★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Cove, The (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.
Single Man, A (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.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gary Oldman stars as Count Dracula, a man who found his love named Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) died after he arrived from the war. The priests did not want to give Elisabeta a proper burial because she committed suicide. This angered Dracula, denounced God and was cursed to live for eternity lusting for blood. Hundreds of years later, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) was assigned to help Dracula to buy some property in London unknowing of the vampire’s true intentions. Eventually, Dracula set his sights on Harker’s wife (also played by Ryder) because she looked exactly like his former lover and Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) stepped in to help. I’m not entirely convinced on whether to recommend this picture. While I did find the asthetics magnificent and the execution of the story to be just fine, some crucial elements did not meet my expectations. I thought it sacrificed a lot of the terror for the sake of romance. When I watch a movie about Dracula, I expect to be suspended in suspense instead of watching him yearn over a lover. I thought the best scenes in the film were in the first half. There was something extremely creepy about the whole vibe of the castle when Jonathan visited Dracula in Transylvania. Every shadow and dark corner of the room felt menacing as if something seriously wrong was about to happen. The soundtrack was used sparingly so that the audiences could hear every creak and footstep made in the castle. The second half of the movie felt exactly the opposite. There were overt sexual references, consistent loud noises and the pacing became static. While it still remained elegant, I began to feel more apathetic toward each character when I should have been rooting for them because lives were at stake. Regardless of its flaws, I was still curious on what was going to happen next because Francis Ford Coppola, the director, had interesting techniques when it came to presenting his audiences gothic imagery. Coppola spent too much of his time with the images and asthetics of the picture that he somewhat neglected his characters and where the story was going. I’m not sure how closely this followed Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel because I haven’t read it. But I must say that it definitely took me back to that time period. So in terms of escapism, I think this movie did a good job. However, when I try to really analyze it piece by piece, I’m not that impressed with it. It’s the strangest feeling.
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Steven Shill, “Obsessed” was a whole lot of nothing. The supposed story was that a temp named Lisa (Ali Larter) started to flirt with her boss (Idris Elba), but he didn’t realize that she was essentially a crazy stalker. At first it was sort of harmless–a look here, a glance there–but it eventually turned ugly–date rape drug here, attempted suicide there. Elba’s character stupidly kept everything that was happening around him a secret from his wife (Beyoncé Knowles) so he looked guilty when everything came out in the open. I honestly did not care less about the drama behind the characters’ lives. I just wanted to see Larter and Knowles fight it out in the end. Almost all of the characters here were unlikable: Elba, arguably, did send the wrong signals to Lisa which prompted her to think that he wanted her so he was not entirely blameless, Knowles was a suffocating and clingy housewife, Elba’s co-workers and supposed best friend did not know when to be serious and I felt like I was watching a bunch of high school pricks whenever I saw them on screen, and, well, we were supposed to hate Larter because she was the villain, but I hardly think she did that much of a good job either. As far as comparisons to “Fatal Attractions” goes, Larter did not come close to Glenn Close’s level of delusion and insanity. In some parts, I thought it almost became a farce of lunatic femme fatales because of all the unintentionally funny one-liners. I think it took itself way to seriously to the point where it collapsed on its own attempt to entertain. But even I have to admit the the trailers got me interested; it looked intense and it seemed to have a lot going for it. It goes without saying that I’m not going to give this a recommendation. Even then I think I’m being lenient on it because I’ve seen really good films prior to watching it. I can just imagine what I would have written if I saw “Obsessed” on a bad day.
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret, “Wristcutters: A Love Story” stars Patrick Fugit as a depressive guy who one day decides to kill himself and later wakes up in an alternate universe where people who have successfully committed suicides are sent to live. In that other universe, he meets a Russian ex-rocker (Shea Wigham) and while searching for Fugit’s ex-girlfriend (Leslie Bibb), the two meet a hitchhiker (Shannyn Sossamon) who claims that she did not kill herself. I thought the first part of the movie was pretty interesting and it did have its darkly comedic moments. However, as the film went on, I just grew tired of it because even though the three main characters are on the road and constantly meeting new quirky persons, I feel like they’re going absolutely nowhere. Therefore, the story becomes stagnant and quite tedious to watch because pretty much everyone is sad or depressed (which, I guess, would make sense because they all decided to kill themselves). The story is a one-note joke/what-if question which could’ve been more interesting if the characters actually offer some insight with each other. Admittedly, there were some really good scenes between Fugit and Sossamon but those deep conversations weren’t enough to save the picture’s stagnant disposition. I also didn’t like the third act of the movie when the Fugit, Wigham and Sossamon arrived in this town where “miracles” happen. It got even worse when they met Messiah (Will Arnett) who claims that he can separate his soul from his body. That part of the picture felt like a foreign appendage which eventually infected the whole body of work. However, I do give credit to the film for offering something different and taking risks when it comes to its humor. I just can’t quite recommend it because the negatives outweigh the positives.
Mr. Jones (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Richard Gere stars as Mr. Jones, a manic-depressive who one day meets Lena Olin, a psychiatrist, and the two fall for each other. I wish Eric Roth, the writer, eliminated the romance aspect of this picture because he doesn’t really introduce or say anything new about doctor-patient relationships. Instead, the focus should have been on Mr. Jones’ behavior where he one minute seems to be the happiest man on earth but the next minute he feels hopeless and suicidal. The movie shines whenever it shows other people with a mental disorder; it argues that the disorder doesn’t define the person and others who do not have the disorder should be more sensitive to people who do have the disorder. Unfortunately, the stigmatization in the workplace was nicely shown in one scene but never truly explored. The first half is definitely stronger than the second half. The latter had more scenes involving Gere and Olin being sweet to each other but never going anywhere. The film’s pacing felt stuck and gradually got worse until the last scene. In the end, I felt like it didn’t have enough material to engage the audiences so it succumbed to the whole boy-meets-girl structure, which was a really bad move because I initially thought that the characters were intelligent. I wanted to learn more about the lives of people with bipolar disorder (in this case, Bipolar I Disorder) and how they cope with their every day lives. I also wanted to know more about the subtleties of how a normal person treats an individual who he or she happens to label as “crazy.” In real life, we do label people and our beliefs and actions are not always parallel to each other. This film somehow managed to turn an interesting topic of psychology into something banal. If it wasn’t for Gere and Olin’s acting, I would stay skip this movie completely. With a little more alteration in the script (especially the second half), this could’ve been much stronger.
Sea Inside, The (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
This picture is based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro and his campaign in support of euthanasia which lasted for thirty years. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, although the issue the film tried to tackle is controversial and serious, he’s smart enough to make the film somewhat uplifting so it doesn’t feel at all heavy-handed. Javier Bardem made me feel so much for his character because of his willingness to die with whatever dignity he has left. Being a quadriplegic, he claims that his life should be treated as a right and not an obligation. Therefore, just like any other right, he should be allowed to give up his right to live and not be forced to stay alive by the government and other groups who oppose euthanasia. I thought the most interesting scenes in the film consisted of Bardem interacting with three characters: his lawyer who has her own share of problems that is similar to Bardem (Belén Rueda), a local woman who falls for Bardem (Lola Dueñas) and a nephew that he sees as his own son (Tamar Novas). Each of those three characters are compelling because even though they have their own opinion regarding Sampedro’s situation, not all of them are able to express their complete thoughts. It’s up to the audiences to interpret the three characters’ positions when they’re on their own or not interacting with Bardem. I also enjoyed the fact that both sides of the subject of euthanasia are able to express their arguments. Personally, I support euthanasia because I believe in our individual rights to do whatever we want with our bodies, especially when we’re in a situation where we no longer want to continue to live. But there were arguments here and there that made me question my own beliefs because we are shown that the issue of euthanasia goes beyond moral and legal issues. This is a rich film because its writing has substance that works on multiple levels and the characters have subtlety that will otherwise be missed if one is not invested in the story. I recommend this film to everyone, whether one may or may not support euthanasia, because it offers no easy answer regarding which side is “right.” It’s main goal is to simply show one man’s life and what he stood for.
Insider, The (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This film is so intense from the moment it started and the plot only got more complex (not to mention more interesting) from there. This is based on a true story of a man who was interviewed on “60 Minutes” (played by Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand) to expose the lies of a tabacco corporation, especifically Brown & Williamson, when they claimed that nicotine is not at all addictive and harmful to one’s well-being. Complexity ensues when the tabacco corporation threatens CBS with a lawsuit; CBS then decides not to show the public the interview because they thought that they would lose, which is truly heartbreaking because Dr. Wigand has sacrificed both his professional and personal life for that one (compelling) interview. Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) approaches Dr. Wigand for a story and he shows the audiences what it means to have journalistic integrity. I find it very difficult to summarize the plot of the film because there are many layers to it. The only way to fully understand the picture is to watch it closely because each detail comments on how the media functions, how far corporations are willing to go to protect their money and those unfortunate people that get caught in the giant maelstrom of lies, confusion, and deceit (not to mention death threats and restraining orders). Yes, it’s a wordy film and it will definitely repel those that are not into watching pictures that are all about the technicalities in bureaucracies, but that’s what makes “The Insider” so rewarding: it’s not a common motion picture. There are a lot of highlights in the film but some of my favorites include: Bruce McGill’s anger during Dr. Wigand’s deposition, Pacino’s speech involving a “cat” being “out of the bag,” and Crowe’s scenes when he was alone as he reflects upon his past actions–questioning himself whether or not what everything he’s done is worth it. I felt so much for Crowe’s character because the blood-sucking Brown & Williamson fired him for no reason and then later took everything from him to the point where I felt like Crowe’s character was on the verge of suicide. I highly recommend this film, directed with such visual flair by Michael Mann, because it is able to tackle the idea of character assassination in a very scary but very realistic manner. I will remember this film for a very long time because pretty much everything about it works, especially the intense acting from all the actors involved.