Silent House (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to sell their lakeside home, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), were required to clean the place and pack memorabilia they wanted to keep. Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John’s brother, lent a helping hand and the two fixed up the basement while throwing playful insults at each other as most close siblings tend to do. As Sarah lit lanterns and began sorting through boxes, there was a knock on the front door. It was Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah’s forgotten childhood friend, and the two eventually decided that they would hang out and reminisce old times. Sarah got back to her work. There was another knock on the door. There was no one there. Based on Gustavo Hernández’ “La casa muda,” the film followed every step that Sarah had taken from the moment we laid eyes on her as she stared placidly across the lake up until she was finally allowed to walk away from the house–all supposedly taken in one take. I’m not sure if such a claim was true, but even if it was an illusion, it was executed convincingly. The picture demanded prodigious patience. There were no shocks that forced our hearts to jump out of our chests every five minutes. The images were supposed to get under our skin and make us believe there was something odd around the corner. Since there was no electricity, every room looked menacing because boxes, plastic bags, and random pointed objects created shadows that suggested there could be something there if one looked closely enough. There were also plenty of mirrors. In horror movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect our protagonists to pass by a mirror, preferably old-looking, without noticing a ghost or whatnot staring right at them. While I will refrain from saying whether or not that cliché was implemented here, the material was able to construct an increasing amount of dread with every creaking door nearby, strange tapping in the room, and deafening thuds next door. Olsen was required to be more than a girl cowering in fear. While her character was fearful of every little thing, which, admittedly, I found quite annoying in the first few minutes, Olsen had way of combining terrified expressions with confusion and anticipation. Turning the doorknob was a challenge for Sarah. Most of us would find ourselves leaning back just in case something on the other side was waiting to go, “Boo!” Since Olsen’s performance had subtle variations, I believed that Sarah was consistently doing the best she could to try to get out of the house and find help. What I didn’t enjoy about the film, however, was its payoff. Imagine being in a roller coaster as it climbed higher and higher up until you just wished it would just reach the top, finally go down and shrill screaming began. But once it reached the top, the unexpected happened: the descent was languorous and very controlled. It felt unnatural so you couldn’t help but feel out of place. That’s how I felt while watching the final act: there was nothing scary, suspenseful, or thrilling about it. Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Silent House,” at its best, made me gasp once or twice. At its worst, however, I shook my head in frustration that it believed it could get away with a cheap resolution just because the supposed single take style looked impressive.
My Winnipeg (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
In Guy Maddin’s surrealistic and challenging documentary, he recounted his life back when he was still living in snowy Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mostly shot in black-and-white, Maddin covered a plethora of topics in which obsession was something they had in common. First, his relationship with his mother (Ann Savage, Maddin’s real-life parent), both a frightening and a fascinating figure. “Maternal” was not a word anybody would label her: One of the most memorable scenes was, through reenactment, when Maddin’s sister, Janet (Amy Stewart), came home, in shock, because she ran over a deer. A typical parent would be relieved that nothing worse had happened. But Mother, through her strange insight, confronted her daughter and made her feel guilty about having sex with a man on the back of her truck. The reenactment was haunting and I could only imagine the anger, humiliation, and sadness the real Janet felt back when it happened. Maddin was also fixated on the buildings he came to love as a child. He went into great details about how he was born in the locker room of a hockey rink. He divulged information about how he loved looking at the hockey players’ naked bodies, not simply in a sexual way but also relishing the fact that he was in the same room as the people he considered his heroes. Watching the film was like looking in a machine designed to sort through someone’s memories. Though kaleidoscopic as a whole, the pith of the matter was always personal and deep. Various techniques were used with confidence and reckless abandon. Some scenes were in color, others were animated, while some had a complete lack of narration. Whatever technique was used, it felt personal even though not everything made sense right away because it jumped from one topic to another. Maddin claimed he wanted to escape Winnipeg since it was essentially rotting from the inside. Strangely enough, by revealing to us what he disliked about his hometown, like the city officials’ decision to destroy certain buildings that he’d grown attached to, he showed us why he loved it; that no matter how far he was or how strongly he tried to forget, Winnipeg would always be a part of him. “My Winnipeg” was an intense variegation of memories packed with psychosexual undertones. The meaning behind the messages that Maddin wanted to send to the world may not always be apparent because of its heavy experimental style but it was, in the least, worth delving into. Its sheer bravado to push the envelope of alternative filmmaking makes it a diamond in the rough.
The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” followed psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) to a space station orbiting a planet that had the strange ability to create bodies of human beings based on one’s memories while sleeping. I saw Steven Soderbergh’s film prior but there were very few similarities between the two. While both were purposely slow in pace, the classic “Solaris” was more concerned about specific details that aim to creep out its audiences. Despite its close to three hours running time, I was consistently fascinated with what was happening because of the images it had to offer. The first kind of image was what the audiences saw on screen. There was something genuinely unsettling about the planet’s human version of us. In this case, Kris’ wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who passed away years prior, was extracted from Kris’ memory more than once. Although she initially did not have any memory of who she was (she didn’t even know what she looked like until she looked in the mirror), she was a learning being, eventually able to mimic certain behaviors like sleeping or feeling guilt. She tried to be human but she simply wasn’t. She was eventually able to copy very human characteristics like selflessness but does that make her human? I noticed that even though the planet had the ability to replicate images from the mind, it managed to create incorrect details like a dress not having a zipper or a lake’s water not moving at all. The second kind image was in the stories the characters told. In the beginning of the film, a pilot described his experiences while exploring the planet. The way he talked about the evolution of the planet’s water and his eventual encounter with a giant baby was frightenening. His words were so alive, I felt like I was there with him. Directed by Andrey Tarkovskiy, “Solaris” successfully tackled questions about humanity through encounters that defied the norm. The filmmakers had a great challenge because they had to keep the material creative while not simply giving easy answers. In the end, I still had questions such as the filmmakers’ use of black and white in some scenes, their purposeful way of defying the laws of physics in specific scenes when we knew what was happening was occuring in reality and not in the mind, and the fates of the crew like amicable Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and practical Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). Despite my unanswered questions, I could not help but respect the film because it, too, treated me with respect. I watched it with a careful eye and it rewarded me with possibilities. Who’s to say that a planet like Solaris isn’t out there in the universe just waiting to be discovered?
★★ / ★★★★
Half-brothers Clay (Dennis Haysbert) and Vincent (Michael Harris) met for the first time. Everyone in the film, including the two, thought they looked alike. However, the audience knew better because they were obviously nothing alike in terms of physicality: Clay was an African-American who looked like a linebacker and Vincent was a Caucasian who looked frail but with a mind full of devious intentions. Vincent wanted to get away with murder so he tried to fake his death by using Clay’s body in a car explosion. However, Clay lived without any memory of who he was. It was up to Dr. Descartes (Mel Harris) to reconstruct Clay’s face and Dr. Shinoda (Sab Shimono) to reconstruct Clay’s memories. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, “Suture” had a fascinating, almost Hitchcock-ian premise but it ultimately failed to deliver because Clay’s journey to eventually realizing what happened to him lacked tension. Instead of keeping his relationship with Dr. Descartes strictly professional, they got involved in a romantic relationship. In a way, that romance was a distraction instead of really exploring interesting questions involving living a life that was not meant to be. As a person of science, I also had questions about Dr. Shinoda’s techniques in the attempt to recover Clay’s memory. I’m not quite sure if the film was aiming for accuracy but I believe Freudian methods are far from the most effective ways in treating amnesia (at least from what I’ve been taught). The movie only regained its footing near end when Vincent finally decided to finish off what he had started. It was a nailbiting scene because the characters moved ever so slowly and so quietly to the point where the audiences were keen on potential mistakes that could cost a character his life. I loved that the movie was gorgeously shot in black and white but at the same time it was disappointing because the filmmakers did not play with shadows. It would have been a perfect because the characters, especially Vincent, had something to hide and he was often in the dark in terms of what he was thinking and his true motivations. Furthermore, it would have been more interesting if Vincent had become a more sympathetic figure over time instead of remaining to be a one-dimensional cold-blooded killer. The same goes for Clay: it would have been much more fun to watch the film if his desperation had led him to make decisions that we did not necessarily agree with. In the end, I wanted to see the malleability, fluidity and complexity of identity. Instead of taking a step beyond the switching identity storyline, it stayed within the conventions and it failed to leave a lasting memory.