Sweet Hereafter, The (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) visited a small town a few weeks after a tragic school bus accident that killed most of the children passengers. The lawyer tried to talk to the children’s parents to create a case of negligence against the company that made the school bus. While the parents were reluctant at first, they were eventually persuaded by Mitchell because he was able to offer an explanation out of the unexplanable. In a way, I saw him as a vulture or an opportunistic organism that nourished itself on the parents’ grief. Most of them wanted to move on but he wouldn’t allow them because he really wanted to have a case to serve as a distraction from his own personal life regarding his drug-addicted daughter (Caerthan Banks). Maybe he was doing it for the money. Maybe he was doing it to atone for his own mistakes. Either way, his presence helped to drive the town further apart. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” was not a typical drama about loss. There was no big homage to demonstrate how sad the town was and there was no screaming matches between the parents because their child had passed away. Instead, all of the negative emotions were suppressed. It was the kind of sadness I felt when we’ve lost a family friend or a relative. There was more silence than screaming to the top of our lungs. The stand-out for me was Nicole (Sarah Polley) as a once-promising singer who was now confined to a wheelchair. One of her secrets was she and her father were in an incestuous relationship. Nicole was torn because she wanted to deal with the paralysis over the lower portion of her body while her parents wanted to join the lawsuit. I felt sad for her but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And I think that’s what Egoyan did best: His project was able walk between delicate emotions and deliver a film that did not feel manipulative. From several reviews I read, they claimed that it was slow and they did not really learn anything new about the characters. I agree to some extent, but I don’t believe that type of critique necessarily means that the movie is not worth watching. With certain kinds of films, it’s more difficult to simply show what is instead of offering a defined explanation that we can easily grasp. Losing a child defies explanation and grieving need not make sense. That was the film’s main thesis and I thought it was successful at tackling those issues. “The Sweet Hereafter” was challenging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. It was a complex and painful examination of the human condition.
Blue Valentine (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) were not exactly what one would call a happy couple. Cindy did not love Dean anymore. Perhaps it was because he acted more like a playdate toward their daughter (Faith Wladyka) instead of a firm parent. Maybe it was because of his tendency to drink alcohol before work. We couldn’t put our fingers on the exact reason why, but that was what I found to be the most beautiful. Sometimes we just stop loving someone and the reason escapes us. Dean was a sensitive man. The couple met when Cindy was in college and dating a guy (Mike Vogel) on the wrestling team. She wanted to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Dean worked for a moving company. He didn’t make much money but all he really wanted was to find the right person for him. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the film jumped back and forth between the couple’s current unrewarding marriage and when their romance was at its peak. However, this was not to suggest that the couple’s current life did not have a drop of romance. Even when they were at a point of great struggle, I found romance in the small ways they tried. The former was difficult to sit through because it felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. It was like being stuck in a car with a friend and her boyfriend who happened to be fighting. No matter how much you turn up the volume on your iPod, you could still hear and perhaps feel or understand how they felt. There was a lot unexpressed frustration and anger between Cindy and Dean, but their aggression were personified in small ways like a snide look or an exasperated sigh. Their body movements said a thousand words. Since they could not communicate with each other in a healthy way, they were left to interpret the unsaid which led to the further dissolution of their marriage. On the other side of the spectrum, the latter was incredibly romantic. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t crack a smile in the way they hung out in the streets of Pennsylvania as Cindy danced and Dean played his ukelele. Their first few interactions were awkward, especially when they ran to each other on the bus, but the wall between them melted with fervor. They seemed destined to be together. The film could have suffered from the typical pitfalls of melodrama. But with Cianfrance’s direction, the switch between different time periods felt seamless and natural. It preserved the emotions from the scenes before so it worked as a tool for our further understanding of the characters and what was at stake if they did ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Each scene was like a piece of a puzzle and it was up to us to determine, not the point where their relationship became sour because all relationships have their rough spots, but the point where one or both of them had finally given up. Is “Blue Valentine” something that couples should see? Absolutely. It may not be typically cute or funny, but it was smart, real, and challenging.
Secreto de sus ojos, El (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Secret in Their Eyes” was about a former criminal investigator (Ricardo Darín) attempting to write a novel based on a brutal rape and murder of a newlywed 25 years ago. The Morales case was particularly important to him because the love of the husband (Pablo Rago) for his deceased wife reminded him of his love for his former co-worker (Soledad Villamil) that never came to fruition. She was engaged and he didn’t want to get in the way of her happiness. The picture’s style was to go back and forth between the present and the past making an excellent blend of thriller and drama. Co-workers falling for each other was nothing new. In fact, it had become a formula. But one of the elements I loved about the movie was it kept romance between Benjamín and Irene fresh and challenging. Unlike most romantic movies, they didn’t have say what they felt in order for us to understand what they might be going through. It was in the small gestures such as the closing of a door, a pause mid-sentence, or a quick look to the side that revealed their expectations of each other. The tension between them reflected what we would have done if we liked someone but couldn’t find the right words to say how much we want to be with them. As for the thriller aspect, I was glued to the screen because it was unpredictable. During the most intense scenes, Benjamín’s friend (Guillermo Francella), who had a drinking problem, would appear from nowhere and could potentially ruin everything. We hated him but at the same time we couldn’t help but love him. We hated him because he appeared at the most inopportune times which could make or break the case in question. But we loved him because he made the plot that much more complicated and therefore more fun to try to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle would come together. I was highly impressed with the last thirty minutes. To even hint at what transpired, I think, would do this film an injustice. All I want to say about it is it was at the point where the past and present finally converged. Many practical questions were answered but so many more moral questions were brought up. Like the characters, I found some sense of closure but at the same time I felt as though it wasn’t the closure I was looking for. The theme of men clinging onto their past was at the forefront and I couldn’t help but feel moved (and scared) when I realized how much the past could turn into a monster if we kept leaving it on the side instead of confronting it directly. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed by Juan José Campanella, “El secreto de sus ojos” was compelling and rewarding in every way.
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.