★ / ★★★★
Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) opted to spend ten days in the remote Blackholme Island in hopes of curing whatever was vitiating their marriage from the inside. With the help of Doug (Jimmy Yuill), the owner of the island and Martin’s longtime friend, the couple was able to settle in. A couple of days later, bloodied Jack (Jamie Bell) was spotted collapsing in the field across their cottage. Martin and Kate took him inside with reservations. When Jack woke up, he informed Martin that there was an airborne virus that originated from South America which had infected the rest of the planet. Not only was it extremely contagious, it was also lethal for it aggressively attacked people’s respiratory systems. They had to do whatever it took to seal themselves from inside the cottage. “Retreat,” written by Janice Hallett and Carl Tibbetts, drew many wrinkles on my forehead. While I had no qualm in accepting its premise, Martin and Kate’s decisions forced me to mutter many frustrations under my breath. If you were told by someone that everyone was dead or dying in a specific part of the world, would you readily accept such a statement? Martin did. For an architect, requiring to have a certain level of logic for a living, there was something odd about the way he allowed Jack to take over, physically and psychologically, the household. In the least, I expected him to perform a bit of investigation. Given that cellphones, the internet, and the CB radio didn’t work, why didn’t Martin or his wife take it upon themselves to be more creative in asking the same questions in a different way to in order to coax out the wrinkles in Jack’s claims? Instead, much of the picture was dedicated to characters yelling at each other, pointing the gun at one another, and, yes, fighting for weapons that slid across the floor. It just wasn’t interesting. The scenes that were supposed to be thrilling were greatly lacking in tension. For instance, when Kate and Martin finally decided to work together, they made their way to the kitchen to prepare a hearty breakfast. Martin boiled water in a pan while Kate prepared the bread. Jack sat on a chair in a vulnerable angle. We knew exactly was going to happen, but with the right direction, it could have been effective. But it wasn’t. The scene–and many that adopted a similar approach–wasn’t given enough time to simmer. When the husband and wife entered the kitchen, they went directly for the necessary tools-turned-weapons. Two seconds later, Martin took the pan, the water magically hot after being put on the stove just a second before, and splashed it all over the stranger. As a result, it became more about the violence than the suspense when it shouldn’t have been because they didn’t have proof that Jack was lying to them. With a more focused screenplay in terms of delivering thrills and a true understanding of human psychology and behavior, “Retreat,” directed by Carl Tibbets, could have been far more engaging. Although Martin and Kate were supposedly so desperate to get out of the house, the plot was cemented in its increasingly thick contrivances. We sit in our chairs passively, wishing it offered so much more.
★★★ / ★★★★
Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), while on a business trip to Macau, became sick. She returned home thinking that what she had was a common case of cold. Within two days, she died. So did her son. This left Mitch (Matt Damon), Beth’s husband, shaken with disbelief–that a few coughs and sniffles could destroy his family. But what Beth had wasn’t typical. Within a couple of days, health organizations from all over the world realized that what caused Beth’s death was a virulent virus that had the capability to invade its host’s respiratory and central nervous systems. And it was spreading at an exponential rate. “Contagion,” written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was at its best when it was coldly calculating. Such a tone was prevalent in the first half and it was appropriate because viruses don’t discern between good and bad people. It was simple: we observed a human being develop the symptoms of the fatal disease and he or she died within a couple of minutes after we met them. Then it was onto the next victim. It was scary, mysterious, and real. The director juggled different characters, scientists and civilians, with relative ease. There was Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who worked for the CDC whose confidence relied on a plan of attack that worked in the past. But this was a different breed of disease and it was mutating at such a rapid pace. We observed this man’s confidence crumble which happened to be parallel to society’s laws and regulations slowly being thrown out the window. With people not getting enough answers and becoming more terrified each day, they had to lie, steal, and kill to survive. And such actions were not limited to civilians. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was Mr. Krumwiede (Jude Law), a sort-of journalist/blogger who led a popular website, who claimed that the government didn’t want people to know the truth. In some ways, he was right despite his fear mongering. For me, while watching the film, the main source of drama wasn’t in the fact that I became more paranoid of germs as it went on. I know that there are “good” germs that protect us from “bad” germs; that our bodies rely on select foreign organisms to function well. What piqued my curiosity was the struggle between figures who wanted to keep things hush-hush, like Dr. Cheever, and those who wanted to reveal information, even without proper scientific research, like Mr. Krumwiede. I was left in the middle and, as it turned out, I found myself caring most about people who ended up confused but tried their best to make it through just one more day, like Mitch and his daughter. Despite the film using a lot of foreign-sounding words like “pleomorphic,” “encephalitis,” and “immunoglobulin domains,” which not everyone had to understand to realize that something bad was happening, the picture had a heart. Notice that the director always reverted to Mitch and his struggle to keep his daughter safe from the virus. Although still interesting, “Contagion” lost a bit of momentum in its second half. But all is forgiven because no one turned into a zombie.
Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since the mid-1970s (and most likely years prior), Father Oliver O’Grady had been sexually molesting children that ranged from infants to pre-adolescents. The Catholic Church was well-aware of his sickness but instead of kicking him out of priesthood, the Church simply moved him from one area to another, which allowed him to molest other children when it could have been prevented. As the film went on, we had a chance to learn that O’Grady not only took advantage of hundreds of children but he also had sexual relations with some of their parents. I was raised Catholic so I understood the importance of the feelings the parents and the children, now adults, felt when they discovered that a person from the Church, an institution that they are willing to give their lives to for the sake of their god, committed the ultimate betrayal. I don’t consider myself belonging in a specific religious group, but when I saw the families being interviewed about how O’Grady ruined their lives, I could not help but imagine my own family and relatives in their shoes because it could easily have happened to any of us. The film made a smart decision to take the blame and the shame from O’Grady to the higher figures in the Church. It was a maddening experience because there was plenty of evidence regarding the Church’s attempt to protect the priests guilty of pedophilia. According to the statistics, the Church spent a billion dollars (and counting) to cover-up many families’ search for justice. To know that those people who are considered by the Catholic community to be the prime example of purity, to commit such acts is not only criminal but also immoral. If hell did exist, in my opinion, they are certainly deserving to go there. The higher folks in the hierarchy, indirectly involved as they may be, knew of the disease in their community, they had tools to prevent future crimes from happening, yet they chose the path of indifference with impunity. Written and directed by Amy Berg, “Deliver Us from Evil” was not simply about one religion or faith. It’s about human rights. Imagine if you’ve raped by a member of the police force and the government, designed to protect its people, turns a blind eye to the fact. I make the comparison because the film successfully showed that the Catholic Church functions like a government with its bureaucracies and failure to serve its people even in the most fundamental ways. This is a must-see film because popular culture makes a lot of jokes about priests molesting kids. A lot of people laugh off the issue but what about those who have to live with the experience and had not found some sort of closure? Do we dare laugh in their faces?
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.
Murmur of the Heart (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Louis Malle (“Au revoir les enfants”), this unconventional coming-of-age picture (also known as “Murmur of the Heart”) was about an intelligent fifteen-year-old named Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and his quest to lose his virginity. He has a difficult time achieving his goal because his family watches each other’s moves very closely: two brothers who act like spoiled rich brats, a father (Daniel Gélin) who is a gynecologist, and a free-spirited mother (Lea Massari). He finally gets away from his family (except his mother) when he gets ill and has to go to a medical spa in hopes of getting better. I mentioned that this was an atypical coming-of-age tale because, in a way, it kind of excuses or glosses over the issues of childhood molestation and incest. Scenes that would normally or supposed to bother people, such as a religious leader inappropriately touching a boy and a mother who is way too involved with her son (emotionally and physically; taking “European” kind of closeness into consideration), are an integral part of the story, the director decided to not judge and simply show what was happening. In many ways, I admired this technique because most films that I’ve seen that tackled the same topics could not help but pass judgment. This film reminded me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” not because of of its subject matter itself but because of the many scenes that were shot indoors, the political backdrop of the story (in this case, the IndoChina War), and that feeling of freedom to explore any kind of topic and emotion that could easily be labeled as taboo. In the end, I really got to know Laurent: what kinds of books he likes to read; his tastes in music and girls; what he thinks about the people around him; and his own capabilities as a blossoming adolescent facing pressures exerted by himself and other people. Perhaps if I knew more about the authors and books that Laurent referenced to, I may have had a better understanding regarding some of his motivations to do certain things. This was a daring film but, in my opinion, did not cross any line but merely straddled it. I must also note that this was not just about a person who wanted to have sex for the first time. It was much more complex than that. But another one of the many layers of this movie was the dynamics among the family members, whether or not in its core, they were truly happy.