Cairo Time (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) decided to visit Egypt because she wanted to spend time with her husband who worked for the United Nations. Her expectations involved her husband picking her up from the airport, heading to the hotel, and maybe seeing some unique tourist attractions. But her visit was far from what she expected. Instead, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), a coffee shop owner and a friend of her husband, picked her up from the airport because Mark had been delayed in Gaza. The more time Juliette and Tareq spent together, they noticed that there was romantic interest simmering between them. “Cairo Time,” written and directed by Ruba Nadda, was a mature romantic picture that exuded intelligence and insight in just about every scene. It showed that less really was more. The excitement was in the conversations between Juliette and Tareq as they talked about their own lives. Juliette mostly talked about her kids, the time she had on her hands and the freedom she felt now that they no longer lived at home, her career as a writer for a magazine called “Vous,” and the social issues she believed in. On the other hand, Tareq talked about his business and a former lover (Amina Annabi) whose daughter was about to get married. From the moment they met, we immediately felt a possible romantic tension between them because, despite the vast difference between their cultures, they shared excellent chemistry. The way they looked at each other, even if the look lasted for only a millisecond, communicated more than a hundred words. Clarkson was divine. Since she was in every scene, she had to deliver something special in order to successfully keep our interest. I couldn’t help but smile when she would flirt as she talked on the telephone, the way she held herself when someone was being rude or failing to respect her personal space, and her attempt to immerse herself in Egyptian culture. She didn’t have to be edgy to be interesting. Her character’s ordinariness and maturity was enough to make me want to get to know her. The director made a smart choice to showcase the characters first instead of the stunning landscapes especially during the trips to the desert. Despite normally attention-grabbing wide angle shots, twice I caught my eyes transfixed on Clarkson first and then I noticed the breathtaking backdrop. I thought that was a testament in terms of how invested I was in Juliette’s journey in realizing that maybe she didn’t end up with the right person. When her husband (Tom McCamus) finally made an appearance, like Juliette, I felt as though Egypt’s magic and romance was sucked by a vacuum. The car ride toward the pyramids was gut-wrenching in a subdued way. Like our protagonist, it inspired us to think about the many choices we made that shaped our lives to the way it currently is.
The New World (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
English settlers landed on Louisiana in 1607. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) was to be hanged, on the grounds of mutiny, the moment they reached land. But Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) changed his orders because he knew Captain Smith was a good explorer. He just needed to be controlled. When Captain Smith met Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of an Indian leader, the two began a forbidden love affair. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” moved at a deliberate slow pace in order to highlight man’s relationship with nature. It worked most of the time. I saw beauty in the way the director captured the wind caressing the grass, the way the characters leaned into the magnificent trees, and the elegant movement of the water as the ships heaved its way onto land. Pocahontas had two men in her life and the emotions were dealt with complexity. In the end, I was convinced she loved them both in different ways. When she was with Captain Smith, I noticed that they always looked into each other’s eyes. The way the camera lingered as the captain taught Pocahontas English words held a sweetness and innocence. As their bodies slowly inched closer to one another, we felt their concern that someone could be looking. There was an understated joy when they touched each other’s skin. When Pocahontas was with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the two spent their time looking at a distance, as if transfixed at the sight of the future. But when they did look into each other’s eyes, they shared an outward passion whether it be in a hut or out in the garden. Through the men in her life, we saw the way she changed. She left her culture because she was a dreamer. But leaving didn’t mean forgetting. She was curious of the life outside of her sphere and she felt as though her sarcrifices were worth it. Like Captain Smith and John Rolfe, she was an explorer. But my favorite scene didn’t have anything to do with a shot involving a gorgeous scenery or her interactions with the two most important men in her life. It was when Pocahontas handed a homeless man a coin and gently touched his cheek. It held a great meaning for me because it was reassuring. Even though her style of clothing and the way in which she carried herself had changed, she was the same person we met in the beginning of the film. She was playful, compassionate, and connected with the Earth. It’s understandable when I hear people say that the film is just too slow for their liking. It wasn’t plot-driven. Most movies are but they don’t need to be. “The New World” was an exercise of the senses and, in my opinion, how we can relate our personal experiences with it. As an immigrant, scenes like Pocahontas smelling a book because she had never seen one before had meaning for me. I grew up in the Philippines not having a computer in my home. When I moved to America, I didn’t know how to type on the keyboard or even use the mouse to click at an icon to go to the internet. In small ways, I saw myself in Pocahontas. Sometimes small is enough.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) decided to enlist in the Army to go to Vietnam and fight for American ideals. The film was divided into three sections: the innocence prior to the war, the three friends’ participation in the war, and how the characters viewed their hometown after they returned from war. Initially, I didn’t understand why the picture felt the need to focus on a wedding for a running time of about an hour. I felt as though it simply wanted to be an epic movie by being three hours long. But once our protagonists reached Vietnam and realized that going war for something they did not fully understand was their most critical misstep, the events that transpired during the wedding felt necessary. It served as a mirror so that, as active viewers, we were able to understand how deep certain friendships ran, the rivalry between Michael and Nick over the girl-next-door Linda (Meryl Streep), and, despite the guys having a strong connection to their Russian culture, they were true Americans and we should not blame them for wanting to, despite not fully weighing the pros and cons, defend our country for reasons they thought was right. As the film went on, it became more powerful because it had a solid grasp of tension, the suspense in terms of the picture’s imagery and the friction between the characters. In the middle portion, I felt an overwhelming sadness when Michael, Steven and Nick were captured and forced to play Russian roulette. The way they worked as a team to escape the Vietnamese was nail-biting because they knew, as well as we did, they were as good as dead if they continued to play by the rules. The scene in which the three of them sailed down the river using a dead tree was one of those images that would remain in my mind for a long time. Toward the end, I felt almost numb because the men who managed to come back to their hometown, although more complex because they were more experienced, felt almost hollow because they could not relate to the people around them. There were classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder but I admired the fact that it was shown in sublte way. Another image that I was able to extract myriads meaning from was when Michael chose not to shoot a deer when he had a chance. To me, Michael saw the animal as a symbol for freedom–something that he felt was out of his reach (and will always be out of his reach) even though he was, arguably, able to return home as a whole. Directed by Michael Cimino, “The Deer Hunter” is an atypical war picture because it focused more on the personal struggles instead of the horror of being surrounded by flying bullets and explosions. It argued that returning home could feel just as dangerous as standing alone in the battlefield.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
When Magdalena (Emily Rios) found out she was pregnant without actually having sex with her boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) before her quinceañera, she ran away from her family (Araceli Guzman-Rico, Jesus Castanos-Chima) because they believed she would not own up to her actions. Magdalena stayed with her kind uncle (Chalo Gonzalez) and cousin (Jesse Garcia), a gang member who happened to be gay and experimenting with the gay couple (Jason L. Wood, David W. Ross) next door. This independent film was no “Juno.” Quirkiness and snarky dialogue were absent but it was refreshing because the story was told without glossy pretension. It was not afraid to put its characters in difficult situations and let them deal with their problems without plot conveniences and typical Hollywood offerings about what one should do when one found out she was pregnant. I thought it was also refreshing that the character did not deem her life to be over when she found out she was pregnant at fourteen years old. It was nice to hear that she had plans for her future and I liked the way she stood up for herself when others criticized and laughed at her. I rooted for her because even though she was young, she was brave and she was not afraid to ask for help when she needed a bit of support. As for the subplot involving the homosexual cousin, I enjoyed it for the most part because Garcia could have played his character in an obvious way but he managed to avoid the usual traps about sexual experimentation. His character was a good foil for Magdalena. Even though the two were very different, they found commonality in being (essentially) exiled because their Latino culture have certain beliefs that directly challenged their modern lives. I thought the film was at its best when the two interacted because they found purpose and strength from each other. However, I have to admit that Garcia’s storyline sometimes outshined Rios’. The more the picture spent time on the gay cousin, focus and intensity was taken away from our lead protagonist. Lastly, I loved that the script sounded natural (so natural that sometimes I thought the characters were adlibbing). Having grown up in a very diverse neighborhood, the way the teens spoke and the topics they talked about were to true life. Ultimately, “Quinceañera,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, told a story beyond a fourteen-year-old finding out she was pregnant. It was also about her support systems (and lack thereof), her responsibilities as a young woman, materialism, and traditions of a culture in an increasingly modern society. The film was astute in tackling the issues and it was even sharper in conveying the emotions that the characters would not necessarily outwardly express.
★★★ / ★★★★
Several people’s lives in a multicultural, post-911 Los Angeles collide in Paul Higgins’ racial issue drama. I distinctly remember watching this movie for the first time back in high school and I was riveted because there was a certain honestly in its portayal of a very diverse community but the people in the community didn’t quite accept each other. Having been raised in a place where diversity was abound, I thought “Crash” was multidimensional and it managed to avoid some traps concerning movies about characters turning out to be connected to each other in several respects. I still don’t believe “Crash” should have won over “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture, but the film was solid because it clearly set up an argument. That is, racism is a part of us and just because we project that ugliness to the world from time to time, it doesn’t mean that we are not capable of good or that we or not capable of changing. My main problem with the movie was it had too many characters and not all of them were fully explored. I thought the ones that worked were Sandra Bullock as a politician’s (Brendan Fraser) wife who was traumatized after a night out in the city, Ryan Phillippe as a cop looking for redemption, Matt Dillon as a cop dealing with his father’s health, and Thandie Newton as a Hollywood director’s (Terrence Howard) wife who was disgusted with the way her husband dealt with the situation after she was sexually harrassed. Side stories like Don Cheadle’s strained relationship with his mother and Ludacris running around stealing cars, as good as they were in their roles, weren’t at the same caliber and intensity as the others. Those unnecessary scenes held the movie back in terms of pacing and focus; they just didn’t hold my attention and I found myself standing up and taking a bathroom break during those scenes. Furthermore, I thought the ending didn’t quite stay true to the tone of the picture. I enjoyed that some characters went through drastic changes while others didn’t change at all, but the ending was borderline silly. Instead of pushing me to ponder over the images and the dialogues that I just saw and heard, it took me out of the experience and I felt a bit emotionally cheated. However, “Crash” is one of the better movies about racism because it wasn’t afraid to address certain issues head-on (such as being a light-skinned African-American versus being dark-skinned) and to show that there is more to a person than what comes out from his or her mouth. I suppose with a movie like this that tries to tackle very controversial issues, we always feel like it missed something or that there wasn’t enough deep exploration in terms of character development. But for what it’s worth, I think it managed to be right on target for most of its running time.