An Education (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Upon reading other people’s reviews, I got the feeling that Poppy (Sally Hawkins) was this person who was happy all the time and wasn’t at all affected by other people’s negative emotions. After actually watching the film, I believe she’s not like that at all. In fact, she cares so much about other people–her family, her friends, even complete strangers–to the point where she tries to make them happy when she senses that they’re having a bad day or they have something heavy in their minds. Her default emotion is happiness, which is unlike many people whose default is neutral, and that makes her really interesting and entertaining to watch. Writer and director Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”) did a great job introducing an extremely charming and likable character right from the opening credits. What’s even more impressive is that he was able to tell an ordinary story surrounding a 30-year-old single elementary school teacher with great focus in the emotional aspects of different circumstances. By the end of the film, I truly got to know Poppy when she’s with her friends (Alexis Zegerman was hilarious as Hawkins’ sarcastic roommate), when she’s at work with her children, when she’s with her co-workers, when she’s with complete strangers, and when she’s by herself with her thoughts. Although the whole learning-to-drive aspect with Eddie Marsan as the angry driving instructor didn’t work for me because there were a lot of intense emotional outbursts, I did laugh a lot because I could relate to those scenes regarding my experiences behind the wheel for the first time. Instead of that, I wish the story had more time to focus more on the romance between Hawkins and Samuel Roukin. Since Poppy and her group of friends have been talking about where they are in their lives, including Poppy’s thoughts about whether she’s really happy with how her life has turned out, I thought that a genuine connection with someone of the opposite sex was an issue that needed more exploration. Still, this picture is very, very good and I was surprised that Hawkins didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While watching the film, she made me feel really happy and it’s not easy to carry a comedy movie with such consistency all the way through. If you’re in the mood for a bit of sunshine, “Happy-Go-Lucky” gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.
The Accused (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film is based on the true story of what happened to Cheryl Araujo in a bar back on March 6, 1983. Jodie Foster plays Sarah Tobias who was gang-raped in a bar despite having many people around that could potentially help. Some of the men decided to cheer on what was happening instead of putting a stop to such a horrific crime. I thought this was a terrific film because of how visceral each scene felt. Even though Foster is the victim, she doesn’t play the character in a typical manner, unlike how rape victims are played on films nowadays. She’s tough and a little bit rough around the edges but we root for her despite her deep flaws because her goal is to find justice for what had happened to her (with the help of her lawyer played with such bravado by Kelly McGillis). I’ve always had a problem whenever people say, “She’s just asking for it” whenever they see a person, especifically a woman, wearing revealing clothes or acting promiscuous. To me, that statement implies that that person is partly to blame if or when she is sexually assaulted. No rational individual, despite how one looks or acts, wants to be sexually assaulted. Sometimes, I hear that statement from my friends and it really gets under my skin because there’s a certain lack of sensitivity to the issue of sexual assault. The most powerful scene for me was when the film finally revealed what really happed with Sarah. It shows images and intentions that were not recalled by the witnesses on the stand. (Not to mention the filmmakers were smart enough not to show every person who gave their testimonies.) I thought that it’s really true to life because people tend to forget aspects of events right after they happened; some form false memories but some tend to remember the most important (or least important) details. When Jonathan Kaplan, the director, showed the rape scene, it was so disturbing to the point where I had to look away from the screen. I can withstand the most morbid scenes in films like the “Hostel” and “Saw” franchises because I know that it’s rare for people to get kidnapped for the sole purpose of appreciating their life a bit more if they happen to survive a test. But in this film, I couldn’t handle such a violent scene because I know that crimes like rape happen so often. Foster deserved her Best Actress Oscar because she was able to fully embody an atypical rape victim, whose sensitivity can only be found by truly looking in her eyes.
The Reader (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
If Kate Winslet doesn’t get nominated and win two Oscars for her performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader,” I would be very disappointed with the Academy. Having seen pretty much all of the films that generated the most buzz in the Best Actress category, I can vouch that she’s the one who truly deserves it. In “The Reader,” Winslet shines as a woman who gets sexually entangled with a fifteen-year-old boy, played with such vulnerability and innocence by David Kross. Strangely enough, even though their relationship is taboo, I’m willing to admit that I did find chemistry between the two of them. In the first half of the picture, Stephen Daldry, the director, was smart enough to focus on the two leads’ hunger. That hunger is presented both emotionally and physically but never completely separate. Both of the characters intentions are never completely clear which makes the film that much more interesting. I was often questioning myself about who was really using the other. Just when I thought it was about to lose its focus, the second half was able to summon all of its power and give its audiences reasons why they should care for the Winslet and Kross (played by Ralph Fiennes as time went on). Even though the two are deeply flawed, we relate to them in many ways because they tend to choose the more difficult path in order to keep protecting their secrets. Such secrets may seem so simple at first glance but there’s a lot of shame in those secrets, especially those that belong to Winslet’s character. Some of the best scenes of “The Reader” are its silent moments when the images do not require an explanation. Having said all of that, I think this film would’ve been much stronger if the last thirty minutes were more fluid. I thought there were many “final” scenes where the film could’ve ended. The “choppiness” could’ve been taken care of with a little bit more time. I’m giving this a high recommendation for the reasons mentioned previously but especially for Winslet’s performance. But the real surprise for me was the newcomer Kross, who I hope to see more in the future. He’s so brave for deciding to star in a film of this caliber. He not only sheds his clothes but ultimately his soul–which is far more challenging for any actor his age.
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is no doubt in my mind that this film contained some of the best performances of the year. If Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep do not get nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress, respectively, an injustice would’ve been done. I love how this film’s thesis was established during the first scene: how doubt can be as powerful as certainty. I have three stand-out scenes that I thought were exemplary: the feathers and their symbolism, Streep’s heartbreaking talk with Viola Davis, and Streep’s final confrontation with Hoffman. Out of those three scenes, I’d say the one with Davis is the most powerful because of all the implications. Issues such as the home, color of one’s skin, and one’s “nature”/embracing God’s gift are all mixed to justify a mother’s decision for her son’s safety as the son is put between a rock and a hard place. Even though Davis was only on screen for about fifteen minutes, she gave this film a certain force that is impossible to ignore. I will be immensely happy if she gets an Oscar nomination as well. As for the always great Amy Adams, she’s able to go toe-to-toe between Hoffman and Streep without sacrificing her charm. I think that takes a lot of effort and subtlety, especially when the other two are constantly on the verge of breakdown. One of the reasons why I admire this picture is its ability to conceal the truth. Most of the time, we do not know whether the priest molested an altar boy. By the end, most people have an idea (including the friend I saw it with), but I was still very doubtful. After all, Hoffman is up against a character who will do absolutely anything–even as far as to embrace a total lie (which is something that is totally against her faith)–just to prove that she is right. Sometimes, it’s wiser to turn the other way than to spend more time in the battlefield and experience more destruction. And let’s not forget a character’s shocking reaction right by the film’s ending (which most likely means more than one thing). The title of this film is “Doubt” and not “Certainty” which, in my opinion, ties in with the movie’s central thesis. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (including the play), this film is resonant because it has many implications and can generate strong discussions.