★ / ★★★★
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.
Two Bits (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
Twelve-year-old Gennaro Spirito (Jerry Barone) was desperate to get into La Paloma, the newly-opened movie theatre in town, but he didn’t have twenty-five cents to pay for the admission ticket. Everybody seemed to not have any change to spare because of the difficult times. Even his mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) saved every bit of money they had for food in order to care for Gennaro’s ailing grandfather (Al Pacino). Inspired by young street performers, our little protagonist decided to earn the money himself by taking odd and sometimes dangerous jobs to finally get inside the newfangled cinema. Main critiques about the film was directed toward a selfish main character who only cared about raising enough money as everyone else worried about bigger things in life such as hunger and deteriorating health. I felt differently because Gennaro was just a kid. Even though he was on the cusp of being a teenager, his brain was still like that of a child’s. He fixated on one idea and couldn’t let go until he was able to grasp it. In some ways, I found his adamant nature amusing because I was able to relate to him on some level. For example, when I really want to see a certain movie, I just can’t help but think about it. No matter what I do, I find it difficult to get rid of the fantasy of finally sitting down and seeing something I’ve so been yearning for. Obviously, there’s more to life than watching motion pictures, but Gennaro’s perseverance to see a film in the movie theater was more than the obvious. Whether he was consciously aware of it or not, I believed that he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself, perhaps to share a rewarding collective experience in a dark room with strangers. Another interpretation was maybe he needed a temporary escape from his grandfather’s illness and the streets that served as his playground which was filled with people dealing with the Depression. Just because Gennaro was adamant about going to the movies, not once did I think that he didn’t love or care for his mother and grandfather. However, I did wish that the relationship between Barone and Pacino’s characters was explored in a deeper way. The adult Gennaro (narrated by Alec Baldwin) claimed that he and his grandfather had a special relationship. In the end, it still wasn’t clear to me what made their relationship so special. There were moments of genuine connection between them, like when the grandfather asked his grandson for a really big favor which might have been a bit too much to ask of our protagonist, but I didn’t feel the special element that the adult Gennaro, through a retelling of his memorable day, wanted us to experience. Written by Joseph Stefano and directed by James Foley, “Two Bits” contained some thoughtful scenes but it just felt short in achieving the magic that Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” and Victor Erice’s “El espíritu de la colmena” seemed to effortlessly possess.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) was feeling suicidal so he decided to check himself into a mental clinic. He hoped that the doctors would give him a magical quick fix for the troubles that plagued his mind. After meeting Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and several patients, he decided that it wasn’t the right place for him. But tough luck because the hospital, led by Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis), had a policy of keeping voluntary check-ins for at least five days. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, was a strangely moving coming-of-age film. We weren’t always sure whether Craig was truly clinically depressed or he was just going through the motions of being a teenager. We have different emotional tunings but we all went through a time in our lives when every single challenge seemed insurmountable, that our parents (Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan) cared more about their jobs or our siblings than they did about us, and that our friends (Zoë Kravitz , Thomas Mann) didn’t always have our backs. It was a sensitive time and we had a tendency to interpret every opportunity as a chance for failure. The hyperboles felt painful and real. The film was aware of all those factors. It had a sense of humor but it remained respectful of its subjects. Instead of going for the easy laughs like making fun of a person who happened to have schizophrenia or had suicidal tendencies, it remained focused on Craig struggles and discovery that maybe he should be thankful for being smart, talented and, indeed, even cool and charming without losing his sensitive nature. More importantly, especially since the rate of teenagers being on medication is on the rise, the movie had an important message. That is, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed once in a while. It’s better that we care about our future than to simply ride the tide. We may not like where the tide takes us. I found Gilchrist’s acting to be quite effective. In the first ten minutes, he convinced me that his character was miltidimensional without resulting to being quirky. I saw a lot of myself in him because of his proclivity to internalize everything and interpret that as some sort of strength. Both of us can at times be blind to the fact that turning to a support system is a sign of strength, too. I also enjoyed watching Galifianakis because he played a new character. Instead of being a manic five-year-old, he was solemn and more controlled yet capable of expressing devastating rage. But his bouts of rage weren’t played for laughs because the material wanted to take institutionalization and recuperation seriously. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” took its audiences through a humanistic approach in understanding Craig. His troubles may seem small to us adults (like the pressure he felt from his father’s insistence that he applied for a summer program) but we all have days when we feel like we can’t go on. But one day we just wake up and it turns out we can.
Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
Rabbit Hole (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, “Rabbit Hole” was about a couple named Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) whose son had passed away eight months ago. The two had vastly different ways of coping which caused tension between them. Becca tried to get rid of their son’s belongings while Howie desperately tried to hang onto his son’s memory by watching a video on his cell phone. Further, Becca found comfort in reconnecting with the teenager (Miles Teller) who ran over their son and Howie found common ground with another woman (Sandra Oh) who lost her son eight years ago. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” was a gut-wrenching look at a couple about to pass a critical point in their grief which could go one of two ways. They could dissolve their marriage from a lack of communication or go through the notions together and find some closure. Many elements were thrown at them and we had a chance to observe their reactions. One of the key conflicts was Becca’s sister being pregnant. On the outside, Becca was seemingly supportive like when she brought over some clothes that used to belong to her son. However, there were times when her bitterness would show and snide remarks about how her sister’s future husband, a musician, might not be fit in being a father due to financial stability. Becca didn’t want to hurt others but she did small ways because she didn’t know how to deal with her anger and guilt. Mitchell took some risks that paid off. The general tone was depressing but there were some scenes that I thought were laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) talked about kicking someone out of her house. The sense of humor did not feel out of place or inappropriate because these characters deserved some happiness in their lives. More importantly, the rapid changes in tone felt right because when someone is dealing with a great loss, various emotions, empty they may be, are amplified, sometimes reaching certain extremes. The plot may be familiar but it still managed to surprise me with its insight. I loved the scene when Becca’s mother explained to her daughter that moving on from grief was like carrying a brick in one’s pocket. When a person finally moves on, she forgets that it’s there but there comes a time when she will reach into her pocket for whatever reason and she’s reminded that it’s there. Wiest did not have very many scenes but she made the best of what she was given. Even though her character remained on the sideline, I felt like she, too, had an important story to tell. “Rabbit Hole” was emotionally exhausting but a strong picture nonetheless. It showcased why Kidman is an actor who should not be forgotten. There’s a lot of shallow talk about her face and what she did to it. I don’t care about such sensationalisms as long as she continues to make moving films like this one. The rabbit hole could be interpreted as a metaphor for depression but let’s not forget that Alice woke up from her nightmare and moved on.
Being Julia (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Julia Lambert (played brilliantly by Annette Bening) was a great theater actress. She was so great, she could not stop acting even though she was not on strage. Most people around her saw her life as nothing but glamorous and fans craved to be around her either for the fame, money, or to advance their careers. This made her bitter and depressed; not even her husband (Jeremy Irons) was sensitive enough to realize that she was overworked and on the verge of breakdown. So when she met a significantly younger American admirer (Shaun Evans) who seemed to genuinely care for her, she decided to take a risk and allowed herself to fall in love with him. I thought the movie took its time to build the rage inside of Julia and it only really started to pay off toward its halfway point. Furthermore, the appearance of Julia’s dead mentor (Michael Gambon) was a big distraction for me, especially when the film did not establish their relationship prior. Although I have to say that the second half was very engaging because we eventually saw who the characters really were and their true intentions. Despite Julia’s sometimes tiresome histrionics, I came to understand why she was angry. Everyone believed that she was on the top of her game but at the end of the day she was the one looking at herself in the mirror and noticing her age show and health deteriorate. She did not know how to deal with the fear of becoming considered as past her prime and lacking a genuine support system did not help her increasingly desperate situation. The only true person in her life was her son (Tom Sturridge–quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) but he was always away. I was in love with the scene when he knocked on her mother’s door, found her crying, and made the decision to share something really personal with her–something that even I am not sure I can share with my parents no matter how close we are. The implications in that scene were rewarding because they were open to interpretation. That scene was special because the look and feel of that scene was a nice contrast to the scenes involving the lies and deceit of showbiz. The last few scenes impressed me because it truly encapsulated Julia’s perspective–the theater was when she felt home and and the real world was just an acting class. It was so bittersweet and I finally saw how strong she was even though she could turn on and off her tears at the drop of a hat. “Being Julia,” based on the novel “Theatre” by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by István Szabó, sometimes felt elegantly cold but it was eventually able to open up and show its warmth. It had strong performances especially by Bening and Sturridge and I wished that the two had more scenes that explored the crucial mother-son relationship.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.