Eve’s Bayou (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During one of the Batiste’s parties, the family led by Louis and Roz, Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, respectively, Eve (Jurnee Smollett) caught her father having sexual relations with another woman (Lisa Nicole Carson). Louis was one of the most successful doctors in town so he was able to provide a good life for his family. To Eve’s surprise, it turned out that her mother, aunt (Debbi Morgan), and others in the community were fully aware of Louis’ infidelity. But what triggered Eve, according to her own words in the beginning of the picture, to kill her father just when her youngest sibling (Jake Smollett) was only nine years of age and her eldest sibling (Meagan Good) just turned fourteen? Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, “Eve’s Bayou” consisted of familiar story lines but it was elevated by complex characters covered in moral dilemmas. For instance, Eve, still a child, could easily have been driven by simple motivations. The first few scenes were almost predictable: Her mother seemed to prefer the company of her brother, while her father enjoyed dancing with her sister. Naturally, we would assume that Eve would reveal the secret she stumbled over, specifically, a secret she didn’t fully understand, out of bitterness because she would want to get back at someone and attention would be directed at her. But that didn’t happen. Instead of focusing on the main character’s immaturity, the material focused on how a child became less immature over time because something foreign was thrown on her lap. Seeing her father having sex with a familiar woman was not the issue of the story. It was what opened her eyes and allowed her to evaluate the world in a different way. As a result, the material felt fresh. It also felt exciting. Eve’s family and community believed in gifted individuals with the ability to look in the unseen. While it did provide some of the amusing scenarios, it didn’t make fun of people who believed in alternative explanations. The question was whether or not we believed but whether the characters would continue to believe or stop altogether. There was a thoughtful contrast between science (personified by the adulterous husband), supposedly something we could always trust, and faith (personified by the fortunetellers like the mysterious Elzora played by Diahann Carroll). Lastly, all of the actors were natural in their roles especially by Jackson. His character was a nice man but there were certain scenes when he would assert his gentleness to get exactly what he wanted. That calculating nature hinted at something darker within. “Eve’s Bayou” was a beautiful portrait of an African-American community in 1960s Louisiana. Instead of going for the easy answers, it allowed us to look at its threads a little more closely.
Jackie Brown (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) was a flight attendant caught by two detectives (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) when she tried to smuggle money into the country. However, she was not arrested because they knew that she worked for an arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and they wanted him more than they wanted her. Realizing that she nothing else to lose considering her age and her prior conviction, she constructed a plan that might lead to her freedom from the police and her cruel boss. “Jackie Brown,” adapted from the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard, was an intelligent film which was highly unpredictable because of its constantly scheming characters. I admired the way Quentin Tarantino put his stamp on the project in terms of building tension and delivering truly rewarding pay-offs. Despite the violence and rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, it was ultimately a human story. I loved the way it took moments of silences and allowed us to guess what the characters were thinking and the manner in which they strategically reevaluated their priorities. With these specific characters, as sad as it was accept, sometimes money was more valuable to them than their lives. Tarantino juggled the characters with elegance. He was smart enough to make a film that was longer than two-and-half hours but not wasting a single minute. I thought it was pleasure to watch because I learned something new about each character in each scene. The most complex of them, except for the lead, was Max Cherry (Robert Forster). He was the most difficult for me to read and I did not find out until the very end what his real intentions were toward Jackie. Was he just pretending to be a friend because he wanted the money for himself or did he genuinely care about the woman he bailed out of jail? And even if it was the former, I can understand why he might choose to do it because I saw him as this lonely person who, despite the thousands of people he bailed out of jail, no one really cared for. He was a person defined by his occupation and not those who loved him for just who he was. “Jackie Brown” is one of Tarantino’s lesser-known works but I think it is one of his best. I loved that the picture was uncompromising, suspenseful, and surprisingly warm in the smallest dosage. I was engaged throughout its running time because in Tarantino’s world, the heroes (or anti-heroes) do not necessarily have to survive. And I was desperate to see the brave Jackie Brown make it through the tricky spider webs she weaved for herself.
Mala educación, La (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favorite directors because he is often willing to take bold risks. Instead of feeding his audiences Hollywood typicalities, he tries to reinvent the formula by challenging us to see movies in a different way. In his film “La mala educación,” two childhood friends (Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez) who fell in love with each other in Catholic school crossed paths after sixteen years of separation. Enrique was experiencing a drought of ideas for his next film so Ángel offered Enrique a story that was half non-fiction (based on their childhood) and half fiction (when they eventually reunited). The only thing Ángel wanted in return was to play the lead character because he desperately needed work. The first time I saw “Bad Education” (which was around 2005) I didn’t completely understand it because it was essentially a dynamic exercise of perspectives. Back then I didn’t have the experience to really hone in on what was really going on underneath the scenes that Almodóvar painted for his audiences. But after becoming more familiar with his work and other movies that may have influenced his techniques, I am convinced that “La mala educación” is one of his best movies to date. The funny thing (and what I love most) about Almodóvar is he pretty much uses the same basic elements in all of his pictures: bright colors that hint on what we should feel and/or what the characters really feel despite their self-delusions, bittersweet irony, awkward camera angles, mistaken identities, razor-sharp dark comedy and eccentric characters willing to go through great lengths to keep certain secrets hidden. What impresses me is he (arguably) just shuffles things around, makes tiny tweaks here and there and voilà!–a new Almodóvar film is born. But what makes this picture one of his best is every scene has a certain focus and confidence so each one contributes to the big picture. In about an hour and forty-five minutes, the director was able to elegantly construct a web of deceit with characters who had questionable morals yet we couldn’t help but care for them because we knew their backstories. Bernal was simply electric. His character is the kind of character I love to watch and dissect because every decision he made had a purpose and would ultimately most benefit himself. He appeared charismatic on the outside but he was capable of great subterfuge. That element of film noir completely enraptured me and I didn’t want the experience to end. “Bad Education” is not the kind of movie one will fully understand in just one sitting. Anyone who claims to have understood everything about it is either lying or has completely missed the point. I highly recommend “La mala educación” for its feverish passion to tell a very personal story which expertly balances ambiguity and complexity. Don’t get distracted by the drag queens and sexual positions because those elements are just half the fun.
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios” or “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” showcases how fearless Pedro Almodóvar can be as a writer and director. After Pepa (Carmen Maura) was left by her lover (Fernando Guillén), she decided to kill herself by eating gazpacho mixed with heavy doses of sleeping pills. However, her suicide attempt was interrupted when her friend (María Barranco) knocked on her door for help after realizing that she was involved in terrorists who wanted to hijack a plane. And while Pepa was gone and her friend was left to guard the apartment, a couple (Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma) knocked on the door to decide if they wanted to rent Pepa’s place. Everything about this movie was so absurd but it was so much fun to watch because it was incredibly unpredictable. And what’s better was the fact that it was easy to tell that the actors were having so much fun in their roles. As much as the movie was comedic on the outside, it really was about the connections between the quirky and eccentric characters unique to Almodóvar’s world. Having seen Almodóvar’s recent works from the 1990s to the 2000s, it was easy for me to recognize certain motifs such as the use of color, strange coincidences and strong women willing to fight for what they believed in. In relation to the last bit, I was in love with that scene when one of the characters discussed the relationship between understanding bikes and understanding the psychology of men. I thought that scene summed up the picture with such elegance because the story was essentially about four women obsessing over men and the outer and inner conflicts they had to go through to be loved in return. My main problem with this film, however, like in a lot of Almodóvar’s movies, was its pacing slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s only a matter of taste that one can get used to over time as one watches more movies from the director. It’s not at all difficult to be enveloped into the story because the lead character was always doing something purposeful and she was willing to engage in conversations that were witty and sometimes confrontational. A lot of people may think “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” was over-the-top but that’s what makes a great farce. It’s like watching a telenovela with characters that range from harmless but annoying to dangerously psychotic. It was definitely campy but it had a creative postmodern romance that I rarely see (and would like to see more) in cinema these days.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi, “Casino” was about a casino owner (Robert De Niro) and his childhood friend who worked for the Mafia (Joe Pesci) whose bonds were tested on three fronts: their personal relationship, their businesses and a prostitute (Sharon Stone) with a penchant for money and power. But that’s only the surface of this deeply layered film expertly directed by Martin Scorsese. It was a strange feeling because although I found the film to be really complex in terms of how connected everyone was and how malleable their loyalties were, there were times when I thought it did not have a story. I felt like I was dropped into these characters’ lives and I was forced to watch their lives unfold from the 1970s until the 1980’s. The acting here was top-notch: De Niro had this suave swagger going on, Pesci was dangerous but there was something about him that I could not help but like and Stone was the kind of character who one could not help but hate. The way the three collided was very fun to watch because there were times when, like in Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” everything was so exaggerated to the point where it was borderline amusing. I was absolutely in love with the script because, through narration, the characters were able to provide insight about their work and the decisions they made despite the fact that they knew they were going to regret it in the long run. I felt like the characters were actual people instead of just cardboard caricatures. Almost everything about this film was big: the ideas, the dark undertones, the dynamics of marriage and friendship. But I loved about it most was that it was able to analyze Las Vegas as one of the most glamorous places in the world but at the same time one of the ugliest places in the world. The way Scorsese played with that duality was fascinating to me because not only did he apply it as a metaphor for the characters, I think he pointed the finger at us–how out brilliant ideations do not always coincide with the grimy actualities. I also enjoyed how Scorsese viewed corruption as an almost necessary survival instinct for one to thrive in Las Vegas. Its three-hour running time was definitely a challenge (I took a break somewhere in the middle) but once I was hooked, I could not help but absorb it all. Some argue that picture was way too long and got bogged down by the marriage drama that pervaded the second half. I couldn’t disagree more because De Niro’s character deeply valued trust. I thought the second half made the movie that much richer because I understood him a bit more, given that we got to see him outside of the casino. That second half also gave us a chance to see De Niro and Pesci collide outside of the business world onto a more personal arena. Fans of Scorsese definitely should not miss this project because I think it’s one of his best. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Hunger,” written and directed by Steve McQueen, followed the last few weeks of life of a prisoner named Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who decided to go on a hunger strike because the British government did not want to recognize the IRA prisoners (Liam McMahon, Brian Milligan) as political prisoners and the fact that the pisoners were constantly treated inhumanely by the guards. At first I thought that the first half of this film was about the hunger strike because everyone was insanely skinny. Only half-way did I realize that the first half was the “blanket and no wash” protest–prisoners had nothing but blankets in their cells and they chose not to wash themselves for days on end. (Not to mention they decorated their walls with their filth and food.) The turning point (and best scene) of the film was the conversation between Bobby Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) because that extended scene brought a sharpness and intelligence to the picture as it tackled issues such as the ethical reasons regarding the hunger strike and whether performing such a dangerous task, as noble as it was, could ultimately lead to nothing. The portion of the scene when Fassbender talked about what his character’s leadership meant to him was honestly was one of the best five minutes I’ve seen in a long time. The images that the character described were so vivid in my mind and the emotions that the images entailed captivated me. McQueen’s direction was always present because as the story was being told, the camera knew, at the perfect moments, when to zoom in to the actor’s faces and when to pull back. The effectiveness of the director’s craft made the experience that much more rewarding. The second half–the actual hunger strike–absolutely blew me away. Fassbender’s transformation was shocking to me. It reminded me of Christian Bale’s horrifying transformation in “The Machinist,” but instead of psychological repercussions, we got to observe how Bobby’s health declined and how his life ultimately came to an end. I loved that this film felt small but the ideas were so big; it highlighted those ideas via the synergistic effect of silence and haunting images. I also loved the film’s use of contrast in terms of other people using violence to others and people using violence to themselves. “Hunger” is a very rich and complex film worth pondering over. I couldn’t believe this was McQueen’s directoral debut because he commanded the story and direction with such focus. Like with Fassbender who also impressed me in “Inglourious Basterds,” I’m looking forward to McQueen’s next project.
Education, An (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.
All the Real Girls (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
This very earnest and honest love story between a virgin (Zooey Deschanel) and a womanizer (Paul Schneider) may have been difficult to swallow but it was rewarding. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, the style of storytelling of this film was at first distracting because it constantly made quick cuts from one scene to another. But as the picture went on, I realized it was effective because the characters had to quickly say what they wanted to say even if the words that came out of their mouths were not exactly the truth. The first scene was very cute so I was instantly hooked. The romance between Deschanel and Schneider reminded me of the chemistry of the lead characters in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” That scene was funny, and best of all, it felt real–like a conversation that I might overhear while waiting at a bus stop. I also liked the supporting actors such as Shea Whigham as Deschane’s older brother who did not approve of the relationship and Patricia Clarkson as Schneider’s mother. Although Clarkson was not the focus on the movie, she made the most of the material she was given. That is, a mother who worked as a clown to provide his son and as a mother for was concerned and frustrated with where her son’s life was heading. She played her character with such grace because she balanced sadness and strength really well. Lastly, I enjoyed the picture’s autumnal feel and its use of symbolism. Its complexity might easily be overlooked because of its initial distracting style but once one really gets into its rhythm, it really is quite keen when it comes to what it means to fall in love and be loved. Just when I thought the picture was borderline turning into a syrupy romance, it changed gears and commented on the relief and pain that comes hand-in-hand with being honest with one’s self and wanting to change so bad to be accepted by someone. It also had a chance to tackle issues such as the breakdown of communication when distance is involved, the dynamics of friendship and what it means not only to love someone but also respect them. This is a smart sleeper film that doesn’t give us the easy and sugary answers we want to hear. But it is the kind of film that assures us that it’s alright to be confused and to question what and how we really feel toward someone important to us.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two college friends reunite (Mark Duplass as Ben and Joshua Leonard as Andrew) after a couple of years of not seeing each other. Ben and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are planning to form a family and make their lives as stable as possible. Andrew just got back from exploring different countries and really taking in on what life has to offer. One night when Ben decided to attend a party with Andrew and his friends, they decided to shoot a video for a pornographic film festival. The catch is that they would record themselves having sex despite being heterosexuals. What I love most about this small film was its big ideas underneath the subtle philosophical questions. Instead of creating characters that are defined one way or the other like in most mainstream works, I thought that Lynn Shelter, the writer and director, was able to capture actual essences of people with layers and complexities. Each of them was able to talk about his or her dreams, ideas and disappointments like a friend trying to bond with you in an intimate setting. With its great ear for dialogue (annoying quirks and all), I also enjoyed the fact that this film was very open to different kinds of sexualities. Better yet, it was able to present the idea that the majority of us are not completely straight and not completely gay. The way it explored that gray area inbetween the two extremes was fantastic and refreshing because I often forget that unexplored terrain when I watch movies unless I’m aware that it’s an LGBT picture. But the movie was not just about sex. It’s the close friendship that the lead characters shared, how it was challenged from time to time, and whether it was strong enough to withstand awkward situations such as going to a hotel room and trying to film a video of them sharing each other’s bodies. This is one of the most honest, funny and sometimes touching independent films I’ve seen in a while. It may not have the glamour of having popular actors, the best technical things like lighting and camera angles but, at least for me, everything was done in an exemplary way because it was able to balance emotions and intelligence without having to sacrifice its credibility. A lot of summaries out there make this movie sound like an obvious comedy but it’s far more insightful than that.
Single Man, A (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” moved me in a number of ways and I found it to be strange because I find that to be a rarity in most historical films. Queen Elizabeth I (played by the ever-talented Cate Blanchett) must quickly take control of England and the lands it possesses after the death of her half-sister Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke). But it proves to be a clincher of a task because England was divided by religion, increasing poverty, a lack of men to form a proper army to defend itself from those who were hungry for power, and not to mention those who wanted to assassinate her. I really felt for Blanchett’s character because I saw her change from this warm, free-spirited woman who was open to love and idealism into a fierce queen who learned how to set her heart aside and make difficult decisions. Blanchett was the perfect actor to play the role because I’ve always seen her as warm but having the capacity to turn in an ice queen in a second. I enjoyed how the picture managed to balance the romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), the insidious affairs of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), and the eventual revelation of the secretive Sir Francis Walshingham’s (Geoffrey Rush) intentions. I was so engaged with the story because each scene had a purpose and something crucial was always at the forefront. Aside from the acting, I admired the picture’s use of lighting (especially the scenes inside the palace during the day), stunning set pieces and wardrobes. I cannot believe “Shakespeare in Love” won against this film because this one is far superior in every respect. I did enjoy “Shakespeare in Love” in some ways but it did not quite take me in a rollercoaster of emotions as “Elizabeth” did. This is far more complex especially with the issues it tried to tackle such as feminism during a time when men dominated the scene and how religion was often used as an excuse to justify sinful actions (in the least). While I do admit that I do not know much about the history of Queen Elizabeth I, I am now that much more curious to read up on her accomplishments.