Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Kalle (Lars Nordth) was a furniture salesman who had recently gone out of business because his store was set on fire. His fears of not making ends meet permeated through other aspects of his life. Specifically, his frustration regarding his son’s recent psychological break was magnified because his child didn’t seem to show signs of improvement. But fear and frustration were not the only emotions that the picture tried to explore. It had a certain tenderness, a proclivity, for the absurd. For instance, the interminable traffic jam where all cars seemed to go in one direction, a group of people willing to murder a little girl for opaque reasons, and buildings that moved on their own. “Sånger från andra våningen,” written and directed by Roy Andersson, was ambitious because it attempted to tackle the big questions, events, and feelings prior to the year 2000. However, the messages weren’t clearly communicated because most of its symbolism took precedence. It didn’t help that there was little dialogue for the characters to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. I was desperate to piece together all the information it threw in the air but when I looked back at the big picture, I found it to be a rather confounding experience. I would have preferred if the film focused on Kalle as a guilty father and an even guiltier businessman with the strange vignettes either minimized to a side thought or excised completely. The vignettes, though visually appealing, disrupted the momentum of Kalle realizing that perhaps he was leading a rather empty life. To him, a meaningful life meant being financially successful. When his occupation was taken away, he didn’t know what to do with himself. I felt his pain through the way he treated his son. Instead of trying to understand his son’s condition by being a little more sensitive, Kalle screamed at him, ironically, like a madman. Being a businessman, he was used to being forceful to customers but such an approach was ineffective when dealing with a person who wasn’t quite there. When the picture focused on personal struggles, I found it engaging. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the movie’s attention to detail in terms of imagery. The walls were always grayish green, devoid of paintings, and an overall sense of warmth. Kitchens and bars resembled the impersonal feel of hospitals. People sat in restaurants but there was no food to be found. It looked like no one was ecstatic to be alive. “Songs from the Second Floor” was a challenging film. Although it completely embraced its bizarre nature and occasionally contained scenes that made me think, its walls at times were too high for me to climb. Perhaps when I reach middle age, I will come to appreciate it more. One of the characters emphasized the importance of having life experiences. It was a humbling reminder that perhaps I have a long way to go.
Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.
The Skin I Live In (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) was a renowned plastic surgeon whose wife’s body burned in a car crash while trying to get away with her boyfriend (Roberto Álamo). Robert transported Gal home and took care of her for months, but when she saw her reflection on a window, she jumped out because she couldn’t bear living with her teratoid appearance. Since the tragedy, we learned that Robert had been performing experimental skin treatment on Vera (Elena Anaya). Although artificial, it was resistant to burning and insect bites which was promising for the scientific community. However, Robert’s colleagues were led to believe that he had been experimenting with mice, not on humans. “La piel que habito” had plenty of ideas about how anger and grief could drive a person into trying to achieve something so radical, it threatened to destroy him. The picture was most fascinating when it allowed the camera to observe the surgeon’s work sans dialogue. I liked watching him navigate his hands with precision while cutting a piece of skin and applying it onto his model. When something went wrong, he maintained his composure and consistently found a way to work around the problem–a quality that also served him well outside the lab. By observing his routine, though shot with cold detachment, we learned a lot about his experiment and how invested and desperate he was to make the seemingly impossible a reality. The film held a lot of secrets about identity. The most curious was Vera and why she lived like a prisoner. While it made sense that she lived in a relatively contained environment because her skin was being replaced, there were some red flags that grabbed (or should grab) our attention. For example, she wasn’t allowed any visitors, never handed sharp objects, and there were writing, like tallies of dates, on the walls of her room. If she was a voluntary patient, why was she considered a danger to herself? Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director, did a solid job on keeping a lid on what was really happening. The less information was available for us to put the pieces together, although I felt a bit of frustration due to its unhurried pacing, the more I felt compelled to think of increasingly ridiculous hypotheses. One of the most interesting characters was Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who, to Robert, was just a trustworthy longtime maid, but was actually his biological mother. I loved looking at her face, the way she moved across the room, and why she was convinced that Robert ought to kill Vera. Marilia provided another layer, if you will, to the story. I just wished that she had been used more. The most critical opportunity that the film lost was not relating its story deeply enough to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature. Marilia was Robert’s creator and Vera was Robert’s. Instead of looking to the future and exploring the repercussions of the surgeon’s transgressions, the screenplay went back in time about halfway through and gave us images of what happened to the wife and daughter. While it was necessary for us to know, several lines of dialogue would have sufficed. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” “The Skin I Live In,” wonderfully shot even without Almodóvar’s usual primary colors, could have used less family history and focused more on horror that came about from ignoring certain moral obligations.
A Hole in My Heart (2004)
★ / ★★★★
As his father, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck), and his father’s friend, Geko (Goran Marjanovic), shot an amateur pornographic film in their apartment, Eric (Björn Almroth) retreated to his dark room and listened to heavy metal music. “Ett hål i mitt hjärta” aimed to tackle issues like how addiction to pornography could ruin lives but I’m not sure it was successful in doing so in a meaningful way. The picture showed us graphic images of labial reconstruction surgery, S&M in which Tess (Sanna Bråding), a girl from the streets who wanted to be a successful pornographic actress in America, wasn’t informed of, and sex involving food and vomit. But what was it all supposed to mean? With its style of manic editing, the connection between shocking images and the meaning we were supposed to extract from them weren’t established. While it did have quieter moments of Eric wanting to escape his toxic environment but ultimately couldn’t do anything to get away from his father (he didn’t seem to have many friends), it was difficult to sympathize with him at times. For instance, when his dad was sleeping, Eric woke him up and claimed that the kitchen was on fire when it really wasn’t. And when his dad asked for water to drink, Eric took it from the toilet. It was disgusting behavior which was almost unwatchable as Rickard and Geko pressuring Eric to fire an air gun so that he could feel more like a man. I felt humiliated for all of the characters. Just when I felt a glimmer of hope during Tess and Eric’s conversation, the material jumped back to its repetitive technique of barraging its audiences with strong images but with little meaning. Toward the end, a fact was revealed about Rickard which was supposed to explain his fixation toward pornography and violence. However, since the journey toward the revelation was deeply unfocused, it felt more like an excuse than an explanation. “A Hole in My Heart,” directed by Lukas Moodysson, is easy to criticize because of the way it was shot and edited. Perhaps it was done on purpose because it strived to comment on our consumption of reality television. In any case, I don’t mind the technical aspects as much as long as it had a defined center. Its approach was bold and it took some wild risks in attempting to explain how one person’s dysfunction could enable other people’s dysfunction. But without exploring the increasing distance between the tragic characters, especially the lack of bond between father and son, either we don’t feel closer to them in the end or we end up just not caring about them.
Julia’s Eyes (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During a neighborhood blackout, Sara (Belén Rueda) stood in the living room talking to someone but we couldn’t see who was there in the shadows. When lightning came, the corner that she seemed to be transfixed on revealed no person despite flashes of a polaroid camera directed toward her earlier on. As the camera focused on her face, we saw that she was blind. Attempting to escape her invisible tormentor, she ended up the basement. She climbed a stool, put a rope around her neck, and a second person knocked the stool from under her. Julia (also played by Rueda), Sara’s twin sister, felt a choking sensation while at her job in the observatory. She just knew something was wrong. Written by Guillem Morales and Oriol Paulo, “Los ojos de Julia” took inspiration from Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark” and made it much more sinister. It was suspenseful because from the moment Julia suspected foul play, she felt compelled to gather clues that would prove her sister was murdered. It didn’t help that she shared her sister’s medical condition: extreme stressed diminished her eye sight. Ironically, the more knowledge she attained, the less she saw clearly, thus the less reliable her testimony. The best scenes were of Julia’s interactions with people who knew her deceased sister. For instance, when she visited a home for the blind, they smelled her presence… and of a man’s. But she came alone. She aggressively looked behind her and there was, in fact, a man watching her every move. Similar scenes worked in two ways. First, it served as a foreshadowing of what was eventually going to happen to the lead character. It should come to no surprise that she was going to lose her sight completely. If she was to survive, she needed to learn how to depend on her other senses and instinct. Secondly, it worked for the chase sequence that came right after the realization that she was being followed. We saw most of the action through Julia’s eyes. The majority of her peripheral vision was already gone so being forced into her perspective was awkward and claustrophobic. There was an effortless horror in it. What if the killer decided to attack from the side? She had no chance. Much to the dismay of her husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), it seemed as though there was nothing he could do to stop Julia’s obsession. In here, the romance wasn’t utilized as currency to simply buy minutes until the next scary moment. What they had was tender and believable. I felt as respected as an audience because we really got to experience their history and what they meant to one another without necessarily using words. Their relationship held weight and it was, in a way, the picture’s emotional core though we weren’t always aware of it. The villain was truly monstrous. A hotel janitor (Joan Dalmau) described his motivation so perfectly, I almost began to feel bad for the silent stalker. Although we saw glimpses of him early on in the film, it wasn’t until much later that we observed his face dominating every inch of the camera. When he screamed at Julia without restraint, watching him through her eyes, it felt like such an invasion of my personal space, I wanted to push his face away for being so close. “Julia’s Eyes,” directed by Guillem Morales, skillfully placed us into Julia’s nightmarish experience without it being contrived. Other movies of its kind pale in comparison even under bright lights.
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
In a Better World (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) had recently lost his mother from cancer. Due to his father’s work (Ulrich Thomsen), he was forced to change schools and live in another country. On his first day, he noticed buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed Rat Face, being bullied by other kids. Christian was naturally drawn to Elias because the two shared a commonality: loneliness. Christian was still mourning his mother and Elias’ inability to express his sadness due to his parents’ (Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm) recent separation. Based on the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, “Hævnen” had something important to say about violence and its role in our lives. It started as a story of bullying. I immediately identified with the two boys when they felt they had to strike back so they wouldn’t be harmed anymore. In a way, I agreed with their course of action. I felt anger for the duo when the adults suggested that the best solution was to sweep the problem under the rug and just walk away. It was as if they had forgotten how cruel certain kids could be like. In my experience, bullies don’t simply allow their victims to walk away because they find satisfaction in scaring or hurting someone. It makes them feel like they’re in control. To let go of that control is like forcing to break a habit. And we all know how difficult it is to break what we’re accustomed to. But the film challenged my stance somewhere in between. Instead of focusing on the schoolyard, it brought up questions concerning violence and its consequences out there in the world whether it be a small altercation between adults or something as important as two groups of people out to hurt and kill each other because they differ in religion. It was more difficult to classify where I stood. All the performances were equally fascinating. Persbrandt was wonderful as a father who strived to be a good example for his children. He took a potentially weak character, considering he was the least violent of them all, into someone who knew what it meant to be a father and a man. Nielsen and Rygaard complemented each other’s acting styles yet they knew how to internalize and let go at the just right moments. Having a great chemistry was crucial because their characters’ friendship was tested in physical, emotional, and psychological levels. By the end, the strength of their friendship felt familiar. It reminded me of what I had outside of the film. “In a Better World,” elegantly directed by Susanne Bier, brought up complex questions but it offered no solution, just possibilities. It didn’t need to because each circumstance was uniquely shaped. Despite the sadness that plagued the characters’ lives, I choose to see it as an uplifting story. One can infer that we have the capacity to control our inner turmoils. If we don’t have that ability now, no matter, we can learn by checking in with ourselves once in a while. It then becomes our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.