★★★ / ★★★★
Three college students (Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers, Emma Bell) decided to go snowboarding in the mountains. They didn’t have enough money so the girl had to flirt with the conductor of the chairlift (Ed Wackerman) in order for them to gain admittance. During the trip, there was a lot of growing tension between Lynch and his best friend’s girlfriend because Lynch felt like the trip should have been more about bonding with Dan instead of teaching Parker how to snowboard. Eventually, their luck turned against them when the trio found themselves stuck in chairlift while on their way up the mountain for a final run. I enjoyed “Frozen,” mostly in parts, because it was able to take something as simple as sitting on a chairlift and making it a horrifying experience. It played upon what most people are afraid of: heights, freezing to death, and being eaten alive. As grim as their situation was, I was glad that it had unintentional laughs and some uncomfortable chuckles, such as when Parker couldn’t help but scratch the frostbite on her face, in order to break some of the tension. With situational horror pictures like this, it’s too easy to get caught up in being one-note because the filmmakers, especially independent projects, want their work to be taken seriously. There were some gross-out moments like when Parker woke up, found her hand stuck on the safety rail, and had to peel it away slowly. It was messy, bloody and worthy of every flinch it got from me. However, I wished the characters were smarter. One of them decided to jump off the chairlift early on. Naturally, we knew it wasn’t going to work because it was too early in the movie for the solution to be handed to us. Regardless, I kept asking why the character felt the need to jump when there were other options they could have tried prior. There was one solution I came up with which was not used in the film (but it did come close). If one of the three had been a Physics student, they probably would have thought about unscrewing the chairlift from its support and used it to break their fall. There was a chance they could still get hurt, but it beats foolishly jumping off and breaking one’s bones. Nevertheless, I admired the film’s simplicity. There was no serial killer so it felt believable. It was a battle between man and nature. I felt that with each passing minute, the characters’ desperation became that much more intense. There were some questionable logic (like none of the three was ever thirsty) but those could easily be overlooked by most audiences. Maybe on their next trip (assuming there is a next one), Dan, Lynch and Parker could put their destination on their Facebook status. That way, if they didn’t show up for class, people who cared about them would know where to look.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Madeo” or “Mother,” directed by Joon-ho Bong, told the story of a mother (Hye-ja Kim) who would do anything to prove her son’s innocence (Bin Won) regarding a schoolgirl’s cold-blooded murder. Realizing that the police was not at all motivated to look into the case a little deeper, the mother did her own investigation about who the real killer was. Her first suspect was her son’s ruffian of a friend (Ku Jin). The look of the movie grabbed me instantaneously. There was something very poetic about the background imagery and the way it sometimes highlighted a character’s state of mind. My favorite scenes to look at were the shots taken outdoors when the mother was one with nature accompanied by music perfect for exotic dancing. Those scenes moved me because, as beautiful as the images were, my focus was on the mother’s facial expressions and body movements. By intently looking at her, I couldn’t help but feel her frustration, desperation and guilt. I am not quite sure that the picture started off well. The first twenty minutes felt like it was all over the place and I did not understand where the film wanted to go. However, it found its identity when the mother decided that she was going to perform her own detective work, specifically when she broke into someone’s home and found (what she believed was) a piece of evidence. I couldn’t help but care for her because she looked so frail and, more importantly, her unwavering conviction that her son was innocent. The last thing I wanted to see was her to be pushed around because she already looked as if she was defeated. I loved how the director framed the idea of truth and let it evolve naturally. Certain truths were true at a specific moment in time but then they changed five minutes later as new pieces of the puzzle were introduced. As a result, the movie was unpredictable and I was constantly questioning whether the mother was truly on the right path to earn her son’s freedom. The last few minutes were full of emotion. I was impressed with the way Bong dealt with the complexities of each emotion as the characters tried to deal with the final hand they were given. “Mother” is the kind of movie that is difficult to place under one genre. There were times when I thought it was a comedy (the beginning), a thriller (the middle), and a drama (the ending). It’s not the kind of movie that everyone will necessarily enjoy because the tone is vastly different compared to more mainstream projects. But what I can say for sure is that I thought the film was a rich morality story and a joy to watch.
The Book of Eli (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Book of Eli” was about a man (Denzel Washington) whose goal was to protect a book and journey toward the west of post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, he met a friend named Solara (Mila Kunis) who was enslaved by a power-hungry leader (Gary Oldman) in desperate search for the very same book that the mysterious man held. The picture started off strong and it immediately looked great. I believed that I was really looking at a world so ravaged by starvation, desperation and a lack of ethical and moral conduct. It reminded me of John Hillcoat’s “The Road” in terms of its tone and sadness elicited by the gray environment. Unfortunately, the middle section felt interminable and it lacked a sense of isolation that the first twenty to thirty minutes had. It was painfully obvious that the film tried to establish a contrast between Washington and Oldman’s characters. For a movie about faith and retaining that faith against all odds, the easy answers came quick so the material ultimately lacked subtlety and I slowly lost interest over time. As for the action sequences, they came few and far between but only one stood out to me. I was impressed with the almost western-like stand-off in and out of the house of an old couple (Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon) who happened to be cannibals. I wished more action sequences were similar to that scene in terms of tension and delivering dynamic (sometimes awkward) camera angles. Furthermore, I craved more interactions between the protagonists and the couple who offered them human meat to eat as a meal. There was something very sinister during that part of the film but at the same time it felt darkly comic. It would have been nice if Washington and Kunis forced themselves to eat the human flesh just as they felt forced to drink the tea offered to them prior. At the end of the day “The Book of Eli,” directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, blended into other more recent post-apocalyptic movies with religion as an undercurrent instead of standing out via using similar works as templates to avoid making similar mistakes. I would have liked the movie a lot more if it offered us answers that were vague but surely make us think like haunting ending that Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” had. I just wanted to be challenged instead of spoon-fed.
The Informant! (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) had it all: a stable job that paid well, a loving family, a huge home, and absolutely no drama in his life. But his ambition and greed got the best of him and decided that he was going to accuse his company of embezzlement. He just didn’t want to be near the top of the pyramid, he wanted to be at the peak. Somehow, in his mind, he had this idea that if he could take down everyone who was in a higher position than him in the company, he would end up running the whole place. He was logical on the surface but his logic’s core was seriously flawed so he was a fascinating specimen for me to observe from a psychological point of view. “The Informant!,” based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was a hilarious look at a man who was drowning in his lies and delusions, but even funnier was he had no idea when to quit and seek help. I think Damon should have been nominated for an Oscar for his acting in this film because even though he got everyone trapped in his tornado of lies for five years or more, like his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and the two FBI agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) who recruited him as a spy, I had to admit that I ended up rooting for him because his charisma was as powerful as his lies. The desperation that Damon infused in his character made me feel bad for him not just as a character but as a person. In other words, he successfully made a pathological liar look like the good guy. I loved the way Soderbergh helmed the picture. Instead of telling the story in a typical crime drama, it was nicely balanced with dark humor, especially the scenes when the lead character would narrate for a bit so we could hear the many random (sometimes insightful) thoughts and what was really going on inside of his head. Just when I thought I had the movie all figured out, it surprised me because it actually became darker and more amusing as it went on. The director had a way of playing with tones at just the right amount so it didn’t feel jarring when it shifted. Considering the movie covered a span of ten years, the pacing was superb and I actually wanted it to run longer because I was having such a great time. The progression of a confident and obviously smart man who slowly lost all the good things in his life (including his mind) was sad but at the same the journey was quite a ride. I loved that most of the movie’s humor was in the dialogue and situations instead of playing on the obvious. I’ve read reviews from regular folks who claimed that it was stupid. I think those people just need to think for a bit and realize the fact that there’s a Mark Whitacre in all of us (narcissism and all)–the way we lie to people and sometimes how we eventually get tangled up in our own lies to the point where we end up betraying our own ideals.
The Child (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tilda Swinton stars as the title character who is an irresponsible alcoholic and liar who one day agrees to kidnap a kid (Aidan Gould) after the mother (Kate del Castillo) claims that she wants to rescue him from the multimillionaire grandfather. I understand that this can be a difficult film to swallow because of its two hours and twenty minutes running time. Although even I have to admit that it did drag during some parts, I thought that showing Julia’s journey from deep trouble to really, really deep trouble was fascinating in its own strange way. Another reason is that this is primarily a character-driven picture where we see Swinton’s character evolve in subtle ways from beginning to end. I definitely did not expect this film to be so visceral. I thought I was going to see a movie about a woman who was way out of her league as she tries to fight off henchmen and ultimately achieve redemption. I was so wrong because the main character did not want to change, unapologetically lewd and racist. There were times when I thought she really should stop lying to herself (and to others) and admit that she had a problem and that she needed help. But then there were also times when I was glad she was a great liar because her lies sometimes got her out of very complicated (and scary) situations. Without Swinton’s charisma and great timing, I think this film would have essentially fallen apart. Even though the lead character had the negative qualites mentioned prior, I still wanted her to succeed in her plight. In the end, even though she was not the character who appreciated other people’s pity, that’s exactly how I felt toward her. I got the feeling that she was not happy with her life and she ultimately wanted escape because it was too late to turn her life around. I’m giving “Julia” a strong recommendation because it very realistically portrayed people who were drowning in their own desperation. Other people may not agree but I think this film is a diamond in the rough.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.
The Last Day (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about this movie that I loved. The story was about an eighteen year old Simon (the stunning Gaspard Ulliel) who happens to meet a girl on a train (Mélanie Laurent) on his way back home for the holidays. She invites himself to his home, which at first turned out okay, but the longer she stays there, the more frustrated Simon becomes. Emotions escalate when Simon’s friend (Thibault Vinçon) enters the picture because Laurent starts to fall for him. I think this film was deceptively simple. Even though the dialogue was minimal, the film had a plethora of interesting imagery and stiffled emotions that kept bubbling over the surface. The prime example of this was Ulliel’s character. Simon was such a sensitive character and I felt like a lot of things could tip him to the breaking point. However, he managed to find inner strength time and time again to deal with another painful reality and so I was able to sympathize for him. Even though he was sad and bordeline desperate for affection, we rarely saw him cry, which I think made him that much more lovable. What did not work for me as well, however, was the storyline regarding his mother (Nicole Garcia) and her much younger lover (Bruno Todeschini). I didn’t quite see the connection between that story and Simon’s plight. If the commonality was about loneliness and the suffocation they felt, I think that’s too superficial. If this film had been longer to further explore that bond, I think this could have been a much more powerful picture. Indeed, this was a slow-moving film but I found it to be rewarding because it was thoughtful with its approach. This is farthest from a Hollywood film which typically has defined conventions of a genre. “Le derniere jour” was more like an artistic take on what it was like to be in someone’s shoes who felt like everybody was slowly drifting away.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I have to give Michelle Williams kudos for starring in this really small, bare bones of a film. Her performance is so visceral and she fully embodies the ever-growing desperation that her character is going through. “Wendy and Lucy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, tells the story of Wendy and her dog Lucy as the two try to go to Alaska so that Wendy can earn her money at a fish cannery. Things do not go quite as they had planned because Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, gets arrested for shoplifting dog food (she only had about $525 which was barely enough), and Lucy is nowhere to be seen when Wendy finally gets out of jail (Wendy left her dog tied to a rail in front of the store where she shoplifted). When Williams started looking for that dog, I felt like I was watching a mother trying to look for her child. It was really sad because things get from bad to worse in a matter of minutes and the hope of Wendy finding the dog grows dimmer and dimmer. Even though I really identified with Wendy’s situation, at some point I thought about just leaving the dog and going on ahead to Alaska. As cruel as that sounds, I think it’s justified because Wendy keeps spending money as she tries to keep looking for the dog. I get that Lucy is her only companion but, at least for me, the practical thing to do is to stop looking for the dog. Williams has come a long way since I’ve seen her first in “Dawson’s Creek” because she really uses her acting chops to carry this picture from beginning to end. I also have to give Reichardt credit for showing us a side of America where it’s not so glamorous. In fact, the places featured in this movie are downright depressing. Although the movie is about Wendy and Lucy’s friendship, sometimes I tried to pay attention to people on the background; some of them look like they’re sleepwalking through life. I find that particularly accurate because, though I didn’t grow up in a small town like the one in this movie, the area I grew up in was small enough to notice those kinds of people. Casual moviegoers may not like this film right off the bat or superficially consider it as “sad.” But film lovers should be able to look at it more closely and analytically and realize that it comes close to becoming something really special.
Frozen River (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Courtney Hunt’s screenwriter and directoral debut blew me out of the water. “Frozen River” is about a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who tries to keep her family afloat after the father of the family leaves and takes all their money with him. Not knowing what else to do because her part-time job is not enough to keep up with the bills, Leo teams up with a Native American (Misty Upham) to smuggle immigrants into the United States for $600 per person. This movie left me so overwhelmed because it’s very efficient with its time. Each minute adds a piece of the puzzle regarding why the characters choose to do what they do. And that’s the key: The characters choose to do what they do even though they very well know that such actions are illegal, yet we still very much sympathize with them. I think that’s where Hunt’s talent comes in–she makes her character so raw to the point where I can imagine the events actually happening in real life. The acting all-around is top notch. Leo and Upham are initially pit up against each other yet they share a common bond that’s strong enough to overcome their differences. Leo definitely deserved her Oscar nomination because, right from the first frame, I sensed a certain complexity from a mother who will do anything it takes to provide for her children (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly). There’s this one scene when they have nothing else to eat other than popcorn and orange juice. It made me think that, if I were in Leo’s situation, I would also smuggle illegal immigrants despite the risks. Also, she has only a few simple dreams for her family (such as getting her children presents for Christmas and buying a new house) but she cannot quite achieve them. While she does tend to blame herself once in a while, she always decides to get up because no one else will solve her problems for her. In a nutshell, the lead character is very flawed but I could not help but admire her resolve. I was also surprised by how suspenseful it got during the smuggling scenes. There’s a lot of political elements that come into play whenever they have to escape such as the differing rules when one is in an Indian reservation. By the end, I was so emotionally drained but I still wanted the film to continue because I was curious about what would happen next to the characters. This is a superb film in every respect; it may be small in scope at first glance but it’s truly quite universal.
No Regret (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hee-il Leesong, the first openly gay director in South Korea who leads a gay-themed film, is someone to watch out for. “No Regret” is about a recently-turned-eighteen orphan (Young-hoon Lee) who leaves the orphanage and heads to Seoul to find a job. Unable to balance school and several low-paying jobs, he decides to work as a male prostitute with the hope of earning enough money to go back to school. The main character meets a rich upcoming businessman (Han Lee) several times including the strip club where he works. Eventually, after a plethora of inner and outer conflicts between the two, they finally fall for each other. But that’s only the beginning of their problems. What I love about this picture is that it didn’t glamorize male prostitution. It managed to paint a picture that people who are involved in such underground jobs are miserable and messed up yet still have human longings that are almost never achieved. They keep telling themselves, “If I earn enough money, I’ll get out of this place and lead a better life” but insecurities of not being good enough for “normal” society soon take over and they get stuck from moving on. Young-hoon Lee impressed me because he can brood really well. When he cried (and he did several times), I felt the sting of his depression and desperation. The moment when I could identify with him the most was when he expressed his insecurities to his lover; mainly that he’s poor and not well-educated. To me, that explains why he initially did not want to get in a relationship with Han Lee’s character. The lead character’s lover is rich, educated and has several options with his life. When they finally get into a relationship, that jealousy never really goes away and it sucks them into a negative spiral. I also thought that the lead character feels guilty for taking away his lover’s opportunities just to be with him. That negative spiral is then aided by Han Lee’s family because they want him to marry a girl despite finding out that their son is a homosexual. The complexity of the situations and morals of these characters are well-integrated in the script so I enjoyed watching the story unfold. However, my biggest problem is the film’s last twenty minutes. The events that transpired were so out of character, I thought the whole sequence was a dream (or a nightmare?). Though the ending did make me laugh in some sick, twisted way (one either loves it or hates it, I suppose), I feel like it could’ve ended better. I felt like the moral implications that pervaded the rest of the film were thrown out the window and, I must admit, I felt a little cheated. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a recommendation because the acting, script, and story are commendable. I’m looking forward to Hee-il Leesong’s next film because he proved to me that he is very capable of telling stories that are both rewarding and unpredictable.
Gods and Monsters (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based loosely on James Whale’s life, this film is for both the fan of “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” back in the 1930’s and general film lovers. Ian McKellen plays the legendary director with such power and subtlety, I forgot that I was watching an actor playing a part. The way he told his stories about making films, fighting in the war, and falling in love has a certain organic feel to it to the point where I felt like my grandfather was passing on his most treasured memories to me. Brendan Frasier surprised me in this film because I’ve always seen him in comedies and action-comedies, but he was able to deliver as the gardener who craves for something bigger than himself. He is able to mollify the hunger by interacting with McKellen–someone who has done something important in his life. The dynamic between the two leads have a plethora of implications. To be honest, by the end of the picture, I find it difficult to define their relationship. Sure, they’ve become friends but what kind of friendship did they really have? Was it a utility friendship, pleasure friendship, or complete friendship, or a combination of two or three of them? Another stand-out was Lynn Redgrave as Hanna, McKellen’s caretaker. She was so colorful and spunky in her scenes so it’s hard for me not to notice her. Her relationship with McKellen’s character is multidimensional but it never took the focus out of the film’s core. My favorite scenes include McKellen telling his story of the man he truly loved despite the circumstances through which they met, when the film actually reshot some of the scenes from “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” and when McKellen was finally driven to madness/desperation. Even though this is well-made, this film is not for everyone because it’s really more about the characters, what they’ve been through and where they’re going instead of the plot driving the vehicle to a certain destination. This film has something to say about mortality and how one deals with life after great accomplishments have been achieved. It goes to show that the question of “what if” can be as daunting as asking “what’s next.”
Hallam Foe (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right from the get-go, the film establishes that the protagonist (Jamie Bell) is a strange but very sad character because he doesn’t know how to cope with his mother’s death. He acts out by spying on people, breaking into people’s homes and going through their things, all the while jotting down what he has seen, felt, and done after such actions. He also happens to believe that his stepmother (Claire Forlani), his father’s former secretary, killed his mother. That first part of the film was compelling because Bell was able to make the audience feel for him even though the things he does are creepy and borderline criminal. I found it difficult to blame the protagonist because not only is he really young and not aware of the consequences of his actions, I could tell that he really did love his mother… or maybe he loved her too much to the point of utter dependence. Taking that important parent figure from his life at such a young age damaged him emotionally and psychologically so I found his flaws to be reasonable if not relatable. The second part of the picture when Bell moved to the city and met a look-alike of his mother (Sophia Myles) was a bit less compelling because there were so many distractions that slowed the plot down (the scenes during his job which was supposed to serve as an escape, his nightly adventures in the streets, et cetera) .The only thing about the second act that I found to work in all levels was his sexual attraction to his look-alike mother (and how he stalked her at first). It says a lot about his desperation and the lack of closure regarding his mother’s death. The last act when Bell returns home was jawdropping and heartbreaking at the same time. By the end of the film, I felt like the main character grew so much despite still being a bit flawed and fragile. The story doesn’t tie everything up regarding the characters’ lives but offers hope that there’s a light at the end of the interminable tunnel of bleakness and confusion. This film provides an interesting character study and I only recommend it to those that are interested in how a character evolves over time.