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.
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 (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 (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.
Dead Man Walking (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” tells the story of a man on death row (Sean Penn) and a nun (Susan Sarandon) who takes his request to be his spiritual advisor despite people’s attempt to dissuade her from doing so. I thought this film was particularly effective because it was able to provide multiple insights regarding the issue of capital punishment, while at the same time I was curious whether or not Penn’s character really did pull the trigger that resulted the death of the two teenagers. Not only that, we really got to know the grief of the teenagers’ parents (Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston); that their rage and hatred do not come out of nowhere and that some of them might even be willing to move on. I was really touched by this film in its entirety because I felt like I was watching real people instead of actors merely playing their parts. The interactions between Penn and Sarandon–especially the close-up scenes–got me so involved to the point where I found myself beginning to truly understand the convict’s fear of death even though he is a racist, disagreeable, unfriendly man. Whenever they argued, I felt genuine tension between the two but I still could feel that Penn needed her and Sarandon cared for him. The issue of redemption was also explored. I’m not a big fan of religion but even I have to admit that it was effectively used in this film. Robbins managed to avoid telling a story that was self-righteous and manipulative, which I think was a difficult task because the picture ultimately geared us to sympathize for the convict. As a person who do not support capital punishment, I thought “Dead Man Walking” was able to both entertain and educate (and even enlighten, which is on a different level altogether). This is a strong film with so many layers to it so, naturally, I’m recommending it to anyone–even to those who do not have an opinion about the death penalty.