Three Dancing Slaves (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Gaël Morel, “Three Dancing Slaves” was about three brothers who tried to cope from the death of their mother. The story started off with the middle child (Nicolas Cazalé) who got caught up with drugs and thugs who want their money. They wanted payback in the most cruel way possible. Also, his ever-growing lack of respect toward his father began to shake the foundation of the family. The middle portion of the picture was about the eldest son (Stéphane Rideau) who recently got out of prison. Unlike the middle child, he was done with partying and hanging out. He actually wanted to turn his life around so he could serve as a model for his brothers and ultimately be proud of himself. Last but not least was the youngest son (Thomas Dumerchez) who tried to keep his secret hidden. He seemed tough at first glance with all his tattoos but he actually turned out to be one of the most sensitive characters. I’ve read a number of critiques about this film and a lot of them mentioned its potential but it didn’t quite deliver. I disagree; I think it did deliver by showing us what each of three characters were going through at specific periods of time. In a nutshell, this was another one of those slice-of-life pictures that most people find difficult to get into because its seemingly lack of strong consistent storyline. It worked for me because it had an emotional core: the death of the mother and how the three brothers responded to it. They may have had other things going on in their lives but it never lost track of that center. I also liked that the tone changed whenever it switched its focus from one brother to the next. The first one felt enigmatic and dangerous, the second felt both depressing and hopeful, and the third felt sensitive and reflective. And justifiably so, the respective tones matched each of the brothers’ dominating personalities. I just wished that the third act could’ve been explored more because it was the shortest. I’m giving this film a strong recommendation because I was interested in it from start to finish. I thought the direction was insightful and I was happy that not everything was spelled out for the audiences.
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
This critically acclaimed Filipino film about a flamoboyant gay twelve-year-old (Nathan Lopez) who happens to develop a serious crush on a cop (J.R. Valentin) both impresses and disappoints. The conflict comes in when the cop finds out that Max’ family is involved in several crimes that range from theft to murder. I liked that this picture did not flinch when it comes to showing the poorer neighborhoods in the Philippines. While the living conditions are cramped, it still manages to show that most people are generally happy with where they are because things can get a lot worse. Having been raised in the Philippines for the first eleven years of my life, I found this film’s perspective to be accurate yet bona fide because it still manages to respect its subjects. It’s easy to look down upon a group of people if you don’t truly understand them. Another aspect I enjoyed about it was that Max being really queer was really not a big deal to most people. What I love about the Philippines and Filipinos in general is that it’s pretty easy for them to accept others who are different from the norm as long as they find a common bond. When I was growing up in the Philippines, I didn’t see a lot of LGBT celebrities on television. But nowadays, if you tune in on TFC (a cable set that people can subscribe to so they can watch Filipino programs all over the world), it’s difficult NOT to see gays and lesbians. In fact, they tend to be the most entertaining hosts on game shows or characters on soap operas. So I’m glad that this movie reflected the current realities in Filipino society. However, there were some things about the picture that disappointed me. Instead of truly exploring the non-sexual relationship between Lopez and Valentin, it delved too much into the politics of cops and criminals to the point where it took the focus away from Lopez’ interesting character. I wanted to know more about the lead character and his relationship with his accepting family (no matter how dysfunctional they may be). I also didn’t enjoy the overly melodramatic scenes. Perhaps it’s because I expected more comedy because of the trailer. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a slight recommendation because it’s strong in many aspects. It’s just that the very (but important) negatives kind of weighed down most of it.
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.
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.
Marley & Me (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Marley & Me” was based on a memoir by John Grogan starring Owen Wilson (as Grogan) and Jennifer Aniston (as Grogan’s wife). Wanting to start a family, Wilson and Aniston adopt a Labrador Retriever for two hundred dollars. As Marley grows up, the two leads learn a plethora of life lessons ranging from the dynamics of marriage, balancing job with personal life, raising a family, and staying true to one’s self. Although Marley is not exactly the most well-behaved dog, his energy, ability to destroy furniture and inability to follow his owners’ rules are qualities that make him charming. Although the film is cute and cuddly at first glance, I must give credit to David Frankel, the director, for actually telling a story under the sugar and fluff. Wilson and Aniston were actually given things to do such as when they had to deal with trying to have children and sacrificing their careers. There were moments in the film that carried real dramatic weight because we not only care about the dog but also the dog’s owners. We were able to see how the owners were like when they were on the top of the world and when they were feeling ashamed and defeated. The film was around two hours long and sometimes it seemed to drag on. However, when the final few scenes arrived, I realized that it worked in its favor. I was able to look back on the things that happened when Marley was just a clearance puppy and Aniston and Wilson didn’t have children yet. Although the ending was a bit depressing, it was necessary because this movie was ultimately about celebrating life. I was surprisingly moved by this film because it made me look back on my own life and the choices I’ve made that got me to where I am. “Marley & Me” is not just about a cute dog. There’s a well-defined emotional core and that’s why I was invested in it from beginning to end. Dog-lovers will definitely enjoy this picture.
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this indie drama about an Orthodox Jew (Zoe Lister Jones) and a Muslim originally from Pakistan (Francis Benhamou) who build a friendship out of commonalities despite their religious backgrounds. Even though the crux of this film is about arranged marriages and arguments whether it works or not, it’s not afraid to tackle some issues between Jewish and Muslim people. Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer, the directors, were efficient with each scene by astutely using contrasting scenes and ideas: man vs. woman, work place vs. home, self vs. family, traditionality vs. modernity… Yet at the same time, Crespo and Schaefer sometimes fused two opposing ideas in order to draw insightful but valid conclusions. I also liked the fact that even though the setting was in Brooklyn, New York, and there’s a lot of diversity on both the background and the foreground, there are still characters so soaked in bigotry but they don’t even know it. What’s more interesting is that though they feel like they’re helping the situation, as a third party, one could feel like they’re making the situation worse as each word is expressed. The writing must also be admired because I felt like the conversations are the kind that I would overhear from friends, random strangers, or even family members (racism, narrow-mindedness at the dinner table and all). Although, personally, I wouldn’t want to be placed in an arranged marriage, as a person of color, I’m open-minded when it comes to cultures who do follow certain traditions. What this movie could’ve improved on was the last three scenes. I thought everything was presented so quickly to the point where it diminished the momentum it had. Still, this is a strong movie for fans of indie dramas and for people who want to learn more about other cultures.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Upon reading other people’s reviews, I got the feeling that Poppy (Sally Hawkins) was this person who was happy all the time and wasn’t at all affected by other people’s negative emotions. After actually watching the film, I believe she’s not like that at all. In fact, she cares so much about other people–her family, her friends, even complete strangers–to the point where she tries to make them happy when she senses that they’re having a bad day or they have something heavy in their minds. Her default emotion is happiness, which is unlike many people whose default is neutral, and that makes her really interesting and entertaining to watch. Writer and director Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”) did a great job introducing an extremely charming and likable character right from the opening credits. What’s even more impressive is that he was able to tell an ordinary story surrounding a 30-year-old single elementary school teacher with great focus in the emotional aspects of different circumstances. By the end of the film, I truly got to know Poppy when she’s with her friends (Alexis Zegerman was hilarious as Hawkins’ sarcastic roommate), when she’s at work with her children, when she’s with her co-workers, when she’s with complete strangers, and when she’s by herself with her thoughts. Although the whole learning-to-drive aspect with Eddie Marsan as the angry driving instructor didn’t work for me because there were a lot of intense emotional outbursts, I did laugh a lot because I could relate to those scenes regarding my experiences behind the wheel for the first time. Instead of that, I wish the story had more time to focus more on the romance between Hawkins and Samuel Roukin. Since Poppy and her group of friends have been talking about where they are in their lives, including Poppy’s thoughts about whether she’s really happy with how her life has turned out, I thought that a genuine connection with someone of the opposite sex was an issue that needed more exploration. Still, this picture is very, very good and I was surprised that Hawkins didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While watching the film, she made me feel really happy and it’s not easy to carry a comedy movie with such consistency all the way through. If you’re in the mood for a bit of sunshine, “Happy-Go-Lucky” gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.
Desperate Hours (1990)
★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of film that proves that a talented cast means nothing if the execution of the story is weak and uninvolving. Mickey Rourke, Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers, and David Morse’s characters are one-dimensional and annoying. The only character that I was remotely interested in was played by Lindsay Crouse. She was smart and I was at ease whenever she had a plan on how to attack a certain problem. Another big problem I had with this picture is its inconsistency. In the first fifteen minutes, it was established that Rouke’s character is smart and deadly, almost assassin-like in his movement and has an uncanny ability to find another person’s weaknesses. But in the last fifteen minutes, all of those qualities were thrown out the window; he almost was as stupid as his henchmen. Since Crouse is the strongest in this, I was actually more interested on what was going on outside of the house, where the hostage wasn’t happening, than inside. It’s not supposed to work that way because the dramatic core is the family’s interactions with the criminals. Instead, nothing much happens inside the house other than threats being thrown at one another and long moments of merely standing around. If Michael Cimino, the director, paced this film better and reshot a couple of scenes, it may have had the chance to redeem itself. Instead, we get an extremely slow-moving picture that isn’t even thrilling in the least. If one is interested in a much better hostage movie, I recommend “Panic Room” starring Jodie Foster instead. At least that one has an interesting premise and hostages that one can root for all the way to the final scene.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I had my reservations prior to watching this film but after I saw it, I could finally understand why “Poltergeist” is considered as a horror classic. What I love about this picture is that it’s an unconventional horror movie. It focuses on the family and makes the “scary stuff” secondary or even tertiary. Credit definitely goes to Steven Spielberg (even though it’s directed by Tobe Hooper who also directed the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). Being a big Spielberg fan, I immediately noticed his signature style of storytelling: the timeless feel of feeling like a kid again, problems with at least one parental figure (obvious or otherwise), excellent pacing, and a generous offering of eye-opening visual and special effects–all of which never outshine the film’s emotional core. I must commend JoBeth Williams for playing the mother of the house. I found her to be really touching during those scenes when she would engage with the parapsychologists (Zelda Rubinstein and Beatrice Straight). Even though all types of paranormal phenomena are happening around them, Williams’ yearning for her missing child (Heather O’Rourke) resembles a mother’s yearning for her child who recently died. Not only are those scenes moving, they are integral to the story’s overall feel. The film is smart enough to establish the family first before truly getting into the paranormal, but at the same time it didn’t take a long time to get there. Once the horror started, it never lets go: the scenes are in the least creepy and truly memorable in its most daunting. I also noticed how “The Others” and “The Sixth Sense” took some of the big ideas from here and made them their own. Even though some people would say that the special and visual effects are outdated, I think most still hold up to this day. As for those that are undeniably dated, their powers lie in the concepts (for instance, an invisible demon dragging a person to and across the ceiling) and they leave so much for the imagination. “Poltergeist” will scare people who believe in ghosts, especially haunted homes. My culture believes in the existence of ghosts (even though I personally don’t–but I do believe in the possible existence of an afterlife) so this film gave me some serious goosebumps.
Gran Torino (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I honestly thought this movie was going to end up a dud because the previews looked really preachy. But after about fifteen minutes into the film, I really cared for Clint Eastwood’s character even though he’s racist and a very secretive person. I knew he would open up a bit after meeting his Hmong neighbors but I wanted to see his struggles before becoming a better person. Eastwood’s character made me laugh even though he uses every racist Asian term because we are made to understand what he’s been through and how conflicted he is by people who do not look like him. The way he interacted with the Hmongs during a party was done in a bona fide manner, such as when the older women kept putting food on his plate. As part of the Asian community, that rings true whenever there’s a special occasion, especially when others think that you’re too skinny. The film was at its best whenever Eastwood’s character would interact with Ahney Her and Bee Vang; we come to realize that he treats them like a daughter and son, respectively, more than his blood relatives, and they treat him more like a father or a grandfather more than anyone else. There was a point in the film when Eastwood admitted that he finds more similarities with his ethnic neighbors than with his own flesh and blood. I think a lot of people feel that way especially when they don’t feel like they are appreciated despite their flaws. In a way, Eastwood’s character reminded me of my late grandfather. Even though my grandfather was not strict, he resembled Eastwood’s mannerisms such as his intimidating growl and the way he walked. As much as I loved the comedic moments, the dramatic elements are also very involving. The scenes which feature the Hmong gangs and the things they are capable of are both scary and heartbreaking. (I’m amazed by some people on IMDB who claim that Asian gangs don’t exist. Yes, they do exist.) I thought the ending was perfectly handled because it shows how much Eastwood’s character has grown and what he is willing to do for the kids who taught him how to feel more alive and connected. In the end, we realize what the Gran Torino is supposed to symbolize. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” is rumored to be his last film. If it is, I think his fans will (or should be) proud of this film. If it isn’t, then I’m excited for what he will come up with in the future.