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.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Jellyfish,” directed by Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, peeks into the lives of three women in Israel: Batiya (Sarah Adler) who one day meets a little girl on the beach and wakes her up from the seemingly meaninglessness life she’s living; Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipina who takes care of older people whose children do not have time for them and at the same time feels a lot of guilt for leaving her son to earn money from another country; and Keren (Noa Knoller), a recent bride who breaks her ankle on her wedding night and fears that her husband is cheating on him during their honeymoon. This is definitely not everyone’s kind of movie because it doesn’t have a traditional way of storytelling: a defined exposition, rising action and climax. The camera simply drops in and out of the three women’s lives yet at the same time it strives to find a commonality among them. The idea of loneliness and fear is at the forefront but one can also argue that this film is ultimately about hope and strength to keep on living. And that’s what I love about it: it’s very open to interpretations because it’s full of symbolism and elements that may or may not be real. Even though the three women’s paths do collide at some point, it doesn’t feel forced like many American movies where one circumstance changes everybody’s lives by the end of the movie. In my opinion, “Jellyfish” is the perfect title for this film because its way of telling the story and structuring of the characters is mostly dependent upon the movements on the ocean, which means it’s organic and natural. However, I do think that some of the subtitles weren’t accurate enough. I can understand Tagalog and there’s a certain disconnect between what the character is saying and what’s written at the bottom of the screen. However, most foreign films have that problem so I’m not going to heavily hold that issue against this picture. If one is up for watching something a little different, “Jellyfish” is a recommendation because of its inherent poetry and sadness.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, out of the “Three Colors” trilogy (“Blue,” “White” and “Red”–colors of the French flag that mean liberty, equality and fraternity, respectively), I believe this one is the strongest. Right from the very start, the thesis regarding strange connections between people who want some sort of communication, meaningful or not, with another person is established. I was blown away by Irène Jacob’s performance as a model who one day runs over a dog that belongs to a retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Although at first the two seem to have nothing in common, the more time they spend together, the more they realize that they probably belong to each other despite their significant age difference. Jacob was the star here and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was even more mesmerized by her whenever her photos are being taken by a photographer or whenever she was walking on the runway. There was an air of sadness (with a little bit of strength underneath it all) about her that I really wanted to explore. I also was at awe when it comes to Kieslowski’s use of color. The color red was all over this film yet each one signifies a different feeling or symbolism. Combined with its excellent use of pacing, I felt like I was in a dream where everyone and everything has a purpose. Lastly, I have to mention the final scene when all the three leads (and some side characters) from the whole trilogy appeared. It gave me serious goosebumps because I got to know each of those characters prior to this installment. It was weird seeing them again after thinking that their stories were over when the credits rolled in their respective installment. That scene and the few scenes before it are able to say something meaningful about destiny to the point where I looked at each of the characters from “Red” in a completely different light. Kieslowski’s craft just blew me away and I have absolutely nothing negative about this picture. What a perfect way to end an ambitious project.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
★★★ / ★★★★
Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini paints a deeply disturbing film about Nazis who kidnapped eighteen teenagers from their homes and subjected them in all kinds of physical, sexual and mental embarrassment (“torture” is the more accurate word to be perfectly honest). Out of those eight Nazis four were men (Paolo Bonacelli as The Duke, Giorgio Cataldi as The Bishop, Umbero Paolo Quintavalle as The Magistrate and Aldo Valletti as The President) and four were women (Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Sonia Saviange and Hélène Surgère). I have a penchant for films that defy the norm; though this film definitely fits in that category, I must admit that even this one was too much for me. It’s one thing when the audiences are forced to hear stories about the prostitutes’ personal experiences with men who have strange perversions but it’s another when we’re forced to see teenagers consume feces and get their tongues cut off. There were many scenes in the movie when I had to cover my eyes or look away because it all looked so realistic. At the same time, despite my disgust and horror, the film has messages such as the danger of capitalism, the objectification of male and female bodies and taking reality in a whole new level. There’s also bits about homophobia, mashochism, and insidious tools of oppression such as religion, titles and groupthink. When I really think about it, even though this picture was released in 1975, it’s still very relevant today. I also liked the common theme of something beautiful and inviting on the outside but only meanness, ugliness and evil can be found inside, such as the structurally beautiful palace where all kinds of evil are committed within its confines. I thought its messages culminated in the end when all kinds of atrocities were happening: While we get to see horrific images of violence sans the screaming and begging for remorse, I felt a sort of sadness and even a pinch of anger. When reviewers say that this film has nothing to offer, I argue that they haven’t really thought about the picture. While it may be challenging to look past the violence, it’s undeniable that “Salò” has insight that less daring movies will otherwise not achieve. I give this a recommendation but I must warn that this is not for a typical movie-going audience or for the faint of heart.
★ / ★★★★
I decided to see this film because I was curious about what Filipino gay cinema has to offer. Unfortunately, this one is a big disappointment. It doesn’t really have a focus even though it had a lot of ideas that it tried to get across. It mostly likely has something to do with Crisaldo Pablo’s direction. The story started off with nerdy and naive Ray An Dulay falling for a much older Jet Alcantara. Eventually, Dulay’s innocence was shed and he became someone that he wish he was in the first place. Becoming someone that he wanted to become took a toll on his personality and his relationships with the people he loves most. Out of nowhere, the picture tried to inject new ideas such as loneliness, the hardships of finding the right person in a society where being a homosexual is looked down upon (most Filipinos are Catholic; though one can argue that most Filipinos do accept homosexuality because they’re always on television) and how gays tend to be disgusted with each other. Personally, I found the latter to be the most interesting because I think it’s the most honest. There’s already a plethora of gay love stories and the story here felt all too recycled. On the other hand, I do feel like gays do feel some sort of disgust with each other in real life. So, an exploration of that idea would make an interesting movie. The script didn’t help either because because it felt a bit too soap opera. I didn’t need the subtitles because I can understand Tagalog but even the first-hand experience of hearing the original script wasn’t enough to push through. I felt that whenever it is about to go into that vulnerable place, it hesitates and faces toward a less in-your-face subject. That’s the most frustrating aspect I found in “Bathhouse” and it happened again and again so I lost interest. The actor whose character I wanted to get to know more, however, was John Lapus. Even though he’s your stereotypical gay, there’s a certain anger and vulnerability in him that defies his mannerisms and outer appearance. I think if the movie focused on him instead of Dulay and Alcantara (and their lack of chemistry), this would’ve been a stronger movie. In the end, this is another one of those forgettable foreign gay movies.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this film to be thoroughly engaging from beginning to end because, despite the roughness and violence presented on the outside, the core is very sensitive but nothing is glamorized. Presley Chweneyagae is excellent as the lead because he’s convincing as a gang leader and a person who happens to have a broken soul because of his childhood. We see his character change in myriads of ways but each of those changes are subtle enough to leave a lasting impression. My favorite scene was when Chweneyagae was able to connect the old man on the wheelchair to a dog with a broken back. That scene was so powerful because there are a lot of muffled emotions and unsaid thoughts yet I couldn’t help but feel like everything is being revealed. I do not consider this a typical journey of a man becoming a “better person” by the end of the picture. Instead of taking a literal journey to exotic places, the main character was able to find self-respect, honor, and the ability to love in the place where he lived pretty much his whole life. With the help of the baby that he accidentally took while hijacking a car–seeing himself in that child while at the same time reminding him that the child is everything that he is not–he began a transformation that ultimately warrants his redemption. I’m glad the Academy recognized this as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2006. I will remember this film for a very long time.
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.
The Band’s Visit
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie put a smile on my face from beginnning to end because the characters find something magical in awkward situations. An Egyptian police force (who is also a band) visits Israel to perform at a ceremony in an Arab arts center but their transportation did not pick them up. They have no choice but to spend the night in a middle of nowhere desert town where they meet kind Israelis (led by the strangely alluring Ronit Elkabetz). The leader of the police force is played with quiet power by Sasson Gabai. From the moment the film started, he is established as a serious person who is deeply conflicted. Later on, we find out why he keeps people at an arm’s length. Through his interactions with Elkabetz, we see chinks in Gabai’s armor; it is touching in just the right amount and it was done in a natural way. Elkabetz impressed me in so many ways because reminded me of Sonia Braga’s acting style: she can be tender and seductive while at the same time standing up for something she believes to be right. Last but not least, Saleh Bakri as the playboy member of the force manages to provide warmth in the picture. Even though he gets distracted too easily by women, he knows how to treat them right. His relationship with Gabai is interesting but it wasn’t fully developed. When the film ended, I felt like the filmmakers were just about to explore that relationship. But that’s what I love about slice of life pictures: not every problem or conflict has to be solved in a span of two hours. Even though this film barely runs for an hour and thirty minutes, it accomplished a lot. One of the best themes of the movie is finding similarities between two very different cultures, whether it comes to music, relationships, and being wounded by the past. The three main characters share a certain loneliness and I could identify with each of them equally. I also find this film commendable because it did not result to being political. It’s about people being themselves and why that should be enough to be able to relate to one another in a meaningful way.