George Washington (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by David Gordon Green, “George Washington” tells the story of a group of friends (Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, Damian Jewan Lee) who lived in small rural town whose lives changed forever after a tragic accident. That may sound like any other coming-of-age film but “George Washington” was much more complex than that because it was told with such a delicate touch and poetic lyricism. Being familiar with Green’s later projects, I was impressed that this was his first movie because he allowed his characters to speak to each other, to themselves and to us via narration. The characters expressed themselves like real people to the point where I thought at times that it was too naturalistic (but in a good way). I loved the fact that the characters evolved over time but the evolution didn’t come hand-in-hand with big realizations and deafening score. Their growth came in the quiet moments when they would just sit around and express to each other what they felt at that moment compared to how they were when we saw them in the beginning. I guess what I loved most about the picture was it didn’t go out of its way to impress and simply told the circumstances surrounding the subjects’ lives. A common theme I was most interested in was the suffocation both the adults and children felt living in that one particular town. One way or another, they expressed how they wanted to leave their homes to learn more about the world or possibly meet someone who could inspire or challenge them yet accept them for who they were. I’ve read some reviews claiming that not much happened or that the movie was too slow. On the contrary, I thought it was dynamic because even though the outside remained more or less static, there was so much struggle and hurt and questioning going on inside the characters. In a way, it reminded me of my childhood, especially during the summer, when all I would do was hang out with my friends or with my cousins all day. Our biggest worries almost always concerned our parents’ disapproval or someone getting hurt when would play games. So I thought the film was honest and painfully real and I was captivated by it. The final twenty minutes or so really pushed to reach a new level of imagination specifically the scenes about the boy yearning to be a hero. I thought it was symbolic of a person wanting to be someone else but not just to be any regular folk–someone who was worthy of fantasy and who everybody looked up to. “George Washington” is definitely for patient viewers who strive to look and feel beyond the surface. In the end, even though it had so much sadness in its core, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.
The Class (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I thought “Chalk” was a realistic portrayal of the classroom environment but “Entre les murs,” also known as “The Class,” was grittier and far more realistic. Based on the novel and starring François Bégaudeau, this film was a docudrama about a teacher who tries to encourage fourteen- to fifteen-year-olds to be more passionate about learning via being honest with them and using various methods to find their strengths in a span of one year. However, this year was different because the kids he had last year were on the verge of growing up so, naturally, they began to question his different approaches and tried to constantly push him over the edge, blind to the fact that he was always putting his best intentions forward to try to make them more prepared for the future. This film is very difficult not to admire because it really captured how it was like to be in a classroom consisting on hormonal and highly unstable students. I was in high school three years ago and it brought back a lot of memories. I may not have had the same experiences as the students in this picture because I experienced both “advanced placement” classes and “regular” classes, but the conversations and dynamics in the classrooms were essentially similar. Seeing François Bégaudeau’s character reminded me of my best teachers in high school (unsurprisingly, my favorite classes: French and Psychology) because even though they always try their best and put on a mask that everything is okay, tiny cracks on their armors are sometimes seen and the frustrations leak out like a dam about to burst. I looked at the students who improvised most of the dialogue and I constantly thought that in less than five years, their outlook on education, ability in terms of social interactions and the overall concept of respect would totally be redefined to the point where they would look at this film and probably would not recognize who they were. I also found the interactions between the teachers and faculty fascinating. There were some scenes that suggested that they, too, were like children in the classrooms, which was a nice surprise because most American films about inspirational teachers have this message that teachers are always proper, always wearing decent clothes and always having that need to provide a big speech that would change everybody’s minds for the better. None or very minimal of that American formula was painted here. “The Class,” directed by Laurent Cantet, was a painfully realistic look at our educational systems and it shows that teachers need to be appreciated more even if their best efforts are simply not enough. (Don’t even get me started on how little they get paid for such an important and difficult career.) There was this scene in the end when one of the students confessed to the teacher that she didn’t learn anything throughout the school year, which totally broke my heart. As sad as it was, it’s more honest and more common than we can possibly imagine. That said, it shouldn’t scare us or defeat us; it should only inspire us to find other ways to accomodate such learners.
Murmur of the Heart (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Louis Malle (“Au revoir les enfants”), this unconventional coming-of-age picture (also known as “Murmur of the Heart”) was about an intelligent fifteen-year-old named Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and his quest to lose his virginity. He has a difficult time achieving his goal because his family watches each other’s moves very closely: two brothers who act like spoiled rich brats, a father (Daniel Gélin) who is a gynecologist, and a free-spirited mother (Lea Massari). He finally gets away from his family (except his mother) when he gets ill and has to go to a medical spa in hopes of getting better. I mentioned that this was an atypical coming-of-age tale because, in a way, it kind of excuses or glosses over the issues of childhood molestation and incest. Scenes that would normally or supposed to bother people, such as a religious leader inappropriately touching a boy and a mother who is way too involved with her son (emotionally and physically; taking “European” kind of closeness into consideration), are an integral part of the story, the director decided to not judge and simply show what was happening. In many ways, I admired this technique because most films that I’ve seen that tackled the same topics could not help but pass judgment. This film reminded me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” not because of of its subject matter itself but because of the many scenes that were shot indoors, the political backdrop of the story (in this case, the IndoChina War), and that feeling of freedom to explore any kind of topic and emotion that could easily be labeled as taboo. In the end, I really got to know Laurent: what kinds of books he likes to read; his tastes in music and girls; what he thinks about the people around him; and his own capabilities as a blossoming adolescent facing pressures exerted by himself and other people. Perhaps if I knew more about the authors and books that Laurent referenced to, I may have had a better understanding regarding some of his motivations to do certain things. This was a daring film but, in my opinion, did not cross any line but merely straddled it. I must also note that this was not just about a person who wanted to have sex for the first time. It was much more complex than that. But another one of the many layers of this movie was the dynamics among the family members, whether or not in its core, they were truly happy.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frida” is a biopic that focuses on how Frida Kahlo emerged and evolved as an artist as well as a person who shines despite her many flaws and tragedies. Salma Hayek is simply electric; although pretty much everyone defines her for her beauty, I’ve always seen some kind of inner strength in each of her roles and I was happy that it was at the forefront in this picture. Frida’s relationship with her sister (the gorgeous Mía Maestro), husband (Alfred Molina) and father (Roger Rees) are fascinating because each of those three characters have shaped Frida’s many colorful (and very dynamic) personalities. Julie Taymor, the director, shows her audiences impressive visual effects such as when Frida’s paintings would become a real-life scene and how some real-life scenes would become paintings. I’m not at all familiar with Frida’s artwork but after watching this film, I want to look more into them because they are symbolic in the least. Now that I’m aware of what the events that prompted Frida to paint certain works, I think I’ll be able to appreciate them more. There’s a great atmosphere of culture that pervaded this film and it made me think of my own culture whenever there’s a wedding or a big gathering of some sort. Every actor is so into his or her own character and the film popped whenever they would talk about art, passion, politics and the uncertainties of life. The film then becomes more than a visual experience; it becomes a powerful emotional exprience that has a distinct resonance. However, I wish this film would’ve been entirely in Spanish (except for the scenes when the characters are in the United States). I thrown off a bit when I realized that everyone spoke in English despite living in Mexico. Also, as a Diego Luna fan, I wish he was in it more or was given more to do. Still, this is a very good (if not sometimes ordinary) biopic even though the second half could’ve been stronger by focusing on Frida as an individual instead of other characters that have more to do with politics.
Body of Lies (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I expected a lot from this film because of three reaons: Ridley Scott’s direction, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe teaming up, and its storyline regarding spies. Even though Scott’s movies generally do not have riveting ideas, he manages to entertain by playing with the fluidity of his characters’ morals and motivations. In this picture, it’s no different because he constantly manipulates the dynamics between the characters–mainly their loyalties–to the point where at times I wondered about the characters’ true intentions. The side effect of certain twists, however, left me confused. At times I didn’t know why a character is doing whatever he is doing for about ten to fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a good feeling; I felt like I was on the outside instead of feeling involved. I wish DiCaprio and Crowe had more screen time together. The movie actually popped during the (too few) scenes when they were facing each other, measuring each other’s abilities. I got tired of the scenes when the two of them would argue over the phone. Why do all that if they can be on the field together? As for the spy storyline, I’m glad the setting was in the Middle East not that because it’s accurate but because it’s relevant to the war in some way. This film is based on the novel by David Ignatius but I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how often this movie followed that literature. I also have to commend Mark Strong as the head of the Jordanian intelligence. I think he’s one of the most interesting actors to watch because he has his own intentions and he’s not willing to sacrifice his reputation for the sake of giving and receiving favors to and from the CIA. I also liked Golshifteh Farahani as DiCaprio’s romantic interest. Even though that romance angle did not work for me, I liked watching her because she has subtlety. This is far from a perfect film but it could’ve been leaner and meaner with a few more revisions in the script and cutting it down to about an hour and forty minutes. For the sake of entertainment and old-fashioned thrillers, this gets a slight recommendation from me.
The Family That Preys (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“You can’t make yourself happy [by] bringing misery into other people’s lives.” I think that quote sums up the central thesis of this film. Even though it may be a bit soap opera at times because of the multiple storylines and their big revelations, I can’t help but really like this film. There’s something about the characters that are very true to life, especially in a society where everyone wants to climb up on the economic ladder. While most may initially watch this just to see the drama unfold between and within each family, I think it’s worthy to notice the dynamics between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between the man and the woman, and between the whites and the blacks. I admired that this film didn’t have any African-Americans that live in the ghetto. To be honest, I want to see more African-Americans living the “normal” life because they do exist and they should be represented. I love Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as the two mothers of the family. The way they interacted with one another reminded me of times when I was with my best friend, just laughing our lungs off and not caring about what people think of us in public. I also loved Taraji P. Henson and Sanaa Lathan as the two completely opposite sisters, one sensible and supportive and the other is disrespectful and vindictive, respectively. But I have to admit that Lathan reminded me of myself at times because I can be quite insidious and sometimes I forget where I come from. I don’t like that about myself and I’ve been trying to get rid of those qualities over the past three years (which, I think, has been successful so far). I wanted to hate her but at the end of the day, I just felt really sorry for her because of the way she treats the ones that love her most. There are a lot of memorable and insightful quotes that could be found all over the film; they made me think where I am in life, where I was, and where I will be. This is the kind of movie that made me so happy that I choose to surround myself with people that I can love and will love me no matter what happens. Upon watching the characters figure each others’ intentions, it goes to show that you can have all the money in the world but if you’re not happy with yourself and you forget where you come from, your life is truly not worth much.