Hillary and Jackie (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) and Jackie (Emily Watson) are extremely close sisters. Because of their parents, much of their youth consisted of competitions: Hilary with her flute and Jackie with her cello. As adults, the sisters remain close, but the dynamics between them change when Jackie’s career begins to skyrocket. Hilary has happily chosen to marry while Jackie is left with prestige that she does not find all that rewarding. Eventually, the world-renowned cellist visits her elder sister in the country with a strange request shared over a game and a glass of wine.
Based on a memoir by Hilary and Piers du Pré, “Hilary and Jackie” has a fascinating story underneath the technical glitters that the screenplay has constructed for the sake of amplifying the drama. Instead of telling the story raw, it tries too hard to come off more poetic or artistic which puts a strain on the narrative. As a result, many of the thoughts and emotions that we are supposed to think about and feel are muffled.
The decision to divide the story in two perspectives is very necessary in order for the audience to have the chance to paint a complete portrait of the sisters. From the moment it changes gears, it begins to deconstruct some of our evaluations regarding their relationship. We get the feeling that the truth is somewhere in between the two versions, but it almost does not matter since Hilary and Jackie have sides to them that we can embrace and relate with.
Griffiths and Watson are wise in not playing their characters as complete opposites to the point where it is jarring. Hilary and Jackie have important differences but whenever the performers share a frame, they allow the similarities of the sisters to come through. When simplicity is shown on screen, like two just holding each other, the film is most effective. Having said that, I wished that the writing had done away with scenes that depict the two as having the ability to read each other’s minds. It hammers the point so strongly that eventually it starts to feel like a cheap device to allow those paying less attention to have a semblance of but ultimately shallow impressions of what the sisters are dealing with.
The latter half of the picture deals with Jackie being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The execution has some clinical touch in that it shows the disease for what it is. However, this brave approach does not last long. I suppose since the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce wishes for the audiences to feel more sadness, the artificial dramatic elements seep their way through events that are better off without gloss. Some of these scenes appear manipulative.
Directed by Anand Tucker, “Hilary and Jackie” should have focused more on the identity of the woman underneath her extraordinary talent. While it touches upon Hilary du Pré’s ideation that perhaps she would have attained real happiness if she had been ordinary, it is unfortunate that the screenplay insists on injecting surreal elements that inadvertently serve as walls between her and us.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) get married even if Bess’ highly devout religious community does not welcome strangers into their lifestyle. While Jan is away to work in an oil rig, a terrible accident occurs which leads to his paralysis. Bess, convinced she has a direct line of communication with God, feels guilty because she wished for Jan’s return prior to the incident. One day, Jan tells Bess that she ought to find a man, make love to the stranger, and go back to tell him all about it. Bess goes through with her spouse’s wish eventually. Soon, she notices that with every sexual act she engages in with another man, her husband appears to get better. She figures that maybe if she gets together with enough partners, Jan would be able to walk again.
There are few movies that chill me to the bone and “Breaking the Waves,” written by Lars von Trier and Peter Asmussen, is one of them. Part of its genius is that it works on several levels. It can be interpreted as a love story that teeters between sanity and lunacy. It can also be seen as an anti love story, a complex case study of religious indoctrination and what it does to the mind and one’s reality. Either way, it is a compelling piece of work.
Good actors can deliver two performances simultaneously. It is all the more impressive that Watson manages to deliver four performances. All of them, at least in terms of framework, could have been laughable under less capable hands. We get Bess the simple girl, Bess the married woman, Bess the God, and Bess the prostitute. Though each performance can be categorized quite easily, I admired how she dares to mix two or three of them at once. What results is a character I had never encountered before—and I was not prepared with what to do with or how to understand her best.
For example, we watch Bess—a married woman physically and a simple girl in reasoning—pray to God and we see her respond using the voice of what she believes her god might sound like. It might appear dangerously comical on paper, especially in a bleak drama, but Watson makes it work by giving Bess an unhealthy mix of innocence and desperation—she is a simple girl but she loves her husband so much that she will do anything, even if it puts herself in danger, not only to prove the fact but also to better his state of health. The choices she makes in how to play Bess feel fresh. Since the character is also unpredictable, it becomes a challenge to keep up with the subject’s state of mind.
We get to know the Scottish community through the way they treat those who they label as outcasts. There are three types in the film: Jan the new outsider, Dodo the old outsider (marvelously played by Katrin Cartlidge—a great sounding board for Bess’ struggle), and Bess, not only considered to be emotionally and psychologically feeble, she is also married to the new outsider. The lack of trust of the community to these figures are communicated in various ways: through silence, a judgmental look, or what they do or not do when one needs help. We are meant to respond to the community’s lack of moral compass—even if they believe their actions get a seal of approval from a higher power.
I do not and will probably never understand why some people feel that the film, directed by von Trier, is mean-spirited. Is it because the characters go through horrible ordeals? Is it due to the underlying commentary toward religious groups? How do these people define the word “mean-spirited” exactly? I think the movie is bold in that it is willing to go through unexplored territory to get a reaction from the audience while maintaining a razor-sharp focus on what it is hoping to accomplish. It is rare that we receive a high-class, high-level filmmaking that commands an original vision. They should be celebrated rather than condemned.
I say “Breaking the Waves” is a very human story. It focuses on the people who care about Bess—her husband, Dodo, the local doctor (Adrian Rawlins). We care about Bess when she is being hurt or in danger. It is not about hatred or violence. It is about love. Love, after all, is what compels the subject to do the things she ends up doing.
Book Thief, The (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) were promised two children so they can receive two allowances, but only one makes it through the trip. The girl’s name is Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her younger brother is buried en route near the railroad tracks. Their mother is a communist so in order for them to have a chance of living in Nazi Germany, they had to be given up for adoption. Due to unmet expectations regarding pecuniary matters, Rosa does not quickly warm up to her new daughter.
Based on the novel by Markus Zusack, “The Book Thief” is quite large in scope—the story beginning just before World War II and ending when the lead character has passed due to old age—and it does not have enough time to focus on every character or subplot that matters. However, it is an emotionally engaging film for the most part because it is willing to show the horrors of war from time to time even if its target audience is a younger crowd.
The picture does not make a good first impression. Although beautifully shot from the opening scene, it is a challenge to appreciate how certain characters are drawn. A simplistic approach comes across as one-dimensional at times. More specifically, Hans being the nice, supportive figure and Rosa acting like a witch with just about every opportunity she gets. While Watson is effective in the role, the evil adoptive mother subplot, which lasts for about half the film, runs out of steam within the first half hour. However, the screenplay by Michael Petroni proves able to move beyond the mean substitute mother storyline in an elegant fashion as the horrors of Hitler’s reign move front and center.
Many might argue that the most heartwarming relationship in the film is shared between Liesel and Hans, especially with the latter’s attempt to make the girl’s transition easier. But I was most interested in Liesel’s friendship with her next door neighbor named Rudy (Nico Liersch), a boy with whom the narrator, Death (wonderfully voiced by Roger Allam), refers to as having lemon-colored hair. Liesel and Rudy’s scenes are sweet, amusing, at times funny, and it is easy to root for them to make it through dark times. It is most disappointing that Rudy disappears for a good chunk of time somewhere in the middle.
Another important connection that Liesel makes in the Hubermann household is with a Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer). However, the script does not delve deeply enough into why this relationship is special. We are given repetitive scenes of Liesel reading to Max when he is not well and a few acknowledgments with regards to both of them being targets of the Nazis. Although the scenes where Liesel helps to take care of Max appear touching, I did not buy into it completely. For a smart young person like Liesel, I did not believe that they are not able to have more meaningful conversations about the war and mortality.
I wished, however, that the picture had managed to show more evil actions done by the Germans—not the Nazi soldiers in uniforms and carrying guns but of fellow neighbors who genuinely believe the war’s causes. Some of them probably feel they must support the war. After all, their sons and husbands are participating in it. It would have added a layer of truth or complexity and the dramatic tension might have been more palpable.
Despite its shortcomings, “The Book Thief,” directed by Brian Percival, is worth watching for all-around good performances, beautiful interior shots of small homes and palatial manors serving as contrast against monstrosities happening outside one’s walls, and the score by John Williams. The combinations of these will almost surely tug at the heartstrings.
Proposition, The (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After showering the Burns house with bullets, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) sat in front in front of Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), the man in charge of whoever was responsible for the rape and murder of a woman and her family. Just when Charlie was convinced that only capital punishment was in store for him and his brother, the captain surprised him with a proposition: If Charlie was able to find and kill his brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the leader of the Burns gang currently in hiding, within nine days, both he and Mike would be pardoned of their crimes. Directed by John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” was deceptive because its plot involved a man on a mission to kill another who happened to be of his own blood. While it managed to deliver many scenes of violence, from being impaled by a spear through the chest to bashing one’s skull, what kept it a fascinating experience was its insight, utilizing the sadness of the characters to communicate that some things just had to be done or finished even if that halfway through minds became convinced that the initial course of action was rash or reckless. Captain Stanley was one of the most interesting characters, a man of the law but not above stepping outside of it if he felt necessary, a leader who was intent on “civilizing” the fresh Australian land. As an opponent of disorder, although he had the badge, the gun, the men, and the reputation to work toward his vision, circumstances surrounding the Burns problem proved time and again that he was a bug in a rainforest of starving birds–as powerless as the citizens he vowed to protect. When the camera focused on his wrinkled face and tired eyes, we could sense the inner turmoil in his brain upon realizing that his plan involving Charlie was more complicated than he had anticipated. On top of the stressful nature of his job, he also had to think about his wife, the mousy Martha (Emily Watson), who wanted to know what was going on but was consistently set aside the moment she opened her mouth. What I did find somewhat strange, however, was the screenplay by Nick Cave didn’t really delve into the depths of Charlie ‘s motivations. He did a lot of laying about for most of the picture’s running time and yet he was asked to make a lot critical decisions toward the end. His importance as the film began to wrap up didn’t feel quite earned. But this isn’t to suggest that he wasn’t given some spotlight. Particularly memorable was when he met Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a smart bounty hunter who happened to have a bit of alcohol in him at the time, and the extended conversation, with threats thrown about here and there, that led to a recommendation of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” It was an odd scene but very skillfully executed, especially when the camera fluidly moved from one area to the next as words were being exchanged. Conversely, it stood frozen in its tracks when not a word was uttered which amplified an already high level tension and forced us to consider that perhaps we were milliseconds from witnessing something especially gruesome. I found “The Proposition” admirable because it wasn’t afraid to step inside bizarre territories while remaining true to the lyricism of inhabiting and slowly claiming an unadulterated land and culture. This was best showcased through a dichotomy: a person’s whipping in a “civilized” area and a beautiful a cappella being performed out in the wilderness.
War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adam Sandler should star in more movies like this one because it’s a nice break from his monotonous, painfully obvious and predictable slapstick comedies. “Punch-Drunk Love,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a small business owner named Barry Egan (Sandler) who fell for his sister’s co-worker (Emily Watson) after one of his seven sisters (Mary Lynn Rakskub) set him up because the sister claimed he lacked initiative. Meanwhile, Barry was caught up in a scam, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, after he called a phone-sex line. I loved the movie’s dry sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. The romance between Sandler and Watson was offbeat at best; it was difficult to see what they liked about one another because both were so strange. Even though I did not necessarily relate with Barry, I was fascinated with his behavior when things were calm and the way he responded to certain stimuli. He was unpredictable. When challenged, he would either go on scary fits of violent rage or would run away like a mouse. I wanted to know if he had bipolar disorder or whether he just did not have a healthy outlet to release the frustrations he had about his life, especially the annoyances from her overbearing sister. I found Barry’s sister absolutely hilarious but I think if she was my sister, I would just go crazy. Furthermore, I liked how Anderson portrayed what family gathering was really like. In more mainstream projects, members of the family would sit on a table and have hush-hush conversations as the camera focused on the key characters. In this film, everyone gossiped, insulted each other insidiously, laughed at the top of their lungs to the point where one could barely hear his or her own thoughts. The scene was plagued with a loud buzzing sound which caught my attention because it was realistic. I wish the picture had more scenes with the family because it was a nice change of pace from Barry’s isolated space which had a lot of gloom. “Punch-Drunk Love” showcases Sandler’s acting muscles and I was happy to see that he tried to do something different. I did not expect that he was able to go head-to-head with Hoffman because Hoffman had such a presence about him in all of his roles. I expect that a lot of Sandler’s fans would find this movie somewhat distasteful because its humor almost always stemmed from self-loathing and repressed emotional problems which–let’s admit–can be depressing at times. However, I think it’s a smart movie that is willing to look beyond the idiosyncracies of its characters and focus on their more compelling angles.
Cold Souls (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Paul Giamatti stars as himself in “Cold Souls,” written and directed by Sophie Barthes, who one day decided, with the help of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), to extract his soul and put it into storage. He came to such a drastic decision to relieve some of the anxiety he was feeling about doing a play. He figured that if his soul was not in his body, we wouldn’t be such a worry-wart and therefore wouldn’t think about the little things that didn’t quite matter in the long run. However, after the operation, he found himself to be not quite himself anymore–the subtlety in his acting was gone, his ability to relate with others was ziltch and even his wife (Emily Watson) claimed that he was “different.” That catch was when Giamatti decided he wanted his soul back, the Russian black market already got ahold of his soul. The concept of this film was quite impressive when I saw the trailers, but unfortunately, the execution was lackadaisical and meandering. I thought I would get a “Being John Malkovich”-level film because of the many questions and intricacies regarding the soul but I felt as though the film didn’t want to tackle such big questions and issues head-on. When it comes to movies, when I feel reluctance coming from the filmmakers’ parts, I constantly find myself having a hard time buying the concept of the movie. Unfortunately, it happened in “Cold Souls.” Instead, the picture ran rampant with broken scenes of Giamatti doing random things that didn’t add up to anything. It’s not the lead actor’s fault; he was tremendous in this film–his quirks and outbursts were downright hilarious and self-deprecating. It was really the writing and direction that bogged this film down to something dangerously soporific. For such an interesting topic that have been theorized by philosophers for hundrends of years, it didn’t have any power so the film felt stagnant. Half-way through the picture, I wondered if the movie would have been more interesting if it had been a hybrid between a comedy and a thriller. After all, the Russian black market was involved. But instead of menace and dark wit, we get somewhat of a comic look at their lives as they try to gather souls from very talented actors like Sean Penn, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, George Clooney, and the like. Sometimes the comedy worked but most of the time it didn’t. With a more capable director and a sharper writing, this film would definitely have been so much better. I say “Cold Souls” might be a good rental for very patient viewers but it’s definitely not for those looking for something that’s dares to look at the extremes of what-if.