The Way Back (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) was suspected of being a spy against the Russian government during World War II but there was a lack of evidence against him. When his wife was captured and tortured, she felt she had no other choice but to tell lies in order to survive. As a result, Janusz was sent to a Siberian labor camp for twenty years. Inside, he met seven others (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård) who where willing to escape and traverse thousands of miles through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas. Based on the book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz, there was no denying that what the POW had been through was unimaginable, but I wasn’t convinced that the film matched the greatness of the material they had a chance to work with. It was expected that Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell’s characters were given a solid amount of screen time. We learned about where they came from and what was important to them. However, I kept wondering about the other men. Since the spotlight was rarely on them, we only knew them through surface characteristics. For instance, the tall one liked to cook and draw, the young one had night blindness, the other was a comedian. It may sound disrespectful but such is a consequence of filmmakers focusing on which celebrities ought to receive more screen time than others instead of focusing on the drive of each man. Given that it was over two hours long, there was no excuse for a lack of character development. Furthermore, as a whole, the entire journey felt depressing instead of inspiring. While not all of them made it to the very end, I believe what should have been highlighted was their bravery by standing up against a government that wrongly accused them of crimes and taking their lives to survive in the wilderness. The only time when I felt the movie had some sort of pulse was when the runaways met the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan’s acting was dynamic. The way her body language and facial expressions changed from one emotion to the next, especially while interacting with the veteran Harris, felt effortless and I quickly became enthralled and fascinated by Irena. But the picture, inevitably, had to go back to the long walk to India. I was consistently disappointed due to its lack of attention in truly immersing our senses with each environment. Instead of taking the meditative path and not merely relying on music to nudge us that what we were seeing was visually majestic, it treated the disparate environs as cheap obstacles. I might as well have been playing “Super Mario” on Wii and it would have been far more engaging. Once the obstacle had been surmounted, it was onto the next challenge and the next death. Directed by Peter Weir, the manner in which “The Way Back” unfolded felt like the its characters were walking in circles. Considering its story involved a great journey across the world, it ended up going nowhere.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) made no contact with her family and friends for two years. During that time, she joined a cult, led by the quietly malevolent Patrick (John Hawkes) who renamed her Marcy May, a place where she believed was perfect to reset her life. Unable to endure their way of living any longer, Martha ran through the woods, called her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and asked to get picked up. Lucy and her successful but stressed husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), allowed Martha to stay with them in their vacation house and hoped that she would eventually open up about what happened during her disappearance. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” written and directed by Sean Durkin, captured a traumatized and fractured mind without necessarily showing every violent detail. It focused on the repercussions–how certain things that were done could not be undone. Most of the time, the filmmakers relied on Olsen to deliver subtle facial expressions as she sat in one place, looked around the room as if she was lost or confused, and recalled the terrible things she was forced to do for the sake of the group she formerly belonged in. Every time the film jumped between past and present, Olsen almost played a different character but it worked because the protagonist didn’t have a defined identity. Her first identity was erased after joining the cult. Although we can agree that her decision to go back to the real world was ultimately a good thing, it’s not at all difficult to argue that her decision was unhealthy for her mind. She wasn’t ready to leave. But will she ever be ready to? Martha and Lucy’s interactions were very sad and sometimes unnerving. For example, the sisters would prepare dinner and suddenly Martha would ask, “Where is this? Is this now or is this the past?” It consistently surprised me because something so ordinary, like preparing a meal, was often marred by a strange but very serious question or comment. Lucy, who felt guilty for not being the sister she thought she ought to be, struggled to be supportive by not falling apart. Having her sister under the same roof as her husband proved to be a bad idea but she made the most of it. Yet she was only human. There were times when she would scream at Martha out of frustration because it seemed like no matter what she did, her sister’s condition turned for the worse. Feeling like one’s effort is not appreciated breeds anger and grudge. It didn’t help that she had no knowledge of Martha’s experience in the cult. She was led to believe that Martha had a boyfriend and she was only experiencing a bad break-up. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” purposefully slow in pace but consistently focused on the message it wanted to deliver, was driven by Olsen’s wonderful performance. The glossy blankness in her eyes was haunting one minute, very tragic the next. It was like trying to understand an empty shell. Martha came back in the same body but half of her mind was stuck in that terrible farm, still secretly coming up with ways to achieve freedom.
Sucker Punch (2011)
★ / ★★★★
After their mother’s death, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister were left in the hands of their evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). When he found out that the sisters were the heir to the fortune he hoped to receive, he was possessed by rage and tried to hurt the girls. Commotion ensued and Baby Doll was accused of accidentally killing her sister. She was sent to a mental hospital where she eventually planned her escape with other patients (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung). Directed by Zack Snyder, there was no denying that “Sucker Punch” delivered visual acrobatics galore. The action sequences looked dream-like, appropriate because much of the fantastic elements occurred in Baby Doll’s mind, and the girls looked great in their respective outfits. However, it was unfortunate that there was really nothing else to elevate the picture. The acting was atrocious. Blue (Oscar Isaac), one of the main orderlies, for some reason, always felt the need to scream in order to get his point across. I understood that Isaac wanted his character to exhibit a detestable menace, but he should have given more variety to his performance. Sometimes whispering a line in a slithery tone could actually pack a more powerful punch than yelling like a spoiled child. I was astounded that we didn’t learn much about Baby Doll’s friends. They were important because they helped our protagonist to get the four items required if she was to earn her freedom. I wondered what the sisters, Sweat Pea and Rocket, had done to deserve being sent to such a prison. They seemed very close. Maybe for a reason. The girls were supposed to have gone crazy in some way but there was no evidence that they weren’t quite right in the head. If they were sent to the mental hospital for the wrong reasons, the script should have acknowledged that instead of leaving us in the dark. They, too, could have been framed like Baby Doll. Overlooking such a basic detail proved to me how little Snyder thought about the story. “Sucker Punch” tackled three worlds: the mental institution, the brothel, and the war against Nazi zombies. Too much time was spent in the whorehouse, the least interesting of them all, and not enough time in the asylum. Though beautiful to look at due to its post-apocalyptic imagery, I could care less about the battle scenes with the dragons, giant samurais, and Nazi zombies. The reason why Snyder should have given us more scenes of Baby Doll in the asylum was because that was Baby Doll’s grim reality: in five days, she was to be lobotomized. Those who’ve played a role-playing video game in the past five years are aware that the games have mini-movies during key events in the story arc. Those images were as good as the ones found here and some of the stories in those games are quite compelling. If images were all this film had to offer, then why should we bother to watch it?
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) lived in a poor neighborhood but they didn’t mind. What they were unhappy about was the fact that both of them had an abusive family. Dylan had an alcoholic father (Paul Roe) who beat up his wife (Neilí Conroy) and only child, while Kylie was sexually molested by his uncle (Sean McDonagh). When the violence reached a peak in Dylan’s home, the two kids ran away from their hometown and headed to Dublin with the help of a sailor (David Bendito) who introduced them to Bob Dylan’s music. The two hoped to find Dylan’s older brother who ran away two years prior. I was impressed with this coming-of-age film because it managed to do so much with so little. Its story was simple, the script was bare and the camerawork was relatively standard. However, it had moments of real poignancy when the lens would focus on the kids as it highlighted a specific emotion they were going through aided by an excellent soundtrack that allowed us to feel as we were with them. The city was a double-edged sword. During the day, it was a haven for Dylan and Kylie because their parents weren’t around. They had enough money to go shopping for new clothes, eat as much sweets as they wanted, and get to know each other. They learned that despite the fact that they were neighbors and friendly to one another, they weren’t really close. From an outsider’s perspective, it was obvious they liked each other, but they either weren’t aware of it or they weren’t willing to accept it. After all, they were just kids. I think we can all relate to the feeling of spending a couple of hours with someone and suddenly seeing that particular person in a completely different way. The film was successful in its mission of underlining that critical change without being melodramatic and cliché–something more mainstream romantic comedies commonly fail to accomplish. During the night, the city was plagued with monsters. Even people that seemed to mean well should be approached with caution. The characters were smart so they knew how to handle themselves for the most part especially when they were in a public space. However, dark alleys were abound and the most dangerous tend to hide in the shadows and await the perfect opportunity to strike. The bond between the two was challenged and ultimately strengthened. “Kisses,” written and confidently directed by Lance Daly, knew what it wanted to tell the world and it did so with elegance in just over an hour and ten minutes. It reminded me of Shane Meadows’ “Somers Town” because it was highly efficient and both stories’ root was a beautiful friendship. As for the film’s title, well, like best kisses, you just have to experience it.
Chicken Run (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park, “Chicken Run” was about a determined British chicken named Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) who wanted to escape from a chicken farm owned by the greedy Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson). Tired of making small profits and investing time for the chickens to lay eggs, Mrs. Tweedy decided to buy a machine that could create pies made out of chicken for a quick buck. Despite Ginger’s many failed attempts from escaping the farm, her hope was renewed by the sudden appearance of a chicken who could fly (Mel Gibson). This time around, the chickens tried to escape over the fence by means of flight. The first time I saw this movie in the early 2000s, I didn’t care much about the story because I was too mesmerized by its stop-motion animation. At the time, I’ve never seen anything like it–the characters undoubtedly looked like clay but it felt like they had an extra dimension to them, something that was different from most animated films at the time. But watching “Chicken Run” for the second and third time, I was more into the story and I was very entertained by its jokes and ironic touches. I thought it was creative, focused and very energetic. What I thought was so smart about it was the fact that the whole movie was about planning and trying to escape instead of throwing around random jokes from pop culture in order to generate the more generic laughs. The comedy comes from the extreme personalities of the chickens and the increasingly desperate situation they were in. I loved the chicken who thought that chickens who stopped laying eggs were taken by the humans so that the chicken could “go on a vacation.” In reality, chicken that stopped laying eggs were deemed useless and nonprofitable so they were killed and served as food. A particularly strong scene was when Ginger and the American chicken got caught up in all sorts of trouble in an oven. That scene was exciting, suspenseful and amusing all rolled into one, which I thought embodied the general feel of the movie. The picture also knew how to capture a sense of adventure and therefore engage their audiences. Despite a somewhat slow middle portion, “Chicken Run” still gets high marks from me because of the final product’s level of imagination and the amount of time the filmmakers must have put into the project. There were a plethora of complex action sequences and I could only imagine how difficult it was to move one element shot after shot to create an illusion of actual movement.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El laberinto del fauno” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling pictures I’ve ever seen about the power of imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) used her mind as an escape from several events that she could not fully understand and deal with: moving into a new home in a countryside surrounded by the Spanish guerilla, her mother’s (Ariadna Gil) decision to be with a cruel army captain (Sergi López), her mother’s illness along with having a new sibling and the war that was driving everyone around her into a state of conflict and madness. In her fantasy world, she was an underground princess trapped in a human body. In order to get back to her royal family, a faun (Doug Jones) informed her that she must complete three dangerous tasks. What I admired most about this movie was del Toro’s ability to show us a story seen through a child’s eyes but at the same time keeping the reality at an arm’s length. Although fantastic elements are abound, this film is definitely not for children due to the intense violence and sometimes unbearable emotional suffering. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the director weaved in and out and through the reality and fantasy of the story. Even though we get drastic changes of scenery with each mission that Ofelia decided to take part in, tension was something we could not escape. I loved the spy/mother-figure played by Maribel Verdú. She just had this strength that radiated from within which made her a key figure in Ofelia’s life because her bed-ridden mother could not protect her. Verdú’s scenes with the smart and venomous captain gave me the creeps; the looks he so often gave her made me believe that he knew what she was up to all along. Ever since it’s release, “Pan’s Labyrinth” gained great approval from both critics and audiences and deservingly so. A lot of people consider the film as a dark fairytale. While it is that, I believe it only highlights one dimension of this amazing work. (The words “dark fairytale” sounds more like a fantasy.) A large portion of this picture was about how Ofelia looked inwards in a time of need and turned things that she could not control into something she could. That is, the more the main character was forced to grow up due to the circumstances around her, the more she gained an internal locus of control. When fantasy and reality finally collided during a key scene in the end, it was very depressing yet magical–and that was when del Toro’s vision finally came full circle.
The Informers (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Set in the early 1980’s Los Angeles, “The Informers” based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, was about the emptiness of multiple characters who would rather try to escape their problems in hopes that they would eventually go away rather than tackling them head-on. Although there were five to six storylines, only about two or three worked for me. I wished that Gregor Jordan, the director, instead focused his energy on those three and really explored why the characters chose to make certain decisions. Kim Basinger, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke and Winona Ryder are the big names who I thought would elevate this picture. However, their storylines were so uninteresting, they might as well not have appeared in it. What did work for me was Jon Foster as a rich twentysomething who seemingly had it all but he chose not to use his priviledges to his advantage. Instead, he decided to deal drugs and hang out with people who really did not care about him–people who only cared about drugs, sex and living the luxurious life. I was really engaged with his scenes because little by little he realized that he was just being used, especially how his girlfriend didn’t care about him as much as he cared for her. I also liked the dynamics between Foster and his sister and how they felt about their parents’ (Basinger and Thorton) decision to move in together after they’ve been separated. Unfortunately, that bit was very underdeveloped. Lastly, I thought the scenes in Hawaii with Chris Isaak and Lou Taylor Pucci–father and son, respectively–was pretty well-done. It was somewhat humorous to me because it was a classic desparate father-son bonding where everything pretty much went wrong. But it could also be seen through a dramatic lens because the son hid this true hatred toward his father since the father only cared about himself. I really believe that critical adjustments such as a different director, sharper and bolder writing, eliminating storylines and expanding others (like the rising unknown disease now known as AIDS), this movie could have become a totally worthwhile experience. After all, the material was based on the works of a writer a really enjoyed such as “American Psycho” and “The Rules of Attraction.” “The Informers” could have provided insight on how it was like to live life without any sort of internal locus on control and how that manner of living could drive us to the ultimate levels of boredom, unsatisfaction, and madness.
London to Brighton (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I love that feeling when I come out of a movie being absolutely blown away because I knew nothing about it prior. Paul Andrew Williams’ directoral debut had a certain quiet power that did not quite let go until the very end. His picture was told in a non-linear fashion which first showed two girls: one about twelve years old (Georgia Groome) and the other middle-aged (Lorraine Stanley). At first, I thought they were sisters but I was surprised to learn later on that they were actually strangers. The audiences knew right away that they were injured and running away from something–the bloody details of from who or what were revealed later. I think it is for the audiences’ best interests not to know much about this movie like I did. Right from the get-go, I wanted the two women to escape to safe havens despite them being very rough around the edges because throughout the film, we get to learn that they are essentially very good people, especially Stanley’s character. Since Groome’s character was a runaway, Stanley became the sister or mother-figure by default because everyone else wanted to harm the little girl or take advantage of her in some way. The way Stanley valued the girl and put the girl in front of herself really touched me because they knew each other in less than a day. Given their dire and downright scary circumstances, I honesly do not know if I would have done the same for someone else. As the picture went on, more and more was asked of Stanley’s character and I constantly had to evaluate what I would have done if I were in her shoes. The supporting characters include Johnny Harris and Nathan Constance, as the two men who were on the hunt for the two leads, and Sam Spruell as a rich guy who wants to collects something that he feels like was owed to him. This is a small picture but the budget did not limit the crafty and touching writing about the two women’s plight by means of losing their innocence and eventual redemption. Their path to freedom was undeniably dark but the challenges they had to face could have potentially taught them to be stronger individuals.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
Considered as one of the most important Spanish films, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” written and directed by Victor Erice, tells the story of a little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who, after watching the 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and being told by her sister named Isabel (Isabel Tellería) that his spirit exists, goes off to find a real-life monster. I really admired this film because the use of words was minimal yet it was more than able to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling. It truly captured how childhood was the peak of curiosity and how our perception at that point in our lives may be a bit skewed from reality. The way Ana and Isabel tell stories, play games and tricks on each other reminded me and my brother many years ago. I also liked the broken relationship between a husband (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a wife (Teresa Gimpera). Little do they know that no matter how much they try to interact with their daughters separately (or not interact), the children feel that there’s something wrong even though they do not yet know how to tackle such feelings. The awkward scene at the table when the whole family was eating together was somewhat elusive because I noticed that there was not a frame in the film that each of the family member was in. I think that divide between the two parental figures was another reason why Ana decided to plunge into her own imagination as an escape. The scenes in their big mansion of a home were painful for me to watch because there was a very noticable lack of stimulation such as books and toys for the two children. At least for me, they looked more alive when they were watching a movie in the town, while they were at school, and when they were roaming around outside. This is a very strong motion picture that should be seen by movie-lovers everywhere. However, one should be warned that it requires a lot of patience because it may get a bit slow at times due to the lack of happenings in the small village that they live in. Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding experience because it works on several angles, cinematically and psychologically.
★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay star in “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick, as four Jewish brothers who escape from the place where they used to live due to the implementation of the Final Solution. The four seek refuge in the forest as they welcome (though at times reluctantly) other Jewish people. Soon, they become a community; and as with all new communities, problems ensue such as rationing of food, who deserves what, what is allowed and what is not, who the leader should be and so on. Although the audiences get a lot of scenes when the Germans attack the Jews and vice-versa, I really could care less about those scenes. I was actually more interested in the dynamics within the small community such as the differing ways of leadership between Craig and Schreiber. While I found it difficult to align myself with one or the other, I thought it was great because I was engaged with what was going on as well as surprised when they would suddenly change their stance regarding a particular issue. I also liked the scenes when everyone would starve and get diseases in the dead of winter. It’s not that I like watching people suffer but it’s more about being concerned and wondering who will make it in the end and who wouldn’t. Although this was inspired by a true story, admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Bielski brothers so I didn’t know how it would end. What prevents me from giving this film a recommendation is that it all too often becomes generic. With such a unique subject matter, I feel like it took the safer route in order to appeal to wider audiences. It also had too many fighting scenes when it really didn’t need to because it already has a poignant story to tell. Still, there’s some scenes worth seeing here such as when Zwick showed that people are people–that is, monstrosity can be committed by both the Germans and the Jews. I wish this had been a much stronger film because it really is important to recognize what the Bielski brothers have done for the Jewish community. But perhaps the gesture is enough.