★★★★ / ★★★★
Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) was hired to be Adolf Hitler’s (Bruno Ganz) secretary in 1942. The real Traudl Junge, in the opening shot of the film, confessed that she wasn’t really aware of what Nazism was about when she ignored her family’s warnings against joining the growing political movement. Cut to 1945, she still worked for Hitler as the Russians inched closer to Berlin. The majority of the picture focused on the growing sense of dread Hitler and those close to him as they foolishly decided to stay in the secret bunker instead of fleeing for their lives. I saw this film a month before I started the university and about five years later, its impact on me remained the same. While Ganz’ performance was absolutely tremendous, especially when he expressed explosive rage, I spent more time observing his quieter moments as he questioned where his leadership had gone awry. While I did not feel sorry for the monster in him, the actor and the filmmakers successfully revealed a more human side to Hitler by highlighting our fears. Specifically, our fear of death, abandonment, and our accomplishments ultimately amounting to nothing. I thought it was a brave and risky move because no one can deny the evil that cost over fifty million lives. The supporting characters were just as fascinating. There SS Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) who attempted to talk his comrades into leaving the bunker but they were too deeply embedded in their illusions of last-minute victory. There was a boy with a talent for destroying tanks. He loved the recognition and was willing to put his young life in the line for praise. However, he wasn’t even sure what he was fighting for. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) found horror when he stumbled upon areas where the elderly were left to die and unsanitary surgeries were performed. And then there was Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), wife of Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Hitler’s right-hand man, who foolishly and selfishly brought her six innocent children to the bunker just to be with her Führer. She claimed that she couldn’t imagine a life for her kids without National Socialism. The movie was able grab ahold of the various story strands and weaved them into a coherent and meaningful product despite the chaos and confusion. Lastly, while the film managed to put Hitler under a more humanistic angle, I’m glad it never lost track of the crimes he committed–crimes that no amount of jail time or community service can off-set. While he led the murder of over two million Jews, he killed his countrymen as well. Those who he considered weak, like the elderly and people with disability, were left to perish. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall,” taken out of its historical context, was ultimately a story of responsibility. Our leaders are responsible for us, but we mustn’t forget that we have a responsibility toward ourselves. Questioning or usurping our ineffective leaders is not tantamount to betraying our country.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
America was at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wanted to enlist in the army. There were multiple problems. He had been rejected from joining for the fifth time because of his short stature, frail demeanor, and various health problems. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American scientist, overheard Steve telling his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), about why he wanted to serve his country, he was convinced that Steve was the right man for his experiment: creating a super soldier. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston, suffered from a lack of focus in terms of characterization and motivation. For instance, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull, worked for Adolf Hitler by searching for artifacts which could help the Nazis win the war. Naturally, Red Skull eventually wanted all the power for himself but his methods confounded me. In order to take over the world, he wanted to destroy it by attacking most of the world’s major cities. But why? It was confusing to me because I didn’t have a picture of what kind of world he wanted. If he wished to lead a world lacking in technology, making the cities go boom would somewhat make sense. But it didn’t seem like that was the kind of world he wanted, especially in the way he depended on technology to gain more power. He was megalomaniacal but the reasons behind his actions should not have been confusing. If I was a super villain, it’d be simple: I would assert my power by making sure that everyone paid attention to the one city I intended on destroying. The film was action-packed, gorgeously shot, especially the slow-motion montages where Captain America and the American troops demolished Nazi camps like an unwavering tornado. It was almost like watching a well-done commercial aimed to convince young people to sign up for the military. However, character development done right was critical for this movie because it had an underlying message about the costs of war. That is, in terrible times of war, the umbilical cord of friendships could be cut in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a bullet, wild or perfectly aimed, puncturing the body’s critical spot and the person drops dead. Since the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not efficient in terms of developing supporting characters with subtlety, they were either only good or only bad, the scenes when an important character was about to die felt rather flat, almost unconvincing. To make room for those necessary details, the romance between Steve and Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a woman in the military, could have been either watered down or taken out completely. The scenes in which one of them would get jealous of the other when one interacted with the opposite sex a certain way were not fun and completely predictable. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had several great moments, namely the action sequences, but it needed to work on the story of the man behind Captain America’s mask, through those who cared for him, in the latter half. If those two are equally strong, then the material becomes more than a movie which happens to have a superhero in it.
The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
Europa Europa (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events experienced by Solomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider) in World War II, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, was about the teenager’s plight in taking many identities in hopes of surviving and being reunited with his family. Solomon was Jewish but he had Aryan features. He also knew multiple languages which proved to be an advantage when he was separated from his brother (René Hofschneider) while trying to escape from both the Russians and the Germans. Initially, he ended up in a communist orphanage, then the battlefield, up until he joined the Hitler Youth where he was trained to hate his kind and those that didn’t belong in the “elite race.” Watching this picture was quite an experience because it was probably the first movie I’ve seen where I was taken in a Hitler Youth classroom and had a chance to observe how the brainwashing worked. It was maddening but at the same time fascinating because of the way the Nazis shaped a small fear and applied that fear to every aspect that they believed wasn’t worthy. I also got to see how that fear turned into anger and anger into hatred. I hated how the teachers used so-called science to justify who, essentially, deserved to die. For instance, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when Solomon (now named Josef Peters) was called in front of the classroom and his head was measured from various angles and how far apart his features were from one another. When the film focused on the details, it was at its best because I couldn’t stop thinking about small elements afterwards. Furthermore, I’m glad that the film didn’t paint all Germans as monsters. In each location he ended up in, our protagonist met at least one person who made a difference in his life. One was a closeted gay soldier (André Wilms) who had a crush on Solomon and eventually found out that Solomon was Jewish but didn’t turn him in. Another was a mother (Halina Labonarska) of girl Solomon really liked who was stuck with a daughter (Julie Delpy) so consumed with hatred and trying to impress her leader. In a way, those two also had to hide who they really were and how they felt about the Nazi occupation. However, the film’s first half verged on heavy-handedness. It needed to trim some scenes because we all know that the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in history. What the movie should have done was immediately focus on Solomon’s personal journey and less generalizations. Nevertheless, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” also known as “Hitler Youth Salomon” and “Europa Europa,” had a strong sense of momentum once it found its footing. The scene that summed up the film best was when Solomon sat in a comfortable Nazi vehicle, peered through a heavily stained window and saw the horrible things that happened to his people. He saw the dead and wondered whether his family was there. Solomon had to stop himself from breaking down because he might be caught as a sympathizer, or worse, a Jew.
Grave of the Firelies (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene depicted the death of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) when Japan finally surrendered at the end of World War II. His story of struggle with his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi) was elegantly told in flashback. They tried to survive by themselves because their father was in the Navy, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) passed away because a fire-bombing raid, and their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) outwardly expressed that the two of them were a burden since they did not do their share in providing for the household. “Hotaru no haka” is a sublime example of anime transcending animated stories told in a fantastic scope and science fiction. It was able to tell a human story that was very real, tragic and heartbreaking as Seita did his best to keep his sister away from truths that were difficult to digest. Of course, he ended up unsuccessful in the end but the heart of the film was his attempt to construct distractions so that his sister would not think about their parents and the prospect that they, too, could die. Although we saw planes bombing Japanese towns, I liked that the siblings’ main source of struggle was their relationship with other Japanese people. Since everything was rationed, mostly everyone was out for themselves and their own families. Food and shelter were rare and money became irrelevant. Bartering drove the economy which was a problem because the two kids had barely anything to barter with in the first place. There was a complexity in their society’s situation. I did not necessarily see them as “bad people” because I probably would have done the same thing if I was in their shoes. I also admired the fact that Isao Takahata, the director, did not shy away from showing dead, mangled, and rotten bodies. When I saw this film in high school, I remember being shocked at the images because at the time I had not seen an animated movie that mirrored reality so closely. One of the most resonant scenes for me was when Seita glanced over at his mother’s badly burned body. His facial and body expression suggested that he did not at all recognized his mother but deep inside he felt that it was her and she was soon going to die. Just as quickly, he realized he had no choice but to be strong for his sister until their father came for them. “Grave of the Firelies,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, had power that made me feel so sad even after a few days since I’ve seen it. I was haunted with what Seita and his sister had been through but at the same time I was thankful that I did not live through those times. Even more impressive, the movie was a war film that did not place blame on any one nation but instead highlighted individual responsiblity in times of war.
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.
Shutter Island (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the ominous trailer for “Shutter Island” for the first time back in early to mid 2009, I immediately knew I had to see it. But even I have to admit that I lost a little bit of confidence in the movie because its release kept getting pushed back. Usually, that is a sign that the studios are not very confident about the project so they pick a month where there is not a lot of competition. Well, I should have followed my original instincts because the legendary Martin Scorcese (“The Departed,” “The Aviator,” “GoodFellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets”) delivered yet again. Leonardo DiCaprio stars Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall, along with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo), was assigned to investigate an island which harbored a sinister mental hospital because a patient recently escaped from the facility. The two head doctors (Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow) seemed to be compliant initially but the lead character knew that they were hiding something terrible and it had something to do with maltreatment of the mental patients.
Since I have seen most of Scorcese’s pictures, I knew that this was not going to be a typical mystery-thriller. Right from the get-go, Scorcese established one of his themes. That is, DiCaprio’s fear of the water (perhaps a symbolism for life or rebirth) while he and his partner were on a boat on the way to the mysterious island. On the boat, Teddy stated that his family was gone and what killed his wife (Michelle Williams) and child was the smoke and not the fire. I thought that was a particularly important line because there was a lot of smoke–deception–happening in this film but it is not the kind of deception that cheats because in the end it offers us a logical explanation–the fire–yet at the same time it is ultimately up to us to determine what is real and what isn’t. In other words, Scorcese successfully blurred the line between fantasy and actuality, which could have been a total mess if the material had been steered by a less capable director. One of the many things I loved about this film was its confidence in switching back and forth among the present (the investigation), the past (Teddy’s traumatizing experiences in World War II) and the fantasy (having visions and dreams of his family). The quick cuts to horrific images (which sometimes lingered both on screen and in our minds) and the menacing mental facility reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining.” And like that particular film, I think “Shutter Island” can be a difficult to swallow in one sitting because there was a plethora of information presented to us often in one scene. The twists within a twist were fun but they can get confusing if one tries to analyze every single detail in order to find that “one” flaw. But I think that’s the beauty of this film: it is about a man who is in place where the fractured mind is king and none of it has to make sense (but it does and that’s why I’m very impressed).
I also admired the supporting actors such as Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine and Jackie Earle Haley. Even though they did not have much screen time, each of them injected something unique to their characters and it elevated the film. One of my many favorite scenes (and I think one of the most important) was with Clarkson after DiCaprio stumbled upon a terrible incident. I think the picture as a whole reeks of intelligence but I thought that scene was particularly astute because it managed to touch upon specific areas of the history of psychological practices that many people might not know about. I love disorders of the mind (the reason why I took a second concentration along with Biological Sciences) and that is why I love watching psychological thrillers. I feel so much joy applying the things I’ve learned in the university to films and getting a chance evaluate whether the scripts match what my professors had taught me. What’s more impressive to me is that this movie even captured that stigma that we easily put on mental patients: that they’re really scary because of the way they look, that they’re always going to be crazy even if they’re supposedly cured, and the lack of realization on our part that, when it comes to people with mental problems, the irrational behavior is separate from the person.
With all of that said, “Shutter Island” is my pick as the first great film of 2010. After the rollercoaster of emotions and mind-bending situations that the film put me through, I’m very interested in reading Dennis Lehane’s (“Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River”) book of the same name. The movie is approximately two and hours and twenty minutes long but it’s two hours and twenty minutes rich of a complex storytelling, a haunting soundtrack and an exploration of what can or should be trusted. Most importantly, it is an exercise in how powerful one’s vision can be if one approaches it with a balance of intellect and confidence.