Law of Desire (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “La ley del deseo” or “Law of Desire” was about a young man in his twenties (Antonio Banderas) who became obsessively in love with an older director (Eusebio Poncela) despite the fact that the director was in a relationship with another young man (Miguel Molina) who wasn’t fully comfortable with the relationship. The picture was also about the director casting his transgendered sister (Carmen Maura) on his play, only the play was based on her struggles about coming to terms with her identity. I think this is one of Almodóvar’s most uneven work but I loved it nonetheless. Although it got distracted from time to time when it tried to introduce unnecessary characters (like the nosy mother, the two cops, and to some extent the little girl who believed in her prayers coming true), the theme of feverish passion was always at the forefront. This is probably one of my favorite performances from Banderas because even though he was essentially a stalker, he found a way to make his character sympathetic. His character’s passion toward the director was fascinating to watch because of the way the passion eventually bubbled over, caused a flood, and changed everyone’s lives. I also loved Poncela and Maura because they shared a different kind of passion: a strong bond between two dysfunctional siblings. They may collide from time to time due to their varying interests and untold family secrets but I could always feel their love for one another; it was a nice feeling and a great contrast between the kind of bond between Poncela and Banderas. Even though “Law of Desire” didn’t quite have Almodóvar’s cheeky use of bright colors and music that jumped out of the screen, the extreme melodrama involving mistaken identities was still there and it was able to keep delivering the sort of energy I love from start to finish. Like Almodóvar’s other works, “Law of Desire” was willing to go places where most directors don’t dare go; the shock value was there (especially during the movie’s opening scene) but it’s not the kind that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the kind that makes fun of us for liking what we’re seeing and wishing it wouldn’t stop. The little twists that the picture had felt natural because the characters were borderline histrionic so the twists didn’t feel like a gimmick. “La ley del deseo” may not be one of Almodóvar’s most focused movies in terms of the fluidity of storytelling but it is one of his most satisfying.
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Catholic boarding school hid three Jewish students, one of which was Jean (Raphael Fejtö), from the terrorizing Nazis in the middle of World War II. We viewed the events from Julien’s (Gaspard Manesse) perspective, a home sick boy who, like most kids, did not really understand what was really happening yet he had no problem throwing words around like “Jew” or “yid” and the bigotry that came with those words. Julien and Jean started off as enemies but the two eventually became friends. However, their friendship was challenged my the Nazis who came to their school to hunt down the three students and send them to their deaths. What I admired most about Louis Malle’s film was the fact that he was able to take the events that happened in his own life and ponder over the decisions he made. Right from the beginning, it felt very personal. The opening scene was a mother and her son saying goodbye at a train station. It was a simple scene but we immediately got to know the protagonist: he was sensitive when he needed to, he felt neglected by his parents, and he hid his real emotions through transference. The other scenes that stood out to me were also simple scenes. One of them was when Julien got lost in the woods in the attempt to find a hidden treasure. On top of the giant rocks, he looked around. What did he think about? Did he know which direction to go? Was he afraid to go down the rocky terrain? Was he worried about the sun setting? In one specific glance around his surroundings, I had so many questions and felt so many emotions. I felt like that scene was a test for him and for us. Even though he was somewhat of a bully, I found that I cared about what would happen to him. Another highlight was when the kids and the teachers watched a Chaplin picture. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I love the movies, but I felt so much joy while watching them laughing collectively at the screen. In one scene, even though the kids made fun of each other and didn’t always get along, they found a common ground. The Chaplin film brought them together and I couldn’t help but feel moved. Malle’s strength was definitely taking simple portraits from his youth and letting us feel why those were important to him. Even though his experiences happened more than fifty years ago, the feelings cut through time and we find ourselves able to relate and sympathize. The closing scene was simply masterful. Slowly, the camera inched toward Julien’s eyes as he realized that sometimes his actions can be powerful. There was no going back. It was a loss of innocence at its finest. He became a man because he finally learned to take responsibility. “Au revoir les enfants” is an astute picture, a rewarding experience, and utterly unforgettable.
As Luck Would Have It (2002)
★ / ★★★★
“Le hasard fait bien les choses” or “As Luck Would Have It,” directed by Lorenzo Gabriele was about a closeted professor (Jean-Claude Brialy) who had the unlucky circumstance to be assigned by the law as a guardian for a troublesome teenager (Julien Bravo). Since he didn’t want the responsibility, he decided to appeal the case but in order to be deemed as an unfit guardian, a social worker had to assess his personal life. The professor had to then hide certain truths such as him being still legally married to a woman (Sabine Haudepin) and dating a much younger man (Antonio Interlandi) in order to preserve his reputation as a respected professor. My main problem with this movie was the fact that everything had to be exaggerated. The acting was painfully obvious, the story was weak and the way everything came together was very predictable. I wished that there was a character I could root for in order to make the experience more bearable but everyone only thought of themselves. I thought the wife was really annoying because she failed to recognize the seriousness of the orphan being passed around from one household to another. Instead, she was too hung up on the guy she used to date and was too busy trying to make him jealous. Out of anyone, she should have been the one that could have identified with the boy right away because she felt like no one wanted her. Her character’s lonelinesss could have been the unifyng theme of the picture but I suppose the writers and director failed to highlight that emotion. By the end of the movie, I thought she was just desperate and a classic attention-seeker. As for the professor, I understood his fears of coming out of the closet but he created his own distractions. He constantly complained about how his life became that much more complicated ever since the orphan came into his life but he neglected the fact that things in life always come up and if we don’t do anything about them, ignoring such problems won’t make them go away. For a supposedly smart character, he didn’t make the best decisions. The script lacked punch because it didn’t try to offer anything new to the table. The direction lacked sophistication. I felt like the movie was never going to end because nothing much happened on screen aside from the complaining and obvious attempts at laughter. “Le hasard fait bien les choses” desperately needed subtlety and intelligence. Even if the story was nothing new, I would have been more accepting if the characters were able to look outside of themselves and realize that their situations were not as bad as it seemed.
The Girl on the Train (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“La fille du RER” or “The Girl on the Train” was inspired by true events involving a girl who claimed that she was attacked on the train by antisemites. In truth, she just made the whole thing up. But the movie wasn’t just about her. It was also a critique on the credibility of the media and how people readily accept certain stories that support their own prejudices. Directed by André Téchiné, the film started off pretty slowly because it took its time establishing the main character (Émilie Dequenne) and the circumstances that eventually lead her to lie. She was frustrated with where her life was heading, she felt that her mother (Catherine Deneuve) was always on her case about her future, and she had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right with her boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle). So when certain events unfolded that eventually led her boyfriend to the hospital, she couldn’t handle the stress and she reached her breaking point. I thought Téchiné made the correct decision to put a story behind the girl who lied to get sympathy. With such a controversial issue, it’s definitely easier to point a finger on someone and come up with reasons why what she did was wrong. I thought it was nice that even though what the woman did was definitely wrong because it diminishes and mocks real crimes, I didn’t hate her for what she did. In fact, I felt sorry for her because she felt like she couldn’t talk to anyone. That loneliness made her crave for any kind of attention. I loved the performances especially from Deneuve. As always, she found the right balance between elegance and strength. Admittedly, sometimes she stole certain scenes from the lead character because she was that great in hiding certain thoughts and emotions. I was interested in her history and her connection to a Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc). “La fille du RER” had a certain grittiness to it that I liked. But what held it back was its lack of perfect timing. I felt like the movie spent too much of its time trying to explain what led the character to do what she did instead of focusing on the consequences of her actions. With that lack of balance, I felt like the second half of the picture was a little bit stronger because that was when the character started to wake up from her apathy. In the beginning, she didn’t care much about politics. She saw hate crimes being covered on the news but she didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation. She lived a passive existence and I think it says a lot about us as consumers. The picture may be a little rough around the edges but I’m recommending this movie because it was able to offer real insight about our relationship with the media these days.
La haine (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“La haine” stars Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as a Jew, an African and an Arab, respectively, who come from the nonglamorous side of Parisian neighborhood. The premise of the film was essentially following the three characters in a span of a day–after a riot in which one of their friends was sent to the hospital–so we could see how they juggled the internal and external violence that faced them. I was impressed with this film because it dealt with the characters in painfully realistic ways without being too heavy-handed or a stereotypical “being in one’s shoes for a day” story. The three friends were so angry to the point where they couldn’t help but stir trouble wherever they ended up. Their personalities were explosive and unpredictable but just when we thought we had them all figured out, the material surprised us. It then begged the question of whether they could rise above the place where they came from; I could see that they wanted to change and that they were tired of having to be (or trying to be) tough all the time. It was the subtle scenes in which the characters expressed their concerns and sadness about where their lives were heading that gripped me until the very intense and memorable final scene. Even though there were a lot of meaningless fights and funny scenes at someone’s expense, I enjoyed the quiet moments when they would just sit on the train and not talk to each other or when they would just visit an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. As alienated as they were, their frustrations didn’t hinder them from trying to live even if the paths they’ve chosen were roads that we necessarily would not want for them to take. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, he really had a knack for playing with the camera and delivering unique shots when something crucial was unfolding before our (and the characters’) eyes. He wasn’t afraid to take some risks and they paid off handsomely; the decision to shoot the film in simple black and white complemented the complex social problems (that we sometimes see in black and white) that the picture tackled head-on. Ultimately a movie about acceptance and corruption, “La haine,” also known as “Hate,” showed that a material does not need to be obvious or touching for it to teach a lesson about urban life. In some ways, the tone and focus somewhat reminded me of the unforgettable “Trainspotting,” only “La haine” was far less manic and more serious in its approach.
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen a lot of really weird pictures but György Pálfi’s “Taxidermia” is probably one of the most bizarre. The story was about three generations of men: a hospital orderly who impregnanted a woman that had a child born with a tail, the child who grew up as a man who loved to participate in eating contests, and that man’s son (Marc Bischoff) who loved to preserve dead animal carcass. Although I thought all three were entertaining to watch (to some degree), it wasn’t until we got to Bischoff’s story that things picked up and really became engaging without sacrificing consistency and purpose. The common theme of this film was obsession and it nicely tackled the strange fixations that each of the characters had. At first I didn’t understand what was happening because the first twenty minutes subjected us to watch a creepy man spying on women while masturbating. I was aware that the film was supposed to be a dark comedy but those scenes made me wonder what the director was trying to portray. Were there symbolisms that he wanted us to realize in each generation or did he just create such images for mere shock value? I think it had elements of both; I may not have understood all of it because perhaps the cultural barrier was the problem (it was set in Hungary). Nevertheless, I was absolutely horrified when the camera would fixate on people eating like there’s no tomorrow and regurgitating the food they just ate. (It didn’t help that I like to snack while watching movies.) I was really disgusted but I couldn’t stop watching because I was curious what would happen next. Although the movie was far from anything I expected it to be, I’ve got to give it credit for doing something creative and unpredictable. This is definitely not the kind of film for mainstream audiences because it’s easy to label it as pointless or unnecessary. Speaking of, there were some scenes that depicted animal cruelty. I don’t mind much the taxidermy scenes but actually showing a live goat or a pig getting stabbed and things like that (you see the animals struggling) made me angry. I think those could’ve been taken out and the story wouldn’t have changed whatsoever. If you are feeling like watching something morbidly dark and funny in a very twisted sort of way, “Taxidermia” is a good choice because it wasn’t afraid to push the limits. Just don’t eat before watching the film.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Fredi M. Murer, “Vitus” tells the story of a boy (Fabrizio Borsani, age six, Teo Gheorghiu, age twelve) who had a natural gift for mastering anything he set his mind to. Having realized that their son was a genius, Vitus’ parents (Julika Jenkins, Urs Jucker) did everything they could to foster their son’s gift, specifically his skills in playing the piano. However, Vitus didn’t like the feeling of being forced to do something so he rebelled and took refuge in his grandfather’s home (Bruno Ganz) whenever he felt helpless over things that were happening around him. This film completely transported me; it gave me that overwhelmingly wonderful feeling that was similar to when I saw the masterful “Le voyage du ballon rouge” for the first time. There was a certain lyricism to “Vitus” that trancends the cinematic medium which was strange because the storytelling was (arguably) old-fashioned. At first I thought it was just going to be about a child prodigy who desperately wanted to be normal but it also turned out to be about parents who expected so much of their only child, a love between a child and his babysitter, the bond between a grandfather and his grandchild (it made me wish my grandfather was still alive), balancing piano and aviation (which reminded me of my love for medicine and movies), and having to choose to follow one’s destiny versus letting go. In a nutshell, it was about growing up and living in a world that’s not truly equipped in fostering people with IQs of around 180. One of my many favorite scenes includes the scene when Vitus and his friend were bicycling in a circle. Whoever was in front of the camera, we heard the music they were listening to–Vitus and his classical music (without earphones), the friend and his hip-hop music (with earphones). I’ve never seen anything like it (or perhaps I have but the others pale in comparison) and it completely took my breath away. There were many artistic shots like that dispersed throughout the film and they constantly took me by surprise. In fact, I felt every emotion in the emotional spectrum from anger toward the mother who crossed the line between helping her child reach his potential and pushing him way too hard, to feeling warm when Vitus tried to get the attention of someone from his childhood, to complete awe whenever he played the piano with such passion and confidence. I’m surprised not many people have heard of this film because I think it’s so much better than popular foreign pictures like “La vita è bella.” I loved the way this film wrapped everything up because I felt like it went complete circle without being too cheesy or sentimental. In the end, it made me feel like I could accomplish anything. Years from now, when I do have a children of my own, this is one of those films I’ll be watching with them because it’s nothing short of wonderful every step of the way.