★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from Susanne Bier’s “Brødre,” “Brothers,” directed by Jim Sheridan, was about two brothers: a Marine (Tobey Maguire) who loves his family and kids (Natalie Portman, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare) and an ex-con (Jake Gyllenhaal) who recently got out of jail. The (very intense) final forty-five minutes shook me to the core when Maguire’s character finally returned to his family after being captured and tortured by the enemy for months. But as great as the last third was, I was also impressed with the way the film tackled subjects such as redemption in Gyllenhaal’s character wanting to do good for his brother’s family by playing with the kids, fixing up the kitchen, and helping them move on from a death in the family. During the first few minutes, it also established the fact that even though the brothers were so different from one another (highlighted in scenes where the father expressed pride in one and disappointment in another), there was a strong bond between them and nothing could change their love for one another. I was moved especially when their relationship was challenged in the last forty-five minutes; I felt like the two actors were really brothers when they conversed because there was a sort of intimacy between them. I also liked the way it showed the ugliness of returning from war and being traumatized by the events that happened there. Although it tackled the issue with sensitivity, it wasn’t afraid to be honest regarding what could potentially happen to someone who had a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the symptoms that came with it such as paranoia, rage and disorientation. It was heartbreaking to watch the children become afraid of their own father, the wife not knowing how to respond to her husband’s physical return (but not mentally and emotionally), and the way Gyllenhaal’s character dealt with his brother’s suspicions and anger. The only problem I had with the film were the scenes which involved Maguire being kidnapped by the enemy. I think if all those scenes were left out and the audiences were left to wonder what really happened to Maguire’s character, it would have been that much more haunting (such as using a title card stating “a few months later” and the like). A sudden shift from a warm, loving person to a cold person who was on a verge of a psychotic breakdown would have had a far more impact on me. Nevertheless, “Brothers” is a strong movie that relies on the characters and subtle (sometimes explosive) acting instead of soldiers trying to survive in war zones. It felt personal so I couldn’t help but think about it after a while.
★★ / ★★★★
“Vargtimmen” or “Hour of the Wolf” plays on the idea that between night and dawn, it is the time when most people are born and most people die. It is also the time when we are haunted by our greatest fears whether we are asleep or awake. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, while I thought the story was interesting, I can’t quite recommend it because I know Bergman was capable of producing a stronger picture. It just didn’t have the signature tension that most of his movies had. I absolutely loved Liv Ullmann’s scenes because she had a talent for balancing sweetness, anxiety, fear and internal rage. This was highlighted when she talked to the camera such as in the first and last scenes. I wanted to console her and ask her about the finer details of what she thought happened to her increasingly detached husband. While I thought the performances were fine, such as Max von Sydow as Ullmann’s husband who was afraid of the dark, nobody else could match the lead actress’ intensity so I felt like she somewhat carried the film. For a horror film, I didn’t feel scared for a second because it really was more about the fractured mind of von Sydow–how the guilt for something he had done in the past had suddenly become so unbearable; and how one experience he had as a child had changed the way he dealt with irrational fears. As for the people they met in a gothic castle, they were more strange (and amusing) than anything. While they did have their moments, Bergman did not really give the audiences a chance to understand what they really about. For me, they were more like cackling fools in a corner instead of malevolent strangers whose sole intention is to harm. I know a plethora of people who love the cinema that consider “Vargtimmen” a classic. I certainly do not because I don’t feel like it all came together as a strong whole. In the end, I had more questions than answers. While it did incorporate the subject of psychology in its story, it lacked tension. Instead of really being enveloped into the story, I constantly questioned what the point was. For those unfamiliar with Bergman’s work, “Hour of the Wolf” may seem pretty good. But for those who are not, we all know this is not his finest hour (and a half).
Dead Man Walking (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” tells the story of a man on death row (Sean Penn) and a nun (Susan Sarandon) who takes his request to be his spiritual advisor despite people’s attempt to dissuade her from doing so. I thought this film was particularly effective because it was able to provide multiple insights regarding the issue of capital punishment, while at the same time I was curious whether or not Penn’s character really did pull the trigger that resulted the death of the two teenagers. Not only that, we really got to know the grief of the teenagers’ parents (Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston); that their rage and hatred do not come out of nowhere and that some of them might even be willing to move on. I was really touched by this film in its entirety because I felt like I was watching real people instead of actors merely playing their parts. The interactions between Penn and Sarandon–especially the close-up scenes–got me so involved to the point where I found myself beginning to truly understand the convict’s fear of death even though he is a racist, disagreeable, unfriendly man. Whenever they argued, I felt genuine tension between the two but I still could feel that Penn needed her and Sarandon cared for him. The issue of redemption was also explored. I’m not a big fan of religion but even I have to admit that it was effectively used in this film. Robbins managed to avoid telling a story that was self-righteous and manipulative, which I think was a difficult task because the picture ultimately geared us to sympathize for the convict. As a person who do not support capital punishment, I thought “Dead Man Walking” was able to both entertain and educate (and even enlighten, which is on a different level altogether). This is a strong film with so many layers to it so, naturally, I’m recommending it to anyone–even to those who do not have an opinion about the death penalty.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is the kind of movie that is frustrating to watch because its ambition got in the way of true emotional resonance. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who one day decides to make an epic life-size play about his whole life. He makes that decision because he wants to know how his life turns out the way it is, to understand why his relationship with the people he loves most simply did not work. There are four women in his life that have impacted him greatly: Samantha Morton, a box-office worker, Hope Davis, a shrink, Michelle Williams, a stage actress, and Catherine Keener, Caden’s wife. The first thirty minutes of this picture is very engaging: I felt how alienated Caden was because he doesn’t feel appreciated by his family and the people he works with. That frustration (and maybe even a bit of rage) begins to manifest physically and he starts to think more negatively about himself to the point where he ends up believing that he’s dying. The point where I started to get confused was when the movie decided to jump forward in time multiple times. I began to lose track of who Caden can still connect with, his motivations, and where he’s ultimately going to end up. On top of that initial confusion, Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director, kept adding elements of existentialism and sequences that might have or might not have happened. The movie got way into itself to the point where I couldn’t relate at all. I’ve read a plethora of critics’ reviews that this is a great film because of its ambition. To me, ambition can only get a movie so far. With ambition, a film must also be able to take its audiences to whether it decides to go no matter how ludicrous the destination. With this film, I felt left out of the loop and constantly wondered what was going on. Even though it’s not as accessible and relatable as I would’ve liked (especially for a movie that’s about life and death), I’m still giving this movie a mediocre rating because I did like some of the elements and issues it tried to tackle.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
It’s definitely refreshing to see Anne Hathaway play a sarcastic and narcissistic character because I’m so used to seeing her as sugary and sweet like in “The Princess Diaries,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Ella Enchanted.” Although she’s had her share of darker characters such as in “Havoc,” it’s in this film that she truly shines and showcases her potential as a serious actress capable of carrying roles that have a certain resonance. Although the backdrop of the film is Rosemarie Dewitt’s wedding (as Rachel), the film is really about Hathaway’s inner demons as she tries to recover from addiction to drugs (and negative self-talk regarding herself, the world and the future). I must give kudos to the director (Jonathan Demme) and the writer (Jenny Lumet) for their sublime way of telling the story and how certain characters would crash onto one another. Although the arguments between DeWitt and Hathaway are truly scathing, I still felt an undeniable love between them because of the things they’ve been through. Some of those things are explored in the picture in insightful and meaningful ways so the audiences truly get to appreciate the main characters. I loved Bill Irwin as the father who mediates between the two daughters. Even though he strives to play the middleman, after certain fights, it’s noticeable that it pains him to see his daughters fight. My main problem with the film is that it lost some of its momentum especially toward the last twenty minutes. The movie started off so strongly because we really get to experience Hathaway’s frustration, sarcasm and rage but I felt like those attributes were missing in the end. Yes, I get that Hathaway’s character wanted her sister to have a nice wedding so she tries to hold her smart remarks but I still wanted more. However, I believe this is a strong film because I felt like I was really there with the characters; from the rehearsals to the actual wedding, it made me miss my own family and relatives when we would gather and everyone would act crazy. In a way, I could relate to Hathaway’s character because I consider myself the black sheep in the family (minus the drugs). I also enjoyed the multicultural cast and the fact that the issue of race was not brought up. The main critique I’ve heard from audiences prior to watching this movie is the somewhat shaky camera. I thought it was utilized in a good way in here because it added to the sense of realism. Not everything has to be perfect especially in a film with a very flawed lead character who wants some sort of closure in order to be able to move on with her life.