We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.
My Uncle Antoine (1971)
★★ / ★★★★
Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), an elderly couple without kids of their own, raised orphans Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) and Carmen (Lyne Champagne) in a snowy small town in Quebec. Uncle Antoine and Aunt Cecile made a living with their undertaking business and a general store which proved to be a popular place to hang out around Christmastime. “Mon oncle Antoine,” directed by Claude Jutra, celebrated life and mourned death but the movement from one side of the spectrum to another was only somewhat successful. The comedy sprouted from the ordinariness of daily life. We saw the story through Benoit’s eyes. We followed him as he spied on a beautiful woman (Monique Mercure) as she tried on a new corset, took up new responsibilities around the store, threw snowballs at a horse whose owner (Georges Alexander) felt obligated to give gifts to the poor, and his coming to terms with the growing attraction he had toward Carmen. The laughs weren’t especially big but what mattered was the aforementioned events held importance from Benoit’s childhood. Through Benoit’s experiences, we learned about the close-knit community and the unhappiness simmering just above the surface. However, I found it strange that the relationship between Benoit and his uncle wasn’t at the focus of the picture up until the last thirty minutes. They mostly spent time apart and when they did occupy the same room, they shared no meaningful conversation. When the uncle finally opened up to Benoit while in a drunken state, it felt forced. I wasn’t moved. I was more concerned about the beautiful chilly cinematography and the way the shadows were brilliantly placed on the characters’ faces. That detachment I felt was a signal that the relationship remained between uncle and nephew. There was no transition that highlighted the idea that the story may have very well had been about father and son. What the director did best was placing us in Benoit’s shoes as he experienced intense emotions. When Uncle Antoine took him along to pick up a boy’s dead body, we felt his anxiety in the way he looked at a door that was slightly ajar. It was an ordinary door but the way Benoit looked at it with fear made the door seem like a division between the land of the living, the kitchen where the family members gathered, and the land of the dead, the bedroom where the body waited under the covers. “Mon oncle Antoine” requires great patience. There were, without a doubt, rewarding scenes but the lack of key transitions between relationships left me off-guard in a negative way.
★ / ★★★★
A planet named Melancholia, about twice or thrice the size of Earth, was discovered to have been hiding behind the sun and was on its way toward us. Meanwhile, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) were newly married, left the church, and encountered limousine problems. Consequently, they were very late to their own party which reduced Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, and John (Keifer Sutherland), Claire’s husband, barely containing their frustration. The guests had been waiting for the couple to arrive for over two hours. Although Justine had a smile on her face throughout the party, much of her energy was spent trying to keep her major depression hidden. “Melancholia” astounded me in the worst ways possible. Did the end of the world montage prior to the title card needed to be so pretentious? For what felt like eternity, several characters, one curiously observing electricity coming out of her fingers, consistently occupied gorgeous backdrops but everything was in painful slow motion as the orchestra bombarded our eardrums, urging us that we were watching something epic. On the contrary, I found the sequence completely unnecessary not only because it was trying too hard to impress, but because it extirpated our feelings of anticipation. By confirming that Melancholia would eventually hit our beloved planet, I didn’t feel horror or suspense with or for the characters as they eventually faced the reality that they’d been given. Regardless, I enjoyed select scenes during the wedding party. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) was fascinating as an aging woman who despised marriage, its rituals, and the confines it set for its participants. As she moped about in the restroom–darkly amusing because it gave John, only caring about how much he’d spent in order to throw a lavish party for the bride, intense rage–and stood bitterly in the corner while everyone celebrated, I was desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, as Justine’s depression became more unbearable for her, nearly everyone treated her even worse, somehow convinced that she was just being selfish. Justine’s family knew about her condition. It didn’t make sense why they weren’t more understanding especially since it was one of the most important days of her life. If the writer-director, Lars von Trier, had given us more background information about Justine’s relationship with her family, their cold disregard for her could have made sense. Since the screenplay didn’t allow us to understand in which angle each important family member was coming from, whether the sentiment was good or bad, I wondered why they even bothered to show up for the wedding. Halfway through, the film changed perspective. Instead of Justine’s crippling depression, it focused more on Claire’s increasing trepidation of dying. She obsessively checked the telescope and I cared less each time. I began to think about how other people from different cultures and different classes, maybe those who lived in the flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, saw the apocalypse. “Melancholia” was plagued with symbols of depression and doom but they had very little impact. I found myself needing to take Prozac because I began to feel depressed, not because of its subject matter but because I started to suspect that von Trier was eventually blasé with his work. For a movie that contained two planets–and sisters–colliding, it was insipid and, ironically, prosaic.
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.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of co-workers were on their way to a retreat that would supposedly help them become a better team. But when Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) was somehow able to see the future involving the collapse of the suspension bridge their bus was on as well as the deaths of his colleagues, he grabbed his girlfriend, Molly (Emma Bell), got off the vehicle in a panic, and a walked away from the impending disaster. Gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe), lubricious Isaac (P.J. Byrne), myopic Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), patient Nathan (Arien Escarpeta), whistleblower Dennis (David Koechner), and mercurial Peter (Miles Fisher) followed paranoid Sam to safety. Sure enough, the survivors, dubbed “Lucky 8” by the news, started to die in the order in which they were supposed to on that bridge. Written by Eric Heisserer and Jeffrey Reddick, “Final Destination 5” was like its other sequels with one scintillating detail. Bludworth (Tony Todd), a recurring character in the series as a mysterious coroner, informed Sam and his friends on how to quench Death’s thirst. With this knowledge in mind, we got to observe, at least in the latter half of the film, how the characters turned against each other, as well as possibly forcing strangers into the mix, because they wanted to live. Yet even when we were presented with a solution, the execution wasn’t strong enough. This could be partly attributed to a weakly established protagonist with a motivation as shallow as a dog’s. After each death scene, the picture relegated to the hackneyed romance between Sam and Molly. During the first scene, the Molly broke up with Sam. Naturally, the latter was very confused because, at least from his point of view, everything seemed to be going well. Later, we came to discover that she felt she needed to break the relationship for Sam. It turned out that her ex-boyfriend was offered an internship as a chef in Paris, but he wouldn’t accept it if Molly was to remain in America. The romance was not only a sophomoric attempt to get us to care, such scenes slowed down the picture’s momentum immensely. They were good at pouting and giving each other puppy dog eyes but none of these qualities contributed to the horror and the suspense. Why must there always be a couple fighting for their love in just about every other horror movie? If it’s not necessary, it’s an easy way to fill up the minutes with junk. What I wanted to see were more scenes that built up to one character inevitably meeting his or her grizzly demise. There was a dark sense of humor in the deaths. I especially liked the massage parlor with the acupuncture needles and the LASIK surgery scenes. They got under my skin, in a good way, because I have a fear of allowing someone else, like a masseuse or an eye surgeon, to be in charge of my body. Range was also present. Some deaths were quick and painless (only appearing to be painful with all that blood on the floor) while some were slow and almost unimaginable. Directed by Steven Quale, “Final Destination 5” was forebodingly formulaic but the deaths contained enough imagination. If the romance was completely excised in place of the main character actually doing something relevant to stay alive, it would have been more exciting.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Life as We Know It (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel), complete strangers to one another, were supposed to go out for dinner because their married best friends thought they would get along swimmingly. But they called it quits before they even reached the restaurant. Holly thought Eric was a child trapped in a handsome man’s body, while Eric thought Holly was a pretty but uptight blonde who had no idea how to let her hair down for a change. But when their best friends died in a car accident, they were named as one-year-old Sophie’s guardians. Holly and Eric had to try to put their differences aside to take care of the baby. “Life as We Know It,” written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, were labeled by some critics as emotionally bankrupt because it used death as a source of commercial comedy. I’d have to disagree; plenty of films out there, especially dark comedies, have used the same topic and they received critical acclaim. I say why not as long as the film retained a certain level of respect. The movie didn’t feel malicious toward its subjects. The characters may have felt more like caricatures at times but, in general, it had a bona fide sense of humor. I just wish it had stayed away from too many gross-out humor involving vomit and changing diapers. Two or three of those scenes were more than enough but we were given about seven. The heart of the picture was Holly and Eric’s strained relationship. They tolerated each other but they obviously didn’t like each other. They were so used to having their way because they were single. The only thing they had to focus on was their career. Holly ran a business as a caterer (typically feminine) and Eric worked behind the scenes in a sports network (typically masculine). The story was most interesting when it focused on how they tried to change themselves and each other as they hoped to raise a healthy child. They had to break their typical feminine and masculine roles in order to be well-rounded parents. Their various approaches to parenting were rarely perfect–certain decisions were downright stupid like Eric leaving a baby to a cab driver just so he could go to work–but that was what made them charming. Through trial-and-error, they learned from their mistakes. Another source of conflict was the romance between Sam (Josh Lucas) and Holly. They should have had more scenes together instead of the unfunny scenes with the colorful neighbors (Melissa McCarthy) and the nosy Child Protection Services agent (Sarah Burns). We saw that they cared for each other but their situation was far from optimum. Holly was in a critical state of transition while Sam was ready to settle down. I was glad there wasn’t a typical rivalry between the two men in Holly’s life. “Life as We Know It,” directed by Greg Berlanti, had good elements but it was ultimately weighed down by too many slapstick humor and heavy-handed metaphor such as Holly’s business expansion reflecting Holly, Eric, and Sophie’s life at home. It could have been stronger if the writers eliminated comfortable but unnecessary clichés and taken more risks.
Get Low (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
A reclusive man named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) retreated into the Tennessee woods forty years ago for an unknown reason. Friends didn’t visit him, he never had a family, and the people in town either looked down on or were completely afraid of him. Nasty gossip such as Felix being a cold-blooded killer was the talk of the town. His only companion was a mule. It was rightly so because he was as stubborn as. After decades of being a hermit, he walked into a funeral parlor led by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant (Lucas Black). Felix said he wanted to throw a funeral party for himself. He wanted to hear the many colorful stories people heard about him over the years. In order to attract people, there was to be a raffle after the party and whoever’s ticket was chosen would own Felix’ acres of land when he died. Half the fun of the film was watching Duvall and Murray interact. Duvall is an expert in playing mysterious characters but with surprising amount of heart. His interactions with his former lover’s sister (Sissy Spacek) were tender, sometimes strained, but consistently interesting. Their first scene together was surprising because even though it was the first one they shared, I already felt like there was a history between them. The actors managed to express a handful of emotions without necessarily talking about them. On the other hand, Murray’s blank expressions and deadpan delivery of his lines made up the bulk of the humor. Frank wasn’t happy because not enough people were dying in town so he was so desperate in keeping Felix as his client despite his customer’s many strange requests. Was he only motivated by the vast amount of money he would eventually earn? Another key figure was Frank’s assistant named Buddy. He was like a son that Felix never had. They were strangers to each other and they never did get close as one would consider them friends, but there was something beautiful and touching about the way Felix learned to open up to someone else other than his mule. Maybe our protagonist saw a bit of himself, back when he still had his youth, on the honorable and well-meaning assistant. But the most powerful aspect of the film was the hermit’s speech during his funeral party. In ten minutes, he started from being the joke of the town to someone who everyone should be able to sympathize with. “Get Low,” directed by Aaron Schneider, tackled serious issues like death, aging, and guilt with glee and eccentricity yet it successfully maintained a certain level of respect so the issues and the characters were never the punchline. The funny moments were in the way the characters responded to the ridiculous beauty that life sometimes offers.
The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.
Lake Mungo (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
While swimming in a local dam with her family, Alice (Talia Zucker) was suddenly nowhere to be seen. After calling the proper authorities, a search began while the Palmer family anxiously waited for the grim news. Soon enough, Alice’s body was found. But that was just the beginning. Two days after Alice was buried, strange things began to occur around the house. The brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), heard strange noises coming from the room of the deceased. The father, Russell (David Pledger), claimed that he saw his daughter going about her business as if nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, the mother, June (Rosie Traynor), had nightmares that there was a spirit in the house. Written and directed by Joel Anderson, “Lake Mungo” was a well-made faux-documentary about a family in grief who genuinely believed that there was a ghost in their home. Since the ominous presence was palpable, the family decided to set up cameras around the house to capture, if any, the entity that they felt was there. Naturally, comparison’s between “Lake Mungo” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” could not be helped because both had somewhat similar styles. However, I preferred this film in terms of realism because no one, like a possessed person, directly looked into camera and attempted to scare the viewers. It was straight-faced all the way through; there were no cheap punches designed to remind us that since what we were observing was scary, it meant that we were getting our money’s worth. I was completely in the moment. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but every time the camera zoomed in on a paused video footage which contained a (mostly blurry) ghostly figure in the background, my heart rate went up as I held my breath in anticipation. But the film wasn’t just about Palmer family being haunted by an inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. The second half was revealed to be about the secrets that Alice kept from her family and how, sadly, no one really knew who she really was when she passed away. The writer-director’s decision to change gears half-way through was a smart and brave move especially within the confines of the newly revived found footage subgenre. There was a natural flow in the way we learned about literal ghost that appeared in house. Initially, it was mild curiosity; then it was meticulously creepy; finally, it was unexpectedly terrifying. The other kind of ghost, our memories of a loved one when they’re no longer with us, was explored in a meaningful way. Interestingly enough, if the scenes when we were given a chance to see Alice’s ghost were taken out completely, it would still be a strong story of a family trying to cope and move on. That’s what a look for in a good movie: If I can take out one crucial strand and it doesn’t fall apart, I know that it has something special. “Lake Mungo” had many tricks up its sleeve. It challenged us to wade through the truths, lies, and possibilities. Though its budget was limited, it didn’t feel cheap because it understood universal emotions like fear and mourning.
★★★ / ★★★★
Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), while on a business trip to Macau, became sick. She returned home thinking that what she had was a common case of cold. Within two days, she died. So did her son. This left Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, shaken with disbelief–that a few coughs and sniffles could destroy his family. But what Beth had wasn’t typical. Within a couple of days, health organizations from all over the world realized that what caused Beth’s death was a virulent virus that had the capability to invade its host’s respiratory and central nervous systems. And it was spreading at an exponential rate. “Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was at its best when it was coldly calculating. Such a tone was prevalent in the first half and it was appropriate because viruses don’t discern between good and bad people. It was simple: we observed a human being develop the symptoms of the fatal disease and he or she died within a couple of minutes after we met them. Then it was onto the next victim. It was scary, mysterious, and real. The director juggled different characters, scientists and civilians, with relative ease. There was Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who worked for the CDC whose confidence relied on a plan of attack that worked in the past. But this was a different breed of disease and it was mutating at such a rapid pace. We observed this man’s confidence crumble which happened to be parallel to society’s laws and regulations slowly being thrown out the window. With people not getting enough answers and becoming more terrified each day, they had to lie, steal, and kill to survive. And such actions were not limited to civilians. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was Mr. Krumwiede (Jude Law), a sort-of journalist/blogger who led a popular website, who claimed that the government didn’t want people to know the truth. In some ways, he was right despite his fear mongering. For me, while watching the film, the main source of drama wasn’t in the fact that I became more paranoid of germs as it went on. I know that there are “good” germs that protect us from “bad” germs; that our bodies rely on select foreign organisms to function well. What piqued my curiosity was the struggle between figures who wanted to keep things hush-hush, like Dr. Cheever, and those who wanted to reveal information, even without proper scientific research, like Mr. Krumwiede. I was left in the middle and, as it turned out, I found myself caring most about people who ended up confused but tried their best to make it through just one more day, like Mitch and his daughter. Despite the film using a lot of foreign-sounding words like “pleomorphic,” “encephalitis,” and “immunoglobulin domains,” which not everyone had to understand to realize that something bad was happening, the picture had a heart. Notice that the director always reverted to Mitch and his struggle to keep his daughter safe from the virus. Although still interesting, “Contagion” lost a bit of momentum in its second half. But all is forgiven because no one turned into a zombie.
Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) had a passion for sailing and was a great role model for his younger brother named Sam (Charlie Tahan). On the night of Charlie’s graduation, their mom (Kim Basinger) took an extra shift at work so Charlie was assigned to babysit. Wanting to say goodbye to his friends before they head off to the army (one of which was played by Dave Franco), Charlie and Sam got into a car accident on the way to the party. Charlie was revived by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) but Sam passed away right after impact. I highly enjoyed the first half of the picture. Watching the two brothers was moving for me because I’ve always wanted a brother who was around eight years younger than I am so I could guide him to be the best person he can be and not make the same mistakes as I did. Efron did a good job playing a character who was so deep in grief to the point where he gave up his scholarship to Stanford and instead worked in a cemetery for five years since the tragic incident. Since the brothers made a pact to meet every day to practice baseball, Charlie couldn’t find it in himself to break that promise. I thought it was Efron’s best adult performance up to this point. Unfortunately, the film pulled a twist somewhere in the middle that threw logic out the window. I am aware that it wasn’t completely the filmmakers’ fault because it was based on Ben Sherwood’s novel called “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” but I think changes from the original story should have come into play. After the twist was revealed, I thought the whole situation was just creepy and could have been a mediocre episode of “The X-Files” at best. Another issue I had with the movie was the fact that it showed Charlie and the ghost of Sam separately in some scenes. I thought that was a big mistake made by the filmmakers because the ghost was supposed to be a metaphor for Charlie’s grief and the fact that he blamed himself for the car crash. Every meeting was supposed to be an exercise of mirroring Charlie’s grief onto himself. To show the two apart suggested that the ghost actually existed. “Charlie St. Cloud,” directed by Burr Steers, sometimes verged on melodrama but I liked the performances in general. However, I wish Basinger had more scenes as the mother and Liotta as a dying ex-paramedic. Their experience in acting and strong cinematic presence could have benefited the picture in terms of tying together some loose ends. For instance, why did the mother move away and left her obviously troubled son to work at a place where his younger brother was buried? The best dramas are all about details. I couldn’t help but feel as though this movie took a more convenient path.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.