Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) were left by their girlfriends to visit Europe for the summer. Despite their promises to not have sex with other people, the two saw it as a perfect opportunity to meet other women, experiment with drugs, drink until they pass out, and live easy before school started again. But when they met a beautiful woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding, the boys made up a story about going to an undiscovered beach. To their surprise, Luisa accepted their invitation, unknowing that she wanted to run away from her cheating husband and temporarily forget about her doctor’s grim news. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También” is a peerless example of a sex comedy that uses sex to explore its characters’ friendships, highlight the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, and what it meant to be young and reckless. As most American teen sex comedy have consistently proven, it’s far too easy to use sex as a weapon of perversion instead of staring at it in the eyes and realizing, with respect, that it’s a natural and beautiful part of our lives. To describe all of the elements I loved about the picture would be an injustice because much of its magic had to be experienced. But I do have to mention one scene that, in my opinion, defined the film so perfectly. Near the end of the trio’s road trip, Luisa was talking to her husband in a telephone booth. On a mirror next to the booth, we could see Tenoch and Julio playing foosball. The shot looked simple but, for me, it held a lot of meaning. The booth was lit but the reflection was dim which I surmised was a symbol for their respective knowledge about what it meant to love both emotionally and physically. Tenoch and Julio thought they knew how to pleasure a woman. But Luisa tried to teach them that sex, or meaningful sex, wasn’t about the strength of penetration or how long a man could last without ejaculation but the growing emotional connection and investment between the two parties. The conversation in the booth had a lot of sadness and maybe a bit anger but the reflection held temporary joy by means of friendly competition. I perceived it to be a summary of Luisa and the two friends’ respective mindsets during their travel. Although the two images were different, both were about characters entering a new phase in their lives. Cuarón had a fantastic ear for dialogue and sometimes I wondered if some of the conversations were unscripted. The naturalistic acting was also enhanced by an inspired environment that looked unedited or untouched, something that we would see if we visited a seaside village right this very moment. If more coming-of-age sex comedies were high caliber as “Y Tu Mamá También,” perhaps most people would be able to ask and talk about sex and sexuality without having to be embarrassed or feel judged.
Amores perros (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Three stories about love collided during a car crash. Octavio (Gael García Bernal) was hopelessly in love with his sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche). He hoped that if he earned enough money by winning in dog fights, she would leave her abusive husband (Marco Pérez) and start a new life with him. Meanwhile, Veleria (Goya Toldeo) was a successful supermodel who had to deal with being confined in a wheelchair as she observed her career slip through her fingers. She began to suffer paranoia when her dog wouldn’t leave from under the house. Finally, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), living as a homeless person whose sole companionship were dogs he found in the streets, was hired to assassinate a businessman. However, he struggled to balance his job and his guilt toward leaving his daughter when she was only an infant. “Amores perros” offered nothing particularly new in terms of going forward and backward in time to tell a story of intertwined lives. But I found it to be an excellent exercise in tone and using the tone to tell a compelling story with well-defined themes. For me, the dogs symbolized purpose. They reflected what the characters desperately wanted but couldn’t quite have. The first story involved Octavio and dogfighting. He constantly felt the need to fight for the love of his life and he was willing to go to desperate measures to have her even if it meant hurting his own flesh and blood. The second story involved a dog hiding under the floorboards. When Valeria moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend, she was happy but she worried about her career, too. She felt like something was missing. Maybe she needed to choose which was more important to her. The third strand involved a homeless man and his homeless dogs. He lived in the streets but he wasn’t ashamed because, like the homeless dogs, he learned how to survive without relying on money. Despite picture’s vastly different storylines, it was focused on the messages it wanted to deliver to its audiences. Those who looked past the images on the screen and really thought about the characters’ constantly changing motivations for two hours and thirty minutes would most likely feel rewarded from the experience. Some of the images were quite intense. The scenes with dogs trying to maul each other to the death were most likely unsimulated. It was painful for me to watch because I don’t like to see animals get hurt especially dogs because I grew up around them. Astutely written by Guillermo Arriaga and elegantly directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Amores perros” rose above being a movie about intertwining lives. It challenged us by equally engaging its viewers intellectually and emotionally without getting stuck in a quicksand of typicalities of the subgenre.
★★★ / ★★★★
Miguel (Christian Mercado) and Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), a happily married couple, were about to have their first child. Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter, visited the seaside village to see Miguel. Despite having grown up together in the coast, nobody knew about their secret affair. That is, until Santiago drowned one night and appeared in Miguel’s home as a ghost. Santiago’s spirit wouldn’t rest until he was given a very public burial. Rumors went around that Santiago was a homosexual and nobody wanted anything to do with him. They treated homosexuality as a contagion. They couldn’t even say the word. They used hand gestures to describe such a phenomena. So it was up to Miguel to give his lover a proper send-off. “Contracorriente” was a smart and moving film about a man torn between his identity and tradition. The beginning of the picture established the importance of tradition in Miguel’s community: the residents in the village attended church, they orally read from the bible, and they shared an open form of communication. When their tradition was challenged in the form of Miguel’s sexuality, it was difficult to watch our protagonist’s friends and neighbors turn their backs on him. His closest friends didn’t even bother to drop by when Mariela had her baby. But writer-director Javier Fuentes-León was careful in highlighting the complexity of the village’s situation. They lived in a bubble and it was probably the first time a gay person bothered to stick around despite the judging whispers and lack of eye contact. I liked that it showed people being capable of acceptance. In reality, while some treat a shocking revelation from the perspective of black and white, others just need some time to digest the information. Not every subplot provided a definite solution but there was a sense of closure that tied it all together. Despite not knowing a lot of details about how Miguel and Santigo got together, it was easy to see that their passion for one another ran deep. There was palpable pain when they discussed plans that never came into fruition and when they argued about being tired of pretending not to know each other in public. But the film was also about the love between Miguel and Mariela. There was a special bond between them not just because they were about to have a baby, but because they’ve learned to lean on each other when things became unbearable. Naturally, their bond was tested when Mariela found out the truth about her husband’s bisexuality. The film’s biggest risk was the ghost that only Miguel could see. It could be seen as a literal ghost, but I interpreted the spirit as the leading character’s guilt and anger for not summoning the courage to come out of the closet when his lover was still alive. The risk worked because the director was in control of the message he wanted to portray. I was impressed with “Undertow” because it was emotionally authentic without sacrifing an ounce of its complexity.
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A woman was driving in the middle of nowhere and her luck turned grim when one of the tires gave out. She called her husband, Secret Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), to inform him of her predicament. In the middle of their phone conversation, a man named Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) knocked on her window and offered to help. She refused, told him that she already called a car service, and thanked him for his kindness. He insisted but she refused again. So he decided to break into her car and beat her until she lost consciousness. When, covered in a plastic bag, she became aware of her surroundings, he transected her limbs and threw her head into the river. Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “Akmareul boatda,” also known as “I Saw the Devil,” was an intense psychological study of a man so hell-bent on vengeance, he didn’t care if he hurt the wrong man. The lush cinematography made an interesting contrast with the characters’ dark ideations. When the searchers found the woman’s head in the river, there was something so sad and sinister about the scene. It was sad because her father and husband expected that the head wouldn’t be her’s but at the same time they somewhat knew that it was over. It was sinister because I felt like Kyung-chul was watching among the crowd of journalists and photographers. What I found unique about the story was in the way Agent Kim had the upper-hand for most of the film. It was unpredictable because it didn’t follow a typical narrative. For instance, the sadistic killer and the husband confronted each other prior to the half-way point. With each time the killer lost a physical confrontation, a part of his body was broken and he was allowed to run (or limp) away. Unbeknownst to the killer, the secret agent forced him to swallow a tracking device. The comedy kicked in when Kyung-chul was aghast that every time he was about to molest a young girl, Agent Kim foiled his plans and gave him another broken body part. Behaviorism failed to work. We wanted to see the killer suffer but there came a point where we had no choice but to ask ourselves how much was enough. Agent Kim claimed that the violence he inflicted was driven by the promise he made to his late wife. But maybe there was something inside him that relished being in control of another human being and acting like he was above the law. It worked as a meticulous case study of what torture does to the person inflicting the pain. As wild as the picture became, I admired that it had ways of pulling us back to the murdered wife. I especially liked the way the director handled the difficult phone call between Agent Kim and his wife’s family. His father-in-law actually asked him to stop. I imagine it must have been so difficult for him to come to that decision. “What you’re doing will not bring her back,” the sister said. Agent Kim’s eyes searched for an answer that could prove her statement wrong. There wasn’t any.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” followed psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) to a space station orbiting a planet that had the strange ability to create bodies of human beings based on one’s memories while sleeping. I saw Steven Soderbergh’s film prior but there were very few similarities between the two. While both were purposely slow in pace, the classic “Solaris” was more concerned about specific details that aim to creep out its audiences. Despite its close to three hours running time, I was consistently fascinated with what was happening because of the images it had to offer. The first kind of image was what the audiences saw on screen. There was something genuinely unsettling about the planet’s human version of us. In this case, Kris’ wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who passed away years prior, was extracted from Kris’ memory more than once. Although she initially did not have any memory of who she was (she didn’t even know what she looked like until she looked in the mirror), she was a learning being, eventually able to mimic certain behaviors like sleeping or feeling guilt. She tried to be human but she simply wasn’t. She was eventually able to copy very human characteristics like selflessness but does that make her human? I noticed that even though the planet had the ability to replicate images from the mind, it managed to create incorrect details like a dress not having a zipper or a lake’s water not moving at all. The second kind image was in the stories the characters told. In the beginning of the film, a pilot described his experiences while exploring the planet. The way he talked about the evolution of the planet’s water and his eventual encounter with a giant baby was frightenening. His words were so alive, I felt like I was there with him. Directed by Andrey Tarkovskiy, “Solaris” successfully tackled questions about humanity through encounters that defied the norm. The filmmakers had a great challenge because they had to keep the material creative while not simply giving easy answers. In the end, I still had questions such as the filmmakers’ use of black and white in some scenes, their purposeful way of defying the laws of physics in specific scenes when we knew what was happening was occuring in reality and not in the mind, and the fates of the crew like amicable Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and practical Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn). Despite my unanswered questions, I could not help but respect the film because it, too, treated me with respect. I watched it with a careful eye and it rewarded me with possibilities. Who’s to say that a planet like Solaris isn’t out there in the universe just waiting to be discovered?
You, the Living (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Roy Andersson, “Du levande” or “You, the Living” painted an inspired picture of how the tragic moments in our lives were almost always counter-balanced with small and often unexpected comedic events. What I loved about this film was it felt as though anything could happen. Characters even broke out in song. Despite the ordinariness of the individuals at first glance, highlighted by the nondescript rooms and the dominance of the color gray in every frame, there was magic in each of their circumstances. Some scenes were solely played for laughs such as the Arabian barber and the businessman who was far from being in a great mood. Some were incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to watch. For instance, the couple who were having sex but only one was really into it. Others were downright pointless like a man cleaning glass windows. However, quite a handful were fascinating. I loved the couple in which the woman complained about everything wrong in her life while the man tried to endure her interminable tirades. At first glance, I thought she was just a spoiled woman who desperately needed a hobby (and perhaps a better sex life). But as the film went on, I actually grew to like her. It turned out that she was aware of her actions, that she may at times come off as selfish, and she knew that she was loved by those around her. The one that moved me most was the psychiatrist who spoke directly to the camera (and to us) and confessed that after twenty-seven years of practice, turning a mean person into a happy one was an impossible task. The only way to really “cure” them or to mask their unhappiness was to give them drugs. In the doctors own words, “the stronger, the better.” I thought it was an honest moment and ultimately a stronger message that lingers in the mind than the popular belief that all people in the medical field find it so rewarding to help people. Finally, there was Anna (Jessika Lundberg), a regular fan girl, who fell in love with Micke (Eric Bäckman), a boy who played in a band. Personally, the highest point of the film was when she recalled a dream she had about their wedding day. Throughout the scene of Anna looking beautiful in her wedding dress and Micke looking handsome in his rock star ensemble, I had a silly smile on my face. On top of that, there was a neat imagery in which their apartment moved like a train and, from their window, we could see strangers clamoring to offer their congratulations and best wishes. I wished the scene did not have to come to an end. It made me want to believe in romance all over again. “Du levande” was successful at embodying an unconventional stream of consciousness with images that crackle and pop with originality and earnestness. It may have been on another language but the emotions it conveyed overcame such boundaries.