★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen years ago, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) escaped an abandoned factory where she was tortured for reasons unknown. When she was placed in a facility which housed victims of child abuse, she was befriended by the kind Anna (Morjana Alaoui) despite Lucie’s much darker past and chilling visual hallucinations. Anna voluntarily took up the role of the Lucie’s crutch so she had to be the strong one. Eventually, Lucie made it her quest to hunt down the people responsible for her torment but that was simply the beginning. Although highly influenced by the “Saw” series, “Martyrs” was a stronger breed because the gore was amplified, the violence was more unflinching, and the questions it brought up about cruelty and human experimentation were actually interesting. The film had a Hitchcockian twist. Since Lucie was the survivor of the first scene, I assumed she would be the one we were supposed to follow throughout the picture. But as it went on, I started to doubt whether she was a particularly trustworthy protagonist because she didn’t have a full grasp with reality. Was the family she murdered in cold blood truly responsible for her kidnapping and torture? Then the film made an astute decision. Half-way through, it was revealed that this was Anna’s story as she had the unfortunate luck to go through what her best friend went through and then some. When she was taken in a torture chamber, there was a brilliant twenty to thirty minute interval when not a word was uttered. All we heard were sounds of a spoon scraping a metallic plate as a woman forcefully fed Anna some disgusting-looking green goop, a man landing heavy blows on Anna’s already frail body, and the sounds of scissors chewing through Anna’s hair as if it hadn’t been fed in years. It was very painful to watch but I was so curious as to why such cruelty was being done to her. When it was revealed, it felt inspired yet empty. It was inspired because I could not recall a villain that performed evil things for the same reason. It was nice that the mysterious individuals didn’t want their victims to learn a lesson or to value the life they’ve been given. At the same time, it was empty because the tormentors’ endgame was so subjective. I started asking questions like how they earned money to build such futuristic-looking facilities and machines. I had to laugh to myself a little bit. But perhaps it was a defense mechanism because I needed to process the very shocking images I just saw. Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, “Martyrs” is without a doubt not for people with a weak stomach. Meanwhile, fans of sadistic horror might be pleasantly surprised. I had no idea what I was in for. In the end, I felt a mixture of sadness, horror, and disgust. My body felt so weak, I couldn’t even make a proper fist.
The Pianist (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can say a lot of things about Roman Polanski since his personal life is often torn apart among the tabloids but you cannot deny that the man knows how to make movies. Not just typical movies that happen to be commercially successful, but movies that are personal, have artistic merit and have distinct emotional resonance. In “The Pianist,” Polanski focused on the survival story of a Polish Jewish survivor named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in Warsaw in the middle of World War II. I thought it was interesting how the picture started off with him and his family (Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay as his parents, Jessica Kate Meyer and Julia Rayner as his sisters, and Ed Stoppard as his brother) and then shift the focus on how he was able to survive on his own with the help of kind strangers and adoring fans (Emilia Fox). Even though this was set in WWII, I thought it felt a little different because we spent the majority of the time observing him from indoors–how he saw the war from his window somewhat from an outsider’s perspective yet still caught up in the middle of it. We also observed how he moved from one place to another and the dangers (and repercussions) of certain decisions he had to make in order to subsist. Back when I saw this this film for the first time in 2002, I did not understand what was so special about a man trying to hide in an apartment instead of joining his comrades to fight against the Nazis. But seeing this movie seven years later, I thought that Szpilman’s experiences were really painful because he had to live with the guilt of surviving as his friends and family were murdered. Yet at the same time, it took a lot of courage for him to want to keep living despite the fact that there were times when he caught serious diseases, hasn’t eaten for days on end, and how the lack of company almost drove him into madness. I was really touched whenever he would play the piano after hiding for so long; it was kind of like watching a man coming back from the dead. I thought it expertly embodied the idea of music being an elixir of life. My favorite scene was toward the end when he played the piano for the Nazi that chose to help him (Thomas Kretschmann). I would never forget that scene because I felt like a lot of things were communicated between them even though they weren’t engaged in a conversation. With such great acting from everyone involved in this film, “The Pianist” was an emotional experience I can only try to describe. I believe everyone should see it at least once because the many layers are worth exploring. It was melancholy, suspenseful, dark yet it was sensitive and truly remarkable.
I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life & Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nicole Kidman narrated this documentary about a very influential man–a humanitarian of all sorts–named Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor from the concentration camps who made it his life mission to hunt down Nazi criminals so that they would be forced to take responsibilities for the horrible things they’ve done and give justice to those who were murdered and the families that were affected. I decided to watch this film because I distinctly remember reading a review from a critic saying that Wiesenthal partly did what he did because he wanted to get revenge for the killings of about ninety families and relatives. After watching the movie, I must say that I cannot disagree more. I thought Wiesenthal’s decision to keep going despite the threats on his life and those of his family’s, the strain when it comes to his relationships with others, and the constant reminders of the terrible things that happened to him was nothing short of heroic. It’s not like Wiesenthal hunted the Nazis down and placed his own definition of justice upon them. No, he actually turned the criminals over to the government and it was up for them to decide what should be done to the Nazis. I hardly consider his actions as revenge because his main motivation is to simply express a collective grief so that people would ultimately be able to move on. How the movie painted the journey of a man on the verge of death due to starvation to a force that impacted the justice system all over the world was truly inspiring. I also loved how the documentary highlighted some of the most important war criminals that Wiesenthal caught, such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele. The fact that those scenes came hand-in-hand with some of rare footages of extremely emaciated Jewish people made me really angry and sad at the same time. Like I did in high school when we studied World War II, I questioned myself how people could have so much hate and actually act upon such negative emotions to the point of genocide. I still don’t have answers to the many questions I have about the psychology of the Nazis and maybe I never will. I thought this film was a great tribute to Simon Wiesenthal’s life. I think people should see this documentary because it would be nice to remember his many amazing achievements, which undoubtedly impacted our (and many other countries’) justice system.
Sin Nombre (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The debut of writer-director Cary Fukunaga was loved by critics and audiences alike, but I was not that impressed with it. “Sin Nombre” was about two groups of people–one from Honduras and one from Mexico–who take a train headed to the border of United States and Mexico. The first group was Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her family who attempt to move to America to lead a better life. The other was Casper (Edgar Flores) who was being hunted down by Mara Salvatrucha, a gang he was once a part of, because he committed a crime against them. While I do agree that the film was protrayed in a gritty and realistic way, I found it difficult to identify with the main characters. I felt as though they had this wall that lasted from the beginning of the picture all the way to finish line. I understand that their journey on the train was literal and symbolic but I had trouble sticking with it because of that lack of connection between the characters and the characters to its audiences. I felt as though their situation or story was told in a much better way from other films. If Fukunaga had taken the time to cut off some scenes from the first twenty minutes and expand on the scenes when Sayra and Casper were interacting with each other, it might have had something brilliant to offer. Instead, I felt as though the experience can be summarized as merely glossing over the shell of characters who were going through very difficult times without truly getting into why they were complex. Their motivations were apparent (survival and a better life) but the filmmakers failed to take the story to another level. I noticed that the director tried to inject contrasting images and concepts but those weren’t enough to make up for a lack of a strong core. I had high expectations coming into this film and I couldn’t help but feel more and more disappointed as the fate of the characters began to unfold.
★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of those first American films I saw when I was about six or seven years old. Even though I had little understanding of the English language back then, I found myself mesmerized with what was happening on screen. Directed by Frank Marshall, “Alive” was about a group of survivors, led by Ethan Hawke as Nando Parrado and Josh Hamilton as Robert Canessa, whose plane had crashed in the Andes mountains back in 1972. Not only did they have to deal with the plane crash and the death of their mates and loved ones, they had to deal with starvation, plunging temperatures due to the weather, avalanche, and eventually finding a way out because the rescue teams had given up looking for survivors. Revisiting this picture after thirteen years after I’ve seen it for the first time, the images were that much more haunting and their journey that much more unbelievably brave. Their willingness to survive to the point where pretty much all of them decided that they would eat human flesh was so touching. It definitely made me think what lengths I would go to if I were put their situations. But I liked the fact that cannibalism was not the focus on this film because it was so much more than that. Instead of being a movie about people who got stuck in the mountains and cannibalism, it was a movie about how much the human body can withstand and how willpower can push us to our extreme limits and beyond. I found this to be a very moving tale and at times I couldn’t believe the trials that the survivors had to go through. My only minor complaint about the film was that I would have liked to see the real survivors get interviewed instead of John Malkovich (as great as an actor he is). I think the movie would have been that much more personal if the actual people recounted what had happened to them. If I had not rewatched this movie again, I would have easily labeled it as “that one movie where the plane crash survivors ate each other.” But now I know better and I consider it a dishonor to those who survived to label the film merely as that. This is a harrowing and haunting picture but there were definitely signs of uplift and hope which highlight the human spirit.