Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four men with unconventional careers, Dave Hoover, a wild animal trainer, Raymond A. Mendez, a mole rat specialist, Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist, and George Mendonça, a topiary gardener, were the subjects of Errol Morris’ bizarre but magnetic documentary. It was a particularly challenging film to pull off because how the men defined their lives couldn’t be more different from one another. The director’s task was to find a way to highlight their similarities without being heavy-handed or reaching for something that wasn’t quite there. By constructing a collage of clips from classic serials released in theaters, playing in black and white and color gradients, using various types cameras, it successfully established an argument that even the most mundane could be transformed into something interesting given the right perspective. I was particularly interested in the fact that mole rats were mammals but they lived like termites. Most of us are familiar with the archetype of a mammal so the picture was a nice and humbling reminder of two things: How we take certain rules for granted in order to make some sense of the world and the mysteries of life ultimately help to drive our curious minds forward. Not fully knowing keeps us guessing so we have room to grow. Another layer added on top and around the mole rat scenario were the robots designed to act like insects. Unlike biology, how robots work is something I’m just not interested in despite my dependence on technology. When the robots were introduced, I expected to lose interest. But I didn’t. It surprised me because the film took a specific stance and stuck with it. That is, robots may be non-living but they are inspired by the living. Ironically, we could learn more about the living by observing and learning how the non-living worked. I never thought about it that way. The weaker half was the animal trainer’s fond memories of Clyde Beatty, a lion tamer who eventually went on to star in motion pictures, and gardener’s passion for cutting plants into images of animals. The former discussed the dangers of controlling creatures, like tigers, lions, and bears, that normally shouldn’t be controlled but I failed to grasp the implications it wanted to convey. There were too many old footages from the circus which didn’t help elevate the messages it wanted to bring to us. On the other hand, the latter felt more like a recollection of a man in his twilight years. I’m sure that filmmakers didn’t mean to but every time the fanciful plants appeared, I was reminded of the man’s obsession instead of his passion. There’s a subtle difference and I wish the filmmakers had a more solid grasp in terms of connecting Hoover and Mendonça’s careers to Mendez and Brooks’. Nevertheless, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” had many wild ideas worth hearing and jaw-dropping images worth watching. If anything, it made me wish I had a pet mole rat.
The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.
180° South (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
In “180° South,” directed by Chris Malloy, Jeff Johnson and his friends were inspired by adventurers Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard’s journey into Patagonia back in 1968 so Johnson and company decided to do the same thing. Spending months at a time on a constantly rocking boat on top of some technical difficulties with their mode of transport made their journey anything but smooth. I loved that the documentary started off with why it was important for Johnson to go to Patagonia and climb to the peak of the tallest mountain there. Prior to watching the movie, I thought why not just take a plane to the island and start climbing the mountain? Must they really have to go through months of traveling by sea and risk being stranded? But after Johnson expressed his reasons why he wanted to go through certain steps, even though I didn’t necessarily fully agree with him, I understood where he was coming from. And in a way, just hearing and seeing his excitement for his journey and the passion in his voice made me feel excited as well. I liked the narration as much as I hated the use of soundtrack. The narration made it personal and Johnson offered a lot of insight about how his admiration for nature has shaped the way he’s living his life. However, the use of music just annoyed me. I understood that it was supposed to be soothing and it was supposed to match the tone of the movie but it took away the necessary silences that could give us a chance to think more about what the narrator just expressed. I couldn’t help but think how nice it would have been if the music was taken out altogether and let us just hear the waves crashing on the shore or the tiny pebbles sliding down the incline as Johnson and the others climbed a mountain. It would have been that much more exciting because it would feel more like we were really there. With the addition of songs, the movie felt polished instead of natural. There were also some mention of environmental threats in the film and how factories impact nature and people who rely on fishing for a living. That portion of the movie was a hit-or-miss for me. On one hand, I thought it was a positive thing to acknowledge environmental disasters due to people’s disregard for things outside of their spheres. I also thought it was a good thing to have the environmental angle because it shows that Johnson was not just some adrenaline-seeking junkie. But at the same time, I thought the environmental angle took away some of the focus and momentum from the actual journey toward Patagonia. Still, “180° South” is a worthwhile experience because I got to learn more about people who do things that I could never imagine myself doing in my lifetime.
Winged Migration (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Le peuple migrateur” also known as “Winged Migration,” directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, was a documentary about migrating birds and the dangers they faced as they traveled for hundreds and thousands of miles. I’m one of those people who sees a flock of birds and just can’t help to run up to them in hopes of scaring them away. After watching this movie, I don’t think I’ll be doing it anymore because the birds go through so much in hopes of survival. Having been shot from a bird’s perspective in a span of four years, I thought the images were nothing short of breathtaking. I’ve never seen so many birds in my life. I was most engaged when the birds would fly in a blizzard. I kept thinking how they managed to keep flying despite the biting cold and the harsh winds. All birds of varying shapes, colors and sizes are in this film and I thought it was interesting that it had enough time to observe their many strange rituals. I’ve read some complaints about the film being unexpectedly violent. My response is simply “Get over it” because this was supposed to be a documentary that simply shows what is instead of an after school special when everything is sugarcoated. I get that parents want to protect their children from the concept of death but at the same time I’m annoyed that they don’t actively take responsibility and try to explain to their kids that it’s all a part of life. Birds do get eaten by seals, get shot from the sky and get caught in all sorts of pollution and human activities. From that list, notice that three out of four are a cause of our own actions. It’s never too early to have a talk with kids about life and death. Another element I noticed about this picture was its minimal use of narration. There were extended periods of time when the only thing we could hear were the flapping of the wings and the birds’ calls. It was a different experience–almost zen-like–and it was inspiring. It made me think about how it felt like to be a bird. Moreover, the use of music was excellent. The music captured all sorts of emotions such as sadness when a bird would get left behind and excitement when they would hunt for food or confront each other. I’m not a big fan of birds (I consider them a vector for a number of diseases) but this movie made me appreciate them a little bit more. There’s just something about their endurance of flying through thousands of miles and harshest weather conditions that I can’t help but admire.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Océans,” directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, explored the interplay between nature and mankind. This documentary caught me by surprise because I thought it was just going to be about the creatures that lived in the ocean. But it also turned out to be a commentary on how humans, despite living on Earth for a relatively short period of time, have negatively affected the ocean in shocking ways and the animals that depended on the ocean for survival. The movie showed absolutely breathtaking images of predator-prey relationship, notably when the birds would dive underwater at lightning speeds and try to capture fish. That particular scene was so intense, it was like watching an action movie only it was actually real and it happens every day. But my favorite scenes have got to be the ones shot in the ocean floor. I love those scenes because the strangest-looking creatures appeared on screen. There’s something about creatures that can expertly blend in their surroundings and make surprise attacks that have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of waiting for a kill (or the hunt), I’m not exactly sure, but I can watch those scenes for hours. However, my problem with “Océans” was its lack of focus. I felt like the movie jumped from one type of living thing to another without any smooth transition. It would have felt more organic if the first fifteen to twenty minutes were only dedicated to fish, hard shells the next, penguins the next and so on. The movie jumping from one group to another and then back took me out of the experience. Perhaps the directors decided to do it for people with short attention spans but it just doesn’t work for people like me who can pay attention to one element for about an hour (given that the material is interesting). Regardless, “Océans” is worth seeing for the stunning images and the emphasis on the world being bigger than us so we must take care of it the best we can. There was this brilliant line in the film that stated something like the humans’ indifference is utimately nature’s downfall. It certainly made me want to commit to recycling instead of only sticking to it only if I felt like it. This is also a good movie to show to children (especially those in elementary school) because it has a clear way of showing concepts like the aformentioned predator-prey relationships, symbiosis and pollution. Plus, it had really cute clips of sea lions that almost had human qualities in the way they nurtured or played with their young.
Whale Rider (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, “Whale Rider” was about a little girl named Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who possessed the ability to communicate, through prayers, with whales. Unfortunately, her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) was so caught up in traditions regarding the leader of the Whangara people being a boy that he was blind to his granddaughter’s gift. In a way, he connected Paikea and the death of her male twin with their tribe’s increasing lack of passion for their culture. Desperate to find a leader, the grandfather gathered the local boys but no one could match Paikea’s natural abilities and passion for what she was meant to do. Even though I’ve seen the angle of older generation clashing with a younger generation with respect to traditions, I thought the film was still refreshing because I knew nothing about the Maori tribe and the Whangara people. So I saw the picture through a fresh set of eyes and I was curious with how they were so in touch with nature. Castle-Hughes blew me away because she was so good at exuding strength but at the same time remaining vulnerable. Her acting culminated in the scene where she had to present a speech in front of an audience dedicated to her grandfather but he didn’t bother to show up. The way she composed herself and delivered her lines, despite the tears, showed so much strength that I couldn’t imagine an American actress so young as she was pulling it off quite as swimmingly. I also enjoyed the scenes when the community tried to help the whales when the animals swam to the shore to meet their demise. That sense of unity made me feel warm and I wanted to join them because I was so inspired. As for the supporting actors, I loved the grandmother played by Vicky Haughton because she was not afraid to say what she wanted to say to her stubborn husband when everyone else were forced to swallow their words. But at the same time, she was warm to others, especially her granddaughter. I just wished that Paikea’s father (Cliff Curtis) was in it a bit more because the movie didn’t spend enough time establishing his role in his daughter’s life. “Whale Rider” was a magical film full of fascinating culture. It’s a nice reminder that there’s this whole world out there that is so immaterial and far values working together more than competition. I expected a movie for kids because of the synposes I read but I got to see something much more rewarding.
Long Weekend (1978)
★ / ★★★★
“Nature Strikes Back” movies are interesting to me because it offers a different kind of horror. There’s no serial killer running around trying to kill half-naked teenagers and there’s no religious people trying to call an exorcist because of a demonic possession. Unfortunately, “Long Weekend” doesn’t impress on any level for several reasons. Most importantly, the couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) who go on a camping trip near the beach are very unlikeable. The first scene they shared, they couldn’t help but bicker. They bickered on the way to the beach. And they bickered at the beach when weird things started happening. Instead of teaming up and putting their differences aside, they actively chose to blame one another for the things that were going wrong. I got so tired of it to the point where I wanted to shake them and tell them to shut up because they were damaging my ear drums. I actually wanted nature to kill them off so that I could get some peace and quiet. I would have cared so much more about the characters (and rooted for them) if they took care of nature and appreciated its beauty, yet for some reason nature was out to get them. I’m not sure if Everett De Roche, the writer, and Colin Eggleston, the director, were trying to be serious or campy. Either way, they succeeded in neither because the acting, tone and storytelling were subpar. Now, movies about nature suddenly going crazy and going on crazy rampages could work. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is one of my favorites. But this one felt like there was no brain behind it all and the scares involving the animals attacking were downright laughable. (Advice: If the animal looks really fake, don’t go for close-ups.) Just when I thought it was about to be successful at building suspense (the creature hiding in the water as Hargreaves goes swimming was pretty effective), a character does something so stupid so I’m taken out of that precious moment of feeling concerned about what would happen next. As cautionary tales go, the lesson is very obvious: treat nature with respect. But as far as horror movies go, Australia’s “Long Weekend” was more like a very long movie I wished would end after the first thirty minutes.