Sin Nombre (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The debut of writer-director Cary Fukunaga was loved by critics and audiences alike, but I was not that impressed with it. “Sin Nombre” was about two groups of people–one from Honduras and one from Mexico–who take a train headed to the border of United States and Mexico. The first group was Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her family who attempt to move to America to lead a better life. The other was Casper (Edgar Flores) who was being hunted down by Mara Salvatrucha, a gang he was once a part of, because he committed a crime against them. While I do agree that the film was protrayed in a gritty and realistic way, I found it difficult to identify with the main characters. I felt as though they had this wall that lasted from the beginning of the picture all the way to finish line. I understand that their journey on the train was literal and symbolic but I had trouble sticking with it because of that lack of connection between the characters and the characters to its audiences. I felt as though their situation or story was told in a much better way from other films. If Fukunaga had taken the time to cut off some scenes from the first twenty minutes and expand on the scenes when Sayra and Casper were interacting with each other, it might have had something brilliant to offer. Instead, I felt as though the experience can be summarized as merely glossing over the shell of characters who were going through very difficult times without truly getting into why they were complex. Their motivations were apparent (survival and a better life) but the filmmakers failed to take the story to another level. I noticed that the director tried to inject contrasting images and concepts but those weren’t enough to make up for a lack of a strong core. I had high expectations coming into this film and I couldn’t help but feel more and more disappointed as the fate of the characters began to unfold.
Times and Winds (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Bes vakit,” also known as “Times and Winds,” was a story about how three children stopped being kids because of the many responsibilities that their parents thrusted upon them. Ozkan Ozen decided to kill his father because he could no longer take the maltreatment and favoritism toward his precocious brother. Elit Iscan slowly headed for breakdown because her mother insisted that she made herself useful even if the amount of schoolwork was more than enough for her to handle. And Ali Bey Kayali developed on a crush on his teacher, only to stumble on the fact that his own father was spying on her through her bedroom window. I have to be honest and state that this film was particularly difficult for me to sit through because of the many lingering shots on certain objects and sceneries. As stunning as such images were, I personally would have preferred to see more character development, dialogue and conflict among the characters. Without that emotional pull, it’s hard for me to be invested in the movie. I’m not saying that this Turkish film is not at all worth seeing, but it really is more of an acquired taste. Personally, I can withstand slow-moving pictures but this one gradually wore down my patience. The rituals that the children engaged in became a bit too redundant and I failed to see the point of it all. I also felt that the relationships among the kids weren’t established and therefore did not come together in the end. While all of them were obviously unhappy, I needed to see more commonalities among them to further observe them in multiple dimensions. Although I was able to evaluable their motivations and take note of their varying psychologies, there was still a certain detachment that did not quite dissolve as the picture went on. Written and directed by Reha Erdem, “Times and Winds” offered beautiful landscapes and a certain poetry with its tone. However, I hardly think it was strong enough to warrant a recommendation for viewers. I’m afraid this was just one of those coming-of-age films that left a bitter taste on my palate.
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.
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.
Full Speed (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
“À toute vitesse” (also known as “Full Speed”), directed by Gaël Morel (“Three Dancing Slaves”), had an interesting premise but the journey to the finish was too all over the place to earn a recommendation. Quentin (Pascal Cervo) decided to return to his hometown along with his girlfriend Julie (Élodie Bouchez) after his first book was published. He quickly reconnected with one of his best friends from childhood named Jimmy (Stéphane Rideau) but Julie was slowly falling for him. During a night at a club, Quentin spotted Samir (Mezziane Bardadi) and the two decided to be friends despite their awareness of the attraction that they had for each other. However, Quentin was still in the closet and tried to resist every move Samir made which sometimes ended up in violence. At first I thought I could relate with Quentin the most because he was sort of like a brooding artist as he tried to make a life for himself, while at the same time kept others at a distance by building a wall around his true self. I could relate to that because I felt like I was like that once upon a time. However, throughout the picture, I did not see any evolution in his character, no attempt from his angle to realize and change that he was hurting the three people who really cared for him. As arguably the lead character, I felt that he was very selfish with no redeeming qualities so I felt disconnected from him half-way through. Thankfully, what saved this film was the strained relationship between Julie and Jimmy. Even though they were very different, there shared a certain passion for each other that was sometimes very romantic. As for Samir’s obsession toward Quentin, I felt that it was too shallow to ultimately be believable. Samir talked as if he loved Quentin even though that longing was one-sided. To me, his obsession was purely for the sake of a physical relationship because he was lonely and was missing his boyfriend who passed away. I don’t think “Full Speed” was a bad film. It just did not completely work for me because the writing needed more focus and substance. I got a little tired watching the characters doing drugs, having sex, and engaging in meaningless conversations. The characters were in their 20s but they offered no insight that made me stop and think, “Hey, this is actually worth my time.”
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.
Beau Travail (1999)
★ / ★★★★
This movie about French soldiers stationed in Djibouti left a big question mark in my head. At first I thought Claire Denis, the director, was trying to establish the characters via showing us the ennui of military life: from ironing clothes, making the perfect creases to the every day physical and mental training the soldiers had to endure. But half-way through the picture, nothing much changed and I felt myself becoming more and more frustrated with it. I wanted to know more about what made the characters tick. Instead, by the end of the picture, I couldn’t tell them apart (especially since they all have the same haircuts but that’s beside the point), I didn’t know anything about their motivations, and I didn’t know anything about their lives outside of the military. In a nutshell, it felt very one-dimensional. That feeling of detachment made me not care and watching the film was like pulling teeth. I’ve read some summaries from other reviews and they somehow found a story that the film tried to tell. Upon reading those reviews, I really felt like I watched a completely different movie because none of those descriptions matched what I saw (which was pretty much half-naked guys runnning around all over the desert). Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy movies that are stripped down with minimal dialogue but they have to have sort of emotional resonance. I didn’t find that in this picture despite my best efforts to look underneath the surface. The only scene that I genuinely enjoyed was the last when Denis Lavant broke into a dance. It felt like a huge sigh of relief because the rest of the movie felt so controlled, cold and tough. If they had more scenes like that, this train-wreck would’ve been saved. Unfortunately, it was too little too late.
Water Lilies (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Naissance des pieuvres” was about three fifteen-year-old girls–Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adele Haenel)–in the middle of adolescence swimming, hanging out, and laying about in the middle of summer. Marie wants Anne but Anne initially doesn’t even consider Marie to be on her level. Marie is best friends with Floriane and Floriane is interested in Anne’s crush/boytoy (Warren Jacquin). This leaves Marie in an awkward position because the other two are too cooped up into their own worlds to notice that Marie is suffering on the inside. I really felt for Acquart’s character because she can’t quite express who she really is both because of her own insecurities and expectations from other people. She’s a complex character because I felt like she doesn’t really try to hide who she really is; she’ll actually quite easy to open up as long as someone bothers to show interest. I can relate to her the most because her shyness and calculating nature sometimes gets the best of her. And better yet, she knows it but can’t quite do anything about it. I thought her relationship with Anne was very interesting to watch because I wasn’t exactly sure how it would turn out. Just when I think it’s going to go one way, it takes the opposite direction so I constantly had to reevaluate my expectations. However, the whole thing remains fluid and poetic instead of feeling forced. The biggest weakness I could find was that the film did not spend much time developing Floriane. I felt like she should have had more layers instead of merely crushing on a guy. There were times when I thought, “What about the third girl? What’s her role in the bigger scheme of things?” And those questions were not sufficiently answered. I think the defining scene of this picture was when Marie was watching Anne and her team practicing for a competitive synchronized swimming. We see elegance and beauty above the water but we see quick constant kicking underwater. I think it reflected what the characters were going through at the time of their respective challenges. This is a coming-of-age story that is astute, observant, sensitive and sometimes downright sexy.
The Last Day (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about this movie that I loved. The story was about an eighteen year old Simon (the stunning Gaspard Ulliel) who happens to meet a girl on a train (Mélanie Laurent) on his way back home for the holidays. She invites himself to his home, which at first turned out okay, but the longer she stays there, the more frustrated Simon becomes. Emotions escalate when Simon’s friend (Thibault Vinçon) enters the picture because Laurent starts to fall for him. I think this film was deceptively simple. Even though the dialogue was minimal, the film had a plethora of interesting imagery and stiffled emotions that kept bubbling over the surface. The prime example of this was Ulliel’s character. Simon was such a sensitive character and I felt like a lot of things could tip him to the breaking point. However, he managed to find inner strength time and time again to deal with another painful reality and so I was able to sympathize for him. Even though he was sad and bordeline desperate for affection, we rarely saw him cry, which I think made him that much more lovable. What did not work for me as well, however, was the storyline regarding his mother (Nicole Garcia) and her much younger lover (Bruno Todeschini). I didn’t quite see the connection between that story and Simon’s plight. If the commonality was about loneliness and the suffocation they felt, I think that’s too superficial. If this film had been longer to further explore that bond, I think this could have been a much more powerful picture. Indeed, this was a slow-moving film but I found it to be rewarding because it was thoughtful with its approach. This is farthest from a Hollywood film which typically has defined conventions of a genre. “Le derniere jour” was more like an artistic take on what it was like to be in someone’s shoes who felt like everybody was slowly drifting away.
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
This critically acclaimed Filipino film about a flamoboyant gay twelve-year-old (Nathan Lopez) who happens to develop a serious crush on a cop (J.R. Valentin) both impresses and disappoints. The conflict comes in when the cop finds out that Max’ family is involved in several crimes that range from theft to murder. I liked that this picture did not flinch when it comes to showing the poorer neighborhoods in the Philippines. While the living conditions are cramped, it still manages to show that most people are generally happy with where they are because things can get a lot worse. Having been raised in the Philippines for the first eleven years of my life, I found this film’s perspective to be accurate yet bona fide because it still manages to respect its subjects. It’s easy to look down upon a group of people if you don’t truly understand them. Another aspect I enjoyed about it was that Max being really queer was really not a big deal to most people. What I love about the Philippines and Filipinos in general is that it’s pretty easy for them to accept others who are different from the norm as long as they find a common bond. When I was growing up in the Philippines, I didn’t see a lot of LGBT celebrities on television. But nowadays, if you tune in on TFC (a cable set that people can subscribe to so they can watch Filipino programs all over the world), it’s difficult NOT to see gays and lesbians. In fact, they tend to be the most entertaining hosts on game shows or characters on soap operas. So I’m glad that this movie reflected the current realities in Filipino society. However, there were some things about the picture that disappointed me. Instead of truly exploring the non-sexual relationship between Lopez and Valentin, it delved too much into the politics of cops and criminals to the point where it took the focus away from Lopez’ interesting character. I wanted to know more about the lead character and his relationship with his accepting family (no matter how dysfunctional they may be). I also didn’t enjoy the overly melodramatic scenes. Perhaps it’s because I expected more comedy because of the trailer. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a slight recommendation because it’s strong in many aspects. It’s just that the very (but important) negatives kind of weighed down most of it.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Written by Steven Knight and directed by Stephen Frears, “Dirty Pretty Things” is about two illegal immigrants (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou) who work in a fancy hotel in London and get caught in an underground business run by their boss (Sergi López). This was supposed to be a thriller but I didn’t find anything particularly thrilling about it. I think it tried too hard to hide its secret underground happenings to the point where I found myself not knowing where the story was going. After it introduced particular events that could potentially drive the plot forward, it was followed by uneventful fifteen- to twenty-minutes. One of the few things I liked about it, however, was the way it showed illegal immigrants in the work place. While It was an effective drama, it considerably weaker in its thriller aspect. A third variable was the potential romance between Ejiofor and Tautou. It’s strange because I don’t know what to think of it. They didn’t exactly have chemistry together but it was nice to see them interact either when they were just talking or were sitting in silence. Overall, I think this film was misdirected and miscast. Not to mention it tried way too hard to inject various storylines; it made me feel like it simply did not have enough courage to tackle the main issue head-on. If it had focused on the underground activities that not many people know about, I think I would have been more interested. With two main characters who were easy to root for, if they had been placed in more dangerous situations, the script would’ve popped instead of imploding upon itself. I’ve heard a number of critiques regarding this picture and more than half of them were impressed with the “surprise” ending. Personally, I wasn’t that surprised because it was not particularly original. I’ve seen such an ending from a lot of similar but better films so I was not at all impressed. It left me unsatisfied but I was glad to see Tautou play someone who was a little more damaged and vulnerable than her other roles.
Wild Reeds (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Wild Reeds,” directed by André Téchiné impressed me in every way. In under two hours, the film was able to efficiently describe the complexity of four characters in the middle of adolescence. While all of them attend the same boarding school, they cannot be any more different. François Forestier (Gaël Morel) realizes that he’s gay due to his attraction to Serge Bartolo (Stéphane Rideau), a working-class French-Italian whose brother died in a war. François’ worst enemy is himself: he doesn’t know what to do with his recent realization so he constantly tries to look for support because not even his closest friend Maïté Alvarez (Élodie Bouchez from “Alias”) can help him out due to her initial attraction to him. Even though François and Serge slept together once, Stéphane is not gay and this bothered François to his core. Things get even more complicated when Henri Mariani (Frédéric Gorny) comes into the picture; being a French-Algerian, his passion toward his support for France’ colonization of Algeria created tension among his teachers, classmates, and even himself. Being an outcast, François sees something in him, the two become friends, yet their relationship does not become predictable. All those elements made the story fascinating and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
This is no doubt a coming-of-age film but it’s more organic than American films of the same subgenre. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t watching a movie at all. It felt like a story that could’ve happened back in the 1960’s because of how affected the characters are by the war. Not one of them is not affected by the politics and it was interesting to explore their psychologies. Although I was particularly touched by François’ struggles when it comes to self-acceptance versus self-rejection (that mirror scene was both brilliant and heartbreaking), I was very interested in Maïté’s mother (Michèle Moretti), who happens to be the three boys’ teacher. She felt so guilty about not helping Serge’s brother evade the war, she pretty much went crazy after his death. That one scene when she was at the hospital was so haunting, it gave me serious goosebumps. Just one small scene of less than three minutes was enough to truly paint how tortured she was by her guilt so I was very impressed. Moreover, I was satisfied with how Téchiné divided the time between the four lead characters. When each of them was under the spotlight, we truly get to know why they ended up the way they were because they talk about their past and their current thoughts on the matter. Yet at the same time, it does not result to the usual melodrama where they cry so that the audiences will feel sorry for them. In fact, they do the opposite: they try to be so strong but an outsider can (or should be able to) tell that they’re on the verge of breaking down. I was highly impressed with the acting from the four leads because I felt like they had subtlety and they always had something going on behind their eyes. In a nutshell, these are the type of characters I’d like to be friends with because they do not thrive on superficiality.
“Wild Reeds” is truly one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve seen. The characters have a certain emotional intelligence that one rarely sees in such a subgenre, especially in American coming-of-age pictures. Being released in 1994, it goes to show that a thoughtful coming-of-age movie does not need to feature excesses of alcohol, sex and loud music. It sets up an argument that self-discovery can happen right in our own small towns with people who we care about, the books that we love rereading and the current politics that we hear in the radio. This is the kind of movie that I want to add to my collection because of its many underlying themes that require multiple viewings. In my opinion, both fans of character studies and cinéphiles should not miss this gem.
In Paris (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s a lot of complex dynamics between the characters in this film but most of them were not explored enough. The best scenes were when the two brothers, Romain Duris and Louis Garrel, would talk to each other about women, the value of life and their childhood. I also found the father (Guy Marchand) interesting but he wasn’t given much to do except hover in the background like some sort of annoyance for the two leads. Duris returns home after a bad break-up and stays in bed all day. Garrel tries to find ways to alleviate his brother’s depression by–strangely enough–sleeping with other women. That statement doesn’t make sense but after seeing the entire picture, in a strange way, it does have some hidden meaning. I wouldn’t have gotten it either if Garrel’s character didn’t literally voice it out to his brother in the final scene. Still, this film is very uneven. In the beginning, Garrel talks to the camera and he claims that he’s going to be the narrator. As the film went on, that narration was completely thrown out the window. It would’ve been wiser if Christophe Honoré, the director, was more consistent about the narration because the film got a little confusing at times. One minute we’re looking at something that happened a week ago and the next we’re looking at something that happened a few months ago. The fact that this film is in French (I have no problem with that; I love foreign films) is another issue because there were some dialogues that do not directly correlate with the subtitles. (I know a little bit of French.) Given that handicap, jumping from one moment in time to another makes it that much less accessible. I liked that this film referenced other great filmmakers from the likes Jean-Luc Godard (scenes outside the home) and Bernardo Bertolucci (scenes in the home). Plus, that one scene when Garrel was looking at movie posters of “Last Days” and “A History of Violence” made me laugh due to the fact that Garrel looked at Michael Pitt’s picture with a certain recognition. (They worked together in one of my favorite films “The Dreamers.”) Little tidbits like that made me enjoy this movie despite my frustrations with its techniques. This is definitely not for everyone but if you’re the kind of person that likes to see movies which honor certain signatures of other great filmmakers, check this one out. (I still say it should have been more character-driven…)
Let the Right One In (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I know this was supposed to be a horror film but I thought it was really romantic. I was so invested in Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson’s relationship to the point where I wanted the movie to last longer. I actually wanted to know what would happen next after the last frame and I actually said, “No! It can’t be over!” out loud (thankfully, I watched it alone). “Let the Right One In” is about a kid (Hedebrant) who keeps getting bullied at school and a girl who recently moves into town and happens to be a vampire (Leandersson). Their loneliness was their initial commonality and they were able to soothe some of that loneliness after getting to know each other. I loved the setting of the film–most of it was shot in the winter so the sky was often bleak and there was often snow on each shot. When a scene was indoors, the lights looked somewhat dim so danger was always right around the corner. Tomas Alfredson, the director, knows how to build suspense. I found it interesting that he was able to use suspense with things pertaining to real life (such as the bullying scenes; stand-outs include the whipping and the “game” in the pool) and romance with things that are supernatural (and downright horrifying). I also liked the fact that special and visual effects were kept at a minimum. When they were used, they were utilized in perfect timing and with just the right amount unlike modern American horror movies nowadays. This film is based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist who also lent a hand on the screenplay. After watching the movie, I must say that I’m very interested in reading the book because of some unanswered questions. With a little research, I was able to find out that there were several things that didn’t make it into the film, which included the girl’s backstory and minor characters with important subplots. I also found out about the meaning of certain images which enhanced my understanding of the picture. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a great vampire picture so I highly recommend this to everyone. This is the kind of movie that would end up in my film library so definitely check it out when you can.