Last Emperor, The (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Fils, Le (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Le fils” or “The Son,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, tells the story of a sixteen-year-old (Morgan Marinne) who is taken under the wing of a grieving carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who lost his son five years ago. As the film goes on, Olivier becomes more and more interested in the teenager and not until we meet Olivier’s wife (Isabella Soupart) do we find out exactly why he is so fixated on his new apprentice. This is probably one of the most bare-boned films I’ve ever seen but it has such a powerful emotional wallop. I can understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by this movie because not a lot of things happen on the surface. The dialogue was minimal and the camera had a penchant for close-ups to really absorb the nuances in the facial expressions of the actors. I argue that the film is very eventful when it comes to the internal rage and depression that each character is going through. Yet they also want to not be angry anymore and to move on with life. Just looking in their eyes made me feel so sad because I felt as though they had a story that they were ashamed of and would do anything to keep hidden. Once that connection is made between the two leads and the audience, each movement was purposeful and had some kind of meaning. I was really curious about whether Olivier wanted to hurt the teenager in some way or if he has something else in mind. The silences that they shared were so painful and awkward to watch at times yet I thought it was very realistic. When I think about it, there are some days when I say less than ten words to another human being because either I’m so into my own thoughts that I don’t even notice or I actively choose not to speak to avoid some kind of collision. The directors really knew how they wanted their story to unfold and it’s a shame because the majority of less introspective viewers would most likely miss the point. There’s a lot to be said about “Le fils” but this is the kind of film worth discussing between two people who have seen it than between a reviewer and someone contemplating of seeing it. The organic manner in which the picture revealed itself to me touched me in a way that it was almost cathartic. If you’re feeling like watching something that doesn’t conform to Hollywood typicality, this is definitely a great choice. My advice is to be patient during the first twenty to thirty minutes. It will hook you in when you least expect it.
London to Brighton (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I love that feeling when I come out of a movie being absolutely blown away because I knew nothing about it prior. Paul Andrew Williams’ directoral debut had a certain quiet power that did not quite let go until the very end. His picture was told in a non-linear fashion which first showed two girls: one about twelve years old (Georgia Groome) and the other middle-aged (Lorraine Stanley). At first, I thought they were sisters but I was surprised to learn later on that they were actually strangers. The audiences knew right away that they were injured and running away from something–the bloody details of from who or what were revealed later. I think it is for the audiences’ best interests not to know much about this movie like I did. Right from the get-go, I wanted the two women to escape to safe havens despite them being very rough around the edges because throughout the film, we get to learn that they are essentially very good people, especially Stanley’s character. Since Groome’s character was a runaway, Stanley became the sister or mother-figure by default because everyone else wanted to harm the little girl or take advantage of her in some way. The way Stanley valued the girl and put the girl in front of herself really touched me because they knew each other in less than a day. Given their dire and downright scary circumstances, I honesly do not know if I would have done the same for someone else. As the picture went on, more and more was asked of Stanley’s character and I constantly had to evaluate what I would have done if I were in her shoes. The supporting characters include Johnny Harris and Nathan Constance, as the two men who were on the hunt for the two leads, and Sam Spruell as a rich guy who wants to collects something that he feels like was owed to him. This is a small picture but the budget did not limit the crafty and touching writing about the two women’s plight by means of losing their innocence and eventual redemption. Their path to freedom was undeniably dark but the challenges they had to face could have potentially taught them to be stronger individuals.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a true story, Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Gerry Colnon, an Irishman who was forced to confess and sentenced to jail for life for the bombing that killed five people in England. If that wasn’t enough, three of his friends, father, and his father’s friends were sentenced to jail as well. Emma Thompson plays the lawyer who struggled to expose the truth regarding the injustice that the British police and detectives have inflicted on the Irishmen. Day-Lewis absolutely blew me away. Despite his actions that involved petty crimes shown in the beginning of the film, I could immediately tell that there was something more interesting underneath his persona. Whenever I looked into his eyes, I felt as thought there was a story, which involved a lot of hurt, that he desperately wanted to cover up. A lot of it came out when he and his father (Pete Postlethwaite) shared a prison cell for the first time; Day-Lewis brought up a lot of things that he thought made him the way he was (mainly experiences from his childhood). That particular scene was so revealing and hurtful at the same time so I couldn’t help but connect with it. Yet despite the anger and outburst, I felt a genuine love between the characters. Jim Sheridan, the director, told the story in such a concise manner so I felt like I wasn’t watching a two-hour-plus film at all. In fact, I wanted to know more about certain details of their ordeal, especially the detective work that Thompson’s character had gone through. With such a complex and compellingly human story like this, it could have easily fallen apart with all the Hollywood banalities. “In the Name of the Father” expertly balanced and eventually fused the political battles and personal demons so it offered a very powerful character study. I also think that this is still a very important film today because the issue of torture for information regarding the war in the Middle East is still not settled. While watching this film, I kept remembering (with utter disbelief) the time when I was still young and had complete trust in the government. The movie makes a thesis that sometimes people of power use the law as a mask in order to fulfill their jobs so they can look good in the eyes of the citizens. However, somewhere along the way, they completely lose track of who they are and how to do their jobs with honor so they start digging their own graves and try to take everyone else with them. This is a beautiful but haunting picture that deserves to be seen by anyone interested in human drama.
The 400 Blows (1959)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this classic film’s theme of running away in order to achieve some sort of freedom being particularly impressive: running away from an uncaring home (the parents played by Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier), a strict school system, and a juvenile reform center. Alternatively, it can also be seen as an escape from oneself because Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), the lead character, cannot live up to society’s expectations on how he should think and behave. Having known that this story was drawn from François Truffaut’s, the director, troubled childhood, I decided to see this film in a psychological perspective. By the end of this picture, I have never found myself wanting to adopt a character because he is pretty much misunderstood by everyone around him. Admittedly, he did commit petty crimes and purposely did not do well in school but I thought the parents were to blame. The kid’s actions were a sort of signal for help and attention. The mother is disloyal and narcissistic in every way; a master when it comes to getting what she wants whenever she wants and not above bribery in order to keep living her fantasy. The father is not a good male role model for his son because he tackles problems with screaming and yelling instead of sitting down and discussing the problem at hand like a mature adult. The two parents have a few things in common: ambivalent feelings when it comes to their child, inconsistent parenting techniques (such as reward and punishment, lack of unconditional positive regard), and transference of their negative energy from outside the home to inside the home. I immediately thought that neither of them really wanted their son and I felt so badly for him. When it comes to the film’s techniques, I was impressed with Truffaut’s use of close-ups to fully convey what the character is feeling and thinking; the use of natural sound and extended takes made me feel like I was actually that much closer to the characters. The way the story unfolded felt organic–there’s a certain fluidity when it comes to the build-up of conflicts and the eventual release from such conflicts. Even though this was released in 1959, it’s still very relevant today because of the modern disaffected youth and people who are supposed to be parents but not quite know how to fill in such demanding shoes. An hour after watching the film, I still feel that sting of emotion on Antoine Doinels face as he was taken by a cop vehicle, crying behind the bars that portrays his crushed innocence. “The 400 Blows” is deeply powerful and resonant film and it’s a shame that I haven’t seen it sooner. You shouldn’t make the same mistake.