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28 Up

28 Up (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Suzi’s previous interview featured a chain-smoking woman, very cynical, angry, and clearly directionless about what she wants to do or become in the future. Coming from a privileged background, she appeared to be content in traveling the world and not much else. Seven years later, now twenty-eight years of age, Suzi is now married and has two boys. This segment underlines the core strength of the “Up” series: In seven years time, just about everything can change for the fourteen subjects. For the first time, I found Suzi to be highly relatable and accessible. Before, I found her to be very shallow, a brat who could have just about everything she ever wanted so there wasn’t much character there.

But not all changes are for the better. We find Neil, perhaps the most effervescent child in the first film, living off the state and renting whatever place he can find to accommodate his nomadic lifestyle. He appears to be functioning only on a survival level. Recounting his struggles is almost unnecessary; he must have gone through a lot up to this point because he looks several years older than the other subjects.

I looked at the frame of his body and could tell right away he is not healthy. He is able to answer questions but some of his responses are not completely sensical. And then comes the revelation of the condition that has afflicted Neil since he was sixteen. In the future films, my hope is that this man will have gotten the necessary help to move forward in his life.

Many of the subjects have gotten married. Perhaps this is the most crucial trend in this installment. The other is that there is a calm in all of them that was not there when they were twenty-one. It gives the impression that now they know who they are and what is important to them. Admittedly, I was less able to relate with the subjects this time around. I suppose it is because in terms of where I am in my life right now, I am closer to the mindset of someone who is twenty-one than a person who is twenty-eight.

I wished some of the spouses had less time to talk to the camera or had been shut out from the film completely. Although some of the bits shown garner some interest, I would rather have heard more from the subjects themselves. For example, Nicholas, who has since become a nuclear physicist and assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin, is already a sort of quiet subject. His wife’s personality is so big that I felt as though she overpowered his moments at times. I would have loved to have heard more about Nicholas’ attitude about leaving England because he felt as though his country of origin did not want him to pursue what he had been trained to do.

Tony continues to surprise. The less is said about him, the better. But I will say this: His story is possibly the one that warms my heart the most. I think that out of all the subjects, he probably was the one who had to fight most especially because he came from a disadvantaged background. And yet he is not bitter or angry about his struggles. I admire people who are able to create a rewarding life despite great adversity.

“28 Up,” directed by Michael Apted, is structurally different from its predecessors. Instead of allowing the stories to intertwine or blur together by jumping from one subject to another, each is given a segment. Although more organized, I found it less compelling at times. Gone are the immediate direct parallels of the subjects’ answers to surprising and difficult questions. It will require a bit of adjustment.


21 Up

21 Up (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Certainly the most complex installment of the first three because the original former seven-year-old subjects are now adults, director Michael Apted is now able to ask difficult questions directly, sometimes out of thin air, and capture the joys and sadness in raw form that comes with the trials and tribulations of early adulthood.

Perhaps the biggest shock is Neil, son of two teachers, who was once full of energy and vitality when he was seven. In the first film, he was one of my favorite children to watch interacting with a friend from school, the director, and the camera because I was able to relate with his exuberance. Twenty-one-year-old Neil is like a completely different person, a shell of child who appeared to have a real chance of being the happiest out all the fourteen kids even though he may not be as privileged as some of the others—like Suzi, Charles, Andrew, and John. Here, Neil is significantly more subdued and the questions he is asked are designed to give us an idea of what possibly went wrong.

One of the most wonderful qualities of the series is its ability to hone in and explore change. The story of the former aspiring jockey, Tony, is akin to a life cycle of a butterfly—at least taking only the first three films into account. As a child, he appears very rough, sort of unlikable, one of those kids who gets into a lot of trouble at school for not following rules. As a teenager, he was so dead set in becoming a jockey, very focused and highly serious, one gets the impression that if he failed to reach his goal, it would just ruin him.

Well, he did not become a jockey… and yet he appears to be perfectly content. In fact, it looks like he is the happiest he’s ever been. He seems to have a better grasp of who he is in that he is able to express his capabilities as well as his limitations. His alternate career of choice may not be glamorous by any means but we feel that he is enjoying where he is and what he is doing. He smiles a lot more now. There is a confidence in Tony that is alluring, like he is someone you can share drinks with at a bar and hang out with all night. Is he a success story? Some might argue that he is not. But in my eyes, he is. At least for now.

A common theme this time around is the questions surrounding the divorce of the subjects’ parents. Apted likes to ask how the separation has impacted one’s outlook on love, marriage, in staying together or not staying together. A few are convinced that their parents’ divorce has had very little impact on them at all. But then there are others who think that it may have handicapped them subconsciously not just in terms of connecting with others but how they come to view themselves.

This is a particularly interesting topic to me because I do not know how it is like to have divorced parents even though I have a lot of friends whose parents are no longer together. I found it fascinating that certain perceptions or opinions that the subjects have, toward themselves and others, are shockingly similar to the views held by some of the people in my life. I wondered to what degree the similarities are.

I wanted to know more about Nicholas, once a boy from a small village whose father and grandfather were farmers. When he was fourteen, he revealed to the camera that he was interested in physics and chemistry, not farming at all. Now studying at Oxford to become a physicist, when the director makes a claim that he is the best success story of the group, Nicholas’ response hit home. I was able to relate deeply when it comes to his evaluation of what others believe he has achieved versus his own feelings about achieving his goals.

“21 Up” gives the audience a lot of information to digest. This is appropriate because the people being interviewed have developed a solid enough set of reasoning skills which allows them to provide answers that better represent where they currently stand. At the same time, although the subjects are children no longer, their basic ideals, at least with many of them, are more or less the same. It also gives the impression that luck, even though a lot of us may dismiss its role outright, may be a force that can help to influence one’s life in one direction over another.


7 Plus Seven

7 Plus Seven (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Director Michael Apted takes creative control of the longitudinal project which involves revisiting every seven years a group of individuals who belong in various levels of the British social strata. The subjects are now fourteen years old and many of their perspectives, about themselves and others, have undergone a shift. What is surprising this time around is how certain aspects of their personalities or the way they think have not changed one bit. In fact, some of their beliefs appear to have been solidified.

The fourteen young adolescents are more interesting this time around because they are better equipped to communicate what they wish to express. Particularly fascinating is John. When he was seven, he knew exactly which school he was going to attend. Coming from a rather privileged background, it was expected of him to get there—and he did. With hopes of becoming a politician, although I did not necessarily agree with a lot of what he had to say especially in his dismissal of the value of diversity, I enjoyed that he is quite articulate—perhaps the most out of the fourteen interviewees—and confident but not overbearing. We feel that he is proud of his intelligence without the need to flaunt it. He is a true product of a school with high standards.

The tone is calmer but it is not devoid of a sense of humor. The subjects have grown physically, mentally, and emotionally and so they are aware in some way that whatever they have to say might end up being seen or heard all over the world—and the possibility of being judged for it. Apted makes a correct decision to allow the teenagers to evaluate the project. In other words, do they think it is actually worth pursuing? Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback by some of the responses. And yet on another level, I was not. Certain things simply come with time.

A question that comes from the first film is whether the subjects have boyfriends or girlfriends. It is a bright moment because we are allowed to peek into the self-consciousness of the teenagers. To us, it is very amusing to watch them grasping for a “correct” answer or an answer that sounds just about right. In retrospect, when I was at that age, such a question just reeked of awkwardness. Why? Because the answer may not be as simple as a “Yes” or a “No.” Worse, if the answer was a “No,” there was that fear or concern of being judged. We are amused by the way they respond and yet we relate with them without a doubt.

The questions require a bit more thought this time: Do you want to be rich? Do you believe in God? As the teens provide their answers, we cannot help but turn to ourselves and evaluate where we stand. The funny thing about this series is that although each person—or group of persons—is a representative of a certain class, we think we know exactly what they will say. It really is telling how much fictional movies, especially standard Hollywood fares, have influenced our collective unconscious.

The director does an exquisite job selecting clips from the predecessor and using them as reminders as well as comparisons in terms of how the teens were like when they were seven. He knows exactly what to show from the past to get the point across.

“7 Plus Seven” is not only informative but also very entertaining. By the end, I wanted to know more. I was especially interested in Nicholas (later called more commonly as “Nick”). His grandfather and father are farmers. When asked whether he wants to follow in their footsteps, his answer is a quiet yet powerful “No.” Nicholas is interested in physics and chemistry. I wondered if, like myself, he will aspire to become a scientist.


Seven Up!

Seven Up! (1964)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man. — Francis Xavier

Director Paul Almond takes a group of seven-year-olds from starkly different backgrounds and asks them a range of questions about themselves and those around them. The longitudinal project was conceived in order to show “a glimpse of the shop steward and the executive England in the year 2000.” A major theme involves the great schism among the lower-, middle-, and upper-classes.

Barely forty minutes long, the documentary has no choice but to be efficient once the gates open. Although the study offers a pool of twenty children to be interviewed, we quickly realize that only about half stand out, “representatives” of each class, if you will. Particularly entertaining is a middle-class boy named Neil.

“When I get married, I don’t want to have any children. They’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” When asked about the future, he claims he would like to be an astronaut or a coach driver. As someone who has had experience working with children, Neil has the type of personality, a joie de vivre, that I am instinctively drawn to. Maybe it is because such a personality, in some ways, is similar to my own. Whenever he has something to say, my brain responds by hoping that the adult Neil turned out well and happy. I was caught off-guard in that already I was invested in how each of them would turn out.

Initially, it appears as though the children are not being asked interesting questions. However, the subjects often provide very interesting answers. Do they have a boyfriend or girlfriend? What do they think of the opposite sex? How do they perceive fighting in the school grounds? What do they like to do during their spare time? There are clear disparities among the classes.

About halfway through, the nature of the questions changes a little bit. What do they think about money, the rich, and the poor? Do they know any colored people? If they have, what do they think of them? More interesting, if they haven’t, what do they think of black people? The subjects, most of whom have not had prior interaction amongst one another since they go to different schools, are later allowed to spend time together. What do they think about each other then?

The director asks questions worth posing such as whether discipline versus freedom, like participating in an activity like ballet (the rich) or doing whatever activity during recess (the middle-class and the poor), plays a role on how successful a child will become in the later years. Perhaps the answer may be obvious, but what the film shows during its short but effective running time is that an element of surprise is always right around the corner.

Since I have worked with kids, I thought I knew what I was in for. And then I was reminded that these children were not only from a different era, they were also from a different part of the globe. It is an exciting opening chapter because it will prove to be a whole new learning experience.


The Hustler

Hustler, The (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★

Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick), tour all over the country to challenge billiard champions for high-stakes games. Eddie’s latest opponent, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), has a reputation for being one of the very best, undefeated for the past fifteen years. Things are looking up for Eddie until an observant gambler named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), drinking a glass of milk now and then, begins to watch the match.

Based on the screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, “The Hustler” is a surprise because it manages to make a very dry sport interesting. Just how does the film able to pull this off? Since the camera focuses on the behavior of the players combined with what occurs on the pool table, it is able to offer something unique.

People respond to challenges in different ways and the filmmakers are aware of this. Each time a cue hit the cue ball, there is split second in which the audiences are able to see how the balls disperse. Interestingly, there is not one complete shot of a cue hitting the cue ball until all the balls stop moving. Once a turn is over, it is almost immediate that the camera focuses on the characters’ reactions, from how proud they are of the shot to the worry that creeps in like a thunderbolt when a slight error is made.

Balls follow the rules of physics but human emotions do not. The duel between Eddie and Minnesota Fats is very involving which almost sets an impossible standard for the rest of the picture. When Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a fellow alcoholic, at a bus terminal, I liked that it does not come across completely romantic. Their flirtation is executed with a certain rhythm, a dance which recalls the feeling of Eddie and Minnesota Fats circling the billiards table. However, when the couple end up living in the same apartment, the breezy pacing hits the break. Perhaps the screenplay wishes to make the point that not much good can come out of two current alcoholics living in the same place.

Eddie’s interactions with the woman is the antihero’s turning point, but I kept wishing for him to finally get back on the saddle and play. This is a problem because the character arc is the point of the film, not necessarily the pool matches. It is redeemed slightly, however, by scenes between Newman and Scott which contain very sharp dialogue. Gordon admits to Eddie that he believes Eddie is born a loser even though he has undeniable talent. Gordon, having a knack for business, proposes that if they worked together, the road to success would be theirs for the taking. My curiosity was piqued in terms of which man is really taking advantage of whom.

As foolish as Eddie becomes after he drinks glass after glass of J.T.S. Brown bourbon, his determination to make money remains as strong as Gordon’s. The symbiosis between the two is parasitic and the screenplay elegantly peels the layers of their motivations until the final pool match. Money is what the main characters are constantly, blindly after. The excitement of gaining or losing it paints a portrait of addiction.

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen, the redemption in “The Hustler” is not only appropriate, it is earned despite the protracted middle section. While the big moments provide reference points for the drama, the small moments define them.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Running was always a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post’s no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like.

There are six new detainees in Ruxton Towers, a reform school, and when they arrive, the young men are given numbers, 988 to 993, ordered to strip, and change clothes. In a few minutes they will meet the man in charge of the school, one that is referred to as The Governor (Michael Redgrave). By the end of their time there, The Governor expects them to be industrious and honest citizens, people who will contribute to society.

Based on the short story and screenplay by Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” tells a laser-focused story about an angry young person named Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), caught by the police for stealing money from a bakery. Though a great number of films have adopted the technique of telling a story by jumping between the past and the present, very few have achieved mastery of the approach. Aspiring filmmakers should require themselves to see this picture. Notice how the shuffling between two times, despite having a completely different in tone and mood, achieves a natural ebb and flow. It entices the viewer rather than repels or bores.

It is necessary to show the film in black and white because it is a reflection of our attitudes toward juvenile delinquents. Under Tony Richardson’s expert direction, he makes a case that behind every rebellious teenager, there is a reason for his or her actions. It may be shallow or deep, relatable or opaque—doesn’t matter. What matters is the reason, often subconscious and guarded by defense mechanisms, is important enough to that person that he or she is unable to deal with the frustrations, anger, and other negative emotions in a healthy manner. And yet the movie is not a psychology course. Instead, it urges us to open up and be more sympathetic.

I found the flashbacks impressive, from carefully observing Col dealing with his father’s mortality to when he has met a special someone who he feels safe enough to share a little bit about what might be going on in his head. It is wise to make the flashbacks most engaging because that is when our protagonist is most free—at least in a physical sense. The poetry comes in when we are taken out of the flashback as if waking up from a dream. We are back to watching Col running. His body is in that school but his mind is not. Such a coping mechanism sets him free.

But will he allow himself to be free in a physical sense? That is the big question. The Governor is highly determined, some might consider him obsessed, to win the long-distance cross-country championship trophy against the Ranley School. Recognizing Col’s speed and stamina, he chooses 993 to win the competition. It is suggested multiple times that if Ruxton Towers were victorious, it would be Col’s fast-pass to guaranteed freedom.

Because I was so involved in understanding Col’s past, his present mindset becomes extremely difficult to fathom. I kept guessing till the very end. When I thought I knew the answer, I second guessed. This is a good thing. It means that the character is not predictable, not created for the sake of showing something on the screen or having someone to root for so we can feel good about ourselves by the time the picture ends. The final answer is complicated and requires contemplation.

I love movies that are deceptively simple yet jolts viewers who are willing to be challenged to pay attention. It moves with grace and commands effortless poetry. When beings from another planet visit Earth, there are only a few films I can recommend—powerful works that will enable them to understand, or at least appreciate, what it means to be human. This is one of them.



Coriolanus (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

In the midst of a food crisis in Rome, Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a general assigned by the government to protect a grain storage, is branded by the people as the enemy. With the way he comes off as cold and detached to the plight of the common people, his face easily becomes a symbol of corruption.

Meanwhile, enemies of the Romans, the Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), threaten to invade Rome while the citizens turn against themselves. Martius is called upon to eliminate Aufidius, the two having worked together five times prior, and his armed men before they gain the upper hand.

“Coriolanus,” based on William Shakespeare’s play, is difficult to enjoy on the level of entertainment but the performances are so strong, I could not help but wonder what might happen next. The picture’s dialogue is essentially taken from the play and, in my experience, fully understanding it is like pulling teeth.

I have read a couple of the Bard’s plays and it had always been challenge. Constantly I found myself having to reread lines of dialogue in order to grasp the meaning behind the veiled poetic lyricism as well as the implications and emotions simmering between the lines. I encountered a similar task here. It is less work in some ways and more in others.

Since everything is visual, nothing much was left to the imagination in terms of space, where one character is relative to another and which characters are relevant to each scene. But since I was not able to read the dialogue on my own pace, the aural experience is a bit of a challenge because the actors speak very quickly—necessarily so—in order to invoke specific feelings like shame, rage, and passion. As much as I tried to keep up, at times with great frustration, there were times when I was confused in what is being said in one scene which inevitably affects another and why certain events inevitably transpire.

Hence I relied on watching the actors. I had fun observing Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, Martius’ mother, so obsessed with her son bringing honor to his country and family, I wondered if she really cared about her son as a person, capable of being vulnerable and getting hurt, rather than a mere tool to be disposed once its done its job. In some ways, I found her to be a scarier figure than Martius. With the son, as mercurial as he is at his best and a bellicose beast at his worst, at least he has an outlet for his negative emotions. Volumnia, on the other hand, has very little reason to be tempestuous and yet there is a danger about her bubbling underneath.

I found the relationship between Martius and Aufidius interesting. Although they are enemies at the time, it is easy to feel a certain level of respect and admiration between them. When I can feel that there is already a history between the characters without much discussion of it, that is when I know that I am watching something good—that the filmmakers are successful in creating a believable universe.

Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Ralph Fiennes, I recommend the film to those interested in Shakespeare’s work and people who have little to no trouble decrypting early modern English because the project does have artistry as a film and offers good human drama. However, I did not enjoy it as a whole because of my limitations but I would not mind sitting through it for a second viewing.



RoboCop (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

With four degree burns all over his body and a spine that is severed from the waist down, the possibility of Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) surviving the ordeal is, according to the specialists, highly unlikely. It is most fortunate that the CEO of OmniCorp, Sellars (Michael Keaton), is scouting for a man to enroll in a program led by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman). The hypothesis: Putting a man inside a machine will give the company a chance to ease the minds of a mostly robophobic American public and eventually annul a bill that bans crime-fighting robots domestically.

One of the key problems with “RoboCop,” written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is a lack of dramatic focus. What kind of story does it wish to tell? A man who one day wakes up and realizes that he is part-machine? The complications that arise when business and science form a collaboration? The role of the media in politics and vice-versa? A family ripped apart by greed and corruption? Although these questions can be very interesting to explore, such are only worth sitting through with a high level of writing. This film excels in showcasing expected action scenes but suffers severely when it attempts to shed some insight.

When bullets are involved, my attention was transfixed on the screen and my ears relished every sound when somebody pulls the trigger. The pop of the firearms are alive and coupled with camera movements with a sense of urgency, it is exciting to a point. The robotic suit of the protagonist is sleek and easy on the eyes despite never convincing us fully that with such a bulky exterior—not to mention the mass of the thing—aerial acrobatics is possible. Yes, there are a few moments when it feels cartoonish.

I enjoyed that the villain is not really bad, per se. Sellars is a businessman and wants to make a lot of money. What kind of CEO of a billion-dollar company is not driven by capital? His justifications to reach his goal, one can argue, are the elements that make him villainous. Keaton plays his character like a real person. And in an action picture with shades of science fiction, it is critical that we get a taste of something that is grounded. Oldman playing the scientist, on the other hand, makes a mistake by embodying too likable a character. Doesn’t he want to make money, too? Funding is important.

What does not work entirely is Alex/RoboCop’s relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son. Pick any of their scenes and it feels tacked on and forced—as if the only way for us to root for the good guy would be to reminded again and again that he has a family to leave behind. Cornish’s dramatic scenes are awkward. I could feel her trying to push the tears out. I felt her thinking about the lines rather than just letting go and communicate the anguish of a woman who is being denied to visit her husband. It is not entirely the performer’s fault. The women characters in the film are not given depth.

“RoboCop,” directed by José Padilha, is good-looking but empty. It is neither cerebral nor brawny enough—which makes it somewhere in between. And that is boring. When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching the original “RoboCop” on HBO before going to bed. A handful of its images made an impression on me. I may not remember the details but the fact that I could remember something about it two decades later proves that there is something extreme about it, an element that is dangerous, not safe.

The filmmakers should have taken inspiration from the original and strived to push the envelope beyond what is expected, to prove to the naysayers when it was announced that a remake was in works that they were wrong to have doubted. Wouldn’t that have been icing on the cake?


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