Kings & Queen (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rois et reine” or “Kings and Queen” tells the story of a man and a woman who were going through their own problems in life. Initially, the two camps seemed to be unconnected because of their predominantly disparate tones–one comedic and one tragic. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who lives with her third husband-to-be, visited her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and father (Maurice Garrel). After Nora’s father confessed to her that he has been having some stomach problems, she took him to the hospital and found out that he was terminally ill. This caused a great interruption on the life she desperately wanted to believe was going great because she now had to deal with where to put her son because he and the third husband do not get along. She also had to deal with her sister who only used their father for money and what the father really thought of Nora. On the other hand, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) was sent back to the mental hospital against his will. In there, he found amusing ways to cope such as finding romance and discussing his psychology with a psychiatrist. Although this film was about a many things at once, it impressed me because in a span of about two hours and thirty minutes, it was able to balance comedy and drama throughout. What’s more impressive was Arnaud Desplechin’s, the director, ability to cut to one genre to another when things began to feel suffocating. So, in a way, it worked as two different but good films but the connections that the two had made it that much more enjoyable. Just when I thought everything was going to wrap up in a neat little package when Devos and Amalric finally had a scene together, more problems began to appear because two had a history. Many questions were then brought up such as when one’s responsibility should end when a relationship has been mutually agreed upon as over, whether the mother is doing the right thing by indirectly choosing her third husband over her only child, and the pros and cons of keeping a certain knowledge a secret when the burden is too much to bear. There was a certain organic feel in the film which made me believe that the events portrayed could have happened in real life. I thought one of the strongest scenes in the movie was its ending–the conversation between Amalric and Lelong–because it remained true to itself: with every negative comes a positive (and vice-versa). “Rois et reine” is the perfect film for those who love character studies of individuals who have many imperfections but still have certain reedeming qualities.
The Child (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Amy Adams stars in “Sunshine Cleaning,” a story about a woman who was in desperate financial situations so she took up a job, along with her sister played by Emily Blunt, cleaning up after crime scenes and suicides. I expected this movie to be more on the comedic side than the dramatic side but it was a nice surprise because it ended up to be a good balance of both. I really got a sense of Adams’ strong female character who, despite her flaws, was willing to go on when life throws an unsuspecting blow to her upward momentum. It was really easy for me to root for her because she was fighting various elements: her rocky relationship with her sister, her son (Jason Spevack) who kept getting into trouble in school because of his strange behaviors, her fling with her high school boyfriend (Steve Zahn) who happened to be married, and her insecurities concerning her thoughts about peaking in high school as her classmates went on to get married and live in nice houses. The only negative I can think of concerning the film was I thought it could have had more scenes to strengthen the two daughters’ relationship with their father (Alan Arkin). Although he was a nice guy, I didn’t feel as though I knew him as well, which was not a good thing because the film’s crux was the way the family as a unit helped each other out when circumstances got difficult. In a way, “Sunshine Cleaning” somewhat worked as a slice-of-life picture where the audiences are transported into the family’s lives and left things in a not-so-perfect way. There were many bittersweet scenes involving the death of their mother and darkly comic scenes when they had to clean up blood and guts off the walls. Directed by Christine Jeffs and written by Megan Holley, “Sunshine Cleaning” wears its indie feel on its sleeve but it was strong enough to go beyond the quirks and damaged characters. In a strange way, it was quite empowering.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.
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.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, this animated film showcases a charming tale of a girl named Shizuku (Youko Honna) and her passion for writing. I liked the fact that as the picture went on, we got to see how the lead character evolved from a girl who spent most of her time reading books (and not studying for her high school entrance exams) to a girl who wanted to do something with her talents so decided to pursue writing a book. Of course, side stories were expected such as her relationship with her best friend, the boy from the same grade who likes her, and the mysterious guy who checks out the same books as her named Seiji Amasawa (Kazuo Takahashi). I also enjoyed watching another layer to the story by showing us the dynamics in her home–an overbearing sister, a literary father, and a mother who is going to school–because it explains why Shizuku is such a self-starter, naturally curious regarding her surroundings, and has a natural taste for adventure. Since it was written by Miyazaki, I have to admit that I thought there was going to be more fantastic elements to the story. There were some of that, such as the strange coincidences and when the audiences had a chance to see what the lead character was imagining. But I was glad that this was grounded in reality and it really showed how it was like to make that transition from being a child to being an adolescent. Questions such as what she wanted to do in her life began popping up in her head when she met Seiji, who knows exactly wanted to do with his life. I admired her persistence in turning her insecurities into achievements. There were definitely times when I was inspired. My one problem with it, however, was it did, in fact, run a little too long. Perhaps if twenty minutes were cut off, it would have been much more focused and powerful. Regardless, I am giving this a recommendation because it made me think about where I am in life. It was sweet but not sugary; though it had its sad moments, it was never melodramatic.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
Considered as one of the most important Spanish films, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” written and directed by Victor Erice, tells the story of a little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who, after watching the 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and being told by her sister named Isabel (Isabel Tellería) that his spirit exists, goes off to find a real-life monster. I really admired this film because the use of words was minimal yet it was more than able to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling. It truly captured how childhood was the peak of curiosity and how our perception at that point in our lives may be a bit skewed from reality. The way Ana and Isabel tell stories, play games and tricks on each other reminded me and my brother many years ago. I also liked the broken relationship between a husband (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a wife (Teresa Gimpera). Little do they know that no matter how much they try to interact with their daughters separately (or not interact), the children feel that there’s something wrong even though they do not yet know how to tackle such feelings. The awkward scene at the table when the whole family was eating together was somewhat elusive because I noticed that there was not a frame in the film that each of the family member was in. I think that divide between the two parental figures was another reason why Ana decided to plunge into her own imagination as an escape. The scenes in their big mansion of a home were painful for me to watch because there was a very noticable lack of stimulation such as books and toys for the two children. At least for me, they looked more alive when they were watching a movie in the town, while they were at school, and when they were roaming around outside. This is a very strong motion picture that should be seen by movie-lovers everywhere. However, one should be warned that it requires a lot of patience because it may get a bit slow at times due to the lack of happenings in the small village that they live in. Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding experience because it works on several angles, cinematically and psychologically.