★★★ / ★★★★
As someone who works with microorganisms, the sci-fi horror movie “Life,” directed by Daniel Espinosa, is an expected but most welcome surprise. Think about it: there is something innately creepy or unsettling about dealing with something alive, potentially harmful, that we cannot see with a naked eye. This picture takes advantage of that concept for as long as it is able. Clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien,” similarly crew members with a sense of humor who share a certain camaraderie being forced to face unimaginable horrors in space following a discovery of alien life, it manages to hit the right notes consistently enough to overcome some of the clichés within the sub-genre, particularly in how just about each astronaut eventually undergoes a most gruesome demise.
Initially, I was unimpressed. For a sci-fi picture set in a space station with an ambition to create as realistic an environment as possible, I found it to be annoyingly loud and ostentatious. Compare this to greats of the genre, especially alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The harder it tries to engage the audience through visuals and sounds, an the air of detachment is all the more amplified. “Odyssey” works because it simply shows what is while this film tries to appeal to what we imagine science fiction should be like rather than a set, settled reality. Further, the former relishes the quiet but the latter is afraid of it at times. As a result, I felt as though I were peering into a snow globe—curious but in the back of my mind a part of me wasn’t entirely convinced.
Equally bothersome during the first quarter is its inappropriate use and number of closeups. When there is a fascinating organism on screen, most of the attention should be on that creature. We already have an idea how everyone in the room must feel like—because we feel those similar emotions, too. There is no need to cut to the performers’ facial expressions every other two seconds (Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya). Doing so takes away some of the excitement and breeds frustration. We want to see what is on that petri dish and learn what it is capable of.
Eventually, however, the film proves capable of first-rate entertainment. The first attack by the extraterrestrial made me question my own safety, despite wearing personal protective equipment, when handling minuscule organisms. I admired how efficiently the camera traps us into an increasingly impossible situation as the biologist (Bakare) handles the life form in a containment cube. The editing commands a certain rhythm to it that makes us want to look away because it is built up in such a way that some thing is about to occur soon… yet we cannot help but stare wide-eyed since we crave to see what happens next. The early deaths are appropriately horrifying and creative. The camera lingers on their lifeless faces.
The look of the alien is inspired. I enjoyed how it reminded me of deep-sea jellyfish. It does not appear particularly solid but has convincing strength when it pounces on its prey. It looks translucent, but it is highly agile and versatile. Credit goes to the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for putting to life a creature that is intelligent, a real threat to the increasingly desperate characters. And credit goes to the special and visual effects team for creating a convincing monster, not just another uninspired CGI monster-of-the-week with tentacles.
Harold and Maude (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Harold (Bud Cort) had a predilection for the macabre. When he got up on a chair, positioned a rope around his neck, and kicked off his feet’s remaining support between life and death, his mother (Vivian Pickles) entered the room, glanced at her son’s discolored face, and calmly used the telephone. But not to call for help. This so-called suicide attempt was not a first. Harold was a young man so fascinated with death, he even attended funerals for fun. When he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), an ebullient seventy-nine-year-old woman who also enjoyed attending other people’s funerals, the two formed a complicated bond. Written by Colin Higgins, “Harold and Maude” was a strange but heart-warming dark comedy, equipped with excellent and perfectly placed Cat Stevens songs, because it took elements that were wrong and refrained from making them right. Instead, the filmmakers captured issues that could have been awkward and made them rather beautiful, one of which was the vast age difference between Harold and Maude. Cort excelled in playing a character who was reticent, almost a loner in every aspect of living. He spoke in a low tone of voice, slow, almost muffled, apathetic to the pleasures and advantages of being financially well-off. Gordon’s spicy voice and vibrant ways of moving her limbs provided a refreshing contrast against Cort’s depressed character. When the two occupied the same room, Gordon was almost minx-like but never creepy, as a bee is unable to help itself from landing on a specific flower. In Maude’s case, age came with experience and she often reminded him to live, that it didn’t matter if he wanted to take life seriously or foolishly as long as lived it the way he wanted to. Harold and Maude, standing between a precipice of being several generations apart, completed each other in the most touching ways. Expressing disgust that the two eventually shared a bed, sans an actual sex scene though nonetheless implicated, is a sign of immaturity. For me, it was only normal that the two would eventually feel the urge to explore each other physically considering they’d grown to know each other so well. That’s more than I can say for random hook-ups during drunken college nights and sweaty Vegas clubs. Much of the humor stemmed from Harold’s mother, the controlling Mrs. Chasen, happily inviting young women into the mansion just so Harold could finally choose a wife. She thought marriage would bring him to life through learning to take up real responsibilities. Although the arranged dates were very amusing, there was a real sadness in the relationship between mother and son, too. Her idea of happiness was so far from his, the two didn’t seem at all related. Notice that each of their conversations revolved around the son being told what to do in order to be a happier person. Their relationship became so unnavigable, the mother was even willing to contact Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a veteran who lost an arm in a war, to force Harold to join the military. Maybe she’d rather have a dead son than a son who likened the idea of death. I didn’t understand her nor do I think we were supposed to. The picture astutely used her as a symbol of what society expects from each of us. The biggest accomplishment of “Harold and Maude,” directed by Hal Ashby, was its unabashed celebration of differences. The next time I feel like doing somersaults on the beach, I’ll do it without giving a damn.
Mon oncle Antoine (1971)
★★ / ★★★★
Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), an elderly couple without kids of their own, raised orphans Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) and Carmen (Lyne Champagne) in a snowy small town in Quebec. Uncle Antoine and Aunt Cecile made a living with their undertaking business and a general store which proved to be a popular place to hang out around Christmastime. “Mon oncle Antoine,” directed by Claude Jutra, celebrated life and mourned death but the movement from one side of the spectrum to another was only somewhat successful. The comedy sprouted from the ordinariness of daily life. We saw the story through Benoit’s eyes. We followed him as he spied on a beautiful woman (Monique Mercure) as she tried on a new corset, took up new responsibilities around the store, threw snowballs at a horse whose owner (Georges Alexander) felt obligated to give gifts to the poor, and his coming to terms with the growing attraction he had toward Carmen. The laughs weren’t especially big but what mattered was the aforementioned events held importance from Benoit’s childhood. Through Benoit’s experiences, we learned about the close-knit community and the unhappiness simmering just above the surface. However, I found it strange that the relationship between Benoit and his uncle wasn’t at the focus of the picture up until the last thirty minutes. They mostly spent time apart and when they did occupy the same room, they shared no meaningful conversation. When the uncle finally opened up to Benoit while in a drunken state, it felt forced. I wasn’t moved. I was more concerned about the beautiful chilly cinematography and the way the shadows were brilliantly placed on the characters’ faces. That detachment I felt was a signal that the relationship remained between uncle and nephew. There was no transition that highlighted the idea that the story may have very well had been about father and son. What the director did best was placing us in Benoit’s shoes as he experienced intense emotions. When Uncle Antoine took him along to pick up a boy’s dead body, we felt his anxiety in the way he looked at a door that was slightly ajar. It was an ordinary door but the way Benoit looked at it with fear made the door seem like a division between the land of the living, the kitchen where the family members gathered, and the land of the dead, the bedroom where the body waited under the covers. “Mon oncle Antoine” requires great patience. There were, without a doubt, rewarding scenes but the lack of key transitions between relationships left me off-guard in a negative way.
Du levande (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.
Answer Man, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Arlen Farber (Jeff Daniels), the author of the very popular book “Me and God,” decided to hide from the world because he was sick of people coming up to him and asking him questions about the being above and what they should do with their lives. When his back went out, he decided to see a chiropractor (the always charming Lauren Graham), unaware of the author’s identity, who happened to be a very protective mom of a boy (Max Antisell) who believed his father would come back for him in two weeks (he actually hasn’t returned in three years). Furthermore, a recovering alcoholic (Lou Taylor Pucci) learned who Arlen was and constantly asked guidance concerning where his life was going. The film had a very slow start and I have to admit that I almost gave up on it. Luckily, things finally started coming together in the last two-thirds of the picture and I eventually had an idea about what the movie tried to say about coincidences versus the actions we put in to achieve certain goals. However, the movie was supposed to be a comedy. I did not find it particularly funny or witty. I thought it was unfortunate because spirituality was a big part of the picture but it did not take advantage of that topic. It could have easily have been a satire (millions of people worshipped Arlen) but the movie had no idea what to do with itself. In the end, it was just a series of scenes that were sometimes awkward, sometimes cooky (considering Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings had small roles but both characters were very underdeveloped), and often forced. There was supposed to be a romantic angle between Daniels and Graham but they were in critical need of chemistry. I did not see why they would be interested in one another in the first place so when one of them finally made a move, I had a difficult time swallowing what I saw. I thought the movie worked best when there was friction between Daniels and Graham or when Daniels was just being a much-needed father figure for the boy. Written and directed by John Hindman, “The Answer Man” would have been a stronger project if it offered more answers than questions. For the past twenty years, Arlen lived a life of a recluse but the movie did not really peel away his layers. For instance, why was he so compassionate toward Graham’s character (aside from the fact that he had a crush on her) but the opposite toward others? Thinking of all the missed opportunities for the movie to be great makes me feel more disappointed. It had small moments of brilliance but they were not enough to save the entire work.
10 Items or Less (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, “10 Items or Less” was about Morgan Freeman playing himself who wanted to research being a person who worked in a supermarket for his upcoming role. When his driver (Jonah Hill) did not pick up Freeman after a couple of hours like he was supposed to, Freeman bonded with a checkout girl (Paz Vega). This movie interested me from start to finish because the events and dialogue that we saw and heard felt real. There were times when I wondered if the actors veered off from the script because certain stutters and awkward pauses made the final cut. Even though I noticed such things, strangely enough, I didn’t find them distracting at all. The experience became that much more enjoyable because the filmmakers proved to me that they had confidence in their project. The picture had a nice balance between understated drama and perfect comedic timing. I thought it was hilarious when Freeman would delve into his techniques in terms of building a believable character in his films and how amazed he was when he stepped into Target and couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. I was touched during scenes where Freeman tried to give Vega’s character courage to face her fears, such as her upcoming job interview, and to convince her she was good enough and she needed not prove herself to anybody. Vega reminded me so much of Penélope Cruz not just because of the accent but the way she delivered certain lines with such intensity and passion. I loved how Vega’s character seemed tough at first and eventually she was able to open up character so we could relate to her thoughts, fears and insecurities. If I were to pick one best scene, it would have to be when Freeman and Vega talked to each other about ten things they loved and then things they hated about their lives. There was a certain honesty about it and the scene reminded me of the time when a friend and I did the exact same thing. I read a review saying that nothing happened in the film and there was no progression in the story. I couldn’t disagree more because since “10 Items of Less” was essentially a slice-of-life film, it really was more about how the characters evolved from the moment we met them until the moment we said goodbye to them. From my perspective, both characters grew in both significant and small ways so it was ultimately a rewarding experience. “10 Items or Less” may be simple but it was smart with the way it showcased the ordinariness of life–that the real value of living one’s life, whether one is a celebrity or just an ordinary Joe, is embedded in the moments in between.
★★ / ★★★★
Set in the 1970s, “Diggers” was about four friends (Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton) who dug clams for a living whose lives began to unfold after Hunt’s (Rudd) father passed away. I saw great potential in this picture because all four men were so interesting to watch, but I felt like it came up too short in terms of really exploring their psychologies: the lead character and his father’s death, a friend having way too many kids, another friend’s blossoming relationship with the main character’s sister (Maura Tierney), and another who constantly experimented with drugs. As different as their stories and personalities were, I found it interesting that none of them was not really present or aware with how they were living their lives. That common theme had an innate sadness to it because all of them felt trapped–trapped in where they lived, in their occupations and in their minds. I felt like the movie really captured the 1970s with its introspective style of storytelling and soundtrack. Although I did enjoy the comedic scenes dispersed throughout, I wished the movie was more focused and had a longer running time because I felt like we saw the characters only at the surface. I wanted to see more tender moments between the lead character and his sister, the bond that the four friends had and the lost connection between the father and the son. I loved the metaphor involving photography and digging for clams and how the latter related to the emptiness of their lives. Rudd’s more serious roles are less known in his repertoire (“The Shape of Things” was one of his best) which is unfortunate because I feel like he has the talent to bring real gravity to his characters. In here, he portrayed an emotionally wounded person so well that I forgot that I was watching an actor. The silent moments with just him and his camera had a certain naturalistic feel to them; those were the moments when the picture was really at the top of its game. Written by Ken Marino and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, “Diggers” would have been a stronger film with a bit more alterations in the script in terms of character development. In parts, the movie was good but as a whole it just didn’t quite hold up for me. Nevertheless, I did admire the fact that the movie ended in such a way that it left me wanting more. It did a great job in drawing the line between having a clean-cut ending and having closure.
Color Purple, The (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Alice Walker’s novel and directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Color Purple” stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson who endured years of suffering in the hands of a very abusive husband (Danny Glover). Celie lost everyone she loved–her son, daughter and sister (Akosua Busia)–and since she was so used to being treated as less than human, she learned to shut herself down and live as though she was a ghost. But when her husband’s kind mistress (Margaret Avery) came into her life, Celie learned to not hide her smile and then everything else fell into place. Most importantly, she learned to fight for her freedom. Watching the lead character struggle physically and emotionally touched me in so many ways to the point where I wanted to cry or yell or scream for her. I admired her because she was so strong–she didn’t break when everyone else told her that she was useless, ugly, unloved, and dumb. She took all of it because she had nowhere else to go. I liked that although the picture was primarily Celie’s story, it was also about the bond between strong women. The bond between Celie and her sister was so powerful and I loved watching them interact, especially the scene when Celie’s sister taught her how to read. It was a huge catharsis when Celie realized that her sister had been writing to her for years but she never received any of it. The bond between Celie and Shug–the mistress–was just as heartbreaking, notably the scenes when Shug would give Celie a boost of self-esteem. There was also a bond between Celie and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a strong charismatic woman who everybody wanted to talk to and get to know. Celie looked up to the three women not only because they were strong but also because they were free. The film didn’t take any shortcuts. It tackled the complex issues head-on whether it was about sexuality, race, gender and societal norms. Even “evil” characters like the husband were not one-dimensional. One of the many lines that stood out to me was “Even sinners have souls, too.” Despite the picture being two hours and thirty minutes long, I thought its pacing was exemplary. The passing of the years as the characters we came to love (and hate) growing considerably older was painful to see because one minute they were at their primes and the next they were shriveled up and almost defeated. I think it’s a shame that this picture was nominated for eleven Oscars but did not win a single one. I’m at a loss because the performances were all excellent, the soundtrack tugged at my heartstrings, the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking, and the writing was multidimensional.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Good Will Hunting” was about a twenty-year-old janitor with a gift of photographic memory who spent his days hanging out and drinking with his friends (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) instead of actually using his gift to the fullest. But when he anonymously left a solution to a challenging math problem given by a renowned professor (Stellan Skarsgård), the professor tried looking for Will to push him to reach his potential. I loved this picture because it felt more personal than other movies about people with a certain kind of genius. The script was impressive because it was insightful but at the same time wasn’t afraid to explore the insecurities of the characters, especially the relationship between Damon, Skarsgård and Robin Williams, as Will’s counselor who actually wanted to solve Will’s personal problems first before persuading Will to use his gift to help society. I found it fascinating how Will was so smart but he found it difficult to relate with others (except for his core group of friends) because most people were more drawn to his gift than what he had to offer personally. It made him bitter and trusting others became an issue for him, especially with what he had to go through in his childhood. Another source of tension, which I found was one of the weaker links in the film, was the relationship between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver). Even though they spent a lot of scenes together, I didn’t feel as though they loved one another as the film had suggested. However, I found Skylar interesting as a stand-alone character because she was carefree and independent. Perhaps it was just the lack of chemistry between the actors but I would rather watch the scenes when Damon and Williams helped to explore reach other’s inner demons and grow from their experiences. What impressed me most about “Good Will Hunting,” directed by Gus Van Sant, was how real the characters were. Van Sant’s direction was to be applauded because he wasn’t afraid to let his characters act stupid while adding many layers of dimension to them just like people in real life. For instance, the bar scenes with the friends seemed ordinary but they were actually standout scenes because listening in to their conversations made me feel like it was something I could hear in real life. Even though the topics of conversations seemed dull on the surface, the way the characters interacted and the intonations in their voices suggested how close they were as friends and what it meant for them to have someone have their backs no matter what happened. It’s difficult to sum up the story of “Good Will Hunting” in a couple of words because it was more about a crucial span of time in a character’s life. It was an intimate and powerful experience and it made me feel good because it inspired me to have more control to where I want to go in life.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Lance Hammer, “Ballast” was a powerful film about how three people who lived in Mississippi Delta began working toward a better future after a suicide. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) tried to kill himself after finding out about the death of his twin brother but a neighbor (Johnny McPhail) arrived just in time to call for help. Marlee (Tarra Riggs) was a hardworking mother who desperately wanted to provide for her son James (JimMyron Ross), unaware of his involvement in violence and drugs. As the film went on, Lawrence, Marlee and James had no choice but to be a family and help each other to move forward. I loved the bare bones look of this film because it really got me in the mood to look inside the characters–their motivations, feelings, thoughts and plans for the future. What’s brilliant about this picture is the fact that it’s not just about poor people being poor people and therefore we can’t help but feel sorry for them. It’s about people in poverty who constantly try to provide for themselves even though all hope seems absent. We also got to learn about a certain character’s history with drugs, why Lawrence and Marlee didn’t get along, and why Lawrence was very understanding with James. Even though the movie did not have any soundtrack and had minimal dialogue, when the characters did engage in conversation, the words struck me. I especially was touched by that scene when the mother got fired from her job because of the bruises on her face (and she didn’t have any more sick days so she could take a day off). She said that her appreance shouldn’t matter anyway because she was invisible to everyone else. She had such strength throughout and I couldn’t help but root for her. I’ve heard from people that they were frustrated with the abrupt ending. I had no problem with it at all because it implied that no matter what challenges faced the main characters, they would find a way to overcome them. For me, the picture ended at just the right moment. “Ballast” shows how powerful independent cinema can be. This is not for viewers expecting fast pacing, a defined story structure, or any of the Hollywood conventions. This film is all about the nuances and it was pretty much observing the painful realities that others have to go through from day to day.