★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
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.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger still living in the Philippines, I had this idea that America was a great place where everyone was happy because everyone had an equal chance to get what they wanted in life. But now that I’m a little older and living in America, I’m beginning to see this country for what it really is: a machine designed to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer. When I talk to my friends who came from different countries in Europe about how different things are in America, especially about healthcare and education, I can’t help but feel like America is a second-rate nation and that progress (if there is any) is too slow. “Capitalism: A Love Story,” written and directed by Michael Moore, tackled the topic of capitalism and the many components that drives it forward. I’m not going to mention all the points he brought up even though they are indeed very interesting ones, but there were three things from the film that struck me: teenagers being sent to private juvenile facilities for extended amounts time (without any sort of hearing involving extension changes) because they committed so-called crimes that I think were mere inconveniences or just a part of youth, companies buying insurance policies for their workers (without the workers knowing about it) so the companies can get money in the event of their workers’ death, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s touching speech at the end of the documentary which summarized what America should be. What I didn’t like about the film, however, was that sometimes Moore was too enthusiastic about getting his point across to the point where he got too cheesy in terms of using certain movies or television shows. It was all very dramatic but I did not find those elements convincing. In fact, I found them a bit distracting. I thought his strongest points came about when he actually interviewed members of the Congress (with real footages from Congress and the frustrations of various politicians about the current state of the country) and people who are taking a stand for the things they more than deserved (such as payment for the time they put in at their jobs). If those dramatic–sometimes cartoonish–footages were taken out, I think this film would have been more focused than the riveting and insightful “Sicko” (probably my favorite film by Moore to date). I found a lot of reviews discrediting this film for the fact that Moore directed it and everyone assuming that he’s just going to target Republicans. Well, he also showcased Democrats making deals and promises that are, from my perspective, not only dishonest and unethical but ultimately immoral. I say “immoral” because they’re making decisions for the American people and not just for their own private lives. “Capitalism: A Love Story” is an incisive and honest look about some of the (biggest) injustices in America. One may or may not agree with that statement but one cannot deny the current unhappiness of the American people. And what’s sad is that the unhappiness is only growing.
Sin Nombre (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The debut of writer-director Cary Fukunaga was loved by critics and audiences alike, but I was not that impressed with it. “Sin Nombre” was about two groups of people–one from Honduras and one from Mexico–who take a train headed to the border of United States and Mexico. The first group was Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her family who attempt to move to America to lead a better life. The other was Casper (Edgar Flores) who was being hunted down by Mara Salvatrucha, a gang he was once a part of, because he committed a crime against them. While I do agree that the film was protrayed in a gritty and realistic way, I found it difficult to identify with the main characters. I felt as though they had this wall that lasted from the beginning of the picture all the way to finish line. I understand that their journey on the train was literal and symbolic but I had trouble sticking with it because of that lack of connection between the characters and the characters to its audiences. I felt as though their situation or story was told in a much better way from other films. If Fukunaga had taken the time to cut off some scenes from the first twenty minutes and expand on the scenes when Sayra and Casper were interacting with each other, it might have had something brilliant to offer. Instead, I felt as though the experience can be summarized as merely glossing over the shell of characters who were going through very difficult times without truly getting into why they were complex. Their motivations were apparent (survival and a better life) but the filmmakers failed to take the story to another level. I noticed that the director tried to inject contrasting images and concepts but those weren’t enough to make up for a lack of a strong core. I had high expectations coming into this film and I couldn’t help but feel more and more disappointed as the fate of the characters began to unfold.
Frozen River (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Courtney Hunt’s screenwriter and directoral debut blew me out of the water. “Frozen River” is about a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who tries to keep her family afloat after the father of the family leaves and takes all their money with him. Not knowing what else to do because her part-time job is not enough to keep up with the bills, Leo teams up with a Native American (Misty Upham) to smuggle immigrants into the United States for $600 per person. This movie left me so overwhelmed because it’s very efficient with its time. Each minute adds a piece of the puzzle regarding why the characters choose to do what they do. And that’s the key: The characters choose to do what they do even though they very well know that such actions are illegal, yet we still very much sympathize with them. I think that’s where Hunt’s talent comes in–she makes her character so raw to the point where I can imagine the events actually happening in real life. The acting all-around is top notch. Leo and Upham are initially pit up against each other yet they share a common bond that’s strong enough to overcome their differences. Leo definitely deserved her Oscar nomination because, right from the first frame, I sensed a certain complexity from a mother who will do anything it takes to provide for her children (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly). There’s this one scene when they have nothing else to eat other than popcorn and orange juice. It made me think that, if I were in Leo’s situation, I would also smuggle illegal immigrants despite the risks. Also, she has only a few simple dreams for her family (such as getting her children presents for Christmas and buying a new house) but she cannot quite achieve them. While she does tend to blame herself once in a while, she always decides to get up because no one else will solve her problems for her. In a nutshell, the lead character is very flawed but I could not help but admire her resolve. I was also surprised by how suspenseful it got during the smuggling scenes. There’s a lot of political elements that come into play whenever they have to escape such as the differing rules when one is in an Indian reservation. By the end, I was so emotionally drained but I still wanted the film to continue because I was curious about what would happen next to the characters. This is a superb film in every respect; it may be small in scope at first glance but it’s truly quite universal.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to judge this film with regards to whether or not it followed real life (which it didn’t in some parts) because it was based on a play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen stars as David Frost, a British television host who one day decides that he’s going to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Of course, that decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because he has to have the right amount of funds, gather the right people for research and risk his entire career. The drama prior to the scenes before the interviews was really effective because it solidifies the idea that Frost will be utterly finished if the people do not get what they want from Nixon: remorse with regards to his actions while being the President of the United States, admittance that he did participate in a number of cover-ups and that he did, in fact, abuse his power while leading the country. Sheen was very effective as Frost because even though he’s outgoing, charismatic and enthusiastic enough to tackle such a political issue, we feel for him whenever he is pushed in a corner like a mouse because he simply lacks the experience of interviewing a person of Nixon’s caliber. Langella was quite impressive as well. At first I was skeptical on why he was nominated for Best Actor but after watching this picture, I knew that he deserved it. He may not look like Nixon but he convinced me that he was powerful, intimidating and extremely intelligent. I loved those scenes when he would play mind games with Sheen; though those scenes were really serious, I felt that Langella was having a great time as an actor. To feel that resonance while also being invested in what was happening on screen, to me, means the mark of a great actor. Aside from the two leads, I also enjoyed watching Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing. Directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Although I was a blown away by the script because of its sharpness and wit, I was more impressed with its efficiency as it tackled the important questions while painting complex characters worthy of in-depth analysis. I’m glad this was nominated for Best Picture in 2008.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frida” is a biopic that focuses on how Frida Kahlo emerged and evolved as an artist as well as a person who shines despite her many flaws and tragedies. Salma Hayek is simply electric; although pretty much everyone defines her for her beauty, I’ve always seen some kind of inner strength in each of her roles and I was happy that it was at the forefront in this picture. Frida’s relationship with her sister (the gorgeous Mía Maestro), husband (Alfred Molina) and father (Roger Rees) are fascinating because each of those three characters have shaped Frida’s many colorful (and very dynamic) personalities. Julie Taymor, the director, shows her audiences impressive visual effects such as when Frida’s paintings would become a real-life scene and how some real-life scenes would become paintings. I’m not at all familiar with Frida’s artwork but after watching this film, I want to look more into them because they are symbolic in the least. Now that I’m aware of what the events that prompted Frida to paint certain works, I think I’ll be able to appreciate them more. There’s a great atmosphere of culture that pervaded this film and it made me think of my own culture whenever there’s a wedding or a big gathering of some sort. Every actor is so into his or her own character and the film popped whenever they would talk about art, passion, politics and the uncertainties of life. The film then becomes more than a visual experience; it becomes a powerful emotional exprience that has a distinct resonance. However, I wish this film would’ve been entirely in Spanish (except for the scenes when the characters are in the United States). I thrown off a bit when I realized that everyone spoke in English despite living in Mexico. Also, as a Diego Luna fan, I wish he was in it more or was given more to do. Still, this is a very good (if not sometimes ordinary) biopic even though the second half could’ve been stronger by focusing on Frida as an individual instead of other characters that have more to do with politics.
Maria Full of Grace (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Joshua Marston, “Maria Full of Grace” tells the story of a drug mule (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who ventures into the United States because she wants to provide a better life for herself, the baby she’s carrying and her family in Colombia. I love that this film did not glamorize the drug underworld: it’s presented as scary, dangerous and extremely unpredictable. The director was astute enough to establish Moreno’s plight back in Colombia. She’s a genuinely good person who works hard to earn money so that she can help her family out. When she realizes that she’s pregnant, she has to quickly figure out a way to provide for her future child but at the same time support her family because no one else will. We get to understand the disparate factors that ultimately drive her to lend her body to deliver drugs in America. There were a lot of scenes that were really hard for me to watch. When the filmmakers decided to show the lead character trying to swallow those drug pellets, I flinched multiple times not just because of the image on the screen but also the realization that such images really do happen in real life. The plane scene is also a stand-out when one the girls is trying to convince herself that she’s okay despite the drugs being in her system. This film expertly shows people being in difficult situations and what they’re willing to do they get out of it. But this movie isn’t just about drug mules. There’s a brilliant scene with a fellow immigrant who talks to Moreno about the pride that comes after receiving her first paycheck in America. Even though I’ve never gone through that, I still could relate because my father went through the same thing: he went to America to support me, my mom and brother back when we were still in the Philippines. Although this film had a small budget, I thought it worked to its advantage; this vehicle was driven by powerful ideas that doesn’t stray from reality. That alone is enough to see this picture because most American mainstream films about drugs are sugarcoated.