Never Let Me Go (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and Ruth (Ella Purnell) lived in Hailsham, an English boarding school led by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), all their lives. The three children shared a strong bond. Kathy and Ruth’s beds were next to each other so they learned to become friends over the years. Smart and artistic Kathy began to have feelings for Tommy who was kind-hearted but often rejected by his peers. Ruth, on the other hand, was one of Tommy’s passive tormentors but she wanted to make Kathy jealous so she began to spend more time with the social outcast. Miss Lucy’s (Sally Hawkins) arrival in Hailsham made an important impact in the trio’s lives because she revealed their true purpose. Many reviews kept their readers blind about the dark secret involving the children. I don’t think it’s necessary because the children being clones and future organ donors was just the template of this morally and emotionally complex story which was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The core of the story was how Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively, in later years) dealt with the revelation that they weren’t going to live long lives or realize any of their long-term dreams. It made me question how I would start living if I’ve been told that I could be notified at any time that someone needed my organs and I could possibly die for someone I haven’t met. None of the three tried to run away after their discovery. I was curious why they didn’t. Maybe they thought it was a selfish thing to do. Having made aware that they were clones, they were always on the lookout for Possibles, their look-alikes, the models in which they shared 100% of their DNA. The material made powerful implications that genes had more impact than the environment from which one was raised. For instance, Kathy’s belief that she was modeled from a prostitute or a pornographic actress because she had strong urges to have sex even as a child. She tried to stop those urges which made her shut down other important aspects of herself like acting on her attraction toward Tommy. Another moving element in the picture was Tommy’s misplaced expectations about a possible deferral from organ donations given that a couple was able to prove their love for one another. His willingness to look into the impossible reminded me of David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg’s highly underrated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Both characters wanted to be with someone they loved so desperately. They wanted to live a meaningful life so badly, they were willing to turn to the fantastic. “Never Let Me Go,” adroitly directed by Mark Romanek, was a poignant film that wasn’t solely about the ethics of organ donations and the cruel destiny laid out for the characters. Personally, I thought it was more about the powerless making small but critical decisions with the cards that they were given. The odds were against them, comparable to why we often find ourselves rooting for the underdogs in competitions.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in my high school Psychology course when we learned about the ethics of dealing with patients. It was a particularly memorable chapter because Kevorkian and his methods sparked a rousing debate about his methods. Like in the film, students who did not support euthanasia, assisted suicide, argued mainly from the perspective of religious dogma. I distinctly remember thinking that it was such a weak argument because it lacked common sense. The reason why I support euthanasia was not about living or dying. It was all about choice. I’d rather jump off a fifty-foot story building than to allow the government to choose when and how I should die. I admired the film, under Barry Levinson’s swift yet careful direction, because it painted Dr. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) as Dr. Kevorkian and not as Dr. Death, as the media and his enemies unjustly labelled him. While the media and government played an integral role in Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle, the picture took a more personal route and allowed us to get to know the medical practitioner in question and his biggest supporters such as his sister Margo Janus (Brena Vaccaro), one of his oldest friends Neal Nicol (John Goodman), a fellow activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), and a lawyer named Geoffrey Fiegler with a flair for the dramatic (Danny Huston). All delivered very strong performances with utmost conviction and devoid of cliché. By showing us scenes not easily found in books or covered by the media, despite my support for the issue of euthanasia, I learned something new and surprising facts about Dr. Kevorkian. There were many scenes that moved me but one that I will not forget for a long time was when Dr. Kevorkian decided to be thrifty regarding the gas required to make the person unconscious prior to stopping the heart. That was an important scene for me because it marked the point where I thought Dr. Kevorkian crossed the line. While he did regret it afterwards, it was unethical because the crux of euthanasia was to allow a terminally ill person to die in a peaceful and humane manner. During that scene, the person was uncomfortable and experienced pain. However, I was glad that the filmmakers added that scene because it showed us that Dr. Kevorkian, despite his best intentions, was far from perfect and that his willingness to push the envelope without fully thinking things through was ultimate downfall. Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian was excellent. Although his portrayal was denitely not as eccentric as the actual person, I believe it was one of his most mesmerizing roles in years. “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Adam Mazer, deserves to be seen especially by those who do not quite know where they stand in the issue. It just might help to put certain things into perspective.
Secreto de sus ojos, El (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Secret in Their Eyes” was about a former criminal investigator (Ricardo Darín) attempting to write a novel based on a brutal rape and murder of a newlywed 25 years ago. The Morales case was particularly important to him because the love of the husband (Pablo Rago) for his deceased wife reminded him of his love for his former co-worker (Soledad Villamil) that never came to fruition. She was engaged and he didn’t want to get in the way of her happiness. The picture’s style was to go back and forth between the present and the past making an excellent blend of thriller and drama. Co-workers falling for each other was nothing new. In fact, it had become a formula. But one of the elements I loved about the movie was it kept romance between Benjamín and Irene fresh and challenging. Unlike most romantic movies, they didn’t have say what they felt in order for us to understand what they might be going through. It was in the small gestures such as the closing of a door, a pause mid-sentence, or a quick look to the side that revealed their expectations of each other. The tension between them reflected what we would have done if we liked someone but couldn’t find the right words to say how much we want to be with them. As for the thriller aspect, I was glued to the screen because it was unpredictable. During the most intense scenes, Benjamín’s friend (Guillermo Francella), who had a drinking problem, would appear from nowhere and could potentially ruin everything. We hated him but at the same time we couldn’t help but love him. We hated him because he appeared at the most inopportune times which could make or break the case in question. But we loved him because he made the plot that much more complicated and therefore more fun to try to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle would come together. I was highly impressed with the last thirty minutes. To even hint at what transpired, I think, would do this film an injustice. All I want to say about it is it was at the point where the past and present finally converged. Many practical questions were answered but so many more moral questions were brought up. Like the characters, I found some sense of closure but at the same time I felt as though it wasn’t the closure I was looking for. The theme of men clinging onto their past was at the forefront and I couldn’t help but feel moved (and scared) when I realized how much the past could turn into a monster if we kept leaving it on the side instead of confronting it directly. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed by Juan José Campanella, “El secreto de sus ojos” was compelling and rewarding in every way.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, “Gamer” was set in 2034 where humans can pay a company (led by Michael C. Hall) to control other humans as if in a video game. One gamer (Logan Lerman) paid to control one of the death row inmates (Gerard Butler) to take part in a very violent “survival of the fittest” competition where the winner could earn his or her freedom. I have to admit that this movie did not interest me whatsoever going into it. The only reason why I decided to watch it was because of Hall. I was interested in what else he could do other than play a sympathetic serial killer in “Dexter.” This movie was a dizzying experience at best. Right from the first scene, we got shoot-outs right after another; body pieces and bullets were everywhere, the camera shook as if the cameraman was having a seizure and the main character acted as though he was on steroids. (Perhaps he was.) The filmmakers took the egregiousness to another level by shamelessly adding “ethical questions” such as whether it was right or wrong to put people in death row in a place where they could kill each other and eventually “earn” their freedom. It wasn’t at all difficult to arrive at the right answer: of course it’s wrong! It’s also wrong to control other human beings for sake of our twisted desires even if such vessels “volunteered” to do it for money. It would have been so much better if the picture embraced its own stupidity instead of trying to ask “insightful” questions. It’s also unfortunate how this film had so many talented supporting actors (Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Aaron Yoo, Ludacris) but they ultimately didn’t do anything. It was easy to tell that they just did it for the money. They couldn’t have chosen to appear in it because of the script since it had no depth or wit. While the performances were fine, I really think the problem was the writing. The violence was highlighted even though the core was essentially about what it means to be human and actually live our own lives. The gratuitous explosions and nudity should have been secondary if the filmmakers wanted to grasp a more elevated social commentary. Hall made a good villain but, like “Gamer,” it’s the same old song and dance (pun intended for that riduculous musical scene).
12 Angry Men (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film was not difficult for me to love at all because it was able to focus on a number of very distinct individuals in one room and really pick apart their own moralities as well as our own… in about an hour and thirty minutes. If that isn’t filmmaking at its highest level, I don’t know what is. Directed by Sidney Lumet, “12 Angry Men” was about an eighteen year-old boy who was accused of stabbing is own father to death, now on trial to be put in the electric chair, and how one juror (Henry Fonda) out of the twelve (Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec and Robert Webber) decided to stand up for what he believed to be right–that is, that a person’s life should not be taken lightly, especially when that decision is in our hands. I thought it was fascinating that although we didn’t know the names of the jurors and we didn’t observe each of them in their respective homes, we learned a great deal about them with the way they argued their point of views regarding the case, how they argued against each other whether it was about the case or not, and how they looked into themselves when a really good point was brought up. Anyone who loves hearing great dialogues in cinema would immediately be interested in this film because it was pretty much like dropping in on a real jury who was deliberating behind the courtroom. Nobody is perfect and the arguments are strong yet they each had their flaws–but that complexity is what I found to be the most beautiful and engaging. This is the kind of film that is timeless because most people today absolutely hate it when they would be chosen to participate in jury duty and they would do anything to get out of it. (Sometimes including myself if I have class or a prior crucial commitment, but there’s a tiny part in me who is very interested on how it’s really like to be a part of the jury.) Although made in 1957, those eleven men are not at all different from people today because everyone has their own problems to face and responsibilities fulfilll; worrying about another person’s life who they consider as less important was the last thing on their minds. As the men tried to sort out the details of the crime, we really come to realize the power and the importance of reasonable doubt. Even if one is not interested in the justice system, this is a fascinating classic film about morals, ethics and what it means to live in a democratic society, the latter of which we most of the time take for granted. If I was ever on trial, I would want to show this movie to the jury before they make their decision.
★★★ / ★★★★
This horror-comedy cult classic is about a medical student (Bruce Abbott) and his newfound eccentric roommate (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Combs) who brings people back from the dead. I think this being a low-budget film actually worked in its favor. There are only two locations in the film: Abbott’s apartment and the hospital’s morgue where the two lead characters work. By the end of the film, those places look completely familiar to the point where I felt like I’ve known those places for years. Another thing is that it consistently tried to push its limits–whether it’s the question of what would happen if we brought people back to life or just showing us impressive special effects such as blood, guts and severed body parts. Stuart Gordon, the director, should be commended because he was able to balance images of horror with situational comedy. I thought he did a neat job showing the audiences how far a doctor will go to complete his experiment, completely neglecting the ethics and moral conundrums that should be faced by a man of science. Gordon also had enough time to comment on the dynamics in the scientific community–that it isn’t any different than other jobs. In fact, jealousy is abound because pretty much everyone wants to discover the new best thing and some are willing to kill for the discovery. But one thing did bother me, though. I know it’s not meant to be realistic because it’s a zombie film but I couldn’t get over the fact that the decapitated head could control his own body. If the brain is not connected to the spinal cord, the body will not be able to move because the source of electrical signals that may trigger certain chemical signals that control everything else will not be present (such as muscle contraction). I cannot help but get a bit distracted whenever something is glaringly incorrect even for films that do not exactly scream realism. Still, if one is a fan of horror-comedies with interesting premises, campy and has a plethora of gore, “Re-Animator” is a must-see.
My Sister’s Keeper (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) eventually gets tired of all the forced medical procedures done to her in order to save her sister (Sofia Vassilieva) with leukemia. She enlists the help of a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and this immediately causes tension within the family, especially between Anna and her mother (Cameron Diaz). Right off the bat, the audiences come to know that Anna is a test tube baby for the sole purpose of extracting healthy cells (and eventually organs) so that she can help her sister survive. I thought this was a smart film because of all the ethical questions it raised and the way it avoided to define for the audiences what is right and what is wrong. It was definitely easy to immediately side with Anna because I strongly believe that everyone has a right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body. However, after a series of flashback scenes told in a non-linear way, I was able to sympathize with Diaz because I was convinced that she genuinely loves her family. It’s just that she’s required to make the tough decisions since no one else will even if it means butting heads with her husband (Jason Patric) and increasingly conflicted son (Evan Ellingson). I must say that Diaz absolutely blew me away. I keep forgetting that she can be a good actress because I’ve seen her way too much in a lot of (sometimes lame) comedies. In here, she was able to carry her character with such complexity and dramatic weight. I’d like to see her in more dramas because she can balance toughness, intelligence, sensitivity so well. Another actor I really enjoyed was Joan Cusack as the judge who was supposed to decide whether Anna can ultimately get medical emancipation from her parents. Cusack’s character was still grieving for the untimely death of her daughter (due to a car accident) and it was easy to tell that she was still unstable; it made me think that perhaps she was not quite fit to get back to work and whether she should be the right person to decide the case’s outcome, especially since it involved a child. Cusack’s silent moments, while interacting with Breslin in her chamber, were so powerful, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit. After only a week since my parents almost died in a car accident (which I haven’t really talked about with anyone because whenever I think about it, I just lose it; while a friend of theirs died, my parents luckily got away with a few fractures and bruising), her situation made me think how easy it is for someone to be alive and healthy one day and not here the next. Lastly, Thomas Dekker as Vassilieva’s boyfriend-to-be provided a lot of sensitivity it needed so the audiences could get a better picture that people should not be defined by their diseases. A lot of the fans from the book didn’t like the fact that the ending was altered. From the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the book, I thought pretty much everything about this film unfolded in a way that made sense but still had a powerful impact. It’s extremely difficult not to be moved by this picture.