Vernon, Florida (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
“Vernon, Florida” showcased a group of people with different eccentricities. Among them were a couple who claimed that their jar of sand was growing because of radiation, a man with a pet turtle (who didn’t think it was a turtle but a gopher), a cop with nothing much to do, a sermon involving the several meanings of the word “therefore,” and most interesting of them all, a man with a passion for hunting turkeys. Directed by Errol Morris, half the fun of the picture was in allowing the subjects to speak to us as if we were right there in front of them. Their accents were sometimes difficult to decipher but it didn’t matter because the nature of the one-way conversation was so fascinating. I knew I was interested in what they had to say when they mumbled or stumbled over their words and I leaned closer to the screen to grasp at the evanescent words. Unfortunately, more time were given to some people than others. I wanted to know more about the gentleman who grew worms. I don’t particularly like worms but I was interested in his occupation and his point of view about why raising worms was important. He was only given two or three scenes. However, I was happy that the picture always returned to the obsessive turkey hunter. The description he gave about where and how he would hunt was so vivid, it almost left like we were following him in the hunt. I was surprised that each pair of turkey feet he had on his walls, initially very creepy, had a special story. I didn’t know whether to laugh or worry when he began to have a fierce look in his eyes as he described every delicious detail about the joy of shooting a turkey. As the film went on, the more I realized its wicked sense of humor. Most of the people being interviewed were the elderly and it was difficult to tell whether they still knew what was going on. Did they really believe in what they said, especially the couple who thought that the sand they obtained from New Mexico was indeed growing? Nevertheless, Morris didn’t make fun of the individuals being interviewed. There was one scene I was particularly impressed with which involved a man mentioning another who didn’t believe in a higher power. Just when I thought he was about to make a remark against those who didn’t believe, he highlighted a commonality between a believer and a non-believer. Even though he was a devout Christian, he knew it wasn’t his place to judge. I wish we had a chance to spend more time with him. “Vernon, Florida” was a piece of evidence that there are interesting things embedded in the mundane. Its slice-of-life style was endearing, amusing, and it was loyal in celebrating of our differences.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist for the “Millennium” magazine, had just been ordered by the courts to pay Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) of an amount that would almost render him bankrupt as remuneration for libel. Meanwhile, Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), one of the most successful businessmen in the country, received yet another picture of a flower from his niece’s killer. Aware of Mikael’s financial situation and public embarrassment, Henrick contacted the journalist for a job involving a bit of investigating and hopefully solving a crime that happened forty years ago. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, the cold detachment of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seeped through the pores of every frame yet the screenplay by Steven Zaillian found a way for us to care about Mikael and his eventual partner in solving the mystery, the magnetic and enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). There was something great at stake for the both of them. Henrick claimed that, by the end of the investigation, he would give Mikael hard evidence that would lead to his exoneration while Lisbeth was driven by her need to catch a man who had gotten away with sexually molesting and killing women in cold blood. As they became closer to the identity of the killer, the film’s mood felt more portentous and menacing, reflected by more intense winter storms and increasingly sparse score. I was most fascinated with the scenes dedicated to Mikael asking the Vanger family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Geraldine Jame) all sorts of questions about what happened or what they thought happened to Harriet. Despite the picture not having a lot of obvious chase scenes, there was an adrenaline rush because the chase took place in our minds. We looked at the suspects and ascertained the discrepancies among the pictures provided by Henrick, what the family members had to say about the matter, and how they reacted when certain questions moved toward a more sensitive subject. Watching Mikael inch toward a conclusion was like observing a doctor touching his patient ever so carefully and finding his way to the parts that hurt. We also had a chance to see why Lisbeth was the perfect partner for Mikael. She had her share of difficulties like having to report to an unethical guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), using our heroine for sexual favors every time she needed money. Despite being declared as incompetent to live on her own by the state, Lisbeth was very smart and calculating. She was more than capable of extricating herself from a man who thought he could get away with illicit and immoral activities because he was in a position of power. With Craig’s world-weary, humiliated gaze and Mara’s unpredictable bursts of intense anger, the picture was effective as a procedural and a character-driven work. But what I admired most about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher, was its courage in taking the liberty to slightly deviate from the original film for the sake of being a better movie. For instance, compared to “Män som hatar kvinnor,” directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the ending that this version offered provided more insight on how tough and lonely it was to be in Lisbeth’s leather jacket while luring us to wonder what would happen next.
Teenage Paparazzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
While out in Los Angeles, Adrian Grenier, who directed the film, noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo trying to get his attention in order to get the perfect picture. His name was Austin Visschedyk and it seemed like he had been a pop-stalkerazzi, a term he despised, for quite some time. Intrigued with Visschedyk, Grenier decided to contact the teen and make a movie about him and the fame he tried to capture using his expensive camera. “Teenage Paparazzo” had some interesting tidbits to say, some involving the ethics of paparazzi and privacy, but its vision wasn’t always clear. The first half of the picture was Visschedyk’s almost obsessive nature in capturing images of celebrities. He claimed it was fun, easy, and one great shot could get him a thousand dollars. And while he acknowledged that there were dangers in being a part of the paparazzi (he carried pepper spray), he turned a blind eye most of the time. He wasn’t the only one in denial. His parents allowed him to stay out past 3:00 A.M. (including school nights) to follow celebrities in downtown Hollywood. I’ve been in downtown Hollywood around that time of night and to say that the area is “unsafe” is an extreme understatement. The parents’ defense was they wanted to encourage him to pursue his passion. However, most of us can say that it’s simply a case of bad parenting. The second half, while backed with research about teens and how important fame was to them, it felt unfocused because it moved away from Visschedyk’s story. The documentary eventually became more about young people craving to become famous in any way, shape, or form. There was a survey given to middle school students which showed that they would rather become assistant to celebrities instead of being a CEO of a company, presidents of Ivy League institutions, and other prestigious positions. While it was a shocking result, it did not fit the thesis of the movie. I enjoyed the film best when Grenier and Paris Hilton showed the ridiculousness of trashy gossip magazines and television shows like TMZ. The duo informed Visschedyk and his paparazzi friends that they would be at a certain place and time and the rumors created from the pictures were amusing. It was great to look at things from behind the scenes. All the more disappointing was the fact that there were nice insights from great actors like Matt Damon and Whoopi Goldberg as well as intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. It wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if the connection between the teenage paparazzo’s story and fame was stronger. Visschedyk’s admission that he wanted to be famous was not enough. I’ve seen his website and I have no doubt that Visschedyk has a gift for photography. In the end, I’m happy there was a glimmer of hope that he could channel his talent to something he could actually be proud of.
The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.
Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
The Grinch (Jim Carrey) was born in Whoville, a place where everyone loved Christmas, but he ran away to live at Mt. Crumpet because he was bullied as a child for looking different. He grew up to hate Christmas and was absolutely willing to do anything to ruin Whoville’s good cheer. When a little girl (Taylor Momsen), doubtful of what Christmas was supposed to be about, suggested that the residents gave Grinch a chance to be a part of them, it just might be the perfect opportunity for him to ruin Christmas once and for all. Based on Dr. Seuss’ book and directed by Ron Howard, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was harmless, silly, and colorful which almost made it a perfect movie to watch around Christmastime. I just wished its heart was the priority instead of the comedy. Admittedly, despite the many slapstick scenes that made no sense whatsoever yet without a doubt would appeal to younger children, I did laugh at Carrey’s manic energy and deranged facial expressions. I smiled at the small chaos he created like giving little girls a saw and encouraged them to run around with it. I especially loved it when the filmmakers were brave enough to allow the mean, green Grinch to look into camera and comment on things like kids being desensitized by movies and television nowadays and the dangers of stress-eating. The latter was especially hilarious because most of us are guilty of it during the holidays. The Grinch mentioned the innate commercialism of the holiday as well. Some may perceive it as distracting but since he was a cynic, I thought it was appropriate for his character. While it was amusing because of Carrey essentially carrying the picture, I yearned for more moving moments. A bit of silence would have gone a long way. Naturally, the Grinch was a lonely creature. Although the material provided background information about why he decided to live by himself, it felt too superficial. I kept waiting for the film to explore the Grinch’s feelings of abandonment at the gut level. Furthermore, didn’t his parents look for him after he ran off into the snowy mountains? How did he meet his adorable dog? There were some unanswered questions that should have been answered or at least acknowledged. After all, without really understanding the misunderstood creature, how could we buy into his eventual change of heart? We wouldn’t just love him because he decided to return the toys he stole in the first place. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” didn’t quite steal my heart but it managed to entertain. Hats off to Carrey for shining through the green costume and make-up.
Young Adult (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), divorced and currently single, was finding it a bit difficult to focus on finishing her final novel for a formerly popular young adult fiction series. Every time she sat down to write, she found her mouse scurrying its way to her inbox so she could look at an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend in high school, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who just had a baby and was very happily married with Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), a drummer in a local girl band. In Mavis’ mind, the e-mail was some sort of signal that Buddy wanted to rekindle their relationship. So, Mavis packed her bags, dog in tow, left Minneapolis behind, and drove to the sleepy town of Mercury, Minnesota. Written by Diablo Cody, “Young Adult” was another story of an unhappy woman who felt compelled to find love in the most inappropriate circumstances, but what allowed it to feel fresh was Theron’s ability to play with nuance. Mavis was not a likable person. She acted like she was above everyone else because, unlike most of her peers, she made it out of her hometown and succeeded in establishing a life in the city. Most importantly, through her creativity, she was able to make a name for herself by being a ghost writer. Yet there were plenty of moments when it was impossible for us to not feel sorry for her because, despite her ambition and determination, she was deathly short-sighted. A lot of us know people exactly like her: unable to detect if she’s overstepping boundaries, desperate for approval even from those who barely knew her, and living a life like she never had to say sorry. I was supremely embarrassed for Mavis because she had no shame in throwing herself on her former flame. Since she wanted him back so badly, she was more than willing to throw her successes out the window and act like a pimply teen girl with a big crush on a hunky guy. But she was no teen nor was Buddy a stud. Because I felt that Mavis was an exaggerated version of Theron and the actress wasn’t afraid to make fun of herself, I was comfortable laughing at her and with her. A plethora of negative adjectives could describe Mavis but being devoid of a sense of humor was not one of them. Her jabs might be pricked with poisonous needles, but I loved that she was direct and didn’t waste any time thinking about how she was going to get what she wanted. The person who consistently attempted to talk some sense into her, serving as the audience’s voice, was Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky guy carrying a bit of extra weight who was jumped by a bunch of jocks in high school because they mistakenly suspected he was gay. The most striking scenes involved simple conversations between Mavis and Matt; Mavis was the seemingly impenetrable wall and Matt was an untiring hammer that drove nails into it. They clicked because both were stubborn in their own way. Directed by Jason Reitman, “Young Adult” was entertaining because the screenplay was sharp and full of irony. Although there was vitriol in the dialogue, it did not overshadow real human emotions like desire, fear, and shame.
The Grey (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ottway (Liam Neeson) was considering to commit suicide the night before he and a group of oil rig workers were scheduled to take a flight to visit home, but he decided against it after hearing a wolf howl from a distance. When their plane crashed in Alaska, miles from the nearest town or city, Ottway and seven survivors (Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, and Ben Bray) were systematically hunted and killed by ravenous wolves. As the men dwindled in number, Ottway’s insistence to live became clearer. Conversely, the possibility of Ottway finding refuge turned dimmer. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” was a cut above us being reduced to passively watching men trying to survive against the cruelty of nature. It forced us to consider difficult questions by immersing us in images that ranged from the grizzly wolf attacks to the chilly landscapes of barren hope. Even though it was difficult to remember the men’s names, the majority of them serving as fodder for the canines, more was revealed about them in the second half of the picture. So when a character, for instance, decided that others should leave him behind because his will to live reached the bottom of the barrel, we felt bad for the character yet we understood where he was coming from. There was no melodrama. The aforementioned scene was especially well-executed. There was no music that served to signal that we should feel a certain way. There was only silence and peace, an acquisition of mental freedom through the act of surrendering. I found beauty in its attitude about death, how it shouldn’t be feared as long as it’s our choice. Notice the contrast between a sweet surrender and a wolf suddenly jumping from behind while the men kept warm around a fire. The title went beyond the color of the wolves that growled from a distance. The adventure was ultimately convincing because the film was essentially about the grey area of life and death. By watching the men march for a seemingly interminable distance, the picture dared us to question how far we think we would be willing to go if we were forced to be in their place. The men were supposed to be “tough” because they were hardened by their time and experiences in prison. Despite their histories and intrepid comportments, we could relate to them because the screenplay gave them a chance to open up and reveal reasons why they wanted to survive. Like them, the majority of us value our families most: we fight for them, to be with them, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what separates us from other animals like the wolves in the film. They may be able to remember a person who harmed them in some way but they are incapable of loyalty or being connected to their conscience. “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, also benefited from Neeson’s versatile performance. He was able to keep an interesting balance between being animalistic and humanistic, a requisite for a movie driven by implications about our place in nature. But it wasn’t without a sense of humor. I wondered at some point if barbecued wolf meat was a delicacy somewhere out there.
★ / ★★★★
A planet named Melancholia, about twice or thrice the size of Earth, was discovered to have been hiding behind the sun and was on its way toward us. Meanwhile, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) were newly married, left the church, and encountered limousine problems. Consequently, they were very late to their own party which reduced Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, and John (Keifer Sutherland), Claire’s husband, barely containing their frustration. The guests had been waiting for the couple to arrive for over two hours. Although Justine had a smile on her face throughout the party, much of her energy was spent trying to keep her major depression hidden. “Melancholia” astounded me in the worst ways possible. Did the end of the world montage prior to the title card needed to be so pretentious? For what felt like eternity, several characters, one curiously observing electricity coming out of her fingers, consistently occupied gorgeous backdrops but everything was in painful slow motion as the orchestra bombarded our eardrums, urging us that we were watching something epic. On the contrary, I found the sequence completely unnecessary not only because it was trying too hard to impress, but because it extirpated our feelings of anticipation. By confirming that Melancholia would eventually hit our beloved planet, I didn’t feel horror or suspense with or for the characters as they eventually faced the reality that they’d been given. Regardless, I enjoyed select scenes during the wedding party. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) was fascinating as an aging woman who despised marriage, its rituals, and the confines it set for its participants. As she moped about in the restroom–darkly amusing because it gave John, only caring about how much he’d spent in order to throw a lavish party for the bride, intense rage–and stood bitterly in the corner while everyone celebrated, I was desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, as Justine’s depression became more unbearable for her, nearly everyone treated her even worse, somehow convinced that she was just being selfish. Justine’s family knew about her condition. It didn’t make sense why they weren’t more understanding especially since it was one of the most important days of her life. If the writer-director, Lars von Trier, had given us more background information about Justine’s relationship with her family, their cold disregard for her could have made sense. Since the screenplay didn’t allow us to understand in which angle each important family member was coming from, whether the sentiment was good or bad, I wondered why they even bothered to show up for the wedding. Halfway through, the film changed perspective. Instead of Justine’s crippling depression, it focused more on Claire’s increasing trepidation of dying. She obsessively checked the telescope and I cared less each time. I began to think about how other people from different cultures and different classes, maybe those who lived in the flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, saw the apocalypse. “Melancholia” was plagued with symbols of depression and doom but they had very little impact. I found myself needing to take Prozac because I began to feel depressed, not because of its subject matter but because I started to suspect that von Trier was eventually blasé with his work. For a movie that contained two planets–and sisters–colliding, it was insipid and, ironically, prosaic.
★ / ★★★★
Suzy (Jessica Harper) moved from America to Germany to study bullet in the prestigious Tans Academy. Just as Suzy stepped at the front door, a blonde girl, in complete panic, ran out of the school yelling complete nonsense. Suzy could only make out the words “secret” and “blue.” In the morning, students, teachers, and staff heard that the panic-stricken girl died in a gruesome fashion. The police had no suspect. “Suspiria,” directed by Dario Argento, was an unfocused and unexciting art-horror bathed in glorious primary colors. For a film about a witchcraft coven possibly hiding in the school and getting away with doing all sorts of terrible things, the majority of the scenes lacked tension. The only scene I thought was rather unsettling was when Suzy and the other girls found maggots in their hair. The way it unfolded had a certain cheekiness and it brought a lot of questions in such a short period of time: why were the girls suddenly scratching themselves? Was there some kind of voodoo involved? Were did the maggots come from? The scene worked because all the questions were answered with urgency. The rest did not measure up. The score was particularly annoying. I felt like it was on all the time even though nothing was happening. It could be just a scene of Suzy and Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy’s only friend, gossiping about boys and the score would suddenly hit a high note. I wanted to get to know the characters, even in a minute sense, but the score was too busy, actively preventing us from doing so. That’s not good filmmaking; it’s called lacking control over the material. If Argento did not want me to pay attention to what was being said between the characters, don’t let them converse at all. The feeling of sitting through a terrible movie is one thing. The suspicion that I’m wasting my time is another. I did not like the way the women were handled here. One man was murdered: it was silent and rather quick. When women were being inflicted with dark magic, it was slow, torturous, and they were made to scream a whole lot. I took no pleasure in watching them suffer because there was an underlying sexism in the kills. In horror movies, especially slasher flicks, I can have fun watching women characters meet their demise if men were also allowed to suffer in the same degree. That’s just part of the fun; that’s why we watch horror movies–for the most part, violence equals excitement. But watching women crawl through wires, get stabbed over and over and get hanged was just mean-spirited. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and ugly images in my head. Watching “Suspiria,” written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi, was a maddening, humiliating experience. I believe horror films can be beautiful, which can be measured aesthetically, thematically, or by just watching characters you want to see survive or even fight for. The colors of the curtains and walls were pretty but it was deeply hollow inside. A filmmaker can have hundreds–even thousands–of movies under his belt, but if the sculptor doesn’t breathe life and heart into his art, it means absolutely nothing to me. A movie can be badly dubbed to the point where it’s completely laughable. I may not hear every single word uttered by the actors. And the scares may not be scary at all. But if I feel that the filmmaker loves his work and wants me to love it as much as he does, I take notice and I give the work, even if it’s a “bad movie,” my respect. This movie does not deserve an iota of my respect.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a boxing trainer, swore he would never train a girl. But after his main boxer left for a manager who could book him to have a shot at a title, Frankie just might change his mind. Scrap (Morgan Freeman), Frankie’s longtime friend and partner in running the gym, insisted that Frankie should take a second look at the determined Maggie (Hilary Swank). Despite his initial reluctance, Frankie decided to train her. In a way, he saw it as a chance to forgive himself for the decision he made many years ago that led to Scrap losing half his sight. Written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby” was a moving story about people who used their body as instruments. I was impressed with its clear vision of what it wanted to tell us about each character and at what point they were in their lives. Maggie was a nobody, just a waitress who took home her customers’ uneaten food, but she turned into a rising star in a matter of months. She craved to be in the ring. She was proud of every beating–if her opponents were lucky enough to land a punch. On the other hand, Scrap had accepted that his turn in the ring was over. He felt the need to pass on his knowledge in regards to both the techniques in boxing and the business side of the dangerous career. Meanwhile, Frankie was somewhere in between. Not really knowing his place hardened him. He couldn’t quite let go of the mistakes he made and he was almost blind to how he made others’ lives better. Perhaps it had something to do with the daughter who wouldn’t communicate with him. The three were connected by their passion for the sport and their own definitions about what it meant to be a true fighter. The actors’ performances were equally strong which elevated an already sublime screenplay. Swank was a natural. I was astounded by her ability to make determination look glamorous and ugliness almost effortless. Freeman had quieter moments but he made each scene he was given memorable. I especially enjoyed the way he balanced his character’s playfulness and solemnity, never settling in being predictable. As for Eastwood, with that soft but ferocious growl, I believed his character’s life being all about boxing. However, one small problem I had with the film was its occasional use of music. I noticed it especially when the movie would cut to scenes of Maggie being a waitress. Cue the sad melody, a sign that we should feel sorry for her. I didn’t need the music for me to realize that she had to work extremely hard to scrape by. I could see it in her eyes and the way she held her pride when she felt like someone was doing her a favor. “Million Dollar Baby” was fearless in reaching into the souls of its characters. As a testament to the film’s power, we eventually find ourselves needing to reach for the box of tissues. Indeed, the events toward the end were sad but it was more than that. I think it’s a wise reminder that even the most ordinary can have the potential to have magic in them.
The Skin I Live In (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) was a renowned plastic surgeon whose wife’s body burned in a car crash while trying to get away with her boyfriend (Roberto Álamo). Robert transported Gal home and took care of her for months, but when she saw her reflection on a window, she jumped out because she couldn’t bear living with her teratoid appearance. Since the tragedy, we learned that Robert had been performing experimental skin treatment on Vera (Elena Anaya). Although artificial, it was resistant to burning and insect bites which was promising for the scientific community. However, Robert’s colleagues were led to believe that he had been experimenting with mice, not on humans. “La piel que habito” had plenty of ideas about how anger and grief could drive a person into trying to achieve something so radical, it threatened to destroy him. The picture was most fascinating when it allowed the camera to observe the surgeon’s work sans dialogue. I liked watching him navigate his hands with precision while cutting a piece of skin and applying it onto his model. When something went wrong, he maintained his composure and consistently found a way to work around the problem–a quality that also served him well outside the lab. By observing his routine, though shot with cold detachment, we learned a lot about his experiment and how invested and desperate he was to make the seemingly impossible a reality. The film held a lot of secrets about identity. The most curious was Vera and why she lived like a prisoner. While it made sense that she lived in a relatively contained environment because her skin was being replaced, there were some red flags that grabbed (or should grab) our attention. For example, she wasn’t allowed any visitors, never handed sharp objects, and there were writing, like tallies of dates, on the walls of her room. If she was a voluntary patient, why was she considered a danger to herself? Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director, did a solid job on keeping a lid on what was really happening. The less information was available for us to put the pieces together, although I felt a bit of frustration due to its unhurried pacing, the more I felt compelled to think of increasingly ridiculous hypotheses. One of the most interesting characters was Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who, to Robert, was just a trustworthy longtime maid, but was actually his biological mother. I loved looking at her face, the way she moved across the room, and why she was convinced that Robert ought to kill Vera. Marilia provided another layer, if you will, to the story. I just wished that she had been used more. The most critical opportunity that the film lost was not relating its story deeply enough to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature. Marilia was Robert’s creator and Vera was Robert’s. Instead of looking to the future and exploring the repercussions of the surgeon’s transgressions, the screenplay went back in time about halfway through and gave us images of what happened to the wife and daughter. While it was necessary for us to know, several lines of dialogue would have sufficed. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” “The Skin I Live In,” wonderfully shot even without Almodóvar’s usual primary colors, could have used less family history and focused more on horror that came about from ignoring certain moral obligations.
Fish Tank (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joanne (Kierston Wareing) brought home Connor (Michael Fassbender), a new boyfriend, Mia (Katie Jarvis), a troubled fifteen-year-old, was immediately infatuated with him, and he with her. The two tried not to act on their desires for obvious reasons but how long could they resist when the small apartment required them to be constantly within reach? Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, “Fish Tank” was a coming-of-age film with a keen eye on characterization and telling truths that might be difficult to sit on. Specifically, how unpredictable a teenage mind could be and the lengths it would go to get its desires. Mia was tough, unafraid to stand her ground against a group of girls but, like most teenagers, she was lonely. Even when she was at home, she found no peace of mind. Joanne saw Mia’s youth as both threatening and a reminder that she was no longer the young party girl she once was. Due to Joanne’s lack of effective parenting, it seemed like Mia’s sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), was well on her way to becoming a troubled teenager as well. Barely ten years of age, she smoked and drank with her friends. Her role models were the scantily-clothed women on television. I found it interesting that when Joanne and Mia occupied the same room, it was always one person facing another’s back and they avoided to make eye contact. They lived in the same apartment and shared the same bloodline but they were essentially roommates who didn’t get along. But the director avoided to judge the way these people lived. Like quietly staring in a fish tank, we just observed them and the way they reacted to the rhythms of every day. I admired the fact the film’s focus wasn’t about whether it was right or wrong for Mia and Connor to engage in sexual activity. What mattered what how Mia felt around him. She was happy and flattered that someone took a genuine interest in her talent for dancing. He was a father figure that she didn’t really know, or wasn’t willing to accept, she needed. Fassbender gave his character depth. Instead of portraying a creepy predator, he was a friend. The complexity of their relationship was what kept me wanting to know what would happen next. The film took pride in delivering the unpredictable. When Mia made friends with a boy (Harry Treadaway) interested in car mechanics, it was easy to assume that she would use him to make Connor jealous. That wasn’t the case. “Fish Tank” could easily have been about an angry girl who lived in a poor neighborhood and how she eventually willed herself to escape her horrid upbringing. There was none of the usual life lessons about overcoming poverty. I felt the director’s utmost respect for her subjects by allowing them to be their imperfect selves up until the very end. Best of all, Arnold’s direction successfully led us to an invisible part of Britain and made it more visible.
Silent House (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to sell their lakeside home, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), were required to clean the place and pack memorabilia they wanted to keep. Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John’s brother, lent a helping hand and the two fixed up the basement while throwing playful insults at each other as most close siblings tend to do. As Sarah lit lanterns and began sorting through boxes, there was a knock on the front door. It was Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah’s forgotten childhood friend, and the two eventually decided that they would hang out and reminisce old times. Sarah got back to her work. There was another knock on the door. There was no one there. Based on Gustavo Hernández’ “La casa muda,” the film followed every step that Sarah had taken from the moment we laid eyes on her as she stared placidly across the lake up until she was finally allowed to walk away from the house–all supposedly taken in one take. I’m not sure if such a claim was true, but even if it was an illusion, it was executed convincingly. The picture demanded prodigious patience. There were no shocks that forced our hearts to jump out of our chests every five minutes. The images were supposed to get under our skin and make us believe there was something odd around the corner. Since there was no electricity, every room looked menacing because boxes, plastic bags, and random pointed objects created shadows that suggested there could be something there if one looked closely enough. There were also plenty of mirrors. In horror movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect our protagonists to pass by a mirror, preferably old-looking, without noticing a ghost or whatnot staring right at them. While I will refrain from saying whether or not that cliché was implemented here, the material was able to construct an increasing amount of dread with every creaking door nearby, strange tapping in the room, and deafening thuds next door. Olsen was required to be more than a girl cowering in fear. While her character was fearful of every little thing, which, admittedly, I found quite annoying in the first few minutes, Olsen had way of combining terrified expressions with confusion and anticipation. Turning the doorknob was a challenge for Sarah. Most of us would find ourselves leaning back just in case something on the other side was waiting to go, “Boo!” Since Olsen’s performance had subtle variations, I believed that Sarah was consistently doing the best she could to try to get out of the house and find help. What I didn’t enjoy about the film, however, was its payoff. Imagine being in a roller coaster as it climbed higher and higher up until you just wished it would just reach the top, finally go down and shrill screaming began. But once it reached the top, the unexpected happened: the descent was languorous and very controlled. It felt unnatural so you couldn’t help but feel out of place. That’s how I felt while watching the final act: there was nothing scary, suspenseful, or thrilling about it. Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Silent House,” at its best, made me gasp once or twice. At its worst, however, I shook my head in frustration that it believed it could get away with a cheap resolution just because the supposed single take style looked impressive.