The Iron Lady (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) had always been interested in public service. Despite her accomplishments in the University of Oxford and keen interest in politics, she was never meant to be taken seriously. How could she when women were perceived to have no place in governing a country? And with a humble background while growing up, she would always be seen as a mere grocer’s daughter. Instead of wilting under the shadow of society’s expectations, the put-downs she brooked made her hungrier. After marrying Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, later played by Jim Broadbent), she ran in the election and was given the title of Great Britain’s Prime Minister. Margaret Tatcher (Meryl Streep) was more than willing to prove that she earned the people’s trust in her ability to govern. Based on the screenplay by Abi Morgan, as “The Iron Lady” unfolded, I began to feel like it was experiencing an identity crisis. I was very entertained and magnetized by Streep’s dual performance: As a frail aging woman on the verge of dementia and as a no-nonsense leader who was able to make the tough decisions for what she believed was right. However, as someone who didn’t know much about Thatcher, I felt like the picture was not only a very brief synopsis, but not a very good one because there were too many gaps left unmentioned and unexplored. One example involved Tatcher’s delusions that her husband was still alive. It was never mentioned how he died and, more importantly, the picture never showed, in a meaningful way, why Denis was such an important presence in his wife’s life independent of being a husband who insisted that she got some sleep instead of working until three o’clock in the morning. In relation to Thatcher being in power, after the war between the United Kingdom and Argentina had ended, I got the impression that the economic turmoil that plagued Great Britain prior to the Falklands War magically disappeared. How did winning the war help to solve the country’s economic troubles? While it was wonderful to watch Streep’s versatility in playing an old lady who snuck out of her home to buy butter, I wish we had more scenes of her in office. When the flashback scenes were front and center, I slowly began to feel the pressure that Tatcher was under. As everyone looked to her for answers, I felt uncomfortable for her. The trips to the past were the film’s highest points because they showed why she was a great and flawed leader. Her seemingly impenetrable armor did not come without a cost. One of the most memorable sequences was Thatcher’s breakdown during a meeting. Awkward cuts ran abound, the camera jumped from one area of the room to another, both of which reflected an ineluctable lack of inner focus in Thatcher’s mind. Because she was so frustrated that the change she expected to come out of her leadership didn’t come swiftly enough, she turned to her Cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), and pointed out his mistakes and how unprepared he was during that meeting. We all knew that deep down, Howe’s shortcomings reflected her own. She was just too proud to admit it. The scene was shot with such a vibrant energy and not without a sense of humor, a reminder of how powerful “The Irony Lady,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, could have been if it had spent more time exploring the Prime Minister’s accomplishments and failures as a leader, a mother, and an individual who just wanted to make a difference.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An AWOL soldier, Private Witt (James Caviezel), had never been good at following orders. When ordered to go left, he turned right. But when he was found in a Malaysian island by 1st Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), Pvt. Witt, as punishment, was assigned to be a stretcher bearer in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The attack was led by Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) and his superior Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte). The former wouldn’t obey the latter’s orders because he believed that sending his men forward was suicide. The Japanese bunkers were too far and too hidden for a typical affront. Lt. Col. Tall wasn’t convinced. Based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones and beautifully directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” was fascinating because it combined the horrors of war with spirituality. We were given the chance to hear a soldier’s thoughts, American and Japanese, about his place in the world, trepidation in terms of facing his mortality, and the loved ones he left behind. While the action scenes were raw and unflinching, I was most impressed with the way the soldiers played the hand they’ve been given. Some made rookie but dire mistakes out of panic (Woody Harrelson), some succumbed in fear and would rather be invisible (Adrien Brody), while others were distracted by flashbacks, wondering whether someone was still waiting for them at home (Ben Chaplin). The film highlighted that war was not as simple as two sides fighting for a cause. In a way, the battlefield was a glorious arena in which we had to fight ourselves. While good soldiers trusted their instincts, orders, too, must be obeyed. The conflict between instinct and duty could break a man. I was most interested in Pvt. Witt because he looked at his enemies with serenity. Unlike his comrades, not once did he show hatred toward the soldiers on the opposite side of the mountain. I wondered why. If I was in his position, I’m not quite sure if I could look at my enemies as if they were my equal. I would probably see them as lower animals and treat them as such. I just don’t think I can be as forgiving if I knew that my friends and comrades died because of them. Pvt. Witt mentioned that “maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man.” Malick used images to underline man’s place in nature. There were zen-like shots of soldiers just sitting around and admiring, for example, a plant. It took them out of the situation, even for just a few seconds, until the voice of their leader urged them to go on. There were several shots of birds, flying in sky or dying on the ground, which symbolized either glory or pain. “The Thin Red Line” was sensitive and intelligent. It tried to find answers in a place where answers were as transient as they were permanent.
Paths of Glory (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In World War I, a French general (Adolphe Menjou) ordered his men to make their way through German fires and seize the Ant Hill from the enemy. General Broulard thought such an action would be the key to victory and his glory. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) rebelled against the idea because he knew it would be a suicide mission, but since he was lower in the ranks, he had no choice but to lead his men in the attempt. In the thick of battle, some of the troops refused to leave their trenches and in doing so resulted to the failure in capturing the coveted Ant Hill. General Broulard, in blind fury, decided to make an example of the troops, a lesson in the repercussion of cowardice, by selecting three random men (Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Richard Anderson) to be assassinated through a firing squad. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” surprised me in many ways. It was a moving story because it dealt with humanity’s place in the chaos of war and the powers that controlled or motivated them. There was a divide between the good and the bad. The good were the troops miserably placed in those trenches as they endured the flying bullets and the explosions of the grenades. They saw their friends meet their demise in one incorrect move or a major miscalculation by their officers. The officers were the bad. They enjoyed parties, dancing, and eating succulent meals in elegantly decorated rooms. They discussed about their triumphs in the battlefield despite the fact that they observed from a distance. When they did visit the trenches, they exuded an air of confidence; when a soldier expressed his fear about the war, he deserved to be slapped around like a child or an animal. Kubrick knew the importance of images and he used such contrasting elements to make a powerful anti-war statement. As we plunged into the battlefield, all we could distinctly hear were the firing of the guns, men’s bodies hitting the ground, and yells to improve morale or perhaps to mask their fear of death. The extended scene in which the troops made their way toward enemy lines was especially memorable. The director framed the scene in such a way that it felt like we were there with the dispensable men. One way I could describe it was like being stuck in the middle of two big waves in the ocean. There was anticipation mixed with a sense of panic and dread amidst the heavy confusion. I would most likely have stayed in the trenches as well if I was one of those soldiers. The last scene with the German woman singing and the soldiers joined in was a very touching moment and it was a perfect way to end an ultimately tragic reflected reality. “Paths of Glory” is a great example of how powerful war pictures can be. Indeed, a great leader is defined by the way he treats his inferiors, not his equals.
The Young Victoria (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Future Queen Victoria’s (Emily Blunt) mother (Miranda Richardson) and stepfather (Mark Strong) desperately tried to convince their daughter to sign away her power until she was 25 years old before she turned 18. However, Victoria wanted to run her empire despite her age and inexperience. Meanwhile, she also had to deal with Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) who craved more power and Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) who was sent to court Victoria in order to gain political advantage. I am somewhat torn about this film because while I did admire its consistently strong acting (particularly from Blunt) and it had an unconventional feel in terms of telling a period picture, I felt like it did not have enough gravity to really get me to be interested in its history. Perhaps period movies are just not my cup of tea. However, I really did try to get into the conflicted characters and the difficult circumstances that plagued them. For instance, I empathized with Victoria’s mother but at the same time I wanted to shake her because she chose her current husband over her daughter time and time again. I understood her fears of not being wanted in a society where aging women were dispensable so she clung onto people that could protect her. I related to her because wanting to be valued is a universal feeling. Furthermore, I had a feeling that the film had a hard time balancing Queen Victoria’s political decisions and the repercussions of her actions (and inaction) alongside her romance with Prince Albert. Just when one of the two became interesting, it switched gears and I was left frustrated because I wanted to feel more involved. Since I did not know much about England’s history, a lot of the plot was a surprise to me. The scenes were elegantly shot particularly the scenes during and after Victoria was finally crowned, the dinner scene in King William’s court (Jim Broadbent) when everybody had to try to be polite even though not everybody liked each other, and the extreme close-ups when Victoria and Albert were face-to-face after not seeing each other for extended periods of time. “The Young Victoria,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, needed more focus in terms of Queen Victoria’s role in politics. In the end, I did not feel much growth from her in terms of managing her empire; the feeling I got was she needed a man to help her run her empire. If it were not for the title cards in the last two minutes, I would have came to a conclusion that Queen Victoria was not an effective leader of her people.
Whale Rider (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, “Whale Rider” was about a little girl named Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who possessed the ability to communicate, through prayers, with whales. Unfortunately, her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) was so caught up in traditions regarding the leader of the Whangara people being a boy that he was blind to his granddaughter’s gift. In a way, he connected Paikea and the death of her male twin with their tribe’s increasing lack of passion for their culture. Desperate to find a leader, the grandfather gathered the local boys but no one could match Paikea’s natural abilities and passion for what she was meant to do. Even though I’ve seen the angle of older generation clashing with a younger generation with respect to traditions, I thought the film was still refreshing because I knew nothing about the Maori tribe and the Whangara people. So I saw the picture through a fresh set of eyes and I was curious with how they were so in touch with nature. Castle-Hughes blew me away because she was so good at exuding strength but at the same time remaining vulnerable. Her acting culminated in the scene where she had to present a speech in front of an audience dedicated to her grandfather but he didn’t bother to show up. The way she composed herself and delivered her lines, despite the tears, showed so much strength that I couldn’t imagine an American actress so young as she was pulling it off quite as swimmingly. I also enjoyed the scenes when the community tried to help the whales when the animals swam to the shore to meet their demise. That sense of unity made me feel warm and I wanted to join them because I was so inspired. As for the supporting actors, I loved the grandmother played by Vicky Haughton because she was not afraid to say what she wanted to say to her stubborn husband when everyone else were forced to swallow their words. But at the same time, she was warm to others, especially her granddaughter. I just wished that Paikea’s father (Cliff Curtis) was in it a bit more because the movie didn’t spend enough time establishing his role in his daughter’s life. “Whale Rider” was a magical film full of fascinating culture. It’s a nice reminder that there’s this whole world out there that is so immaterial and far values working together more than competition. I expected a movie for kids because of the synposes I read but I got to see something much more rewarding.
★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay star in “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick, as four Jewish brothers who escape from the place where they used to live due to the implementation of the Final Solution. The four seek refuge in the forest as they welcome (though at times reluctantly) other Jewish people. Soon, they become a community; and as with all new communities, problems ensue such as rationing of food, who deserves what, what is allowed and what is not, who the leader should be and so on. Although the audiences get a lot of scenes when the Germans attack the Jews and vice-versa, I really could care less about those scenes. I was actually more interested in the dynamics within the small community such as the differing ways of leadership between Craig and Schreiber. While I found it difficult to align myself with one or the other, I thought it was great because I was engaged with what was going on as well as surprised when they would suddenly change their stance regarding a particular issue. I also liked the scenes when everyone would starve and get diseases in the dead of winter. It’s not that I like watching people suffer but it’s more about being concerned and wondering who will make it in the end and who wouldn’t. Although this was inspired by a true story, admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Bielski brothers so I didn’t know how it would end. What prevents me from giving this film a recommendation is that it all too often becomes generic. With such a unique subject matter, I feel like it took the safer route in order to appeal to wider audiences. It also had too many fighting scenes when it really didn’t need to because it already has a poignant story to tell. Still, there’s some scenes worth seeing here such as when Zwick showed that people are people–that is, monstrosity can be committed by both the Germans and the Jews. I wish this had been a much stronger film because it really is important to recognize what the Bielski brothers have done for the Jewish community. But perhaps the gesture is enough.
★★ / ★★★★
I think a lot of critics and audiences alike have been way harsh on this film. I concur that this picture is not easy to swallow and digest since most of the story took place in one area. It definitely got suffocating because the audiences are subjected to see the same place for about an hour and fifteen minutes (the middle portion); the only things that changed are the increasingly disgusting living conditions of the blind and the dynamics among the wards. Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore lead one of the wards, a doctor and a doctor’s wife, one lost his sight and the other one kept her sight (though it must be kept a secret), respectively. It was interesting to watch their relationship change as the film went on because Ruffalo depended on his wife regarding pretty much everything. There was a brilliant scene when Ruffalo talked to Moore about not seeing her the same after she feeds him, bathes him, and cleans him up in ways that a nurse or mother normally does. There was this undeniable tension between them but at the same time they must stay together because everything around them is falling apart. I thought it was interesting how Fernando Meirelles, the director, chose to tell the story. In the first few scenes, we focus on this one man who suddenly goes blind in the middle of traffic (Yusuke Iseya) and slowly transition to other people suddenly going blind to the point where it becomes an epidemic. The epidemic and ravaged city reminded me of “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later,” only instead of zombies roaming the streets, it’s blind individuals. I also liked the slightly hopeful ending because the suffering was not entirely for naught. Still, by the end of the picture, I still wanted to know the source of the epidemic. That lack of explanation somewhat got to me (and I imagine as most people would). I don’t deny the fact that I saw some hints of great filmmaking here such as the stark contrast between certain images in the beginning and the end of the movie. I also liked the “Lord of the Flies” element in the quarantine zone when everyone had to decide who would get how much food, who the leader should be and who would emerge victorious between the wards. I’ve never seen Gael García Bernal so immoral so his character definitely took me by surprise. With a little bit more explanation and less saggy middle portion, this would’ve been a much powerful film. The acting was already really good and there were scenes that really tugged at my heartstrings. See this if you’re curious and hopefully you’ll see what I see in it: potential.