Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
Rabbit Hole (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, “Rabbit Hole” was about a couple named Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) whose son had passed away eight months ago. The two had vastly different ways of coping which caused tension between them. Becca tried to get rid of their son’s belongings while Howie desperately tried to hang onto his son’s memory by watching a video on his cell phone. Further, Becca found comfort in reconnecting with the teenager (Miles Teller) who ran over their son and Howie found common ground with another woman (Sandra Oh) who lost her son eight years ago. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” was a gut-wrenching look at a couple about to pass a critical point in their grief which could go one of two ways. They could dissolve their marriage from a lack of communication or go through the notions together and find some closure. Many elements were thrown at them and we had a chance to observe their reactions. One of the key conflicts was Becca’s sister being pregnant. On the outside, Becca was seemingly supportive like when she brought over some clothes that used to belong to her son. However, there were times when her bitterness would show and snide remarks about how her sister’s future husband, a musician, might not be fit in being a father due to financial stability. Becca didn’t want to hurt others but she did small ways because she didn’t know how to deal with her anger and guilt. Mitchell took some risks that paid off. The general tone was depressing but there were some scenes that I thought were laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) talked about kicking someone out of her house. The sense of humor did not feel out of place or inappropriate because these characters deserved some happiness in their lives. More importantly, the rapid changes in tone felt right because when someone is dealing with a great loss, various emotions, empty they may be, are amplified, sometimes reaching certain extremes. The plot may be familiar but it still managed to surprise me with its insight. I loved the scene when Becca’s mother explained to her daughter that moving on from grief was like carrying a brick in one’s pocket. When a person finally moves on, she forgets that it’s there but there comes a time when she will reach into her pocket for whatever reason and she’s reminded that it’s there. Wiest did not have very many scenes but she made the best of what she was given. Even though her character remained on the sideline, I felt like she, too, had an important story to tell. “Rabbit Hole” was emotionally exhausting but a strong picture nonetheless. It showcased why Kidman is an actor who should not be forgotten. There’s a lot of shallow talk about her face and what she did to it. I don’t care about such sensationalisms as long as she continues to make moving films like this one. The rabbit hole could be interpreted as a metaphor for depression but let’s not forget that Alice woke up from her nightmare and moved on.
The Best of Youth (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“La meglio gioventù” or “The Best of Youth,” written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, runs for six hours long but I was so invested in all of the characters so I wanted it to run longer. Its focus was on two brothers named Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) and how the choices they made back when they were young in the 1960s have impacted their respective futures all the way to the 2000s. This is one of those films where it’s difficult to describe what it’s about because it’s pretty much about everything. Let’s just say that this is about life and the beauty that comes with it–how cruel yet generous fate can be, how ironic situations are despite the sharply fluctuating sadness and comedy, and how the people we meet can help shape who we are. Yes, it’s about two brothers who are very different from each other (one became a psychiatrist and one became a cop) but what I liked about the picture is that it didn’t paint them as rivals. In fact, they genuinely loved each other even though their political views and how they interpreted situations that faced them were vastly different. I also liked the way the director effortlessly sewn in the Italian history into their lives. I didn’t find it at all distracting because the movie always worked at a personal level. There was always something going on on the surface and underneath it all was a lot of hurt, disappointment, regret and what ifs. I was also amazed with how the movie started off with the actors looking really young and look of the picture reflected that of the 1960s. But as we made our journey through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, the same actors looked older and the look of the movie became sharper and more modern. It was fascinating to watch and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. As the movie went on, the focus shifted from the brothers to their parents, siblings, lovers, and children. I really felt like I was watching someone’s life unfold before my eyes. As the characters often reflected on a certain memory when they were younger, I actually had a picture on which memory they were talking about as well as the circumstances that surrounded that event. It’s so much more interesting than in other films where a character talks about his or her memory and we can only build from what he or she is saying. I’m so happy to have seen “The Best of Youth” because not only did it inspire me to love the people in my life more but it also gave me an idea of what I could possibly write about for my personal statement for medical school. This film is a treasure and it should not be missed by anyone who loves stories that deftly cover several decades.
★ / ★★★★
I thought this movie, directed by Simon Pearce, was quite emotionally bankrupt despite the sadness and despair presented on the outside. Cal (Wayne Virgo) is a gang member who hides his sexuality from the rest of the group and uses other unsuspecting men (Garry Summers) for occassional hook-ups. Cal is also attracted to Jonno (Tom Bott), a fellow gang member, but the feeling never seems to be reciprocal under the watchful eye of the angry and vengeful Nessa (Alice Payne). When the gang attacks a fellow homosexual (Marc Laurent), Cal jumps in to save him and the two soon develop a romantic relationship. However, that relationship costs him his place in the gang. I thought there was way too much violence in this movie. I get the fact that Pearce was going for realism but that technique could have worked if the picture was sensitive in its core. I felt the director trying to grasp at the real sadness of the various characters but it never reached that level because there were too many distracting elements. Instead of heart, we get these extended scenes of sex which I thought were really unnecessary. For a movie that runs for less than nintety minutes, I expected it to be as effecient as possible. Instead, the first twenty minutes consisted of sex, drugs and violence. Perhaps another reason why I never warmed up to “Shank” was the fact that I just don’t understand the mindset of gangs. From what I read from literature and learned from the classes I’ve taken, there was supposed to be this sort of kinship or sense of family within the group. But in here, I thought they were just really cruel to each other. I seemed like one little slip was enough for one to be kicked out of the group. I felt like everyone was divided so the film never reached some sort of balance or harmony when it comes to both its characters and tone. I even failed to recognize the chemistry between Bott and Laurent. I’m sorry but I just have trouble accepting the fact that a tough silent type like Cal would fall for a flamboyantly feminine guy like Olivier. They were too different; and even if they were, the director did not really explore their potential similarities (interests, point of views, et cetera) other than the fact that they were gay. It’s all too obvious and shallow for me to be really absorbed into the lives of these characters. At the end of the day, I regretted watching “Shank” because the premise had so much potential but the execution was so lazy and typical. If you’re looking for meaning, you won’t find it here.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.
The Soloist (2008)
★ / ★★★★
I did not expect to dislike this movie as much as I did. “The Soloist,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, was about a writer and a talented musician who happened to be a homeless man with schizophrenia and how they taught each other lessons in order to be more secure with themselves and eventually integrate with their families. Unfortunately, most of the elements that made up the film did not work for me. For instance, I think the movie went on for too long neglecting the fact that schizophrenia is a very serious mental disorder and that “friendship” does not necessarily cure it. It tackled the issue of diagnosis and medication in only two scenes, which I found to be absurd given the subject matter of the integration of a person with a fractured mind in society. I also found the pacing of the picture to be quite boring (for the lack of a better word). I wanted to know more about why Downey was so into helping Foxx. It certainly was not because he was a very giving person; in fact, he was sort of a reclusive, self-contained individual who neglected his family. If Joe Wright, the director, had found a way to balance scenes between Downey and his family (Catherine Keener as his ex-wife and a son who we never saw on screen) and Downey and Foxx, I think the audiences would have had a better understanding about his motivations. I also would have liked to see more of the history behind Foxx’ character. There were a few flashback scenes which I found to be very touching, especially his relationship with his mother, one of key figures in his life that pushed him to pursue his musical talent. All in all, I think the film’s fatal flaw is that it tried too hard to reach the most mainstream audiences via sentimentality and not enough common sense. We saw a lot of images of homelessness but it ultimately amounted to nothing–just images of misery and sadness. Also, I really hated it when Foxx’ character would play the cello and we would get random images of colors and buildings of Los Angeles on screen. It would have been so much better if we actually saw him play a piece and observe the passion in his eyes. Lastly, “The Soloist” lasted longer than it should have because of a dozen or so unnecessary dialogue that had nothing to do with the big picture.
The Last Day (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about this movie that I loved. The story was about an eighteen year old Simon (the stunning Gaspard Ulliel) who happens to meet a girl on a train (Mélanie Laurent) on his way back home for the holidays. She invites himself to his home, which at first turned out okay, but the longer she stays there, the more frustrated Simon becomes. Emotions escalate when Simon’s friend (Thibault Vinçon) enters the picture because Laurent starts to fall for him. I think this film was deceptively simple. Even though the dialogue was minimal, the film had a plethora of interesting imagery and stiffled emotions that kept bubbling over the surface. The prime example of this was Ulliel’s character. Simon was such a sensitive character and I felt like a lot of things could tip him to the breaking point. However, he managed to find inner strength time and time again to deal with another painful reality and so I was able to sympathize for him. Even though he was sad and bordeline desperate for affection, we rarely saw him cry, which I think made him that much more lovable. What did not work for me as well, however, was the storyline regarding his mother (Nicole Garcia) and her much younger lover (Bruno Todeschini). I didn’t quite see the connection between that story and Simon’s plight. If the commonality was about loneliness and the suffocation they felt, I think that’s too superficial. If this film had been longer to further explore that bond, I think this could have been a much more powerful picture. Indeed, this was a slow-moving film but I found it to be rewarding because it was thoughtful with its approach. This is farthest from a Hollywood film which typically has defined conventions of a genre. “Le derniere jour” was more like an artistic take on what it was like to be in someone’s shoes who felt like everybody was slowly drifting away.
★★ / ★★★★
“Delirious,” written and directed by Tom DiCillo, is a satire about paparazzis, tabloids and celebrities. Although it had a certain bite from time to time, it lost its way somewhere in the middle only to find its core once again toward the end. I really enjoyed watching Steve Buscemi as a photographer who wants to prove to everybody that he’s the best as what he does. There was a brilliant scene when he visited his parents’ house and neither the mom nor the dad approved of his job. Although Buscemi is convinced that what he does is art, that void inside him is never really filled because he always wants somebody (regardless of their overall importance) to tell him that he’s doing a great job. When no one feeds his ego, he goes off on rather amusing temper tantrums yet still retain a certain sadness to his situation. I also really liked Michael Pitt as an initially homeless aspiring actor who Buscemi takes under his wing and eventually rises to superstardom. Even though he eventually gains a status among celebrities and the media, he remains true to himself and that was nice to see. In most movies, characters like him get corrupted so it’s refreshing to see that change. As tension rises between Buscemi and Pitt, (Buscemi’s character declares that Pitt’s character is ungrateful for all the things he’s done when Pitt was homeless–completely unaware to the fact that he’s been nothing but a jerk/parasite) themes such as jealousy, envy, self-reflection and companionship are explored in meaningful ways. My problem with this picture is that a scene is either really good and focused or it’s really irrelevant to the overall scope of what it’s trying to satirize. If DiCillo had tweaked the middle portion a bit more (such as minimizing the “love” aspect between Pitt and Alison Lohman which felt superficial at most), this would’ve easily been a solid film. Still, this is an interesting movie with funny cameos and interesting subject matter. It’s not that I didn’t like it–I just think that it could’ve been a lot stronger with its smart script and talented actors.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, out of the “Three Colors” trilogy (“Blue,” “White” and “Red”–colors of the French flag that mean liberty, equality and fraternity, respectively), I believe this one is the strongest. Right from the very start, the thesis regarding strange connections between people who want some sort of communication, meaningful or not, with another person is established. I was blown away by Irène Jacob’s performance as a model who one day runs over a dog that belongs to a retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Although at first the two seem to have nothing in common, the more time they spend together, the more they realize that they probably belong to each other despite their significant age difference. Jacob was the star here and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was even more mesmerized by her whenever her photos are being taken by a photographer or whenever she was walking on the runway. There was an air of sadness (with a little bit of strength underneath it all) about her that I really wanted to explore. I also was at awe when it comes to Kieslowski’s use of color. The color red was all over this film yet each one signifies a different feeling or symbolism. Combined with its excellent use of pacing, I felt like I was in a dream where everyone and everything has a purpose. Lastly, I have to mention the final scene when all the three leads (and some side characters) from the whole trilogy appeared. It gave me serious goosebumps because I got to know each of those characters prior to this installment. It was weird seeing them again after thinking that their stories were over when the credits rolled in their respective installment. That scene and the few scenes before it are able to say something meaningful about destiny to the point where I looked at each of the characters from “Red” in a completely different light. Kieslowski’s craft just blew me away and I have absolutely nothing negative about this picture. What a perfect way to end an ambitious project.
The Edge of Heaven (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though I did hear a lot of critical acclaim about this motion picture, I didn’t expect much coming into it. However, after finally watching it, I must say that I was absolutely blown away because of the way Fatih Akin, the writer and director, told such a human story about devastating losses and partial recoveries. The first part was about an aging father (Tuncel Kurtiz) making a deal with a prostitute (Nursel Köse) to live with him and only sleep with him while paying her the same amount of money she would make in one month. I saw the father’s situation as a way to gain control of someone because of his own frustration with his son (Baki Davrak) even though it’s apparent that they genuinely love each other. The second part was about Köse’s daughter (Nurgül Yesilçay) escaping to Germany because she’s wanted by her country’s officials for “terrorism.” She meets Patrycia Ziolkowska and the two become friends and lovers. Eventually, Yesilçay pushes Ziolkowska’s mother (Hanna Schygulla) to the edge because the mother believes that Yesilçay is preventing the daughter from achieving her education. The third part is the most powerful because the film shows that all of the six characters have impacted each other more than they ever thought possible. Although this film does intersect the six lives, it’s not one of those preachy movies with a twist in the end in order to accomplish some dramatic irony. Everything is naturalistic yet bizarre but it never lets go of the fact that it’s grounded in reality. It has enough coincidences to show that life is still magical despite the political battles, strained relationships between children and their parents, and lovers that are never meant to be. To me, the most powerful scene in the movie (among many) was when Schygulla and Yesilçay finally settle their differences. I found it beautiful that, despite all the anger and sadness, a person can look past all those negative emotions and embrace forgiveness. I was also impressed with Davrak as the son who pretty much has nobody even though his father is still around. Their interactions are somewhat cold (but as I said before I think they do love each other) but he still manages to radiate this warmth and craving for knowledge. This is not a simple film that ties up all the loose ends by the time the credits start rolling. This is, in a way, a slice-of-life picture designed for audiences who want to see fascinating characters dealing with realistic situations and deeply affecting outcomes.
★★★ / ★★★★
I think this film is very mysterious. Writer and director Krzysztof Kieslowski tells the story of Julie Vignon (played by the exquisite Juliette Binoche) who survived a car crash as her husband and daughter perished. After trying to commit suicide, she decides to sever everything from her past life and start over. Upon introspection, she realizes that the only way she can achieve true liberty from the past is to embrace it. I can understand why a lot of people would completely dismiss this film after one viewing. Perhaps the most common complaint is that the story unfolds too slowly. I personally didn’t find that a problem because of the way Binoche carried her character from beginning to end. Her frustrations range from obvious to subtle. I thought there were two stand-out scenes: when Binoche decides to eat the candy that belonged to her late daughter (and the manner of which she ate it) and when she discovered a mouse taking care of its babies. Those two scenes defined this film because metaphor is one of the most crucial factors that drove the story forward. Nothing may be going on at first glance but when one really looks at Binoche’s subtle facial expressions and body language, one will come to the conclusion that she’s going through an inner turmoil that cannot be mollified with words like “I’m sorry.” I also found this film to be very technical. The use of color is outstanding because it tells the audience how a character is feeling or what the character might be thinking. As for the music, the movie becomes that much more alive whenever the orchestra would play on the background. The colors and music work together to highlight certain emotions that Binoche is going through. This is the first part of an ambitious trilogy and I’m excited to see what the second and third films have to offer.