Somewhere Between (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Having just adopted a baby from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton is aware that her daughter will come to ask questions about her roots eventually. In order to help and guide her child in creating a strong sense of identity, Knowlton feels she needs to further her understanding when it comes to the struggles of being adopted. So, the director turns her camera on four teenage girls who are raised by white American parents.
One of the subjects is Jenni, living in Berkeley, California, who, as a child, was found roaming the streets and later sent to an orphanage. Out of the four girls, she is perhaps the most relatable or accessible because she has a way of explaining how she is feeling or what she is thinking in a way that is beyond her age. At one point, she tells the camera that no matter where she is—whether it be visiting China or living in the Bay Area—everyone knows she is foreign.
She delivers this in such a matter-of-fact way that in about a minute or so I realized that there are times when I feel exactly the same about being an immigrant: that no matter how much I’ve assimilated in the “American” culture, characteristics that are ingrained in me—whether it be how I look, how I’ve been raised, how I perceive and process information—can never really be ignored or erased.
Jenna of Murburyport, Massachusetts is an interesting case as well. Being one of the very few Chinese people in her town, she tends to describe herself as being “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” to her friends and to the camera. I dislike descriptions like that but, admittedly, that was exactly how I—and a few friends—described myself during the early years of high school. I think that deep down the commonality is the need to belong. Like Jenni, Jenna—even though she may not admit to it—does not feel good enough in her own skin sometimes. This explains why she feels she has to be best or be in control of whatever task she is given. I know that feeling, too.
The final two girls are Ann from Pennsylvania and Haley from Tennessee. They meet through a program that gives Chinese adoptees a chance to be able to connect with one another. The two are almost complete opposites: the former has little interest in wanting to meet her biological parents while the latter embraces the idea. The film does not judge whether one course of action is better than another. What we do see is how the girls deal with excitement, wrestle with disappointments, and what it is they hope to accomplish in the future with respect to their roots.
I hope to adopt a child one day. Whether or not he or she will come from the same culture as me, I believe the documentary does a good job in raising questions I would not have considered otherwise. The picture makes a point that the answers that each of the subjects comes to terms with are specific to every one of their stories.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Smart but quick-tempered Tre (Desi Arnez Hines II) had gotten into another fight at school. Reva (Angela Bassett), Tre’s mother, thought it would be a good idea for him to live with his father, Furious (Laurence Fishburne), in South Central Los Angeles while she finished her Master’s degree. Although Reva and Furious lived separately for unstated reasons, she was convinced that Furious would be able to teach his son, despite living in crime- and poverty-stricken neighborhood, what it meant to be a man. Written and directed by John Singleton, “Boyz n the Hood” is an excellent film for the family, especially young people from self-destructive families or neighborhoods who want to seek an alternative and go after what they want out of life, whether it be a fancy career or as simple as preserving one’s life because it’s too valuable a thing to waste. You might think I’m crazy for considering this as a family film because the picture was more than welcoming in showing drugs, sex, and violence. But that’s what I loved about it. Its defiance to sugarcoat reality, by highlighting the effects of drugs, sex, and violence, made it an efficient and honest portrayal of a life that was and, sadly, still. The script brimmed with optimism. It underlined the importance of parents and their role in shaping their child. The series of interactions between Furious and Tre (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. as a high school senior) were at times sensitive, occasionally amusing, and consistently realistic. Life lessons were imparted but they were never hammy. The effects of the parenting flew under the radar until the key moments when we were forced to wonder if what Furious taught his son were enough for the teenager to feel secure about himself and make decisions for himself. I appreciated that parenting was portrayed like a map and it was up to the child to notice certain landmarks and choose which lines to traverse. Movies with less vision, ambition, and specific voice had proven that it’s too easy to get it wrong. By focusing on choices, the message was clear: there’s more to life than shooting people, making others feel bad about themselves, becoming unplanned parents, and drowning oneself in booze and drugs. The picture respected its African-American characters. Although a lot of them were jive-talking, the characters weren’t written sloppily. They had motivations. Ricky (Morris Chestnut), Tre’s best friend, wanted to get a football scholarship so he could go to college and provide for his family. A lot of us could easily relate to the reasons behind his drive. More importantly, some of their motivations may seem empty to us. One of many reasons was the fact that most of us never had or will never have the experience to live in a similar environment as them. Singleton’s direction proved critical because he had a way of placing and moving the camera so that we could at least get a sense of where the characters were coming from each time they were given a chance to speak. For instance, Doughboy (Ice Cube) had been in and out of jail. He hung out with his crew with not much of a desire to break out of their habits. By providing several sequences as they chatted while playing video games on the couch, gambling in the backyard, and relaxing on the patio, we could surmise that individually they felt they had nothing but as a group they felt they had a form of brotherhood. “Boyz n the Hood” was also about responsibility and what it entails. Just because you’re from a less than desirable background, it doesn’t mean that you’re helpless or that you’re powerless to change the course of your own life as well as those around you. The scary thing is that anyone can, for better or worse.
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.
The Descendants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Matt King (George Clooney) had more problems than he had hands. Within the next several days, he had to decide which multi-million dollar deal to accept which involved selling an untouched piece of land in Hawaii. Since his cousins were in debt, going through with it would help them out immensely. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was recently involved in a boating accident that forced her into a coma. The doctors informed Matt that there was little to no possibility that she was ever going to wake up. Her will clearly stated that if such a thing happened to her, she was to be taken off life support. Meanwhile, Matt found out that Elizabeth had been cheating on him with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” excelled in shaping individual scenes where Matt had to face another person and the two were required to speak to each other with frankness and at times painful honesty. I found that such scenes were loyal to the theme regarding appearances and how deceiving they could be. A great example was Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Matt’s eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). At first, it seemed like he was a typical “Hey, Bro!” surfer dude who had a propensity toward saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune times, but the scene where Matt found himself so desperate to know what was really going on with rebellious Alexandra showed that Matt and Sid had more common than we were led to believe. Both, in a way, were quite easy to dismiss: Matt with his first-world problem of selling a portion of land and Sid’s easy-going personality. Because the characters, not restricted to the aforementioned scene, were eventually allowed to talk about things that were important to them, often sandwiched between the comedy embedded in the every day, we had reasons to keep watching even though we might expect that not everything would turn out alright. Furthermore, the relationship between a husband so unequipped to handle his household and a wife in a vegetative state was exquisitely executed. I found it a refreshing experience because the screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash strived to be more than about a man being sad and wishing that his wife would magically wake up. There was an instance when Matt felt he just had to yell at his wife for her indiscretions. It wasn’t pretty and it was uncomfortable, but those were the qualities that made their one-sided relationship feel very real. Most of the time, when a married couple knew that their relationship was on the rocks, they could deal with their issues through words and body language. In other words, the picture found a way to circumvent the fact that a spouse was comatose. The pacing of the film, however, could have used a bit of fire. When Matt, his two daughters, and Sid attempted to track down the real estate agent, there were a number of comedic scenes that did not work and should have been excised to improve flow. “The Descendants,” directed by Alexander Payne, was about how we shouldn’t expect closures that we believe we deserved to come to us passively. Like everything else in life, at least one that’s worth living, closure ultimately feels good because effort is put into it.
Another Year (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) were a happy couple surrounded by unhappy friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Tom was a geologist and Gerri was a counselor at a hospital. Both enjoyed tending their garden on their spare time. Mary (Lesley Manville) always felt welcome in Gerri and Tom’s home. She was free to talk about herself as much as she wanted: How her life would be so much better if she had a car, her regret over failed relationships, and her dependence on alcohol when things didn’t go her way. To say the least, she had a lot of issues. But, in a course of a year, things changed. Mary began to show a romantic interest in Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). When, to everyone’s surprise, he brought home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez), Mary was less than welcoming. In fact, she was downright cold and dismissive. Suddenly there was a gaping chasm between Gerri and Mary. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, “Another Year” was full of people you and I know. I have friends who are just like Mary: somewhat self-centered but fun because of her firecracker of a personality. But then there were times when I felt like I was Mary. I could identify in the way she hid her sadness by pretending to be excited about everything. But what I loved was the director and the actress were careful in painting Mary’s character. They didn’t necessarily want us to feel sorry for her because she actively didn’t take responsibility for her actions. A crutch always seemed to be at her disposal. However, Leigh and Manville did want us to understand where she was coming from and perhaps even imagine ourselves in her shoes. Sheen also gave an excellent performance. What I loved most about her were her eye bags. I don’t mean to sound glib. To me, her eye bags symbolized wisdom and experience. I was fascinated in the way she was always supportive but at the same time she wasn’t afraid to let someone know when he or she had overstepped certain boundaries. Certain looks she gave were memorable because they were the same looks my mom gave me to express her disappointment when I had done something unpleasant back when I was younger. I relished the relationship between the two women, who happened to be good friends for about twenty years, and the awkwardness during and after the unpleasant dinner. Everyone knows the feeling of being caught in between two good friends having a row. We got to experience that in here and the answers were rarely easy. While watching “Another Year,” its story told in four seasons each embodying a different mood and tone, I caught myself inching toward the screen. I literally felt close to them. I wanted to read their smallest facial expressions and most subtle body movements. I found it compelling that Leigh posed big, elegant questions by focusing on a small regular family.
Real Steel (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was addicted to robot gambling which was inopportune, in the least, because he was neck-deep in debt. After his robot was demolished by a raging bull, he was informed that his former girlfriend had passed away and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), needed an official guardian. Charlie was to appear in court to pick up the boy, but Max’ aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), who married a rich man, wanted to adopt him. For a hundred thousand dollars, the gambler made a deal, unbeknownst to Max and Debra, with the husband: Max was to spend time with his father over the summer but he was to be returned in Debra’s care after their trip to Italy. Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven, “Real Steel” managed to be quite involving as it explored the connection between father and son through robot fighting. The picture was smart in first establishing Charlie as our protagonist on the path to self-destruction. He was a good guy, but he often relied on instincts instead of measured calculation to make a quick buck. On the outside, he seemed to do it for the money. He was a former boxer who saw himself as a failure in that field. I looked at him and considered that perhaps he gambled for the rush. Maybe watching his robot fight was like being in the ring himself. As his machines were eradicated, so were his personal connections. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his somewhat girlfriend and the daughter of the man who taught him to box, really needed the money that Charlie burrowed to pay for the gym she managed. This made him so desperate, he didn’t even think twice to sell his son. Charlie and Max were quite opposite but the same in important ways. Meeting for the first time, the son suspected that he’d been sold and asked his father if he, in fact, was. Charlie told the boy the truth but Max, plucky and sarcastic, digested the information with dignity and dealt with it on his own. When presented by bad news, neither shriveled; both saw it as a chance to start anew and to prove everybody wrong. That was the reason why I wanted Charlie and Max to succeed as robot gamblers and as father and son. Notice that I haven’t even discussed the robots. That’s because they were secondary to the human drama that propelled the movie forward, yet necessary as a catharsis for these characters. Max stumbled upon a robot named Atom in a junkyard. It was a sparring robot, designed to take a lot of hits but not actually hit back as effectively. With the help of Charlie’s robots, Ambush and Noisy Boy, that had been destroyed, Max was able to extract necessary pieces from them to make Atom stronger in both offense and defense. Eventually, they won enough fights to gain popularity and be invited to World Robot Boxing Tournament in which they had to face Zeus, the undefeated robot champion. Based on “Steel,” a short story by Richard Matheson, “Real Steel,” directed by Shawn Levy, was ultimately a story of redemption. Our decision to emotionally invest in the characters, if one so chooses, was worthwhile because it wasn’t just about metals clanging against each other like in Michael Bay’s egregious “Transformers” movies. There was something real at stake. That is, a father finding his son and recognizing that he was good enough even though he wasn’t perfect.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During one of the Batiste’s parties, the family led by Louis and Roz, Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, respectively, Eve (Jurnee Smollett) caught her father having sexual relations with another woman (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis was one of the most successful doctors in town so he was able to provide a good life for his family. To Eve’s surprise, it turned out that her mother, aunt (Debbi Morgan), and others in the community were fully aware of Louis’ infidelity. But what triggered Eve, according to her own words in the beginning of the picture, to kill her father just when her youngest sibling (Jake Smollett) was only nine years of age and her eldest sibling (Meagan Good) just turned fourteen? Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, “Eve’s Bayou” consisted of familiar story lines but it was elevated by complex characters covered in moral dilemmas. For instance, Eve, still a child, could easily have been driven by simple motivations. The first few scenes were almost predictable: Her mother seemed to prefer the company of her brother, while her father enjoyed dancing with her sister. Naturally, we would assume that Eve would reveal the secret she stumbled over, specifically, a secret she didn’t fully understand, out of bitterness because she would want to get back at someone and attention would be directed at her. But that didn’t happen. Instead of focusing on the main character’s immaturity, the material focused on how a child became less immature over time because something foreign was thrown on her lap. Seeing her father having sex with a familiar woman was not the issue of the story. It was what opened her eyes and allowed her to evaluate the world in a different way. As a result, the material felt fresh. It also felt exciting. Eve’s family and community believed in gifted individuals with the ability to look in the unseen. While it did provide some of the amusing scenarios, it didn’t make fun of people who believed in alternative explanations. The question was whether or not we believed but whether the characters would continue to believe or stop altogether. There was a thoughtful contrast between science (personified by the adulterous husband), supposedly something we could always trust, and faith (personified by the fortunetellers like the mysterious Elzora played by Diahann Carroll). Lastly, all of the actors were natural in their roles especially by Jackson. His character was a nice man but there were certain scenes when he would assert his gentleness to get exactly what he wanted. That calculating nature hinted at something darker within. “Eve’s Bayou” was a beautiful portrait of an African-American community in 1960s Louisiana. Instead of going for the easy answers, it allowed us to look at its threads a little more closely.