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.
The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
The Polar Express (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy (Hayden McFarland) was convinced that the whole concept of Santa Claus was just a myth. In order to have proof whether or not Santa existed, he tried to stay up until Christmas Eve to see who would put presents under the Christmas tree. When a mysterious train full of kids arrived and the conductor (Tom Hanks) told Billy they were heading to the North Pole to see Santa Claus and his elves, Billy chose to get on board. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, I consider Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to be a modern classic. I remember watching the film for the first time when it came out and I was surprised to have been deeply moved by Billy’s journey toward his own version of truth. Yes, we all know that the portly man in red who rides reindeers doesn’t exist, but it was easy to connect with the movie because I onced believed in Santa Claus and remembered the magic and joy I felt after willing myself to wake up past midnight and found presents under the Christmas tree. Furthermore, the picture’s animation was a breakthough despite criticisms of the unmoving characters’ facial expressions above the eyes (when we express emotions, we wrinkle our foreheads, move our eyebrows, et cetera). Some critics cited that the characters looked creepy because of the hybrid between real actors and animation. However, every time I watch this movie, I fail to notice such flaws. I was preoccupied with the characters’ intense experiences with the train’s technical difficulties. The train going off-track because the railroad had frozen over was incredibly suspenseful and the very elusive golden ticket would make everyone’s eyes dance across the screen. Nitpicking flaws in the animaton was farthest from my mind. The best scene in the film was its climax. Before Santa Claus appeared, the other kids from the train (Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen) enthusiastically talked about the bells they heard and the beautiful sounds they made. But Billy couldn’t hear the bells because he didn’t believe. And since we saw the movie from Billy’s perspective, we, too, couldn’t hear the bells (perhaps because we no longer believe). That scene was a defining moment which made me think of powerful metaphors from other classic films like the dying plant in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “The Polar Express” is a triumph because it went beyond being a typical Christmas movie with a happy but ultimately empty ending. It took risks by forming a synergy between visuals and story while adding just the right amount of danger, humor, sadness, and wonder in the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.
Prodigal Sons (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kimberly Reed decided to document her return to her hometown in Montana because it was the first time her high school friends and neighbors would see her as a woman. When Paul (now Kim) was in high school, it seemed like he had it all: he was well-liked, he was quarterback of the football team, he had good grades. However, he kept secret of the fact that he felt like he was born in the wrong body. Her eventual transformation contributed to a strain in the relationship with her older adopted brother (Marc McKerrow) who got into an accident when he was in his early twenties and had a part of his brain removed. Ever since the surgery, he had problems with his mood and memory, which was problematic for Kim because she wanted to let go of her past yet her brother kept bringing up the fact that she used to be a man. This documentary moved me in ways that I did not expect. I thought it was just going to be a documentary about how people would react to Kimberly’s decision to finally be in a body where she was meant to be. I was surprised that it was actually more about family and finding closure to issues that do not have easy or comfortable answers. It was not always a good feeling to watch Kim and Marc interact because of the awkwardness of not seeing each other for many years. There was jealousy and anger from Marc’s side and Kim walked on egg shells around her brother but it was obvious that both of them were willing to put in the effort to make their relationship work. Some of the audiences’ reactions on message boards claimed that they hated Marc for being selfish, insensitive and mean-spirited. I did not hate Marc in the least. From the location of his scar, perhaps the doctors removed a part of his frontal lobe (the movie was not specific about which part of Marc’s brain was taken out). Having some basic background in Neurology, the frontal lobe controls personality, decision-making, and memory. So I did not hold him accountable for his fits of rage. Think of it as hitting your “funny bone” (the cause) and trying as hard as you can to not react (the rage). After his violent spells, when he said that his rage “wasn’t me,” I understood what he was trying to convey because he just could not help it. His fits were not dissimilar from clips I’ve seen of actual patients who had a part of their frontal lobe removed. The movie did not offer a scientific explanation (other than he was inconsistent of taking his medication–which is to imply that he was merely choosing to be irresponsible) so I feel the need to shed some light on the matter. “Prodigal Sons” is a deeply personal film and is really worth experiencing than reading about. There were some nice surprises involving bloodlines, people’s reactions to Kim being a transgender, and the history of who Paul was. If I can describe Kim in one word, it would have to be “brave.” By the end of the movie, I wanted to meet her and thank her for sharing not just her story but also the story of her imperfect family and the love they have for one another.
180° South (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
In “180° South,” directed by Chris Malloy, Jeff Johnson and his friends were inspired by adventurers Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard’s journey into Patagonia back in 1968 so Johnson and company decided to do the same thing. Spending months at a time on a constantly rocking boat on top of some technical difficulties with their mode of transport made their journey anything but smooth. I loved that the documentary started off with why it was important for Johnson to go to Patagonia and climb to the peak of the tallest mountain there. Prior to watching the movie, I thought why not just take a plane to the island and start climbing the mountain? Must they really have to go through months of traveling by sea and risk being stranded? But after Johnson expressed his reasons why he wanted to go through certain steps, even though I didn’t necessarily fully agree with him, I understood where he was coming from. And in a way, just hearing and seeing his excitement for his journey and the passion in his voice made me feel excited as well. I liked the narration as much as I hated the use of soundtrack. The narration made it personal and Johnson offered a lot of insight about how his admiration for nature has shaped the way he’s living his life. However, the use of music just annoyed me. I understood that it was supposed to be soothing and it was supposed to match the tone of the movie but it took away the necessary silences that could give us a chance to think more about what the narrator just expressed. I couldn’t help but think how nice it would have been if the music was taken out altogether and let us just hear the waves crashing on the shore or the tiny pebbles sliding down the incline as Johnson and the others climbed a mountain. It would have been that much more exciting because it would feel more like we were really there. With the addition of songs, the movie felt polished instead of natural. There were also some mention of environmental threats in the film and how factories impact nature and people who rely on fishing for a living. That portion of the movie was a hit-or-miss for me. On one hand, I thought it was a positive thing to acknowledge environmental disasters due to people’s disregard for things outside of their spheres. I also thought it was a good thing to have the environmental angle because it shows that Johnson was not just some adrenaline-seeking junkie. But at the same time, I thought the environmental angle took away some of the focus and momentum from the actual journey toward Patagonia. Still, “180° South” is a worthwhile experience because I got to learn more about people who do things that I could never imagine myself doing in my lifetime.
Astro Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” told the story of a brilliant scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) specializing in robotics who recreated his son (Freddie Highmore)–physically with memories included–after the boy’s untimely death during a military testing led by a cruel president (Donald Sutherland). I thought the first third of this film was very strong. Although the look of the movie was crisp so it easily appealed to children, the story was almost a little too dark. I was impressed that it immediately tackled the idea of a parent’s debilitating grief and the effects of trying to replicate a child. It was like watching a version of Steven Spielberg’s underrated “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” but aimed toward children. And like that film, this animated movie also explored what it meant for the main character to be a human (initially), a robot (later on), and accepting the fact that having both characteristics wasn’t so bad. It was also interesting because the first half was set in a world where robots were passively enslaved to humans. In the second half, like David from Spielberg’s film, Astro left the shiny, floating city for the city below where robots were hunted and were forced to participate in a battle royale sort of event. Unfortunately, that part of the picture wasn’t as strong. In fact, it was unfocused. There were times when the attention wasn’t on Astro’s journey but instead on the side characters’. The darkness of the first thirty minutes were stripped away and the tone felt very uneven. The momentum was so slow to the point where I wondered whether it ran out of creative ideas to entertain. I haven’t read the manga but I think if David Bowers, the director, made this picture with edge from beginning to end, it would have been a lot stronger and more interesting to adults. The whole bad guys versus good guys toward the end was kind of typical–something that one can easily see in other animated movies designed for children such as the disappointingly mediocre (but very cute) “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I felt like this film had an innate capacity to be more introspective than other animated flicks and it’s a shame it didn’t take advantage of that. Other notable voices included Bill Nighy, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and Charlize Theron. “Astro Boy” was about a boy’s identity crisis but as a film it should have had a clearer picture about what it wanted to be. However, I did have a good time watching it because it had so much energy and some of the jokes were pretty amusing. Perhaps it’s a good rental if one could use a break from a series of serious movies like I did.
Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.