The Butcher Boy (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Francie (Eamonn Owens), a boy with a very active imagination, values two things in life: his parents (Stephen Rea and Aisling O’Sullivan, respectively) and his best friend (Alan Boyle). So when the three important figures in his life were taken away due to varying circumstances, his childhood mischief evolved into an emotional disturbance despite the people in town treating him as nicely as they could. I understand that this can be a challenging film especially to people not used to over-the-top quirkiness mixed with surreal elements. I was able to stick with the story by focusing my attention on the psychology of a child who felt abandoned and betrayed. Further, he did not have a healthy way to get rid of his negative emotions. Instead, Francie channeled his energy toward torturing a kid from the neighborhood along with his mother (Fiona Shaw), who responded by asking other guys to physically assault Francie. The town eventually unable to deal with Francie’s indiscretions, he was sent away for extended periods of time. In such institutions, he failed to face his problems because he had no one to talk to and explain why what he did was wrong. The positive feedback of violence and emotional disturbance pushed the kid slowly toward a mental breakdown. Although the events that were happening on screen were wrapped in comedic elements, I thought it was really sad in its core because nobody understood how to deal with the tragic main character in a healthy way. The theme of the picture was abandonment which culminated when Francie returned from boarding school but his best friend was no longer his best friend. The schism in their relationship was especially painful to watch because earlier in the movie we had a chance to see them so close. They even had a pact to become “blood brothers” for the rest of their lives. The fear and disappointment in the children’s eyes (especially Boyles’) were apparent but they wouldn’t express them to each other because they either lacked the right words to say what they really felt or one did not want to hurt the other. All of the strange images and quirkiness aside, I thought the picture had a clear emotional resonance and I empathized with the main character throughout even though I did not necessarily agree with his choices. Based on the novel by Pat McCabe and astutely directed by Neil Jordan, “The Butcher Boy” was essentially about a childhood gone wrong because the child lacked guidance about life’s contradictions and challenges. Watching it was highly rewarding because its humanity was actually highlighted and not dimmed by dark comedy.
Directors: Martin Scorsese (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
American Film Institute’s documentary focused a spotlight on Martin Scorsese’s works from the 1970s up until 1999. In this documentary, we got to hear from Scorsese himself and his actors such as Jodie Foster, Ray Liotta, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Willem Dafoe, and Harvey Keitel. I enjoyed this movie because I am absolutely in love with Scorsese’s work but I felt like it should have been much longer. Just when Scorsese stated something really interesting like an event from his childhood that he incorporated into a particular film, for instance, the picture jumped to another work and left me wanting so much more. I’ve read about Scorsese but it was a much richer experience hearing him talk about his childhood and the struggles he had trying to establish himself as a director–a director that did not make movies in which the material was based on his life. I found it fascinating how he wanted to be a specific kind of director, a long way from his initial dream of becoming a priest. I also enjoyed the fact that Scorsese talked about every film and what he tried to achieve with each of them. Even though I have not yet seen his movies such as “The King of Comedy,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and his independent movie “After Hours,” (at the time I wrote this review) hearing him discuss the themes he tried to tackle made me want to see them that much more. The actors who he had worked with also said some very interesting things about Scorsese. One of them said that Scorsese was one of a kind because he sometimes said, “My actors are getting tired.” And it was easy to tell that the actors he used in his films time and again have a special connection with him because even though he was sympathetic to them, he had the ability to get great performances out of them. For instance, I was not aware of the fact that Scorsese actually encouraged his actors to keep going whenever they messed up a line or completely forgot the line–and such improvisations often made it to the final cut. I have a feeling that this documentary is just half of Scorsese’s amazing career. With movies like “The Departed” and “Shutter Island” recently attached to his name, I strongly believe that the thick-browed master has more memorable and exciting movies up his sleeves.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical film about siblings Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) experience a life of cruelty after their mother (Ewa Fröling) marries a minister after the death of their father (Allan Edwall). At first I didn’t understand what the film was trying to accomplish during the first fifty minutes because it kept focusing on a family reunion during a Christmas party. The title suggested that the story was about the two siblings so I was a bit frustrated. But it later occured to me that introducing the family and relatives (especially the grandmother played brilliantly and passionately by Gunn Wållgren) was important because of the many powerplay that would occur later on when the two children and the wife moved into the minister’s house. The picture reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s asthetic perfectionism (especially in “Barry Lyndon”) because Bergman’s attention to detail was inspired. The movie did not just look great but the director was able to use the look of the film to signify emotions and say the unsaid by using varying colors and contrasting images. To me, the most interesting parts of the film were the silent moments when particular characters would stare off into space but look so solemn at the same time. The poetry in the subtle facial expressions and body movements said so much that it sometimes did not need dialogue. Also, by using such technique, both the story and the performances felt very natural. I also liked the fact that the movie was not monotonous. With movies that contain childhood abuse and suddenly losing one’s comfort for the harsh reality, they sometimes borderline the melodramatic. In here, there were pockets of humor, suspense and even a genuine sense of being with family. At the same time, the movie allows us to see through Alexander’s eyes; that is, when he “sees” ghosts, makes up stories, and even when he starts losing faith in a higher power. All of those elements worked together to give us a complex portrait of childhood. I’ve heard that this film was originally a six-hour miniseries and I’m very much interested in seeing the whole thing so that I could observe the family dynamics a lot more. “Fanny and Alexander” is not the kind of movie that most people would necessarily warm up to or understand right away. But with a little bit of patience, open-mindedness and insight, one will most likely recognize its brilliance.
Small Change (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“L’argent de poche” or “Small Change,” written and directed by François Truffaut (“The 400 Blows”), did not have a defined story but it never failed to impress because the vignettes it featured ranged from disarmingly funny to downright heartbreaking. The film followed two-year-old children to fourteen-year-old young adults as they tried to roleplay and find their identities. I originally saw this picture in my third year of French class in high school but I failed realize how brilliant it was. Watching it again four to five years later, I couldn’t help but enjoy it that much more because I’ve had more experience with films and acquired a deeper understanding of childhood psychology. Watching the scenes which involved children giving their friends haircuts (and ending up disastrous), sneaking into the cinema, preparing breakfast with a sibling as their parents sleep, and others really took me back on how fun and easy life was back then when I didn’t have yet carry certain responsibilities. It also tackled topics such as securely and insecurely attached children, attachments to certain objects, and their inabilities to not act upon the first thought of action that would come up in their minds. While the humor was certainly there, I admired that the film also showed the darker side of childhood which dealt with abuse and childhood depression. That bit reminded me of a girl in my fourth grade class. Although at the time I didn’t quite grasp the idea of parents abusing their children in the home, there were definitely signs that would most likely lead to the a conclusion, such as her bruises on her arm and when she would come to school either crying or restless. (Most of us thought she was just really emotional and stayed away from her.) That delicate balance was definitely Truffaut’s greatest strength. Lastly, I enjoyed the teacher’s (Jean-François Stévenin) insight on childhood and growing up. I found his speech to have a certain resonance because it had undeniable truth without ever having to be melodramatic. “Pocket Money” is one of those pictures that reminds me why I love watching coming-of-age films.
Times and Winds (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Bes vakit,” also known as “Times and Winds,” was a story about how three children stopped being kids because of the many responsibilities that their parents thrusted upon them. Ozkan Ozen decided to kill his father because he could no longer take the maltreatment and favoritism toward his precocious brother. Elit Iscan slowly headed for breakdown because her mother insisted that she made herself useful even if the amount of schoolwork was more than enough for her to handle. And Ali Bey Kayali developed on a crush on his teacher, only to stumble on the fact that his own father was spying on her through her bedroom window. I have to be honest and state that this film was particularly difficult for me to sit through because of the many lingering shots on certain objects and sceneries. As stunning as such images were, I personally would have preferred to see more character development, dialogue and conflict among the characters. Without that emotional pull, it’s hard for me to be invested in the movie. I’m not saying that this Turkish film is not at all worth seeing, but it really is more of an acquired taste. Personally, I can withstand slow-moving pictures but this one gradually wore down my patience. The rituals that the children engaged in became a bit too redundant and I failed to see the point of it all. I also felt that the relationships among the kids weren’t established and therefore did not come together in the end. While all of them were obviously unhappy, I needed to see more commonalities among them to further observe them in multiple dimensions. Although I was able to evaluable their motivations and take note of their varying psychologies, there was still a certain detachment that did not quite dissolve as the picture went on. Written and directed by Reha Erdem, “Times and Winds” offered beautiful landscapes and a certain poetry with its tone. However, I hardly think it was strong enough to warrant a recommendation for viewers. I’m afraid this was just one of those coming-of-age films that left a bitter taste on my palate.
Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
Considered as one of the most important Spanish films, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” written and directed by Victor Erice, tells the story of a little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who, after watching the 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and being told by her sister named Isabel (Isabel Tellería) that his spirit exists, goes off to find a real-life monster. I really admired this film because the use of words was minimal yet it was more than able to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling. It truly captured how childhood was the peak of curiosity and how our perception at that point in our lives may be a bit skewed from reality. The way Ana and Isabel tell stories, play games and tricks on each other reminded me and my brother many years ago. I also liked the broken relationship between a husband (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a wife (Teresa Gimpera). Little do they know that no matter how much they try to interact with their daughters separately (or not interact), the children feel that there’s something wrong even though they do not yet know how to tackle such feelings. The awkward scene at the table when the whole family was eating together was somewhat elusive because I noticed that there was not a frame in the film that each of the family member was in. I think that divide between the two parental figures was another reason why Ana decided to plunge into her own imagination as an escape. The scenes in their big mansion of a home were painful for me to watch because there was a very noticable lack of stimulation such as books and toys for the two children. At least for me, they looked more alive when they were watching a movie in the town, while they were at school, and when they were roaming around outside. This is a very strong motion picture that should be seen by movie-lovers everywhere. However, one should be warned that it requires a lot of patience because it may get a bit slow at times due to the lack of happenings in the small village that they live in. Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding experience because it works on several angles, cinematically and psychologically.