Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of spacecrafts were seen by residents of a small Indiana town, a few of them were given an obsession involving an image where something great was about to happen. One of them was Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a family man with an ordinary job. The night in question left half of his face sunburnt, a symbol of his broken psyche. His scary obsession eventually drove his family away. And then there was Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), was taken by the unidentified flying objects. She, too, although to a lesser extent, obsessed with the image of a flat mountain. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a collection of wonderful sights and sounds. It focused on these two elements because if extra-terrestrial life were to make contact with us, it was most likely that we would communicate via images and sounds, not words. The film captured a dynamic intensity from beginning to end because Spielberg was consistent in allowing his audiences to feel an array of emotions in just one scene. Take Barry waking up in the middle of the night when his toys started to move on their own. There were strange noises. Lights were flickering on and off without someone touching the switch. We felt fear but the child felt curiosity. In his attempt to explore his surroundings, we slowly realized that perhaps there was nothing to fear but we were still wary. There was one shot I particularly loved. After finding out that the refrigerator had been ransacked, the boy saw the aliens from a corner and smiled. He saw the aliens because he wasn’t afraid. We felt fear, or at least initially, and so we didn’t get a chance to see the aliens. Seeing the boy’s expression was enough because we weren’t ready. In a way, watching Roy and Jillian’s journey wasn’t just about how far they would go to find out the truth. It was also about us and our willingness to look through the other side without fear, which I thought was expertly symbolized by one of the scenes when Barry opened the front door, saw something very strange on the other side, and his mother taking him away for safety. Another strand involved a French scientist (François Truffaut) who led the government to communicate with the aliens. He, too, had his own share of obsession. I was immersed in the film because the varying stories were in a collision course. But unlike movies about strangers finding their way so that all of them would meet in the end, this picture had a natural flow yet the events always felt bigger than the individuals we had a chance to observe. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie that had aliens in it, was ultimately about humanity and the fact that we will always have something more to learn, whether from each other or something far away. It had a beautiful and humbling message aided by unwavering and fully realized vision.
You, the Living (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Roy Andersson, “Du levande” or “You, the Living” painted an inspired picture of how the tragic moments in our lives were almost always counter-balanced with small and often unexpected comedic events. What I loved about this film was it felt as though anything could happen. Characters even broke out in song. Despite the ordinariness of the individuals at first glance, highlighted by the nondescript rooms and the dominance of the color gray in every frame, there was magic in each of their circumstances. Some scenes were solely played for laughs such as the Arabian barber and the businessman who was far from being in a great mood. Some were incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to watch. For instance, the couple who were having sex but only one was really into it. Others were downright pointless like a man cleaning glass windows. However, quite a handful were fascinating. I loved the couple in which the woman complained about everything wrong in her life while the man tried to endure her interminable tirades. At first glance, I thought she was just a spoiled woman who desperately needed a hobby (and perhaps a better sex life). But as the film went on, I actually grew to like her. It turned out that she was aware of her actions, that she may at times come off as selfish, and she knew that she was loved by those around her. The one that moved me most was the psychiatrist who spoke directly to the camera (and to us) and confessed that after twenty-seven years of practice, turning a mean person into a happy one was an impossible task. The only way to really “cure” them or to mask their unhappiness was to give them drugs. In the doctors own words, “the stronger, the better.” I thought it was an honest moment and ultimately a stronger message that lingers in the mind than the popular belief that all people in the medical field find it so rewarding to help people. Finally, there was Anna (Jessika Lundberg), a regular fan girl, who fell in love with Micke (Eric Bäckman), a boy who played in a band. Personally, the highest point of the film was when she recalled a dream she had about their wedding day. Throughout the scene of Anna looking beautiful in her wedding dress and Micke looking handsome in his rock star ensemble, I had a silly smile on my face. On top of that, there was a neat imagery in which their apartment moved like a train and, from their window, we could see strangers clamoring to offer their congratulations and best wishes. I wished the scene did not have to come to an end. It made me want to believe in romance all over again. “Du levande” was successful at embodying an unconventional stream of consciousness with images that crackle and pop with originality and earnestness. It may have been on another language but the emotions it conveyed overcame such boundaries.
The Butcher Boy (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Francie (Eamonn Owens), a boy with a very active imagination, values two things in life: his parents (Stephen Rea and Aisling O’Sullivan, respectively) and his best friend (Alan Boyle). So when the three important figures in his life were taken away due to varying circumstances, his childhood mischief evolved into an emotional disturbance despite the people in town treating him as nicely as they could. I understand that this can be a challenging film especially to people not used to over-the-top quirkiness mixed with surreal elements. I was able to stick with the story by focusing my attention on the psychology of a child who felt abandoned and betrayed. Further, he did not have a healthy way to get rid of his negative emotions. Instead, Francie channeled his energy toward torturing a kid from the neighborhood along with his mother (Fiona Shaw), who responded by asking other guys to physically assault Francie. The town eventually unable to deal with Francie’s indiscretions, he was sent away for extended periods of time. In such institutions, he failed to face his problems because he had no one to talk to and explain why what he did was wrong. The positive feedback of violence and emotional disturbance pushed the kid slowly toward a mental breakdown. Although the events that were happening on screen were wrapped in comedic elements, I thought it was really sad in its core because nobody understood how to deal with the tragic main character in a healthy way. The theme of the picture was abandonment which culminated when Francie returned from boarding school but his best friend was no longer his best friend. The schism in their relationship was especially painful to watch because earlier in the movie we had a chance to see them so close. They even had a pact to become “blood brothers” for the rest of their lives. The fear and disappointment in the children’s eyes (especially Boyles’) were apparent but they wouldn’t express them to each other because they either lacked the right words to say what they really felt or one did not want to hurt the other. All of the strange images and quirkiness aside, I thought the picture had a clear emotional resonance and I empathized with the main character throughout even though I did not necessarily agree with his choices. Based on the novel by Pat McCabe and astutely directed by Neil Jordan, “The Butcher Boy” was essentially about a childhood gone wrong because the child lacked guidance about life’s contradictions and challenges. Watching it was highly rewarding because its humanity was actually highlighted and not dimmed by dark comedy.
Astro Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” told the story of a brilliant scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) specializing in robotics who recreated his son (Freddie Highmore)–physically with memories included–after the boy’s untimely death during a military testing led by a cruel president (Donald Sutherland). I thought the first third of this film was very strong. Although the look of the movie was crisp so it easily appealed to children, the story was almost a little too dark. I was impressed that it immediately tackled the idea of a parent’s debilitating grief and the effects of trying to replicate a child. It was like watching a version of Steven Spielberg’s underrated “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” but aimed toward children. And like that film, this animated movie also explored what it meant for the main character to be a human (initially), a robot (later on), and accepting the fact that having both characteristics wasn’t so bad. It was also interesting because the first half was set in a world where robots were passively enslaved to humans. In the second half, like David from Spielberg’s film, Astro left the shiny, floating city for the city below where robots were hunted and were forced to participate in a battle royale sort of event. Unfortunately, that part of the picture wasn’t as strong. In fact, it was unfocused. There were times when the attention wasn’t on Astro’s journey but instead on the side characters’. The darkness of the first thirty minutes were stripped away and the tone felt very uneven. The momentum was so slow to the point where I wondered whether it ran out of creative ideas to entertain. I haven’t read the manga but I think if David Bowers, the director, made this picture with edge from beginning to end, it would have been a lot stronger and more interesting to adults. The whole bad guys versus good guys toward the end was kind of typical–something that one can easily see in other animated movies designed for children such as the disappointingly mediocre (but very cute) “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I felt like this film had an innate capacity to be more introspective than other animated flicks and it’s a shame it didn’t take advantage of that. Other notable voices included Bill Nighy, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and Charlize Theron. “Astro Boy” was about a boy’s identity crisis but as a film it should have had a clearer picture about what it wanted to be. However, I did have a good time watching it because it had so much energy and some of the jokes were pretty amusing. Perhaps it’s a good rental if one could use a break from a series of serious movies like I did.
The Road (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” focused on a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traveled to the south of the United States, on foot, in hopes of finding a place where they could be safe from cannibals and starvation. A post-apocalyptic film in every respect, the look of the picture was very bleak–everything was grey and characters were covered in mud and grime. The only warmth that was present was the bond between the father and son as they evaded gangs who killed and ate people and who had stooped so low that they were willing to molest children. Mortensen did a great job portraying a father who wanted to be a model for his son just in case he met an untimely death. I was impressed because even though his character was nurturing (the mother, played by Charlize Theron, passed away), there was a certain toughness about him that was so precise when circumstances turned for the worst. On the other hand, I was very annoyed with Smit-McPhee’s character because he was so whiny about everything. For having a father who obviously tried his hardest to protect and provide for him, during the first half, the kid found every reason to whine and mope. I seriously wanted to shake (or punch) the kid to knock some sense into him. Fortunately, during the second half, he grew on me because he provided a much needed heart to the story, especially when they met an old man and a thief, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams, respectively. As much as this film was depressing, I didn’t think it was monotonous like some audiences suggested. I thought it was very suspenseful, especially the scene when the father and son went into a cellar to find the most horrific images. Strangely enough, I also thought it was hopeful because of the strong relationship between the two leads. They kept talking about a “fire” inside them (a religious implication, I’m not entirely sure) that helped them to continue their journey while at the same keeping their humanity. The tone was complex and it was definitely easy to get lost in bleak atmosphere if one was not emotionally invested in the characters. As the film came to an emotionally draining conclusion, I started to think about life and how it would eventually end for myself, my friends and my family. It just made me incredibly sad and I couldn’t help but turn on the waterworks. “The Road” may not have been as strong as critics expected it to be but it’s nonetheless a solid film with a heart despite the exploration of the darker side of humanity. There was something very poetic about the whole experience right from the start so I was glued all the way through.
Porco Rosso (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso,” also known as “Kurenai no buta” and “Crimson Pig,” because it’s unlike the rest of his animated films that are more rooted in fantasy. Although the main character is half-man, half-pig, the movie does a good job commenting and exploring the fact that he’s more human than most of the other characters, especially the pirates and Porco’s American rival in the sky. Its story was a nice surprise because I thought the film was going to be about his journey to remedy the curse that had taken a hold of his body after fighting in World War I. It turned out that Porco was not unhappy with his appearance so we simply got to enjoy him interacting with different kinds of beings, taking strange jobs, and trying his luck with women. It doesn’t have a core story, which strangely enough, I enjoyed because there were many scenes when comedy and heart are at the forefront. However, I wished that I saw this film in its original language with subtitles instead of the dubbed version. I’ve aware of the fact that sometimes dubbing takes away layers of complexities from the original material either due to the language barrier and a culture’s own bias when it comes to what is acceptable for children to see. There were definitely scenes that made me question the subtle differences with what was being said and what was being enacted. Still, I think “Porco Rosso” is still fun to watch (which is probably geared more toward boys because of the many masculine images involving pirates and battles in the sky) despite its flaws because of its energy and it tackled universal emotions. And what I thought made this one special was that I could easily imagine it to be a live action movie, minus the half-pig angle, because it’s that connected to the characters’ humanities. What it lacks in darkness (as I come to expect in Miyazaki adventures), it makes up for romanticism and sometimes dry sense of humor. The animation may not be as “great” as today’s animated flicks but this one might take you by surprise.
A Serious Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.