Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Zana Briski decided to go to Calcutta’s red-light district in hopes of getting a chance to document how it was really like, especially for women, to live in the brothels. But her mission evolved when she got closer to the prostitutes’ children; she realized that the kids needed a chance to get out of the red-light district so she handed the children simple cameras, used their photographs to raise money, get international acclaim and get them into boarding schools. I was really touched by this documentary because the kids offered such insight about their living situations. Even though the kids were very young, they knew the importance of education but at the same time some of them came to accept that most of them would never leave the district. Or worse, they would turn out like their parents. Despite knowing the nature of their mothers’ jobs, the kids were aware of the fact that their mothers had to sacrifice their own bodies and safety in order to support their families. One of the kids that really moved me said that she doesn’t ever see herself becoming rich, that she’ll be happy being poor because life is supposeed to be sad and difficult. I understand the hopelessness of the children because of how and where they’ve been raised, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing better is in store for them because I wasn’t raised in an environment that was even as close to theirs. The realism of this picture was staggering but it’s nice to reminded of the fact that the events that we’ve seen in the movie is still happening today. Briski’s decision to teach the children the art of photography has to be commended. The children were powerless but having a camera their hands was like handing them a special power. It was easy to see the light in those children’s eyes when they would run around in the streets and take random pictures of people and objects. I was surprised with how well some of the photographs turned out and was convinced that some of them just had a natural gift in photography. I don’t know if the children realized it but taking pictures was like an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. And the way they talked about Briski, I could tell that the kids looked up to her so much and probably even considered her as their hero. “Born Into the Brothels,” directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, was a rich and emotionally challenging documentary. The movie may have been shot with a simple hand-held camera (at least from what it looked like) but it was bold in terms of really exploring the sociological and psychological impacts of the environment had on the children.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, “Casino” was about a casino owner (Robert De Niro) and his childhood friend who worked for the Mafia (Joe Pesci) whose bonds were tested on three fronts: their personal relationship, their businesses and a prostitute (Sharon Stone) with a penchant for money and power. But that’s only the surface of this deeply layered film expertly directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a strange feeling because although I found the film to be really complex in terms of how connected everyone was and how malleable their loyalties were, there were times when I thought it did not have a story. I felt like I was dropped into these characters’ lives and I was forced to watch their lives unfold from the 1970s until the 1980’s. The acting here was top-notch: De Niro had this suave swagger going on, Pesci was dangerous but there was something about him that I could not help but like and Stone was the kind of character who one could not help but hate. The way the three collided was very fun to watch because there were times when, like in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” everything was so exaggerated to the point where it was borderline amusing. I was absolutely in love with the script because, through narration, the characters were able to provide insight about their work and the decisions they made despite the fact that they knew they were going to regret it in the long run. I felt like the characters were actual people instead of just cardboard caricatures. Almost everything about this film was big: the ideas, the dark undertones, the dynamics of marriage and friendship. But I loved about it most was that it was able to analyze Las Vegas as one of the most glamorous places in the world but at the same time one of the ugliest places in the world. The way Scorsese played with that duality was fascinating to me because not only did he apply it as a metaphor for the characters, I think he pointed the finger at us–how out brilliant ideations do not always coincide with the grimy actualities. I also enjoyed how Scorsese viewed corruption as an almost necessary survival instinct for one to thrive in Las Vegas. Its three-hour running time was definitely a challenge (I took a break somewhere in the middle) but once I was hooked, I could not help but absorb it all. Some argue that picture was way too long and got bogged down by the marriage drama that pervaded the second half. I couldn’t disagree more because De Niro’s character deeply valued trust. I thought the second half made the movie that much richer because I understood him a bit more, given that we got to see him outside of the casino. That second half also gave us a chance to see De Niro and Pesci collide outside of the business world onto a more personal arena. Fans of Scorsese definitely should not miss this project because I think it’s one of his best. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
Good Hair (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I look at people, the first thing I notice about them is their hair. Directed by Jeff Stilson, “Good Hair” follows Chris Rock as he interviews all sorts of people from the United States and India about hair: how natural African-American hair is now regarded as less valuable and less appealing as European and Asian hair. I thought this documentary was absolutely fascinating. I learned so much because I don’t have the kind of hair that African-Americans do so I don’t really know much about their experiences and the pressures they feel about getting “good hair,” a type of hair that the media glamorizes. For me the film reached its highest point when Rock went to India and tried to learn about why so much hair was coming from India. I didn’t know that some Indians viewed having hair as a vanity so they sacrifice their hair for a higher power. While in America, hair symbolizes power and directly correlates to one’s self-esteem. I thought that contrast was so nicely done by Stilson and I realized that, despite the film’s amusing look at the hair industry, there was an inherent sadness about it all. I couldn’t believe that hair cost thousands of dollars and some women would rather pay for a weave than make sure that they have food on the table. On the other side of the spectrum, women choose to buy very dangerous “relaxers,” which is pretty much sodium hydroxide, a very strong chemical. I loved the way the picture showed an experiment where a can was placed in a container full of NaOH with varying rate of exposure. (I’m a sucker for science experiments.) I was so shocked when one of the cans literally melted when exposed to NaOH for about five or six hours. The movie then connected the usage of sodium hydroxide to health–how some parents choose for their children, who are barely three years old, to undergo such extreme (and painful) chemical application for the sake of having so-called good hair. What didn’t work for me, however, was the whole hair competition angle. I thought it made the picture very convoluted and it took away some of the movie’s power because the pre-competition and competition scenes lacked momentum. I wanted more scenes of very funny conversations among Chris Rock, regular folks and celebrities. I thought it was a laugh riot when the film switched its focus to men and how they felt pressure to give their girlfriends money for a weave. All these elements show that having “good hair” is not just a woman’s issue nor is it even a race issue. It’s about increasing number of individuals adapting to a particular mindset of society regarding what is considered beautiful and what isn’t.
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Che” chronicles the events that transpired when Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) teamed up with other revolutionaries to throw the Batista dictatorship out of power (in Part One) and Che’s doomed mission in Bolivia (in Part Two). I have to admit that I do not know much about Che’s history even though I am familiar with his political beliefs. Having said that, I decided to base this review in terms of whether or not the movie worked as a film, not for its historical accuracies (or inaccuracies for that matter). I wanted to like “Che” because I am a big fan of movies that run for hours and hours. It’s different than movies that run for two hours or less because it doesn’t rush into anything. Most of the time, it provides the audiences extra details of an already rich material. Unfortunately, this film is far from rich. In fact, I felt like the four-hour running time was empty emotion-wise (as well as content-wise) because it failed to get me to care for its lead character. I wanted to know Che’s exact motivations (apart from what he verbally expressed), what shaped his political leanings, and his relationship with other rebels such as Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and Tamara Bunke (Franka Potente). Unfortunately, we only skimmed the surface of such issues and the focus shifted to the ennui of the battlefield. I grew tired of the way the director showed unnecessary scenes right after another such as people smoking, staring into the woods and telling jokes. One or two of those scenes would have been fine and would have gone unnoticed. Those scenes did add up (to possibly an hour and a half or more) and I felt like I was being cheated of my time. Still, I decided to keep watching because I desperately hoped that it would get better. So then I looked to the acting, especially by Del Toro because he played the title character. That element was a disappointment as well because I felt as though his performance was confused in what he wanted to portray instead of what he was actually portraying. I didn’t feel power eminating from him that would make him a great leader and have other people who were sick of feeling oppressed being magnetized toward him. Although I’m not familiar with Che’s history, I felt like this film gave his story a bit of an injustice. This was a very difficult film for me to sit through because its tone was monotonous, it failed to offer any sort of insight regarding the uprising, and it didn’t have any sense of urgency. If the filmmakers don’t deliver that spark or energy, then why should the audience care? I’m familiar with Soderbergh’s work, both commercial and independent projects (I’m still in love with his film “Bubble”), and I can honestly say that this movie is one of his weakest. Nothing came into focus and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After being caught up with the “True Blood” craze, I decided to visit some of my favorite vampire movies. “Interview with the Vampire,” directed by Neil Jordan, was one of those movies I saw in early high school that I loved but forgot the details as years went on. I’m surprised this one strongly held up against other horror pictures, especially vampire movies. It’s something I didn’t quite expect because the movies I used to think were scary when I was younger turned out to be silly and vapid in storytelling. Tom Cruise stars as Lestat, a vampire who was as equally hungry for blood as he was with power. He one day decided to make Louis (Brad Pitt) into a vampire because, at least according to him, he wanted to give Louis a choice to relieve his pain of losing his wife and child. Despite turning into the undead, Louis still managed to hang onto his humanity by refusing to feed on humans. This bothered Lestat and thought that Louis’ loneliness would be eliminated by giving Louis a companion–in a form of a vampire child played by Kirsten Dunst. But this all happened in the past as the details which covered centuries were revealed by Louis to an enthusiastic reporter (Christian Slater). Although I did read the novels by Anne Rice, I only could remember three things: Louis, Lestat and the passion (both good and bad) between the two. What made me really engaged about this film was not because it was scary in content. I was actually more into Louis’ humanity, his efforts to abstain from human blood, and his eventual search for those who were like him. That romanticism was reflected into the elegant designs of each room in the 18th century to the dark corners of the catacombs. Another thing that was interesting was Kirsten Dunst. As an adult actress, she bores me to death because every emotion she wants to portray on screen feels the same. But in this film, she had range: she was quite magical, menacing, fascinating all rolled into one. For me, “Interview with the Vampire” is a great vampire film because it makes the argument that vampires have the capacity to choose to be good instead of just being one-dimensional fiends who crave blood and live for centuries. Although necessary to paint the nature of vampire, the gore, the violence, and the evil were secondary. It was consistent, thrilling, and very interesting.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.