Prodigal Sons (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kimberly Reed decided to document her return to her hometown in Montana because it was the first time her high school friends and neighbors would see her as a woman. When Paul (now Kim) was in high school, it seemed like he had it all: he was well-liked, he was quarterback of the football team, he had good grades. However, he kept secret of the fact that he felt like he was born in the wrong body. Her eventual transformation contributed to a strain in the relationship with her older adopted brother (Marc McKerrow) who got into an accident when he was in his early twenties and had a part of his brain removed. Ever since the surgery, he had problems with his mood and memory, which was problematic for Kim because she wanted to let go of her past yet her brother kept bringing up the fact that she used to be a man. This documentary moved me in ways that I did not expect. I thought it was just going to be a documentary about how people would react to Kimberly’s decision to finally be in a body where she was meant to be. I was surprised that it was actually more about family and finding closure to issues that do not have easy or comfortable answers. It was not always a good feeling to watch Kim and Marc interact because of the awkwardness of not seeing each other for many years. There was jealousy and anger from Marc’s side and Kim walked on egg shells around her brother but it was obvious that both of them were willing to put in the effort to make their relationship work. Some of the audiences’ reactions on message boards claimed that they hated Marc for being selfish, insensitive and mean-spirited. I did not hate Marc in the least. From the location of his scar, perhaps the doctors removed a part of his frontal lobe (the movie was not specific about which part of Marc’s brain was taken out). Having some basic background in Neurology, the frontal lobe controls personality, decision-making, and memory. So I did not hold him accountable for his fits of rage. Think of it as hitting your “funny bone” (the cause) and trying as hard as you can to not react (the rage). After his violent spells, when he said that his rage “wasn’t me,” I understood what he was trying to convey because he just could not help it. His fits were not dissimilar from clips I’ve seen of actual patients who had a part of their frontal lobe removed. The movie did not offer a scientific explanation (other than he was inconsistent of taking his medication–which is to imply that he was merely choosing to be irresponsible) so I feel the need to shed some light on the matter. “Prodigal Sons” is a deeply personal film and is really worth experiencing than reading about. There were some nice surprises involving bloodlines, people’s reactions to Kim being a transgender, and the history of who Paul was. If I can describe Kim in one word, it would have to be “brave.” By the end of the movie, I wanted to meet her and thank her for sharing not just her story but also the story of her imperfect family and the love they have for one another.
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Catholic boarding school hid three Jewish students, one of which was Jean (Raphael Fejtö), from the terrorizing Nazis in the middle of World War II. We viewed the events from Julien’s (Gaspard Manesse) perspective, a home sick boy who, like most kids, did not really understand what was really happening yet he had no problem throwing words around like “Jew” or “yid” and the bigotry that came with those words. Julien and Jean started off as enemies but the two eventually became friends. However, their friendship was challenged my the Nazis who came to their school to hunt down the three students and send them to their deaths. What I admired most about Louis Malle’s film was the fact that he was able to take the events that happened in his own life and ponder over the decisions he made. Right from the beginning, it felt very personal. The opening scene was a mother and her son saying goodbye at a train station. It was a simple scene but we immediately got to know the protagonist: he was sensitive when he needed to, he felt neglected by his parents, and he hid his real emotions through transference. The other scenes that stood out to me were also simple scenes. One of them was when Julien got lost in the woods in the attempt to find a hidden treasure. On top of the giant rocks, he looked around. What did he think about? Did he know which direction to go? Was he afraid to go down the rocky terrain? Was he worried about the sun setting? In one specific glance around his surroundings, I had so many questions and felt so many emotions. I felt like that scene was a test for him and for us. Even though he was somewhat of a bully, I found that I cared about what would happen to him. Another highlight was when the kids and the teachers watched a Chaplin picture. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I love the movies, but I felt so much joy while watching them laughing collectively at the screen. In one scene, even though the kids made fun of each other and didn’t always get along, they found a common ground. The Chaplin film brought them together and I couldn’t help but feel moved. Malle’s strength was definitely taking simple portraits from his youth and letting us feel why those were important to him. Even though his experiences happened more than fifty years ago, the feelings cut through time and we find ourselves able to relate and sympathize. The closing scene was simply masterful. Slowly, the camera inched toward Julien’s eyes as he realized that sometimes his actions can be powerful. There was no going back. It was a loss of innocence at its finest. He became a man because he finally learned to take responsibility. “Au revoir les enfants” is an astute picture, a rewarding experience, and utterly unforgettable.
Lovely Bones, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Lovely Bones,” adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel and directed by Peter Jackson, was about a fourteen-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who was murdered by a child predator (Stanley Tucci). As years went by after her unsolved murder, the protagonist watched over her family (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Rose McIver, Christian Thomas Ashdale) and the monster who killed her in cold blood. I’ve read a plethora of reviews claiming that this was a mediocre picture and was underwhelming. Maybe they expected too much considering Jackson’s power as a director but I thought the movie was above average. It felt painfully personal. I was moved when Ronan realized that she was dead but she was stuck between the real world and heaven. I thought it was very sad when she realized that her family was slowly being ripped apart after her death. Those dramatic elements worked for me because the exposition was consistently strong. It immediately made me care for the lead character because she wanted to do so many things in life. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fantastic imagery when Ronan lived in “the in-between.” I thought the images were magical, inspired and intelligent because the images she encountered almost always related to the things that were happening back in the real world. As great as the images were, I argue that they didn’t overshadow the picture’s emotional resonance. In fact, the imagery took the emotions to the next level. As for the villainous creepy neighbor, I thought Tucci was electrifyingly effective. Tucci excelled with his character’s eccentricities and the way he lured Ronan to her grave gave me the shivers. However, I thought the film came up short when it came to consistency. The last third lacked the momentum of the first hour and twenty minutes. About two-thirds into it, I started questioning when it was going to wrap itself up. Essentially, I think the movie would have benefited from a shorter running time. The scenes of Weisz’ struggle with the loss of her daughter (an emotional breakdown?) felt like it didn’t need to be there. I understood right away that everyone in the family was impacted by the tragedy so it didn’t need to hammer that point again and again. Luckily, Sarandon had a good amount of screen time to alleviate some of the seriousness by means of perfect comedic timing. If I were to describe “The Lovely Bones” in one word, it would be “misunderstood.” A lot of people thought that the CGI became the main focus and not the characters. I would advice those same people to watch the movie again and do what I did: ignore the fact that Jackson directed the film and swallow it as a “regular” film from a not-so-popular director. It may not have been as consistent as I would have liked but I thought it was able to deliver when it needed to.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from Susanne Bier’s “Brødre,” “Brothers,” directed by Jim Sheridan, was about two brothers: a Marine (Tobey Maguire) who loves his family and kids (Natalie Portman, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare) and an ex-con (Jake Gyllenhaal) who recently got out of jail. The (very intense) final forty-five minutes shook me to the core when Maguire’s character finally returned to his family after being captured and tortured by the enemy for months. But as great as the last third was, I was also impressed with the way the film tackled subjects such as redemption in Gyllenhaal’s character wanting to do good for his brother’s family by playing with the kids, fixing up the kitchen, and helping them move on from a death in the family. During the first few minutes, it also established the fact that even though the brothers were so different from one another (highlighted in scenes where the father expressed pride in one and disappointment in another), there was a strong bond between them and nothing could change their love for one another. I was moved especially when their relationship was challenged in the last forty-five minutes; I felt like the two actors were really brothers when they conversed because there was a sort of intimacy between them. I also liked the way it showed the ugliness of returning from war and being traumatized by the events that happened there. Although it tackled the issue with sensitivity, it wasn’t afraid to be honest regarding what could potentially happen to someone who had a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the symptoms that came with it such as paranoia, rage and disorientation. It was heartbreaking to watch the children become afraid of their own father, the wife not knowing how to respond to her husband’s physical return (but not mentally and emotionally), and the way Gyllenhaal’s character dealt with his brother’s suspicions and anger. The only problem I had with the film were the scenes which involved Maguire being kidnapped by the enemy. I think if all those scenes were left out and the audiences were left to wonder what really happened to Maguire’s character, it would have been that much more haunting (such as using a title card stating “a few months later” and the like). A sudden shift from a warm, loving person to a cold person who was on a verge of a psychotic breakdown would have had a far more impact on me. Nevertheless, “Brothers” is a strong movie that relies on the characters and subtle (sometimes explosive) acting instead of soldiers trying to survive in war zones. It felt personal so I couldn’t help but think about it after a while.
Meglio gioventù, La (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“La meglio gioventù” or “The Best of Youth,” written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, runs for six hours long but I was so invested in all of the characters so I wanted it to run longer. Its focus was on two brothers named Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) and how the choices they made back when they were young in the 1960s have impacted their respective futures all the way to the 2000s. This is one of those films where it’s difficult to describe what it’s about because it’s pretty much about everything. Let’s just say that this is about life and the beauty that comes with it–how cruel yet generous fate can be, how ironic situations are despite the sharply fluctuating sadness and comedy, and how the people we meet can help shape who we are. Yes, it’s about two brothers who are very different from each other (one became a psychiatrist and one became a cop) but what I liked about the picture is that it didn’t paint them as rivals. In fact, they genuinely loved each other even though their political views and how they interpreted situations that faced them were vastly different. I also liked the way the director effortlessly sewn in the Italian history into their lives. I didn’t find it at all distracting because the movie always worked at a personal level. There was always something going on on the surface and underneath it all was a lot of hurt, disappointment, regret and what ifs. I was also amazed with how the movie started off with the actors looking really young and look of the picture reflected that of the 1960s. But as we made our journey through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, the same actors looked older and the look of the movie became sharper and more modern. It was fascinating to watch and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. As the movie went on, the focus shifted from the brothers to their parents, siblings, lovers, and children. I really felt like I was watching someone’s life unfold before my eyes. As the characters often reflected on a certain memory when they were younger, I actually had a picture on which memory they were talking about as well as the circumstances that surrounded that event. It’s so much more interesting than in other films where a character talks about his or her memory and we can only build from what he or she is saying. I’m so happy to have seen “The Best of Youth” because not only did it inspire me to love the people in my life more but it also gave me an idea of what I could possibly write about for my personal statement for medical school. This film is a treasure and it should not be missed by anyone who loves stories that deftly cover several decades.
Pianist, The (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can say a lot of things about Roman Polanski since his personal life is often torn apart among the tabloids but you cannot deny that the man knows how to make movies. Not just typical movies that happen to be commercially successful, but movies that are personal, have artistic merit and have distinct emotional resonance. In “The Pianist,” Polanski focused on the survival story of a Polish Jewish survivor named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in Warsaw in the middle of World War II. I thought it was interesting how the picture started off with him and his family (Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay as his parents, Jessica Kate Meyer and Julia Rayner as his sisters, and Ed Stoppard as his brother) and then shift the focus on how he was able to survive on his own with the help of kind strangers and adoring fans (Emilia Fox). Even though this was set in WWII, I thought it felt a little different because we spent the majority of the time observing him from indoors–how he saw the war from his window somewhat from an outsider’s perspective yet still caught up in the middle of it. We also observed how he moved from one place to another and the dangers (and repercussions) of certain decisions he had to make in order to subsist. Back when I saw this this film for the first time in 2002, I did not understand what was so special about a man trying to hide in an apartment instead of joining his comrades to fight against the Nazis. But seeing this movie seven years later, I thought that Szpilman’s experiences were really painful because he had to live with the guilt of surviving as his friends and family were murdered. Yet at the same time, it took a lot of courage for him to want to keep living despite the fact that there were times when he caught serious diseases, hasn’t eaten for days on end, and how the lack of company almost drove him into madness. I was really touched whenever he would play the piano after hiding for so long; it was kind of like watching a man coming back from the dead. I thought it expertly embodied the idea of music being an elixir of life. My favorite scene was toward the end when he played the piano for the Nazi that chose to help him (Thomas Kretschmann). I would never forget that scene because I felt like a lot of things were communicated between them even though they weren’t engaged in a conversation. With such great acting from everyone involved in this film, “The Pianist” was an emotional experience I can only try to describe. I believe everyone should see it at least once because the many layers are worth exploring. It was melancholy, suspenseful, dark yet it was sensitive and truly remarkable.
Buenos Aires 100 kilómetros (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this small Argentinean film written and directed by Pablo José Meza. At times it reminded me slightly of “Stand by Me” because it explores a group of friends’ dymanics: the elements that keep them together and the elements that keep them apart. Just like most group of friends, I liked that some individuals are closer than others such as Juan Ignacio Perez Roca (as Esteban) and Juan Pablo Bazzini’s (as Damian) characters. The two of them stand out because their personal battles are explored in a thorough manner. Esteban is forced by his father to take drawing classes so he can one day become an engineer and rebuild the small town where they reside. However, his real passion is to be a writer but no one really supports him except Damian and the girl he has a crush on. I thought the film’s strength lies in the silence whenever the camera just lingers on Esteban’s inner struggle to meet his father’s expectations as well as putting his imagination down onto the pages of his notebook. I could identify with him because my mom forced me to focus on school when I was younger instead of playing outside with the other kids. (Don’t get me wrong–she did let me have fun once I’ve done my part.) Although I immensely thank her now that she did that, when I look back on it, sometimes I feel like I did miss some of my childhood because the idea of responsibility was introduced to me very early on. As for Damian, he’s so obsessed about one of the members of their clique as being adopted. Eventually, he finds out that he’s the one adopted and he doesn’t take it too well. He claims that his adoptive parents didn’t really love him because he feels like they babied him to make up for not telling him the truth. I liked that his way of thinking is a bit skewed because, in reality, that’s how young adolescents think. When the two talk to each other, the film becomes alive because the audiences know why they have certain point of views and their motivations. We understand that, beneath their silliness when they hang out as a group, they are intelligent kids who can flourish as adults if they continue to apply themselves. Unfortunately, the other three friends weren’t fully explored and that’s ultimately the film’s weakness. In my opinion, it could’ve been better if it had an extra thirty minutes or so. Otherwise, this character-driven coming-of-age film is impressive in many respects considering that it didn’t have a big budget. Instead, it relies on its good script, interesting performances and careful observations on how friendships are like in real life.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie left me emotionally drained because I was able to feel a whirlwind of emotions as it unfolded. At first it was about Andrew Bagby’s murder in the hands of the psychotic ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner but then it changes gears twenty minutes later. It then begins to document the struggles that David Bagby and Kathleen Bagby went through in order to take care (and gain custody) of Zachary Bagby, Andrew and Shirley’s son, while at the same time trusting the law to do its job by putting Shirley away for the overwhelming evidence of pre-meditated murder. As the film went on, the rug was pulled from my feet once again and the documentary-family portrait becomes something so much more profound and heartbreaking. I can see how some people could point out and claim that the film is a bit amateurish and shouldn’t be trusted fully because it comes from a close friend of the Bagbys. But considering the many years of custody battles and emotional rollercoasters, I thought the way Kurt Kuenne, the director, told the story was very personal (and sometimes too personal; there were some interviews that made me feel like I shouldn’t be watching or hearing what they’ve got to say) and the amateurish production reflected that. It’s also effecient because I noticed that every twenty minutes or so, the audiences get to learn something new and reevaluate the things that were explored prior to that point. As for the criticism regarding its lack of objectivity, being fair is not the film’s purpose at all. Its purpose is to show how much the Bagbys are loved and Canadian government’s inaction regarding a woman who they claim to be “not a danger to society.” Although I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a friend in the hands of another, I found it easy to relate to the people in this documentary via imagining myself in their situation. Those scenes when David and Kathleen were willing face the murderer of their son just so that they could spend time with their grandson really got to me. I honestly don’t know how they got through it or if I could ever go through it if something similar happens to me. I thought this film was impressive in many respects and it reminded me of the revelatory “Capturing the Friedmans.”
Short Cuts (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This three-hour film is more personal than epic. Directed by Robert Altman, this mosaic of people who are living in Los Angeles is truly one of the best pictures of the 1990’s. I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to connect disparate characters which involve multiple storylines but this is the finest example of that kind of subgenre. What I love about it is that it doesn’t try to forcefully connect the characters; each transition and twist of fate happens in an organic way to the point where I can actually picture it happening in real life. I also liked the fact that it doesn’t try to tell a story about how one person changes for the better after going through a hardship. Instead, the film’s aim is to simply show who these characters are and how they respond to certain challenges that come knocking on their doors. I was involved in each storyline but the three that stood out for me was the bit about Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison’s son, Julianne Moore and Matthew Modine’s slowly crumbling marriage, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn’s unexpressed frustrations. Other stories that focus on Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Annie Ross are interesting as well but those are more the peripheral storylines that serve to support the picture’s bigger themes. Despite it’s three-hour running time, I wanted to know more about these quirky characters. Even though their lives are painfully normal, enough strangeness happen to such lives that makes them completely believable. If one is a fan of movies involving intersecting lives, this is definitely the one to watch. I was expecting this film to be like “Paris, je t’aime” in order to prepare for the release of “New York, I Love You” (which I’m beyond excited for) but I got something so much more astute and rewarding.
Insider, The (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film is so intense from the moment it started and the plot only got more complex (not to mention more interesting) from there. This is based on a true story of a man who was interviewed on “60 Minutes” (played by Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand) to expose the lies of a tabacco corporation, especifically Brown & Williamson, when they claimed that nicotine is not at all addictive and harmful to one’s well-being. Complexity ensues when the tabacco corporation threatens CBS with a lawsuit; CBS then decides not to show the public the interview because they thought that they would lose, which is truly heartbreaking because Dr. Wigand has sacrificed both his professional and personal life for that one (compelling) interview. Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) approaches Dr. Wigand for a story and he shows the audiences what it means to have journalistic integrity. I find it very difficult to summarize the plot of the film because there are many layers to it. The only way to fully understand the picture is to watch it closely because each detail comments on how the media functions, how far corporations are willing to go to protect their money and those unfortunate people that get caught in the giant maelstrom of lies, confusion, and deceit (not to mention death threats and restraining orders). Yes, it’s a wordy film and it will definitely repel those that are not into watching pictures that are all about the technicalities in bureaucracies, but that’s what makes “The Insider” so rewarding: it’s not a common motion picture. There are a lot of highlights in the film but some of my favorites include: Bruce McGill’s anger during Dr. Wigand’s deposition, Pacino’s speech involving a “cat” being “out of the bag,” and Crowe’s scenes when he was alone as he reflects upon his past actions–questioning himself whether or not what everything he’s done is worth it. I felt so much for Crowe’s character because the blood-sucking Brown & Williamson fired him for no reason and then later took everything from him to the point where I felt like Crowe’s character was on the verge of suicide. I highly recommend this film, directed with such visual flair by Michael Mann, because it is able to tackle the idea of character assassination in a very scary but very realistic manner. I will remember this film for a very long time because pretty much everything about it works, especially the intense acting from all the actors involved.