave her about three months to live. Written by Jason Lew and directed by Gus Van Sant, “Restless” aimed to tell a story about two people who came to appreciate life a little bit more by being on the verge of death, but the pacing was so mired in syrupy slow motion that it didn’t get a chance to truly take off. Enoch and Annabel were interesting characters because of their curiosities. Due to his parents’ passing and being in a coma for days or weeks, he was drawn to the dead, or the concept of it anyway. Though he won’t admit to it, he exhibited fear and a little bit of rage when he got too close. His only friend was a ghost, a Japanese kamikaze named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase). They spent most their time playing Battleship and throwing rocks at trains. In some ways, his eccentricities were nicely handled. Because he was closed off, despite his Aunt Mabel (Jane Adams) reminding him that she was always available to talk, we could sympathize with his occasional fits of anger and frustration even though they were often misdirected. Annabel, on the other hand, loved life and everything it had to offer. She was particularly interested in Charles Darwin and ornithology. She always talked about a species of bird that thought it died every time it turned night. When morning came, it would sing songs because it was happy just to be alive. She saw herself in that bird. Though she tried to be positive, her illness limited what she could become. Watching her made me wonder how I would react if I was given news that I had a terminal disease and I only had a certain amount of time to live. I’m not so sure I’d take it as gracefully. I liked watching Annabel for her bravery even though she thought there was nothing especially courageous in facing illness. Unfortunately, when Enoch and Annabel were together, it was like being stuck in a stuffy room with a couple who just couldn’t help but give each other kisses after every other sentence. It was nauseating. There a shot in the film where Hiroshi stood from several feet away and had this look of disgust toward the couple. It wasn’t meant to be funny but I laughed because it was exactly how I felt. It was strange that the material was more romantic when the two protagonists were apart rather than when they were together. While I understood that they needed to love each other in order to realize, especially Enoch since he possibly had many years ahead of him, the value of self-love and loving others sans romantic way, we, as well as the characters, deserved so much better. We didn’t learn until much later on, what kind of cancer Annabel had, an example of the picture’s main problem: it consistently gave us skeletal information but reluctant to delve into the marrow. As a result, it felt as though “Restless” was simply going through the motions for much of its running time. What it needed was fire to grab us and keep us transfixed.
One Day (2011)
★ / ★★★★
On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduated from university. They were ecstatic because, like most graduates, they were convinced that the world was ripe for their picking. Emma strived to be poetess/writer in London. Dexter was uncertain but he had plans of vacationing/teaching English abroad. Over the course of twenty-something years, the film, based on the novel and screenplay by David Nicholls, checked in on them on the same day each year. While its premise was interesting, the storytelling was disjointed and unconvincing. What Dexter and Emma had was supposed to be an example of a deep friendship. After all, they pined to see or call each other when something important happened in their lives. However, there was a drought of clues in terms whether or not they even saw or heard from each other on any other day except July 15. As a result, as each year passed by, it became increasingly difficult to buy into what they supposedly had. After all, deep friendships are also rooted in going through ordinariness together. Emma had a crush on Dexter even before they formally met. While understandable because he commanded great hair that seemed to come out of a high fashion magazine, Dexter was almost completely charmless. His jokes felt more like personal jabs and he was an unapologetically hedonistic womanizer. He’d go in the direction, without careful thought for the feelings of others, that made him feel good the most. So how could we feel sympathy for him when his career as a television presenter reached a screeching halt? And why did Emma want to continue seeing him for as long as she did? The most obvious answer is that she enjoyed being heartbroken. This was disloyal to her character who initially smart, funny, and always strived to be independent. The best part of the film was Dexter’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her struggles of dealing with cancer and watching her son traverse the path of self-destruction. Clarkson wasn’t given much screen time but each time she was on screen, she provided a fiery complexity that the material desperately needed. When the mother looked at her son, I stared in her eyes and I couldn’t fully determine what took more energy out of her: Was it her illness combined with the chemotherapy or was it her son being blind to the fact he was so far from what he hoped he’d become? Unfortunately, Emma’s parents were nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how they saw their daughter other than a one-dimensional sweet girl, occasionally sporting a great haircut circa 2003, with nice dreams. I waited and hoped that someone practical would just bluntly tell her to snap out of her fantasies and remind her that aging comes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. The fact is, you can’t wait for a man or woman until he or she sees something in you. “One Day,” directed by Lone Scherfig, was supposed to be romantic and inspiring but it was ultimately masochistic. Much of its criticisms had something to do with Hathaway’s English accent. It had bigger problems than that. It’s a movie made for women but I’m afraid it doesn’t have much respect for them beyond the surface level.
★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seemed like a healthy twenty-seven year old who abstained from smoking and doing drugs. He even chose not to learn to drive a car because it is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. When a pain in his back began to bother him, he decided to see a doctor. The results weren’t good. It turned out that he had a rare cancer and an aggressive form of treatment was necessary. Written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine, “50/50” successfully made the topic of cancer easier to digest by highlighting the comedy without losing track of the sadness and fear upon discovering the news and dealing with the reality. The filmmakers made a smart move by making human relationships the primary concern instead of the cancer. Kyle (Seth Rogen) was Adam’s best friend and rock throughout the ordeal. One of the best scenes between the two was in the way Kyle reacted to his friend’s grim diagnosis. Rogen balanced amusing allusions of famous people who had beaten cancer and tenderness without being obnoxious. I was glad that their relationship didn’t have a significant arc. It didn’t need to. There were still unexpected discoveries along the way, but their friendship was a good place. Another important support Adam had was Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young, perky counselor working on her doctorate. Their interactions were amusing because there was an awkwardness in their attempt to find a solid footing with something new: Katherine and her job; Adam and his cancer. Adam and Katherine shared wonderful chemistry but it wasn’t creepy, unethical, nor inappropriate. Through their conversations, they learned to form a special friendship. We rooted for them to take that next step without forgetting the fact that there should be a line between a professional and her client. However, there were some connections that weren’t as strongly established. Diane (Anjelica Huston), Adam’s mom, was always worried about her son. Adam felt suffocated by her ways of showing affection and he constantly felt the need to prove that he was strong and capable of being independent. I wanted to know more about that tension between mother and son, the mother’s specific feelings in no longer being needed. Huston was only given about half a dozen scenes and she made the best out of all of them. I think that if her character was closer to the center, the actress’ talent for balancing regal quiet power and in-your-face emotions would’ve made the project soar. Lastly, the conflict involving Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend, sometimes felt forced. I understood that the point was some people are just not equipped enough to handle long-term sickness. I appreciated that the filmmakers acknowledged that reality. Unfortunately, it all boiled down to whether or not she would ultimately stay with Adam. It felt out of place, too shallow, for a movie about mortality. “50/50” is a reminder: When you do have that moment where you catch yourself staring miserably at your empty glass, people who love you in the best ways possible can fill it right up. Then it doesn’t seem so bad.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love movies about depressed and angry people trying to deal with their own issues especially during the holidays but there’s something about “Un conte de Noël” or “A Christmas Tale” that just did not click with me. I don’t know whether it’s because I expected too much since the picture was critically acclaimed but what I am sure about is that I felt like there were far too many distracting technical elements that didn’t really fit in with the emotional turmoil that the characters were going through. I thought the tone was largely melancholic with a spice of irony here and there but there were times when it would detach from the tone (such as the characters going to a disco club… for no reason) and the result was almost jarring. It’s strange because even though I connected with the characters, especially Catherine Deneuve who found out that she had blood cancer and Emile Berling as the schizophrenic teenager, there was still an air of disconnect between me and the film. There were also some storylines that I thought could have used more development such as the tension between Anne Consigny and Mathieu Amalric. We get to see them want to cut each other’s throats (I thought the courtroom scene was exemplary) but we never really got to see what made them siblings. After all, in order to us to really hate someone that badly, we must care (or must have cared) for them in some way. I waited for their hatred to reach a maximum point and reach some common ground but it didn’t really happen. Granted, sometimes that doesn’t happen in real life but I thought it would have taken the film on a new level since the two of them received a lot of the movie’s running time. I also thought Emmanuelle Devos was a bit underused and exited too quickly when I was just about to want to get to know her more. There was something so elegant about her that it was almost mesmerizing. This movie did not at all remind me of my family and relatives during Christmas. In fact, the characters in this film and the people in my life are almost complete opposites. For one, none of us can stop talking during Christmas and laughter (and joyous yelling) is all around. And I guess that’s why I was so interested in watching this picture’s family dynamics. Written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin, “A Christmas Tale” definitely has some power behind it but it came up short because instead of me loving the family despite of their flaws and illnesses, I merely liked them (with some reservations).
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I was surprised by how much this film was grounded in reality even though the trailers sold it off as a typical “based on a true story” demonic possession. Virginia Madsen and Martin Donovan star as the parents who choose to move in a house with a creepy history because their son’s (Kyle Gallner) cancer treatment facility is nearby. It’s not long until spirits start to get themselves known to Gallner’s character in truly horrifying manners. I really admired the first thirty minutes of this horror flick because things that most people would consider as supernatural are things that can happen to cancer patients going through various therapies (i.e. hallucinations). I wish Peter Cornwell, the director, decided to keep straddling the line between science and the supernatural because it’s very reminiscent of “The Exorcist.” To me, the closer a horror film is to reality, its resonance after I leave the theater is amplified many more times as opposed to a horror movie that’s so unbelievable to the point where it loses its power. Unfortunately, this movie is the latter. Another frustration that I had with it was the film’s use of soundtrack to cue that something terrifying is happening on screen. I was really taken out of the moment whenever the soundtrack would be heard; most of the time, I don’t like outside cues to tell me how I should be feeling especially when the obvious is being shown on the screen. Its scares would’ve been more effective if there was less jarring creepy sounds–let the creaks of each footstep or a body hitting furnitures do all the work. After all, this is a horror film about a house with a questionable past (in the least) so the-less-the-better technique could’ve done wonders. As for its acting, I thought everyone did pretty good but I felt like Gallner was holding back. I’ve seen him in several television shows and movies so I know that he could’ve done more. Still, “The Haunting in Connecticut” had three or four solid scares so I’m giving it a mediocre rating. However, it would’ve been so much better if the booming soundtrack during scares was kept at a minimum or was not integrated at all.