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.
The American Friend (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Der amerikanische Freund” or “The American Friend” was about Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) who had to pay off a debt so he sold paintings in Europe by a painter (Nicholas Ray) who faked his own death. However, the amount of money Tom made wasn’t enough so a friend (Gérard Blain) suggested that Tom finds a way for an innocent family man (Bruno Ganz), who suffered from a rare blood disease, to kill whoever got in the way of their business. Despite the languid tone of the picture, I was consistently interested in what was happening because the way the story unfolded was not something I expected. Having seen other films in which Tom Ripley was the main character (epitomized by Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), I thought it was refreshing that Hopper’s interpretation of his character was more cryptic and less insecure while remaining quite venomous when the occasion called for it. I also did not expect that the story gave more focus on the Ganz’ character than Tom. There was an emphasis in the relationship with his wife (Lisa Kreuzer) and child and his concern regarding his mortality. There was one scene where Ganz wondered if his child would remember his face when he was gone. That scene had a certain resonance and, at least for me, it explained why he decided to take up a contract and attempt to murder other people. While the movie had its share of thrilling elements such as the scenes in the subway station (which was exemplary) and the train, the picture wore its heart on its sleeves by showing how secrets and illness challenged the bond between a husband and wife. The main problem I had with “The American Friend” was it did not spend enough time shedding the layers of Hopper’s character. From start to finish, I did not quite fully connect with him because he remained as a mysterious figure accompained by superficially strange antics. I did not know anything about his past which was a missed opportunity because sociopaths are fascinating character studies. There is something creepy or scary about a person who has to fake his emotions in order to pass as “normal” but the movie barely touched on it. For an over two-hour running time, a lack of exploration of the Tom character was no excuse especially when the film had scenes that weren’t necessary to elevate the big picture.
Dark Victory (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bette Davis stars as a lively twenty-four-year-old woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor by a doctor (George Brent) who she eventually became romantically entangled with. After the surgery, she was given about ten months to live but her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and doctor chose not to tell her what would inevitably happen. Aside from the unethical choice that the doctor made (I’m assuming that perhaps it was permitted back in the day), I thought this film was tremendous in every way. I was hooked the moment Davis entered the doctor’s office because their interaction was believable. I saw elegance in how the lead character initially didn’t want to share anything about her condition to the way she slowly opened up and placed her full trust to a man she’d never met. I especially enjoyed Davis as a socialite who lived her life to the fullest but was in complete denial about her debilitating health. As she made her way through certain crowds, there was subtlety in her acting–the little looks she gave to people who she thought were being fake or stupid were amusing to watch. I completely believed that she was the kind of woman who would say or do something outrageous and get away with it with flying colors. I thought there was something heartbreaking about the way she evolved from someone who was so afraid of death to someone who eventually learned to accept it. I couldn’t help but feel moved in the end when she eventually learned to be strong for her friends just as when her friends were strong for her prior to her surgery. I really felt like the picture came full circle and the movie gave me great satisfaction even though the subject matter was essentially sad. Although the film was about a patient who had a terminal disease, I loved that it still had a bit of comedy and romance. The movie could have easily been distracted with sudden shifts in tones and unnecessary side stories (not to mention the easy temptations of getting too melodramatic to get more tears from the audiences) but the script was tight and the overall product had a great sense of pacing because each scene had a purpose. Directed by Edmund Goulding, “Dark Victory” is definitely one of the best movies of 1939, a year in which many movies were worthy of Best Picture winners. “Dark Victory” is one of those movies that made me wish movies of today had just the right amount of dosage in terms of delivery. It’s simple but it had laser-like focus on what it wanted to accomplish.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought Pixar could not surprise me any longer after such an impressive nine-streak classics and near classics (perhaps with the exception of “Cars”), their tenth film, “Up,” directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, was nothing short of impressive. “Up” tells the story of an aging balloon salesman (Carl voiced by Edward Asner) and his way of honoring his late wife’s dream of visiting South America. After attaching thousands of balloons to his house as it floated to the sky, he discovered an eager wilderness boy scout/explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). In South America, the two meet a giant bird named Kevin and an extremely adorable talking dog named Dug (also voiced by Peterson). But that was only the beginning of their breathtaking adventure.
I believe this is one of the more mature Pixar films when it comes to dealing with emotion because it tries to tell a story from the perspective of an old man possibly living his last few years. There was a certain sadness that pervaded the film because he constantly tried looking back in his past and feeling an utmost sadness whenever he thinks about his promises to his wife that he never fulfilled when she was alive. I was particularly impressed with the first scene when Young Carl (Jeremy Leary) and Young Ellie (Elie Docter) first met. There was a certain innocence and innate acceptance with it all and it truly reminded me of my parents because they, too, met when they were pretty much kids and eventually got married. I think one of the best scenes of the film was when it showed how their lives progressed from when they were kids, finally moved into a house that was once their playground of imagination, failure to have children, to when Ellie was on her deathbed. I found that scene with no spoken language so powerful because it managed to capture the essence of life–the ups as well as the downs–something that most animated films tend to sugarcoat. I was really touched with Ellie and Carl’s relationship because even though their dreams were not fully realized because life always got in the way (an injury, a natural accident, broken appliances, et cetera), they still stayed strong and together up until the end. I was also impressed that “Up” was brave enough to show blood and bullets and characters really getting hurt so I was that more engaged.
There were a plethora of jokes that made me seriously laugh out loud in the cinema. I had no shame even though I saw this film with a bunch of college students of around my age because it was that funny. The brilliant one liners, such as “I do not like the cone of shame!”, were stuck in my head after I walked out of the theater. They paint a big smile on my face when I think about them now as I write this review. I don’t know what it was–maybe it was the kid in me–but I was just so astonished with (aside from the storytelling) the visual experience (I saw it on 3D–which was worth the extra three bucks!). Pixar has an undeniable talent when it comes to putting certain colors together to make the important images pop up so the audiences will understand without the characters saying a word. The imagers were that effective so I couldn’t help but give it praise. I also liked the colorful characters, especially Dug, the talking dog. Not only was he beyond cute but his character had this vibrant energy that reminded me of, oddly enough, myself. Like Dug, I easily get distracted even when things are at their most critical point and I tend to repeat myself when I’m excited or hyper. Russell, despite his happiness and earnestness, has a certain depth that explores the dynamics in his home. This film was actually able to comment on issues such as the repercussions of poor parenting and the child’s psychology whenever a parent neglects him. I was devastated when Russell finally revealed his motivation for wanting to be a wilderness explorer so badly to Carl. It goes to show that he’s still a child because, to him, accomplishments come hand-in-hand with social or parental approval and not primarily about self-worth (yet). Subtle things like that convinced me that a lot of thought was put into this film. Unlike most animated pictures, this strives to be more than just “cute” and “visually stunning.”
It goes without saying that I’m enthusiastically recommending “Up.” I think it’s one of the more emotionally mature animated films that Pixar has ever come up with because it was able to successfully tackle the depression that comes after a partner’s death and the anxiety that comes when one thinks about his own mortality. While kids may be saddened just a bit during those scenes (as well as adults), the older generations will most likely think about their own lives during or afterwards. I truly hope that this will be considered to be a Best Animated Film, along with “Coraline,” during the Oscars season. And if it happens to win, it will be well-deserved. I cannot help but wonder what Pixar will come up with next.
Gods and Monsters (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based loosely on James Whale’s life, this film is for both the fan of “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” back in the 1930’s and general film lovers. Ian McKellen plays the legendary director with such power and subtlety, I forgot that I was watching an actor playing a part. The way he told his stories about making films, fighting in the war, and falling in love has a certain organic feel to it to the point where I felt like my grandfather was passing on his most treasured memories to me. Brendan Frasier surprised me in this film because I’ve always seen him in comedies and action-comedies, but he was able to deliver as the gardener who craves for something bigger than himself. He is able to mollify the hunger by interacting with McKellen–someone who has done something important in his life. The dynamic between the two leads have a plethora of implications. To be honest, by the end of the picture, I find it difficult to define their relationship. Sure, they’ve become friends but what kind of friendship did they really have? Was it a utility friendship, pleasure friendship, or complete friendship, or a combination of two or three of them? Another stand-out was Lynn Redgrave as Hanna, McKellen’s caretaker. She was so colorful and spunky in her scenes so it’s hard for me not to notice her. Her relationship with McKellen’s character is multidimensional but it never took the focus out of the film’s core. My favorite scenes include McKellen telling his story of the man he truly loved despite the circumstances through which they met, when the film actually reshot some of the scenes from “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” and when McKellen was finally driven to madness/desperation. Even though this is well-made, this film is not for everyone because it’s really more about the characters, what they’ve been through and where they’re going instead of the plot driving the vehicle to a certain destination. This film has something to say about mortality and how one deals with life after great accomplishments have been achieved. It goes to show that the question of “what if” can be as daunting as asking “what’s next.”