Life as We Know It (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel), complete strangers to one another, were supposed to go out for dinner because their married best friends thought they would get along swimmingly. But they called it quits before they even reached the restaurant. Holly thought Eric was a child trapped in a handsome man’s body, while Eric thought Holly was a pretty but uptight blonde who had no idea how to let her hair down for a change. But when their best friends died in a car accident, they were named as one-year-old Sophie’s guardians. Holly and Eric had to try to put their differences aside to take care of the baby. “Life as We Know It,” written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, were labeled by some critics as emotionally bankrupt because it used death as a source of commercial comedy. I’d have to disagree; plenty of films out there, especially dark comedies, have used the same topic and they received critical acclaim. I say why not as long as the film retained a certain level of respect. The movie didn’t feel malicious toward its subjects. The characters may have felt more like caricatures at times but, in general, it had a bona fide sense of humor. I just wish it had stayed away from too many gross-out humor involving vomit and changing diapers. Two or three of those scenes were more than enough but we were given about seven. The heart of the picture was Holly and Eric’s strained relationship. They tolerated each other but they obviously didn’t like each other. They were so used to having their way because they were single. The only thing they had to focus on was their career. Holly ran a business as a caterer (typically feminine) and Eric worked behind the scenes in a sports network (typically masculine). The story was most interesting when it focused on how they tried to change themselves and each other as they hoped to raise a healthy child. They had to break their typical feminine and masculine roles in order to be well-rounded parents. Their various approaches to parenting were rarely perfect–certain decisions were downright stupid like Eric leaving a baby to a cab driver just so he could go to work–but that was what made them charming. Through trial-and-error, they learned from their mistakes. Another source of conflict was the romance between Sam (Josh Lucas) and Holly. They should have had more scenes together instead of the unfunny scenes with the colorful neighbors (Melissa McCarthy) and the nosy Child Protection Services agent (Sarah Burns). We saw that they cared for each other but their situation was far from optimum. Holly was in a critical state of transition while Sam was ready to settle down. I was glad there wasn’t a typical rivalry between the two men in Holly’s life. “Life as We Know It,” directed by Greg Berlanti, had good elements but it was ultimately weighed down by too many slapstick humor and heavy-handed metaphor such as Holly’s business expansion reflecting Holly, Eric, and Sophie’s life at home. It could have been stronger if the writers eliminated comfortable but unnecessary clichés and taken more risks.
★ / ★★★★
A wealthy family was in the process of moving into their new home. As the movers scrambled to empty the trucks, Marta (Ana Wagener), the matriarch, stressed about having all the members of the family to have dinner together and celebrate. Isa (Manuela Vellés), the spoiled, whiny, and inconsiderate daughter, would rather go out with her boyfriend (Xoel Yáñez) than to grant her mother’s simple wish. The patriarch, Jaime (Fernando Cayo), couldn’t care less. One could argue that the events in “Secuestrados,” written by Miguel Ángel Vivas and Javier García, were repercussions of bad parenting. In its first few minutes, instead allowing us to relate to the family, it wasn’t difficult not to dislike them because they passively and unnecessarily allowed small annoyances to turn into big problems. When three masked thieves (Guillermo Barrientos, Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper) broke into the family’s new house on the same night as the move-in, there was a cold disconnect between the audiences and the horrific events that were unfolding. For example, when forced to show their credit cards and write down their pin numbers on a piece of paper, the camera was at least fifteen feet from where the family trembled in their seats. There were yelling, screaming, and protesting but the distance represented a lack of sympathy. I argue that if the filmmakers’ intention was for us to care about Jaime, Marta and Isa, to root for them to be able to extricate themselves from their plight, the camera would have been as close as possible to that couch because mostly everybody can relate to suffering. The picture eventually started to feel gimmicky. Since there wasn’t enough cash in the house, one of the robbers, unmasked, took the father for a drive so that they could look for various ATMs and withdraw money. In order to simultaneously keep track of what was happening in the house, the screen was divided into two. Split-screens can be effective if used wisely and sparingly. The problem was, splitting the screen didn’t feel necessary. While we had a chance to observe two events at the same time, only either the left or the right was interesting. Both was never involving at the same time so that we would feel compelled to move our eyes in either direction. Furthermore, I found that in order for one side to capture my attention, someone would have to raise his voice or scream bloody murder. Lastly, I wanted to focus on the psychology of Isa. She was probably one of the most despicable daughters (or persons in general) I’ve seen on screen for quite some time. When she and her mother had a chance to escape by locking themselves in a bathroom with a window big enough so that a person could fit one at a time, Marta actually had to beg Isa to climb out and find help. Isa didn’t want to do it because the masked men had her boyfriend in the other room and threatened to kill him. I watched in astonishment. After several attempts to carry her daughter out of the window (and Isa selfishly wouldn’t budge), I actually wanted Isa to break her neck if she happened to make it outside. She was idiotic and useless. Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas, “Secuestrados,” also known as “Kidnapped,” was bleak and uncompromising. I would have admired its audacity if the characters were fighters instead of punching bags and if it had been more sensible of its craft.
Naked Childhood (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
François (Michel Terrazon) was a ten-year-old boy whose foster family did not want him anymore. The mother (Linda Gutemberg) was concerned about François always getting into fights, having trouble in school, stealing, and not responding to any sort of discipline she and her husband (Raoul Billerey) had attempted. François also hurt and killed animals yet it seemed like he did not feel bad about his actions. The Social Services had to intervene and placed the child with a kind elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) and with another foster child (Henri Puff) now in his teens. Directed by Maurice Pialat, “L’enfance nue” was an unflinching look at a troubled childhood and the system designed to handle children that were abandoned in the streets or given up for adoption. What I loved about the film most was it never offered easy answers. It was easy to judge our protagonist’s first foster family because we didn’t have a chance to observe their parenting skills for an extended amount of time. We were given information about the way they reacted to the child’s behavior, but we all know–or should know–there’s always a difference between secondhand description and firsthand observation. When the mother described their parenting to the director of Social Services, I was bothered by the fact that not once did she cite one instance where she could have done something differently with François. It wasn’t obvious but it sounded like François was a canister of blame. It gave me the impression that they didn’t want the child because it wasn’t the kind of child they dreamed of. Furthermore, it was obvious that the parents weren’t always on the same page. The father had a soft spot toward François when the mother performed a spice of tough love. The turning point was when François was transferred to his second foster family. We observed his different temperaments, wild tantrums, and the way he seemed to relish watching the people who loved him turn red with fury. With Pialat’s sensitive and astute direction, he showed us that François wasn’t an evil child. He was desperate for attention and his cruel actions were his cry for help. His new family was actually perfect for him because they seemed to have endless amount of patience. During François’ calm moments, he was able to make real connection with them. He enjoyed listening to his grandmother’s story about her huge family, the grandfather’s magical ability to fix just about anything in the house, his foster brother’s collection of weapons, and especially the great grandmother (Marie Marc) who read the morning paper with him. When he regressed to his unkind behavior, like a real family, they welcomed him back. I was moved with their ability to forgive and it made me wish that all families were like them. Written by Arlette Langmann and Maurice Pialat, “Naked Childhood” was a difficult look at the reality of abandoned children. It’s a must-see for those who, including myself, plan to adopt and raise their child as if they were our own flesh and blood. We should love them unconditionally and we just hope that they feel the same way toward us.
Middle of Nowhere (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Middle of Nowhere” was an indie drama about two teenagers who wanted to escape their lives. Dorian (Anton Yelchin) was sick of his wealthy family and their expectations of his eventual responsibility of running the family business. A problem child, he was sent to his uncle to learn discipline. Grace (Eva Amurri) wanted to go to college to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor but was unable to get financial aid because her mother (Susan Sarandon) took out unpaid loans under Grace’ name. The mother claimed that the answer to all of their problems was for Grace’ younger sister (Willa Holland) to enter the modeling industry. Dorian and Grace worked at a waterpark and eventually became partners in selling cannabis. I enjoyed the film mostly because of the performances. Sarandon was great as the mother who didn’t quite know how to be a responsible parent. I understood the many predicaments she was in, especially her financial instability, but I didn’t pity her because she was supposed to be the leading figure in the family. Unlike her eldest daughter, she wasn’t focused in accomplishing something she was responsible for. Yelchin and Amurri were equally interesting as teenagers whose lives were in a standstill. I admired that the script infused sexual tension between them but they never got together in a sexual way. That was important because their relationship was about business first, friendship second, and everything else was tertiary. Instead, a potential beau (Justin Chatwin) for Grace entereed the picture. They seemed like a perfect fit because he was worldly, smart and had substance. But was he too good to be true? As usual, I enjoyed Yelchin’s cooky side. A less charming actor would have looked like a complete fool while dancing in a laundomat. Amurri successfully made me want to root for her character. Although she was tough and sometimes cold, I understood that she had to be because she learned at an early age that nobody would ever just hand her what she wanted. I saw some similarities between the two of us but she definitely had a more unpleasant background. Unfortunately, the film hit a few bumps on the road. Half-way through, I began to feel as though the melodrama had completely taken over. I kept waiting for the tone to change up, surprise, and offer some laughter, especially during the scenes of Grace and Dorian’s odd occupation, but it remained painfully one-note. Written by Michelle Morgan and directed by John Stockwell, “Middle of Nowhere” had a good amount of intelligence and heart but I wished it was more playful with its tone because with such a somber material, the line between self-reflection and narcissism was often crossed.
Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
Blue Valentine (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) were not exactly what one would call a happy couple. Cindy did not love Dean anymore. Perhaps it was because he acted more like a playdate toward their daughter (Faith Wladyka) instead of a firm parent. Maybe it was because of his tendency to drink alcohol before work. We couldn’t put our fingers on the exact reason why, but that was what I found to be the most beautiful. Sometimes we just stop loving someone and the reason escapes us. Dean was a sensitive man. The couple met when Cindy was in college and dating a guy (Mike Vogel) on the wrestling team. She wanted to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Dean worked for a moving company. He didn’t make much money but all he really wanted was to find the right person for him. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the film jumped back and forth between the couple’s current unrewarding marriage and when their romance was at its peak. However, this was not to suggest that the couple’s current life did not have a drop of romance. Even when they were at a point of great struggle, I found romance in the small ways they tried. The former was difficult to sit through because it felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. It was like being stuck in a car with a friend and her boyfriend who happened to be fighting. No matter how much you turn up the volume on your iPod, you could still hear and perhaps feel or understand how they felt. There was a lot unexpressed frustration and anger between Cindy and Dean, but their aggression were personified in small ways like a snide look or an exasperated sigh. Their body movements said a thousand words. Since they could not communicate with each other in a healthy way, they were left to interpret the unsaid which led to the further dissolution of their marriage. On the other side of the spectrum, the latter was incredibly romantic. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t crack a smile in the way they hung out in the streets of Pennsylvania as Cindy danced and Dean played his ukelele. Their first few interactions were awkward, especially when they ran to each other on the bus, but the wall between them melted with fervor. They seemed destined to be together. The film could have suffered from the typical pitfalls of melodrama. But with Cianfrance’s direction, the switch between different time periods felt seamless and natural. It preserved the emotions from the scenes before so it worked as a tool for our further understanding of the characters and what was at stake if they did ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Each scene was like a piece of a puzzle and it was up to us to determine, not the point where their relationship became sour because all relationships have their rough spots, but the point where one or both of them had finally given up. Is “Blue Valentine” something that couples should see? Absolutely. It may not be typically cute or funny, but it was smart, real, and challenging.