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.
400 Blows, The (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.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frida” is a biopic that focuses on how Frida Kahlo emerged and evolved as an artist as well as a person who shines despite her many flaws and tragedies. Salma Hayek is simply electric; although pretty much everyone defines her for her beauty, I’ve always seen some kind of inner strength in each of her roles and I was happy that it was at the forefront in this picture. Frida’s relationship with her sister (the gorgeous Mía Maestro), husband (Alfred Molina) and father (Roger Rees) are fascinating because each of those three characters have shaped Frida’s many colorful (and very dynamic) personalities. Julie Taymor, the director, shows her audiences impressive visual effects such as when Frida’s paintings would become a real-life scene and how some real-life scenes would become paintings. I’m not at all familiar with Frida’s artwork but after watching this film, I want to look more into them because they are symbolic in the least. Now that I’m aware of what the events that prompted Frida to paint certain works, I think I’ll be able to appreciate them more. There’s a great atmosphere of culture that pervaded this film and it made me think of my own culture whenever there’s a wedding or a big gathering of some sort. Every actor is so into his or her own character and the film popped whenever they would talk about art, passion, politics and the uncertainties of life. The film then becomes more than a visual experience; it becomes a powerful emotional exprience that has a distinct resonance. However, I wish this film would’ve been entirely in Spanish (except for the scenes when the characters are in the United States). I thrown off a bit when I realized that everyone spoke in English despite living in Mexico. Also, as a Diego Luna fan, I wish he was in it more or was given more to do. Still, this is a very good (if not sometimes ordinary) biopic even though the second half could’ve been stronger by focusing on Frida as an individual instead of other characters that have more to do with politics.
Sea Inside, The (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
This picture is based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro and his campaign in support of euthanasia which lasted for thirty years. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, although the issue the film tried to tackle is controversial and serious, he’s smart enough to make the film somewhat uplifting so it doesn’t feel at all heavy-handed. Javier Bardem made me feel so much for his character because of his willingness to die with whatever dignity he has left. Being a quadriplegic, he claims that his life should be treated as a right and not an obligation. Therefore, just like any other right, he should be allowed to give up his right to live and not be forced to stay alive by the government and other groups who oppose euthanasia. I thought the most interesting scenes in the film consisted of Bardem interacting with three characters: his lawyer who has her own share of problems that is similar to Bardem (Belén Rueda), a local woman who falls for Bardem (Lola Dueñas) and a nephew that he sees as his own son (Tamar Novas). Each of those three characters are compelling because even though they have their own opinion regarding Sampedro’s situation, not all of them are able to express their complete thoughts. It’s up to the audiences to interpret the three characters’ positions when they’re on their own or not interacting with Bardem. I also enjoyed the fact that both sides of the subject of euthanasia are able to express their arguments. Personally, I support euthanasia because I believe in our individual rights to do whatever we want with our bodies, especially when we’re in a situation where we no longer want to continue to live. But there were arguments here and there that made me question my own beliefs because we are shown that the issue of euthanasia goes beyond moral and legal issues. This is a rich film because its writing has substance that works on multiple levels and the characters have subtlety that will otherwise be missed if one is not invested in the story. I recommend this film to everyone, whether one may or may not support euthanasia, because it offers no easy answer regarding which side is “right.” It’s main goal is to simply show one man’s life and what he stood for.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Fire” is the first Indian film that explicity depicted acts of homosexuality (specifically lesbians) on film and that alone deserves recognition. From beginning to end, I was interested in the picture because Shabana Azmi is often torn between what she wants to do for herself and her duties as a wife and a woman. Nandita Das finds out that her husband (Javed Jaffrey) is having an affair and that inner turmoil that she experiences lead to her discovery about what she really wants in life. Azmi and Das’ initial common bond was unhappiness which quickly evolved into something more. Even though this film is stripped down due to its limited budget, the writing is pretty powerful. It manages to use flashbacks, folk stories and comedy in order maintain the film’s focus. Those three elements were used to elucidate the literal and symbolic meanings of fire; why it can be a friend or an enemy, how it can make one feel so alive or exiled. Whenever Azmi and Das interacted, I could feel their passion and yearning to break away from society’s norms but at the same time hold on to what they have. Their affair does not stay hidden for long so they are forced to choose between unhappy familiarity and exciting uncertainty. I was also impressed with this movie because it was honest in its portrayal of homosexuality. Deepa Mehta, the writer and director, was careful about molding the lives of the main characters; she makes her characters rise above being lesbians and actually lead lives that are otherwise normal and traditional. I thought the most powerful scenes were saved in the last twenty minutes. When it was over, I understood what the title really meant. A lot of people might dismiss this film for being too slow or being too depressing or actively defying the traditional Indian culture. I can only agree with the last bit but that’s a good thing because it offers something new. It goes to show that homosexuality exists across cultures and it shouldn’t be taboo.