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.
Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
★★★ / ★★★★
A lonely man with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who recently lost his father found real connection with a teacher named Beth (Rose Byrne) who recently moved into his apartment building. What I loved about this picture was its ability to show the sometimes comical awkwardness of a character who happens to have Asperger’s but still remain sensitive and accurate throughout. With movies that have such sensitive topics, it’s easy to make fun of the person with a condition to get the laughs. In here, his awkwardness was matched with his romatic interest’s because there were times when she, too, did not know what to say or do. I enjoyed the romance angle of this film but what did not work for me as well was the bit about Peter Gallagher’s character being in court. I thought those scenes dragged a bit. Its connection to Adam’s life was not strong enough except for the fact that Beth and her father were often at odds. Still, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because, from what I learned in school and the reviews I read written by Aspies, it was true to life; how their limited social abilities impact a huge portion of their lives such as making friends, finding the right person they want to spend the rest of their life with, being interviewed for a job or making small talk with strangers. The best scenes are those with Dancy and Byrne being in the same room and trying to connect. At times they may have a wall around themselves but when they do decide to let each other in and really talk about what they’re thinking and try to communicate what it is they want, there’s magic and it works as a love story. And there were just times when Adam found it difficult to be in Beth’s shoes or when he took things too literally. Written and directed by Max Mayer, “Adam” was able to successfully show how it was like for a person who could not express himself the way he wanted to to still find acceptance from others as well as himself. There’s a common mindset that people with autism are all the same, they’re all dumb and are less successful than “normal” people. This picture touched on those three mindsets to show that quite the opposite is true. I was very satisfied with the ending because it was realistic but it wasn’t sappy or heavy-handed. The implications it had were quite touching.
Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
You know, I’ve got to say that twenty minutes into this movie, I thought it was going to be just another shallow chick flick about a woman, played by Isla Fisher (“Definitely, Maybe,” “The Lookout,” “Wedding Crashers”), who liked to shop for expensive clothes and eventually fell in love with a guy who speaks with a European accent, played by the very charming Hugh Dancy (“Beyond the Gates,” “Ella Enchanted”). Yes, that was the basic premise. But then the last forty minutes of the picture arrived and it convinced me that it wanted to be something more. And it succeeded on multiple levels. When all of the main character’s lies and credit card bills finally caught up with her, there was an inherent sadness about her whole predicament. I was convinced that she genuinely did want to change, but like an addict, she kept going back to her old ways despite the advice from her family and friends. I’ve read some critiques that the tone of this film was uneven. Strangely enough, that’s what I liked about it. The first part was more comical and blasé because it intended to establish a character who was very energetic and had a real passion for fashion. The second part was more about her insecurities, conflict with her inner demons (and bill collector played hilariously by Robert Stanton–that elevator scene was absolutely brilliant), crumbling relationships with the people who are most important to her, and the things that she had to do (no matter how much it pained her) to stop drowning in debt. Directed by P.J. Morgan (2003’s “Peter Pan” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding”–another film that was surprisingly effective), “Confessions of a Shopaholic” has a little bit of edge just below that pink, glittery surface. I also liked the fact that the romance between Fisher and Dancy was always secondary. Their scenes were a nice break from the money issues and I could not help but laugh during their dancing scene. Though they did have some chemistry, I’m glad that Harvey chose to focus more on the lead’s addiction. I also very much enjoyed the supporting characters such as Krysten Ritter, Joan Cusack and John Goodman as Fisher’s best friend, mother and father, respectively. If the film had less slapstick and a stronger core, this probably would have had a pretty powerful punch considering that most Americans are now wary of the things they buy due to the failing economy.