Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It looks like any other Thursday in a Montreal elementary school. Just before the bell summons the children to go inside, Simon (Émilien Néron) collects a crateful of milk for his class. He is supposed to deliver it to his homeroom but the door happens to be locked. He finds this unusual so he peers inside and sees his teacher’s lifeless body hanging from the ceiling.
A week later, the principal (Danielle Proulx) still hasn’t found a replacement for Ms. Lachance. Hearing about the terrible the news, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant with teaching experience of nineteen years, drops by and offers to take on the position.
Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, “Monsieur Lazhar” is most impressive because of its ability to present the topic of grief and explore it with exacting honesty and without ostentatiousness simply designed to wring an emotion out of us.
Almost immediately, the film communicates that students laying eyes on or hearing about their dead teacher is not like seeing or hearing about a dead person on television or the movies. The psychic scar is lasting and has a feral bite because it has happened to someone they knew, interacted with on a daily basis, who offered them support, laughter, discipline, and a different kind of love that perhaps even parents were not able to provide.
The picture also functions on another level by making it apparent that Ms. Lachance’s death does not affect her students the same way. Some are more overt in their comparison between Ms. Lachance and Monsieur Lazhar’s methods of teaching. Naturally, there is some kind of resistance when it comes to the necessary changes that have to be implemented to facilitate the class’ recovery, but Falardeau has a knack for highlighting the experience, the in-the-moment reactions of every child who is willing to speak his or her mind, that not once does the material feel like an after school special.
Having an experience of working with kids, I appreciated that the film is able to distinguish between thought and thinking process. In comparison, thoughts are interesting most often on the surface level. A child’s thinking process, how they attempt to make sense of a nonsensical thing, like a suicide, on the other hand, provides a backbone and emotional center to the story. We want to hear these children speak, to express their confusion, to admit to their anger, and to question why.
It is interesting how the screenplay consistently respects how sensitive children really are to something they don’t quite understand, while at the same time respecting their intelligence by not having them all respond in a manner that most of us might expect.
Unfortunately, when the film steps outside the schoolyard, its power diminishes slightly. While it is necessary that we come to know Monsieur Lazhar outside of teaching, at times the strand about him seeking political asylum in Canada feels forced, his sad story another way for us to identify with him. Also, the possible romantic spark between he and a fellow teacher (Brigitte Poupart) lacks a parabola. It seems to start and end without an arc that feels right for them.
Nevertheless, “Monsieur Lazhar” remains an achievement that the writer-director should be proud of. Despite the fact that it tackles realities that may be difficult to swallow, it’s the kind of film that parents should see with their children because it is real and encourages healthy lines of discussion.
Hanging Garden, The (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
William (Chris Leavins) returned to his hometown for his sister’s wedding (Kerry Fox) after leaving without a word and not visiting for ten years. William used to be an obese teen with a low self-esteem. His father’s (Peter MacNeill) expectations, if not met, often led to physical abuse while his mother (Seana McKenna) kept herself at bay. What I found so effective about the film was the situations that the characters had to deal with were as realistic as possible but there were some bizarre elements that forced us to think about the possible reasons behind the odd images thrown on our laps. For example, in the first scene, it was amusing and refreshing to see people who attended the wedding as bored and impatient, maybe even angry and stressed, during the ceremony. It was a familiar feeling but it was nice to see that on screen because it was a complete opposite from movies that showcase weddings as always exciting and fun. It’s not fun when you’re forced to sit in silence for about an hour. You look forward to the food and perhaps the bottomless wine (if you’re lucky). Then the realism was countered with fantastic elements. That is, there was an alternative universe in which William hung himself in the garden where the wedding occurred. The characters were able to see William as an obese (as he was in the past) dead teen. They were able to touch him, cry in front of him, miss him. William was able to see and grieve for his former self, too. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the lost time William didn’t get to share with his family and vice-versa. Maybe the family felt that the William that returned was not the William that left them. The William that they knew wasn’t skinny, confident, and strong. He was weak, insecure, fat. William tried to forget his past but his family kept holding on to it. There was another strand in the plot which involved William’s homosexuality and love for his best friend (Joel S. Keller). Coincidentally, Fletcher, William’s best friend, married William’s sister. The sister was aware of her husband’s possible bisexuality but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was almost as if she encouraged her brother and husband to get together. Most would probably label her as having a liberal perspective, but I think her actions were more meaningful than what was shown. I thought she had a deep understanding of the pain and trauma her brother went through when they were young. She felt that her brother needed and deserved some sort of closure. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, “The Hanging Garden” was a simple but beautiful film about two worlds moving away from each other and the tension building from the divide. Some characters were given little time to develop but I was surprised they were complex regardless.
I, Robot (2004)
★ / ★★★★
Detective Spooner (Will Smith) was assigned to investigate the suicide of Dr. Lanning, the main scientist in charge of commercialization of robots on 2035. Spooner suspected that the murder was staged to look as a suicide by a robot named Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and it was only the first step of the robots’ plan to take over the world. “I, Robot” completely missed the mark to make an intelligent film about humans’ increasing dependence on technology. Much of the movie was a predictable set-up to make the main character run after or shoot at something. The uninspired false alarms were transparent. For instance, early in the movie, Spooner saw a robot running with a purse. He thought it was trying to steal the purse. Naturally, smart audiences would most likely surmise it was simply delivering the purse to its rightful owner because no tension was established regarding rogue robots yet. Spooner looked like a fool because his fear was only in his mind. The scene would have been more effective if placed after the murder of the prominent scientist to serve as a small rising action, regardless of the pettiness of the crime, to make us believe that perhaps the robot was up to something more devious than it seemed. Another scientist that jumped into the mix of the mystery was Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) who, despite all the reasonable doubt placed in front of her, could not seem to make up her mind where to place her loyalty. For a character who was supposed to be the voice of reason regarding the advantages of having robots in the home or at work, her logic was flawed. Her character was tantamount to those horror movie characters who decided to look for something in a dark room during the most inopportune times. Her eventual acknowledgement that the detective was right to be suspicious of the robots felt too forced. Granted, I did admire the special and visual effects. There were two action sequences that I thought were exciting to watch. The first was when Spooner had to face about a hundred robots in an underground freeway while going about 125 miles per hour. The second was when the robots climbed on their manufacturer’s building in an attempt to stop Spooner and Dr. Calvin from ruining their revolution. I do have to say, however, that there was another glaring inconsistency concerning those two scenes. In the first, the detective had a very difficult time destroying the robots. He had to use his car, gun, and high speed to survive. But in the latter, he was able to use his hands to rip the robots apart. Finding out that Alex Proyas, who directed the slightly brilliant “Dark City,” directed this film was all the more disappointing. If the film’s special and visual effects had been stripped away, not a thing would have kept it afloat because it lacked heart and intelligence. I found it ironic that Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s “The Terminator” were far more convincing robots despite the fact that they were played by actual humans.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moved to Arizona from the East Coast and started his own radio broadcast–under the pseudonym Hard Harry–because he didn’t fit in at his new school. The topics he talked about while on the air ranged from silly (sexual jokes) to serious (fellow classmates expressing they wanted to end their lives). Students from all social strata found a connection with Hard Harry even though they didn’t know his face; they all shared the unhappiness of being a teenager. As the students began to express their thoughts and feelings, school officials, led by the tyrannical principal (Annie Ross), expelled students who chose not to abide by the rules and those who did not maintain an excellent academic record. This film might have been an instant favorite if I had seen it back in high school. I had my “moody rebel” phase and I thought it managed to capture teenage angst perfectly. While it successfully balanced humor and real issues, I admired that it always respected its characters. The screenplay did not result to template clichés common to John Hughes’ movies. The majority of the picture was dedicated to Hard Harry ranting to his listeners how the system essentially limited the potential of young minds and the hypocrisy of the rules imposed on students. Such scenes became all the more magnetic because the camera would cut to different teenagers who felt like they had no voice. Via participation in the ritual of listening to the nightly 10 o’clock broadcast, they felt like they had a voice, like they belonged. Like the many colorful listeners, I did not always agree with the opinion being broadcasted but the voice had enough insight to challenge our own beliefs. Moreover, there were some truly moving scenes like the student who wanted to kill himself and the bullied homosexual who was comfortable with who he was but just needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, the second half of the film spun out of control. The romance between Mark and Nora (Samantha Mathis) felt a bit forced–which resembled her bad poetry–and the silliness of students acting like wild monkeys at school did not feel at all believable. In some ways, the scenes that depicted too much rebellion took away some of the power from the real message Mark wanted to share with his fellow students. “Pump Up the Volume,” written and directed by Allan Moyle, is an inspiring film especially for the disaffected youth and those who feel alone. Specific scenes designed to inspire someone to live one’s life will most likely remind viewers of the current surge of tragic pre-teen and teen suicides. Perhaps they, too, felt like they didn’t have a voice.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) was feeling suicidal so he decided to check himself into a mental clinic. He hoped that the doctors would give him a magical quick fix for the troubles that plagued his mind. After meeting Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and several patients, he decided that it wasn’t the right place for him. But tough luck because the hospital, led by Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis), had a policy of keeping voluntary check-ins for at least five days. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, was a strangely moving coming-of-age film. We weren’t always sure whether Craig was truly clinically depressed or he was just going through the motions of being a teenager. We have different emotional tunings but we all went through a time in our lives when every single challenge seemed insurmountable, that our parents (Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan) cared more about their jobs or our siblings than they did about us, and that our friends (Zoë Kravitz , Thomas Mann) didn’t always have our backs. It was a sensitive time and we had a tendency to interpret every opportunity as a chance for failure. The hyperboles felt painful and real. The film was aware of all those factors. It had a sense of humor but it remained respectful of its subjects. Instead of going for the easy laughs like making fun of a person who happened to have schizophrenia or had suicidal tendencies, it remained focused on Craig struggles and discovery that maybe he should be thankful for being smart, talented and, indeed, even cool and charming without losing his sensitive nature. More importantly, especially since the rate of teenagers being on medication is on the rise, the movie had an important message. That is, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed once in a while. It’s better that we care about our future than to simply ride the tide. We may not like where the tide takes us. I found Gilchrist’s acting to be quite effective. In the first ten minutes, he convinced me that his character was miltidimensional without resulting to being quirky. I saw a lot of myself in him because of his proclivity to internalize everything and interpret that as some sort of strength. Both of us can at times be blind to the fact that turning to a support system is a sign of strength, too. I also enjoyed watching Galifianakis because he played a new character. Instead of being a manic five-year-old, he was solemn and more controlled yet capable of expressing devastating rage. But his bouts of rage weren’t played for laughs because the material wanted to take institutionalization and recuperation seriously. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” took its audiences through a humanistic approach in understanding Craig. His troubles may seem small to us adults (like the pressure he felt from his father’s insistence that he applied for a summer program) but we all have days when we feel like we can’t go on. But one day we just wake up and it turns out we can.
Remember Me (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Robert Pattinson stars as Tyler who had issues with dad (Pierce Brosnan) because Tyler still blamed him for his older brother’s suicide. Tyler also believed that dad did not spend enough time with his daughter (Ruby Jerins), a very gifted budding artist who was often bullied by other girls in her class. However, life started to get a little brighter when Tyler met Ally (Emilie de Ravin), the daughter of a cop (Chris Cooper) who unfairly arrested Tyler the night before. I would have liked this film more if it had stuck to being a typical romantic drama about finding, losing and regaining romance. Instead, it pulled a ridiculous “twist” in the end that was totally unnecessary which, I have to admit, made me feel angry and emotionally cheated. I’ve read other reviews and others seem to have been moved by the final act because they claimed it was “shocking” or “revelatory.” I thought it was pretentious and it was done for mere shock value. It was unfortunate because I actually enjoyed this picture in parts. I loved how Tyler was an active role model in his sister’s life. He always gave her support and I felt his pain for losing his older brother who he obviously looked up to. He was often histrionic whenever his father was around but I understood where the anger came from because the father was a workaholic and it seemed like he did not want to spend time with his children. Tyler was blind to the fact that the job was his father’s defense mechanism. The personal struggles of the characters interested me even though at times the story was somewhat unfocused. It had too many subplots which was comparable to a pretty good two-hour pilot of a television show. I know that the shocker of an ending aimed to comment on the consequences of reconnection happening too late in the game and that we should be willing to forgive others but it was too heavy-handed for my liking. The performances were fine: Pattinson, unsurprisingly, was good at brooding and was able to deliver intensity (accompanied by glares) when required, I felt Brosnan’s coldness and charm at the same time, and de Ravin was precocious. The only one I found to be truly annoying was Tate Ellington as Pattinson’s roommate. His voice was not the kind of voice I would like to wake up to in the morning. In the end, “Remember Me,” written by Will Fetters and directed by Allen Coulter, was crushed by its own ambition. It was not aware of the line between true emotional impact and exploitation. The former is earned while the latter is not.
Greatest, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) died in a car accident, his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) knocked on his grieving family’s (Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Simmons) door, told them that she was pregnant, and had nowhere else to go. The film focused on grief: the father internalized his anger and sadness so that the family would not collapse, the mother was obsessed with her son’s last seventeen minutes of life and held the belief that her son would still be alive if it was not for his girlfriend, while the son turned to drugs and grief counseling. The movie grabbed my attention because I thought it would be more about the unwed mother’s struggle in trying to cope with her situation. I was pleasantly surprised that she was generally happy with her situation and the only thing she craved was more information about the father of her baby. I was impressed with the way the picture balanced the four main characters and their styles of coping. Instead of going for the jugular and simply letting the audiences feel sorry for them, sometimes the characters said certain things that were hateful but we remind ourselves that they needed closure in order to feel right again. However, I found certain missteps especially toward the last fifteen minutes. When Brosnan’s character finally opened up, something did not feel quite right. That scene begged for a retake because it felt forced. Yes, he managed to internalize (with elegance) negative emotions throughout the film but I had a difficult time believing that he coincidentally opened up because the movie was coming to a close and his wife finally realized the truth. It felt contrived, almost too soap opera-like, and it stood out to me in a negative way because I thought the rest was consistently convincing. Another issue I had was the son’s connection with the girl (Zoë Kravitz) whose sister committed suicide. It fell flat because the latter’s performance felt too Disney Channel and I caught myself rolling my eyes when she was on screen. Maybe it would have worked if an actress that had been casted was used to playing with her character’s subtleties. Written and directed by Shana Feste, what I loved most about “The Greatest” was its earnest honesty despite some scenes that were not completely convincing. It had enough insight about people going through different stages of grief. I also loved it when Brosnan and Sarandon lashed out at each other in passive-aggressive ways just as much as I loved observing Mulligan’s elegance and Simmons’ potential to become a versatile actor. Ultimately, I wished it had more scenes of lingering camera work where the characters in frame did not say a word, such as the daring scene in the limousine after the burial.
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” or “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” showcases how fearless Pedro Almodóvar can be as a writer and director. After Pepa (Carmen Maura) was left by her lover (Fernando Guillén), she decided to kill herself by eating gazpacho mixed with heavy doses of sleeping pills. However, her suicide attempt was interrupted when her friend (María Barranco) knocked on her door for help after realizing that she was involved in terrorists who wanted to hijack a plane. And while Pepa was gone and her friend was left to guard the apartment, a couple (Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma) knocked on the door to decide if they wanted to rent Pepa’s place. Everything about this movie was so absurd but it was so much fun to watch because it was incredibly unpredictable. And what’s better was the fact that it was easy to tell that the actors were having so much fun in their roles. As much as the movie was comedic on the outside, it really was about the connections between the quirky and eccentric characters unique to Almodóvar’s world. Having seen Almodóvar’s recent works from the 1990s to the 2000s, it was easy for me to recognize certain motifs such as the use of color, strange coincidences and strong women willing to fight for what they believed in. In relation to the last bit, I was in love with that scene when one of the characters discussed the relationship between understanding bikes and understanding the psychology of men. I thought that scene summed up the picture with such elegance because the story was essentially about four women obsessing over men and the outer and inner conflicts they had to go through to be loved in return. My main problem with this film, however, like in a lot of Almodóvar’s movies, was its pacing slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s only a matter of taste that one can get used to over time as one watches more movies from the director. It’s not at all difficult to be enveloped into the story because the lead character was always doing something purposeful and she was willing to engage in conversations that were witty and sometimes confrontational. A lot of people may think “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was over-the-top but that’s what makes a great farce. It’s like watching a telenovela with characters that range from harmless but annoying to dangerously psychotic. It was definitely campy but it had a creative postmodern romance that I rarely see (and would like to see more) in cinema these days.
Paradise Now (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I expected a typical war movie with a lot of violence because it was essentially about suicide bombers so I was surprised when it turned out to be quite low-key yet still have some sort of power that drives the story forward. Two friends named Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) were ordinary mechanics but later decided to take on a mission when a friend (Amer Hlehel) convinced them that there is a way for them to lead a meaningful life. Frustrated with the current state of things, they made their decision without putting much thought into it. However, they found themselves toying with a plethora of emotions as they had a final dinner with their families and lying about the nature of the job they’ve taken in Tel Aviv. My problem with this film was not the story or its lack of tension. It’s just that even though I felt bad for the two lead characters, I didn’t feel connected to them because I didn’t agree with the paths they’ve chosen. And I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with them. Maybe we were simply supposed to sympathize with their circumstances. The highlights of the film include the scene where they recorded messages to their families explaining why they chose to do what they did and the scene where the lady (Lubna Azabal) that Said was romantically interested in told Khaled that their idea of a paradise was only in their heads and could never be a reality. I admired this film’s intelligence. Instead of taking us to the path of the obvious (for instance, suicide bombers being total heartless monsters), it managed to offer an explanation on why they felt like they were obligated to perform such drastic actions. The characters often talked about their religion. Since I don’t identify myself with any religious group, I guess sometimes it’s difficult to understand that some people consider their religion very seriously. I can imagine that it’s also just as difficult for someone who identifies with a very different religion to relate to the characters in this film. However, I did think that sometimes this movie had moments of preachiness; I preferred it when Hany Abu-Assad, the director, let the images do the talking so it was up for the audiences to interpret what they think of the movie’s message. “Paradise Now” is a small movie with powerful moments sprinkled throughout and brilliant use of contrasting images and ideas. I just wish it had been more consistent.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“World’s Greatest Dad,” written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, was a satirical film about a father/writer/teacher (Robin Williams) who decided to hide his son’s (Daryl Sabara) accidental death from masturbating and instead made the death look like a suicide. Williams wrote a suicide note and when the school got a hold of it, the note became an instant hit. Being a failed writer time and again, Williams decided to take advantage of his son’s death and get the acclaim he always wanted by writing a journal full of sad thoughts and claiming it was written by his son. From the sound of it, I expected to immensely dislike Williams’ character because nothing is right about taking advantage of someone’s demise, especially that of a loved one’s. However, his son was such a prick (for the lack of a better word–and that’s putting it lightly) who didn’t care about anybody but himself (including those who were really nice to him such as his father and his only friend played by Evan Martin). In fact, I didn’t feel sad or remorse when the son died. I really cared more for father because he genuinely loved his son despite his son’s lack of appreciation. I’m beginning to think that Williams really shines in smaller pictures like this one and the underrated “One Hour Photo.” There’s something about the way he hides his feelings and thoughts that I can’t help but identify with. I especially liked that one scene when he pretended to be happy for a fellow teacher who was recently published on The New Yorker. There’s something very true about that scene because we all know how it is like to smile on the outside but feel really jealous inside after hearing about someone else’s success, especially if we don’t particularly like that person for whatever reason. I thought the darkly comedic scenes worked because it was able to point to the hypocrisy of high school students and the faculty that supposedly cared. I’m talking about how everyone suddenly started caring about Sabara’s character after his death when nobody really cared about him when he was alive. It reminded me of the time in high school when my fellow students and I would hear about a death over the morning announcements. For a couple of hours everyone sounded like they cared but the next day everything was back to normal as if nothing happened. This might be a difficult film to swallow for most people because the content might seem a bit “cruel.” But that’s what I admired about it; it was able to point to us and say, “This is what’s wrong with you” but not to the point where we feel bad. In fact, the pictures gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves.