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.
My Life as a Dog (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since their father was overseas, Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) and his older brother (Manfred Serner) were separated to live with their relatives for the summer so that their sick mother (Anki Lidén) could rest. Ingemar’s dog, who he claimed to love as much as his mother, was sent to the kennel during his time away from home. It was easy to like Ingemar because he was unlike most children. Whenever things turned for the worse, Ingemar would often compare himself to others who were worse off than him. For instance, he often mentioned Laika, the dog who was sent to outer space and never had the chance to return. “Mitt liv som hund,” or “My Life as a Dog,” had some formulaic coming-of-age elements but the execution was pulled off in an imaginative and often touching way. We followed the story through Ingemar’s eyes and we felt the abandonment he felt when he was passed from one home after another. Even though he was a kid, he was perceptive enough to realize that he was essentially like his dog and what the dog must have felt when Ingemar had no choice but to leave it at the kennel. I found myself on the verge of tears at times because he knew that he was slowly losing his mother so he tried so hard to hold onto something easier but something that he loved just as equally (or so he claimed): his pet. I found the flashback scenes very touching because we had tiny peeks to a time when Ingemar was at his happiest. His brother certainly didn’t make things easier because he also had his own way in dealing with negative emotions. I liked the way Lasse Hallström, the director, highlighted the kindness of eccentric people in a tight-knit community to distract the kid from breaking down. Ingemar made a special relationship with a girl named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who dressed and acted like a boy. She liked him but he didn’t like her back so there certainly was tension there. They were able to work through their many frustrations by boxing it out in the ring. One of my favorite scenes was when another girl took Ingemar to her room and Saga came busting in like her usual tomboy self and fought for what she felt like belonged to her. I loved the way that particular scene was framed and I felt a certain energy to it that reminded me of those classic romantic love triangle pictures in the golden days of Hollywood. Instead of using the quirkiness just for the sake of being funny or underlining the weirdness of small communities, Hallström successfully focused on the heart of the film. “Mitt liv som hund” was based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel and it felt every bit as personal. Every crucial element in the story felt connected and it had a silent power that I will remember for a long time.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
A lonely man with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who recently lost his father found real connection with a teacher named Beth (Rose Byrne) who recently moved into his apartment building. What I loved about this picture was its ability to show the sometimes comical awkwardness of a character who happens to have Asperger’s but still remain sensitive and accurate throughout. With movies that have such sensitive topics, it’s easy to make fun of the person with a condition to get the laughs. In here, his awkwardness was matched with his romatic interest’s because there were times when she, too, did not know what to say or do. I enjoyed the romance angle of this film but what did not work for me as well was the bit about Peter Gallagher’s character being in court. I thought those scenes dragged a bit. Its connection to Adam’s life was not strong enough except for the fact that Beth and her father were often at odds. Still, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because, from what I learned in school and the reviews I read written by Aspies, it was true to life; how their limited social abilities impact a huge portion of their lives such as making friends, finding the right person they want to spend the rest of their life with, being interviewed for a job or making small talk with strangers. The best scenes are those with Dancy and Byrne being in the same room and trying to connect. At times they may have a wall around themselves but when they do decide to let each other in and really talk about what they’re thinking and try to communicate what it is they want, there’s magic and it works as a love story. And there were just times when Adam found it difficult to be in Beth’s shoes or when he took things too literally. Written and directed by Max Mayer, “Adam” was able to successfully show how it was like for a person who could not express himself the way he wanted to to still find acceptance from others as well as himself. There’s a common mindset that people with autism are all the same, they’re all dumb and are less successful than “normal” people. This picture touched on those three mindsets to show that quite the opposite is true. I was very satisfied with the ending because it was realistic but it wasn’t sappy or heavy-handed. The implications it had were quite touching.
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.
The Son (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Le fils” or “The Son,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, tells the story of a sixteen-year-old (Morgan Marinne) who is taken under the wing of a grieving carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who lost his son five years ago. As the film goes on, Olivier becomes more and more interested in the teenager and not until we meet Olivier’s wife (Isabella Soupart) do we find out exactly why he is so fixated on his new apprentice. This is probably one of the most bare-boned films I’ve ever seen but it has such a powerful emotional wallop. I can understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by this movie because not a lot of things happen on the surface. The dialogue was minimal and the camera had a penchant for close-ups to really absorb the nuances in the facial expressions of the actors. I argue that the film is very eventful when it comes to the internal rage and depression that each character is going through. Yet they also want to not be angry anymore and to move on with life. Just looking in their eyes made me feel so sad because I felt as though they had a story that they were ashamed of and would do anything to keep hidden. Once that connection is made between the two leads and the audience, each movement was purposeful and had some kind of meaning. I was really curious about whether Olivier wanted to hurt the teenager in some way or if he has something else in mind. The silences that they shared were so painful and awkward to watch at times yet I thought it was very realistic. When I think about it, there are some days when I say less than ten words to another human being because either I’m so into my own thoughts that I don’t even notice or I actively choose not to speak to avoid some kind of collision. The directors really knew how they wanted their story to unfold and it’s a shame because the majority of less introspective viewers would most likely miss the point. There’s a lot to be said about “Le fils” but this is the kind of film worth discussing between two people who have seen it than between a reviewer and someone contemplating of seeing it. The organic manner in which the picture revealed itself to me touched me in a way that it was almost cathartic. If you’re feeling like watching something that doesn’t conform to Hollywood typicality, this is definitely a great choice. My advice is to be patient during the first twenty to thirty minutes. It will hook you in when you least expect it.
After the Wedding (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There’s not a lot of movies out there than can me make flat-out cry and I’m happy to say that this film took my tear ducts by surprise. Written and directed by Susanne Bier, “Efter brylluppet” or “After the Wedding,” stars Mads Mikkelsen (who I couldn’t believe was the villain in “Casino Royale”) as a Danish man who has an admirable passion to provide a better life for poor children (often orphans) in India. He one day gets an invitation from a businessman (Rolf Lassgård) to visit Denmark in order to discuss a possible multimillion donation that can immensely help the children from India. However, a business deal with a lot of strings attached eventually becomes a story of rediscovered connections, especially when the lead character lays his eyes on the businessman’s wife (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Just when I thought this picture was going to go one way, it veered into a different direction while still keeping that organic tone that made it feel like it could happen in real life. While it might have been melodramatic at times, I thought it worked because the story was about the characters and how they collided but at the same time challenged by their own set of beliefs when faced with certain situations. It’s difficult to not give things away but it’s crucial because I didn’t know much about this film coming into it. When I realized how great it was with how one thing led to another (kind of like a domino effect), not only did I think the writing was well done, I also felt the director’s passion in her work. As for the film’s acting, I thought it was simply superb. I was impressed with how the actors communicated with their eyes during the silent moments and the subtleties in their words when they say one thing but really mean another. Even though the words spoken were (most of the time) in a foreign language, I thought the emotions portrayed transcended language barriers. The emotions I felt throughout this film were so real and it really made think about my relationship with the close people in my life and how I should value them more. I highly recommend this movie especially to people who are looking for an effective dramatic work. This was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film back in 2006 and I think it’s more than deserving. The whole experience was quite moving.
Tell No One (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
I was really impressed with this French thriller because of how well-constructed the story was. In the first scene, the wife (Marie-Josée Croze) of Dr. Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet) was murdered. Eight years later, he received a mysterious e-mail that suggested that she was alive. Questions then start popping up like hives and the film only gets better from there. Did the wife really die? Who was sending those strange e-mails? Who was really behind all the murder and deceit? There was no straight answer up until the very end so the audiences get a chance to play detective and get really involved with the plot. I liked the fact that when answers were being presented, they weren’t just done in a series of brief flashbacks like in mainstream American films. This movie really takes its time to explain what happened, why certain events happened, and how conclusions by different characters may get tangled up. There’s this constant theme of trying to stay one step ahead of another. This happens to the characters (especially Croze’s) and to the audiences (as we try to catch up and reevaluate the “truths” when each twist is revelead). Even though this is, without a doubt, a thriller motion picture, I found it interesting that there’s this gloom that pervaded the film. Moreover, even though the lead characters’ questions–one way or another–gets answered, the ultimatel message is what’s lost is lost; you can never go back to the way things were. The acting must be commended: François Berléand (as the detective), Kristin Scott Thomas (as Dr. Beck’s friend) and Nathalie Baye (as the thick-skinned lawyer). Each of them brought a certain edge and intelligence to their characters and it was fun to see how their dynamics with Croze change as the film progressed. Based on Harlan Coben’s novel, Guillaume Canet directed “Tell No One” with such focus and enthusiasm. That scene involving Croze running away from the police which involved a freeway is still so vivid in my mind. If one is looking for suspense that is astute and memorable (yet strangely touching), this is the one to see.