Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.
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.
★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
Europa Europa (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events experienced by Solomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider) in World War II, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, was about the teenager’s plight in taking many identities in hopes of surviving and being reunited with his family. Solomon was Jewish but he had Aryan features. He also knew multiple languages which proved to be an advantage when he was separated from his brother (René Hofschneider) while trying to escape from both the Russians and the Germans. Initially, he ended up in a communist orphanage, then the battlefield, up until he joined the Hitler Youth where he was trained to hate his kind and those that didn’t belong in the “elite race.” Watching this picture was quite an experience because it was probably the first movie I’ve seen where I was taken in a Hitler Youth classroom and had a chance to observe how the brainwashing worked. It was maddening but at the same time fascinating because of the way the Nazis shaped a small fear and applied that fear to every aspect that they believed wasn’t worthy. I also got to see how that fear turned into anger and anger into hatred. I hated how the teachers used so-called science to justify who, essentially, deserved to die. For instance, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when Solomon (now named Josef Peters) was called in front of the classroom and his head was measured from various angles and how far apart his features were from one another. When the film focused on the details, it was at its best because I couldn’t stop thinking about small elements afterwards. Furthermore, I’m glad that the film didn’t paint all Germans as monsters. In each location he ended up in, our protagonist met at least one person who made a difference in his life. One was a closeted gay soldier (André Wilms) who had a crush on Solomon and eventually found out that Solomon was Jewish but didn’t turn him in. Another was a mother (Halina Labonarska) of girl Solomon really liked who was stuck with a daughter (Julie Delpy) so consumed with hatred and trying to impress her leader. In a way, those two also had to hide who they really were and how they felt about the Nazi occupation. However, the film’s first half verged on heavy-handedness. It needed to trim some scenes because we all know that the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in history. What the movie should have done was immediately focus on Solomon’s personal journey and less generalizations. Nevertheless, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” also known as “Hitler Youth Salomon” and “Europa Europa,” had a strong sense of momentum once it found its footing. The scene that summed up the film best was when Solomon sat in a comfortable Nazi vehicle, peered through a heavily stained window and saw the horrible things that happened to his people. He saw the dead and wondered whether his family was there. Solomon had to stop himself from breaking down because he might be caught as a sympathizer, or worse, a Jew.
★★★ / ★★★★
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was on a train from New York to Philadelphia that suddenly derailed. Everyone on the train passed away except for him; in fact, he walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. This strange phenomenon caught the eye of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man born with osteogenesis imperfecta–since his body lacked an essential protein, his bones were very low in density and therefore easy broken. Elijah had a passion for comic books and he was convinced that David was a superhero in the making. Was Elijah a madman who became embittered from his experiences as a child or was he a friend that could help David realize his true potential? M. Night Shyamalan did a fantastic job blurring the line between science fiction and realism by establishing a heavy but malleable solemn mood. I thought it was great in building the tension as we were given information that could lead to the conclusion that David might be special. The film could simply have been about a man coming to terms with his “gift” (if he did indeed has one) but it took the more introspective path and it became a story about a family trying to stay together. David and his wife (Robin Wright) were on the verge of divorce due to reasons undisclosed and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) became fixated with the idea that his dad was special in order to deal with the fear of his father being plucked away from his life. Shyamalan’s talent in telling a compelling story was always at the forefront. Even though I did not know the truth about David’s identity, I cared about him because I was as confused as he was. “Unbreakable” was highly successful in building an inordinary experience from ordinary elements. I loved the way the director gave us information that was open to interpretation but not so abstract that it became frustrating or even insular. I also enjoyed the awkward camera angles because it challenged our perspectives visually and intellectually. And in a way, the film was also about perspectives: do we believe that David is a superhero or just a man trying to get by? It was strangely moving and I thought it ended at just about the perfect moment. Most people have lost faith in Shyamalan’s talent in creating stories that are involving, honest, and creative but at the same time defying our greatest expectations. I’m not one of them because when I rewatch his films like “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” (or even “The Village” to some degree) I cannot help but notice the level of detail he puts into his work. What I think he needs is to step back, look at what made the aforementioned pictures work and tell a story he would love instead of what he thinks the public would love.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Gattaca” took place in a time where designer babies were the norm (known as “Valids”) and were expected to live nothing short of their potential. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was a special case because even though he was not genetically engineered, he found a way to pass as one with the help of a recently crippled Valid named Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). Vincent claimed Jerome’s identity so he could work for Gattaca and reach his dreams of exploring outer space. Meanwhile, a murder in the company led the cops (Loren Dean, Alan Arkin) to find Vincent because of an eyelash they found in the scene of the crime. Vincent, as Jerome, had to evade the authorities and balance his time with a co-worker (Uma Thurman) he fell in love with. I watched this movie for the first time when I was a freshman in high school Biology. I remember generally liking it but I did not love it because I was basically forced to sit down and watch it. Having grown up a bit and given it a second chance, I immediately fell in love with the film because the main character had so much conviction. I looked in his eyes and I saw pain–pain for not being conceived as “perfect” and for not being loved as much as his brother. I related to him because he felt like he had so much to prove to the point where it almost destroyed him. The picture could have been a typical science fiction project–too cerebral for its own good and almost insular in its approach. However, “Gattaca” was really more about the emotional struggle of a character so brought down by society (even his father told him the closest he would get to reaching his dreams was to become a custodian for Gattaca) that he would do asolutely anything to prove them wrong. One of the many things I loved about the movie was it boldly took its argument regarding nature versus nurture in relation to being successful a step further. It also was able to comment on the role of the kindness of other people and the right timing of events that could help to pave a new path for a person with a specific circumstance. I thought it was a powerful contrast against things that were very controlled such as aformentioned genetically engineered babies where parents could pick the physical attributes of their future child. If I were to nitpick on a weakness, there were times when the romance between Hawke and Thurman became borderline cheesy with the two of them giving each other a piece of their own hair as a test to determine if they trusted each other. Neverthless, those scenes were negated by a consistently beautiful cinematography with its use of color indoors and outdoors. “Gattaca,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is not only one of the most astute science fiction films but also one of the most moving. The film is set in the future and the issues are more relevant than ever but it’s quite timeless.