The Pianist (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.
The Insider (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.