A Very Long Engagement (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
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.
Source Code (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier assigned in Afghanistan, woke up in a stranger’s body in a Chicago commuter train in front of Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he never met but who seemed to know him. Later, he found out that he was a part of a military experimental technology, led by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and his assignment was to find the identity of the man or woman who triggered the bomb on the doomed train earlier that day. Everyone on the train was already dead and it included the body Colter inhabited. Each time he failed, his day started all over again as if he was imprisoned in a “Twilight Zone” episode. Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” was relatively small in scope but its ambitions were grand. It had a plethora of exciting ideas about what it meant to be in a specific reality: Is the reality what was outside our bodies or was it within? Metaphysics aside, Gyllenhaal was very convincing as a conflicted soldier who didn’t sign up for the mission he was given. Initially, I found it bothersome that he was reluctant in performing his mission. He let his emotions get in way too often instead of focusing to come up with ways to narrow down his suspects. Inevitably, he failed multiple times and we found ourselves back in square one. Eventually, I realized that his defiance of authority was the point. His neglect in following orders allowed us to see his humanity and what was really important to him Ultimately, he went through with the mission not because he was simply told to do it but because he cared about the many more lives that might be in danger due to the high possibility that the bomber will strike again. There was a difference between a mindless drone and a good soldier. Moreover, I was surprised that the film relied heavily on romance. Even though the scenes of Colter and Christina were pretty much the same, as the picture went on, there was a clear change in the protagonist and it was more than enough for us to be convinced that the feelings they had for each other was real. It was also interesting to see Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Colter’s guide between the real and computerized world, weigh the pros and cons of the program she was given the chance to control. There was no doubt that the program was genius, even revolutionary, but that brilliance required serious ethical and moral sacrifices. Fast-paced and full of twists and turns, “Source Code” had creative ideas but it never felt insular. Combined with Jones’ confident direction and given that we’re willing to take a leap of faith with regards to the advanced technology, it almost felt grounded in reality.
Dear John (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) met over Spring Break and it was love at first sight. Savannah had dreams of opening her own summer camp one day, while John was a soldier who felt like the battlefield was more like his home. In the early stages of their relationship, they promised to write letters to each other and tell each other everything. But over the years, their love for one another (at least from a romantic angle) dissipated because of distance and circumstances. Or maybe they just matured emotionally. I didn’t read Nicholas Sparks’ novel from which the picture was based on but I think the movie was strong as a stand alone. I understand why people (especially fans of the novel) didn’t like the picture either because it didn’t remain loyal enough to its source or they expected that they were in for a typical romantic movie but it turned out to be a depressing journey. But that’s what I liked about it–it still had elements of sappy romance but it was very sad in its core because the characters made certain decisions which they could never take back. I’ve forgotten that Seyfried was the hilariously clueless girl from “Mean Girls” and Tatum was an actor I didn’t particularly care for. I was invested in their characters and by the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen next. I loved watching the characters change over the years and I believed every major change that happened in their lives. Savannah changed from an idealistic young woman seemingly ready to tackle the world to someone who became sort of defeated and almost closed down. Even though we didn’t see her go through difficult times in her life, the way Seyfried played her character made it unnecessary. Meanwhile, John changed from somebody who would rather surf and not talk to anybody (basically, your stereotypical stoic man) to making a real effort in connecting with his autistic father (Richard Jenkins). Although I didn’t care much about the scenes in the army, there were real touching moments especially when John explained to Savannah, through handwritten letters, why he was like a coin and why his relationship with his father was so strained. Fans of movies like “The Notebook” will most likely be disappointed because “Dear John” is not as romantic. In a way, “Dear John” is more of a story of friendship than a story of lovers. I enjoyed “Dear John” because it was so different from what I expected and it had an honesty that made it feel like I was watching a relationship based on something that could potentially happen in real life.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) signed up to be a soldier because he felt like participating in a war was a family legacy since his grandfather and father fought the wars of their generations. Being a new soldier, he looked up to two people who had higher ranks: Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). The former represented composure, control and ethics despite the craziness of war, while the latter embodied the evil, darkness, and cruelty. I thought this movie was going to be another one of those war classics that was overly long. I was quickly proven wrong because of the number of scenes that highlighted the silence and all we could hear was the rustling of the leaves as the soldiers slithered their way through the jungle. I also didn’t expect a lot of character development because war pictures often focus their energy on the epic battle sequences. The narration worked for me because the thoughts and insights that Sheen’s character was unable to talk about with his comrades was out in the open for the audiences. There was a real sensitivity to his character; the real turning point for me when I decided that I was going to root for his character was when he proudly wore his naïveté on his sleeves regarding one of the reasons why he volunteered to be a soldier. He reasoned that that the rich always got away from all the dirty work and he felt that he shouldn’t be anyone special just because he was born with money. Also, since he felt like he wasn’t learning anything in college, essentially, he might as well make himself useful by joining the army. Scenes like those when the characters were just talking and measuring each other up really fascinated me and I was interested in what ways they would change by the end of the picture. Oliver Stone, the director, helmed a war film that had an internal mologue mixed with moral ambiguities instead of taking the easier route of simply entertaining the viewers with empty explosions and guts being flung into the air. “Platoon” was gorgeously shot in the Philippines and the night scenes really captured the horror of the enemies blending into the environment. Lastly, it was interesting to see future stars such as the younger Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, and Forest Whitaker. “Platoon” ranks among other unforgettable war pictures such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.”
★ / ★★★★
I think the reason why this film gained a cult following is because of the controversy it garnered when it was released in the mid 1970’s. Depiction of homosexuality in films may have been a bigger deal back then but from today’s standards, I think this is a very weak experimental directoral feature by Derek Jarman. Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio), a Roman soldier, was exiled by the Emperor to a place where homoeroticism is abound. Since he refuses all sexual advances, especially from a superior officer named Severus (Barney James), most of the men torture and humiliate him in multiple ways to “encourage” him to surrender his Christian ideals and personal preferences. Despite its interesting premise, too bad the execution was lackadaisical. Throughout the entire picture, the audiences are asked to observe the lives of the exiled people as live like pigs. Although aesthetically the men may look beautiful (seductive music, slow motion and all) but I found it difficult to care for any of them. I really despised it when the camera would linger for literally about five minutes just to admire someone’s body. It’s just as bad as objectifying women and I did not like taking any part of it. Moreover, while I do give this film for being entirely in Latin, I couldn’t forgive its bad acting. I couldn’t see any passion in the actors eyes whenever they’re angry, passionate or sad. I also failed to see tension in their bodies whenever they’re supposed to be “fighting” one another. I literally caught myself rolling my eyes and thinking, “Wow, that’s so lame.” I read a review from Netflix that “this film will not appeal to everyone, especially homophobics and conservatives, but [he or she] would recommend it to those that like art house or queer cinema.” Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy LGBT films and art house pictures once in a while but this is just one of those movies that I will (most likely) never watch again. I expected some sort of a social and cultural thesis with regards to homosexuality or the feeling of alienation where something natural is treated as abnormal but I didn’t get either. With its complete lack of depth, I’m going to say to not even bother with this supposed cult classic.