Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The documentary opened as it showed three eight-year-old boys’ naked and mutilated bodies in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. The main suspects were three teenagers (Jessie Misskelly Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols) who were labeled as devil worshippers by their community because they liked to wear black and listen to death metal music. I found this film scary not because of the suspects actually being into satanism (I believe they were curious about it but weren’t actually engaged in its practice) but because of the community willing to put the teens in jail for life (or even put to death) for the sole reason that they needed someone to blame. Since word-of-mouth and the media labeled the suspects as satanists, the jury became blind to the cold hard facts. For instance, they failed to put into account that Misskelly had an I.Q. of 72 and being cornered by the police’s leading questions would most likely result in a forced confession in hopes that the problem would “go away” as soon as possible. I’m assuming that since the jury did not have sufficient background with people who were mentally challenged, they couldn’t fully understand that the confession should be taken with great consideration. Furthermore, the lack of physical evidence was staggering. Since the victims were buldgeoned beyond recognition, I found it unsettling that blood was not found at the scene of the crime. No murder weapon was found aside from a knife conveniently found by the cops in a lake. A strange man with blood all over him was found by a pub owner at the night of the murder but the police didn’t bother to show up to investigate. I suspected foul play. If I was on that jury, there was no way I could have passed a guilty verdict on my part because so many things from the prosecutor’s side did not fit together. What I believe is that the community needed an easy, immediate answer. In the end, we don’t know for sure who murdered the children. It could have been the three teens. It could have been a family member of one of the kids. It could have been a serial killer who happened to pass by West Memphis that night. We don’t know. But what I know is that evil was committed in the community by means of injustice in the legal system. If the case was tried somewhere else, I strongly believe that the outcome would have been different for Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols. I may have sided with the defense on this case but what I admired most was that the film spent equal time with both sides. I understood the bereaved parents’ anger toward the three demonized teenagers. They claimed they wanted to kill the suspects or hurt them in some way. I didn’t blame them for it because if I were in their situation, I would most likely feel the same. “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, is an excellent documentary about skepticism and how powerful it can become if one is willing to listen and look beyond the obvious answers.
The Joneses (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The Joneses (David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard) moved into a wealthy neighborhood and quickly integrated in their community. But the Joneses, unlike their name, was no ordinary family. To be honest, I instantly felt like there was something very wrong about them from the first scene when we spent a bit of time with the family in their fancy car. The Joneses seemed like they had it all: the big house, the expensive cars, the hi-tech gadgets, and the designer clothes. Everyone was in awe of them and everyone wanted to have what the Joneses had. I enjoyed how this film was able to construct an argument regarding how materialism was able to drive the American culture forward but at the same time it served as a catalyst toward bankruptcy. I also liked that it touched upon the difference between selling “stuff” and selling an attitude. There’s a subtle difference and sometimes it’s difficult to discern between the two. The fashion industry mastered the difference between the two and that’s why it’s a successful business. Furthermore, writer-director Derrick Borte looked beyond the satire and actually worked on the film’s heart by allowing the head of the household to develop a conscience. There was no doubt that he saw the errors of his ways but it was nice to see his struggle between what made him happy and the right thing to do. Duchovny did a great job in allowing me to understand his character but at the same time not pitying him. “The Joneses” succeeded in getting their audiences to become active participants in its little experiment. Since it had laser-focus in exploring our consumer culture, I thought about myself and my role in advertising certain products. In fact, I’m doing it right now as I recommend this movie. That self-awareness worked in the picture’s advantage. I had fun watching it because I was able to relate it in real life. We all know some jealous neighbors or relatives or even friends who can’t help but give us angry looks (but with a smile) when we have something new. And the next time we see the sour apples, they ended up buying that new thing they saw that we had last week. However, I wish the film could have been a little darker to go along with its edge. Toward the end, it became too sweet. I understood why Borte thought it was necessary to lighten things up because some of the miserable characters needed some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, but the way he executed the ending touched upon the typical romantic comedy territory. Some of the film’s power was lost and instead of ending with a roar, it ended with a squeal. Neverthless, “The Joneses” is worth seeing because it was rich in creativity and irony.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A seventeen-year-old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) had to take care of her younger brother and sister (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson) because their mother had reached a mental breakdown and therefore could not take care of them. Their situation turned for the worse when their father, who recently spent time in prison for making illicit drugs, skipped bail and put their house as collateral. With nowhere to go and not knowing what to do, the eldest child started asking her relatives about the whereabouts of the father but no one was willing to come forward and divulge information. When you live in a metropolitan area in America, it is easy to forget people like Ree and her family who had to cope with extreme poverty. As heartbreaking to see the children suffering from not having enough food day in and day out, I admired that the film did not rely on pity to tell a compelling story. The material had a defined understanding behind the meaning of this family’s specific circumstance. Ree was probably one of the bravest film characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. I immediately rooted for her because of the way she, if necessary, put herself in harm’s way so that she would be able to continue the already difficult task of raising a family. She was smart, resourceful, and determined but those were not positive attributes from the perspective of a community that used drugs to make a living. Even though the many families in question had a strict code of silence that prevented Ree from arriving at certain truths, I did not hate them because I knew that they had to look out for their own survival as well. Like Ree, they, too, had families. Two key supporting characters were the intimidating uncle named Teardrop (John Hawkes) and an older but strong woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). The most touching moments were the simple ones. When Ree interacted with her brother and sister, such as teaching them how to shoot a gun or how to skin a squirrel, there was so much love even though their living conditions were far less than ideal. The kids looked up to her and they should because their big sister constantly tried to set a great example. One of the most memorable scenes was when Ree tried to enlist in the army. Lawrence did a fantastic performance especially in that scene because I felt beyond her pain and desperation. I also felt her fear of getting into something that she was not quite sure was truly about. Written and directed by Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” painted a memorable portrait of people living in rural America. It showed that sometimes the smart decision is not necessarily the right one.
Sex Positive (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Prior to this film, I didn’t know who Richard Berkowitz was. I decided to watch the documentary because I’m always interested in learning more about diseases and their impact in society. In “Sex Positive,” directed by Daryl Wein, the focus was on Berkowitz’ contribution in promoting safe sex in order to protect everyone, especially the members of the gay community, from transmitting different factors that could promote AIDS. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the credit he deserved. What I enjoyed about this movie was it was essentially about activists of the LGBT community disagreeing about elements of a certain issue–the mechanisms regarding how one can get the infection, prevention, and the relationship between promiscuity and the epidemic. Most of the documentaries I’ve seen about AIDS and homosexuality were from heterosexuals’ perspective so it was a nice to observe and listen to the issue from a different angle. The documentary felt personal and sometimes too revealing because we got to learn about Berkowitz’ sexual history. There were some outtakes in which he was reluctant to talk about his history with S&M because he wanted to focus on the issue of activism and promoting health. Those outtakes were important for me to see because it showed me that Berkowitz was more than hustler. He deeply cared about his community and he was willing to go great lengths in promoting safe sex, sex positivism, which was the middle-ground between two camps: anti-sex (celibacy) and pro-sex (sex without using protection at all). He also highlighted the roles of our choices and our personal responsibilities in terms of sex, that our lives are in our hands and we should always be aware of the consequences. However, I thought the documentary was a little too short and too quick with the facts. Specifically, I wanted to know more about progress (if any) of promoting safe sex in the late 80’s. I felt as though the movie only covered the early 80’s up and the early 90’s. I also wanted to know more about the papers Berkowitz published about sex and the LGBT community while he was in college although the movie did spotlight the fascinating pamphlet “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” Toward the end, Berkowitz providing insight by revealing certain statistics was simply icing on the cake. “Sex Positive” is a solid documentary with a very interesting subject and I highly recommend it. I just think it needed an extra thirty to forty minutes to develop some ideas so it wouldn’t have felt as rushed.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Roald Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” directed by Wes Anderson, told the story of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who promised his wife (Meryl Streep) that he would stop stealing food from farmers when she told him that she was carrying a child. Twelve years later, right around the visit of Mrs. Fox’ nephew (Eric Chase Anderson), Mr. Fox felt the need to return to his schemes and eventually got his entire animal community into trouble. The first thiry minutes of this animated film was strong. I was amused with the scenes involving Mr. Fox sneaking into the farmers’ respective lands and facing different and fun challenges. I also liked the scenes that highlighted the insecurities of Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Mr. and Mrs. Fox’ son, when he would often compare himself to his cousin, especially in terms of physicality and athleticism. Those were enjoyable because it had a certain energy and excitement so I couldn’t help but look forward to what would happen next. Unfortunately, like in most of Anderson’s work, the movie began to run out of fuel past the forty-minute mark. When the animals were forced to live underground, the picture felt like it didn’t know where it was going and random references to other films started popping up like the plague. The attempts for dry humor were unoriginal and I could feel the material’s desperation to get any kind of laugh. Despite many things happening at the same, unlike the first third of the film, the material no longer felt fresh. It lost intelligence, tenderness and spark. In fact, the characters started to blend amongst one another. As a result, I merely saw the animals as pests instead of creatures that supposed to reflect us humans. While I thought the animation was interesting to look at (and I did embrace its flaws), the way the story unfolded wasn’t strong enough to get me to care for the characters. Quirkiness could only get a movie so far and unfortunately, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” relied too much on the superficial. Other actors who contributed their voices include Bill Murray, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. However, I didn’t recognize their voices because the picture was too busy trying to deal with the conflict between the animals and humans to the point where it didn’t have enough time to take a minute and convince us why we should care. For all I care, the big names’ voices could have been played by unknowns and it wouldn’t have made a difference. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” received a lot of comparisons with Pixar movies. However, I think Pixar films are much more effective because they are aware of the fact that since we’re not seeing human faces, they highlight the animated characters’ human characteristics to lure us and, more importantly, keep our attention. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” managed to lure me but it didn’t keep me interested.
★★★ / ★★★★
Several people’s lives in a multicultural, post-911 Los Angeles collide in Paul Higgins’ racial issue drama. I distinctly remember watching this movie for the first time back in high school and I was riveted because there was a certain honestly in its portayal of a very diverse community but the people in the community didn’t quite accept each other. Having been raised in a place where diversity was abound, I thought “Crash” was multidimensional and it managed to avoid some traps concerning movies about characters turning out to be connected to each other in several respects. I still don’t believe “Crash” should have won over “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture, but the film was solid because it clearly set up an argument. That is, racism is a part of us and just because we project that ugliness to the world from time to time, it doesn’t mean that we are not capable of good or that we or not capable of changing. My main problem with the movie was it had too many characters and not all of them were fully explored. I thought the ones that worked were Sandra Bullock as a politician’s (Brendan Fraser) wife who was traumatized after a night out in the city, Ryan Phillippe as a cop looking for redemption, Matt Dillon as a cop dealing with his father’s health, and Thandie Newton as a Hollywood director’s (Terrence Howard) wife who was disgusted with the way her husband dealt with the situation after she was sexually harrassed. Side stories like Don Cheadle’s strained relationship with his mother and Ludacris running around stealing cars, as good as they were in their roles, weren’t at the same caliber and intensity as the others. Those unnecessary scenes held the movie back in terms of pacing and focus; they just didn’t hold my attention and I found myself standing up and taking a bathroom break during those scenes. Furthermore, I thought the ending didn’t quite stay true to the tone of the picture. I enjoyed that some characters went through drastic changes while others didn’t change at all, but the ending was borderline silly. Instead of pushing me to ponder over the images and the dialogues that I just saw and heard, it took me out of the experience and I felt a bit emotionally cheated. However, “Crash” is one of the better movies about racism because it wasn’t afraid to address certain issues head-on (such as being a light-skinned African-American versus being dark-skinned) and to show that there is more to a person than what comes out from his or her mouth. I suppose with a movie like this that tries to tackle very controversial issues, we always feel like it missed something or that there wasn’t enough deep exploration in terms of character development. But for what it’s worth, I think it managed to be right on target for most of its running time.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Real Women Have Curves,” directed by Patricia Cardoso, was about a smart Mexican-American teenager (America Ferrera) who wanted to go live her life by seeing the world and getting the best education she can but couldn’t because her family and the family business needed her at home. I thought this movie was very accurate in portraying a person who was capable of so much but was often limited by family responsibilities. I knew people like Ferrera’s character back in high school and I think this movie was great at showcasing someone who was torn between what a teenager wanted to accomplish and what a teenager expected to accomplish. One of the main driving forces of the film was Ferrera’s relationship with her mother (Lupe Ontiveros) who was as dramatic as the characters she watched in her soap operas–which made me laugh because she reminded me of my mom and her Filipino soap operas–and her extremely hardworking sister (Ingrid Oliu) with a surprising amount of depth and heart. The way the three women interacted with each other was fascinating because although their interests often collided, there was a certain level of respect and love that was always present. I also found Ferrera’s connection with her teacher (George Lopez), who pushed her to apply to Columbia University, and a romantic interest (Brian Sites) interesting but they were a bit underdeveloped. With a running time of less than an hour and thirty minutes, that was expected but the picture would have been stronger if those elements were fully realized. After all, as much as the movie was about family, it was also about Ferrera’s struggle to want to reach outside of her community. I found it easy to relate with this movie because I also wanted to see things outside of my Filipino community back when I recently immigrated to America when I was eleven. Although my parents were not strict about sticking to our roots, there were some little things that caused tension between us that were directly related to our culture. I was impressed with “Real Women Have Curves” because it was a solid coming-of-age story that seemed to tackle multiple subjects at once including important issues like body image and self-esteem. There was a hilarious scene in the sewing shop that involved women comparing the amount of fat they had in their bodies. That dose of reality was refreshing to see especially when teen movies nowadays always feature teenage characters who are built and/or skinny but are not at all smart and/or sensitive. And if they were portrayed as smart and/or sensitive, most movies directed for teens felt forced and superficial. But in this picture, it felt genuine and that much more powerful.
★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay star in “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick, as four Jewish brothers who escape from the place where they used to live due to the implementation of the Final Solution. The four seek refuge in the forest as they welcome (though at times reluctantly) other Jewish people. Soon, they become a community; and as with all new communities, problems ensue such as rationing of food, who deserves what, what is allowed and what is not, who the leader should be and so on. Although the audiences get a lot of scenes when the Germans attack the Jews and vice-versa, I really could care less about those scenes. I was actually more interested in the dynamics within the small community such as the differing ways of leadership between Craig and Schreiber. While I found it difficult to align myself with one or the other, I thought it was great because I was engaged with what was going on as well as surprised when they would suddenly change their stance regarding a particular issue. I also liked the scenes when everyone would starve and get diseases in the dead of winter. It’s not that I like watching people suffer but it’s more about being concerned and wondering who will make it in the end and who wouldn’t. Although this was inspired by a true story, admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Bielski brothers so I didn’t know how it would end. What prevents me from giving this film a recommendation is that it all too often becomes generic. With such a unique subject matter, I feel like it took the safer route in order to appeal to wider audiences. It also had too many fighting scenes when it really didn’t need to because it already has a poignant story to tell. Still, there’s some scenes worth seeing here such as when Zwick showed that people are people–that is, monstrosity can be committed by both the Germans and the Jews. I wish this had been a much stronger film because it really is important to recognize what the Bielski brothers have done for the Jewish community. But perhaps the gesture is enough.