Mosquita y Mari (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is a high school sophomore with parents (Laura Patalano, Joaquín Garrido) who push her to excel so that she can have a shot at attending college. Though Yolanda has friends, it does not seem as though she cannot connect with them completely, so when a girl named Mari (Venecia Troncoso) moves into the house across the street, the prospect of having a new friend, one with whom she can get close to, excites her. Yolanda is ecstatic when she learns that Mari is in her Geometry class.
Writer-director Aurora Guerrero captures a genuine Mexican-American experience, one that is complex, subtle, involving, and, in its own way, touching. I grew up with girls similar to the title characters and it is so refreshing to see what I know is real, so beautifully portrayed on screen. Though a small picture, “Mosquita y Mari” is leaps and bounds ahead of many independent films because it knows exactly what to communicate without relying on the usual cinematic tactics of blossoming female friendship.
Pineda and Troncoso’s lack of experience works. I liked that at times they seem to be unaware of where to put their bodies or how to angle them just so in order to look “good” on camera. There were even moments when I felt their nerves as they work toward certain lines that are not natural to them. In a lot of movies, these are qualities I find rather undesirable. In here, however, I found such traits endearing because the story is about the two young women trying to be comfortable in their own skin as well as around one another—as friends and perhaps something more.
One can tell that there is a lot going on inside Mari and Yolanda’s minds, the latter nicknamed “Mosquita” by the former during the early stages of their relationship for looking “like a little fly.” Though they share the same heritage, their respective home lives are very different. Through their dominant personalities and actions, we come to learn what they value. Perhaps Yolanda thinks about not having many friends, the spark that remains in her parents’ marriage, and her prospects of going to college. On the other hand, Mari thinks about getting a job to help her single mother pay rent and if completing high school is the right path for her. Guerrero treats us as smart audiences; there is no explosive scene that shows the major stresses of both teens just in case it isn’t obvious enough.
Though there is an undercurrent of a lesbian story, it feels right that it is underplayed. At least when I was fifteen, it was difficult for me to verbalize my exact feelings, let alone act on my desires with someone who may or may not be interested—or brave enough—to reciprocate my feelings. The screenplay touches upon how it is like to be curious and insecure, how a mixture of the two can lead to a whole world of frustration.
The core of “Mosquita y Mari” is friendship. I found it a surprise that when two girls get jealous or have a disagreement, they express their emotions, sometimes reluctantly, but they are never made into a big deal. Not every teenager’s life is a soap opera. Instead, the characters are allowed to speak to each other about things that are important to them and what they will do or where they hope to be in ten years. Even though they are optimistic, there is a tinge of sadness there. Because they are so different, it is possible that they may no longer be friends—or at least not as close—by graduation.
Harold and Maude (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Harold (Bud Cort) had a predilection for the macabre. When he got up on a chair, positioned a rope around his neck, and kicked off his feet’s remaining support between life and death, his mother (Vivian Pickles) entered the room, glanced at her son’s discolored face, and calmly used the telephone. But not to call for help. This so-called suicide attempt was not a first. Harold was a young man so fascinated with death, he even attended funerals for fun. When he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), an ebullient seventy-nine-year-old woman who also enjoyed attending other people’s funerals, the two formed a complicated bond. Written by Colin Higgins, “Harold and Maude” was a strange but heart-warming dark comedy, equipped with excellent and perfectly placed Cat Stevens songs, because it took elements that were wrong and refrained from making them right. Instead, the filmmakers captured issues that could have been awkward and made them rather beautiful, one of which was the vast age difference between Harold and Maude. Cort excelled in playing a character who was reticent, almost a loner in every aspect of living. He spoke in a low tone of voice, slow, almost muffled, apathetic to the pleasures and advantages of being financially well-off. Gordon’s spicy voice and vibrant ways of moving her limbs provided a refreshing contrast against Cort’s depressed character. When the two occupied the same room, Gordon was almost minx-like but never creepy, as a bee is unable to help itself from landing on a specific flower. In Maude’s case, age came with experience and she often reminded him to live, that it didn’t matter if he wanted to take life seriously or foolishly as long as lived it the way he wanted to. Harold and Maude, standing between a precipice of being several generations apart, completed each other in the most touching ways. Expressing disgust that the two eventually shared a bed, sans an actual sex scene though nonetheless implicated, is a sign of immaturity. For me, it was only normal that the two would eventually feel the urge to explore each other physically considering they’d grown to know each other so well. That’s more than I can say for random hook-ups during drunken college nights and sweaty Vegas clubs. Much of the humor stemmed from Harold’s mother, the controlling Mrs. Chasen, happily inviting young women into the mansion just so Harold could finally choose a wife. She thought marriage would bring him to life through learning to take up real responsibilities. Although the arranged dates were very amusing, there was a real sadness in the relationship between mother and son, too. Her idea of happiness was so far from his, the two didn’t seem at all related. Notice that each of their conversations revolved around the son being told what to do in order to be a happier person. Their relationship became so unnavigable, the mother was even willing to contact Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a veteran who lost an arm in a war, to force Harold to join the military. Maybe she’d rather have a dead son than a son who likened the idea of death. I didn’t understand her nor do I think we were supposed to. The picture astutely used her as a symbol of what society expects from each of us. The biggest accomplishment of “Harold and Maude,” directed by Hal Ashby, was its unabashed celebration of differences. The next time I feel like doing somersaults on the beach, I’ll do it without giving a damn.
Fish Tank (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joanne (Kierston Wareing) brought home Connor (Michael Fassbender), a new boyfriend, Mia (Katie Jarvis), a troubled fifteen-year-old, was immediately infatuated with him, and he with her. The two tried not to act on their desires for obvious reasons but how long could they resist when the small apartment required them to be constantly within reach? Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, “Fish Tank” was a coming-of-age film with a keen eye on characterization and telling truths that might be difficult to sit on. Specifically, how unpredictable a teenage mind could be and the lengths it would go to get its desires. Mia was tough, unafraid to stand her ground against a group of girls but, like most teenagers, she was lonely. Even when she was at home, she found no peace of mind. Joanne saw Mia’s youth as both threatening and a reminder that she was no longer the young party girl she once was. Due to Joanne’s lack of effective parenting, it seemed like Mia’s sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), was well on her way to becoming a troubled teenager as well. Barely ten years of age, she smoked and drank with her friends. Her role models were the scantily-clothed women on television. I found it interesting that when Joanne and Mia occupied the same room, it was always one person facing another’s back and they avoided to make eye contact. They lived in the same apartment and shared the same bloodline but they were essentially roommates who didn’t get along. But the director avoided to judge the way these people lived. Like quietly staring in a fish tank, we just observed them and the way they reacted to the rhythms of every day. I admired the fact the film’s focus wasn’t about whether it was right or wrong for Mia and Connor to engage in sexual activity. What mattered what how Mia felt around him. She was happy and flattered that someone took a genuine interest in her talent for dancing. He was a father figure that she didn’t really know, or wasn’t willing to accept, she needed. Fassbender gave his character depth. Instead of portraying a creepy predator, he was a friend. The complexity of their relationship was what kept me wanting to know what would happen next. The film took pride in delivering the unpredictable. When Mia made friends with a boy (Harry Treadaway) interested in car mechanics, it was easy to assume that she would use him to make Connor jealous. That wasn’t the case. “Fish Tank” could easily have been about an angry girl who lived in a poor neighborhood and how she eventually willed herself to escape her horrid upbringing. There was none of the usual life lessons about overcoming poverty. I felt the director’s utmost respect for her subjects by allowing them to be their imperfect selves up until the very end. Best of all, Arnold’s direction successfully led us to an invisible part of Britain and made it more visible.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tobi (Robert Stadlober) and Achim (Kostja Ullmann) had always been close. For Achim, being physical with his best friend was exactly what it was: arms around Tobi meant nothing more than symbol of their comfortable camaraderie. But for Tobi, it was different. He was gay and reluctant to come out of the closet. He kept his sexuality from Achim because he believed that disclosing it would bring their friendship to an end. But when their team, outwardly heterosexual and proud, attended a rowing camp, they met The Queerstrokes (Hanno Koffler, Marlon Kittel, Ludwig Blochberger, Michael Wiesner, Benjamin Vilzmann), a crew team made up of homosexual members. As tension increased between the two groups, Tobi’s true feelings for Achim became more apparent. Based on the screenplay by Thomas Bahmann and Marco Kreuzpaintner, “Sommersturm” was one of the few gay-themed movies that treated sexuality with respect. While there were several lines which expressed homophobia, the story wasn’t really about straight people learning to accept gay people. It was about a gay teen learning to accept himself. What I found interesting was the film didn’t actually show many scenes in which Tobi and Achim shared meaningful moments that reflected true friendship. They were shown as being rowdy and silly but there was not one conversation designed convinced us that no matter what happened, Tobi and Achim were going to remain friends. It was an astute decision by the writers because it allowed us to be as uncertain as Tobi. Although Tobi wanted so badly to hold Achim, kiss him, and make love to him, there was a part of me that understood why maybe it wasn’t the smartest decision to go through with it. The scenes with The Queerstrokes were well done. Each member had a personality. Some were more masculine than others and that caused tension within the group. The best scene was when one of the masculines called out the most feminine for acting like a girl, that his limp wrist was embarrassing to be around with. It was an important and honest scene because it showed that even though we may identify ourselves as being a part of the same community, we are still not above having ugly prejudices toward each other. I admired the way sex was never used as a source of comedy. In here, sex was used a tool for self-discovery. It treated sex and, more importantly, the people who engaged in the act with dignity. The scene of Tobi experiencing his first homosexual encounter was shot beautifully. There was elegance in the way it was filmed: the camera moved with purpose, like an excellent kiss: at first tender and slow then a sudden feverish possession, its lens capturing the sun’s glorious summer rays, creating a fantasy as the music and the characters reached an ecstasy. “Summer Storm,” directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, was a wonderful and a personal favorite LGBT coming-of-age film because it was in touch with its rawest, most painful emotions about unrequited love from others and from self. Its ultimate message was if you can’t accept who you are, how can you be strong enough to find love, the kind that is passionate, lasting and true, in others?
Black Balloon, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The Mollison family (led by Toni Collette and Erik Thomson) was new to the neighborhood. Upon their arrival, neighbors couldn’t help but stare because Charlie (Luke Ford) had autism. One of the kids voiced out what the onlooking adults might be thinking. Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) defended his older brother. He initially thought that moving into a new house was an opportunity for him to start anew. He wanted to make friends or maybe even get a girlfriend (Gemma Ward). Just as quickly, he realized that perhaps nothing would change. He was still torn between wanting to lead a life of normalcy and his family’s expectations concerning Charlie’s condition. Written and directed by Elissa Down, “The Black Balloon” had moments of painful honesty but only to be watered down by a typical romance often found in coming-of-age movies. The best scenes were the ones that wanted us to feel uncomfortable. For instance, when Charlie acted out in a supermarket, it was when we had a chance to truly feel Thomas’ resentment toward his brother. Yes, he was embarrassed because of the other customers’ stares and misguided judgments but the point was for us to realize that even though he lived with Charlie, Thomas, like most us, didn’t really understand the mysterious condition that is autism. Another scene that supported Thomas’ lack of understanding was when he tried to teach Charlie to speak “like a normal person.” Unfortunately, just when the film was about to come into its own, the material had focused its attention on Thomas’ attempt at getting a girlfriend. Were we supposed to believe that the only way that Thomas would find happiness was for him to get a girl? It seemed too easy and transparent a solution. For me, since we saw the film through Thomas’ eyes, it should have been about his coming to terms with his brother’s condition, even in the smallest way, and realizing that it was okay for him to sacrifice more than his peers and that life is indeed unfair. Not once did I see him pick a book or ask a question in order to educate himself about how he could further help his brother. He resulted to using force. I was also waiting for the movie to acknowledge that autism had varying degrees of severity. For those who aren’t as knowledgeable about the disorder, I’m afraid they might interpret people with autism as having explosive personalities, cannot function well in society, and that it is uncommon for them to return affection. That isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, I knew that “The Black Balloon” had good intentions. It was at its best when it highlighted people’s prejudice toward people with disorders that we don’t fully understand yet. Like Thomas, it just needed to sort out its priorities.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) were left by their girlfriends to visit Europe for the summer. Despite their promises to not have sex with other people, the two saw it as a perfect opportunity to meet other women, experiment with drugs, drink until they pass out, and live easy before school started again. But when they met a beautiful woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding, the boys made up a story about going to an undiscovered beach. To their surprise, Luisa accepted their invitation, unknowing that she wanted to run away from her cheating husband and temporarily forget about her doctor’s grim news. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También” is a peerless example of a sex comedy that uses sex to explore its characters’ friendships, highlight the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, and what it meant to be young and reckless. As most American teen sex comedy have consistently proven, it’s far too easy to use sex as a weapon of perversion instead of staring at it in the eyes and realizing, with respect, that it’s a natural and beautiful part of our lives. To describe all of the elements I loved about the picture would be an injustice because much of its magic had to be experienced. But I do have to mention one scene that, in my opinion, defined the film so perfectly. Near the end of the trio’s road trip, Luisa was talking to her husband in a telephone booth. On a mirror next to the booth, we could see Tenoch and Julio playing foosball. The shot looked simple but, for me, it held a lot of meaning. The booth was lit but the reflection was dim which I surmised was a symbol for their respective knowledge about what it meant to love both emotionally and physically. Tenoch and Julio thought they knew how to pleasure a woman. But Luisa tried to teach them that sex, or meaningful sex, wasn’t about the strength of penetration or how long a man could last without ejaculation but the growing emotional connection and investment between the two parties. The conversation in the booth had a lot of sadness and maybe a bit anger but the reflection held temporary joy by means of friendly competition. I perceived it to be a summary of Luisa and the two friends’ respective mindsets during their travel. Although the two images were different, both were about characters entering a new phase in their lives. Cuarón had a fantastic ear for dialogue and sometimes I wondered if some of the conversations were unscripted. The naturalistic acting was also enhanced by an inspired environment that looked unedited or untouched, something that we would see if we visited a seaside village right this very moment. If more coming-of-age sex comedies were high caliber as “Y Tu Mamá También,” perhaps most people would be able to ask and talk about sex and sexuality without having to be embarrassed or feel judged.
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) lived in a poor neighborhood but they didn’t mind. What they were unhappy about was the fact that both of them had an abusive family. Dylan had an alcoholic father (Paul Roe) who beat up his wife (Neilí Conroy) and only child, while Kylie was sexually molested by his uncle (Sean McDonagh). When the violence reached a peak in Dylan’s home, the two kids ran away from their hometown and headed to Dublin with the help of a sailor (David Bendito) who introduced them to Bob Dylan’s music. The two hoped to find Dylan’s older brother who ran away two years prior. I was impressed with this coming-of-age film because it managed to do so much with so little. Its story was simple, the script was bare and the camerawork was relatively standard. However, it had moments of real poignancy when the lens would focus on the kids as it highlighted a specific emotion they were going through aided by an excellent soundtrack that allowed us to feel as we were with them. The city was a double-edged sword. During the day, it was a haven for Dylan and Kylie because their parents weren’t around. They had enough money to go shopping for new clothes, eat as much sweets as they wanted, and get to know each other. They learned that despite the fact that they were neighbors and friendly to one another, they weren’t really close. From an outsider’s perspective, it was obvious they liked each other, but they either weren’t aware of it or they weren’t willing to accept it. After all, they were just kids. I think we can all relate to the feeling of spending a couple of hours with someone and suddenly seeing that particular person in a completely different way. The film was successful in its mission of underlining that critical change without being melodramatic and cliché–something more mainstream romantic comedies commonly fail to accomplish. During the night, the city was plagued with monsters. Even people that seemed to mean well should be approached with caution. The characters were smart so they knew how to handle themselves for the most part especially when they were in a public space. However, dark alleys were abound and the most dangerous tend to hide in the shadows and await the perfect opportunity to strike. The bond between the two was challenged and ultimately strengthened. “Kisses,” written and confidently directed by Lance Daly, knew what it wanted to tell the world and it did so with elegance in just over an hour and ten minutes. It reminded me of Shane Meadows’ “Somers Town” because it was highly efficient and both stories’ root was a beautiful friendship. As for the film’s title, well, like best kisses, you just have to experience it.
Super 8 (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It was the summer of 1979 and five friends (Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Zach Mills) were set to make a zombie picture using a Super 8 mm film. The director, portly Charles (Griffiths), recruited radiant Alice (Elle Fanning) to be in the movie and kind-hearted Joe (Courtney), whose mother had passed away four months earlier, was completely elated with the idea because he had a huge crush on her. But when the boys and the girl held a midnight shoot at the train station, they witnessed an incredible crash. Something was released from the cargo train and strange things started to occur in town. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, “Super 8” is the kind of film I love because it touched upon every single movie genre without losing touch with its heart. It was very aware of its environment. Notice that the water tower was consistently present in the background shots. As the movie went on, I managed to form a mental picture of where everything was relative to the water tower. I felt like I was one of the kids and my world revolved around that landmark. The storyline was divided into two extremes but the director had found a way to make the halves fit with a balance of elegance and intelligence. The first hour embodied a coming-of-age tone. We focused on Joe and his grieving father (Kyle Chandler) who never seemed to be around. It seemed like the two never really sat down and talked about death and what it meant to move on. When Joe caught his father crying in the bathroom, Joe was greeted with a closing door. Joe held a private fear that maybe he was slowly losing his father. I was surprised when I found out this was Courtney’s first role because his acting was quite impressive. I quickly identified with his character because of the way he used his eyes to convey specific emotions. I loved the scenes when Joe just looked at Alice in complete captivation. The warm looks he gave reminded me, at least from what I can remember, of my first love and what I was willing to do for and say to that person at the time. It was cute how he tried not to make a fool of himself but he did anyway. The second hour focused on the mystery involving a possible alien on the loose. Dogs evacuated town, local folks had gone missing, and the U.S. Air Force set up camp in order to regain control of the situation. Meanwhile, every time Charles yelled, “Production value!” (images that make it seem like a movie has a certain budget) the young filmmakers took advantage of their surroundings and shot their zombie movie with wonderful enthusiasm. Their plucky personalities was center stage and I couldn’t help but laugh at their interactions. “Super 8” was produced by Steven Spielberg and, understandably, it was compared to his work like the masterful “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I say it was more similar to “Jurassic Park.” The scene with the overturned bus and the roar of the creature outside was very reminiscent of the famous T. rex attack: the rumbling from a distance, the jump-out-of-your-seat scares, the sense of entrapment, and the eventual gore. “Super 8” was a love letter to Spielberg and, more importantly, people who admire his work. While specific references were wonderful in and of themselves, I felt the magic most when the director added his own twist into what was expected. I wasn’t just moved by its emotions; I was transported in its time and place.
★★★ / ★★★★
Evolution is a slow process but every once in a while, and for unknown reasons, it jumps forward. The next step in evolution for humans was for select few to develop unique abilities, which typically began in puberty, that ranged from varying psychic powers to consciously deconstructing one’s molecular structure. This created fear and hatred between normal humans and Mutants. There was a legislation, if passed, would allow the government to legally keep a record of those with abilities. Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen), also called Magneto for his ability to control metals and create magnetic fields, found the idea outrageous and was willing to kill, along with his henchmen (Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn), those without tolerance. It reminded him of his time in the concentration camps, the way the Jewish was marked like cattle. On the other hand, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), also known as Professor X, created a school for Mutants so they would learn to control their abilities. He believed that over time, Mutants and humans would be able to co-exist. Directed by Bryan Singer, what I loved most about “X-Men” was it had a modest feel to it. I imagine that might have been difficult to accomplish because there were so many interesting characters worth putting under the spotlight. By giving us a relatively simple story and a modicum of, though never obvious, character development, we could easily navigate ourselves into their world and the conflicts that impacted their existence. It didn’t take the easy route of putting the Mutants’ abilities ahead of what they stood for and their place in the brewing war between humans and Mutants or, quite possibly, Professor X’s group versus Magneto’s. It started out small with Rogue (Anna Paquin) not understanding her powers. It was a smart decision because most Mutants’ abilities came to a surprise to them. From there, everything fell naturally into place as she met amnesiac Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X’s instructors like Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Storm (Halle Berry). She even found potential romance in Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), a boy who could generate ice at whim. In spite of being a modern and sleek science fiction film on the outside, it had elements of classic coming-of-age elements which paved the way for us to become emotionally invested in the characters. By highlighting who they were and what they stood for, it underlined the prejudice from both the humans and the Mutants. “X-Men,” a fast-paced action-adventure with enough humor on the side especially the friendly banters between Wolverine and Cyclops, understood the importance of having a solid foundation before dealing with more ambitious storylines.
★★ / ★★★★
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent, had been living in isolation in the snowy mountains of Europe. Hanna was trained to defend herself, to always be alert, and to never trust anyone. But the reason for their preparation was unknown to us. When the two finally revealed their location using a tracker, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative, was given the case because she was willing to do whatever necessary to assissinate the sixteen-year-old girl. “Hanna” had all of the elements of a film I would immediately love despite its less significant flaws. Unfortunately, it failed to explore its characters in a meaningful way so that we would care more about what would happen to them when placed in a situation where a small mistake could cost them their lives. For example, Erik, Hanna’s father, seemed to have a past which involved Marissa when she was still an active agent in the field. But the bond between the two opposing sides was never under a magnifying glass. Instead, there was one flashback designed to explain it all. I thought the writers were confused about the notion of subtlety versus keeping its audiences in the dark for the sake of mystery. When Erik and Marissa were finally in the same room after years of not seeing each other, there was, without a doubt, genuine tension. However, it was because the technical aspects, like editing and camera angles, were so strong. It wasn’t because we fully understood their history and the possible repercussions if one of them received a bullet in the head. There was also a strand that involved Hanna meeting Sophie (Jessica Barden), a hilarious and outspoken girl who traveled with her family (Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Aldo Maland), and how the two eventually became friends. The things Hanna and Sophie went through, like spending time with handsome Spanish boys in motorcycles, were typical coming-of-age elements designed to explore Hanna’s capacity for humanity, despite being a killing machine, and the childhood she never had a chance to cherish. It was effective in its own way because we had a chance to see Hanna laugh and, in small dosages, experience emotions outside of her training. Unfortunately, Hanna had to go back to reality and face the woman who wanted to kill her. Blanchett sported a great haircut and creepy compulsions, but I wish she was given the chance to really show the monster behind her composure. Directed by Joe Wright, “Hanna” was not as rewarding as it should have been. I appreciated the risks it took so that warrants a slight recommendation. However, it could have been more engaging if we knew Erik and Marissa just as deeply as the title character.