★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.
Somers Town (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two lonely teenagers met in London and we have the pleasure to observe them for a couple of days. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and his father (Ireneusz Czop) were Polish immigrants. Marek mostly kept to himself as he slowly nourished his interest in photography. His father worked during the day and drank with his friends at night. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) turned sixteen and his first big decision was to move to London for reasons unknown. He was mugged on his first night in the big city but this did not change his romantic view of it. Marek and Tomo met at a local café where Marek told Tomo about his crush on a waitress named Maria (Elisa Lasowski). Then the two devised ways to get her attention, but one day she left unexpectedly for Paris. Shot in grainy black-and-white, “Somers Town” reminded me of those great movies in the 1960s during the French New Wave era. Its plot was relatively thin but the emotions were so complex that it was hard to say goodbye to the two characters after just 70 minutes of them getting to know each other. Despite Marek and Tomo coming from economically poor backgrounds, I loved that Paul Fraser, the writer, did not harden their hearts and their yearning for attention did not predictably lead to violence. In fact, he went the opposite direction. Tomo and Marek made mistakes as most people their age do but they were sensitive and had a clear view of what was right and wrong. Highlighting their positive qualities was a smart move because the picture’s running time was relatively short. By doing so, I immediately related to the characters and I had a chance to explore the dynamics of their friendship. There were more than a handful of very funny scenes but my favorite was when the duo stole a bag of laundry because Tomo did not have any clothes. The bag mostly contained women’s clothing and I couldn’t help but laugh when Marek told Tomo to look at the brighter side: the clothes may not have been for men but at least they were clean unlike the same clothes that Tomo had been wearing since he arrived in London. In return, Tomo made the clothes work but it was still painfully obvious that he wore a dress. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t laugh or even crack a smile if they watched that particular scene. For a low budget film, I was very impressed with the originality, creativity and imagination that “Somers Town” possessed. It was apparent that Shane Meadows directed his film with passion and zeal because I had fun with it throughout. When the movie finally shifted from black-and-white to color, it felt like my eyes opened for the first time. I guess it was also how Marek and Tomo felt when they finally entered a culture so different from theirs. Suddenly, their futures looked bright.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tetro” was about a young man named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his short stop in Buenos Aires to visit his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). The two have been apart for a very long time because Tetro decided to cut himself off from his family since their father hated the fact that his son wanted to be a writer instead of pursuing a career in medicine. I tried to really love this movie because all of the elements were there to make a really great picture. In the end, although it more than satisfied me, it didn’t quite resonate with me as much as I thought it would. I loved the two lead actors because they had contrasting styles in terms of approaching their characters. Gallo was rough around the edges and it was difficult to relate with his character. However, he eventually opened his character to us and even though we didn’t always agree with his choices, we came realize why he decided to take certain paths. Ehrenreich was more sweet and relatable. He instilled a certain hunger within his character–a hunger to get to know his brother more despite the fact that his brother always kept him at arm’s length. Deep inside, he knew that it was his brother’s destiny to live a tortured life of unfulfilled genius. Still, he hoped that he could bring his brother home and attempt at a life of normalcy. Since the brothers were so different, there was often tension between them and I was riveted because I saw myself and my own brother in the two characters. Written and directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola, the emotional gravity matched the film’s artistic flourishes. I loved that the film’s present time was in stunning black and white and the past was in color. The way Coppola played with the shadows complemented certain secrets and unsaid thoughts of the characters. The scenes in color highlighted important events in Tetro’s life that made him the way he is. The majority of this film was carefully planned and executed with such flow and beauty. But in the end, it left me wanting more. It’s strange because I’m not quite sure how else it could have been done better. Perhaps a longer running time would have taken the movie to a next level so the characters had more time to absorb certain truths about each other. On the other hand, I thought it ended in such an elegant manner and it didn’t need to explore further because the rest of the film was about the evolution of the brothers’ strained relationship. Maybe I’m just being way too critical because, as I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to love the movie. “Tetro” is definitely worth watching because of its insight, nice balance of naturalistic and stylized tones, and strong acting. I’ve read some reviews comparing Ehrenreich to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. At first I didn’t quite see it but the more I observed his style of acting–especially body movements and intonations–the more apparent the resemblance. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him because he has potential to be a great actor.
La haine (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“La haine” stars Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as a Jew, an African and an Arab, respectively, who come from the nonglamorous side of Parisian neighborhood. The premise of the film was essentially following the three characters in a span of a day–after a riot in which one of their friends was sent to the hospital–so we could see how they juggled the internal and external violence that faced them. I was impressed with this film because it dealt with the characters in painfully realistic ways without being too heavy-handed or a stereotypical “being in one’s shoes for a day” story. The three friends were so angry to the point where they couldn’t help but stir trouble wherever they ended up. Their personalities were explosive and unpredictable but just when we thought we had them all figured out, the material surprised us. It then begged the question of whether they could rise above the place where they came from; I could see that they wanted to change and that they were tired of having to be (or trying to be) tough all the time. It was the subtle scenes in which the characters expressed their concerns and sadness about where their lives were heading that gripped me until the very intense and memorable final scene. Even though there were a lot of meaningless fights and funny scenes at someone’s expense, I enjoyed the quiet moments when they would just sit on the train and not talk to each other or when they would just visit an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. As alienated as they were, their frustrations didn’t hinder them from trying to live even if the paths they’ve chosen were roads that we necessarily would not want for them to take. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, he really had a knack for playing with the camera and delivering unique shots when something crucial was unfolding before our (and the characters’) eyes. He wasn’t afraid to take some risks and they paid off handsomely; the decision to shoot the film in simple black and white complemented the complex social problems (that we sometimes see in black and white) that the picture tackled head-on. Ultimately a movie about acceptance and corruption, “La haine,” also known as “Hate,” showed that a material does not need to be obvious or touching for it to teach a lesson about urban life. In some ways, the tone and focus somewhat reminded me of the unforgettable “Trainspotting,” only “La haine” was far less manic and more serious in its approach.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I absolutely loved Greta Garbo in this film. I’ve heard a lot about her serious performances from movies I have not yet seen and I must say that I’m going now to make it a priority to see them. “Ninotchka,” directed by Ernst Lubitsch, was about a communist woman (Garbo) who was sent to Paris because the three other Soviets (Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye) were having trouble selling jewelry that belonged to Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). At first Garbo was a stern, robotic, stone-faced woman with a very intimidating demeanor but after she met Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), she eventually learned to open up and, miraculously enough, how to smile and laugh at herself. Even though this was released seventy years ago, I still thought the jokes were really funny because there was a certain sophistication and elegance in its script. The subtleties of the characters really made me really interested in what was going on; it made me want to focus on not just the hilarities that ensue in certain situations but also the drama between the leads. Since the two main characters came from very different worlds, there was always this tension and a question whether they would even have a chance at staying together in the end. I was nothing short of impressed with Garbo’s performance not only because she was able to act out the extremes of her character’s personality but also because she deftly handled the journey from one extreme to another. I fell in love with her character the moment she learned how to genuinely smile, yet I respected her because she did not express her sad emotions to others by outwardly crying or complaining. She internalized her suffering even though she was desperately torn between the country she loved and her personal happiness. I thought the pacing of the picture was spot-on because I didn’t feel like there was any dull moment. The film was always moving forward yet it was still able to surprise with little twists here and there. A lot of film critics and audiences alike consider 1939 as one of the best (if not the best) year for movies with films like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dark Victory,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” among others. I’m so happy that I read about this film from Entertainment Weekly because I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. “Ninotchka” is a delightful, astute comedy that shouldn’t be missed especially if one loves powerful performances.
The 39 Steps (1935)
★★★ / ★★★★
Loosely based on the novel by John Buchan and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was about a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on the run to prove his innocence after a woman (Lucie Mannheim) who was staying with him told him bits of information about the 39 Steps and was then killed. I’ve read that this was Hitchcock’s first international success in the film industry and I believed it showed. Even though it wasn’t as strong as some of my personal favorites from Hitchcock (“North by Northwest,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Notorious”), this was where he introduced some of the elements that he used in his later films to produce such powerful force of human drama and adrenaline-fueled (yet astute) action sequences. In this picture, I loved how the story would evolve in a matter of minutes or by saying key lines or two. I also admired how the director chose to end a scene, despite it lasting only thirty seconds or so, right when he finished getting his point across. With thrillers (and movies in general) today, many scenes are dragged on which contributes to running times of two hours or more. In “The 39 Steps,” although the movie was under an hour and thirty minutes, it was efficient with its time so it was able to accomplish so much. It actually treats its audiences like intelligence people instead of simplifying everything; the depths and implications in the story allowed us to identify with the characters as we questioned ourselves what would we have done when placed in the same situations. Yet at the same time, this film achieved most thrillers could not: it was comedic. Don’t get me wrong, the comedy did not get in the way of its tone. It’s just that funny things happen when people panic and placed in very desperate situations. Such amusing scenes happened whenever Richard and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) were on screen because they had such chemistry but they did not like each other from the moment they met on the train. It goes without saying that I’m giving “The 39 Steps” a solid recommendation because the way it explored its themes and characters was beyond its time. Another reason was it was downright entertaining. Don’t let the black and white fool you because it was actually able to use shadows to its advantage–like the best noir films in the 1940s and the 1950s.
Fear(s) of the Dark (2007)
★ / ★★★★
“Peur(s) du noir” or “Fear(s) of the Dark” documents the graphic artists/directors’ (Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Richard McGuire) worst nightmares via an animated medium. I expected this little film with a fascinating premise to be scary but it ended up being a disappointment. I could withstand the first two stories but as it went on, it became very confusing, especially with the intermissions regarding the man with the dogs that attacked random people. Supposedly, there was a connection among the disparate storylines but other than the whole nightmare theme and black-and-white composition, I didn’t find anything about it worth pondering over. If these were the directors’ worth nightmares, they should consider themselves lucky because I’ve had much scarier dreams. What I did like about it, however, was the soundtrack. Whenever the music was turned on, since I wasn’t that much interested in the story, I noticed it and it elevated the creepiness factor. Another reason why I was disappointed was because I expected it to be more accessible. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a niche film, in fact, most of my favorite films belong in that category. However, it didn’t quite work for me because I felt as though it held back a lot. I think it relied too much on the subtleties. When it comes to horror films, the kind of horror that impresses me the most are the ones that have the ability to balance the obvious and the subtle. This one being an extreme, it repulsed me as much as a film that might rely, say, on the obvious. Since I didn’t feel like it pushed itself, I felt even more disappointed because I felt like the whole experience was a waste of time as the credits started rolling. While this animated feature had a lot of nice ideas and the images are stylized, I’d honestly rather go to a museum to see and touch weird-looking objects. This was really painful for me to watch and I found myself constantly checking how many minutes I had left. To me, that is one of the ultimate signs of a bad movie. But if the premise sounds interesting to you because you haven’t heard of an animated collection of horror shorts, then I say take the risk and watch it. You might end up liking it more than I did.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.
★★ / ★★★★
Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” was about a manicurist (Catherine Deneuvre) and her steep descent into paranoia and eventual madness when her older sister (Yvonne Furneaux) and her married boyfriend go away for vacation. Deneuvre’s characters is interested in sex but at the same time repulsed by the idea of men touching her (hence the title). Hearing her sister and her boyfriend having sex in the next room (the sisters share an apartment), being pursued by a charming bachelor (John Fraser), and her lack of outlet for her negative feelings all contribute to her deteriorating mental state. I admired the movie, there’s no doubt about it, but I simply liked it for its style–the lack of special effects, the effective silent moments, and the haunting black and white images as the audiences were able to see what the lead character was seeing. I thought the story was pretty weak because it did not spend a solid amount of time to convince the audiences why we should care for the main character. I thought she was weak and had attachment issues. Why should I root for a character with barely a flickering ember inside of her? I also did not like the fact that a person with a mental illness was shown as someone who was violent and readily capable of killing (in reality, most aren’t). Lastly, I hated Polanski’s soundtrack, especially those horrid drums. Whenever I heard such loud bangings, it immediately took me out of the mood and left me frustrated. Instead, I would have loved to see more of Deneuvre and Fraser on screen together because I thought they had some sort of chemistry worth exploring. I understand that this had a small budget but that is far from the issue because I liked its realistic images of horror (hands coming out of walls and all). I definitely saw some parallels between this film and the masterful “Rosemary’s Baby” (also written and directed by Polanski). It’s just that this picture is not as fully realized because it needed more time in the editing room to cut off some unnecessary minutes.
Ed Wood (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Ed Wood,” directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as the lead character, fascinated me in so many ways. It tells the story of a director that I’m very unfamiliar with, his strings of bad movies–how he made them, the behind-the-scenes drama, how the audiences reacted to his pictures–and his relationship with Bela Lugosi (played brilliantly by Martin Landau). Even though it had just enough of serious undercurrents, the comedy was consistent from beginning to end. Each character that Depp interacted with, such as his eventual bitter girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), life-long partner (Patricia Arquette), and idol Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) brought multiple dimensions to the table. I’ve never seen Depp smile so much in any role. But yet he doesn’t become another commercial character. In fact, that smile had a certain edge to it, as if he’s smiling in order to distract others from his real thoughts and the secrets he wants to keep hidden. I felt like Burton really captured the era he wanted to portray. From the stunning black-and-white look of the film, the kinds of movies that studios were interested in producing at the time (science fiction films which involve giant animals or bugs that terrorize communities), and the cooky groups of people such as cross-dressers, drug addicts, dimming stars, and dreamers whose lives passed them by. And even though Burton sometimes made fun of Depp’s character from time to time, I still felt as though Mr. Wood’s memory was respected because he was portrayed as a man who never gave up on his dreams of making not just movies but actual art that he’s proud of even if others easily come to label his works as the “worst movies of all time.” I admired his determination to his raise the money himself when no other person or company would fund his projects. That struggle really carried this film through for me because it did not merely portray a series of funny moments just for the sake of laughter. In the end, it did not feel like another movie with a quirky way of telling a story. It felt like a near-masterpiece tribute for a man who was never taken seriously but still succeeded because of his undying spirit.