The Greatest (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.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Lance Hammer, “Ballast” was a powerful film about how three people who lived in Mississippi Delta began working toward a better future after a suicide. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) tried to kill himself after finding out about the death of his twin brother but a neighbor (Johnny McPhail) arrived just in time to call for help. Marlee (Tarra Riggs) was a hardworking mother who desperately wanted to provide for her son James (JimMyron Ross), unaware of his involvement in violence and drugs. As the film went on, Lawrence, Marlee and James had no choice but to be a family and help each other to move forward. I loved the bare bones look of this film because it really got me in the mood to look inside the characters–their motivations, feelings, thoughts and plans for the future. What’s brilliant about this picture is the fact that it’s not just about poor people being poor people and therefore we can’t help but feel sorry for them. It’s about people in poverty who constantly try to provide for themselves even though all hope seems absent. We also got to learn about a certain character’s history with drugs, why Lawrence and Marlee didn’t get along, and why Lawrence was very understanding with James. Even though the movie did not have any soundtrack and had minimal dialogue, when the characters did engage in conversation, the words struck me. I especially was touched by that scene when the mother got fired from her job because of the bruises on her face (and she didn’t have any more sick days so she could take a day off). She said that her appreance shouldn’t matter anyway because she was invisible to everyone else. She had such strength throughout and I couldn’t help but root for her. I’ve heard from people that they were frustrated with the abrupt ending. I had no problem with it at all because it implied that no matter what challenges faced the main characters, they would find a way to overcome them. For me, the picture ended at just the right moment. “Ballast” shows how powerful independent cinema can be. This is not for viewers expecting fast pacing, a defined story structure, or any of the Hollywood conventions. This film is all about the nuances and it was pretty much observing the painful realities that others have to go through from day to day.
The Cove (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the trailer for this documentary, directed by Louie Psihoyos, I knew I had to see it because the fact that people actually kill dolphins for whatever reason was shocking news to me. Not only did I find it shocking, I felt sort of embarrassed for people in general due to the complete lack of respect for creatures that are established to be very intelligent and have some sort of self-awareness. Dolphins may look like fish but they are actually more similar to us than the kinds of fish that we eat. The trailer made it look like the movie was exciting because the activists actually had to sneak in in the middle of the night to certain areas around the cove to hide cameras in rocks, trees and underwater as guards patrolled the place. It was able to deliver that level of suspense throughout the picture and more. I was impressed with this movie because not only was the film very informative, it was also educational. It wasn’t only about Japanese fishermen in Taijii killing dolphins. It was also about how the dead carcasses were labeled and sold as other types of fish in supermarkets, the levels of toxicity dolphin meat has, the effects of mercury to newborns, and how we as a society shaped this idea that dolphins are cute and can perform tricks so it’s alright to capture them. Richard O’Barry, an animal trainer who captured the five dolphins on the television show called “Flipper,” really made me think because he shared some insight and the experiences he had with dolphins. One of the many scenes that really touched my heart was when he told the story about how one of the dolphins on the show swam up to him, looked at him and committed suicide. And then explained that dolphins breathed consciously, unlike us humans. The dolphin was so depressed because it had been taken out of its natural habitat for so long that it chose to end its life. Another scene that really got to me was when one of the dolphins that was stabbed began to swim ashore as blood was coming out of it. In the beginning, I thought that maybe it’s part of the Japanese culture to eat dolphins. After all, I came from a different background so I don’t exactly know their customs. But then the film talked about how most of the people in Taijii, Japan had no idea that these dolphin killings were happening. I thought Psihoyos’ picture really got its bases covered because each of the question I had in my mind was answered. “The Cove” has a sense of urgency and I believe it should be seen by everyone because this local (though I’m guessing it happens in other parts of the world as well but we just don’t know exactly where) scenario of killing dolphins will have a significant effect on the entire ecosystem. I will never forget the images I’ve seen from this film and if you decide to see it, prepare yourself.
A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.