Get Low (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
A reclusive man named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) retreated into the Tennessee woods forty years ago for an unknown reason. Friends didn’t visit him, he never had a family, and the people in town either looked down on or were completely afraid of him. Nasty gossip such as Felix being a cold-blooded killer was the talk of the town. His only companion was a mule. It was rightly so because he was as stubborn as. After decades of being a hermit, he walked into a funeral parlor led by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant (Lucas Black). Felix said he wanted to throw a funeral party for himself. He wanted to hear the many colorful stories people heard about him over the years. In order to attract people, there was to be a raffle after the party and whoever’s ticket was chosen would own Felix’ acres of land when he died. Half the fun of the film was watching Duvall and Murray interact. Duvall is an expert in playing mysterious characters but with surprising amount of heart. His interactions with his former lover’s sister (Sissy Spacek) were tender, sometimes strained, but consistently interesting. Their first scene together was surprising because even though it was the first one they shared, I already felt like there was a history between them. The actors managed to express a handful of emotions without necessarily talking about them. On the other hand, Murray’s blank expressions and deadpan delivery of his lines made up the bulk of the humor. Frank wasn’t happy because not enough people were dying in town so he was so desperate in keeping Felix as his client despite his customer’s many strange requests. Was he only motivated by the vast amount of money he would eventually earn? Another key figure was Frank’s assistant named Buddy. He was like a son that Felix never had. They were strangers to each other and they never did get close as one would consider them friends, but there was something beautiful and touching about the way Felix learned to open up to someone else other than his mule. Maybe our protagonist saw a bit of himself, back when he still had his youth, on the honorable and well-meaning assistant. But the most powerful aspect of the film was the hermit’s speech during his funeral party. In ten minutes, he started from being the joke of the town to someone who everyone should be able to sympathize with. “Get Low,” directed by Aaron Schneider, tackled serious issues like death, aging, and guilt with glee and eccentricity yet it successfully maintained a certain level of respect so the issues and the characters were never the punchline. The funny moments were in the way the characters responded to the ridiculous beauty that life sometimes offers.
The Square (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Ray (David Roberts) was having an affair with a much younger woman named Carla (Claire van der Boom). One day, Carla found a bag full of cash in the attic which she knew belonged to her husband (Anthony Hayes) and his crooked friends. Ray and Carla planned to get the money, burn the house to the ground, and run away together with the help of a hot-tempered third party (Joel Edgerton). Naturally, the plan didn’t go the way the cheating couple expected. “The Square” took a lot of risks with its tone and various twists in the plot. It reminded me of the Ethan and Joel Coens’ masterful “Blood Simple.” but far less realized as a whole because it stumbled on its way to the finish line. Rising action was abound. Ray became increasingly desperate as the body count started to rise around him. It didn’t help that someone kept sending him cryptic letters involving blackmail. Unable to confide in anyone, he needed an outlet to his frustrations. It was like watching someone playing Tetris. It’s a very practical game (as practical a simple stealing can be) but one mistake can lead to another especially when panic sets in. Carla was frustrated as well because Ray was reluctant to leave his increasingly suspecting wife. She also had to mollify her guilt due to an accidental murder in which she was directly related. But a great rising action is only as great as its payoff. Toward the end, I began to feel confused with the way Nash Edgerton, the director, tried to steer the characters away from their respective predicaments. The strand about the blackmailer was immediately dismissed when it should have been tackled head-on because the picture spent a solid amount of time luring our curiosity to the person sending the letters. In a way, I felt slightly cheated. I felt as though the filmmakers didn’t know how to sufficiently end their story so the project eventually imploded. The characters failed to think critically and act practically. There was not one person I wanted to see succeed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for an archetypal good guy but I wish I didn’t feel so detached during the final few scenes and apathetic when it ended. “The Square” was a modern noir with a somber tone that started off with a roar but ended with a barely audible whimper. It needed to work on its themes regarding tragedy, guilt, and betrayal. It dealt with such themes separately but the more important exploration was how the three were interconnected and the pressures our characters went through that could explain why they played the final hands they’ve been given the way they did.
★★★ / ★★★★
Miguel (Christian Mercado) and Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), a happily married couple, were about to have their first child. Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter, visited the seaside village to see Miguel. Despite having grown up together in the coast, nobody knew about their secret affair. That is, until Santiago drowned one night and appeared in Miguel’s home as a ghost. Santiago’s spirit wouldn’t rest until he was given a very public burial. Rumors went around that Santiago was a homosexual and nobody wanted anything to do with him. They treated homosexuality as a contagion. They couldn’t even say the word. They used hand gestures to describe such a phenomena. So it was up to Miguel to give his lover a proper send-off. “Contracorriente” was a smart and moving film about a man torn between his identity and tradition. The beginning of the picture established the importance of tradition in Miguel’s community: the residents in the village attended church, they orally read from the bible, and they shared an open form of communication. When their tradition was challenged in the form of Miguel’s sexuality, it was difficult to watch our protagonist’s friends and neighbors turn their backs on him. His closest friends didn’t even bother to drop by when Mariela had her baby. But writer-director Javier Fuentes-León was careful in highlighting the complexity of the village’s situation. They lived in a bubble and it was probably the first time a gay person bothered to stick around despite the judging whispers and lack of eye contact. I liked that it showed people being capable of acceptance. In reality, while some treat a shocking revelation from the perspective of black and white, others just need some time to digest the information. Not every subplot provided a definite solution but there was a sense of closure that tied it all together. Despite not knowing a lot of details about how Miguel and Santigo got together, it was easy to see that their passion for one another ran deep. There was palpable pain when they discussed plans that never came into fruition and when they argued about being tired of pretending not to know each other in public. But the film was also about the love between Miguel and Mariela. There was a special bond between them not just because they were about to have a baby, but because they’ve learned to lean on each other when things became unbearable. Naturally, their bond was tested when Mariela found out the truth about her husband’s bisexuality. The film’s biggest risk was the ghost that only Miguel could see. It could be seen as a literal ghost, but I interpreted the spirit as the leading character’s guilt and anger for not summoning the courage to come out of the closet when his lover was still alive. The risk worked because the director was in control of the message he wanted to portray. I was impressed with “Undertow” because it was emotionally authentic without sacrifing an ounce of its complexity.
Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since the mid-1970s (and most likely years prior), Father Oliver O’Grady had been sexually molesting children that ranged from infants to pre-adolescents. The Catholic Church was well-aware of his sickness but instead of kicking him out of priesthood, the Church simply moved him from one area to another, which allowed him to molest other children when it could have been prevented. As the film went on, we had a chance to learn that O’Grady not only took advantage of hundreds of children but he also had sexual relations with some of their parents. I was raised Catholic so I understood the importance of the feelings the parents and the children, now adults, felt when they discovered that a person from the Church, an institution that they are willing to give their lives to for the sake of their god, committed the ultimate betrayal. I don’t consider myself belonging in a specific religious group, but when I saw the families being interviewed about how O’Grady ruined their lives, I could not help but imagine my own family and relatives in their shoes because it could easily have happened to any of us. The film made a smart decision to take the blame and the shame from O’Grady to the higher figures in the Church. It was a maddening experience because there was plenty of evidence regarding the Church’s attempt to protect the priests guilty of pedophilia. According to the statistics, the Church spent a billion dollars (and counting) to cover-up many families’ search for justice. To know that those people who are considered by the Catholic community to be the prime example of purity, to commit such acts is not only criminal but also immoral. If hell did exist, in my opinion, they are certainly deserving to go there. The higher folks in the hierarchy, indirectly involved as they may be, knew of the disease in their community, they had tools to prevent future crimes from happening, yet they chose the path of indifference with impunity. Written and directed by Amy Berg, “Deliver Us from Evil” was not simply about one religion or faith. It’s about human rights. Imagine if you’ve raped by a member of the police force and the government, designed to protect its people, turns a blind eye to the fact. I make the comparison because the film successfully showed that the Catholic Church functions like a government with its bureaucracies and failure to serve its people even in the most fundamental ways. This is a must-see film because popular culture makes a lot of jokes about priests molesting kids. A lot of people laugh off the issue but what about those who have to live with the experience and had not found some sort of closure? Do we dare laugh in their faces?
Waking the Dead (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 1972, Fielding (Billy Crudup), an ambitious aspiring politician from a working class background, met Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a girl who loved to spend her time working for the church and helping others in need. But in 1974, Sarah died in a car bombing while helping some Chilean activists enter the United States. Fast forward ten years when Fielding was running for office, Fielding became plagued with visions of Sarah. He began to question his sanity because he thought he saw her walking in the streets and even calling his house phone. I was torn whether or not to recommend this film. There was no doubt that I highly enjoyed it because the chemistry between Crudup and Connelly was one of the strongest I’ve experienced in a long time. When they had conversations, even though they didn’t always agree with each other’s approach to politics (politician versus activist, mainstream versus counterculture), it was apparent that they loved each other because they exuded a certain warmth and sometimes fiery passion in their eyes. When they made love, it was sexy and when they were away from one another, I looked forward to seeing them eventually taking up the same space. They were both smart, caring, had something to prove and I found bits of myself in both of them. Unfortunately, I had a problem with the way the story was put together. It wasn’t told in a linear order so it was up to us to put together the pieces, which I found to be a positive quality because it managed to challenged me. One of my favorite aspects of the picture was its uncertainty whether Sarah was alive all along or whether she was really dead and Fielding was experiencing some sort of guilt. In the end, there was no clear answer. Personally, I thought it was the latter because it was more grounded in reality but at the same time there’s enough mysticism to it to provide another dimension to the material. However, if it was the latter, I didn’t understand why Fielding felt so much guilt involving the death of his lover. Was it because he moved onto another girl (who he didn’t even love but it was more for a political strategy) years after Sarah’s death? If so, I didn’t think he should have felt guilty at all because everyone deserves to move on from a painful period of his or her life. I think the film could have done a better job showing and explaining to us why Fielding was so guilt-ridden. Since that crucial part was missing, it was very problematic because it was what drove the scenes in the 1980s forward. Based on a novel by Scott Spencer, “Waking the Dead,” directed by Keith Gordon, benefited from the strong and believable acting between the two leads. If it had clearer connection between past and present, I think it would have been unstoppable.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Madeo” or “Mother,” directed by Joon-ho Bong, told the story of a mother (Hye-ja Kim) who would do anything to prove her son’s innocence (Bin Won) regarding a schoolgirl’s cold-blooded murder. Realizing that the police was not at all motivated to look into the case a little deeper, the mother did her own investigation about who the real killer was. Her first suspect was her son’s ruffian of a friend (Ku Jin). The look of the movie grabbed me instantaneously. There was something very poetic about the background imagery and the way it sometimes highlighted a character’s state of mind. My favorite scenes to look at were the shots taken outdoors when the mother was one with nature accompanied by music perfect for exotic dancing. Those scenes moved me because, as beautiful as the images were, my focus was on the mother’s facial expressions and body movements. By intently looking at her, I couldn’t help but feel her frustration, desperation and guilt. I am not quite sure that the picture started off well. The first twenty minutes felt like it was all over the place and I did not understand where the film wanted to go. However, it found its identity when the mother decided that she was going to perform her own detective work, specifically when she broke into someone’s home and found (what she believed was) a piece of evidence. I couldn’t help but care for her because she looked so frail and, more importantly, her unwavering conviction that her son was innocent. The last thing I wanted to see was her to be pushed around because she already looked as if she was defeated. I loved how the director framed the idea of truth and let it evolve naturally. Certain truths were true at a specific moment in time but then they changed five minutes later as new pieces of the puzzle were introduced. As a result, the movie was unpredictable and I was constantly questioning whether the mother was truly on the right path to earn her son’s freedom. The last few minutes were full of emotion. I was impressed with the way Bong dealt with the complexities of each emotion as the characters tried to deal with the final hand they were given. “Mother” is the kind of movie that is difficult to place under one genre. There were times when I thought it was a comedy (the beginning), a thriller (the middle), and a drama (the ending). It’s not the kind of movie that everyone will necessarily enjoy because the tone is vastly different compared to more mainstream projects. But what I can say for sure is that I thought the film was a rich morality story and a joy to watch.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on Joe Connelly’s memoir, “Bringing Out the Dead” was about a paramedic named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) who increasingly became out of touch with reality after several sleepless nights and increasing guilt involving a girl he failed to rescue. I liked the film’s first half but I was very put off by the second half. What I thought the first hour of the picture was strong because it captured the reality of how it was like to be a paramedic in the city. I liked the way Martin Scorsese, the director, highlighted the grittiness and ugliness of city life and putting his characters in the middle of a sea of negative emotions. The way the paramedics dealt with their patients were sometimes very sad, sometimes amusing, and sometimes maddening because the ethical codes were not always followed. The way they numbed themselves by means of making jokes out of serious situations were interesting defense mechanisms to observe. Unfortunately, the second half consisted of way too many scenes in which Cage’s character experienced hallucinations. I understood that he was guilt-ridden but I felt like the hallucinations were very distracting and it took away the picture’s sense of momentum. Maybe Scorsese wanted to contrast those fantastic elements with realism but I did not think it worked to the movie’s advantage. Those scenes went by so slowly and I became very frustrated. I also did not like the romantic angle between Cage and Patricia Arquette. It felt forced because they did not have any sort of chemistry. “Bringing Out the Dead” features a main character who is very flawed and at times unlikable but those are the qualities that made me interested in him. He took his job seriously so he was very hard on himself, which were most prominent when he drove around in an ambulance with another paramedic (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore). This film is definitely not for everyone because it doesn’t really have a defined plot. It’s more of a peek on a man’s life and how he swallowed the elements of the job he hated such as the deaths and dying people. Set mostly at night, Cage’s narration while patrolling the streets reminded me of “Taxi Driver.” Unfortunately, “Bring Out the Dead” isn’t as strong and isn’t as focused. At least it had good performances.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jean Reno, a reclusive assassin whose best friend is a plant, takes twelve-year-old Natalie Portman under his wing after her family was killed by police officers led by Gary Oldman. Written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “La Femme Nikita”), I enjoyed “Léon” because it was more about the humanity of a contract killer instead of his many interesting ways of killing. Even though the action sequences could be found more toward the beginning and the end of the picture, I still found Reno and Portman’s relationship to be quite endearing. Undoubtedly, there were times when I found the director would cross the line between father-figure/daughter relationship and older man/younger girl relationship. Those scenes made me uncomfortable but perhaps it was because this was Besson’s first full English-language movie. In my opinion, European films have a more sensual feel compared to American movies. Still, I was able to overlook such flaws because I found the story to be interesting even if it needed to have more depth. Another quality I liked about this film was that there really was no “good” character. Pretty much everyone had done something shameful in their lives. And the main character was aware of this so he locks himself up in his room and only comes out whenever he has an assignment. Oldman’s character was the kind of guy that you love to hate because he has no redeeming quality. Nevertheless, I thought he was very interesting to watch because of his quirky mannerisms and sinister aura. I kind of expected an intense duel between him and the protagonist so I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. For such a sadistic man, I thought the bad guy would suffer more in the hands of another killer and get the delicious irony he deserved. If one is looking for action with picture with a heart, I’m giving “Léon” a pretty solid recommendation despite its sometimes glaring flaws.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.
Bride Wars (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The trailers were more fun than the actual movie. Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson star as two best friends who, due to a clerical error, were scheduled to have their weddings on the same day. Since the two had their weddings all planned out since childhood, neither lets go of the day and they try to exact revenge on each other instead of dealing with the problem at hand like sane individuals. Having said that, I eventually saw the potential in this film when the two characters started to feel guilt for their actions. I wish the picture had focused more on that instead of the silly (and really ugly) pranks. Yes, the pranks were funny on the surface but there’s an inherent sadness and shame about the whole thing because the audiences are forced to see two best friends destroy each other’s lives. The pranks did not just impact the wedding but their careers and relationship with other people as well. In my opinion, the ending should have been more grim instead of the whole saying-“Sorry”-makes-everything-all-better approach. I doubt that Hathaway would want to be remembered in this wedding-themed movie because, although I love her in pretty much anything (including this one), the script was really weak and the message was way too obvious to fully engage an intelligent audience. While watching “Bride Wars,” I wished I was watching “Rachel Getting Married” instead because at least that one featured a character that was edgy, unlikeable and complex. In “Bride Wars,” everything felt so light and sugar-y to the point where it ended up getting kind of dull. I don’t consider it completely horrible because I like the cast. (Other than the leads, I also enjoyed watching Candice Bergen, Kristen Johnston, Bryan Greenberg, Steve Howey and Chris Pratt.) But it’s not something that I’ll recommend to people other than those who are specifically looking for something harmless and forgettable.