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.
Total Recall (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had a recurring nightmare about being with a brunette (Rachel Ticotin) in Mars. Feeling like he needed a break from his job, he decided to get an operation done in which scientists would upload memories of him going on a vacation onto his brain. The operation failed (with disastrous results) because, as it turned out, the current memory Douglas perceived to be his real life was simply artificial. Douglas decided to go to Mars and face a corporate leader (Ronny Cox) who was behind the charade. However, before he left, he had to face his wife (Sharon Stone) who felt strongly against his course of action. The first few minutes of the film did not give me a good impression. I thought the acting was laughable, especially from the lead, and I wasn’t quite sure if the campiness was intentional. But as it went on, I became more impressed with its creativity in terms of the questions it brought up regarding which reality was real, the technologies that defined the future, and the intense action sequences. I had fun with its many product placements which were popular back in the late 80s but lost selling power after twenty years. Furthermore, for a science fiction film, I did not expect it to have so much blood. There were times when I felt like I was watching a horror film. The picture constantly changed gears. It wasn’t just about Douglas’ quest to find his true identity. There was a subplot about humans and mutants in Mars who decided to join forces and rebel against the greedy corporate leader. Cox’ character was determined to keep the element that could ultimately create atmosphere in Mars for himself for the sake of cash flow. Slow death of dozens of lives due to a lack of oxygen meant absolutely nothing to him. In a nutshell, I was convinced that he was a villain worth experiencing a painful demise. “Total Recall,” based on a short story by Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and directed by Paul Verhoeven, was a very entertaining film because it had a plethora of ideas that shaped and defined its underlying themes. Impressive special and visual effects were abound which helped to elevate our perception of the futuristic world. After the main character’s discovery that his life was a simply a fabrication, every scene that followed was thrilling action scene. But there was a question that lingered up until the final scene: Was everything we saw reality or was it the “perfect” fantasy vacation that Douglas asked for?
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★ / ★★★★
If I were to describe “Pandorum” in one word, it would be “convoluted.” When Ben Foster finds himself in a space ship waking up from an extended hypersleep, he had no memory of where he was and what he was doing there. Upon further exploration of the ship, he found Dennis Quaid as the lieutenant who was supposed to be in charge during their cycle. He, too, just woke up from hypersleep. They then decided to help each other find a way to a nuclear reactor to reset the failing power of the ship and then take control it. The catch was that the ship was teeming with aliens that are hungry for human flesh. I really like science fiction films because it often begs the question of “what if?” Unfortunately, although this picture was set hundreds of years into the future, it just didn’t feel futuristic. The characters talked like people living today, cursing from left and right included, and for people who are supposed to be smart, they didn’t act that way. The overall look of the picture didn’t look futuristic at all. In fact, it looked grimy and uninspired–like something that one could easily see in a video game. Speaking of video games, the action sequences were subpar. Half of the time, I couldn’t see a thing because not only was the environment really dark, the camera would shake uncontrollably to match the dizzying movements of the characters. None of it worked for me and I grew tired of it after thirty minutes. However, I did like the idea of “pandorum.” It’s a psychological term when a person in space goes through a mental break for unknown reason. Two major symptoms include paranoia and bodily sensations that aren’t there yet the person believes otherwise. That concept somewhat came into focus when Cam Gigandet appeared on screen. Unfortunately, the writers couldn’t help themselves and had to write in a riduculous twist that completely took me out of the experience. This movie was not without potential. If there were no aliens and therefore no annoying action sequences, the film might have had a chance to really explore the silence and isolation that the characters were going through. With such an interesting concept, the aliens were just too literal for my liking. It was too literal to the point where unintentional laughs were unavoidable because what was happening on screen was so ludicrous. And I’m not even going into the very typical one-liners. I say skip “Pandorum” and rewatch “Alien,” “Aliens” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” if you’re looking for an unforgettable space adventure.
Otto; or, Up With Dead People (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bruce La Bruce’s movie about a zombie named Otto (Jey Crisfar) was not something I expected. I thought it would be hybrid of horror and drama because I was aware that Otto was an unhappy undead who couldn’t tap into the memories he collected back when he was alive. I liked the style of this picture: some were in black and white, some were in color, other aspects were told in a linear manner, while some were in split-screen. All those different techniques worked for me because it kept me interested and sometimes the craft matched the lead character’s mood. The second thing I liked about this movie was that it was a movie within a movie. Otto was hired to play a zombie by an eccentric director (Katharina Klewinghaus) who wanted to comment on consumerism, intolerance (especially toward non-heterosexuals), and modernity. Even though there were times when I thought certain ideas were not explored enough, I did appreciate that I tried to achieve something. The third factor that I admired about this film was the main character. When he started to remember the memories he had with his ex-boyfriend, I questioned whether he was really dead. I thought him being a “zombie” was just a front because he would rather shut down instead of dealing with the pain of abandonment and hopelessness. I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for depression and a brilliant one at that. As the film went on, I felt as though he was becoming more alive as he realized that people did miss him and he was not insignificant. But what didn’t work for me was that the director’s ideas were so all over the place to the point where sometimes the messages contradicted each other. I also didn’t get what the connection was between sex and nudity to social contracts and the social problems. If that part had been clearer, especially since the idea took about half of the film to explain, I think this would’ve been a much stronger project. Ambitious ideas are great but one should support those ideas in a clear manner for evaluation and understanding. “Otto; or, Up With Dead People” is definitely not a commercial film because it actively challenges the conventions of storytelling. Most people would see this as pointless and meandering but I thought there was enough brain to warrant a slight recommendation. Its ability to take the zombie flicks upside down, such as the undeads’ ability to speak, think and restrain themselves from eating people, was fun to watch.