★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrived in Berlin to attend an important gathering for scientists. Just when the two reached their hotel, Martin realized that they had forgotten a suitcase at the airport. Incidentally, the suitcase contained important documents like Martin’s passport. On the way to retrieve the suitcase, an accident caused Martin and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) to plunge in the chilly Berlin river. Four days later, our protagonist woke up with some memory problems. When he got back to the hotel, his wife no longer recognized him and there was another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) in his place. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Unknown” was an effective thriller during the first and last twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Martin’s journey from Point A to Point Z was hindered by the film’s failure to give its audiences small rewards in order to keep us fully interested. It spent too much time showing Martin looking lost and sad, like an unwanted puppy, as he tried to contact people in his life to no avail. There were small bursts of energy when Martin saw Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German Secret Police. For a price, the mysterious man was willing to help Martin. There was also Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a friend with whom Martin had been trying to contact since he woke up from a coma. He believed that Rodney would be willing to testify that he was the real Martin Harris. Ganz and Langella shared one scene but their interaction was memorable because it was complex, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding. The scene of interest, which lasted about five minutes, had a specific type of subtlety that the film lacked. The visit was more thrilling than a half of the movie’s obligatory car chases. What I enjoyed most about the film was it made me paranoid. Whether Martin was walking in a relatively well-lit tunnel or whether he was sitting in a crowded airport lounge, my eyes couldn’t help but shift to figures in the background. Martin thought he was being followed and I shared his vigilance. Who could he trust when he couldn’t even trust his own memory? “Unknown” had a maze right in the middle and the characters were lost in it. There should have been a balance between the growing conspiracy and character development. There were some awkward glances that hinted at a romance between Martin and his cab driver. It didn’t work because our getting to know the characters was secondary. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, I had a sneaky feeling that the majority of the complexity from the original material was lost because the filmmakers tried to make room for action sequences that weren’t always necessary. The premise and the revelation regarding Martin’s identity were fascinating but it needed a stronger middle portion. It was like reading an essay with a well-written introduction and conclusion but unfocused supporting paragraphs. One can’t help but feel disappointed because it didn’t quite live up to its potential.
The White Ribbon (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” or “The White Ribbon,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, was a stunning black-and-white picture that tried to offer some explanations regarding the cruelty of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Although I liked this film because it was on a league of its own, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed because it was wildly uneven. Having a pattern of a great scene followed by two or three banal scenes hindered this film tremendously. The movie started off with a man on a horse tripping on an almost invisible rope. The whole small village was stunned by the horrible crime but little did they know that it was only the beginning of such monstrous acts. Throughout the film, with many main and side characters, we were given the chance to play guessing games on who might have committed those crimes. Was it the adults who were tired of the Baron and his family? Was it the children who were abused and mistreated by their parents? Or was it nobody from the village and all of it were just random acts of violence? Half-way through the picture, I grew exhausted of the film because the payoffs were few and far between. I could feel something sinister going on under the surface but the director either was too afraid to tackle the issue head-on or he was simply being pretentious by masking everything in “subtlety.” I didn’t understand what he was trying to do because his execution was so vague. I thought his goal was to explain possible reasons why unnecessary evils were committed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was promised by the narrator. Instead, we get scenes like a doctor having an affair or the Baron’s wife confessing her transgressions to her husband. When I look back on it, I felt like this movie could have been ninety minutes long and it would have been more interesting and more powerful. The best scenes were definitely the ones that featured the way different parents disciplined their children. Not only did those scenes say something about the parents but it told the audiences something about the children–the manner in which they immediately reacted to such punishments and later on when faced with decisions with similar consequences. I was able to think back to the child psychology courses I’ve taken and think about how repression, forceful application of shame (without the kids fully understanding why what they did was wrong), and one-dimensional way of raising children could impact the kids in both short-term and long-term. In that respect, I thought the movie did a good job. It’s just that the technical elements didn’t quite click with me because it lacked focus. For a movie about brewing evil, it didn’t have enough tension so it wasn’t exciting. It was interesting but in a monotonous manner that requires a lot of patience.
★★★★ / ★★★★
It’s very uncommon for me to be interested in musicals so it took a little bit of effort for me to finally decide to watch “Cabaret.” I wish I could have seen it sooner because it was fantastic. I loved Liza Minnelli as an entertainer in a cabaret who had a dream of becoming a famous actress before the Nazis took hold of Germany. She was spunky, edgy, funny, self-deprecating, and a little bit vain; but despite her bold personality, she was a damaged character who yearned to be genuinely loved–not merely for her stage persona–but her real self, something that she was still striving to get from her father. I also found Michael York as a British writer who taught English on the side to be fascinating. At first glance I thought he was the typical leading man who was supposed to come in and sweep the leading lady off her feet, but he, too, had his own problems such as his anxiety of getting into a relationship with women. Was he a heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or simply a man who had taken a vow of celibacy? I desperately wanted to know. Minnelli and York’s character quickly got along and the film started off pretty light. However, as the film went on and a rich man (Helmut Griem) entered their lives, the dynamics between the two changed and the film became a little darker with each passing scene. I thought the film’s ability to balance between character development and commentaries about the relationship between the decadence inside the club and the reality outside was special because most musicals that I’ve seen do not even come close to reaching such a dramatic weight. The songs, in a way, were sort of the background but they were far from secondary because the musical numbers often connected the horrific events that were unfolding and the personal battles that each character had to face. Watching “Cabaret,” directed by Bob Fosse, was really quite compelling and I couldn’t take my eyes (and my ears) off the screen. I think it deserved winning the eight Oscars it received because it was as complex or perhaps more so than, say, a typical “dramatic” Oscar-bait movie. Watching the film made me want to visit a Kit Kat Klub–cross-dressers, cigars, androgyny, debauchery and all. I’ll be on the lookout for more dark musicals like “Cabaret.”
The Edge of Heaven (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though I did hear a lot of critical acclaim about this motion picture, I didn’t expect much coming into it. However, after finally watching it, I must say that I was absolutely blown away because of the way Fatih Akin, the writer and director, told such a human story about devastating losses and partial recoveries. The first part was about an aging father (Tuncel Kurtiz) making a deal with a prostitute (Nursel Köse) to live with him and only sleep with him while paying her the same amount of money she would make in one month. I saw the father’s situation as a way to gain control of someone because of his own frustration with his son (Baki Davrak) even though it’s apparent that they genuinely love each other. The second part was about Köse’s daughter (Nurgül Yesilçay) escaping to Germany because she’s wanted by her country’s officials for “terrorism.” She meets Patrycia Ziolkowska and the two become friends and lovers. Eventually, Yesilçay pushes Ziolkowska’s mother (Hanna Schygulla) to the edge because the mother believes that Yesilçay is preventing the daughter from achieving her education. The third part is the most powerful because the film shows that all of the six characters have impacted each other more than they ever thought possible. Although this film does intersect the six lives, it’s not one of those preachy movies with a twist in the end in order to accomplish some dramatic irony. Everything is naturalistic yet bizarre but it never lets go of the fact that it’s grounded in reality. It has enough coincidences to show that life is still magical despite the political battles, strained relationships between children and their parents, and lovers that are never meant to be. To me, the most powerful scene in the movie (among many) was when Schygulla and Yesilçay finally settle their differences. I found it beautiful that, despite all the anger and sadness, a person can look past all those negative emotions and embrace forgiveness. I was also impressed with Davrak as the son who pretty much has nobody even though his father is still around. Their interactions are somewhat cold (but as I said before I think they do love each other) but he still manages to radiate this warmth and craving for knowledge. This is not a simple film that ties up all the loose ends by the time the credits start rolling. This is, in a way, a slice-of-life picture designed for audiences who want to see fascinating characters dealing with realistic situations and deeply affecting outcomes.