★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of American bombers, led by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns), received a false transmission that they were to obliterate Moscow, leaders from the Strategic Air Command, like General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), a scientist (Walter Matthau), and the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) struggled to come up with ways to avoid World War III with the Soviet Union. Based on a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, “Fail-Safe” was a gripping exercise in what soldiers and politicians were forced to do to delay a war when they could no longer stop it. Under Sidney Lumet’s focused and assured direction, the film successfully highlighted the fears of three groups of men confined in one place. All three were fascinating but I found the room where the president, with the help of his interpreter (Larry Hagman), tried to convince the Premier of the Soviet Union to be most sublime. The conversation occurred via telephone but from the minute the president picked up the telephone and a voice from the other line answered, it felt like watching two leaders looking intensely into each other’s eyes and weighing whether to trust the words they heard through a machine. After all, the president warned his translator to be very wary of certain intonations of the Premier’s voice. He could be saying one thing with words but the fluctuations in his voice could mean something else entirely. So I inched toward the screen and listened closely. I had a laugh at myself for realizing a couple of seconds later that I didn’t speak or understand Russian. Fonda was excellent in the role because the air of confidence he carried around with him, combined with his character’s intelligence, made us hope and believe that the mistake’s repercussions had a chance to be circumvented. I also admired Matthau’s turn as the scientist with extreme ideas. I didn’t always agree with his negative vision of society, applicable just to Americans or otherwise, but his sharp insight was undeniable. The film asked a lot of questions about responsibility in terms of human or mechanical error. If the transmission was a simple mechanical error with disastrous consequences, in technical terms, wasn’t it still considered human error because we were the ones who designed (and ultimately relied on) the machines? What I loved was the material didn’t get stuck on who or what to blame. Tragedy was embedded in the images of planes falling from the sky and the fear reflected in the soldiers’ eyes as they obeyed commands that they knew would lead to their deaths. “Fail-Safe,” purposefully claustrophobic so we were forced to look inwards, is more relevant than ever with our reliance in technology and the seeming lack of accountability just because we can hide behind clever inventions and foolish notions of anonymity.
Messenger, The (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a newly recognized war hero, was assigned to the Casualty Notification division with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a man who adhered without fail to the rules of telling the next of kin that their loved one had died or went missing in the war. Directed by Oren Moverman, “The Messenger” had proven that movies about the Iraq war can still be relevant and moving without having to be condescending or syrupy. I’m used to watching Foster and Harrelson playing characters who are volatile and larger-than-life so it was nice to see them playing characters who are masters when it came to internalization. Even though they didn’t always vocalize the things that bothered them about the war or the way they saw the civilian world after serving overseas, I felt their pain and anger. In small ways, they managed to tell their stories without sacrificing complexity. With each visitation of the next of kin, I loved that the family members had different responses so Will and Tony had to constantly adapt, sometimes finding themselves out of their depths. Prior to the film, I thought that the scenes that would impact me most emotionally were the ones when the family members (Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta) would break down externally via screaming, yelling or being violent to themselves and others. Surprisingly, the ones that really got to me were the characters (Samantha Morton) who were obviously sad about the news yet they were almost gracious that Will and Tony found courage from within themselves to deliver the difficult news. The anticipation of family member members’ reactions were without a doubt even more compelling than films about the Iraq war plaqued with gratuitous explosions and typical dialogues. Lastly, the heart of “The Messenger” was the bond between Tony and Will. They seemed to not get along at first but it was always apparent that they respected each other. But after being around each other, the two slowly opened up which led up to the key scene when Will explained why he didn’t consider himself a hero. That scene would most likely have failed with a less intelligent script but I liked the way Moverman used silence and let his audiences absorb every word, pause, and sigh that Will expressed while telling his very personal story. There was also another brilliant scene applied with the same technique when Morton’s character talked about opening her closet one day and her husband’s shirt fell on the floor. “The Messenger” was engaging every step of the way because it went beyond being a traditional war movie. I didn’t feel emotionally cheated because it respected us, its characters, and our troops. It knew that it didn’t need to be political; it just needed to be honest.
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Catholic boarding school hid three Jewish students, one of which was Jean (Raphael Fejtö), from the terrorizing Nazis in the middle of World War II. We viewed the events from Julien’s (Gaspard Manesse) perspective, a home sick boy who, like most kids, did not really understand what was really happening yet he had no problem throwing words around like “Jew” or “yid” and the bigotry that came with those words. Julien and Jean started off as enemies but the two eventually became friends. However, their friendship was challenged my the Nazis who came to their school to hunt down the three students and send them to their deaths. What I admired most about Louis Malle’s film was the fact that he was able to take the events that happened in his own life and ponder over the decisions he made. Right from the beginning, it felt very personal. The opening scene was a mother and her son saying goodbye at a train station. It was a simple scene but we immediately got to know the protagonist: he was sensitive when he needed to, he felt neglected by his parents, and he hid his real emotions through transference. The other scenes that stood out to me were also simple scenes. One of them was when Julien got lost in the woods in the attempt to find a hidden treasure. On top of the giant rocks, he looked around. What did he think about? Did he know which direction to go? Was he afraid to go down the rocky terrain? Was he worried about the sun setting? In one specific glance around his surroundings, I had so many questions and felt so many emotions. I felt like that scene was a test for him and for us. Even though he was somewhat of a bully, I found that I cared about what would happen to him. Another highlight was when the kids and the teachers watched a Chaplin picture. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I love the movies, but I felt so much joy while watching them laughing collectively at the screen. In one scene, even though the kids made fun of each other and didn’t always get along, they found a common ground. The Chaplin film brought them together and I couldn’t help but feel moved. Malle’s strength was definitely taking simple portraits from his youth and letting us feel why those were important to him. Even though his experiences happened more than fifty years ago, the feelings cut through time and we find ourselves able to relate and sympathize. The closing scene was simply masterful. Slowly, the camera inched toward Julien’s eyes as he realized that sometimes his actions can be powerful. There was no going back. It was a loss of innocence at its finest. He became a man because he finally learned to take responsibility. “Au revoir les enfants” is an astute picture, a rewarding experience, and utterly unforgettable.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Real Women Have Curves,” directed by Patricia Cardoso, was about a smart Mexican-American teenager (America Ferrera) who wanted to go live her life by seeing the world and getting the best education she can but couldn’t because her family and the family business needed her at home. I thought this movie was very accurate in portraying a person who was capable of so much but was often limited by family responsibilities. I knew people like Ferrera’s character back in high school and I think this movie was great at showcasing someone who was torn between what a teenager wanted to accomplish and what a teenager expected to accomplish. One of the main driving forces of the film was Ferrera’s relationship with her mother (Lupe Ontiveros) who was as dramatic as the characters she watched in her soap operas–which made me laugh because she reminded me of my mom and her Filipino soap operas–and her extremely hardworking sister (Ingrid Oliu) with a surprising amount of depth and heart. The way the three women interacted with each other was fascinating because although their interests often collided, there was a certain level of respect and love that was always present. I also found Ferrera’s connection with her teacher (George Lopez), who pushed her to apply to Columbia University, and a romantic interest (Brian Sites) interesting but they were a bit underdeveloped. With a running time of less than an hour and thirty minutes, that was expected but the picture would have been stronger if those elements were fully realized. After all, as much as the movie was about family, it was also about Ferrera’s struggle to want to reach outside of her community. I found it easy to relate with this movie because I also wanted to see things outside of my Filipino community back when I recently immigrated to America when I was eleven. Although my parents were not strict about sticking to our roots, there were some little things that caused tension between us that were directly related to our culture. I was impressed with “Real Women Have Curves” because it was a solid coming-of-age story that seemed to tackle multiple subjects at once including important issues like body image and self-esteem. There was a hilarious scene in the sewing shop that involved women comparing the amount of fat they had in their bodies. That dose of reality was refreshing to see especially when teen movies nowadays always feature teenage characters who are built and/or skinny but are not at all smart and/or sensitive. And if they were portrayed as smart and/or sensitive, most movies directed for teens felt forced and superficial. But in this picture, it felt genuine and that much more powerful.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Good Will Hunting” was about a twenty-year-old janitor with a gift of photographic memory who spent his days hanging out and drinking with his friends (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) instead of actually using his gift to the fullest. But when he anonymously left a solution to a challenging math problem given by a renowned professor (Stellan Skarsgård), the professor tried looking for Will to push him to reach his potential. I loved this picture because it felt more personal than other movies about people with a certain kind of genius. The script was impressive because it was insightful but at the same time wasn’t afraid to explore the insecurities of the characters, especially the relationship between Damon, Skarsgård and Robin Williams, as Will’s counselor who actually wanted to solve Will’s personal problems first before persuading Will to use his gift to help society. I found it fascinating how Will was so smart but he found it difficult to relate with others (except for his core group of friends) because most people were more drawn to his gift than what he had to offer personally. It made him bitter and trusting others became an issue for him, especially with what he had to go through in his childhood. Another source of tension, which I found was one of the weaker links in the film, was the relationship between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver). Even though they spent a lot of scenes together, I didn’t feel as though they loved one another as the film had suggested. However, I found Skylar interesting as a stand-alone character because she was carefree and independent. Perhaps it was just the lack of chemistry between the actors but I would rather watch the scenes when Damon and Williams helped to explore reach other’s inner demons and grow from their experiences. What impressed me most about “Good Will Hunting,” directed by Gus Van Sant, was how real the characters were. Van Sant’s direction was to be applauded because he wasn’t afraid to let his characters act stupid while adding many layers of dimension to them just like people in real life. For instance, the bar scenes with the friends seemed ordinary but they were actually standout scenes because listening in to their conversations made me feel like it was something I could hear in real life. Even though the topics of conversations seemed dull on the surface, the way the characters interacted and the intonations in their voices suggested how close they were as friends and what it meant for them to have someone have their backs no matter what happened. It’s difficult to sum up the story of “Good Will Hunting” in a couple of words because it was more about a crucial span of time in a character’s life. It was an intimate and powerful experience and it made me feel good because it inspired me to have more control to where I want to go in life.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two college friends reunite (Mark Duplass as Ben and Joshua Leonard as Andrew) after a couple of years of not seeing each other. Ben and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are planning to form a family and make their lives as stable as possible. Andrew just got back from exploring different countries and really taking in on what life has to offer. One night when Ben decided to attend a party with Andrew and his friends, they decided to shoot a video for a pornographic film festival. The catch is that they would record themselves having sex despite being heterosexuals. What I love most about this small film was its big ideas underneath the subtle philosophical questions. Instead of creating characters that are defined one way or the other like in most mainstream works, I thought that Lynn Shelter, the writer and director, was able to capture actual essences of people with layers and complexities. Each of them was able to talk about his or her dreams, ideas and disappointments like a friend trying to bond with you in an intimate setting. With its great ear for dialogue (annoying quirks and all), I also enjoyed the fact that this film was very open to different kinds of sexualities. Better yet, it was able to present the idea that the majority of us are not completely straight and not completely gay. The way it explored that gray area inbetween the two extremes was fantastic and refreshing because I often forget that unexplored terrain when I watch movies unless I’m aware that it’s an LGBT picture. But the movie was not just about sex. It’s the close friendship that the lead characters shared, how it was challenged from time to time, and whether it was strong enough to withstand awkward situations such as going to a hotel room and trying to film a video of them sharing each other’s bodies. This is one of the most honest, funny and sometimes touching independent films I’ve seen in a while. It may not have the glamour of having popular actors, the best technical things like lighting and camera angles but, at least for me, everything was done in an exemplary way because it was able to balance emotions and intelligence without having to sacrifice its credibility. A lot of summaries out there make this movie sound like an obvious comedy but it’s far more insightful than that.
Up in the Air (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jason Reitman directed this tale about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) whose job is to fly to various cities across America and fire people who work for different corporations. Ryan enjoys being constantly on the move, collecting frequent flyer miles, and values the isolation and sense of pride that comes with his work. His way of life and mindset are challenged on two fronts: when he met a woman version of himself named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) and a plucky twentysomething named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who wants to revolutionize the way the company works. That is, instead of firing people face-to-face, she argues the corporation can save a lot of money by firing people via a computer. Ryan then has to balance his budding romance with Alex as well as helping Natalie realize that there is a real value in having the courage and putting in the time to actually face the people to tell them that they have lost their jobs. In a grim American economy, I thought this film could not have arrived at a more perfect time because not only did it have a real sense of drama, it had a sense of humor, intelligence, and heart when it comes to the lead characters as well as to those who are recently unemployed.
I thought the director’s decision to actually put real-life people in front of the camera to express how they felt when they got fired was a wonderful idea. It felt that much more real and heartbreaking. Instead of a movie featuring a corporate person (the bully) and the person being fired (the bullied), which is one-dimensional, there was a certain sense of understanding between the two camps even though the people who were being fired were angry and sad when they heard the terrible news. I enjoyed the conversations between Clooney and Kendrick because they were so different. There was real humor when it came to the generational gap, their outlook on marriage and how to deal with people. I’m very happy with the fact that the movie did not result to Clooney being the teacher and Kendrick being the student. They actually learned from each other even though neither of them was a picture of perfection. Even though they were very different, I felt a certain level of respect between them. I also loved the one conversion that Farmiga and Kendrick had concerning what they wanted in a man. That conversation has got to be one of my favorite scenes in the entire film because, in essence, it’s the same kind of question that my friends and I try to answer. It got me thinking about what I really want in a partner ten years from now instead of just focusing on my wants for the present. It also got me thinking about whether I really want to be married. Before watching the film, I thought I knew my answer but now I’m more unsure. I don’t consider that a bad thing at all because the picture really challenged the way I saw certain aspects in being a committed relationship. I saw myself in each of the characters so I was invested throughout.
“Up in the Air” is an ambitious film with great writing and heartfelt performances. Even though the film is essentially a comedy (some unfairly label it as a romantic comedy), it really is about the big questions we have about our life, where it was, where it is now and where it is going. It’s not the kind of movie that tries to be quirky just to feel different. In fact, it follows some of the same structured formula of Hollywood filmmaking. But the material is so rich to the point where it didn’t matter. It felt natural so I thought the characters didn’t feel like they were just characters in a movie. When I look back on the movies that came out in 2009, “Up in the Air” is really one of those pictures that really got it right in terms of reflecting real life.
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by and starring real-life friends Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory essentially star as themselves in “My Dinner with Andre.” Wallace/Wally agreed to meet up with his old friend for dinner and admitted to the audiences that he had not seen his friend in years. The whole film took place in a real-time conversation over dinner between the two actors as they discussed practical and philosophical questions. While both of them were able to offer very insightful questions and commentaries throughout, I had a big problem during the picture’s first thirty minutes. Andre pretty much talked non-stop for several minutes without Wally uttering more than two sentences. I thought that the premise of the film was about two friends who were at an equal intellectual level but very different outlook on life. However, the first thirty minutes did not reflect that. Instead, I intially felt as though Andre was the wiser of the two and Wally was a child getting an education from an elder who has been all over the world. Eventually, however, Wally was given the chance to speak and it was refreshing because even though he did not sound as formal or worldly (or pretentious?) as Andre, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the points he brought up because he expressed his thoughts in simple and frank manner. I thought the film reached its peak when the two stopped agreeing with each other and began expressing how differently they viewed the world. In a nutshell, Wally did not believe in fate and that things were simply an accumulation of random coincidences. Andre, on the other hand, believed in fate and that having a purpose was not always necessary because purpose almost always equated to habit and habit was the lack of awareness and therefore a lack of “real” living. They were able to tell each other a plethora of stories that covered the two basic themes and it was fascinating to sit through. This movie made me think of how many friends I could converse with in a similar level and even I have to admit that there are not a lot of them. Younger viewers and people who are not that into plays may not understand the references that the characters have made (it would probably help for a deeper understanding) but it was still an enjoyable rumination about the beauty and ugliness of life. I could certainly connect with both of the characters so I did not at all find it difficult to keep paying attention with the words and the little nuances in their voices. This is an art-house film, which may mean it is not for everyone, because it “only” consists of two people talking to each other like in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” (which was definitely influenced by this picture). That said, “My Dinner with Andre” is highly rewarding.
Three Dancing Slaves (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Gaël Morel, “Three Dancing Slaves” was about three brothers who tried to cope from the death of their mother. The story started off with the middle child (Nicolas Cazalé) who got caught up with drugs and thugs who want their money. They wanted payback in the most cruel way possible. Also, his ever-growing lack of respect toward his father began to shake the foundation of the family. The middle portion of the picture was about the eldest son (Stéphane Rideau) who recently got out of prison. Unlike the middle child, he was done with partying and hanging out. He actually wanted to turn his life around so he could serve as a model for his brothers and ultimately be proud of himself. Last but not least was the youngest son (Thomas Dumerchez) who tried to keep his secret hidden. He seemed tough at first glance with all his tattoos but he actually turned out to be one of the most sensitive characters. I’ve read a number of critiques about this film and a lot of them mentioned its potential but it didn’t quite deliver. I disagree; I think it did deliver by showing us what each of three characters were going through at specific periods of time. In a nutshell, this was another one of those slice-of-life pictures that most people find difficult to get into because its seemingly lack of strong consistent storyline. It worked for me because it had an emotional core: the death of the mother and how the three brothers responded to it. They may have had other things going on in their lives but it never lost track of that center. I also liked that the tone changed whenever it switched its focus from one brother to the next. The first one felt enigmatic and dangerous, the second felt both depressing and hopeful, and the third felt sensitive and reflective. And justifiably so, the respective tones matched each of the brothers’ dominating personalities. I just wished that the third act could’ve been explored more because it was the shortest. I’m giving this film a strong recommendation because I was interested in it from start to finish. I thought the direction was insightful and I was happy that not everything was spelled out for the audiences.