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 Sweet Hereafter (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) visited a small town a few weeks after a tragic school bus accident that killed most of the children passengers. The lawyer tried to talk to the children’s parents to create a case of negligence against the company that made the school bus. While the parents were reluctant at first, they were eventually persuaded by Mitchell because he was able to offer an explanation out of the unexplanable. In a way, I saw him as a vulture or an opportunistic organism that nourished itself on the parents’ grief. Most of them wanted to move on but he wouldn’t allow them because he really wanted to have a case to serve as a distraction from his own personal life regarding his drug-addicted daughter (Caerthan Banks). Maybe he was doing it for the money. Maybe he was doing it to atone for his own mistakes. Either way, his presence helped to drive the town further apart. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” was not a typical drama about loss. There was no big homage to demonstrate how sad the town was and there was no screaming matches between the parents because their child had passed away. Instead, all of the negative emotions were suppressed. It was the kind of sadness I felt when we’ve lost a family friend or a relative. There was more silence than screaming to the top of our lungs. The stand-out for me was Nicole (Sarah Polley) as a once-promising singer who was now confined to a wheelchair. One of her secrets was she and her father were in an incestuous relationship. Nicole was torn because she wanted to deal with the paralysis over the lower portion of her body while her parents wanted to join the lawsuit. I felt sad for her but I didn’t feel sorry for her. And I think that’s what Egoyan did best: His project was able walk between delicate emotions and deliver a film that did not feel manipulative. From several reviews I read, they claimed that it was slow and they did not really learn anything new about the characters. I agree to some extent, but I don’t believe that type of critique necessarily means that the movie is not worth watching. With certain kinds of films, it’s more difficult to simply show what is instead of offering a defined explanation that we can easily grasp. Losing a child defies explanation and grieving need not make sense. That was the film’s main thesis and I thought it was successful at tackling those issues. “The Sweet Hereafter” was challenging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. It was a complex and painful examination of the human condition.
The Messenger (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a newly recognized war hero, was assigned to the Casualty Notification division with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a man who adhered without fail to the rules of telling the next of kin that their loved one had died or went missing in the war. Directed by Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” had proven that movies about the Iraq war can still be relevant and moving without having to be condescending or syrupy. I’m used to watching Foster and Harrelson playing characters who are volatile and larger-than-life so it was nice to see them playing characters who are masters when it came to internalization. Even though they didn’t always vocalize the things that bothered them about the war or the way they saw the civilian world after serving overseas, I felt their pain and anger. In small ways, they managed to tell their stories without sacrificing complexity. With each visitation of the next of kin, I loved that the family members had different responses so Will and Tony had to constantly adapt, sometimes finding themselves out of their depths. Prior to the film, I thought that the scenes that would impact me most emotionally were the ones when the family members (Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta) would break down externally via screaming, yelling or being violent to themselves and others. Surprisingly, the ones that really got to me were the characters (Samantha Morton) who were obviously sad about the news yet they were almost gracious that Will and Tony found courage from within themselves to deliver the difficult news. The anticipation of family member members’ reactions were without a doubt even more compelling than films about the Iraq war plaqued with gratuitous explosions and typical dialogues. Lastly, the heart of “The Messenger” was the bond between Tony and Will. They seemed to not get along at first but it was always apparent that they respected each other. But after being around each other, the two slowly opened up which led up to the key scene when Will explained why he didn’t consider himself a hero. That scene would most likely have failed with a less intelligent script but I liked the way Moverman used silence and let his audiences absorb every word, pause, and sigh that Will expressed while telling his very personal story. There was also another brilliant scene applied with the same technique when Morton’s character talked about opening her closet one day and her husband’s shirt fell on the floor. “The Messenger” was engaging every step of the way because it went beyond being a traditional war movie. I didn’t feel emotionally cheated because it respected us, its characters, and our troops. It knew that it didn’t need to be political; it just needed to be honest.
Grave of the Firelies (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene depicted the death of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) when Japan finally surrendered at the end of World War II. His story of struggle with his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi) was elegantly told in flashback. They tried to survive by themselves because their father was in the Navy, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) passed away because a fire-bombing raid, and their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) outwardly expressed that the two of them were a burden since they did not do their share in providing for the household. “Hotaru no haka” is a sublime example of anime transcending animated stories told in a fantastic scope and science fiction. It was able to tell a human story that was very real, tragic and heartbreaking as Seita did his best to keep his sister away from truths that were difficult to digest. Of course, he ended up unsuccessful in the end but the heart of the film was his attempt to construct distractions so that his sister would not think about their parents and the prospect that they, too, could die. Although we saw planes bombing Japanese towns, I liked that the siblings’ main source of struggle was their relationship with other Japanese people. Since everything was rationed, mostly everyone was out for themselves and their own families. Food and shelter were rare and money became irrelevant. Bartering drove the economy which was a problem because the two kids had barely anything to barter with in the first place. There was a complexity in their society’s situation. I did not necessarily see them as “bad people” because I probably would have done the same thing if I was in their shoes. I also admired the fact that Isao Takahata, the director, did not shy away from showing dead, mangled, and rotten bodies. When I saw this film in high school, I remember being shocked at the images because at the time I had not seen an animated movie that mirrored reality so closely. One of the most resonant scenes for me was when Seita glanced over at his mother’s badly burned body. His facial and body expression suggested that he did not at all recognized his mother but deep inside he felt that it was her and she was soon going to die. Just as quickly, he realized he had no choice but to be strong for his sister until their father came for them. “Grave of the Firelies,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, had power that made me feel so sad even after a few days since I’ve seen it. I was haunted with what Seita and his sister had been through but at the same time I was thankful that I did not live through those times. Even more impressive, the movie was a war film that did not place blame on any one nation but instead highlighted individual responsiblity in times of war.
★★ / ★★★★
“Storytelling” was divided into two parts: fiction and non-fiction. In the former, Selma Blair stars as a writer who was having trouble coming to terms with her artistic identity. In order to find it, she decided to sleep with her brutally honest professor (Robert Wisdom) after her boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) had broken up with her. In the latter, an aspiring filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) decided to make a documentary about high school life and the pressures of getting into college. His specimen was an aimless teen named Scooby (Mark Webber) who wanted to be the next big talk show host. As with Todd Solondz’ other projects (“Happiness,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), what I enjoyed most about “Storytelling” was that it was so good in straddling the lines between scenes that were purely offensive, scenes that were very funny, and scenes that were undeniably sad. However, brilliant moments were not prevalent here because I felt like Solondz was completely detached from his characters. Instead of really focusing on their respective emotional turmoils, I found him constantly poking fun of them. He disdainfully points at his subjects and makes a lot of jokes at their expense but as the film went on, the jokes became less funny to the point where it most became redundant. I craved for the director to reveal another dimension to his characters but it rarely happened so I felt very disappointed. Although I liked the risk that the director had taken in terms of dividing the movie into two parts and making one considerably shorter than the other, I am not convinced that risk ultimately paid off. The fiction portion lacked focus (which was a shame because I really liked Blair in it) and the non-fiction segment felt too contrived. Neither came together in the end and I failed to see what Solondz wanted me to understand. I had a handful of ideas in my head but I feel like the material he had on screen was just too general. That lack of focus led to a lack of momentum. For instance, did Giamatti’s character realize that the subject he had chosen was very similar to current self? So in a way, he was basically documenting his life and at the same time making fun of it. I suppose it’s a good thing that I was able to extract many questions from the images the director put together but I did not feel like he had power of them. In the end, “Storytelling” was a nice experiment and nothing more. It tried to be different on the outside but when I really look into it, its core was not at all atypical.
Dark Victory (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bette Davis stars as a lively twenty-four-year-old woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor by a doctor (George Brent) who she eventually became romantically entangled with. After the surgery, she was given about ten months to live but her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and doctor chose not to tell her what would inevitably happen. Aside from the unethical choice that the doctor made (I’m assuming that perhaps it was permitted back in the day), I thought this film was tremendous in every way. I was hooked the moment Davis entered the doctor’s office because their interaction was believable. I saw elegance in how the lead character initially didn’t want to share anything about her condition to the way she slowly opened up and placed her full trust to a man she’d never met. I especially enjoyed Davis as a socialite who lived her life to the fullest but was in complete denial about her debilitating health. As she made her way through certain crowds, there was subtlety in her acting–the little looks she gave to people who she thought were being fake or stupid were amusing to watch. I completely believed that she was the kind of woman who would say or do something outrageous and get away with it with flying colors. I thought there was something heartbreaking about the way she evolved from someone who was so afraid of death to someone who eventually learned to accept it. I couldn’t help but feel moved in the end when she eventually learned to be strong for her friends just as when her friends were strong for her prior to her surgery. I really felt like the picture came full circle and the movie gave me great satisfaction even though the subject matter was essentially sad. Although the film was about a patient who had a terminal disease, I loved that it still had a bit of comedy and romance. The movie could have easily been distracted with sudden shifts in tones and unnecessary side stories (not to mention the easy temptations of getting too melodramatic to get more tears from the audiences) but the script was tight and the overall product had a great sense of pacing because each scene had a purpose. Directed by Edmund Goulding, “Dark Victory” is definitely one of the best movies of 1939, a year in which many movies were worthy of Best Picture winners. “Dark Victory” is one of those movies that made me wish movies of today had just the right amount of dosage in terms of delivery. It’s simple but it had laser-like focus on what it wanted to accomplish.
Dear John (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) met over Spring Break and it was love at first sight. Savannah had dreams of opening her own summer camp one day, while John was a soldier who felt like the battlefield was more like his home. In the early stages of their relationship, they promised to write letters to each other and tell each other everything. But over the years, their love for one another (at least from a romantic angle) dissipated because of distance and circumstances. Or maybe they just matured emotionally. I didn’t read Nicholas Sparks’ novel from which the picture was based on but I think the movie was strong as a stand alone. I understand why people (especially fans of the novel) didn’t like the picture either because it didn’t remain loyal enough to its source or they expected that they were in for a typical romantic movie but it turned out to be a depressing journey. But that’s what I liked about it–it still had elements of sappy romance but it was very sad in its core because the characters made certain decisions which they could never take back. I’ve forgotten that Seyfried was the hilariously clueless girl from “Mean Girls” and Tatum was an actor I didn’t particularly care for. I was invested in their characters and by the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen next. I loved watching the characters change over the years and I believed every major change that happened in their lives. Savannah changed from an idealistic young woman seemingly ready to tackle the world to someone who became sort of defeated and almost closed down. Even though we didn’t see her go through difficult times in her life, the way Seyfried played her character made it unnecessary. Meanwhile, John changed from somebody who would rather surf and not talk to anybody (basically, your stereotypical stoic man) to making a real effort in connecting with his autistic father (Richard Jenkins). Although I didn’t care much about the scenes in the army, there were real touching moments especially when John explained to Savannah, through handwritten letters, why he was like a coin and why his relationship with his father was so strained. Fans of movies like “The Notebook” will most likely be disappointed because “Dear John” is not as romantic. In a way, “Dear John” is more of a story of friendship than a story of lovers. I enjoyed “Dear John” because it was so different from what I expected and it had an honesty that made it feel like I was watching a relationship based on something that could potentially happen in real life.