Rich Hill (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Documentary filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragon take the subject of poverty in America and put it right where it should be: front and center, to make the viewers uncomfortable, to remind us that there are families out there struggling—families who are not necessarily people of color or immigrants—and they could be our neighbors. It is a rich film in that it is eye-opening not only in terms of shedding light on an impoverished rural town but also through the scope of three boys’, ages ranging from thirteen to fifteen, hopes and dreams.
The boys are Andrew, Appachey, and Harley. The camera observes unblinkingly as its subjects talk about what is important to them: a sibling, God, a father finally finding a consistent source of income so that his family can stop moving around, skateboards and skateboarding, a mother in prison and weekly phone calls, making jokes so people can laugh. But the background says a lot, too. Look at the simple houses sitting from several meters away awaiting repair. Notice a plethora of clutter but a lack of books inside homes. The cramped area where a family of six or seven live in.
But these are intelligent young people with big personalities. While not all of them are book-smart, one can tell almost immediately that they’ve lived more than other kids their age that have been raised in comfortable or more affluent households. I know that when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, or even fifteen, the last thing on my mind was whether we have food on the table, if my father was happy with his career, or if we have enough money to pay the rent. I was privileged—very privileged—that my sole focus was to try to do well in school. So then it comes to no surprise that these boys do not appear to value getting an education that much.
Out of the three, all compelling in their own way because each is faced with his own private battle, perhaps one that touched me most is Andrew’s story. Very resilient, observant, and aware of his limitations because of where he comes from, Andrew has a certain way of thinking and speaking that pushes one to think that he will make it someday. In a way, despite the factors against him and his family, his story is hopeful. Notice that his segment is often presented in a poetic, dream-like manner, particularly the few minutes during the Fourth of July. We look forward to his segment as to reassure ourselves that all three will be all right.
“Rich Hill,” intimately and effectively shot throughout, is meant to remind us of countless yet often forgotten small towns in America. But I also think that it is meant to enrage us. At times I felt a mix of sadness and anger by what I’ve seen because these boys—and all children in the same position—deserve better. And I’m not just referring to financial stability. I’m talking about having great role models that can be their friend but also be tough on them when necessary. The film describes poverty not as an entity or a statistic but as crucial and specific things that tend to chip away one’s prospects of a bright future.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A seventeen-year-old girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) had to take care of her younger brother and sister (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson) because their mother had reached a mental breakdown and therefore could not take care of them. Their situation turned for the worse when their father, who recently spent time in prison for making illicit drugs, skipped bail and put their house as collateral. With nowhere to go and not knowing what to do, the eldest child started asking her relatives about the whereabouts of the father but no one was willing to come forward and divulge information. When you live in a metropolitan area in America, it is easy to forget people like Ree and her family who had to cope with extreme poverty. As heartbreaking to see the children suffering from not having enough food day in and day out, I admired that the film did not rely on pity to tell a compelling story. The material had a defined understanding behind the meaning of this family’s specific circumstance. Ree was probably one of the bravest film characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. I immediately rooted for her because of the way she, if necessary, put herself in harm’s way so that she would be able to continue the already difficult task of raising a family. She was smart, resourceful, and determined but those were not positive attributes from the perspective of a community that used drugs to make a living. Even though the many families in question had a strict code of silence that prevented Ree from arriving at certain truths, I did not hate them because I knew that they had to look out for their own survival as well. Like Ree, they, too, had families. Two key supporting characters were the intimidating uncle named Teardrop (John Hawkes) and an older but strong woman named Merab (Dale Dickey). The most touching moments were the simple ones. When Ree interacted with her brother and sister, such as teaching them how to shoot a gun or how to skin a squirrel, there was so much love even though their living conditions were far less than ideal. The kids looked up to her and they should because their big sister constantly tried to set a great example. One of the most memorable scenes was when Ree tried to enlist in the army. Lawrence did a fantastic performance especially in that scene because I felt beyond her pain and desperation. I also felt her fear of getting into something that she was not quite sure was truly about. Written and directed by Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” painted a memorable portrait of people living in rural America. It showed that sometimes the smart decision is not necessarily the right one.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Lance Hammer, “Ballast” was a powerful film about how three people who lived in Mississippi Delta began working toward a better future after a suicide. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) tried to kill himself after finding out about the death of his twin brother but a neighbor (Johnny McPhail) arrived just in time to call for help. Marlee (Tarra Riggs) was a hardworking mother who desperately wanted to provide for her son James (JimMyron Ross), unaware of his involvement in violence and drugs. As the film went on, Lawrence, Marlee and James had no choice but to be a family and help each other to move forward. I loved the bare bones look of this film because it really got me in the mood to look inside the characters–their motivations, feelings, thoughts and plans for the future. What’s brilliant about this picture is the fact that it’s not just about poor people being poor people and therefore we can’t help but feel sorry for them. It’s about people in poverty who constantly try to provide for themselves even though all hope seems absent. We also got to learn about a certain character’s history with drugs, why Lawrence and Marlee didn’t get along, and why Lawrence was very understanding with James. Even though the movie did not have any soundtrack and had minimal dialogue, when the characters did engage in conversation, the words struck me. I especially was touched by that scene when the mother got fired from her job because of the bruises on her face (and she didn’t have any more sick days so she could take a day off). She said that her appreance shouldn’t matter anyway because she was invisible to everyone else. She had such strength throughout and I couldn’t help but root for her. I’ve heard from people that they were frustrated with the abrupt ending. I had no problem with it at all because it implied that no matter what challenges faced the main characters, they would find a way to overcome them. For me, the picture ended at just the right moment. “Ballast” shows how powerful independent cinema can be. This is not for viewers expecting fast pacing, a defined story structure, or any of the Hollywood conventions. This film is all about the nuances and it was pretty much observing the painful realities that others have to go through from day to day.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There’s many things to love about this classic romance about a spoiled young woman named Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) who longed to be with a married man (Leslie Howard) since the beginning to the Civil War up until the end of her third marriage with a man who had a bad reputation (Clark Gable). I enjoyed the fact that even though Scarlett experienced how it was like to be rich then live in poverty only to be rich again, she didn’t become a fully giving person. In fact, she proudly remained manipulative, conceited and brash. The only thing that really changed was that she was less whiny but even then she still got on my last nerves. The performances were remarkable especially Gable as the man who didn’t want to settle down yet he had his eyes on Scarlett. We got to see him at his best and worst–it was such a well-rounded performance. It was also a joy to watch Hattie McDaniel as the servant of Scarlett’s family. She provided a much needed comic relief when everything started to get a little too dark. Lastly, Olivia de Havilland was great as an angelic figure who supported everyone she met despite the things that were said or done to her. Directed by Victor Fleming, the unpredictability of “Gone with the Wind” was its most fascinating quality. I thought when Leigh and Gable finally got together, everything was going to be a typical “happily ever after” love story. I was surprised when the picture changed gears from a romance epic to marriage drama. The film wasn’t afraid to really explore the dynamics of the family and the important people surrounding them; how the unsolved elements in the past eventually caught up with each of them. I was surprised because one of the many main things I’ve heard about the film was that it was a love story. Sometimes it was but sometimes it wasn’t. It was really more about the fact that nothing ever stays the same so the characters always had to adapt to the changes that happened. Admittedly, there were times when I thought the picture dragged a bit especially in the beginning. It definitely took its time to get to the real drama so a bit of patience is a requisite. But when it finally did dive into its subject’s lives, the storytelling was nothing short of captivating.
The Child (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” moved me in a number of ways and I found it to be strange because I find that to be a rarity in most historical films. Queen Elizabeth I (played by the ever-talented Cate Blanchett) must quickly take control of England and the lands it possesses after the death of her half-sister Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke). But it proves to be a clincher of a task because England was divided by religion, increasing poverty, a lack of men to form a proper army to defend itself from those who were hungry for power, and not to mention those who wanted to assassinate her. I really felt for Blanchett’s character because I saw her change from this warm, free-spirited woman who was open to love and idealism into a fierce queen who learned how to set her heart aside and make difficult decisions. Blanchett was the perfect actor to play the role because I’ve always seen her as warm but having the capacity to turn in an ice queen in a second. I enjoyed how the picture managed to balance the romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), the insidious affairs of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), and the eventual revelation of the secretive Sir Francis Walshingham’s (Geoffrey Rush) intentions. I was so engaged with the story because each scene had a purpose and something crucial was always at the forefront. Aside from the acting, I admired the picture’s use of lighting (especially the scenes inside the palace during the day), stunning set pieces and wardrobes. I cannot believe “Shakespeare in Love” won against this film because this one is far superior in every respect. I did enjoy “Shakespeare in Love” in some ways but it did not quite take me in a rollercoaster of emotions as “Elizabeth” did. This is far more complex especially with the issues it tried to tackle such as feminism during a time when men dominated the scene and how religion was often used as an excuse to justify sinful actions (in the least). While I do admit that I do not know much about the history of Queen Elizabeth I, I am now that much more curious to read up on her accomplishments.
Set It Off (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was about four ladies (Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise) who decided to pull off several bank robberies to untangle themselves from each of their respective binds. Smith wanted to put her brother through college, Latifah wanted to customize her car, Elise needed the money to get her son out of the city’s protective custody because they suspected that she was a negligent parent, and Fox was fired from her bank teller job because she “didn’t follow procedure” when another group of criminals robbed the bank she was working in. I’m glad that this film did not fall into an all too common trap of featuring criminals who do “bad things” just because they were African-American. F. Gary Gray, the director, actually took the time to establish each of the four leads so the audiences could truly understand their motivations. I actually rooted for the leading ladies even though, indeed, they decided to rob banks and harmed people along the way. I felt the desperation of each character. I completely understood that their actions were not who they were on the inside. In fact, they really were good people who were pushed into a wall without any means of escape other than to attack the aggressor (in this case, the cops and the law). I also liked the fact that Latifah’s character being a lesbian was not a big deal. It was simply who she was and there was no need to comment on it. Still, this picture is far from perfect. The four characters have street-smarts so I expected them to get better at what they did (robbing banks) as the film went on. Instead, eventually all of them became too sloppy and risk-taking. Not one would them suggested that they slowed down or planned things more thoroughly especially when the banks that they decided to rob became increasingly more difficult to get through. Despite its shortcomings, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because it was nice to see Black actresses carry an entire film. Most pictures I’ve seen of this kind usually go to white men so “Set It Off” offers a nice change.
Frozen River (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Courtney Hunt’s screenwriter and directoral debut blew me out of the water. “Frozen River” is about a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who tries to keep her family afloat after the father of the family leaves and takes all their money with him. Not knowing what else to do because her part-time job is not enough to keep up with the bills, Leo teams up with a Native American (Misty Upham) to smuggle immigrants into the United States for $600 per person. This movie left me so overwhelmed because it’s very efficient with its time. Each minute adds a piece of the puzzle regarding why the characters choose to do what they do. And that’s the key: The characters choose to do what they do even though they very well know that such actions are illegal, yet we still very much sympathize with them. I think that’s where Hunt’s talent comes in–she makes her character so raw to the point where I can imagine the events actually happening in real life. The acting all-around is top notch. Leo and Upham are initially pit up against each other yet they share a common bond that’s strong enough to overcome their differences. Leo definitely deserved her Oscar nomination because, right from the first frame, I sensed a certain complexity from a mother who will do anything it takes to provide for her children (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly). There’s this one scene when they have nothing else to eat other than popcorn and orange juice. It made me think that, if I were in Leo’s situation, I would also smuggle illegal immigrants despite the risks. Also, she has only a few simple dreams for her family (such as getting her children presents for Christmas and buying a new house) but she cannot quite achieve them. While she does tend to blame herself once in a while, she always decides to get up because no one else will solve her problems for her. In a nutshell, the lead character is very flawed but I could not help but admire her resolve. I was also surprised by how suspenseful it got during the smuggling scenes. There’s a lot of political elements that come into play whenever they have to escape such as the differing rules when one is in an Indian reservation. By the end, I was so emotionally drained but I still wanted the film to continue because I was curious about what would happen next to the characters. This is a superb film in every respect; it may be small in scope at first glance but it’s truly quite universal.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I enjoyed this film quite a bit but I think most people tend to oversell it. Yes, it’s uplifting because it’s about a boy who lived in poverty and is eventually given the chance to win twenty million rupees. Dev Patel (“Skins”) did a pretty good job as the main character but his acting is not ground-breaking. He shows potential to become more nuanced as an actor and that’s always a good thing. And I have to admit that the last twenty to thirty minutes are very exciting and involving because everything is at stake. However, I’ve seen it all before. I expected more from Danny Boyle because he does make great movies such as “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” and “Millions.” This film, however, doesn’t leave the platform of “just good” because the middle is too messy; it ran thirty minutes too long. When I look at the big picture, the film would’ve been stronger if the middle had been condensed because it would’ve had more focus. This picture aims to please the crowd and it will definitely hook the fans of (another overrated film) called “City of God.” Both feature impoverished individuals trying to attain a chance to lead a better life. I’m glad that foreign films are being recognized, but I wish casual American moviegoers wouldn’t jump at every foreign film where they see some sort of hardship. It really shows how unaware they are about the state of the rest of the world. Anyway, I’m recommending this film despite the familiarity of it all because it has an interesting premise and a good soundtrack. It’s not as great as everyone says it is but it does entertain and makes one ponder about his destiny.