Bes vakit (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Bes vakit,” also known as “Times and Winds,” was a story about how three children stopped being kids because of the many responsibilities that their parents thrusted upon them. Ozkan Ozen decided to kill his father because he could no longer take the maltreatment and favoritism toward his precocious brother. Elit Iscan slowly headed for breakdown because her mother insisted that she made herself useful even if the amount of schoolwork was more than enough for her to handle. And Ali Bey Kayali developed on a crush on his teacher, only to stumble on the fact that his own father was spying on her through her bedroom window. I have to be honest and state that this film was particularly difficult for me to sit through because of the many lingering shots on certain objects and sceneries. As stunning as such images were, I personally would have preferred to see more character development, dialogue and conflict among the characters. Without that emotional pull, it’s hard for me to be invested in the movie. I’m not saying that this Turkish film is not at all worth seeing, but it really is more of an acquired taste. Personally, I can withstand slow-moving pictures but this one gradually wore down my patience. The rituals that the children engaged in became a bit too redundant and I failed to see the point of it all. I also felt that the relationships among the kids weren’t established and therefore did not come together in the end. While all of them were obviously unhappy, I needed to see more commonalities among them to further observe them in multiple dimensions. Although I was able to evaluable their motivations and take note of their varying psychologies, there was still a certain detachment that did not quite dissolve as the picture went on. Written and directed by Reha Erdem, “Times and Winds” offered beautiful landscapes and a certain poetry with its tone. However, I hardly think it was strong enough to warrant a recommendation for viewers. I’m afraid this was just one of those coming-of-age films that left a bitter taste on my palate.
Espíritu de la colmena, El (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
Considered as one of the most important Spanish films, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” written and directed by Victor Erice, tells the story of a little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who, after watching the 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and being told by her sister named Isabel (Isabel Tellería) that his spirit exists, goes off to find a real-life monster. I really admired this film because the use of words was minimal yet it was more than able to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling. It truly captured how childhood was the peak of curiosity and how our perception at that point in our lives may be a bit skewed from reality. The way Ana and Isabel tell stories, play games and tricks on each other reminded me and my brother many years ago. I also liked the broken relationship between a husband (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a wife (Teresa Gimpera). Little do they know that no matter how much they try to interact with their daughters separately (or not interact), the children feel that there’s something wrong even though they do not yet know how to tackle such feelings. The awkward scene at the table when the whole family was eating together was somewhat elusive because I noticed that there was not a frame in the film that each of the family member was in. I think that divide between the two parental figures was another reason why Ana decided to plunge into her own imagination as an escape. The scenes in their big mansion of a home were painful for me to watch because there was a very noticable lack of stimulation such as books and toys for the two children. At least for me, they looked more alive when they were watching a movie in the town, while they were at school, and when they were roaming around outside. This is a very strong motion picture that should be seen by movie-lovers everywhere. However, one should be warned that it requires a lot of patience because it may get a bit slow at times due to the lack of happenings in the small village that they live in. Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding experience because it works on several angles, cinematically and psychologically.
À toute vitesse (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
“À toute vitesse” (also known as “Full Speed”), directed by Gaël Morel (“Three Dancing Slaves”), had an interesting premise but the journey to the finish was too all over the place to earn a recommendation. Quentin (Pascal Cervo) decided to return to his hometown along with his girlfriend Julie (Élodie Bouchez) after his first book was published. He quickly reconnected with one of his best friends from childhood named Jimmy (Stéphane Rideau) but Julie was slowly falling for him. During a night at a club, Quentin spotted Samir (Mezziane Bardadi) and the two decided to be friends despite their awareness of the attraction that they had for each other. However, Quentin was still in the closet and tried to resist every move Samir made which sometimes ended up in violence. At first I thought I could relate with Quentin the most because he was sort of like a brooding artist as he tried to make a life for himself, while at the same time kept others at a distance by building a wall around his true self. I could relate to that because I felt like I was like that once upon a time. However, throughout the picture, I did not see any evolution in his character, no attempt from his angle to realize and change that he was hurting the three people who really cared for him. As arguably the lead character, I felt that he was very selfish with no redeeming qualities so I felt disconnected from him half-way through. Thankfully, what saved this film was the strained relationship between Julie and Jimmy. Even though they were very different, there shared a certain passion for each other that was sometimes very romantic. As for Samir’s obsession toward Quentin, I felt that it was too shallow to ultimately be believable. Samir talked as if he loved Quentin even though that longing was one-sided. To me, his obsession was purely for the sake of a physical relationship because he was lonely and was missing his boyfriend who passed away. I don’t think “Full Speed” was a bad film. It just did not completely work for me because the writing needed more focus and substance. I got a little tired watching the characters doing drugs, having sex, and engaging in meaningless conversations. The characters were in their 20s but they offered no insight that made me stop and think, “Hey, this is actually worth my time.”
Monster House (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rewatching this animated film three years later since it came out in 2006, I still think it’s pretty scary for children. Directed by Gil Kenan, “Monster House” is about three teenagers–sarcastic DJ (Mitchel Musso), portly but hilarious Chowder (Sam Lerner) and precocious Jenny (Spencer Locke)–who learn that the house in front of DJ’s home is alive as it starts taking inside it whatever and whoever it thinks to be trespassing (intentionally or unintentionally). So the three form a plan to finally put the evil house to rest. And who says that defeating a scary living house is an easy feat? What I love about this animated flick is that whenever I watch it, I’m instantly reminded of my childhood. When we were kids, my cousins and I had several adventures while pretending to enter a haunted abandoned house just like the characters did here. The dialogue between the three leads reminded me of those teen movies in the 1980’s (and the fact that the parents are barely on screen), while the soundtrack reminded me of the “Goosebumps” and “Tales from the Crypt” television series. Everything about it just brought me back and I guess that’s the main reason why I instantly fell in love with it the first time. I mentioned that I think this is somewhat scary for children. If the premise of the film that plays on the archetype regarding scary houses next door and the creepy people that live in them is not enough, it also has scenes of the house’ shadows being able to transform into anything as it visits a child’s bedroom, a dungeon-like basement with a shrine that reminded me of those indie creepy serial killer movies when the killer preserves his victims, and more. I’m torn because, at the same time, I’m very impressed with its creativity and willingness to not baby the childreen too much just in case they might get bored. Also, there were jokes about the teens, especially Chowder, not reaching certain developmental levels proposed by some theorists in psychology and I found them to be really funny. Other voices worth noting that added an extra spice to the film are Maggie Gyllenhaal as the babysitter, Jason Lee as the babysitter’s friend/boyfriend, Kevin James and Nick Cannon as the two police officers, Jon Heder as the videogame freak, and Steve Buscemi as the creepy neighbor. “Monster House” is a strong animated movie that should have been seen by more people when it was released. Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers and I did notice some of his signature styles of storytelling. Even though it can get a bit scary, I’ll still show this movie to my future kids.
Momma’s Man (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Have you ever seen a movie where fifteen minutes into it you have a feeling it’s going to be a disaster but you decide to sit through it, hoping that it will get better or maybe even redeem itself but ultimately doesn’t? “Momma’s Man,” written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, is that kind of movie. It tells the story of a man (Matt Boren) who initially visits his parents (Ken Jacobs and Flo Jacobs–the director’s real-life parents) for a few days but then decides he wants to say for a longer period of time as he totally abandons wife and child. He comes up with so many ways to stay such as lying to people about the health of his mother, lying to his parents about his wife cheating on him and even deliberately falling down the stairs hoping to break his bones. It’s supposed to be funny but I didn’t find anything amusing about it because I seriously thought that this man had a psychological disorder. And to me, people with psychological disorders are not to be poked fun of unless it’s done in a bona fide manner like in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In here, the character is so unlikeable because he fails to see how his actions cause a ripple effect to the lives around him. His parents are very worried about his mental state and his wife has no idea why he refuses to come back. I didn’t like the parents either. I felt like they have no real authority over their son: the mother is an enabler, the father is emotionally distant. No wonder their son wants to relive his childhood–he wasn’t brought up in a healthy way. I don’t want to delve into Freudian mechanics but the main character is literally fixated on everything about his younger years. As for the film’s tone, I found it to be really annoying. I couldn’t believe I was made to sit through bad song lyrics written by the main character back when he was a teenager or even watch him put shaving cream on his face for five minutes. I’m very familiar with independent filmmaking and I love smaller films. However, this one is just weak all across the board. The acting was painful for me to sit through, especially the mother’s, because her tone of delivery is so consistently flat. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about this picture (which is a rarity because I usually find something positive about most movies) and I urge everyone else to stay as far away as possible from this wreck. It was a waste of a hundred minutes.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Affliction” is a haunting film about a man (Nick Nolte) who was abused by his father (James Coburn) as a child and the ramifications of such negative parenting. I couldn’t help but watch this picture in a psychological perspective because it’s very character-driven. This is one of Nolte’s strongest film acting-wise because right from the moment he appeared on screen, I could discern that there was seriously something wrong with him. Though he doesn’t say a lot during the first few minutes, his facial expressions and body language made me reach to a hypothesis that he internalizes all his troubles. Surely enough, Paul Schrader, the director, brilliantly uses narration and grainy flashback sequences about what Nolte’s character and his brother (Willem Dafoe) have experiences under their father’s roof. I felt so bad for Nolte’s character because he lacks a coping mechanism (or even basic but effective problem-solving strategies) when a problem is in front of him. All he knows is internalization because his father taught him that in order for him to be a man (and not a sissy), he must not wear emotion on his sleeves. His internal conflict regarding his past was worsened by his decaying relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Nolte becomes so determined to be the complete opposite of his father to the point where he couldn’t see that his daughter is afraid of his presence. He tries way too hard to impress her that he becomes this suffocating figure, who not only puts his daughter under a microscope, but also reacts so aggressively when the daughter doesn’t express enough gratitude or when she claims that she “wants to go home.” I also thought that his tendency to the want to solve mysteries when there’s no mystery to be solved was fascinating. The way I saw it was he couldn’t solve his own inner problems so he tries to look for solutions for things that have nothing to do with him. He needs to constantly compensate for his lack of internal locus of control to the point where he starts drowning in his own problems and his friends start leaving him. That downward spiral was aided by the eventual constant presence of his abusive father; I was deeply affected by scenes when the father would literally put Nolte down some more when Nolte was already feeling like less than nothing. I also thought the story was smart because Dafoe’s character, despite the abuse, was well-adjusted. It offers an alternative argument: child-rearing is not the only factor to blame. Based on Russell Banks’ novel, “Affliction” is a depressing but powerful picture because it’s very multi-layered in its portrayal of the characters and the elements that keep the story together.
400 Blows, The (1959)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this classic film’s theme of running away in order to achieve some sort of freedom being particularly impressive: running away from an uncaring home (the parents played by Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier), a strict school system, and a juvenile reform center. Alternatively, it can also be seen as an escape from oneself because Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), the lead character, cannot live up to society’s expectations on how he should think and behave. Having known that this story was drawn from François Truffaut’s, the director, troubled childhood, I decided to see this film in a psychological perspective. By the end of this picture, I have never found myself wanting to adopt a character because he is pretty much misunderstood by everyone around him. Admittedly, he did commit petty crimes and purposely did not do well in school but I thought the parents were to blame. The kid’s actions were a sort of signal for help and attention. The mother is disloyal and narcissistic in every way; a master when it comes to getting what she wants whenever she wants and not above bribery in order to keep living her fantasy. The father is not a good male role model for his son because he tackles problems with screaming and yelling instead of sitting down and discussing the problem at hand like a mature adult. The two parents have a few things in common: ambivalent feelings when it comes to their child, inconsistent parenting techniques (such as reward and punishment, lack of unconditional positive regard), and transference of their negative energy from outside the home to inside the home. I immediately thought that neither of them really wanted their son and I felt so badly for him. When it comes to the film’s techniques, I was impressed with Truffaut’s use of close-ups to fully convey what the character is feeling and thinking; the use of natural sound and extended takes made me feel like I was actually that much closer to the characters. The way the story unfolded felt organic–there’s a certain fluidity when it comes to the build-up of conflicts and the eventual release from such conflicts. Even though this was released in 1959, it’s still very relevant today because of the modern disaffected youth and people who are supposed to be parents but not quite know how to fill in such demanding shoes. An hour after watching the film, I still feel that sting of emotion on Antoine Doinels face as he was taken by a cop vehicle, crying behind the bars that portrays his crushed innocence. “The 400 Blows” is deeply powerful and resonant film and it’s a shame that I haven’t seen it sooner. You shouldn’t make the same mistake.
Buenos Aires 100 kilómetros (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this small Argentinean film written and directed by Pablo José Meza. At times it reminded me slightly of “Stand by Me” because it explores a group of friends’ dymanics: the elements that keep them together and the elements that keep them apart. Just like most group of friends, I liked that some individuals are closer than others such as Juan Ignacio Perez Roca (as Esteban) and Juan Pablo Bazzini’s (as Damian) characters. The two of them stand out because their personal battles are explored in a thorough manner. Esteban is forced by his father to take drawing classes so he can one day become an engineer and rebuild the small town where they reside. However, his real passion is to be a writer but no one really supports him except Damian and the girl he has a crush on. I thought the film’s strength lies in the silence whenever the camera just lingers on Esteban’s inner struggle to meet his father’s expectations as well as putting his imagination down onto the pages of his notebook. I could identify with him because my mom forced me to focus on school when I was younger instead of playing outside with the other kids. (Don’t get me wrong–she did let me have fun once I’ve done my part.) Although I immensely thank her now that she did that, when I look back on it, sometimes I feel like I did miss some of my childhood because the idea of responsibility was introduced to me very early on. As for Damian, he’s so obsessed about one of the members of their clique as being adopted. Eventually, he finds out that he’s the one adopted and he doesn’t take it too well. He claims that his adoptive parents didn’t really love him because he feels like they babied him to make up for not telling him the truth. I liked that his way of thinking is a bit skewed because, in reality, that’s how young adolescents think. When the two talk to each other, the film becomes alive because the audiences know why they have certain point of views and their motivations. We understand that, beneath their silliness when they hang out as a group, they are intelligent kids who can flourish as adults if they continue to apply themselves. Unfortunately, the other three friends weren’t fully explored and that’s ultimately the film’s weakness. In my opinion, it could’ve been better if it had an extra thirty minutes or so. Otherwise, this character-driven coming-of-age film is impressive in many respects considering that it didn’t have a big budget. Instead, it relies on its good script, interesting performances and careful observations on how friendships are like in real life.
Dans Paris (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s a lot of complex dynamics between the characters in this film but most of them were not explored enough. The best scenes were when the two brothers, Romain Duris and Louis Garrel, would talk to each other about women, the value of life and their childhood. I also found the father (Guy Marchand) interesting but he wasn’t given much to do except hover in the background like some sort of annoyance for the two leads. Duris returns home after a bad break-up and stays in bed all day. Garrel tries to find ways to alleviate his brother’s depression by–strangely enough–sleeping with other women. That statement doesn’t make sense but after seeing the entire picture, in a strange way, it does have some hidden meaning. I wouldn’t have gotten it either if Garrel’s character didn’t literally voice it out to his brother in the final scene. Still, this film is very uneven. In the beginning, Garrel talks to the camera and he claims that he’s going to be the narrator. As the film went on, that narration was completely thrown out the window. It would’ve been wiser if Christophe Honoré, the director, was more consistent about the narration because the film got a little confusing at times. One minute we’re looking at something that happened a week ago and the next we’re looking at something that happened a few months ago. The fact that this film is in French (I have no problem with that; I love foreign films) is another issue because there were some dialogues that do not directly correlate with the subtitles. (I know a little bit of French.) Given that handicap, jumping from one moment in time to another makes it that much less accessible. I liked that this film referenced other great filmmakers from the likes Jean-Luc Godard (scenes outside the home) and Bernardo Bertolucci (scenes in the home). Plus, that one scene when Garrel was looking at movie posters of “Last Days” and “A History of Violence” made me laugh due to the fact that Garrel looked at Michael Pitt’s picture with a certain recognition. (They worked together in one of my favorite films “The Dreamers.”) Little tidbits like that made me enjoy this movie despite my frustrations with its techniques. This is definitely not for everyone but if you’re the kind of person that likes to see movies which honor certain signatures of other great filmmakers, check this one out. (I still say it should have been more character-driven…)