Tag: grief

Monsieur Lazhar


Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It looks like any other Thursday in a Montreal elementary school. Just before the bell summons the children to go inside, Simon (Émilien Néron) collects a crateful of milk for his class. He is supposed to deliver it to his homeroom but the door happens to be locked. He finds this unusual so he peers inside and sees his teacher’s lifeless body hanging from the ceiling.

A week later, the principal (Danielle Proulx) still hasn’t found a replacement for Ms. Lachance. Hearing about the terrible the news, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant with teaching experience of nineteen years, drops by and offers to take on the position.

Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, “Monsieur Lazhar” is most impressive because of its ability to present the topic of grief and explore it with exacting honesty and without ostentatiousness simply designed to wring an emotion out of us.

Almost immediately, the film communicates that students laying eyes on or hearing about their dead teacher is not like seeing or hearing about a dead person on television or the movies. The psychic scar is lasting and has a feral bite because it has happened to someone they knew, interacted with on a daily basis, who offered them support, laughter, discipline, and a different kind of love that perhaps even parents were not able to provide.

The picture also functions on another level by making it apparent that Ms. Lachance’s death does not affect her students the same way. Some are more overt in their comparison between Ms. Lachance and Monsieur Lazhar’s methods of teaching. Naturally, there is some kind of resistance when it comes to the necessary changes that have to be implemented to facilitate the class’ recovery, but Falardeau has a knack for highlighting the experience, the in-the-moment reactions of every child who is willing to speak his or her mind, that not once does the material feel like an after school special.

Having an experience of working with kids, I appreciated that the film is able to distinguish between thought and thinking process. In comparison, thoughts are interesting most often on the surface level. A child’s thinking process, how they attempt to make sense of a nonsensical thing, like a suicide, on the other hand, provides a backbone and emotional center to the story. We want to hear these children speak, to express their confusion, to admit to their anger, and to question why.

It is interesting how the screenplay consistently respects how sensitive children really are to something they don’t quite understand, while at the same time respecting their intelligence by not having them all respond in a manner that most of us might expect.

Unfortunately, when the film steps outside the schoolyard, its power diminishes slightly. While it is necessary that we come to know Monsieur Lazhar outside of teaching, at times the strand about him seeking political asylum in Canada feels forced, his sad story another way for us to identify with him. Also, the possible romantic spark between he and a fellow teacher (Brigitte Poupart) lacks a parabola. It seems to start and end without an arc that feels right for them.

Nevertheless, “Monsieur Lazhar” remains an achievement that the writer-director should be proud of. Despite the fact that it tackles realities that may be difficult to swallow, it’s the kind of film that parents should see with their children because it is real and encourages healthy lines of discussion.

We Bought a Zoo


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 Skin I Live In


The Skin I Live In (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) was a renowned plastic surgeon whose wife’s body burned in a car crash while trying to get away with her boyfriend (Roberto Álamo). Robert transported Gal home and took care of her for months, but when she saw her reflection on a window, she jumped out because she couldn’t bear living with her teratoid appearance. Since the tragedy, we learned that Robert had been performing experimental skin treatment on Vera (Elena Anaya). Although artificial, it was resistant to burning and insect bites which was promising for the scientific community. However, Robert’s colleagues were led to believe that he had been experimenting with mice, not on humans. “La piel que habito” had plenty of ideas about how anger and grief could drive a person into trying to achieve something so radical, it threatened to destroy him. The picture was most fascinating when it allowed the camera to observe the surgeon’s work sans dialogue. I liked watching him navigate his hands with precision while cutting a piece of skin and applying it onto his model. When something went wrong, he maintained his composure and consistently found a way to work around the problem–a quality that also served him well outside the lab. By observing his routine, though shot with cold detachment, we learned a lot about his experiment and how invested and desperate he was to make the seemingly impossible a reality. The film held a lot of secrets about identity. The most curious was Vera and why she lived like a prisoner. While it made sense that she lived in a relatively contained environment because her skin was being replaced, there were some red flags that grabbed (or should grab) our attention. For example, she wasn’t allowed any visitors, never handed sharp objects, and there were writing, like tallies of dates, on the walls of her room. If she was a voluntary patient, why was she considered a danger to herself? Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director, did a solid job on keeping a lid on what was really happening. The less information was available for us to put the pieces together, although I felt a bit of frustration due to its unhurried pacing, the more I felt compelled to think of increasingly ridiculous hypotheses. One of the most interesting characters was Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who, to Robert, was just a trustworthy longtime maid, but was actually his biological mother. I loved looking at her face, the way she moved across the room, and why she was convinced that Robert ought to kill Vera. Marilia provided another layer, if you will, to the story. I just wished that she had been used more. The most critical opportunity that the film lost was not relating its story deeply enough to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature. Marilia was Robert’s creator and Vera was Robert’s. Instead of looking to the future and exploring the repercussions of the surgeon’s transgressions, the screenplay went back in time about halfway through and gave us images of what happened to the wife and daughter. While it was necessary for us to know, several lines of dialogue would have sufficed. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” “The Skin I Live In,” wonderfully shot even without Almodóvar’s usual primary colors, could have used less family history and focused more on horror that came about from ignoring certain moral obligations.

Beginners


Beginners (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.

In a Better World


In a Better World (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) had recently lost his mother from cancer. Due to his father’s work (Ulrich Thomsen), he was forced to change schools and live in another country. On his first day, he noticed buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed Rat Face, being bullied by other kids. Christian was naturally drawn to Elias because the two shared a commonality: loneliness. Christian was still mourning his mother and Elias’ inability to express his sadness due to his parents’ (Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm) recent separation. Based on the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, “Hævnen” had something important to say about violence and its role in our lives. It started as a story of bullying. I immediately identified with the two boys when they felt they had to strike back so they wouldn’t be harmed anymore. In a way, I agreed with their course of action. I felt anger for the duo when the adults suggested that the best solution was to sweep the problem under the rug and just walk away. It was as if they had forgotten how cruel certain kids could be like. In my experience, bullies don’t simply allow their victims to walk away because they find satisfaction in scaring or hurting someone. It makes them feel like they’re in control. To let go of that control is like forcing to break a habit. And we all know how difficult it is to break what we’re accustomed to. But the film challenged my stance somewhere in between. Instead of focusing on the schoolyard, it brought up questions concerning violence and its consequences out there in the world whether it be a small altercation between adults or something as important as two groups of people out to hurt and kill each other because they differ in religion. It was more difficult to classify where I stood. All the performances were equally fascinating. Persbrandt was wonderful as a father who strived to be a good example for his children. He took a potentially weak character, considering he was the least violent of them all, into someone who knew what it meant to be a father and a man. Nielsen and Rygaard complemented each other’s acting styles yet they knew how to internalize and let go at the just right moments. Having a great chemistry was crucial because their characters’ friendship was tested in physical, emotional, and psychological levels. By the end, the strength of their friendship felt familiar. It reminded me of what I had outside of the film. “In a Better World,” elegantly directed by Susanne Bier, brought up complex questions but it offered no solution, just possibilities. It didn’t need to because each circumstance was uniquely shaped. Despite the sadness that plagued the characters’ lives, I choose to see it as an uplifting story. One can infer that we have the capacity to control our inner turmoils. If we don’t have that ability now, no matter, we can learn by checking in with ourselves once in a while. It then becomes our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.

Beautiful Boy


Beautiful Boy (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) were about to get a divorce. They lived in the same house, able to carry on a conversation, though nothing deep, eat at the same table, but couldn’t bear to sleep on the same bed. When their eighteen-year-old son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), called from college one night, it was a final contact. The next morning, Kate and Bill found out that their beloved son had killed over a dozen of his fellow students and, eventually, himself. Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku, directed by the latter, “Beautiful Boy” worked both as a life-changing tragedy and as a marriage drama, which was interesting because there was not one image of Sammy using a gun was ever shown. Instead, the picture focused on how the couple reacted to the news which was heartbreaking to the say the least. The bereaved questioned themselves what they did or didn’t do as parents to have raised such a depressed child who eventually gathered so much rage and alienation. Kate hated the fact that Bill was always emotionally unavailable due to the nature of his work, while Bill begrudged Kate for picking at every single flaw whether it was about a household item or person with feelings. But in my opinion, neither of them, as well as the real families of those teens who went on a rampage in their high school and college campuses, was to blame. Sometimes kids just can’t cope and their decision to allow others to feel their pain is beyond explanation. Though their action begs for a sound reason, no amount of psychology is good enough to ameliorate the grief of everyone involved, directly or indirectly, at least for the time being. The first year of university and being hundreds of miles away from home is difficult. I know this from personal experience and I believe that the film, in only two or three scenes, captured the yearning of physical contact while parents and their child conversed via telephone. Like most people, I was able to get through the demanding first year by making new friends, being open to new experiences, embracing changes, but still staying true to who I thought I was. College students break down more often than most people would probably like to think. And it’s not just those who flunk out. Just because a student is still in school, it does not mean that the student is necessarily healthy. A whole lot of students engage in reckless casual sex as a substitute for real connection, some decide to stay in bed all day and neglect hygiene altogether, others take refuge in the party scene and drown their problems with alcohol, a handful try to overcompensate and take on more responsibilities than they can handle. I know because I’ve known and lived with those kinds of behavior. The very few who go on a shooting rampage, in my opinion, is an extreme form of that behavioral (and most likely hormonal) imbalance. That’s what they are to me: behavior. Behavior does not necessarily (nor accurately) define a person. That’s what I believed the film tried to communicate about tragedy by allowing us to watch Bill and Kate to try to make it through one day at a time. It managed to do so in an elegant, contemplative way sans judgment.