All the President’s Men (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five lawyers, who worked for Richard Nixon, were caught breaking and entering in an apartment complex to plant materials that would ultimately discredit their Democratic rivals. Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), were assigned to the case but they didn’t expect the trail to the truth to be so deeply embedded in conspiracy. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, “All the President’s Men” was engrossing in every way. Like all great films I admire, the magic was in the small details. First, its realism was highlighted due to its lack of score. The clacking of busy typewriters and electric dialogue were the only music available to our ears. “Source” was perhaps the most common and critical word thrown around but it was the most elusive capture. At some point we wonder, to our exasperation, how many sources Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor, needed to run the story that would potentially open Pandora’s Box. Second, the partnership between Redford and Hoffman’s characters were constantly on the forefront. Many potential sources led to dead ends but the duo had unwavering passion and integrity for their work. We may not know who they were outside of their jobs but we didn’t need to because their careers consumed their lives. Woodward and Berstein started off as strangers who happened to work on the same floor. The awkward tension was underlined in the way the camera captured their interactions. During their first few conversations, I couldn’t help but notice that there was always something between them such as a desk or a cubicle divider, particularly when they disagreed on how to approach the research necessary for their article. When one spoke, one character was in one frame. Throughout the picture, such techniques were less numerous because they learned to work together efficiently. The physical distance between the two men decreased, their conversation took place in one frame, and, in the final few shots, they shared the same work space. Lastly, I found Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat, Woodward’s main source who had strong ties with the most powerful men in the nation, to be quite astonishing. It’s a rarity that I’m impressed by a man covered in shadow for the entire time he’s on screen. Audiences who are not particularly interested in history shouldn’t feel that they would be confused because they are not familiar with the Watergate scandal. “All the President’s Men” worked as a smart and suspenseful political thriller. Despite its subject matter, it should be admired for its bold decisions. My favorite scene was a five-to-ten-minute sequence of laser-like focus involving Woodward trying to track down a man named Kenneth Dahlberg using a telephone. It looked simple but that was its brilliance. A less skilled direction could have made the investigation dry and utterly uninvolving.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Gattaca” took place in a time where designer babies were the norm (known as “Valids”) and were expected to live nothing short of their potential. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was a special case because even though he was not genetically engineered, he found a way to pass as one with the help of a recently crippled Valid named Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). Vincent claimed Jerome’s identity so he could work for Gattaca and reach his dreams of exploring outer space. Meanwhile, a murder in the company led the cops (Loren Dean, Alan Arkin) to find Vincent because of an eyelash they found in the scene of the crime. Vincent, as Jerome, had to evade the authorities and balance his time with a co-worker (Uma Thurman) he fell in love with. I watched this movie for the first time when I was a freshman in high school Biology. I remember generally liking it but I did not love it because I was basically forced to sit down and watch it. Having grown up a bit and given it a second chance, I immediately fell in love with the film because the main character had so much conviction. I looked in his eyes and I saw pain–pain for not being conceived as “perfect” and for not being loved as much as his brother. I related to him because he felt like he had so much to prove to the point where it almost destroyed him. The picture could have been a typical science fiction project–too cerebral for its own good and almost insular in its approach. However, “Gattaca” was really more about the emotional struggle of a character so brought down by society (even his father told him the closest he would get to reaching his dreams was to become a custodian for Gattaca) that he would do asolutely anything to prove them wrong. One of the many things I loved about the movie was it boldly took its argument regarding nature versus nurture in relation to being successful a step further. It also was able to comment on the role of the kindness of other people and the right timing of events that could help to pave a new path for a person with a specific circumstance. I thought it was a powerful contrast against things that were very controlled such as aformentioned genetically engineered babies where parents could pick the physical attributes of their future child. If I were to nitpick on a weakness, there were times when the romance between Hawke and Thurman became borderline cheesy with the two of them giving each other a piece of their own hair as a test to determine if they trusted each other. Neverthless, those scenes were negated by a consistently beautiful cinematography with its use of color indoors and outdoors. “Gattaca,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is not only one of the most astute science fiction films but also one of the most moving. The film is set in the future and the issues are more relevant than ever but it’s quite timeless.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Fredi M. Murer, “Vitus” tells the story of a boy (Fabrizio Borsani, age six, Teo Gheorghiu, age twelve) who had a natural gift for mastering anything he set his mind to. Having realized that their son was a genius, Vitus’ parents (Julika Jenkins, Urs Jucker) did everything they could to foster their son’s gift, specifically his skills in playing the piano. However, Vitus didn’t like the feeling of being forced to do something so he rebelled and took refuge in his grandfather’s home (Bruno Ganz) whenever he felt helpless over things that were happening around him. This film completely transported me; it gave me that overwhelmingly wonderful feeling that was similar to when I saw the masterful “Le voyage du ballon rouge” for the first time. There was a certain lyricism to “Vitus” that trancends the cinematic medium which was strange because the storytelling was (arguably) old-fashioned. At first I thought it was just going to be about a child prodigy who desperately wanted to be normal but it also turned out to be about parents who expected so much of their only child, a love between a child and his babysitter, the bond between a grandfather and his grandchild (it made me wish my grandfather was still alive), balancing piano and aviation (which reminded me of my love for medicine and movies), and having to choose to follow one’s destiny versus letting go. In a nutshell, it was about growing up and living in a world that’s not truly equipped in fostering people with IQs of around 180. One of my many favorite scenes includes the scene when Vitus and his friend were bicycling in a circle. Whoever was in front of the camera, we heard the music they were listening to–Vitus and his classical music (without earphones), the friend and his hip-hop music (with earphones). I’ve never seen anything like it (or perhaps I have but the others pale in comparison) and it completely took my breath away. There were many artistic shots like that dispersed throughout the film and they constantly took me by surprise. In fact, I felt every emotion in the emotional spectrum from anger toward the mother who crossed the line between helping her child reach his potential and pushing him way too hard, to feeling warm when Vitus tried to get the attention of someone from his childhood, to complete awe whenever he played the piano with such passion and confidence. I’m surprised not many people have heard of this film because I think it’s so much better than popular foreign pictures like “La vita è bella.” I loved the way this film wrapped everything up because I felt like it went complete circle without being too cheesy or sentimental. In the end, it made me feel like I could accomplish anything. Years from now, when I do have a children of my own, this is one of those films I’ll be watching with them because it’s nothing short of wonderful every step of the way.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El laberinto del fauno” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling pictures I’ve ever seen about the power of imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) used her mind as an escape from several events that she could not fully understand and deal with: moving into a new home in a countryside surrounded by the Spanish guerilla, her mother’s (Ariadna Gil) decision to be with a cruel army captain (Sergi López), her mother’s illness along with having a new sibling and the war that was driving everyone around her into a state of conflict and madness. In her fantasy world, she was an underground princess trapped in a human body. In order to get back to her royal family, a faun (Doug Jones) informed her that she must complete three dangerous tasks. What I admired most about this movie was del Toro’s ability to show us a story seen through a child’s eyes but at the same time keeping the reality at an arm’s length. Although fantastic elements are abound, this film is definitely not for children due to the intense violence and sometimes unbearable emotional suffering. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the director weaved in and out and through the reality and fantasy of the story. Even though we get drastic changes of scenery with each mission that Ofelia decided to take part in, tension was something we could not escape. I loved the spy/mother-figure played by Maribel Verdú. She just had this strength that radiated from within which made her a key figure in Ofelia’s life because her bed-ridden mother could not protect her. Verdú’s scenes with the smart and venomous captain gave me the creeps; the looks he so often gave her made me believe that he knew what she was up to all along. Ever since it’s release, “Pan’s Labyrinth” gained great approval from both critics and audiences and deservingly so. A lot of people consider the film as a dark fairytale. While it is that, I believe it only highlights one dimension of this amazing work. (The words “dark fairytale” sounds more like a fantasy.) A large portion of this picture was about how Ofelia looked inwards in a time of need and turned things that she could not control into something she could. That is, the more the main character was forced to grow up due to the circumstances around her, the more she gained an internal locus of control. When fantasy and reality finally collided during a key scene in the end, it was very depressing yet magical–and that was when del Toro’s vision finally came full circle.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written, produced, directed by and starring the talented Spike Lee, “Do the Right Thing” is an astute, mutilayered movie driven by the core of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are about: how we choose to react when faced by people who see us as less than and how we perceive other people who are different than us. The bulk of the story of this picture was set in a very hot summer day where everyone was involved in their regular businesses, whether it came to working hard to maintain one’s job, being a bum in the streets, or just watching the day go by and hoping that the breeze will provide some sort of temporary comfort from the heat. As the day got hotter, tempers ran up until the climactic riot that transpired toward the end of the picture. A certain tragedy happened that sparked the riot but different people have different answers on who should carry the blame for what had happened. I think this film is very accurate and realistic because it actively avoids a typical happy ending via telling the audiences what simply is. I enjoyed the very vibrant characters such as the Italian family who owns a pizza place (Danny Aiello, Richard Edson and John Turturro), Lee’s sensibile sister who knows and is comfortable with who she is (Joie Lee) and the energetic DJ who runs a radio station (Samuel L. Jackson). Each of them had something valuable to offer to the table–a certain insight or an interesting point of view. I’m glad that there was a spectrum of African-Americans portrayed in this film. Most of the movies I watch nowadays, they’re either the violent one, the extremely gifted one (with some sort of a handicap or a traumatic past), or the funny one. Here, we get to see different sides of one character often in a single scene so it was a breath of fresh air. A lot of people consider this classic, especially if they grew up with it, and I can understand why. It has a certain resonance because “the right thing” is constantly changing–like Heraclitus’ idea of the impossibility of stepping on the same river twice–and therefore is arguably nonexistent, yet we still (or should) strive for it. I’m very interested in seeing this again because it has all the elements in a film that I look for.