Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Zana Briski decided to go to Calcutta’s red-light district in hopes of getting a chance to document how it was really like, especially for women, to live in the brothels. But her mission evolved when she got closer to the prostitutes’ children; she realized that the kids needed a chance to get out of the red-light district so she handed the children simple cameras, used their photographs to raise money, get international acclaim and get them into boarding schools. I was really touched by this documentary because the kids offered such insight about their living situations. Even though the kids were very young, they knew the importance of education but at the same time some of them came to accept that most of them would never leave the district. Or worse, they would turn out like their parents. Despite knowing the nature of their mothers’ jobs, the kids were aware of the fact that their mothers had to sacrifice their own bodies and safety in order to support their families. One of the kids that really moved me said that she doesn’t ever see herself becoming rich, that she’ll be happy being poor because life is supposeed to be sad and difficult. I understand the hopelessness of the children because of how and where they’ve been raised, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing better is in store for them because I wasn’t raised in an environment that was even as close to theirs. The realism of this picture was staggering but it’s nice to reminded of the fact that the events that we’ve seen in the movie is still happening today. Briski’s decision to teach the children the art of photography has to be commended. The children were powerless but having a camera their hands was like handing them a special power. It was easy to see the light in those children’s eyes when they would run around in the streets and take random pictures of people and objects. I was surprised with how well some of the photographs turned out and was convinced that some of them just had a natural gift in photography. I don’t know if the children realized it but taking pictures was like an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. And the way they talked about Briski, I could tell that the kids looked up to her so much and probably even considered her as their hero. “Born Into the Brothels,” directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, was a rich and emotionally challenging documentary. The movie may have been shot with a simple hand-held camera (at least from what it looked like) but it was bold in terms of really exploring the sociological and psychological impacts of the environment had on the children.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tetro” was about a young man named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his short stop in Buenos Aires to visit his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). The two have been apart for a very long time because Tetro decided to cut himself off from his family since their father hated the fact that his son wanted to be a writer instead of pursuing a career in medicine. I tried to really love this movie because all of the elements were there to make a really great picture. In the end, although it more than satisfied me, it didn’t quite resonate with me as much as I thought it would. I loved the two lead actors because they had contrasting styles in terms of approaching their characters. Gallo was rough around the edges and it was difficult to relate with his character. However, he eventually opened his character to us and even though we didn’t always agree with his choices, we came realize why he decided to take certain paths. Ehrenreich was more sweet and relatable. He instilled a certain hunger within his character–a hunger to get to know his brother more despite the fact that his brother always kept him at arm’s length. Deep inside, he knew that it was his brother’s destiny to live a tortured life of unfulfilled genius. Still, he hoped that he could bring his brother home and attempt at a life of normalcy. Since the brothers were so different, there was often tension between them and I was riveted because I saw myself and my own brother in the two characters. Written and directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola, the emotional gravity matched the film’s artistic flourishes. I loved that the film’s present time was in stunning black and white and the past was in color. The way Coppola played with the shadows complemented certain secrets and unsaid thoughts of the characters. The scenes in color highlighted important events in Tetro’s life that made him the way he is. The majority of this film was carefully planned and executed with such flow and beauty. But in the end, it left me wanting more. It’s strange because I’m not quite sure how else it could have been done better. Perhaps a longer running time would have taken the movie to a next level so the characters had more time to absorb certain truths about each other. On the other hand, I thought it ended in such an elegant manner and it didn’t need to explore further because the rest of the film was about the evolution of the brothers’ strained relationship. Maybe I’m just being way too critical because, as I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to love the movie. “Tetro” is definitely worth watching because of its insight, nice balance of naturalistic and stylized tones, and strong acting. I’ve read some reviews comparing Ehrenreich to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. At first I didn’t quite see it but the more I observed his style of acting–especially body movements and intonations–the more apparent the resemblance. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him because he has potential to be a great actor.
Private Dicks: Men Exposed (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary, directed by Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, managed to cover a variety of topics that ranged from sexuality, why men don’t talk about penises, puberty, circumcision, sexual performance, sexually-transmitted diseases, penis sizes, to fertility in a span of less than an hour. Although it started off as hilarious because I was so shocked with how direct the interviewees were, I was touched because the film eventually focused on sensitive issues, such as being a transgender, with such insight and sensitivity. I loved that this documentary featured people from many backgrounds: gay, straight, transgender, bisexual, Asian, black, white, hispanic, old, young, middle aged. But what I loved most was the fact that it wasn’t afraid to show people with bodies that are not so-called ideal. I thought it gave the picture a new level of realism and honesty because more than half of Americans are not as glamorous as the people we see on television and films. However, if I were to pick out a weakness, it would definitely have to be a lack of depth. Although it was very organized because it was divided into chapters, the chapters only lasted for about ten minutes. Just when I was getting the feeling that we’re really getting to the meat of the issue (pun intended), it pulled away as if it was on a rush (pun intended again? I’m on a roll). This was particularly problematic for me when the transgendered people were being interviewed. Since I don’t know much about them, I was fascinated and I wanted to know more about their experiences–how they saw sexuality and what it meant for them to live in a society were being themselves is taboo. Perhaps another thirty minutes would have taken this movie from just good to pretty great. I also enjoyed the fact that even though there were a lot of jokes and funny anecdotes thrown around, it really emphasized the importance of health. More specifically, the importance of practicing safe sex. I particularly admired the segments when a guys would admit to having some sort of STDs; even though it wasn’t obvious, we could see in their eyes that maybe they would have done things a bit differently given the chance to go back in time. This may be a small film but I think it had some sort of an importance. It gives people a chance to showcase men’s sexual perspective and that we, too, like women, are willing to talk about sex in a direct, mature and fun way.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the very controversial Lars von Trier, “Antichrist” tells the story of a couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to the woods appropriately called Eden to deal with the recent death of their son. Dafoe’s character, a psychiatrist, uses various therapeutic methods to help his wife go through grief, pain and despair (the titles of the first three chapters of the picture). Gainsbourg’s character believes that her husband doesn’t much care for the death of their son. It must be said that this is not the kind of film for everyone. In fact, I think this movie is made for certain groups of people who can take heavy levels of very sexually intimate scenes, violence and symbolism. The way von Trier focused on his two characters fascinated me from start to finish. He was not afraid to show them at their most vulnerable to the point where it was almost painful for us to watch; it really felt like I was watching a real couple who lost their only child. From the synopses I read, I got the impression that the bulk of the story was going to be rooted in the supernatural. It wasn’t at all. In fact, although it did reference to an evil force residing in the woods, the focus was more on the psychological breakdown of the wife. In order to make the strange happenings more believable (and more terrifying), von Trier pushes “ordinariness”–both the nature and the unknown in our minds–to the extreme until it almost felt like we were dealing with something extraordinary. That strategy in storytelling is something that I don’t often come across and ultimately that’s why this picture worked. I also had a lot of fun watching this movie because I noticed it having some similarities with “Dogvile” (also directed by von Trier). For instance, the breaking of the figurines (something that Nicole Kidman’s character considered a part of herself) in comparison to breaking certain body parts and Kidman’s character being tied to a heavy metal contraption like Dafoe’s character. The similarities made me think beyond the violence of this film and really tried to think about what the director was trying to convey. I loved that each scene had a purpose and he was not at all afraid to take risks–risks that may give the audiences to laugh uncontrollably. A lot of people thought that “Antichrist” had an open-ended ending. I did not get that feeling. I thought it came full circle: the final feelings and images highlighted the surrealism of the first two chapters. My wish is for less adventurous moviegoers to see this picture and not get distracted by the sexuality and violence because it offers a real insight about what it means to grieve in its core.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
The Cove (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the trailer for this documentary, directed by Louie Psihoyos, I knew I had to see it because the fact that people actually kill dolphins for whatever reason was shocking news to me. Not only did I find it shocking, I felt sort of embarrassed for people in general due to the complete lack of respect for creatures that are established to be very intelligent and have some sort of self-awareness. Dolphins may look like fish but they are actually more similar to us than the kinds of fish that we eat. The trailer made it look like the movie was exciting because the activists actually had to sneak in in the middle of the night to certain areas around the cove to hide cameras in rocks, trees and underwater as guards patrolled the place. It was able to deliver that level of suspense throughout the picture and more. I was impressed with this movie because not only was the film very informative, it was also educational. It wasn’t only about Japanese fishermen in Taijii killing dolphins. It was also about how the dead carcasses were labeled and sold as other types of fish in supermarkets, the levels of toxicity dolphin meat has, the effects of mercury to newborns, and how we as a society shaped this idea that dolphins are cute and can perform tricks so it’s alright to capture them. Richard O’Barry, an animal trainer who captured the five dolphins on the television show called “Flipper,” really made me think because he shared some insight and the experiences he had with dolphins. One of the many scenes that really touched my heart was when he told the story about how one of the dolphins on the show swam up to him, looked at him and committed suicide. And then explained that dolphins breathed consciously, unlike us humans. The dolphin was so depressed because it had been taken out of its natural habitat for so long that it chose to end its life. Another scene that really got to me was when one of the dolphins that was stabbed began to swim ashore as blood was coming out of it. In the beginning, I thought that maybe it’s part of the Japanese culture to eat dolphins. After all, I came from a different background so I don’t exactly know their customs. But then the film talked about how most of the people in Taijii, Japan had no idea that these dolphin killings were happening. I thought Psihoyos’ picture really got its bases covered because each of the question I had in my mind was answered. “The Cove” has a sense of urgency and I believe it should be seen by everyone because this local (though I’m guessing it happens in other parts of the world as well but we just don’t know exactly where) scenario of killing dolphins will have a significant effect on the entire ecosystem. I will never forget the images I’ve seen from this film and if you decide to see it, prepare yourself.
Small Change (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“L’argent de poche” or “Small Change,” written and directed by François Truffaut (“The 400 Blows”), did not have a defined story but it never failed to impress because the vignettes it featured ranged from disarmingly funny to downright heartbreaking. The film followed two-year-old children to fourteen-year-old young adults as they tried to roleplay and find their identities. I originally saw this picture in my third year of French class in high school but I failed realize how brilliant it was. Watching it again four to five years later, I couldn’t help but enjoy it that much more because I’ve had more experience with films and acquired a deeper understanding of childhood psychology. Watching the scenes which involved children giving their friends haircuts (and ending up disastrous), sneaking into the cinema, preparing breakfast with a sibling as their parents sleep, and others really took me back on how fun and easy life was back then when I didn’t have yet carry certain responsibilities. It also tackled topics such as securely and insecurely attached children, attachments to certain objects, and their inabilities to not act upon the first thought of action that would come up in their minds. While the humor was certainly there, I admired that the film also showed the darker side of childhood which dealt with abuse and childhood depression. That bit reminded me of a girl in my fourth grade class. Although at the time I didn’t quite grasp the idea of parents abusing their children in the home, there were definitely signs that would most likely lead to the a conclusion, such as her bruises on her arm and when she would come to school either crying or restless. (Most of us thought she was just really emotional and stayed away from her.) That delicate balance was definitely Truffaut’s greatest strength. Lastly, I enjoyed the teacher’s (Jean-François Stévenin) insight on childhood and growing up. I found his speech to have a certain resonance because it had undeniable truth without ever having to be melodramatic. “Pocket Money” is one of those pictures that reminds me why I love watching coming-of-age films.
Waking Life (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset”), “Waking Life” is an animated film that tackles deep questions about what life is and how it is like to live one’s life. Although it is essentially an animated film, it is very adult in its approach to tell a story of a guy (Wiley Wiggins) who “wakes up” in his dream and into other dreams without knowing whether he’s conscious or awake in “real life.” I admired that this film actively does not confine itself into the kind of Hollywood filmmaking where there is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Just like the look of the picture, the story flows and moves like water, which enhances the film’s overall craft because the issues that it tackles are very abstract. And it also helped because the main character is in a dream. I particularly liked the scene when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their characters from “Before Sunrise” and had a deeper conversation about what was said in that movie. It really made me think about why, when we dream, time feels endless but in actuality we’ve slept for a very limited amount of time. That constant theme of there having to be something more to life than rules and meaning is explored in such a deep and intellectual way to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up because I wanted to savor the conversations. While I admit that I did not fully understand some of the concepts that they discussed and the names they dropped, it made me want to read up on such topics and people that are unfamiliar. This is a thinking man’s movie and definitely not for people who constantly have to have action scenes thrown at them. The power of this unique-looking film lies in the words and the exaggerated, almost expressionistic, images to highlight the transient meanings of the implications. My only main problem with it is that I felt as though part of the last third somewhat felt apart because it did not fully integrate some of the biggest themes that pervaded the rest of the movie. Still, I’m going to give “Waking Life” a recommendation because it was able to incite various insights on how to communicate and see (or feel?) the world in unfamiliar and not fully explained perspectives.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The people who claim that this is another “Borat”-style kind of documentary are the exact same people who believe in god to such an extent that they’re willing to delude themselves that Bill Maher is not asking questions worth answering. I do think that Maher asks valid questions to the religious individuals featured (whose religions range from Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Scientology) but he is smart enough to not let go of that trademark sense of humor that made him so famous. Even though I was born a Catholic, I do not affiliate myself with any religious group because, to be blunt, I think the whole thing is a crock. Even though my parents are Catholics, they provided me the freedom to choose and think for myself so I’m going to exercise it until the day I die. When I watch documentaries that challenge any religion, excitement comes over me because I love taking apart people’s arguments from both sides and decide which side is weaker. Although Maher did bring up a plethora of excellent points, I can admit that there were times when I wished he went straight for the jugular instead of dancing around the issue and eventually reaching it. However, Maher had enough insight to keep me on my feet and such insights made my arguments that much stronger the next time I get into a debate about religion. Another thing I liked about this film was its fast cuts to random images like Jonah Hill, cartoons aimed for children, older films that tell a story from the Bible, nuclear weapons going off, and even Maher’s childhood videos–all of which serve to provide a sense of humor and to support certain arguments on how ludicrous biblethumpers really are. One downside about this documentary, however, was that it lost a little bit of that great momentum in the final twenty minutes. There were less laughs because the jokes weren’t as sharp even though it’s still making fun of religion and people who build their lives around it. I highly recommend this film especially to agnostics and atheists. I doubt anyone with a strong set of religious beliefs will change their minds. There were a couple of quotes that stood out to me but this quote pretty much embodied the film’s argument: “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.”