Cold Souls (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Paul Giamatti stars as himself in “Cold Souls,” written and directed by Sophie Barthes, who one day decided, with the help of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), to extract his soul and put it into storage. He came to such a drastic decision to relieve some of the anxiety he was feeling about doing a play. He figured that if his soul was not in his body, we wouldn’t be such a worry-wart and therefore wouldn’t think about the little things that didn’t quite matter in the long run. However, after the operation, he found himself to be not quite himself anymore–the subtlety in his acting was gone, his ability to relate with others was ziltch and even his wife (Emily Watson) claimed that he was “different.” That catch was when Giamatti decided he wanted his soul back, the Russian black market already got ahold of his soul. The concept of this film was quite impressive when I saw the trailers, but unfortunately, the execution was lackadaisical and meandering. I thought I would get a “Being John Malkovich”-level film because of the many questions and intricacies regarding the soul but I felt as though the film didn’t want to tackle such big questions and issues head-on. When it comes to movies, when I feel reluctance coming from the filmmakers’ parts, I constantly find myself having a hard time buying the concept of the movie. Unfortunately, it happened in “Cold Souls.” Instead, the picture ran rampant with broken scenes of Giamatti doing random things that didn’t add up to anything. It’s not the lead actor’s fault; he was tremendous in this film–his quirks and outbursts were downright hilarious and self-deprecating. It was really the writing and direction that bogged this film down to something dangerously soporific. For such an interesting topic that have been theorized by philosophers for hundrends of years, it didn’t have any power so the film felt stagnant. Half-way through the picture, I wondered if the movie would have been more interesting if it had been a hybrid between a comedy and a thriller. After all, the Russian black market was involved. But instead of menace and dark wit, we get somewhat of a comic look at their lives as they try to gather souls from very talented actors like Sean Penn, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, George Clooney, and the like. Sometimes the comedy worked but most of the time it didn’t. With a more capable director and a sharper writing, this film would definitely have been so much better. I say “Cold Souls” might be a good rental for very patient viewers but it’s definitely not for those looking for something that’s dares to look at the extremes of what-if.
The Return (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Vozvrashcheniye” or “The Return,” directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, was about two boys’ (Ivan Dobronravov, Vladimir Garin) response and ways of coping when their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) who abandoned them twelve years ago suddenly came back. This movie really took me by surprise because I thought it was going to be more about the siblings’ relationship: the rivalry between them, their quest to find their identities and to learn how to be secure about who they were. When the father came back, I suddenly realized that the film aimed to be so much more. Although the brothers were pretty much on the same physical journey with their father to head to a place unknown to the audiences, their emotional and psychological journeys were distinct and fascinating. The older brother (Garin) accepted his fathers return while the younger brother (Dobronravov) was more reluctant and cautious. His doubt became so strong to the point where he expressed to his brother that the man who returned might not be their father–the father that they came to recognize in an old childhood photo. This alarmed me because I wondered if he was right. After all, that gut feeling in us is sometimes right, especially when circumstances are dire. I had to question about the father’s intentions because of the way he treated his sons. Even though they were both stubborn, if I was a father who hadn’t seen his sons in over a decade, I’d be ecstatic and be more than willing to let certain things go so that my children would be able to trust and open up to me. The way the father was so dead-on into coming to a particular place made me very suspicious and I found myself constantly evaluating the situation. The last thirty minutes was impressive. The quiet moments were so painful after certain events have unfolded. I could feel what the characters were probably feeling and known what they probably were thinking. I loved the way Zvyagintsev helmed the picture because of the fact that the movie was focused from beginning to end yet it wasn’t monotonous. In fact, it was very fluid when it comes to the emotions that it wanted to get from the viewers. I also enjoyed that the title eventually had two meanings. I will remember this Russian film for a long time, despite its minimalist dialogue, because of its haunting moral conundrums.
★★★ / ★★★★
Snow is everywhere in pretty much every scene and it made me feel cold just watching it. Half-way through the picture, I realized that the weather is not just a tool to establish a mood. When I look back on it, it’s really neat how much influence the ice has over the characters. I also liked that it took its time to establish the main characters and the fact there’s no archetype villain in the film. As a result, the characters are that much more complex and interesting. They’re just being themselves but their interests happen to collide and that’s when the conflict starts. The show-stopper here is Emily Mortimer. Like in most of her movies, she’s a seemingly timid woman who possesses a silent power which helps to carry her through with whatever is thrown at her. One minute she’s having fun and the next minute she’s totally mortified with what’s going on. And that observation reflected this film. Brad Anderson, who also directed “The Machinist,” has a talent with shifting the mood from one side of the spectrum to another in a matter of seconds. Not only does it make the picture thrilling, it also makes it unpredictable. Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, and Eduardo Noriega are pretty good in their roles but I thought they were a bit underdeveloped, especially the latter two. But maybe the point is to know as little about them because the film makes a commentary regarding strangers in a different country where one does not speak the language. But the one actor that arguably matched Mortimer is Ben Kingsley. He’s such a mystery from the first scene to the last and I craved to know more about him. His methods are highly questionable, every word of Russian he speaks sounded like a threat, and the way he would look at Mortimer suggests he knows more than he’s letting on. For a film that’s almost two hours long, I was glad that there’s a lot of dynamics at work but at the same time I feel like some characters were not explored enough. I think we could do without the little stops of the train during the first forty minutes, but that’s a really minor complaint. Otherwise, pretty much everything about this thriller worked for me because it made me think not only while it was playing but after as well.