Category Archives: Action

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

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Looper (2012)

Delay of gratification is hardly fashionable these days. In 2044, even less. So working as a looper makes sense, offering clean murder services to crime syndicates whose hands are otherwise tied by extensive body tagging. Instant cash, never mind what happens 30 years later. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains the premise:

In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. When they need someone gone and they want to erase any trace of the target ever existing, they use specialized assassins like me, called loopers. The only rule is: never let your target escape, even if your target…is you.

Therein lies the crux of the plot. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) travels back in time to hunt down a certain child and prevent a disastrous future, in the process endangering Young Joe’s life, whose looper contract forbids such a dichotomy. The two Joes struggle against each other, culminating in a final face-off at a Kansas farmhouse owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), whose son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) just might be the feared Rainmaker.

With all this going on, it’s not surprising that the film projects an Inception-like feel. Director/writer Rian Johnson makes his own mark on the sci-fi genre though. The movie handles information well, and it is a clash of motives that drives the conflict, not external antagonists (although we have those too). Looper owes a lot to its impressive cast. Gordon-Levitt delivers as usual, and Willis reprises a role he’s practiced to perfection: shooting down bad guys in the name of love and leather jackets. It is Blunt who surprises us with a highly emotional scene—which she pulls off without a hitch. And Gagnon gives new meaning to creepy child prodigy when he goes past mere precocious to ultra-powerful. Also, although these hardly alter the overall effect, I appreciated little touches like Gordon-Levitt’s make-up and Blunt’s tan. While they can be distracting, I recognized the added effort to lend authenticity to the movie.

Time travel is always a tricky territory to navigate. But Looper provides a caveat early on, and one that we readily agree with at the film’s conclusion. “This time travel crap,” Abe says, “just fries your brain like an egg.” This might seem like a cop-out, but it’s not. The film plays out so elegantly, so neatly (it’s a “closed loop” after all) that one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better solution. It’s not so much that there are no plot holes, but that the film holds you in thrall so effectively that you don’t want to find them, you don’t want to spoil it by thinking too much. Sure, Looper makes leaps of logic (what sci-fi movie doesn’t?) and characters make lousy decisions, but that’s part of the act. And it’s all synchronized so well that you don’t feel the need to look behind the scenes and dispel the magic. Those of you who want to take up the challenge and fry your brains, go ahead and try. As for me, I don’t need to make heads or tails of this. I’m happy with this violent, ambitious, splendid mess.

‘I’m from the future. Go to China.’

‘I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.’

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

There are storylines, and then there are variations. Season after season, we see movies harking back to their predecessors: targeting the same audience and using the same time-tested tropes, with varying degrees of critical and box office success. But every so often there comes along a work that is not content with playing by the rules, that changes the game altogether. Off the top of my head: The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix—trilogies that changed the platform for all that came after. For the superhero genre, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight series is one such game-changer.

I spent almost six hours preparing for the finale last Saturday. Several hours before the 8:10 PM screening, I saw Batman Begins for the first time and re-watched The Dark Knight. I walked into the theater drugged with Batman information and fortified by an NYFD sandwich. It had been an adrenaline-packed day. By midnight I was dragging myself, but the marathon did give me a 20/20 view of the whole trilogy.

At least for the first half-hour, Batman Begins underwhelms. Although it’s an origin story, it handles Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma carelessly, using terrible sequencing. The repeated flashbacks don’t work, and the sudden introduction of Ra’s al Ghul (who basically just goes, “Come, I’ll to train you to be badass”) seems too convenient and hard to believe. The story gets progressively better though, picking up when Bruce returns to Gotham. From that point on the plot unfolds gracefully. Bruce’s childhood terror of bats comes neatly into play when Scarecrow unleashes his panic-inducing psychedelic drug. This paves the way for the film’s most poignant moment, which occurs when a heavily-gassed, hallucinating Batman clambers onto a rooftop and rasps into a cellphone, “Alfred, help me.” The scene barely lasts a minute, but it shows Batman at his weakest, his most vulnerable, and he calls out to his oldest friend and says, “Help me.” After an unexpected twist, the conflict escalates into a familiar climax: mentor and mentee fight for the greatest city in the world. It’s not particularly astounding, but as far as superhero movies go, it is gratifying. Undoubtedly the film’s worst decision involves casting Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She and Christian Bale have zero chemistry together. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t really embody the character either, but she’s definitely an improvement.

Actually, with The Dark Knight, everything is an improvement. Since its release, the sequel has received worldwide acclaim, overshadowing its precursor by a wide margin, and for good reason. The Dark Knight goes well beyond what a good film should be. As an action movie, it does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, thrilling, and thoroughly captivating. In exploring dark moral themes, it is also thoughtful and fiercely intelligent, offering not black-and-white answers, but motley shades of gray. The ingenious interplay and overlap of the characters’ values creates a spectacle both difficult and incredible to watch.

What props up the movie’s ambition is its stellar cast. Christian Bale gives a consistent performance throughout the series, defining Batman in a way that will affect generations. Aaron Eckhart also delivers as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, rendering his rage-driven insanity credible and at the same time repulsive. Heath Ledger gives his best (and sadly, last) performance as the Joker, often stealing the spotlight from Batman. The Joker has already solidified his status as one of the greatest villains of all time, but through Ledger he becomes even more sinister, even more enigmatic. Thrice he asks would-be victims (including Batman), “Ever wonder how I got these scars?”—hinting, “Ever wonder why I turned out this way?”—and gives different answers, implying that there is no reason, that evil can exist sans cause.

Without a doubt, The Dark Knight marks an industry milestone, by superhero genre standards or any other. Coming on the heels of such an acclaimed movie, the third film was not poised for success. But even with lowered expectations—and as much as I do not want to admit it—the finale disappoints. Whereas The Dark Knight posits questions on meaning and morality, the third installment mostly provokes questions about plot. Its convoluted enemy storyline feels hastily patched together and shows holes in many places. Take just one point: Batman’s return. How did he re-enter Gotham from the Pit? How did he get back all his gear? And, for that matter, why hasn’t Bane destroyed his equipment yet? Five months is a long time to spend waiting around to fail.

Despite his bulging muscles, Bane (Tom Hardy) fails to command respect as a villain because of his lackluster terrorist-thug image. So we’re actually relieved to discover he’s not the mastermind—only to find out that it’s someone even more unimpressive, whose role until then had only been to provide Bruce Wayne with support, financial or otherwise. Uncharacteristically, Marion Cotillard gives a flat performance (maybe her role just isn’t compelling enough). Her final speech falls on deaf ears; we don’t really care about her father issues. What fans feel strongly about, even before production began, is Catwoman. Given Nolan’s previous female lead miscasts, fans had a right to worry. But Anne Hathaway gets to slap all haters in the face when she undergoes an exquisite transformation as the super-hot and versatile Selina Kyle. She easily proves herself one of the best cast choices in the franchise, right up there with Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s batman.

Hathaway aside, the finale still holds a lot of room for disappointment. Its clear division between good and evil may be fine for a regular superhero movie, but we’re not talking about a regular superhero movie. We’re talking about the conclusion to The Dark Knight series! We’re talking about the follow-up to the one film that changed the rules! Unfortunately, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the much-anticipated finale finds a hard time reaching the high standards it set for itself.

Let me make this clear: The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad movie, far from it. It still attempts to ask big questions, but instead of soaring the way its predecessor does, it kind of flops and sputters along the runway. The film spends a long time cultivating a classist undercurrent, but it never really takes off because we don’t get the sense that things change after the riots. Presumably, order resumes, and up stays up, down stays down. Not like in The Dark Knight, where the Joker shakes Gotham to its core. I at least found one gem in a conversation between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), when the latter admits the former’s point about structures becoming shackles and relinquishes his badge in favor of a more…unorthodox crime-fighting path.

If The Dark Knight Rises fails at setting up a convincing conflict, it nonetheless succeeds in wrapping up the series. And it does so admirably, doing justice to each of its characters. Thematically, the conclusion of Batman echoes several points in his life: his emotional struggles, his failures, his parents’ vision, their subsequent death, Rachel’s death. All three scripts reflect this cohesion. Even Selina’s chilling whisper of “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne” from the 2012 trailer recalls a scene two films earlier, when Batman tells then-Sergeant Gordon, “Storm’s coming.” Subtle, but shows just how much care was put into the making of these scripts. No wonder Nolan was so damn protective of them.

“Haven’t given up on me yet?” “Never.” In Batman Begins, we see Bruce and Alfred regularly exchanging these lines. During their final confrontation, under different circumstances, Alfred gives a different answer—heartbreaking, but necessary all the same. This argument sets the audience up for the conclusion, which, in hindsight, seems to be what trilogy has been heading towards all along. From Rachel’s letter to Alfred’s ultimatum, the finale makes it clear that the story no longer belongs to the symbol, but to the man—that the day has finally come “when [Bruce] no longer needs Batman.”

Although obviously an action franchise, Nolan’s series is invigorating in more ways than one. While remaining strikingly original, it calls to mind other landmark works that develop the same themes. Ra’s al Ghul’s insistence on becoming “more than just a man” finds similar incarnations in V from V for Vendetta and Zero from Code Geass. And Bane’s point about the Pit, about there being “no true despair without hope,” calls to mind a line from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Among its achievements, the trilogy’s greatest feat lies in how it pushes boundaries. It shows us the philosophical possibilities of superhero movies, a genre until now largely confined to entertaining but safe productions like the recent Spider-Man reboot.

But, as the Joker would say, “Why so serious?” For all its intellectual high-wire twists, the series triumphs because it works on a more basic level: it knows how to please an audience. All three films come out generously sprinkled with action sequences featuring top gear from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), among other visual spectacles (“Anne Hathaway on a motorbike? So worth it!” my friend TJ avows). It also doesn’t hurt that the movies weave key truths and emotions into their storyline, creating more than a few tearjerkers. “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Nolan’s trilogy is not perfect, but even with the worst of its warts, it still comes extremely well-recommended, even for non-geeks like me. It remains the best superhero series out there, and one that is not likely to fade from memory.

Batman Begins

‘A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.’

‘Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate or fair! And make no mistake: here, you face Death.’

‘Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.’

‘Haven’t given up on me yet?’ ‘Never.’

‘Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.’

‘It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.’

The Dark Knight

‘You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’

‘If you’re good at something, never do it for free.’

‘Tonight you’re all gonna be a part of a social experiment.’

‘That’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.’

‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.’

‘Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people need more.’

The Dark Knight Rises

‘There can be no true despair without hope.’

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011)

Few movies interest my father. The last one we saw together was District 9, and he slept through most of that. Recently, however, he’s gotten hooked on historical films, starting with Roman sagas (Gladiator, Spartacus) then moving on to Chinese epics (An Empress and the Warriors). He came across The Sorcerer and the White Snake on YouTube. After being told the story twice, my mom and I plunked ourselves down in front of a laptop to share the experience. We even had popcorn.

Forbidden love. It’s the oldest tale in the world (save perhaps for creation stories). As with Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a non-human heroine saves a mortal from drowning, thus earning his love. It’s easy enough to believe. But while a princess falling in love with a prince (the first one she sees) seems a matter of course, that’s not the case here. I don’t see why the White Snake Susu (Eva Huang) feels attracted to a poor herb-gatherer like Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). She and her demon-sister Qingqing (Charlene Choi), the Green Snake, have spent centuries observing humans, so why does she fall for this particular one? Are we to pin it all on their exchange of “vital forces” (via the life-saving kiss)? Are we to believe that a thousand-year-old demon can find no other way to un-drown a mortal than by kissing him? Unlike the mischievous Qingqing, Susu is defined only by her love for Xu Xian, and even he has better characterization: a good-hearted physician devoted to helping others. A little backstory on why Susu would find that kind of personality endearing is necessary to building up their relationship.

Halfway through the movie, Susu and Xu Xian hold a mock-marriage ceremony, but of course someone hinders their happily ever after. As a monk committed to exorcising demons, Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) finds their union intolerable. Although my sympathies lay with the couple, the antagonist’s portrayal still stood out: It’s clear that Fahai’s not a wicked magus—just someone with principles to uphold, responsibilities to fulfill. My favorite moment is when he addresses a plea to Buddha during a moment of apparent defeat: “I have been a dharma defender all my life… Why did the calamity happen instead? Have I been too stubborn? Was I really wrong?” This might be asking too much, but I wish the film had explored this theme further. The conflict already dances on the line between good and evil, but the ending’s deus ex machina sweeps all that under the rug—or more accurately, beneath the roiling waves of the sea.

Although it’s apparently famous, I didn’t know about the Legend of the White Snake until this movie, and for that I am grateful. Forbidden love is an oft-told tale in many cultures, but each retelling remains exquisite and inexorably sad. With such material to draw from, the film could have been more successful had it focused on themes of love and religion rather than on its much-criticized special effects, which appear more cartoonish than real. Legends persist because they possess universal resonance. In the hands of the right person, they can be shaped into films that resonate with the fragility of time and the endurance of passion. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the White Snake has not found such an adaptation here.

‘My friends said I’d imagined her, but I’m quite sure she was real, because she kissed me so deeply. That kiss saved my life. In a way, it also took my life.’

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

By now everyone already knows the premise, but in case you live under a rock—

Years after his parents disappeared, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds a clue that might unravel the mystery. Following this lead, he visits Oscorp Industries to seek out Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s partner in researching cross-species genetics. There, he gets bitten by a genetically altered spider, gaining superhuman capabilities which he uses to round up criminals and impress Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). But the same research that turns Peter into Spider-Man also transforms Dr. Connors into the vicious Lizard, whose evolutionary vision endangers New York City.

Young Peter has always been awkward, but in film he hasn’t exactly seemed very youthful. Although 28-year-old Garfield looks nothing like a pubescent, his charms lend a boyish aura to the new Spider-Man. His Peter is a tech-savvy teen who plays Bubble Shooter when bored, who gets reprimanded for forgetting errands and breaking curfew. His crush, the smart, self-possessed Gwen is a far cry from perpetual damsel-in-distress Mary Jane. She actually plays a pivotal role in saving the day, transcending the typical role of superhero love interest. But while the original Spider-Man series highlighted an adult relationship (with all its encumbrances), Marc Webb’s version presents a sweeter, more innocent love—not better, but refreshing.

That said, their first kiss doesn’t even come close to the iconic Spider-Man scene; but they don’t try to trump it—and no one can blame them. What I can’t dismiss, however, is the clumsily handled conclusion to the romance. Given what happened, Peter’s last quip—and Gwen’s responding smile—seem inappropriate. I also found the Uncle Ben part too downplayed, although I liked the portrayal of Peter’s grief, how he shuns even Gwen’s consolation. Lastly, one bugging omission: Where’d Peter get the Spidey suit?

The Amazing Spider-Man promotes itself as “the untold story,” but essentially it’s the same story re-told with more flair. Perhaps the sequel might hold up to that promise? For now, viewers can appreciate the spectacular action sequences, engineered for maximum visual pleasure, but not overwhelming enough to distract from the story. (It must be way more awesome in 3D, but with a free pass from Sarah, I’m not complaining.) It’s not the original, and it certainly doesn’t mark an industry milestone, but for a franchise reboot just five years after the last film? Not bad, not bad at all.

‘We all have secrets—the ones we keep…and the ones that are kept from us.’

‘Peter, secrets have a cost. They’re not free. Not now, not ever.’

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Is it just me, or are Hollywood movies getting better with their plot lines these days? Since Inception, more and more directors are dipping their fingers into science fiction. In 2011 alone, we have popular films like Source Code, Contagion, and In Time all with sci-fi elements serving as premises to fuel the story. In The Adjustment Bureau, fate is a book that you hold in your hand, and chance is a man in a fedora hat setting up your every choice.

On election eve, Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) meets beautiful, impulsive Elise (Emily Blunt). Fate dictates that they never see each other again, but chance intervenes and sets in motion a problem for the agents of destiny. Harry (Anthony Mackie), a jaded member of the Adjustment Bureau, makes a slip-up that allows the two to meet again, and this time the attraction is strong enough to reshape their lives. The Bureau does not respond kindly to deviance, so in order to stay together, David and Elise must overcome forces they never knew existed and fight against fate itself.

“The guy rides the same bus every day for three years. Who does that?” Romantic movie heroes, that’s who. It’s easy to imagine the same scenario with Ryan Gosling, dutifully waiting for that moment he chances upon Elise again. But Matt Damon, really? Because we saw so much running from him in the Bourne series? For a movie centering on love, the romance falls flat in this film, partly because Matt Damon fails to convince. The script had some winning lines, but it also contained too many cheesy scenes. I prefer Source Code, where the focus is more on the action and the implications of the setup than the romance. Here, all I see is a sci-fi love-conquers-all drama.

Maki agrees with me: The Adjustment Bureau has a promising concept, but unfortunately it came out half-baked. Somehow it feels like the people behind it didn’t think their premise through because they were too busy trying to make it appealing. If God watched this, I’m sure he would feel offended. The Chairman is a whimsical God: he intertwines David and Elise’s fate from birth, then one day rewrites everything. Later on, he again changes his mind. Really, God? That’s the plan, impulsive revision? Plus the hat thing is just hilarious. What God would do that?

‘You ruined me. I didn’t want to settle for less.’

‘You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.’

‘All I have are the choices I make.’

‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Even if it’s only a little while.’

Free will is a gift that you’ll never know how to use until you fight for it.

A Quiet Life (2010)

Among the many titles for this year’s Italian Film Festival, A Quiet Life is one of the least appealing. Predictable action movie, I judged after looking at the synopsis and its accompanying screenshot, and crossed it off our itinerary. Maki and I wanted to watch Vincere, but the organizers altered the schedule and replaced that afternoon screening with A Quiet Life. I felt cheated.

Rosario (Toni Servillo) is an Italian ex-gangster who flees to Germany to start a new life. He opens a restaurant, remarries, and has a son with his new wife Renate (Juliane Köhler). Then one day Diego (Marco D’Amore) shows up at his restaurant, upsetting the balance of his life. Faced with his grown son from a previous life, Rosario struggles to again escape his dark past.

I had expected this to be an action film, fast-paced and suspenseful, but it was almost exactly the opposite. The opening captured my attention, and still remains strong in my memory, but after that nothing much happens for the first hour or so. We see tension escalating between Rosario and Diego, but it remains suspended for most of the film. It only picks up again towards the end, when both Rosario’s sons become caught up in danger and the stakes are raised higher.

A Quiet Life is shot entirely in black-and-white, a stylistic choice that somehow works here. The use of contrast—the glaring brightness of white standing out against sharp black—creates a visual rendering in keeping with the film’s heavy plot. Rosario is a man with a long history of sins, a litany of names murdered and erased. He has thrown away the past, but life does not seem too ready to forgive him. Rosario himself doesn’t seem very successful in shrugging off his old identity, for he still deals with problems the same way he did in the past. Perhaps that is why, by the time the movie closes, he ends up doing the exact same thing he did years ago, this time twice beaten by the same fate.

Here’s the uneloquent truth: I can’t really point out what’s wrong with this movie, why for me it seems flat and not striking enough. All I know is that it’s not memorable, I barely enjoyed it, and because of that I delayed reviewing it for as long as I could. I am sure I would have preferred Vincere.

‘She makes me laugh, because I don’t understand her.’

‘I stayed hidden for 15 years, He gave me a new life. You have to ask Him why He’s come to take it back. Ask Him that. I already know why anyway. He doesn’t give a fuck about helping people.’