What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)
★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar wrote and directed “¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!” or “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” which was about a mother named Gloria (Carmen Maura) who felt suffocated being around her family in a small apartment. Her husband (Ángel de Andrés López) was mean to her despite trying her best to show him undeserved affection, her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave) was overbearing, one of her sons was a drug dealer (Juan Martínez) and the other slept with much older men (Miguel Ángel Herranz). Gloria only found bits of happiness while being around her friend who happened to be a prostitute (Verónica Forqué). This was not one of my favorite Almodóvar pictures despite its confidence to tell a story that was different (the story also involved a telekinetic girl who lived one floor above the family of interest) because it spent too much time with side stories instead of really honing into the lead character’s condition. Only toward the last thirty minutes did we have a chance to realize how truly miserable Gloria was and what great lengths she would go to escape a family who did not appreciate her sacrifices. No doubt that the material had intelligence because I did notice certain trends such as scenes in which people always asked Gloria for a favor but when it was Gloria who needed help, everyone was too involved in their own problems that they wouldn’t even look at her in the eye. Either they wouldn’t/couldn’t help her or they would help her but their behaviors were almost passive-aggressive and lacked any sort of gratitute. Those scenes moved me because there were times when I felt exactly the way she did. What did not work for me were the scenes involving the husband making some sort deal about certain forged documents. I did not quite see what the relationship was between that scheme and Gloria’s struggle in the home. The family had financial issues but I felt like Almodóvar was hinting at something deeper than pecuniary issues yet it didn’t quite come together in the end. The bit about the girl who had the gift of telekinesis also failed to impress me because I felt like it was more like an obligatory quirk instead of something that felt natural to the storyline. Quirkiness is a quality I love in Almodóvar pictures because they work most of the time and they highlight certain trends and double entendres. In this movie, that certain quirk fell completely flat and it was distracting. However, I’m still giving “¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!” a slight recommendation because it ended at such a high note. When Gloria finally got rid of all the people who made her unhappy, did she successfully escape a period of misery or did she simply created another prison for herself? It was a poignant last ten minutes and I wished the rest of the film was just as insightful and affecting.
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.
Happy Tears (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) returned home to take care of their father (Rip Torn) who showned initial symptoms of dementia. While taking care of their father, the two vastly different sisters began to work out their differences as well as their misconceptions about their father in relation to events that happened when they were little kids. I wanted to enjoy this movie more than I did because I have a weakness when it comes to stories about family members returning to a place due to some life-chaning event and they eventually having no choice but to face the demons in their past. Unfortunately, I think that Mitchell Lichtenstein had so much trouble balancing the comedy and the drama to the point where the heart of the story was not always the focus. Particularly problematic for me were the fantasy and the flashback sequences of Jayne. I understood that she was the more optimistic, outwardly funnier sister who was often unaware of what was really going on around her but there were times when such sequences made her look childish in comparison to her sister. I think those sequences worked against her character because the picture hinted at the two women being strong and able to carry on without their husbands. I would also have liked to have seen them interact with their own families more often to serve as a contrast with how they were when they spent time with their father. For half of the movie, I didn’t understand why they treated their father the way they did. I had a premature evaluation that they didn’t care about their father and they just wanted to send him to a nursing home as quick as possible so they could move on with their lives. Since I initially thought that they were selfish, it took me some time to really connect with them and to learn more about their motivations outside of their actions–which were very different from what they chose to show to others. The movie was at its best when Posey and Moore were forced to look into each other’s eyes and measure each other up. Both had a presence about them; the two couldn’t be any more different but they were magnetic in their own rights and in a way I found parts of myself in both of them. One of the major emotions between them was jealousy and I found them very relatable when they often avoided talking about it with each other. Instead, the jealousy was embedded in the sarcasms and the sly remarks about how one chose to live her life. “Happy Tears” had good moments but it didn’t quite moved me as strongly as I’d hoped. With a stronger script and more natural direction, I think I would have liked it a lot more because the performances were already solid.
The Flower of My Secret (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
This film did not look or feel like it was completely directed by Pedro Almodóvar. It was a little too straightforward in its storytelling so it made me feel uncomfortable. “La flor de mi secreto” or “The Flower of My Secret” told the story of a writer (Marisa Paredes) who published her novels under a pseudonym because she valued her privacy. Only her best friend (Carme Elias) and a few others who were really close to her knew the truth about her career. Sick of writing romance novels especially since her marriage was on the rocks (her husband played brilliantly with cold disregard by Imanol Arias), she decided to write for a newspaper and was assigned to write critiques of her own novels. There were some excellent scenes in this movie such as the lead character’s interactions with her frustrated sister (Rossy de Palma) and stressed out mother (Chus Lampreave), when the lead character received a lecture from her publishers about why they couldn’t and wouldn’t publish her new novel that was dark and edgy (the description of the events in novel was very amusing because it sounded like something Almodóvar would make into a movie), and the scene with her husband in which it showcased how lonely the lead character truly was in terms of not having someone that she could be fully be open to whenever she felt like lowest in her life. However, there were many scenes shot outdoors, especially in the beginning, that were supposed to be funny but fell completely flat. Those scenes looked too commercial and they didn’t have Almodóvar’s signature use of extreme colors, they lacked tension, and given that they were taken out from the movie, the end product would have been the same. Such scenes felt like fillers and they quickly wore out their welcome. I understood that perhaps Almodóvar was trying to do something different with his style but I felt like he didn’t have complete control of the material when he was experimenting. The best scenes in the film had focus on the relationship between the main character and the women in her life and how they helped each other move past seemingly insurmountable emotional challenges. I think more scenes with the eccentric family would have benefited the movie greatly because de Palma was simply electric. She wasn’t in the movie much but every time she was on screen, I was drawn to her and I noticed the subtleties in her body movements. And in a way, the family reminded me of my own relatives because even though we get under each others’ skins, there’s a lot of undeniable love between the awkward silences. I liked “The Flower of My Secret” because it did have fantastic moments. However, I’m not sure how forgiving most people can be if they are not familiar with Almodóvar’s colorful and bold repertoire.
It’s Complicated (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) had been divorced for ten years. In that time period, Jake married a much younger woman and Jane established herself as an independent woman by running her own business. But the two began having an affair during their son’s (Hunter Parrish) college graduation and that’s when things began to get complicated (and convoluted). The picture had good focus when it tried to explore the dynamics of the relationship between the two former married couple. There was a certain energy about it that felt fresh because the two actors were clearly having fun in their roles. The script may not have been as realistic as I would have liked but I found myself smiling at the fact that two people of a certain age could still be romantic and have fun. Streep and Baldwin had good chemistry because both were so colorful and both could deliver power in their scenes when they really needed to. I also enjoyed Jane’s relationship with her charming architect played by Steve Martin. Spending time with him made her realize things she’s somewhat forgotten such as letting go of control once in a while and just have fun. However, whenever the film shifted its focus to the impact of the romantic entanglements on the children, I just didn’t believe it. I found it difficult to accept the fact that none of the three children (not including John Krasinski as the future son-in-law who was sometimes amusing, sometimes distracting) had the maturity to accept the fact that former couples can fall for each other again. Haven’t they had past relationships themselves? They didn’t act their age (the youngest was in college) and I cringed at the scene when Streep was forced to explain and justify her decisions to them. I felt like all three of them had the same brain and I wished that they weren’t in it at all. The kids dragged the movie down instead of adding a new dimension to the story. However, I did admire the way the movie ended because, just like the three leads, it handled the complicated situation in a mature way and it was able to impart some sort of wisdom regarding trust and fragility of relationships. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, “It’s Complicated” offers a nice perspective concerning people in their 50s and what it means to find and rediscover romance. I was glad that it took the time to focus solely on Streep and Baldwin initially and eventually just Streep and Martin. It highlighted the positive and negative qualities of both men and it explained why Streep was torn between them. “It’s Complicated” is not a bad movie because it has charm and is accessible. However, it too often suffered from almost tried-and-true sitcom-like set-ups especially the scenes involving the family.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tetro” was about a young man named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his short stop in Buenos Aires to visit his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). The two have been apart for a very long time because Tetro decided to cut himself off from his family since their father hated the fact that his son wanted to be a writer instead of pursuing a career in medicine. I tried to really love this movie because all of the elements were there to make a really great picture. In the end, although it more than satisfied me, it didn’t quite resonate with me as much as I thought it would. I loved the two lead actors because they had contrasting styles in terms of approaching their characters. Gallo was rough around the edges and it was difficult to relate with his character. However, he eventually opened his character to us and even though we didn’t always agree with his choices, we came realize why he decided to take certain paths. Ehrenreich was more sweet and relatable. He instilled a certain hunger within his character–a hunger to get to know his brother more despite the fact that his brother always kept him at arm’s length. Deep inside, he knew that it was his brother’s destiny to live a tortured life of unfulfilled genius. Still, he hoped that he could bring his brother home and attempt at a life of normalcy. Since the brothers were so different, there was often tension between them and I was riveted because I saw myself and my own brother in the two characters. Written and directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola, the emotional gravity matched the film’s artistic flourishes. I loved that the film’s present time was in stunning black and white and the past was in color. The way Coppola played with the shadows complemented certain secrets and unsaid thoughts of the characters. The scenes in color highlighted important events in Tetro’s life that made him the way he is. The majority of this film was carefully planned and executed with such flow and beauty. But in the end, it left me wanting more. It’s strange because I’m not quite sure how else it could have been done better. Perhaps a longer running time would have taken the movie to a next level so the characters had more time to absorb certain truths about each other. On the other hand, I thought it ended in such an elegant manner and it didn’t need to explore further because the rest of the film was about the evolution of the brothers’ strained relationship. Maybe I’m just being way too critical because, as I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to love the movie. “Tetro” is definitely worth watching because of its insight, nice balance of naturalistic and stylized tones, and strong acting. I’ve read some reviews comparing Ehrenreich to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. At first I didn’t quite see it but the more I observed his style of acting–especially body movements and intonations–the more apparent the resemblance. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him because he has potential to be a great actor.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), tried to search for Paul, their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), in hopes of finding more about where they came from. The situation did not sit well with Nic because she felt like she would slowly lose her family. On the other hand, Jules felt a little attraction toward Paul. It is too easy to label this as a “lesbian movie” because of the parents but the film is really more about family dynamics and how it changed when a new factor was added in the equation. I thought it was realistic in portraying the ups and downs of being in an imperfect family but the lessons that were learned or not learned did not feel like it something out of an after school special. The material wasn’t afraid to let the characters make mistakes and live with those mistakes until they couldn’t hold onto their secrets any longer. I enjoyed the way it framed parenting, that most of the time there is no “good” parenting or “bad” parenting but just a couple of adults trying to do their best to make their specific situation work. Bening and Moore were a joy to watch. Even though they kept their performances relatively simple, they were able to deliver the big emotions at the perfect small moments. I really felt like they’ve been together for many years so the way they got under each other’s skin and the way they would mend the wounds from the verbal daggers they threw at each other felt painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes when they would just talk about their past because they were able to paint vivid images in my head. I wish the picture had more scenes of them just talking to each other at home or having a nice dinner date in the city instead of the scenes with the son and his friend that did not amount to anything substantial. The side story about the daughter about to head off to college was a bit underdeveloped as well. However, the picture was consistently strong whenever Moore and Bening were on screen which was the majority of the time. I’ve heard some concerns from the lesbian community involving the film portraying lesbians as way too uptight. I think it’s an unnecessary concern because the lesbians are specific only to this movie and it does not make any generalizations about all lesbians in the world. It’s a story about a family’s bond and it should left as such. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, “The Kids Are All Right” told its story involving the difficulties of transitioning with wit, focus, and brevity. It had a nice mix of charming characters and it had a good sense of balance with its comedic and dramatic elements which most audiences will likely enjoy.