Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) had a passion for sailing and was a great role model for his younger brother named Sam (Charlie Tahan). On the night of Charlie’s graduation, their mom (Kim Basinger) took an extra shift at work so Charlie was assigned to babysit. Wanting to say goodbye to his friends before they head off to the army (one of which was played by Dave Franco), Charlie and Sam got into a car accident on the way to the party. Charlie was revived by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) but Sam passed away right after impact. I highly enjoyed the first half of the picture. Watching the two brothers was moving for me because I’ve always wanted a brother who was around eight years younger than I am so I could guide him to be the best person he can be and not make the same mistakes as I did. Efron did a good job playing a character who was so deep in grief to the point where he gave up his scholarship to Stanford and instead worked in a cemetery for five years since the tragic incident. Since the brothers made a pact to meet every day to practice baseball, Charlie couldn’t find it in himself to break that promise. I thought it was Efron’s best adult performance up to this point. Unfortunately, the film pulled a twist somewhere in the middle that threw logic out the window. I am aware that it wasn’t completely the filmmakers’ fault because it was based on Ben Sherwood’s novel called “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” but I think changes from the original story should have come into play. After the twist was revealed, I thought the whole situation was just creepy and could have been a mediocre episode of “The X-Files” at best. Another issue I had with the movie was the fact that it showed Charlie and the ghost of Sam separately in some scenes. I thought that was a big mistake made by the filmmakers because the ghost was supposed to be a metaphor for Charlie’s grief and the fact that he blamed himself for the car crash. Every meeting was supposed to be an exercise of mirroring Charlie’s grief onto himself. To show the two apart suggested that the ghost actually existed. “Charlie St. Cloud,” directed by Burr Steers, sometimes verged on melodrama but I liked the performances in general. However, I wish Basinger had more scenes as the mother and Liotta as a dying ex-paramedic. Their experience in acting and strong cinematic presence could have benefited the picture in terms of tying together some loose ends. For instance, why did the mother move away and left her obviously troubled son to work at a place where his younger brother was buried? The best dramas are all about details. I couldn’t help but feel as though this movie took a more convenient path.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershley) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) often met and discussed their lives over lunch or dinner in Manhattan. They talked about all sorts of happenings from their career prospects to pecuniary matters, but the main driving force of the film were the topics that they would rather keep a secret from each other. For instance, Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) had told Lee that he had fallen in love with her (should Lee tell Hannah about it?), while Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband (Woody Allen) dated Holly (Was it appropriate for Holly to discuss it with Hannah?). What I loved about “Hannah and Her Sisters,” a quality almost always present in Allen’s more renowned pictures, was not a scene was wasted. It was all about character development as each character was given the chance to narrate a scene and share his or her thoughts about someone else or his increasingly complicated and desperate predicament. The first scene stood out to me because Caine’s character essentially had made the confession that he wanted to leave his wife for his wife’s sister. Allen immediately placed us in the husband’s shoes. When he moved toward the woman he was interested in, the camera moved with a sense of urgency, and we had no choice but to move with the husband and anticipate a potential train wreck. With marriage dramas, the tone could quickly become too depressing and suffocating. Allen was aware of this so he injected comedic scenes of the hypochondriac Jewish TV producer discovering that he might have had a tumor in his brain. Obviously, the situation he was in was quite grim but his reactions to certain revelations spearheaded the comedy. The person dealing with the situation was funny, not the situation itself. However, one major weakness I found in the film was the fact that I still did not know who Hannah was. She was overshadowed by her sisters, her philandering husband, and neurotic ex-husband. She was there when they needed help or someone to talk to, but in terms of her relationship with the audiences, I felt as though there was a disconnect. Toward the end, everyone admitted that she was the strong one and that she never needed help from anybody, but it was not the idea of Hannah I had in my mind. To be succinct and completely honest, I thought she was a bit boring–she was a nice woman but she was unexciting. Despite its flaws, “Hannah and Her Sisters” had a deep sophistication in its characterization of people constantly wrestling with their desires and needs. Best of all, I enjoyed its honesty in terms of people sometimes being unrelentingly awful, sometimes being beyond wonderful.
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.
Prodigal Sons (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kimberly Reed decided to document her return to her hometown in Montana because it was the first time her high school friends and neighbors would see her as a woman. When Paul (now Kim) was in high school, it seemed like he had it all: he was well-liked, he was quarterback of the football team, he had good grades. However, he kept secret of the fact that he felt like he was born in the wrong body. Her eventual transformation contributed to a strain in the relationship with her older adopted brother (Marc McKerrow) who got into an accident when he was in his early twenties and had a part of his brain removed. Ever since the surgery, he had problems with his mood and memory, which was problematic for Kim because she wanted to let go of her past yet her brother kept bringing up the fact that she used to be a man. This documentary moved me in ways that I did not expect. I thought it was just going to be a documentary about how people would react to Kimberly’s decision to finally be in a body where she was meant to be. I was surprised that it was actually more about family and finding closure to issues that do not have easy or comfortable answers. It was not always a good feeling to watch Kim and Marc interact because of the awkwardness of not seeing each other for many years. There was jealousy and anger from Marc’s side and Kim walked on egg shells around her brother but it was obvious that both of them were willing to put in the effort to make their relationship work. Some of the audiences’ reactions on message boards claimed that they hated Marc for being selfish, insensitive and mean-spirited. I did not hate Marc in the least. From the location of his scar, perhaps the doctors removed a part of his frontal lobe (the movie was not specific about which part of Marc’s brain was taken out). Having some basic background in Neurology, the frontal lobe controls personality, decision-making, and memory. So I did not hold him accountable for his fits of rage. Think of it as hitting your “funny bone” (the cause) and trying as hard as you can to not react (the rage). After his violent spells, when he said that his rage “wasn’t me,” I understood what he was trying to convey because he just could not help it. His fits were not dissimilar from clips I’ve seen of actual patients who had a part of their frontal lobe removed. The movie did not offer a scientific explanation (other than he was inconsistent of taking his medication–which is to imply that he was merely choosing to be irresponsible) so I feel the need to shed some light on the matter. “Prodigal Sons” is a deeply personal film and is really worth experiencing than reading about. There were some nice surprises involving bloodlines, people’s reactions to Kim being a transgender, and the history of who Paul was. If I can describe Kim in one word, it would have to be “brave.” By the end of the movie, I wanted to meet her and thank her for sharing not just her story but also the story of her imperfect family and the love they have for one another.
Law of Desire (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “La ley del deseo” or “Law of Desire” was about a young man in his twenties (Antonio Banderas) who became obsessively in love with an older director (Eusebio Poncela) despite the fact that the director was in a relationship with another young man (Miguel Molina) who wasn’t fully comfortable with the relationship. The picture was also about the director casting his transgendered sister (Carmen Maura) on his play, only the play was based on her struggles about coming to terms with her identity. I think this is one of Almodóvar’s most uneven work but I loved it nonetheless. Although it got distracted from time to time when it tried to introduce unnecessary characters (like the nosy mother, the two cops, and to some extent the little girl who believed in her prayers coming true), the theme of feverish passion was always at the forefront. This is probably one of my favorite performances from Banderas because even though he was essentially a stalker, he found a way to make his character sympathetic. His character’s passion toward the director was fascinating to watch because of the way the passion eventually bubbled over, caused a flood, and changed everyone’s lives. I also loved Poncela and Maura because they shared a different kind of passion: a strong bond between two dysfunctional siblings. They may collide from time to time due to their varying interests and untold family secrets but I could always feel their love for one another; it was a nice feeling and a great contrast between the kind of bond between Poncela and Banderas. Even though “Law of Desire” didn’t quite have Almodóvar’s cheeky use of bright colors and music that jumped out of the screen, the extreme melodrama involving mistaken identities was still there and it was able to keep delivering the sort of energy I love from start to finish. Like Almodóvar’s other works, “Law of Desire” was willing to go places where most directors don’t dare go; the shock value was there (especially during the movie’s opening scene) but it’s not the kind that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the kind that makes fun of us for liking what we’re seeing and wishing it wouldn’t stop. The little twists that the picture had felt natural because the characters were borderline histrionic so the twists didn’t feel like a gimmick. “La ley del deseo” may not be one of Almodóvar’s most focused movies in terms of the fluidity of storytelling but it is one of his most satisfying.