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The Dreamers

Dreamers, The (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The first time I saw a movie at the Cinémathèque Française I thought, “Only the French… Only the French would house a cinema inside a palace.” The movie was Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.” Its images were so powerful, it was like being hypnotized. I was 20 years old. It was the late ‘60s and I’d come to Paris for a year to study French.

But it was here that I got my real education. I became a member of what in those days was kind of a free masonry. A free masonry of cinephiles… what we’d call “film buffs.” I was one of the insatiables… the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen.

Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first, when they were still new, still fresh, before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us, before they’d been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator until worn-out, secondhand, the size of a postage stamp it returned to the projectionist’s cabin. Maybe, too, the screen really was a screen. It screened us… from the world.

And so it began, my love for films, during the summer just after junior year of high school had come to a welcome close. Bernardo Bertolocci’s “The Dreamers” was a like a thunder shock to my spine that upon seeing it, I sat on the couch, silent and still, Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing as the end credits started to creep down, convinced that I had not seen anything like it—and I wanted more. Right then I knew that I had just seen a film that I would carry with me so long as I lived.

The opening credits makes known that it is going to be a physical picture. As names appear on the screen, the background demands that we admire the infrastructure of the Eiffel Tower, the metallic support mostly in black while others are, curiously, in red. The color red usually represents passion and violence. There is violence in the film but it isn’t until the very end. For the most part, it focuses on several kinds of passion, physical and intimate, among three cinephiles—an American from sunny California and two French fraternal twins.

Its physicality is not only defined in terms of sex, nudity, and carnality. It is reflected in how Matthew (Michael Pitt) wears his suits and hair, how Isabelle (Eva Green) finds it a challenge to exist on her own for very long when her brother is not only an arm’s length away, how the posture of Theo (Louis Garrel) is blasé every time his father, a published and successful poet, speaks at the dinner table and yet Theo’s eyes are sharp, just waiting to pick out a ripe moment of hypocrisy. Matthew notices how the length, width, and depth of Isabelle’s cigarette lighter tends to fit in any of the patterns of a table cloth.

One of the picture’s themes is its depiction of Matthew, Isabelle, and Theo as children—that although they talk of politics, they remain cocooned. The trio runs through the Louvre Museum in an attempt to beat the record set by the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à part.” Isabelle refers to the American as “my little Matthew” as if she were his big sister. They explore one another’s bodies up close and afar. Notice the innocent appearance of Isabelle’s room. A fort is built in the salon. Listen closely as to how Theo and Matthew try to persuade one another of the merits of either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.

Like children, they even play games. When inspiration erupts, either Theo or Isabelle reenact a specific scene in a movie. The other two must try to guess the film. Failure to do so will result in a punishment. And like children, punishments must involve a level of humiliation. Matthew finds the game sadistic and is repelled by it initially. But Isabelle and Theo’s friendship is one he yearns for. He feels as though he has found his soulmate. Only there happens to be two of them. Their relationships are subtle, elegant, and complex.

But all games must come to an end eventually. The film mostly taking place inside an apartment, we see glimpses of the reality—a revolution taking shape—on television, by looking at a massive pile of rubbish in the streets, and observing protestors marching outside. There are blockades and behind them are police. There is a beautiful scene where Matthew takes out Isabelle on a date. It is the only moment in the film that comes closest to a typical love story but it is most welcome because it is earned. It is a glimpse of a future they might have had if they were born and had met a decade before or after. But, alas, it is May 1968.

Based on the screenplay and novel by Gilbert Adair, “The Dreamers” is beautifully photographed, each location—whether it be a room, a restaurant, or a movie theater—is vivid in detail, and wonderfully—and bravely—performed by the three leads. Some viewers may look and dismiss it to be pornographic because of the amount of flesh shown on screen. But others may look and recognize a story of awakening. In a number of ways, it had awoken me.

In retrospect, if it weren’t for this film, I probably would not have been inspired—and continuing to be inspired—to watch whatever movie I could get my hands on. Though my pursuit of knowledge is in science, it is likely that tough times would have gotten the best of me if the movies had not been there constantly to provide a delicate balance between reality and dreams.



Womb (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Tommy (Matt Smith) and Rebecca (Eva Green) met when they were children while the latter is temporarily staying at his grandfather’s house. Her family has plans of immigrating to Tokyo, Japan. Twelve years later, Rebecca visits Tommy with hopes of continuing their special friendship–one that might lead to romance. The reunion proves to be a breath of fresh air for both of them. On the way to cause mass hysteria in the city involving cockroaches, Rebecca tells Tommy she needs to urinate. Tommy pulls over next to a field. As Rebecca walks away, she hears Tommy getting out of the vehicle, the accompanying sudden halt of another vehicle, and a deafening thud of a lifeless body hitting the pavement.

Written and directed by Benedek Fliegauf, “Womb” is surprising in that it avoids hyperbole considering its subject matter. After Tommy’s funeral, Rebecca decides to clone her deceased lover, carry the child in her womb, and raise him as if she were his own. There is a pool of questions worth bringing up and answering, like how the cloned Tommy would be different given the disparities in the environment where original Tommy was raised, but it focuses on one issue: Can romantic love be turned into love for one’s “child”? And if so, as an audience, do we consider it acceptable or morally repugnant? How about when the child turns into an adult? Is it still distasteful? Let us not forget that Rebecca and the clone do not share the same DNA. Is it considered incest?

The film is shot in a way that inspires us to turn inwards. There are plenty of scenes that take place indoors and the howling of fierce winds can be heard from within. We get the impression that there is something ominous brewing outside. And perhaps there is. We get a taste of regular folks’ discrimination toward “copies.” As many of us know, discrimination can lead to hate and hate can lead to violence.

Colors are drained of their vibrancy. Rebecca’s world feels like a never-ending winter. The snow can symbolize her grief. Though she is able to, in a way, being her lover back to life, the clone is not the same person. The clone loves her… but as a mother, not a partner in life. Green is quite good in evoking the need to love the child emotionally while struggling to keep the physical aspect out of it. We watch closely as her character is enticed to cross that line. Through the quiet and slow unspooling of the screenplay, we are mesmerized and fascinated about what goes on in Rebecca’s mind. If she can clone her lover, carry him to term, and raiser her as her own, what line is she not willing to cross?

“Womb” gets some interesting critiques. More than a few have expressed feeling disturbed that the camera shows nakedness of children. (No private frontal part is shown, just one shot of buttocks, a boy who is shirtless and at times wearing nothing but underwear.) I did not feel wrong about it because I think it ties into the story.

For example, in the latter half, when Rebecca looks at her “son” who may or may not be wearing much, we wonder what she might be thinking. Is she thinking about her time as a girl when she and Tommy innocently slept in the same bed? Is she thinking about something that could put her in jail? With the former half, I chalk it up to the writer-director’s intention of creating a world that feels realistic despite the fact that human cloning is very possible. When I was a kid, I would just be in my underwear at home sometimes. It doesn’t feel exploitative. It certainly is not pornographic.

A better question is not whether the film leans toward pedophilia from a technical standpoint, but how come none of the residents around the small town recognizes that Rebecca’s “son” looks exactly like the original Tommy as a child? That bothered me a lot more, if you ask me.


Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows (2012)
★ / ★★★★

In the eighteenth century, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Deep) is cursed by a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) to become a blood-sucking creature of the night because he chooses to love Josette (Bella Heathcote) over her. To further demonstrate her hatred toward him, the scorned sorceress then unveils to the townspeople that a vampire lives among them. She benefits from their fear after a mob captures Barnabas and buries him in a coffin to rot for eternity. Two hundred years later, however, a group of construction workers come across the vampire’s tomb and decide to open it.

If “Dark Shadows” had not been advertised as directed by Tim Burton, I would have assumed that it been under the helm of a young filmmaker who wanted to prove himself and had been given the opportunity to direct his first commercial Hollywood picture because every square inch of the material reeks of potentially good ideas but lacking in narrative focus to give the bland recipe some much needed seasoning.

The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is an exercise of mediocrity. What exactly is the story about? Have you ever played the 1985 Super Mario Bros. game where if Mario or Luigi stays on one platform for too long it collapses? The player then must control the avatar as quickly as possible toward stable ground without falling into the depths. That is the same approach taken here. In its attempt to cover up the plethora of weaknesses in the film, it gives the illusion that it’s about a lot of things and moves through them with nervous energy.

In the end, it’s all subplot and no central story. Although there is talk about the importance of family prior to the opening credits, once Barnabas is let out of his cage and joins his distant family members who are living in his castle, not one scene is constructed with dramatic heft or flow to make us believe that he genuinely cares for his clan, at least on an emotional level. Instead of focusing on developing the story and exploring the characters that inhabit it, the performances take center stage.

Depp sports his now usual weirdness and proves once again that he’s a master technician, from his range of intonations depending on the level of threat his character faces to the way he looks at someone with just enough menace as to not appear as a complete monster. Green, on the other hand, amps up the sensuality by giving intense glares that are perfect for high fashion editorials. They share one funny scene rolling around in a loft and breaking expensive furniture in the process, cheekily suggesting sexual intercourse.

But what about the family? As the head of the Collins clan, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not given enough scenes to show that she is a capable leader of her family as well as the cannery business. Most of the time we see her looking stern, almost constipated, like she’s having a bad day and wanting a strong drink. What is done with Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s hormonal daughter, is depressing throughout because she is only allowed to play two emotions: sexy and stoned. Moretz is a thespian capable of exuding a balance of sensitivity and strength so watching her reduce herself to a would-be sex kitten is embarrassing. I would personally like to ask her what she saw in the role while reading the script because she does not look like she is being challenged here.

The visuals are outstanding especially during the final confrontation between Barnabas and Angelique. I liked watching the transformation of inanimate objects suddenly having a will of their own. Still, it was difficult to care how it would all turn out because we had no understanding of the characters. We have epidermal information about what the winner might gain and the loser might lose but there hovers a deafening emptiness in the squabbles.



Cracks (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Miss G (Eva Green) was the diving coach in a British boarding school and idolized by Di (Juno Temple), the team’s leader. Miss G was different from the other more traditional teachers. She wasn’t afraid to talk about sexuality, literatures banned by the school, and the importance of reckless abandon. But when Fiamma (María Valverde), a girl from Spain who was accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, enrolled in the school, Miss G had a new favorite student. Based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, “Cracks” heavily relied on mood and beautiful imagery to keep the rather thin storyline afloat. We saw the girls in poetic lens while running all over campus, diving in the nude at midnight, and hanging out in their dormitories. Jordan Scott, the director, insisted on delivering the best aesthetics, sometimes punctuated in slow motion, to contrast the ugliness of jealousy that Di and her friends felt toward the new girl. While I appreciated the director’s technique, I felt as though the material could have been much darker. Di was obviously sexually attracted to Miss G. Unfortunately, the picture held back from digging into the passion between the student and teacher and I was left wondering why. I almost would have enjoyed it more if it had straddled the line between tasteful sensuality and unabashed exploitation. The camera spent too much time contemplating on how Di must have felt when a more exciting girl was introduced into the school and how Fiamma must have felt when her classmates wanted to send her back to her country. However, I found myself more interested in Miss G: her volatile personality and state of mind. I wanted to see more of Miss G’s struggles to keep her dark secrets strictly private. We saw her break down in the halls, a relatively public space, but what did she do while she was in her room, when she believed she was alone? Green did the best with what she was given. I enjoyed the scenes when she delivered inspiring messages to her students as they perfected their diving skills. She used a lot of words, undoubtedly delicious to the ears, but ultimately signifying nothing. But the most disappointing unexplored detail of all was Miss G’s history with the school when she was a young girl. Did she fit in like Di or was she an outcast like Fiamma? Throughout the picture, she was torn between the two girls. If we were more knowledgeable about her history, specific details could have been more resonant. Instead, some of her decisions felt frustratingly one-dimensional. “Cracks” remained tasteful when it shouldn’t have been. I desired to see the monster that lived in all the girls, the kind of monsters seen only in the dark. Instead, the film somewhat worked better as a pretty picture of the fragility of friendships.


100 Favorite Films of 2000-2009 (10-1)


Bourne (Series) (2002-2007)

Engaging in every way, “The Bourne Identity,” (directed by Doug Liman) “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (Paul Greengrass) is my idea of an adrenaline-fueled escapism at its best. The first film set up the mystery that ran in the veins of the other two. From its engimatic opening sequence, Matt Damon convinced us that he is Jason Bourne–even though he turns out to be an assassin, the audience still care for and identify with him. The second film showed us how deadly he could be and what lengths he would go to get revenge for killing off someone he loved. The third film expertly used flashbacks, past dialogues, scenes, character foils, and similar situations that happened in the past two movies. For me, the “Bourne” series revolutionized the spy-thriller genre.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

I remember watching “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” directed by Steven Spielberg, when I was about thirteen years old and I instantly fell in love with it. It was a stylistic hybrid of two of my favorite directors, Spielberg (who provided light and hope) and Stanley Kubrick (who provided edge and darkness). If I were to divide the film into three parts, I would say the first and the third parts were Spielberg’s forte. The middle part was Kubrick to the core but it was not fully realized because he did not get to helm it. I was impressed with the picture’s the visual effects, the moral conundrum concerning the relationship between humans and machines, and the overall message regarding the capacity to chase after one’s dreams. I could only imagine if Kubrick had the chance to direct the entire picture. It would have been an entirely different yet elevated experience.


In Bruges (2008)

I relished every minute of this film because it managed to successfully fuse two of my favorite genres–dark comedy and suspense thriller–in an elegant and astute manner. Granted, three-fourths of the movie leaned toward the former and the rest leaned toward the latter but it does not mean it was less rewarding. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson had such great chemistry. As the picture progressed, we get to realize that their characters weren’t just fellow hitmen–they were more like father and son. I was surprised by how much emotionally invested I was with the characters regardless of their occupation. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “In Bruges” was an unpredictable, fast-talking thriller with a great balance of smarts and heart.


Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007)

I think this film is a masterpiece. Hsiao-hsien Hou did an amazing job in directing and shaping this homage to “The Red Balloon.” Juliette Binoche was electric even though she was a bit more broken down here compared to her other movies. I liked the pluckiness of her character but was frustrated with the fact that she paid more attention to her career than her son. Simon Iteanu, who played Binoche’s son, was sublime as a lonely boy but he did not make us feel too sorry for him. He showed that he was strong in some ways, whether it came to distracting himself with pinball machines or playing a role in his nanny’s movies. Fang Song played the nanny who I thought made the movie that much more interesting. Her style of acting was so nonchalant but there was something about her that was caring and welcoming. Most people will say that “nothing much happened” but that’s the point: to watch a slice of life.


Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ang Lee directed this film about two cowboys (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal) who fell in love but decided to keep it a secret because of the difficult circumstances that surrounded them. This movie should have won Best Picture because it was passionate, had a clear sense of vision, and the story was timeless. Labeled as “the gay cowboy movie” at the time of its release, its raw power transcended such easy and hateful labels. The way Lee focused his camera on the land to reflect the characters’ struggles and insecurities fascinated me every time I saw this picture. I remember seeing this film in an isolated small cinema before it gained popularity (and hatred). I won’t forget that feeling of secrecy and experiencing something truly profound.


Before Sunset (2004)

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunited ten years later in Richard Linklater’s sequel to “Before Sunrise.” I couldn’t help but have a silly smile on my face every time Jesse and Celine talk about every little thing that comes to their minds. Although romantic in every way, it is a cathartic experience every time I watch the film because I feel like they were able to voice out the thoughts in my head. The way the two leads changed from the last time we saw them was amusing (because they became more neurotic) and captivating (because of their strong connection). What’s even more impressive is that one can appreciate this film without watching its predecessor. Delpy’s song in the end really summed up their complicated relationship. This picture will always have room in my heart because it never fails to cheer me up.


The Aviator (2004)

Directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Aviator” was a biopic of Howard Hughes’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) impressive career as a director and an aviator. Whenever I watch this film, I am simply outraged by the fact that DiCaprio did not win an Oscar for his performance. He didn’t act like Hughes, he was Hughes: the eccentricities, his passion for filmmaking, his lavish lifestyle, the attitude and the swagger. Another noteworthy acting came from Cate Blanchett as she played Katharine Hepburn. Every bit of neuroticism was spot on, to the point where they were eerily similar. The first time I saw “The Aviator,” I liked it but I didn’t love it. But after I watched more films over time and decided to give it a second chance, its magic just engaged me in such a way that few movies ever could. It easily became one of my top three Scorsese movies. This is not just a tried and true biopic. It is an important gem that shouldn’t be missed by anyone interested in character studies and great filmmaking.


The Departed (2006)

Indeed another Martin Scorsese picture. “The Departed” was spellbinding on so many levels and it more than deserved its Oscar win. The thrills were more than earned (I will never forget that scene when the undercover cop and the rat were on the opposite sides of the telephone line), the characters were as sharp as a needle, and the script was as tight as it could be. Even though this movie’s running time was about two and a half hours, I don’t mind watching it multiple times because it just blows my mind every time. The subtleties of the acting by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg gave the film that extra quality to make it very special. I distinctly remember watching this movie by myself over Winter Break of 2006. It was one of those rare times when I bought popcorn with a huge soda. Let me tell you, I desperately needed a bathroom break because of all that caffeine (unaware of the fact that it was a diuretic). But I held it in until the very last (comic) scene because the film was just a masterpiece. This film started my very own tradition of going to the cinema by myself on December with a huge cold soda in hand. Four years and going strong.


Mysterious Skin (2004)

Psychologically complex in every way, this was one of those small films that I saw when I did not love movies as much as I do now. I guess, in a way, “Mysterious Skin” will always have a place in my top ten list because it truly made me want to look into films a lot deeper than most people. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave a daring and heartbreaking performance as a young adult who was sexually abused multiple times when he was a child. His character was hung up on a person who he believed loved him. Brady Corbet gave as complex a performance who went through the same abuse–except he could not seem to recall what had happened. I love how everything was literal and metaphorical in this picture. For instance, Gordon-Levitt’s character wished to just get away from the place he grew up in (alienation), while Corbet literally believed that aliens had abducted him when he was a child. Eventually, the two characters crossed paths and it was devastating. Gregg Araki, the director, really made a movie (based on a novel by Scott Heim) that was painfully honest and challenging. Every time I watch this film, I cannot help but relate with the characters because some of the emotional barriers that they put around themselves remind me of my own.


The Dreamers (2003)

People can and will argue which movie really was the best of the decade but for me it was undoubtedly “The Dreamers,” directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and written by Gilbert Adair, even before I compiled my list. Most American audiences consider this film as pornographic and I cannot disagree more. It is art in a form of moving pictures. I do not want to get started on how Americans shy away from naked bodies and sexuality even though the United States has one of the biggest pornographic industries in the world. If that isn’t hypocrisy at its finest, I don’t know what is. Although the film has a plethora of depictions of carnality, it was more about the love/”love” between three people and the films that connected them. It also worked as a statement regarding the loss of innocence through interactions among other human bodies and the way those interactions served to protect the owners of such bodies from the political revolution that was happening at the time. I’ve seen this film with many different kinds of people (mostly friends) and it was a shame that most of them failed to see the big picture. (I don’t mean to sound condescending but the frustration I feel is too much.) Instead of focusing on how much the three main characters embodied the films they try to mimic (and the films’ impact on their psyches), audiences tend to focus on the sexual acts because it was “shocking.” I guess it’s hard to appreciate the film if one does not have some sort of a historical background about May 1968 (I did research and it enhanced by understanding of the movie). I guess it’s also difficult to see beyond the sexual acts if one has not seen naked bodies many times. I strongly believe that if one can overcome those two main hurdles, one will have a greater understanding of what Bertolucci wanted to get across. Michael Pitt, Eva Green, and Louis Garrel delievered amazing and daring performances; I will always remember them as passionate cinéphiles. Trivia: the original script had explicit gay scenes where Matthew and Theo had sex. Keep that in mind while watching the film. It might enhance one’s understanding of certain scenes and get rid of some distracting implications. In my opinion, the director should not have cut those scenes out. Nevertheless, “The Dreamers” gets my top spot because it was THE movie that made me fall in love with all kinds of motion pictures–good, bad, old, new. If it wasn’t for this very personal (and sometimes challenging) film, you wouldn’t be here reading these words at this very moment because the passion I have for the cinema would not have ignited.


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