Take Shelter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curtis (Michael Shannon) was a hardworking construction worker who was suddenly struck by intense nightmares about an upcoming storm. In the dream, rain had the properties of motor oil and people threatened to inflict violence on him and abduct his daughter (Tova Stewart). Experiencing them every night, Curtis suspected that they were more than just recurring bad dreams. He felt an overwhelming need to clean out and prepare the storm shelter in the backyard because something terrible was coming. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, successfully placed us into the mind of a possible paranoid schizophrenic. Although our protagonist’s dreams were strange, violent, and horrific, the material sympathized with Curtis by focusing on how his family, friends, and co-workers reacted to his increasingly unexplainable behaviors. Since not one of them knew what he was going through, the tension was embedded in how Curtis desperately tried to keep hiding his affliction. As his condition worsened, people just assumed it was either due to stress or lack of sleep. Shannon did a wonderful job juggling unmentioned details of his character by simply using his solemnly desperate eyes and tall, somewhat lanky figure. While it was practical that Curtis would be ashamed to be the topic of small town gossip, the cover-up, I think, was for the purpose of protecting his family. Having gone through the shame of having a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis didn’t want for his wife and child to experience what he went through many years prior. Furthermore, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Curtis’ daughter was a deaf child on the verge of receiving a cochlear implant. As we all know, most people tend to hold a certain idea toward “handicapables.” While the nightmares commanded a magnetic realism, I was most fascinated with and craved more of the scenes where Curtis tried to seek help from professionals. The look they gave him as they assessed what was wrong and the look he gave them when they admitted there were no easy solutions was an emotional roller coaster. The screenplay was smart in maintaining an unclear position relative to Curtis’ condition. Certain signs, like delusions and hallucinations, led to an undiagnosed mental illness, but portentous images, like birds flying as though they’ve gone crazy, pointed to the possibility of the world coming to an end. While what was really happening to Curtis could and did spark rousing debates, it doesn’t matter to me which camp is right. And the way I see it, you shouldn’t either. The first point the film wanted to make was for us, like most schizophrenics, not to be able to descry between fantasy and reality. Since we couldn’t, reflected by different interpretations of what “really” happened, the writer-director successfully placed us into a mentally ill person’s shoes. The second point is the social angle from the fear of being considered an aberration by one’s community, yes, even one’s family, and having to live with a label for the rest of one’s life. If anything, the picture subtly argues that we should learn to be more sympathetic of other people’s plight; it’s easy to judge but it takes a bit of effort to understand.
Waking the Dead (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 1972, Fielding (Billy Crudup), an ambitious aspiring politician from a working class background, met Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a girl who loved to spend her time working for the church and helping others in need. But in 1974, Sarah died in a car bombing while helping some Chilean activists enter the United States. Fast forward ten years when Fielding was running for office, Fielding became plagued with visions of Sarah. He began to question his sanity because he thought he saw her walking in the streets and even calling his house phone. I was torn whether or not to recommend this film. There was no doubt that I highly enjoyed it because the chemistry between Crudup and Connelly was one of the strongest I’ve experienced in a long time. When they had conversations, even though they didn’t always agree with each other’s approach to politics (politician versus activist, mainstream versus counterculture), it was apparent that they loved each other because they exuded a certain warmth and sometimes fiery passion in their eyes. When they made love, it was sexy and when they were away from one another, I looked forward to seeing them eventually taking up the same space. They were both smart, caring, had something to prove and I found bits of myself in both of them. Unfortunately, I had a problem with the way the story was put together. It wasn’t told in a linear order so it was up to us to put together the pieces, which I found to be a positive quality because it managed to challenged me. One of my favorite aspects of the picture was its uncertainty whether Sarah was alive all along or whether she was really dead and Fielding was experiencing some sort of guilt. In the end, there was no clear answer. Personally, I thought it was the latter because it was more grounded in reality but at the same time there’s enough mysticism to it to provide another dimension to the material. However, if it was the latter, I didn’t understand why Fielding felt so much guilt involving the death of his lover. Was it because he moved onto another girl (who he didn’t even love but it was more for a political strategy) years after Sarah’s death? If so, I didn’t think he should have felt guilty at all because everyone deserves to move on from a painful period of his or her life. I think the film could have done a better job showing and explaining to us why Fielding was so guilt-ridden. Since that crucial part was missing, it was very problematic because it was what drove the scenes in the 1980s forward. Based on a novel by Scott Spencer, “Waking the Dead,” directed by Keith Gordon, benefited from the strong and believable acting between the two leads. If it had clearer connection between past and present, I think it would have been unstoppable.
In Dreams (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
The movie started off with a breathtaking tour of a town submerged in water that Claire (Annette Bening) saw in her dreams. She also had dreams of a little girl who was kidnapped by a man (Robert Downey Jr.) who lived in a place full of apples. Obsessed with the details of her dreams because they came true before, her own daughter was eventually kidnapped and she had to find a way to get to the man who kidnapped her child while trying to persuade her husband (Aidan Quinn) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) that her dreams were real. Even though the movie asked its audiences to take a leap of faith time and again about visions eventually becoming reality and strange coincidences, I could not help but get really into the story because of the way Bening invested in her character. I mean the following as a compliment but she made a very convincing crazy person when she eventually was sent to a mental hospital. I was entertained with how some scenes were supposed to be scary or haunting but they had strong hints of comedy and even tragedy. I liked that quality because although I knew where the story was going, it still managed to surprise in small ways so I did not lose interest. Neil Jordan fascinates me as a director because of the masterful way he balances elements of surrealism and realism. I noticed he would play with the extremes but there would come a point when it became difficult to discern what was real or what was fantasy. In other movies, I am usually aware of the intermediates of the extremes. What I was not very excited about, however, was how useless some of the characters were which negatively impacted the movie’s middle portion. I saw the cops and the psychiatrist as mere distractions or hindrances instead of figures that genuinely tried to help the main character. It was one of those horror movie clichés that just did not work and I grew frustrated with the material because I knew that the director was more than capable of doing something completely different with his characters like in one of his films called “The Butcher Boy.” Since the movie was based on the novel “Doll’s Eyes” by Bari Wood, perhaps Jordan was just trying to remain loyal to the book. Nevertheless, when adapting a novel to film, there should always be an artistic leeway in which the writers could tweak certain aspects in order to avoid the obvious. Upon its release, “In Dreams” did not receive good reviews which I thought was understandable because it tried to do something different in terms of not everything making complete sense in the end. I thought it worked because we don’t necessarily understand our dreams at times and I believe Jordan was deliberate in leaving certain strands unsolved.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen Pedro Almodóvar’s work from the late 1990s to the present and have been nothing but impressed so naturally I became interested in seeing his older projects.”Matador” stars Antonio Banderas as a 22-year-old aspiring matador who was working under Nacho Martinez’ wing. When Martinez’ character asked Banderas if he was a homosexual due to his lack of experience with women, Banderas tried to prove his masculinity by trying to rape his mentor’s girlfriend (Eva Cobo). Eventually ending up in jail due to some strange coincidences and choices, a femme fatale lawyer (Assumpta Serna) came running to defend Banderas’ innocence. I love Almodóvar’s films because no matter how much I try to guess what would happen in the story, I always guess incorrectly. He has such a knack for telling unconventional stories that are funny, witty, tragic and ironic often all at the same time. The way he uses color to highlight a character’s fate or what he or she might be feeling and thinking always takes me by surprise even though I’m familiar with his techniques. I also was fascinated with the way Almodóvar used his characters’ occupations as a reflection of what they were really capable of when they think nobody was watching them. Admittedly, the writing can get a bit melodramatic at times but I think that’s half the fun of Almodóvar’s movies. He’s not afraid to reference to the supernatural, such as a certain character experiencing “visions,” to possibly make sense of the natural world. It’s the twists and turns that keep us wanting to watch. Like in most of his later projects, “Matador” was very passionate (or obsessive?) about sexuality–not necessarily sex–how his actors moved and delivered certain lines. Another element that I thought was interesting was the fact that Almodóvar used sex and violence as a backdrop to explore the darker side of human nature. The characters in this film were not necessarily good; in fact, they were far from innocent. But we root for some of them because the protagonists were capable of less evil than their counterparts. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy Almodóvar’s earlier works but after watching “Matador,” I’m more than excited to see them. I just hope that they have the same level of vivaciousness, drama and sensuality as this picture.