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.
The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in the 1980’s, “The House of the Devil” was a horror film about a second year college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who took up a babysitting job from a husband and wife (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) so she could pay the rent for her new apartment. Desperate for the money, she still took the job despite many weird signs that perhaps the people she was babysitting for had something up their sleeves. I was surprised by how good this movie was. Written and directed by Ti West, the film had a sense of authenticity; it looked and felt like it was made in the 1980s because of the music, the fashion and hairstyles and even minute details like the lighting, the lead character’s plucky and funny friend (Greta Gerwig), and the font used during the opening and closing credits. During the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was very curious how West managed to get such various elements together to make such a convincing small horror film. I loved that this picture had such a great sense of timing and well as rising action. This is not the kind of movie for teenagers of today because it doesn’t have jump-out-of-your-seats moments like in more common slasher flicks. This is a patient movie that thrives on the details. Strangely enough, like Sam, I found myself becoming more and more paranoid the longer she stayed in the house, especially when she started hearing odd noises in the kitchen sink. Although built on the classic false alarms and increasing sense of dread without actually showing anything, I was also impressed with the fact that it could turn grizzly if it wanted to. Those moments pulled the rug from under my feet and I couldn’t help but voice out my thoughts. I really rooted for the character because she was a very nice girl who just really needed the money so she wouldn’t always rely on her parents. She wouldn’t even take a little harmless revenge earlier in the film when someone stood her up. The last twenty minutes of this film was pure terror. All the tension it built up finally burst and I found myself having no idea where it was leading up to. “The House of the Devil” is an effective exercise in giving its audiences small bits information and chilling us to the bone. I think people who have no idea what to expect will love this film the most because of its ability to surprise. With a little bit of patience, one will come to realize that this small picture is really one of the better horror flicks of 2009. I just hope that more people will seek this out on DVD. It’s not very often that horror movies assume that their audiences are smart. I’ve seen a plethora of horror movies from the 1980s and “The House of the Devil” was a really good homage.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, focuses on a crew called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty) as they try to dismantle bombs in Iraq in 2004. This film shook me in so many ways. Right from the very first scene until the very last, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen and I couldn’t help yelling “Hurry up!” at the characters because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Bigelow had an uncanny ability to make the environment as threatening as possible; when Renner was on the process of stopping a bomb from going off, the camera would quickly shift and focus on random onlookers and there were times when one of them had the remote that could trigger the bomb. The way she combined and balanced the soundtrack, the images, the dialogues and the camera movements was inspired because, unlike other films about Iraq, all the varying elements came together to make something almost tragically poetic. Even though this picture was set in Iraq, I hardly think it’s another one of “those” movies about the war. It was essentially a story of survival–how the three men coped when put in life-threatening circumstances. But it’s not just about the physical survival. It was also about what was happening in their minds as they got closer to ending their rotation: one was a risk-taker, one succumbed to fear and one put up a false front of courage. Another element that I loved about this movie was it did not repeat itself. Each action scene was very different from each other so we would not know what to expect. Some definite highlights include the snipers from 350 meters away (with Ralph Fiennes making an appearance), the first nail-biter scene with Guy Pearce, when the three leads took different alleys after a suicide bomber killed and injured innocent people in the middle of the night, and the horrific scene that involved a bomb being attached to man. I also liked the fact that Bigelow took her film to the next level by using contrasting images when one of the three main characters returned to the United States. I never thought I would experience so much sadness by looking at rows and rows of cereal boxes. Having not been in the battlefield, I often forget how much I’m surrounded by excess. In other words, I forget how lucky I am to not be out there. “The Hurt Locker” is a tremendous, first-rate dramatic-thriller film and I believe it deserves every recognition it received. I may not support the war in Iraq but there is no doubt in my mind and in my heart that I support our soldiers who are there (despite some of their negative portrayals in the media). It’s been a while since I felt so much tension in my body and adrenaline running through my veins as I did from watching “The Hurt Locker.”
Angels & Demons (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I enjoyed “Angels & Demons” more than “The Da Vinci Code” for several reasons. First is Ron Howard’s direction: In its prequel (even though, chronologically, “Angels & Demons” happened before “The Da Vinci Code” so it depends on how one looks at it), I felt that Howard was all over the place and missed some crucial information from Dan Brown’s novel. That is why the ending was not as powerful as it should have been. To me, the facinating locales were at the foreground instead of the story. It was so concerned with being so fast-paced that it almost sacrificed its emotions and the details that made the book such a page-turner. In here, the director has more focus and confidence when it comes to tackling certain scenes and some of them are downright impressive (whether it’s about thrills or visual effects). I also liked Tom Hanks a lot more here than I did in “The Da Vinci Code.” Aside from the absence of his ridiculous hair that distracted millions of audiences from the first film, I felt like Hanks is more comfortable as Robert Langdon–he has that certain intellectual swagger but he doesn’t take it too seriously. I have to admit that there were times when I forgot about Hanks playing a role; I was so interested in what was happening, trying to recall if the events that transpired in the novel were being accurately portrayed in the picture. I also liked the lack of chemistry between Hanks and Ayelet Zurer. As strange as that may sound, films have the tendency to attach a romantic angle to “spice things up” when they really do not need to. In fact, most of the time such romatic interests weigh the picture down so I was glad there was none of that nonsense in “Angels & Demons.” It’s really focused in Langdon’s quest to solve the mysteries that were unfolding in the Vatican. Lastly, I have to mention Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna. I’m not religious in any sense but the way he delivered some of his speeches were so powerful, I couldn’t help but have my eyes (as well as my ears) glued to the screen. He has a certain subtlety that is both charming and dangerous. Overall, “Angels & Demons” is a pretty entertaining summer blockbuster flick that really shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. It’s interesting to me how religious groups respond to these type of films. If they are so secure about their faith, films like this should not matter in any way. Its goal is to simply entertain and I think it achieved just that.