My Life as a Dog (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since their father was overseas, Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) and his older brother (Manfred Serner) were separated to live with their relatives for the summer so that their sick mother (Anki Lidén) could rest. Ingemar’s dog, who he claimed to love as much as his mother, was sent to the kennel during his time away from home. It was easy to like Ingemar because he was unlike most children. Whenever things turned for the worse, Ingemar would often compare himself to others who were worse off than him. For instance, he often mentioned Laika, the dog who was sent to outer space and never had the chance to return. “Mitt liv som hund,” or “My Life as a Dog,” had some formulaic coming-of-age elements but the execution was pulled off in an imaginative and often touching way. We followed the story through Ingemar’s eyes and we felt the abandonment he felt when he was passed from one home after another. Even though he was a kid, he was perceptive enough to realize that he was essentially like his dog and what the dog must have felt when Ingemar had no choice but to leave it at the kennel. I found myself on the verge of tears at times because he knew that he was slowly losing his mother so he tried so hard to hold onto something easier but something that he loved just as equally (or so he claimed): his pet. I found the flashback scenes very touching because we had tiny peeks to a time when Ingemar was at his happiest. His brother certainly didn’t make things easier because he also had his own way in dealing with negative emotions. I liked the way Lasse Hallström, the director, highlighted the kindness of eccentric people in a tight-knit community to distract the kid from breaking down. Ingemar made a special relationship with a girl named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who dressed and acted like a boy. She liked him but he didn’t like her back so there certainly was tension there. They were able to work through their many frustrations by boxing it out in the ring. One of my favorite scenes was when another girl took Ingemar to her room and Saga came busting in like her usual tomboy self and fought for what she felt like belonged to her. I loved the way that particular scene was framed and I felt a certain energy to it that reminded me of those classic romantic love triangle pictures in the golden days of Hollywood. Instead of using the quirkiness just for the sake of being funny or underlining the weirdness of small communities, Hallström successfully focused on the heart of the film. “Mitt liv som hund” was based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel and it felt every bit as personal. Every crucial element in the story felt connected and it had a silent power that I will remember for a long time.
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.
The Lovely Bones (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.
The Best of Youth (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.