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.

Charlie St. Cloud


Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) had a passion for sailing and was a great role model for his younger brother named Sam (Charlie Tahan). On the night of Charlie’s graduation, their mom (Kim Basinger) took an extra shift at work so Charlie was assigned to babysit. Wanting to say goodbye to his friends before they head off to the army (one of which was played by Dave Franco), Charlie and Sam got into a car accident on the way to the party. Charlie was revived by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) but Sam passed away right after impact. I highly enjoyed the first half of the picture. Watching the two brothers was moving for me because I’ve always wanted a brother who was around eight years younger than I am so I could guide him to be the best person he can be and not make the same mistakes as I did. Efron did a good job playing a character who was so deep in grief to the point where he gave up his scholarship to Stanford and instead worked in a cemetery for five years since the tragic incident. Since the brothers made a pact to meet every day to practice baseball, Charlie couldn’t find it in himself to break that promise. I thought it was Efron’s best adult performance up to this point. Unfortunately, the film pulled a twist somewhere in the middle that threw logic out the window. I am aware that it wasn’t completely the filmmakers’ fault because it was based on Ben Sherwood’s novel called “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” but I think changes from the original story should have come into play. After the twist was revealed, I thought the whole situation was just creepy and could have been a mediocre episode of “The X-Files” at best. Another issue I had with the movie was the fact that it showed Charlie and the ghost of Sam separately in some scenes. I thought that was a big mistake made by the filmmakers because the ghost was supposed to be a metaphor for Charlie’s grief and the fact that he blamed himself for the car crash. Every meeting was supposed to be an exercise of mirroring Charlie’s grief onto himself. To show the two apart suggested that the ghost actually existed. “Charlie St. Cloud,” directed by Burr Steers, sometimes verged on melodrama but I liked the performances in general. However, I wish Basinger had more scenes as the mother and Liotta as a dying ex-paramedic. Their experience in acting and strong cinematic presence could have benefited the picture in terms of tying together some loose ends. For instance, why did the mother move away and left her obviously troubled son to work at a place where his younger brother was buried? The best dramas are all about details. I couldn’t help but feel as though this movie took a more convenient path.

Super 8


Super 8 (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It was the summer of 1979 and five friends (Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills) were set to make a zombie picture using a Super 8 mm film. The director, portly Charles (Griffiths), recruited radiant Alice (Elle Fanning) to be in the movie and kind-hearted Joe (Courtney), whose mother had passed away four months earlier, was completely elated with the idea because he had a huge crush on her. But when the boys and the girl held a midnight shoot at the train station, they witnessed an incredible crash. Something was released from the cargo train and strange things started to occur in town. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, “Super 8” is the kind of film I love because it touched upon every single movie genre without losing touch with its heart. It was very aware of its environment. Notice that the water tower was consistently present in the background shots. As the movie went on, I managed to form a mental picture of where everything was relative to the water tower. I felt like I was one of the kids and my world revolved around that landmark. The storyline was divided into two extremes but the director had found a way to make the halves fit with a balance of elegance and intelligence. The first hour embodied a coming-of-age tone. We focused on Joe and his grieving father (Kyle Chandler) who never seemed to be around. It seemed like the two never really sat down and talked about death and what it meant to move on. When Joe caught his father crying in the bathroom, Joe was greeted with a closing door. Joe held a private fear that maybe he was slowly losing his father. I was surprised when I found out this was Courtney’s first role because his acting was quite impressive. I quickly identified with his character because of the way he used his eyes to convey specific emotions. I loved the scenes when Joe just looked at Alice in complete captivation. The warm looks he gave reminded me, at least from what I can remember, of my first love and what I was willing to do for and say to that person at the time. It was cute how he tried not to make a fool of himself but he did anyway. The second hour focused on the mystery involving a possible alien on the loose. Dogs evacuated town, local folks had gone missing, and the U.S. Air Force set up camp in order to regain control of the situation. Meanwhile, every time Charles yelled, “Production value!” (images that make it seem like a movie has a certain budget) the young filmmakers took advantage of their surroundings and shot their zombie movie with wonderful enthusiasm. Their plucky personalities was center stage and I couldn’t help but laugh at their interactions. “Super 8” was produced by Steven Spielberg and, understandably, it was compared to his work like the masterful “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I say it was more similar to “Jurassic Park.” The scene with the overturned bus and the roar of the creature outside was very reminiscent of the famous T. rex attack: the rumbling from a distance, the jump-out-of-your-seat scares, the sense of entrapment, and the eventual gore. “Super 8” was a love letter to Spielberg and, more importantly, people who admire his work. While specific references were wonderful in and of themselves, I felt the magic most when the director added his own twist into what was expected. I wasn’t just moved by its emotions; I was transported in its time and place.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits


Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Emilia (Natalie Portman) had a massive crush on Jack (Scott Cohen), her married boss. Their relationship was kept secret until she became pregnant. The two got married and had a child, but the infant passed away after only three days. It was especially difficult for Emilia. For reasons initially unknown to us, she couldn’t seem to move on from grieving. Her relationship with Jack’s precocious eight-year-old son, William (Charlie Tahan), was rocky at best and Jack’s ex-wife (Lisa Kudrow) had no problem expressing her hatred toward Emilia. Based on a novel by Ayelet Waldman, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” had patches interesting perspectives about a mother’s grief toward losing her child but the way it unfolded left a burning question mark in my mind. In its desperate attempt for us to identity with Emilia, the filmmakers knowingly made her a scapegoat. I got the impression that the director, Don Ross, didn’t have the confidence to show Emilia as she was despite the fact that, yes, she was initially the other woman who broke up a family. People claimed she was very unlikable. But I disagree. I thought she had the right to be sad and get angry once in a while. The majority of the film’s tension was generated from Emilia and William’s interactions. For instance, early in the film, William suggested that Emilia should sell the baby’s stuff on eBay because there was no baby. He kept repeating the fact that there was no baby and it was crazy it keep things that were not being used. Naturally, Emilia got upset at the child. Later, there was a scene in which Jack, in an underhanded way, tried to get Emilia to apologize to her stepson for being upset. Much later in the film, Emilia was accused of being cold toward William. The director ignored the obvious: the kid was a brat. I’ve had prior experience working with children around William’s age and I can say that no matter how beyond their age they seem to be, they know when they’re being hurtful. Children, as early as infancy, are trained to respond to body languages and facial expressions. Ignoring William’s transgressions seemed like it was done for the sake of convenience–to make it seem like it was Emilia versus the world. We didn’t need to feel sorry for her to identify with her. What I enjoyed most about the film was Portman and Kudrow’s performances. Portman had a good handle in terms of changing from warm to detached, vice-versa and everything in between, which often occurred in one scene and Kudrow had fun portraying a Type A mom who seemed to lash out on everyone she encountered. Unfortunately known as “The Other Woman,” which unfairly judged our protagonist, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” engaged me and it made me think about the dynamics between the characters. However, it could have been something deeper in the hands of a more confident direction.

The Sweet Hereafter


The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) visited a small town a few weeks after a tragic school bus accident that killed most of the children passengers. The lawyer tried to talk to the children’s parents to create a case of negligence against the company that made the school bus. While the parents were reluctant at first, they were eventually persuaded by Mitchell because he was able to offer an explanation out of the unexplanable. In a way, I saw him as a vulture or an opportunistic organism that nourished itself on the parents’ grief. Most of them wanted to move on but he wouldn’t allow them because he really wanted to have a case to serve as a distraction from his own personal life regarding his drug-addicted daughter (Caerthan Banks). Maybe he was doing it for the money. Maybe he was doing it to atone for his own mistakes. Either way, his presence helped to drive the town further apart. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” was not a typical drama about loss. There was no big homage to demonstrate how sad the town was and there was no screaming matches between the parents because their child had passed away. Instead, all of the negative emotions were suppressed. It was the kind of sadness I felt when we’ve lost a family friend or a relative. There was more silence than screaming to the top of our lungs. The stand-out for me was Nicole (Sarah Polley) as a once-promising singer who was now confined to a wheelchair. One of her secrets was she and her father were in an incestuous relationship. Nicole was torn because she wanted to deal with the paralysis over the lower portion of her body while her parents wanted to join the lawsuit. I felt sad for her but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And I think that’s what Egoyan did best: His project was able walk between delicate emotions and deliver a film that did not feel manipulative. From several reviews I read, they claimed that it was slow and they did not really learn anything new about the characters. I agree to some extent, but I don’t believe that type of critique necessarily means that the movie is not worth watching. With certain kinds of films, it’s more difficult to simply show what is instead of offering a defined explanation that we can easily grasp. Losing a child defies explanation and grieving need not make sense. That was the film’s main thesis and I thought it was successful at tackling those issues. “The Sweet Hereafter” was challenging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. It was a complex and painful examination of the human condition.

Rabbit Hole


Rabbit Hole (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, “Rabbit Hole” was about a couple named Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) whose son had passed away eight months ago. The two had vastly different ways of coping which caused tension between them. Becca tried to get rid of their son’s belongings while Howie desperately tried to hang onto his son’s memory by watching a video on his cell phone. Further, Becca found comfort in reconnecting with the teenager (Miles Teller) who ran over their son and Howie found common ground with another woman (Sandra Oh) who lost her son eight years ago. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” was a gut-wrenching look at a couple about to pass a critical point in their grief which could go one of two ways. They could dissolve their marriage from a lack of communication or go through the notions together and find some closure. Many elements were thrown at them and we had a chance to observe their reactions. One of the key conflicts was Becca’s sister being pregnant. On the outside, Becca was seemingly supportive like when she brought over some clothes that used to belong to her son. However, there were times when her bitterness would show and snide remarks about how her sister’s future husband, a musician, might not be fit in being a father due to financial stability. Becca didn’t want to hurt others but she did small ways because she didn’t know how to deal with her anger and guilt. Mitchell took some risks that paid off. The general tone was depressing but there were some scenes that I thought were laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) talked about kicking someone out of her house. The sense of humor did not feel out of place or inappropriate because these characters deserved some happiness in their lives. More importantly, the rapid changes in tone felt right because when someone is dealing with a great loss, various emotions, empty they may be, are amplified, sometimes reaching certain extremes. The plot may be familiar but it still managed to surprise me with its insight. I loved the scene when Becca’s mother explained to her daughter that moving on from grief was like carrying a brick in one’s pocket. When a person finally moves on, she forgets that it’s there but there comes a time when she will reach into her pocket for whatever reason and she’s reminded that it’s there. Wiest did not have very many scenes but she made the best of what she was given. Even though her character remained on the sideline, I felt like she, too, had an important story to tell. “Rabbit Hole” was emotionally exhausting but a strong picture nonetheless. It showcased why Kidman is an actor who should not be forgotten. There’s a lot of shallow talk about her face and what she did to it. I don’t care about such sensationalisms as long as she continues to make moving films like this one. The rabbit hole could be interpreted as a metaphor for depression but let’s not forget that Alice woke up from her nightmare and moved on.

The Greatest


The Greatest (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) died in a car accident, his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) knocked on his grieving family’s (Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Simmons) door, told them that she was pregnant, and had nowhere else to go. The film focused on grief: the father internalized his anger and sadness so that the family would not collapse, the mother was obsessed with her son’s last seventeen minutes of life and held the belief that her son would still be alive if it was not for his girlfriend, while the son turned to drugs and grief counseling. The movie grabbed my attention because I thought it would be more about the unwed mother’s struggle in trying to cope with her situation. I was pleasantly surprised that she was generally happy with her situation and the only thing she craved was more information about the father of her baby. I was impressed with the way the picture balanced the four main characters and their styles of coping. Instead of going for the jugular and simply letting the audiences feel sorry for them, sometimes the characters said certain things that were hateful but we remind ourselves that they needed closure in order to feel right again. However, I found certain missteps especially toward the last fifteen minutes. When Brosnan’s character finally opened up, something did not feel quite right. That scene begged for a retake because it felt forced. Yes, he managed to internalize (with elegance) negative emotions throughout the film but I had a difficult time believing that he coincidentally opened up because the movie was coming to a close and his wife finally realized the truth. It felt contrived, almost too soap opera-like, and it stood out to me in a negative way because I thought the rest was consistently convincing. Another issue I had was the son’s connection with the girl (Zoë Kravitz) whose sister committed suicide. It fell flat because the latter’s performance felt too Disney Channel and I caught myself rolling my eyes when she was on screen. Maybe it would have worked if an actress that had been casted was used to playing with her character’s subtleties. Written and directed by Shana Feste, what I loved most about “The Greatest” was its earnest honesty despite some scenes that were not completely convincing. It had enough insight about people going through different stages of grief. I also loved it when Brosnan and Sarandon lashed out at each other in passive-aggressive ways just as much as I loved observing Mulligan’s elegance and Simmons’ potential to become a versatile actor. Ultimately, I wished it had more scenes of lingering camera work where the characters in frame did not say a word, such as the daring scene in the limousine after the burial.

The Eclipse


The Eclipse (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

A widower (Ciarán Hinds) with two kids started seeing ghosts of his father who was still alive. Coincidentally, two authors (Iben Hjejle and Aidan Quinn) arrived in the widower’s town to promote their novels, in which one of the authors had characters that had to deal with their own ghosts. This was a strange film because although it had elements of classic jump-out-of-your-seat horror, it also tried to be a story of a man who was still grieving over his wife but at the same time wanting to move on even though he had no idea how to start. I didn’t think it managed to do either effectively because the tone was too melodramatic and the characters became stuck with their own demons instead of eventually rising above them. I rooted for the characters because I believed they deserved to be happy, but the material desperately wanted to do something very different to the point where I wasn’t sure if it knew exactly where to go. As the picture went on, I became frustrated with it. Written and directed by Connor McPherson, there were some interesting motifs in the movie such as the director’s use of framing his characters in mirrors. I constantly wondered what he was trying to tell his audiences. Did he mean that the characters were fragile? Were the audiences only seeing the surface of the characters despite the characters addressing their histories? Were the characters harboring some sort of dark secret in which all of them were connected to? I was very curious with the director’s technique but in the end I found no answer that satisfied my curiosity. Instead of slowly opening up, I found the movie becoming more reserved and I felt less connected with what was going on. Instead of spending too much time with the attraction between Hinds and Hjejle, I thought the film would have been more effective if it focused on the relationships between the widower and his children, the widower and his wife, and the widower and his father, while using the authors and the characters in their respective novels as some sort of foil for the lead character. A more confident and clear balance between horror and drama was much needed. The horror elements could have been used as a metaphor with what the widower was going through. The ingredients of making a great film were there (it certainly looked poetic) but I think the execution was not as effective as it should have been. It needed more tension and a sense of urgency if it was going to retain the viewers’ attention.