Léon: The Professional (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jean Reno, a reclusive assassin whose best friend is a plant, takes twelve-year-old Natalie Portman under his wing after her family was killed by police officers led by Gary Oldman. Written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “La Femme Nikita”), I enjoyed “Léon” because it was more about the humanity of a contract killer instead of his many interesting ways of killing. Even though the action sequences could be found more toward the beginning and the end of the picture, I still found Reno and Portman’s relationship to be quite endearing. Undoubtedly, there were times when I found the director would cross the line between father-figure/daughter relationship and older man/younger girl relationship. Those scenes made me uncomfortable but perhaps it was because this was Besson’s first full English-language movie. In my opinion, European films have a more sensual feel compared to American movies. Still, I was able to overlook such flaws because I found the story to be interesting even if it needed to have more depth. Another quality I liked about this film was that there really was no “good” character. Pretty much everyone had done something shameful in their lives. And the main character was aware of this so he locks himself up in his room and only comes out whenever he has an assignment. Oldman’s character was the kind of guy that you love to hate because he has no redeeming quality. Nevertheless, I thought he was very interesting to watch because of his quirky mannerisms and sinister aura. I kind of expected an intense duel between him and the protagonist so I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. For such a sadistic man, I thought the bad guy would suffer more in the hands of another killer and get the delicious irony he deserved. If one is looking for action with picture with a heart, I’m giving “Léon” a pretty solid recommendation despite its sometimes glaring flaws.
Bear Cub (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I didn’t expect to love this movie because of its coy title and familiar plot summary but the way it told the story with such intelligence and emotion is impressive. This Spanish gay-themed but not gay-centered film, written and directed by Miguel Albaladejo, focuses on José Luis García Pérez and the way he takes care of his nephew (David Castillo) when his mother decides to go to India. Each of the character is memorable because they are full of surprises. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh and have a smile on my face afterwards when the hippie mother revealed that she thinks her son is gay and it’s wonderful/a gift. She has a certain energy and spunk which made me think of my own mother. Pérez may be gay and lives an openly gay lifestyle but that’s not even half of who he really is. He’s a great father-figure but he just doesn’t know it because he’s too preoccupied asking himself what would be best for his nephew. As for Castillo, he was actually given a character to portray, a character that helps to drive the story forward. As the film went on and we get to meet other characters such as the grandmother (Empar Ferrer), the story gets that much more interesting and serious. Toward the end of the film, some revelations occured and I couldn’t help but gasp because I didn’t see such twists coming. This gem of a Spanish film knows how to tell a simple but extremely layered story with colorful characters that doesn’t result to stereotypes. It manages to use its characters in such a way that if a particular character didn’t exist, the story would be that much weaker. I can only wish more American films are like this because it puts the characters’ motivations on the foreground and doesn’t judge their background. It really does make a difference when it comes to overall feel of the picture. Definitely check this one out if one is remotely interested.
★★★ / ★★★★
Some people say that the portrayal of the US Naval Academy was unrealistic, but I really wasn’t looking for realism when I decided to see this film. I went to see it to gauge James Franco’s acting ability in his lesser-known or less critically-acclaimed movies. I love stories about underestimated people who dream of big things but are born in poor families. This is a perfect example of that and, aside from some of its overdramatic scenes (especially before a boxing match), pretty much everything worked. I thought it was interesting how the filmmakers related life to a boxing match–how a strong person gets hit countless times and sometimes falls but is never defeated unless he decides to not stand back up. And throughout this picture, that’s the overall tone: a challenge is presented to Franco’s character, how he learns to deal with those challenges and build a reputation between his peers and higher officers. It’s also about learning to ask for help and when it’s the right time to help others even if they don’t want any help. I thought Donnie Wahlberg is brilliant as a higher officer who believes in Franco even though he doesn’t have that many scenes. In a way, he seemed like a father figure who provides support but is also there to provide some tough love. Jordana Brewster as Franco’s love interest is surprisingly effective because the two of them actually have chemistry. She managed to balance sensitivity and toughness well. As for Tyrese Gibson, at first I thought he was going to be an archetypal baddie but over time, we learn that he had to be tough because of the things he experienced in the past; even though he ultimately cares, it’s difficult for him to portray what he’s really feeling–a trait that a lot of people have. I think a lot of critics were harsh on this film because it does have elements from other (better) movies about a person who overcomes challenges in the Academy/military. For me, it’s more important to treat a movie as its own instead of comparing it to similar movies that came before (especially if it’s not a sequel or a part of a series).
★★★★ / ★★★★
I have a weakness for characters who desperately try to keep their families together, especially when they go as far as to sacrifice their own hopes and dreams. Zach, played expertly by Trevor Wright, is that kind of character and I loved him the minute he appeared on screen. Wright plays Zach with such charisma and complexity. I felt like Zach could indeed be a real person: a surfer who genuinely loves his dysfunctional family and wants to pursue his talent for the arts but can’t quite do so because of pecuniary issues… who happens to be gay, instead of the other way around (which what separates this from most LGBT films). There are many memorable scenes but I’m not going to mention them all. But I do want to express how much some scenes affected me. The one scene when Jackson Wurth (who plays Zach’s cute little nephew) revealed that he sees Wright as his father instead of his uncle says a lot about how much Wright acts a parental figure in Wurth’s life. As much as Wright tries to clarify Wurth’s thinking, it’s all for naught because his actions speak louder than his words. Another stand-out scene was when Wright was driving back home in the morning after he and Brad Rowe finally got together. In the car, when Wright finally smiled (he’s so good at playing depressed, I didn’t know he knew how to smile), the camera caught glimpses of light penetrating through the clouds as they hit Wright’s face. That scene, with a little bit of luck, was done so perfectly, it defined the whole film: little pockets of light amidst a Sahara of sorrow.
All of the side characters are very memorable because they contribute to the main character’s already simmering inner conflict. Rowe, who added a much-needed warmth to the story, wants to be with Wright but Wright is not out of the closet. When Rowe tries to kiss him or even merely touch him in a public area, Wright would be so beyond scared/irked. Wright and Rowe’s chemistry is undeniably sexy. On the other hand, I wanted to punch Tina Holmes’ character in the face because she puts herself and other potential husbands in front of her son. But Holmes is a smart actress for putting subtleties in her performance so her character is not viewed as a complete monster. I loved her interactions with Wright because even though their characters are siblings, there’s this awkwardness to the whole thing because all she ever does is ask favors and keep her brother from spreading his wings. Katie Walder as Wright’s girlfriend sometimes breaks my heart because he’s so miserable around her even though all she wants to do is keep him happy. But sometimes it’s just plain hilarious because Wright has this look annoyed/disgusted look on his face whenever Walder tries to kiss him. Ross Thomas as Wright’s best friend is probably the only (deceptively) one-dimensional character because, in pretty much every scene, all he does is either drink beer or surf. I would’ve liked him to have had a bigger role because he is, after all, the best friend.
This is one of the best gay-themed movies I’ve seen in a while because every element worked. If one was to watch this closely, I’d say take notice of the use of color and symbolism to reach a deeper understanding of Wright’s character. It’s so refreshing to see a lead gay character who is not into fashion or going clubbing or money/shopping at all (not to mention no one died of AIDS, no cross-dressing, no suicide attempts). I can relate to Zach because he really is a serious person; I wanted to scream for him because Zach is so trapped due to the expectations of his family and of himself. He endures each hardship with such composure, and when he finally breaks I seriously wanted to cry. If this does become a cult film amongst the LGBT community, I wouldn’t be surprised.