★★★ / ★★★★
An unexpected trial separation between the patriarch (E.G. Marshall) and emotionally fragile matriarch (Geraldine Page) thrusted three sisters (Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith) into a territory in which they had to deal with their own lives and their parents’–something they weren’t used to because they’ve become accustomed to living a life of privilege and constantly reevaluating their careers. Joey (Hurt) was smart but never found what she was really good at. She held a grudge because she felt like she was the only one who went out of her way to take care of their mother. Renata (Keaton) was immersed with her work and craved to be left alone. She found it difficult because her husband, also an artist, took criticisms too personally. Instead of focusing her energy onto her work, she felt the need to build her husband’s confidence. Meanwhile, Flyn (Griffith) was never around because traveling was a part of being an actress. Her physical beauty was valued more than her wit, kindness, and personality. Despite the fact that the film was essentially about self-centered, white upper-class, highly irksome individuals, I found Woody Allen’s film to be admirable because he held a laser-like focus on the material’s theme. His subjects lived in big houses that felt more like museums than a comfortable home. When they spoke, their voices echoed as if they craved to be truly heard. They filled their houses with expensive material; the figurines had to complement the color of the walls and the texture of the carpet, and the insular themes that just had to work with the ambiance in a specific way. Everything had to be controlled. It showcased their intelligence, their place in society, and what they could offer to visitors who they considered to be on a lower level than them. But they weren’t emotionally equipped people. The sisters were jealous of each other and Allen wasn’t afraid to show us how ugly sibling competition could become. Arguments were abound, but since the characters didn’t know how to treat communication as a two-way street, nothing was really solved. In fact, it seemed like things turned for the worse after explosive confrontations. These people led sad existences but we didn’t pity them in the least. Allen’s script was vivid and the beauty of it was highlighted by the way the actors expressed their characters’ hypocrisies and histrionics. The picture was at its peak when the women’s father brought home Pearl (the wonderful Maureen Stapleton), a woman he wanted to marry. Pearl was supposed to personify people like you and me, someone who had a lot of energy, willing to talk about her imperfections, and wasn’t guilty about eating an extra slice of pie just because it was considered unhealthy. Allen adroitly used her character as both a hurdle and someone to aspire to for the three women in question. “Interiors” was about people who were not unlike the figurines they so deeply coveted: shining on the outside but tragically hollow on the inside. With Allen’s assured direction, the film was bleakly cerebral yet emotionally rewarding.
The Joneses (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The Joneses (David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard) moved into a wealthy neighborhood and quickly integrated in their community. But the Joneses, unlike their name, was no ordinary family. To be honest, I instantly felt like there was something very wrong about them from the first scene when we spent a bit of time with the family in their fancy car. The Joneses seemed like they had it all: the big house, the expensive cars, the hi-tech gadgets, and the designer clothes. Everyone was in awe of them and everyone wanted to have what the Joneses had. I enjoyed how this film was able to construct an argument regarding how materialism was able to drive the American culture forward but at the same time it served as a catalyst toward bankruptcy. I also liked that it touched upon the difference between selling “stuff” and selling an attitude. There’s a subtle difference and sometimes it’s difficult to discern between the two. The fashion industry mastered the difference between the two and that’s why it’s a successful business. Furthermore, writer-director Derrick Borte looked beyond the satire and actually worked on the film’s heart by allowing the head of the household to develop a conscience. There was no doubt that he saw the errors of his ways but it was nice to see his struggle between what made him happy and the right thing to do. Duchovny did a great job in allowing me to understand his character but at the same time not pitying him. “The Joneses” succeeded in getting their audiences to become active participants in its little experiment. Since it had laser-focus in exploring our consumer culture, I thought about myself and my role in advertising certain products. In fact, I’m doing it right now as I recommend this movie. That self-awareness worked in the picture’s advantage. I had fun watching it because I was able to relate it in real life. We all know some jealous neighbors or relatives or even friends who can’t help but give us angry looks (but with a smile) when we have something new. And the next time we see the sour apples, they ended up buying that new thing they saw that we had last week. However, I wish the film could have been a little darker to go along with its edge. Toward the end, it became too sweet. I understood why Borte thought it was necessary to lighten things up because some of the miserable characters needed some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, but the way he executed the ending touched upon the typical romantic comedy territory. Some of the film’s power was lost and instead of ending with a roar, it ended with a squeal. Neverthless, “The Joneses” is worth seeing because it was rich in creativity and irony.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Hunger,” written and directed by Steve McQueen, followed the last few weeks of life of a prisoner named Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who decided to go on a hunger strike because the British government did not want to recognize the IRA prisoners (Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan) as political prisoners and the fact that the pisoners were constantly treated inhumanely by the guards. At first I thought that the first half of this film was about the hunger strike because everyone was insanely skinny. Only half-way did I realize that the first half was the “blanket and no wash” protest–prisoners had nothing but blankets in their cells and they chose not to wash themselves for days on end. (Not to mention they decorated their walls with their filth and food.) The turning point (and best scene) of the film was the conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) because that extended scene brought a sharpness and intelligence to the picture as it tackled issues such as the ethical reasons regarding the hunger strike and whether performing such a dangerous task, as noble as it was, could ultimately lead to nothing. The portion of the scene when Fassbender talked about what his character’s leadership meant to him was honestly was one of the best five minutes I’ve seen in a long time. The images that the character described were so vivid in my mind and the emotions that the images entailed captivated me. McQueen’s direction was always present because as the story was being told, the camera knew, at the perfect moments, when to zoom in to the actor’s faces and when to pull back. The effectiveness of the director’s craft made the experience that much more rewarding. The second half–the actual hunger strike–absolutely blew me away. Fassbender’s transformation was shocking to me. It reminded me of Christian Bale’s horrifying transformation in “The Machinist,” but instead of psychological repercussions, we got to observe how Bobby’s health declined and how his life ultimately came to an end. I loved that this film felt small but the ideas were so big; it highlighted those ideas via the synergistic effect of silence and haunting images. I also loved the film’s use of contrast in terms of other people using violence to others and people using violence to themselves. “Hunger” is a very rich and complex film worth pondering over. I couldn’t believe this was McQueen’s directoral debut because he commanded the story and direction with such focus. Like with Fassbender who also impressed me in “Inglourious Basterds,” I’m looking forward to McQueen’s next project.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There’s many things to love about this classic romance about a spoiled young woman named Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) who longed to be with a married man (Leslie Howard) since the beginning to the Civil War up until the end of her third marriage with a man who had a bad reputation (Clark Gable). I enjoyed the fact that even though Scarlett experienced how it was like to be rich then live in poverty only to be rich again, she didn’t become a fully giving person. In fact, she proudly remained manipulative, conceited and brash. The only thing that really changed was that she was less whiny but even then she still got on my last nerves. The performances were remarkable especially Gable as the man who didn’t want to settle down yet he had his eyes on Scarlett. We got to see him at his best and worst–it was such a well-rounded performance. It was also a joy to watch Hattie McDaniel as the servant of Scarlett’s family. She provided a much needed comic relief when everything started to get a little too dark. Lastly, Olivia de Havilland was great as an angelic figure who supported everyone she met despite the things that were said or done to her. Directed by Victor Fleming, the unpredictability of “Gone with the Wind” was its most fascinating quality. I thought when Leigh and Gable finally got together, everything was going to be a typical “happily ever after” love story. I was surprised when the picture changed gears from a romance epic to marriage drama. The film wasn’t afraid to really explore the dynamics of the family and the important people surrounding them; how the unsolved elements in the past eventually caught up with each of them. I was surprised because one of the many main things I’ve heard about the film was that it was a love story. Sometimes it was but sometimes it wasn’t. It was really more about the fact that nothing ever stays the same so the characters always had to adapt to the changes that happened. Admittedly, there were times when I thought the picture dragged a bit especially in the beginning. It definitely took its time to get to the real drama so a bit of patience is a requisite. But when it finally did dive into its subject’s lives, the storytelling was nothing short of captivating.
Gangs of New York (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I admire Martin Scorsese as a director but I do not think this film is one of his best even though I did like it quite a bit. “Gangs of New York” tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) thirst for vengeance after his father (Liam Neeson) was killed in the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) when he was a child. But since this is a Scorsese film, it simply cannot be that simple. It was also about the frustration and eventual uprising of the poor against the corrupt rich and those of power, rivalry between gangs, the rapid rate of immigration to New York, and the intolerance that comes hand-in-hand when people of very distinct cultures and mindsets are forced to live together. It is an epic picture in every sense of the word but yet there’s something about it that made me believe that it did not quite reach its full potential. When I think about it, I believe that one of its main weaknesses is its almost three-hour running time. While the first twenty minutes were necessary to establish the movie’s emotional core, the next hour was banal. Nothing much happened except for the fact that DiCaprio’s character returned to New York and wanted to gain The Butcher’s trust. So they attend social gatherings together, walk along the streets, go drinking… Pretty much what “tough guys” were supposed to do back in the day, I suppose. I found it really hard to care; perhaps if the whole charade did not last for an hour, I would have stuck with it. However, it did regain its footing half-way through after The Butcher finds Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) sleeping together. (It’s not a spoiler. Everyone should know it was bound to happen.) Starting with that scene, I felt like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis were playing a cat-and-mouse game from who they really are to what their motivations are, especially Day-Lewis’ character. The second part of the film felt so much more alive and exciting; I also noticed how grand everything looked–the set, the clothes, the soundtrack… I was sucked into this world that Scorsese had envisioned like I was in his stronger motion pictures. Nevertheless, I cannot quite give this film a four-star rating and feel good about it because it did have that one hour that was pretty unnecessary. Regardless, DiCaprio and Day-Lewis gave very strong performaces and should be appreciated. I loved it when they had scenes when it was just the two of them in a room. I felt like I was right there with them and feeling like I shouldn’t be.
★★ / ★★★★
This film reminded me of a very light version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” because it’s about a sexually abused young man named Dean (Matthew Leitch) who pretends he’s the son of an aristocrat (Diana Quick). In his journey to find acceptance and identity, he meets an American (Peter Youngblood Hills) and his lover (George Asprey) who both happen to be interested in Dean. At first this picture was very frustrating to me because, despite watching rich people drugging themselves in order to feel something and being utterly miserable due to a lack of genuine relationships, Dean still wants to become one of them. Granted, his situation at home is egregious because of his spineless mother and abusive father, but I thought he’d want a vastly different alternative instead of merely having a title. But later on, the film evolved into something quite insightful. A particular character actually commented on the issue of working class idealizing the upper class and wanting to be like them even though they really have no idea what it’s like. That self-awareness let me know that Duncan Roy, the director, has a message that he wants to get across. Aside from class warfare and deceit, this also comments on the complexities of finding one’s sexual identity and how the frustration of not knowing can lead us to a downward spiral. Better yet, the film implies that we can have the control we need to steer our lives in the right direction. We might lose that control once in a while but we can wield it again if we hang on long enough and push through next time. Despite all of those positive qualities, I can’t quite give this a three-star rating because the middle portion is bit too saggy. The movie is only about an hour and fifty minutes but it felt longer than that. Cutting about fifteen to twenty minutes would’ve gone a long way. I liked the energy that the actors put in their characters so I’m not against slightly recommending it.
The Family That Preys (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“You can’t make yourself happy [by] bringing misery into other people’s lives.” I think that quote sums up the central thesis of this film. Even though it may be a bit soap opera at times because of the multiple storylines and their big revelations, I can’t help but really like this film. There’s something about the characters that are very true to life, especially in a society where everyone wants to climb up on the economic ladder. While most may initially watch this just to see the drama unfold between and within each family, I think it’s worthy to notice the dynamics between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between the man and the woman, and between the whites and the blacks. I admired that this film didn’t have any African-Americans that live in the ghetto. To be honest, I want to see more African-Americans living the “normal” life because they do exist and they should be represented. I love Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as the two mothers of the family. The way they interacted with one another reminded me of times when I was with my best friend, just laughing our lungs off and not caring about what people think of us in public. I also loved Taraji P. Henson and Sanaa Lathan as the two completely opposite sisters, one sensible and supportive and the other is disrespectful and vindictive, respectively. But I have to admit that Lathan reminded me of myself at times because I can be quite insidious and sometimes I forget where I come from. I don’t like that about myself and I’ve been trying to get rid of those qualities over the past three years (which, I think, has been successful so far). I wanted to hate her but at the end of the day, I just felt really sorry for her because of the way she treats the ones that love her most. There are a lot of memorable and insightful quotes that could be found all over the film; they made me think where I am in life, where I was, and where I will be. This is the kind of movie that made me so happy that I choose to surround myself with people that I can love and will love me no matter what happens. Upon watching the characters figure each others’ intentions, it goes to show that you can have all the money in the world but if you’re not happy with yourself and you forget where you come from, your life is truly not worth much.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I can’t say that this is one of my favorite films from Stanley Kubrick, but I have to admit that this picture is extremely well-crafted. I was impressed that Kubrick shot each scene with only natural light such as the sun during the day and candles during the night. His use of certain cameras that tend to highlight the magnificient backgrounds is nothing short of brilliant. Like “Full Metal Jacket,” the topic of duality is explored in a meaningful way. The first part of the film focuses on Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal): how he left his family and joined the British Army. The second part of the film is about Barry Lyndon (still played by O’Neal) and his attempt to attain the respect he can never achieve. Redmond Barry and Barry Lyndon, though the same person, are completely different from each other. The former is naive and honorable, but the latter is hungry for wealth and power. On the outside, it’s about the rise and fall of man. But I think it’s so much more than that. “Barry Lyndon” is a classic example of a man so willing to change himself by forgetting his past as he tries to gather wealth and power (by marrying Marisa Berenson who plays Lady Lyndon), all the while not caring about anyone who gets hurt by his actions. At the same time, he’s not viewed as a completely evil person because of the events that shaped him; he still has the capability to love even though he does not show it in an apparent manner. I can see why most people would initially dismiss this film because it is very slow-moving. However, if one learns to embrace its slow nature, he or she will be rewarded by its epic historical story. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that this film won two Oscars–Best Cinematography amd Best Costume Design–because I’ve never seen anything like it. Each prop is gorgeous, especially the clothes and the paintings on the walls. Many times in the movie, especially during the second half, I felt like I was visiting a museum, not just because of the aesthetics, but also due to the echoes created by the characters’ feet and the whispers in conversations. Kubrick really was a perfectionist and it shows because each of his work is always exemplary. This is a difficult film to swallow and one of the reasons is its three-hour running time. However, it’s a fascinating character study. Barry Lyndon doesn’t realize that by forgetting where he comes from, he loses a significant portion of himself and therefore cannot grow to be a better person. He finds happiness in material things but never realizes that all he had to do was look inside himself. And that is only one of the many tragedies that this breathtaking film has to offer.