Grave of the Firelies (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene depicted the death of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) when Japan finally surrendered at the end of World War II. His story of struggle with his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi) was elegantly told in flashback. They tried to survive by themselves because their father was in the Navy, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) passed away because a fire-bombing raid, and their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) outwardly expressed that the two of them were a burden since they did not do their share in providing for the household. “Hotaru no haka” is a sublime example of anime transcending animated stories told in a fantastic scope and science fiction. It was able to tell a human story that was very real, tragic and heartbreaking as Seita did his best to keep his sister away from truths that were difficult to digest. Of course, he ended up unsuccessful in the end but the heart of the film was his attempt to construct distractions so that his sister would not think about their parents and the prospect that they, too, could die. Although we saw planes bombing Japanese towns, I liked that the siblings’ main source of struggle was their relationship with other Japanese people. Since everything was rationed, mostly everyone was out for themselves and their own families. Food and shelter were rare and money became irrelevant. Bartering drove the economy which was a problem because the two kids had barely anything to barter with in the first place. There was a complexity in their society’s situation. I did not necessarily see them as “bad people” because I probably would have done the same thing if I was in their shoes. I also admired the fact that Isao Takahata, the director, did not shy away from showing dead, mangled, and rotten bodies. When I saw this film in high school, I remember being shocked at the images because at the time I had not seen an animated movie that mirrored reality so closely. One of the most resonant scenes for me was when Seita glanced over at his mother’s badly burned body. His facial and body expression suggested that he did not at all recognized his mother but deep inside he felt that it was her and she was soon going to die. Just as quickly, he realized he had no choice but to be strong for his sister until their father came for them. “Grave of the Firelies,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, had power that made me feel so sad even after a few days since I’ve seen it. I was haunted with what Seita and his sister had been through but at the same time I was thankful that I did not live through those times. Even more impressive, the movie was a war film that did not place blame on any one nation but instead highlighted individual responsiblity in times of war.
Happy Tears (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) returned home to take care of their father (Rip Torn) who showned initial symptoms of dementia. While taking care of their father, the two vastly different sisters began to work out their differences as well as their misconceptions about their father in relation to events that happened when they were little kids. I wanted to enjoy this movie more than I did because I have a weakness when it comes to stories about family members returning to a place due to some life-chaning event and they eventually having no choice but to face the demons in their past. Unfortunately, I think that Mitchell Lichtenstein had so much trouble balancing the comedy and the drama to the point where the heart of the story was not always the focus. Particularly problematic for me were the fantasy and the flashback sequences of Jayne. I understood that she was the more optimistic, outwardly funnier sister who was often unaware of what was really going on around her but there were times when such sequences made her look childish in comparison to her sister. I think those sequences worked against her character because the picture hinted at the two women being strong and able to carry on without their husbands. I would also have liked to have seen them interact with their own families more often to serve as a contrast with how they were when they spent time with their father. For half of the movie, I didn’t understand why they treated their father the way they did. I had a premature evaluation that they didn’t care about their father and they just wanted to send him to a nursing home as quick as possible so they could move on with their lives. Since I initially thought that they were selfish, it took me some time to really connect with them and to learn more about their motivations outside of their actions–which were very different from what they chose to show to others. The movie was at its best when Posey and Moore were forced to look into each other’s eyes and measure each other up. Both had a presence about them; the two couldn’t be any more different but they were magnetic in their own rights and in a way I found parts of myself in both of them. One of the major emotions between them was jealousy and I found them very relatable when they often avoided talking about it with each other. Instead, the jealousy was embedded in the sarcasms and the sly remarks about how one chose to live her life. “Happy Tears” had good moments but it didn’t quite moved me as strongly as I’d hoped. With a stronger script and more natural direction, I think I would have liked it a lot more because the performances were already solid.
The Wolfman (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Set in a Victorian-era Great Britain, “The Wolfman” told Lawrence Talbot’s (Benicio Del Toro) horrific transformation and the bloody mayhem he caused after surviving a werewolf attack. Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins also star as Lawrence’s delicate sister-in-law and mysterious father. I think this movie would have benefited greatly if it had a shorter running time. Even though the middle portion had a number of exciting scenes with bucketloads of blood and body parts flying around, it lagged because the character development felt forced. It was almost as if the movie was following a pattern of one werewolf attack after fifteen to twenty minutes of dull conversations. The acting also could have used a bit more consistency: I felt like Blunt was stuck in a sappy romantic period piece, Hopkins doing another rendition of his character in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and Del Toro was left in the middle of it all and sometimes looking confused. As for the werewolf hunter played buy Hugo Weaving, I found it difficult to root for him (or were we even supposed to?) because he lacked charm and power. He was just desperate and angry throughout the entire film and I needed to see another dimension. Moreover, I found the flashback scenes to be completely unnecessary (and irksome). Instead of cutting those out and leaving the audiences to interpret what they think happened in the past (the character did a lot of talking so the pieces were certainly there), everything was spelled out so the picture lacked a much-needed subtlety. However, there were a few stand-out scenes that I thought had real sense of dread: when Del Toro rushed into the fog to rescue a gypsy kid from the werewolf and all we could see were rocks and fog, the scene in the asylum where doctors from all over gathered to witness a “cured” man who “thought’ he was a werewolf, and the scene where Del Toro first transformed into a monster. Like most horror movies, even though this picture delivered the gore and the violence, it lacked focus because the writing was not strong enough. There was a lack of a natural flow from one scene to the next so the film at times felt disjointed and I was left to evaluate where we were in the story instead of focusing on what was happening on screen at the time. “The Wolfman,” directed by Joe Johnston, was a nice attempt at a solid horror film about cursed humans who were slaves to the full moon but it ultimately came up short. It’s not a bad DVD rental but I wouldn’t rush to see it in theaters.
The Soloist (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I did not expect to dislike this movie as much as I did. “The Soloist,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, was about a writer and a talented musician who happened to be a homeless man with schizophrenia and how they taught each other lessons in order to be more secure with themselves and eventually integrate with their families. Unfortunately, most of the elements that made up the film did not work for me. For instance, I think the movie went on for too long neglecting the fact that schizophrenia is a very serious mental disorder and that “friendship” does not necessarily cure it. It tackled the issue of diagnosis and medication in only two scenes, which I found to be absurd given the subject matter of the integration of a person with a fractured mind in society. I also found the pacing of the picture to be quite boring (for the lack of a better word). I wanted to know more about why Downey was so into helping Foxx. It certainly was not because he was a very giving person; in fact, he was sort of a reclusive, self-contained individual who neglected his family. If Joe Wright, the director, had found a way to balance scenes between Downey and his family (Catherine Keener as his ex-wife and a son who we never saw on screen) and Downey and Foxx, I think the audiences would have had a better understanding about his motivations. I also would have liked to see more of the history behind Foxx’ character. There were a few flashback scenes which I found to be very touching, especially his relationship with his mother, one of key figures in his life that pushed him to pursue his musical talent. All in all, I think the film’s fatal flaw is that it tried too hard to reach the most mainstream audiences via sentimentality and not enough common sense. We saw a lot of images of homelessness but it ultimately amounted to nothing–just images of misery and sadness. Also, I really hated it when Foxx’ character would play the cello and we would get random images of colors and buildings of Los Angeles on screen. It would have been so much better if we actually saw him play a piece and observe the passion in his eyes. Lastly, “The Soloist” lasted longer than it should have because of a dozen or so unnecessary dialogue that had nothing to do with the big picture.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story, “Sybil” is about a woman (Sally Field) who has dissociative identity disorder (DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder) and how her psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) helps her by digging up the past and confronting her inner demons. Having some sort of a background in psychology, I knew what to look for to see if what was really being portrayed on screen was DID. I have to say that it was spot-on: from when it was triggered by certain objects that reminded her of her abusive mother, to when her condition got worse to the point where it started to ruin her life, up until she finally finds some sort of a resolution (but not a cure). Field was tremendous in this film. I was so impressed whenever she would switch from one personality to the next; I completely forgot that she was just playing a character. While the acting was obviously emotionally draining, it must have been physically draining as well because of the very physical counseling sessions when she was required to move around in order to portray how conflicted Sybil was. Woodward also deserved recognition because I immediately felt like she was the kind of person that Sybil would eventually trust since she was very nurturing and accepting. There was not one moment where I thought she would give up and that was important to me because it meant that she was willing to follow through with her patient’s condition. I also liked the romantic angle between Field and the late Brad Davis. It was so sad because Davis fell for a personality (though some may argue he really did fall for Sybil) and Sybil was pretty much scared of human contact due to her traumatic past. That was scene in the subway with Davis and Field was strangely romantic even though something felt wrong about the whole thing. I mention all these people to highlight the fact that the film focused on Sybil and her relationship with others. Instead of telling a story of a mental disorder, the picture was about a person who happened to have a mental disorder in its core. And that subtelty is crucial because people find it difficult to separate the person from the disease or condition. To me, that message had a true resonance because of the sensitivity of issues that come with mental illnesses. As for the scenes regarding the abuse, even though it did not show blood and guts, I still thought it was pretty graphic, not just with the film’s consistent sinister tone, but also the tools that were shown and what the mother did to Sybil during the flashback scenes. Watching those scenes made me really angry because I was reminded that such things still do happen and the abused children will most likely have psychological problems in their futures. Ultimately, I think this is one of those films that will stick with me for a very long time because of how faithful it was with reality. It goes to show that even though the mind can be a very powerful coping mechanism, if pushed hard enough and again and again, it can break into pieces and may cause irreversible devastation toward both the owner and that person’s inner circle.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Affliction” is a haunting film about a man (Nick Nolte) who was abused by his father (James Coburn) as a child and the ramifications of such negative parenting. I couldn’t help but watch this picture in a psychological perspective because it’s very character-driven. This is one of Nolte’s strongest film acting-wise because right from the moment he appeared on screen, I could discern that there was seriously something wrong with him. Though he doesn’t say a lot during the first few minutes, his facial expressions and body language made me reach to a hypothesis that he internalizes all his troubles. Surely enough, Paul Schrader, the director, brilliantly uses narration and grainy flashback sequences about what Nolte’s character and his brother (Willem Dafoe) have experiences under their father’s roof. I felt so bad for Nolte’s character because he lacks a coping mechanism (or even basic but effective problem-solving strategies) when a problem is in front of him. All he knows is internalization because his father taught him that in order for him to be a man (and not a sissy), he must not wear emotion on his sleeves. His internal conflict regarding his past was worsened by his decaying relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Nolte becomes so determined to be the complete opposite of his father to the point where he couldn’t see that his daughter is afraid of his presence. He tries way too hard to impress her that he becomes this suffocating figure, who not only puts his daughter under a microscope, but also reacts so aggressively when the daughter doesn’t express enough gratitude or when she claims that she “wants to go home.” I also thought that his tendency to the want to solve mysteries when there’s no mystery to be solved was fascinating. The way I saw it was he couldn’t solve his own inner problems so he tries to look for solutions for things that have nothing to do with him. He needs to constantly compensate for his lack of internal locus of control to the point where he starts drowning in his own problems and his friends start leaving him. That downward spiral was aided by the eventual constant presence of his abusive father; I was deeply affected by scenes when the father would literally put Nolte down some more when Nolte was already feeling like less than nothing. I also thought the story was smart because Dafoe’s character, despite the abuse, was well-adjusted. It offers an alternative argument: child-rearing is not the only factor to blame. Based on Russell Banks’ novel, “Affliction” is a depressing but powerful picture because it’s very multi-layered in its portrayal of the characters and the elements that keep the story together.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Fire” is the first Indian film that explicity depicted acts of homosexuality (specifically lesbians) on film and that alone deserves recognition. From beginning to end, I was interested in the picture because Shabana Azmi is often torn between what she wants to do for herself and her duties as a wife and a woman. Nandita Das finds out that her husband (Javed Jaffrey) is having an affair and that inner turmoil that she experiences lead to her discovery about what she really wants in life. Azmi and Das’ initial common bond was unhappiness which quickly evolved into something more. Even though this film is stripped down due to its limited budget, the writing is pretty powerful. It manages to use flashbacks, folk stories and comedy in order maintain the film’s focus. Those three elements were used to elucidate the literal and symbolic meanings of fire; why it can be a friend or an enemy, how it can make one feel so alive or exiled. Whenever Azmi and Das interacted, I could feel their passion and yearning to break away from society’s norms but at the same time hold on to what they have. Their affair does not stay hidden for long so they are forced to choose between unhappy familiarity and exciting uncertainty. I was also impressed with this movie because it was honest in its portrayal of homosexuality. Deepa Mehta, the writer and director, was careful about molding the lives of the main characters; she makes her characters rise above being lesbians and actually lead lives that are otherwise normal and traditional. I thought the most powerful scenes were saved in the last twenty minutes. When it was over, I understood what the title really meant. A lot of people might dismiss this film for being too slow or being too depressing or actively defying the traditional Indian culture. I can only agree with the last bit but that’s a good thing because it offers something new. It goes to show that homosexuality exists across cultures and it shouldn’t be taboo.
In Paris (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s a lot of complex dynamics between the characters in this film but most of them were not explored enough. The best scenes were when the two brothers, Romain Duris and Louis Garrel, would talk to each other about women, the value of life and their childhood. I also found the father (Guy Marchand) interesting but he wasn’t given much to do except hover in the background like some sort of annoyance for the two leads. Duris returns home after a bad break-up and stays in bed all day. Garrel tries to find ways to alleviate his brother’s depression by–strangely enough–sleeping with other women. That statement doesn’t make sense but after seeing the entire picture, in a strange way, it does have some hidden meaning. I wouldn’t have gotten it either if Garrel’s character didn’t literally voice it out to his brother in the final scene. Still, this film is very uneven. In the beginning, Garrel talks to the camera and he claims that he’s going to be the narrator. As the film went on, that narration was completely thrown out the window. It would’ve been wiser if Christophe Honoré, the director, was more consistent about the narration because the film got a little confusing at times. One minute we’re looking at something that happened a week ago and the next we’re looking at something that happened a few months ago. The fact that this film is in French (I have no problem with that; I love foreign films) is another issue because there were some dialogues that do not directly correlate with the subtitles. (I know a little bit of French.) Given that handicap, jumping from one moment in time to another makes it that much less accessible. I liked that this film referenced other great filmmakers from the likes Jean-Luc Godard (scenes outside the home) and Bernardo Bertolucci (scenes in the home). Plus, that one scene when Garrel was looking at movie posters of “Last Days” and “A History of Violence” made me laugh due to the fact that Garrel looked at Michael Pitt’s picture with a certain recognition. (They worked together in one of my favorite films “The Dreamers.”) Little tidbits like that made me enjoy this movie despite my frustrations with its techniques. This is definitely not for everyone but if you’re the kind of person that likes to see movies which honor certain signatures of other great filmmakers, check this one out. (I still say it should have been more character-driven…)
Boy A (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Originally a novel written by Jonathan Trigell, this feature film directed by John Crowley is ultimately about about rehabilitation and redemption. Even though it’s more focused on the rehabilitation outside of a facility, I think it’s more interesting because it also manages to tackle the philosophical question of others’ knowledge (and lack thereof) of a particular event in one’s life–how that knowledge can change the way they think and act around the person of controversy. Andrew Garfield does an amazing job as Jack Burridge who was sentenced to jail as a child because of a murder he committed. With the help of Peter Mullan’s character who is like a father figure to Jack, Jack is given the chance to reintegrate into a society that he left (or of which that left him?). Garfield, within the first five minutes, proved to me that he truly regrets the past and wants to lead a normal life again. He has that childlike quality that is extremely charming, but at the same time there are moments in the film that shows the audience that the evil inside him–which most likely resides within us as well–is not fully expunged despite his best efforts. Garfield gives us a really complex character study; how a person that is continually challenged and reminded of his past reaches some sort of breaking point even though many things are seemingly going in the right direction. Another stand-out performance is from Katie Lyons as Garfield’s girlfriend. She’s strong and spunky, determined and a bit over-the-top–which is a perfect fit for Garfield because he tries to dim his light since he doesn’t want to get much (positive and negative) attention from people. Some of the highlights in the film include Garfield’s dance when he was under the influence of ecstasy (I thought that was kind sexy), Garfield and Lyons’ intimate conversations, and the final scene. The last scene blew me away because it was so powerful when it comes to engaging the audience. The film’s strength and downfall were the flashback scenes. Even though those scenes are necessary to explain what happened in the past and they were placed in the right moments in the film, the flashbacks brought up new questions that weren’t really answered in the end. Perhaps if one read the novel, the answers would be clearer but those that did not might be a bit confused. Still, this is a very good movie that gathers momentum as it goes on and doesn’t break its spell until after the exemplary last scene. This is a thinking person’s movie because it essentially comments on (and even questions) human psychology. It is also the kind of film that ignites discussion.