Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershley) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) often met and discussed their lives over lunch or dinner in Manhattan. They talked about all sorts of happenings from their career prospects to pecuniary matters, but the main driving force of the film were the topics that they would rather keep a secret from each other. For instance, Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) had told Lee that he had fallen in love with her (should Lee tell Hannah about it?), while Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband (Woody Allen) dated Holly (Was it appropriate for Holly to discuss it with Hannah?). What I loved about “Hannah and Her Sisters,” a quality almost always present in Allen’s more renowned pictures, was not a scene was wasted. It was all about character development as each character was given the chance to narrate a scene and share his or her thoughts about someone else or his increasingly complicated and desperate predicament. The first scene stood out to me because Caine’s character essentially had made the confession that he wanted to leave his wife for his wife’s sister. Allen immediately placed us in the husband’s shoes. When he moved toward the woman he was interested in, the camera moved with a sense of urgency, and we had no choice but to move with the husband and anticipate a potential train wreck. With marriage dramas, the tone could quickly become too depressing and suffocating. Allen was aware of this so he injected comedic scenes of the hypochondriac Jewish TV producer discovering that he might have had a tumor in his brain. Obviously, the situation he was in was quite grim but his reactions to certain revelations spearheaded the comedy. The person dealing with the situation was funny, not the situation itself. However, one major weakness I found in the film was the fact that I still did not know who Hannah was. She was overshadowed by her sisters, her philandering husband, and neurotic ex-husband. She was there when they needed help or someone to talk to, but in terms of her relationship with the audiences, I felt as though there was a disconnect. Toward the end, everyone admitted that she was the strong one and that she never needed help from anybody, but it was not the idea of Hannah I had in my mind. To be succinct and completely honest, I thought she was a bit boring–she was a nice woman but she was unexciting. Despite its flaws, “Hannah and Her Sisters” had a deep sophistication in its characterization of people constantly wrestling with their desires and needs. Best of all, I enjoyed its honesty in terms of people sometimes being unrelentingly awful, sometimes being beyond wonderful.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A group of aliens visited Earth to get some plant samples, but they were interrupted by humans whose mission was to record extra-terrestrial life. One alien failed to make it back to the ship. On the night Elliot (Henry Thomas) went to pick up pizza from the delivery man, he heard a noise in the shed. Elliot threw a ball inside. Something threw the ball back to him. Elliot was a lonely kid. He recognized the creature as harmless and they became friends. Written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Steven Spielberg, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was a prime example of the power movies can have across generations. It appealed to children because the alien was cute and cuddly. The scenes of E.T. exploring the family’s home, held together by a recently divorced matriarch (Dee Wallace), was comic genius. Those of us whose parents allowed us to stay home alone could relate to E.T. as he explored the refrigerator and made a complete mess of the kitchen. Furthermore, no one could resist releasing burst of laughter when Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot’s precocious younger sister, dressed up E.T. as a girl. As for adults, it was a genuinely heartwarming film. The connection between Elliot and E.T. was fully explored so being emotionally invested was effortless. Symbolisms, notably the flower, were present but they were never manipulative nor did they take the focus away from the boy and his pet alien. But what I admired most, and the reason why Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, was in the way Spielberg carefully controlled his scenes. Notice when the family was having dinner and the conversation started in a light-hearted way. The topic was what they should be for Halloween. After several lines of funny dialogue, Elliot started to get annoyed by his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) because he insisted that what Elliot saw in the shed was just a goblin or a coyote. However, Elliot’s frustration was directed to the unsuspecting mother, the easier target, someone physically closest to him on the table. The painful subject of their father being with another woman in Mexico suddenly came up. The progression from funny to annoyance to hurt was masterful. We learned about the subtle intricacies of the characters by simply observing how they reacted to the flow of conversations. A similar technique was used toward the end, involving a freezer, but the emotions were entirely different: From sadness, surprise, to utter joy. I also admired the way the director ended the film as our protagonist looked into the sky full of hope, wonder, and maturity. Right when I yelled, “Cut!” in my head, the picture faded to black. An unparalled story about the universality of friendship, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” doesn’t seem to age. That’s because the lessons it had to impart about empathy, love, friendship, and family define us as a species.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970)
★ / ★★★★
A well-to-do British family without a father figure immersed themselves in childhood games. They picked men off the streets–men who would not be missed such as hippies and homeless folks–and if the men tried to escape the mansion or expressed that they no longer wanted to play games, they were killed in a ritualistic manner. Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor), and Girly (Vanessa Howard) were the demented predators and their most recent prey was named New Friend (Michael Bryant) who took an intense liking for Girly even though she was at least twenty years younger than him. I thought the premise of the picture was fascinating but I’m afraid the screenplay was stuck in one concept and it grew more stale as it went on. I understood the psychoanalytical message. The film was all about commenting on the suffocation of constantly having the need to remain loyal with traditions. Since the father was not there to lead the family, the movie made an argument that the family would most likely rot from the inside. Since the father was believed to have a key role in the maturity of children, the teenagers became fixated in acting like six-year-olds. Since there was no father to take care of the mother, the mother and the nanny developed an unusually close bond. They even slept in the same room. Anyone with a basic understanding of psychology would be able to pinpoint such obvious messages, so I was hoping that the director, Freddie Francis, allowed the picture to evolve. While the acting was tolerable most of the time, at times I felt like the actors were rehearsing a play. Since the subject was already so bold, the actors’ decision to portray their roles as caricatures was like hammering the audiences over the head with mallet. Its cartoonish tone was very distracting so the horror did not work. As a dark comedy, it was arguably effective but I was not convinced that the filmmakers wanted it to be more amusing than horrific. In a nutshell, its arguable success was accidental. It should have paid more attention in generating tension because there were far too few rewards in between the sinister kills. At the time of its release, the film’s subject matter was very controversial. While I do enjoy movies that are different, the anti-formula to the formula has to have intelligence and an energy that does not leave me so frustrated after the experience. Unfortunately, “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” wasted its potential to be something great.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) was now in seventh grade and began to set his eyes on Holly Hills (Peyton List), a girl who recently moved in town from Oregon. Unlike the first film, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” directed by David Bowers, focused more on the family. Specifically, Greg’s rocky relationship with Rodrick (Devon Bostick), his older brother, and their parents’ (Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn) attempts, one of which involved earning “Mom Bucks” where Greg and Rodrick could cash it in for real money, to get them to spend more time together. The sequel preserved what I enjoyed most from its predecessor. Greg was still snarky yet awkward, especially when he was next to Rowley (Robert Capron), his well-meaning best friend, sometimes self-centered, but completely sympathetic. He was a bit older now and I enjoyed the fact that he retained the lessons he learned from the last time we saw him. However, I thought it didn’t have the same magic as Greg’s experiences in the sixth grade because it was less adventurous with its storylines. In some ways, it worked. Since it was more focused, it had more time to explore the elements that kept the warring brothers apart. I could easily relate to Greg’s situation because my brother and I aren’t as close as I would like for us to be. Sometimes siblings, especially when they’re a couple of years apart, just don’t share the same interests. While the picture had its share of light-hearted scenes of Rodrick tormenting his little brother, there were enough serious moments to keep us interested. For instance, when Rodrick was prohibited by his parents to play with his band for the talent show, Rodrick, a character we were used to as someone who never took anything seriously, accepted the punishment with a heavy heart to the point where he bitterly told Greg that they might be brothers but they would never be friends. I admired that the material took the less convenient path by sometimes allowing its characters to regress to their old habits. However, there were times when I wished the story wasn’t always about the brothers because their antics eventually became redundant. Gordon and Capron had great chemistry and the hilarious scenes were of their characters recording a funny video so that they could post it on YouTube and get popular. Another memorable scene was the sleepover at Greg’s house which involved watching a campy horror movie called “The Foot.” When Gordon and Capron were side-by-side, I couldn’t help but smile. Based on Jeff Kinney’s book of the same name, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” had moments of sitcom-like predictability but it was off-set by its manic energy, charm, and wit. Unlike most comedies made for the younger demographic, it earned its more heartwarming moments.
Once Around (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Renata (Holly Hunter), despite being thirtysomething, still lived with her parents (Danny Aiello, Gena Rowlands) and she seemed to lack direction in life. The first scene of the film was Jan’s (Laura San Giacomo) wedding, Renata’s sister, which was happy on the outside but its purpose highlighted the fact that Renata was lonely, if not almost desperate to have someone she can call her lover. But her insecurities were seemingly thrown out the window when she met a successful salesman named Sam (Richard Dreyfuss). There was an obvious age difference between the couple but Renata decided to continue the relationship because Sam made her genuinely happy. But more problems ensued when Sam overstepped his boundaries within the close-knit family. What I loved about this picture was its focus involving the principle of “Once around, always around.” The scenes of Sam trying to wriggle his way into situations that didn’t concern him made me angry and uncomfortable because I really identified with the family. He was a social man who liked to joke around (dirty jokes especially) and sing songs but he wasn’t used to filtering his words and wasn’t aware that sometimes he could be very offensive to certain people. In a way, we all know people like him whether it be with our own families or group of friends. Or maybe it’s us but we just aren’t aware of it. I admired that Lasse Hallström, the director, didn’t frame the family as a group of eccentrics sickeningly common in movies of the 2000s. They were essentially a normal family but their worst were at the forefront when Sam was in the room with them. It was fascinating to observe the way the characters responded to each other because the reactions weren’t always predictable. When I thought a situation would end up being sad, it ended up being funny. When I thought a situation would end up funny, it would end up being bittersweet. Hallström had control over the material’s mood and I felt like each scene had a purpose with stakes that became increasingly higher. Best of all, “Once Around” was relatable. In my family gatherings, I like to observe people while I eat. Most of the time the in-laws keep a certain distance while the core family members are not afraid to make fools out of themselves. (Filipinos love to karaoke… most of the time while drunk.) But sometimes the in-laws lose a bit of control and everybody could feel a difference in atmosphere. That’s why I thought “Once Around” was very smart. It was able to pinpoint that familiar awkwardness and successfully built a story around it.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A seventeen-year-old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) had to take care of her younger brother and sister (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson) because their mother had reached a mental breakdown and therefore could not take care of them. Their situation turned for the worse when their father, who recently spent time in prison for making illicit drugs, skipped bail and put their house as collateral. With nowhere to go and not knowing what to do, the eldest child started asking her relatives about the whereabouts of the father but no one was willing to come forward and divulge information. When you live in a metropolitan area in America, it is easy to forget people like Ree and her family who had to cope with extreme poverty. As heartbreaking to see the children suffering from not having enough food day in and day out, I admired that the film did not rely on pity to tell a compelling story. The material had a defined understanding behind the meaning of this family’s specific circumstance. Ree was probably one of the bravest film characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. I immediately rooted for her because of the way she, if necessary, put herself in harm’s way so that she would be able to continue the already difficult task of raising a family. She was smart, resourceful, and determined but those were not positive attributes from the perspective of a community that used drugs to make a living. Even though the many families in question had a strict code of silence that prevented Ree from arriving at certain truths, I did not hate them because I knew that they had to look out for their own survival as well. Like Ree, they, too, had families. Two key supporting characters were the intimidating uncle named Teardrop (John Hawkes) and an older but strong woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). The most touching moments were the simple ones. When Ree interacted with her brother and sister, such as teaching them how to shoot a gun or how to skin a squirrel, there was so much love even though their living conditions were far less than ideal. The kids looked up to her and they should because their big sister constantly tried to set a great example. One of the most memorable scenes was when Ree tried to enlist in the army. Lawrence did a fantastic performance especially in that scene because I felt beyond her pain and desperation. I also felt her fear of getting into something that she was not quite sure was truly about. Written and directed by Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” painted a memorable portrait of people living in rural America. It showed that sometimes the smart decision is not necessarily the right one.
Prodigal Sons (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kimberly Reed decided to document her return to her hometown in Montana because it was the first time her high school friends and neighbors would see her as a woman. When Paul (now Kim) was in high school, it seemed like he had it all: he was well-liked, he was quarterback of the football team, he had good grades. However, he kept secret of the fact that he felt like he was born in the wrong body. Her eventual transformation contributed to a strain in the relationship with her older adopted brother (Marc McKerrow) who got into an accident when he was in his early twenties and had a part of his brain removed. Ever since the surgery, he had problems with his mood and memory, which was problematic for Kim because she wanted to let go of her past yet her brother kept bringing up the fact that she used to be a man. This documentary moved me in ways that I did not expect. I thought it was just going to be a documentary about how people would react to Kimberly’s decision to finally be in a body where she was meant to be. I was surprised that it was actually more about family and finding closure to issues that do not have easy or comfortable answers. It was not always a good feeling to watch Kim and Marc interact because of the awkwardness of not seeing each other for many years. There was jealousy and anger from Marc’s side and Kim walked on egg shells around her brother but it was obvious that both of them were willing to put in the effort to make their relationship work. Some of the audiences’ reactions on message boards claimed that they hated Marc for being selfish, insensitive and mean-spirited. I did not hate Marc in the least. From the location of his scar, perhaps the doctors removed a part of his frontal lobe (the movie was not specific about which part of Marc’s brain was taken out). Having some basic background in Neurology, the frontal lobe controls personality, decision-making, and memory. So I did not hold him accountable for his fits of rage. Think of it as hitting your “funny bone” (the cause) and trying as hard as you can to not react (the rage). After his violent spells, when he said that his rage “wasn’t me,” I understood what he was trying to convey because he just could not help it. His fits were not dissimilar from clips I’ve seen of actual patients who had a part of their frontal lobe removed. The movie did not offer a scientific explanation (other than he was inconsistent of taking his medication–which is to imply that he was merely choosing to be irresponsible) so I feel the need to shed some light on the matter. “Prodigal Sons” is a deeply personal film and is really worth experiencing than reading about. There were some nice surprises involving bloodlines, people’s reactions to Kim being a transgender, and the history of who Paul was. If I can describe Kim in one word, it would have to be “brave.” By the end of the movie, I wanted to meet her and thank her for sharing not just her story but also the story of her imperfect family and the love they have for one another.