The Maid (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) had been a maid for the same Chilean family for twenty-three years and she felt as though she was a part of the family. When Raquel’s health started to fail because she was overworked, the mother of the family (Claudia Celedón) decided to hire other help despite Raquel’s denial that she needed it. Raquel then decided that she would, one way or another, get rid of each one. I loved this film’s intensive look at a character who gave her life for a family but the family did not seem to give much to her in return. Saavedra impressed me because she was able to wrap her bitterness in little “accidents” and classic passive-aggressiveness but still maintaining her role as the housekeeper as best she could. Even though I did not agree with certain decisions she made to get rid of the other maids, I empathized with the character because she had no husband or children and her relationship with her family and relatives was very limited. But only did I recognize the heart of the film when Raquel met another maid named Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Lucy had so much positive energy and enthusiasm to the point where it was contagious. The most moving scene for me was when Lucy found Raquel disinfecting the bathtub in the middle of the night. Lucy asked Raquel what was wrong and what the family had done to her that made her lose it, all of which accompanied with an embrace. It was then when I realized that despite all the small gestures the family members had given Raquel, none of them really bothered to ask how she felt–at least not long enough to stick around and have a genuine talk with her. After meeting Lucy, we got the chance to see Raquel evolve from someone who looked like she was on the verge of death to someone with so much life even though it was still awkward for her to let out a smile. Since she felt like someone finally cared about her, she became a much warmer person. “La nana” or “The Maid,” written and directed by Sebastián Silva, is a small but charming film that was dramatic although it had a bit of a dark comedic edge. It was an incisive look between the rich and the poor and the dangers of a lack of reciprocity especially with a person who felt like she was isolated from the world. The story may have been simple but it had subtlety. Best of all, it wasn’t afraid to look at and recognize painful truths about the distinction between how important we think we are and how important we really are in someone’s life.
Bad Education (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.
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen a lot of really weird pictures but György Pálfi’s “Taxidermia” is probably one of the most bizarre. The story was about three generations of men: a hospital orderly who impregnanted a woman that had a child born with a tail, the child who grew up as a man who loved to participate in eating contests, and that man’s son (Marc Bischoff) who loved to preserve dead animal carcass. Although I thought all three were entertaining to watch (to some degree), it wasn’t until we got to Bischoff’s story that things picked up and really became engaging without sacrificing consistency and purpose. The common theme of this film was obsession and it nicely tackled the strange fixations that each of the characters had. At first I didn’t understand what was happening because the first twenty minutes subjected us to watch a creepy man spying on women while masturbating. I was aware that the film was supposed to be a dark comedy but those scenes made me wonder what the director was trying to portray. Were there symbolisms that he wanted us to realize in each generation or did he just create such images for mere shock value? I think it had elements of both; I may not have understood all of it because perhaps the cultural barrier was the problem (it was set in Hungary). Nevertheless, I was absolutely horrified when the camera would fixate on people eating like there’s no tomorrow and regurgitating the food they just ate. (It didn’t help that I like to snack while watching movies.) I was really disgusted but I couldn’t stop watching because I was curious what would happen next. Although the movie was far from anything I expected it to be, I’ve got to give it credit for doing something creative and unpredictable. This is definitely not the kind of film for mainstream audiences because it’s easy to label it as pointless or unnecessary. Speaking of, there were some scenes that depicted animal cruelty. I don’t mind much the taxidermy scenes but actually showing a live goat or a pig getting stabbed and things like that (you see the animals struggling) made me angry. I think those could’ve been taken out and the story wouldn’t have changed whatsoever. If you are feeling like watching something morbidly dark and funny in a very twisted sort of way, “Taxidermia” is a good choice because it wasn’t afraid to push the limits. Just don’t eat before watching the film.
The Informant! (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) had it all: a stable job that paid well, a loving family, a huge home, and absolutely no drama in his life. But his ambition and greed got the best of him and decided that he was going to accuse his company of embezzlement. He just didn’t want to be near the top of the pyramid, he wanted to be at the peak. Somehow, in his mind, he had this idea that if he could take down everyone who was in a higher position than him in the company, he would end up running the whole place. He was logical on the surface but his logic’s core was seriously flawed so he was a fascinating specimen for me to observe from a psychological point of view. “The Informant!,” based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was a hilarious look at a man who was drowning in his lies and delusions, but even funnier was he had no idea when to quit and seek help. I think Damon should have been nominated for an Oscar for his acting in this film because even though he got everyone trapped in his tornado of lies for five years or more, like his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and the two FBI agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) who recruited him as a spy, I had to admit that I ended up rooting for him because his charisma was as powerful as his lies. The desperation that Damon infused in his character made me feel bad for him not just as a character but as a person. In other words, he successfully made a pathological liar look like the good guy. I loved the way Soderbergh helmed the picture. Instead of telling the story in a typical crime drama, it was nicely balanced with dark humor, especially the scenes when the lead character would narrate for a bit so we could hear the many random (sometimes insightful) thoughts and what was really going on inside of his head. Just when I thought I had the movie all figured out, it surprised me because it actually became darker and more amusing as it went on. The director had a way of playing with tones at just the right amount so it didn’t feel jarring when it shifted. Considering the movie covered a span of ten years, the pacing was superb and I actually wanted it to run longer because I was having such a great time. The progression of a confident and obviously smart man who slowly lost all the good things in his life (including his mind) was sad but at the same the journey was quite a ride. I loved that most of the movie’s humor was in the dialogue and situations instead of playing on the obvious. I’ve read reviews from regular folks who claimed that it was stupid. I think those people just need to think for a bit and realize the fact that there’s a Mark Whitacre in all of us (narcissism and all)–the way we lie to people and sometimes how we eventually get tangled up in our own lies to the point where we end up betraying our own ideals.
★★ / ★★★★
Jason Bateman stars as the owner of a company who had to deal with an increasing number of personal and professional problems after one of his workers (Clifton Collins Jr. who continues his streak of being a chameleon in every role) had a gruesome accident. On one front, Bateman wanted to sleep with another woman (Mila Kunis) with criminal tendencies because his wife (Kristen Wiig) used every excuse on the book to not have sex with him, unknowing of the fact that Kunis seduced Collins so that she could get the settlement. On another angle, with the help of Ben Affleck, Bateman hired a pool boy (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife so that he would not feel as guilty when he finally did make a move on Kunis. But Milligan eventually fell in love with Bateman’s wife. Written and directed by Mike Judge, I found myself laughing out loud as I watched the film but when the credits started rolling, I felt like it could have been funnier. Although the situational comedies were so unbelievable because everything felt planned to a tee, I found myself going along with it because the characters were so vibrant. My main problem with the movie, however, was that it didn’t quite know whether it wanted to be a dark comedy, a spoof, or a safe mainstream comedy. It had elements of each of those and that was a problem because the tone did not feel right. I felt like it held back with the politically incorrect jokes instead of really embracing them and pointing the fingers on the audiences. There were some clever writing here and there (like the main character being so unhappy with his life even though a lot of people–people who he was surrounded by–would be more than happy to trade places with him) but sometimes the writing succumbed to typicality–something that we can see on television shows like “The Office” or “Better Off Ted.” There were also elements of “Office Space”-like jokes such as the very idiosyncratic workers (led by the always fantastic Beth Grant) and the very annoying neighbor (David Koechner) who can’t take a hint but such scenes felt like secondary appendages instead of being part of a whole and enhancing the thesis of the picture. Perhaps if “Extract” had not been afraid to be a bit darker and edgier with its material, I would have given this film a higher rating. The movie satisfied but didn’t impress me.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“World’s Greatest Dad,” written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, was a satirical film about a father/writer/teacher (Robin Williams) who decided to hide his son’s (Daryl Sabara) accidental death from masturbating and instead made the death look like a suicide. Williams wrote a suicide note and when the school got a hold of it, the note became an instant hit. Being a failed writer time and again, Williams decided to take advantage of his son’s death and get the acclaim he always wanted by writing a journal full of sad thoughts and claiming it was written by his son. From the sound of it, I expected to immensely dislike Williams’ character because nothing is right about taking advantage of someone’s demise, especially that of a loved one’s. However, his son was such a prick (for the lack of a better word–and that’s putting it lightly) who didn’t care about anybody but himself (including those who were really nice to him such as his father and his only friend played by Evan Martin). In fact, I didn’t feel sad or remorse when the son died. I really cared more for father because he genuinely loved his son despite his son’s lack of appreciation. I’m beginning to think that Williams really shines in smaller pictures like this one and the underrated “One Hour Photo.” There’s something about the way he hides his feelings and thoughts that I can’t help but identify with. I especially liked that one scene when he pretended to be happy for a fellow teacher who was recently published on The New Yorker. There’s something very true about that scene because we all know how it is like to smile on the outside but feel really jealous inside after hearing about someone else’s success, especially if we don’t particularly like that person for whatever reason. I thought the darkly comedic scenes worked because it was able to point to the hypocrisy of high school students and the faculty that supposedly cared. I’m talking about how everyone suddenly started caring about Sabara’s character after his death when nobody really cared about him when he was alive. It reminded me of the time in high school when my fellow students and I would hear about a death over the morning announcements. For a couple of hours everyone sounded like they cared but the next day everything was back to normal as if nothing happened. This might be a difficult film to swallow for most people because the content might seem a bit “cruel.” But that’s what I admired about it; it was able to point to us and say, “This is what’s wrong with you” but not to the point where we feel bad. In fact, the pictures gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves.
Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.