One Day (2011)
★ / ★★★★
On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduated from university. They were ecstatic because, like most graduates, they were convinced that the world was ripe for their picking. Emma strived to be poetess/writer in London. Dexter was uncertain but he had plans of vacationing/teaching English abroad. Over the course of twenty-something years, the film, based on the novel and screenplay by David Nicholls, checked in on them on the same day each year. While its premise was interesting, the storytelling was disjointed and unconvincing. What Dexter and Emma had was supposed to be an example of a deep friendship. After all, they pined to see or call each other when something important happened in their lives. However, there was a drought of clues in terms whether or not they even saw or heard from each other on any other day except July 15. As a result, as each year passed by, it became increasingly difficult to buy into what they supposedly had. After all, deep friendships are also rooted in going through ordinariness together. Emma had a crush on Dexter even before they formally met. While understandable because he commanded great hair that seemed to come out of a high fashion magazine, Dexter was almost completely charmless. His jokes felt more like personal jabs and he was an unapologetically hedonistic womanizer. He’d go in the direction, without careful thought for the feelings of others, that made him feel good the most. So how could we feel sympathy for him when his career as a television presenter reached a screeching halt? And why did Emma want to continue seeing him for as long as she did? The most obvious answer is that she enjoyed being heartbroken. This was disloyal to her character who initially smart, funny, and always strived to be independent. The best part of the film was Dexter’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her struggles of dealing with cancer and watching her son traverse the path of self-destruction. Clarkson wasn’t given much screen time but each time she was on screen, she provided a fiery complexity that the material desperately needed. When the mother looked at her son, I stared in her eyes and I couldn’t fully determine what took more energy out of her: Was it her illness combined with the chemotherapy or was it her son being blind to the fact he was so far from what he hoped he’d become? Unfortunately, Emma’s parents were nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how they saw their daughter other than a one-dimensional sweet girl, occasionally sporting a great haircut circa 2003, with nice dreams. I waited and hoped that someone practical would just bluntly tell her to snap out of her fantasies and remind her that aging comes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. The fact is, you can’t wait for a man or woman until he or she sees something in you. “One Day,” directed by Lone Scherfig, was supposed to be romantic and inspiring but it was ultimately masochistic. Much of its criticisms had something to do with Hathaway’s English accent. It had bigger problems than that. It’s a movie made for women but I’m afraid it doesn’t have much respect for them beyond the surface level.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Broken Sky (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Julián Hernández, “El cielo dividido” or “Broken Sky” bides its time (two hours and twenty minutes to be exact) to tell the story of a couple (Miguel Ángel Hoppe and Fernando Arroyo) who started off as loving and eventually ended up cold and distant. One of the main reasons for such a schism was Arroyo fell in love with another man. Although this led Hoppe to seek attention from Alejandro Rojo, does his new partner have the same qualities as his former lover? This movie was painful for me to watch because of the fact that there were extended scenes of lack of dialogue for no reason whatsoever. It would have been fine if the narration was consistent because then the audiences would know what was going on in the characters heads. When we are left to watch the grieving characters doing whatever they choose to do, it’s not a good thing especially when the characters themselves do not know what they should do next. The whole movie was supposed to be poetic because of the music, the passionate sex and the absence of dialogue. But the way I saw it was the director got a bit too lazy. Instead of painting us a picture of the emotional turmoil that the characters were going through, he decided to sit back and “let it all unfold” when, really, there’s absolutely nothing to drive the story forward. Instead, we get redundant scenes of guys being in bed, going to clubs and stalking each other. It wasn’t an insightful or relatable experience when it should have been because most of us are familiar with heartbreak and rejection. This monolith of a movie could have easy been just above an hour long. Now, I can handle movies that are different and have an art-house kind of feel to them. But for me to ultimately enjoy movies that are “different” (or any movie in general), I look for an emotional core–whether such a core is droll, depressing, childlike, suspenseful or simply a slice-of-life–but “Broken Sky” didn’t have that basic quality. We see characters who are sad and angry but if they (and the filmmakers) don’t let us make a connection with them, why should we care what would happen to them? I’ve seen other self-obsessed characters portrayed on screen having an easier time to let me in. If you have insomnia, this soporific picture is your cure.
The Witnesses (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Director André Téchiné’s “Les témoins” tells the story of how four French people (Johan Libéreau, Sami Bouajila, Emmanuelle Béart and Michel Blanc) deal with a newly-discovered unknown virus back in 1984, currently known as AIDS. Libéreau moves to Paris to live with his sister (Julie Depardieu) but eventually becomes Blanc’s younger non-physical lover. Blanc then introduces Libéreau to a married couple Bouajila and Béart, a cop and children’s books writer, respectively. While the couple allow each other to sleep with whoever they want, the wife has no idea that her husband’s new lover is a man and a much younger guy. This could easily have been a stupid movie about homosexuals getting AIDS if it weren’t for Téchiné’s direction. The topic was dealt with such sensitivity to the point where it’s really about people, regardless of sexual orientation, who happen to get infected by the disease. The film also tackles the idea of that initial fear when the scientific community doesn’t have any idea why people are dying except for the fact that it is a virus and there’s no cure for it. I wasn’t yet alive in 1984 so I don’t really know how it was like when AIDS first became an epidemic. So to see news reels about people avoiding certain foods, certain people (homosexuals, drug addicts and Haitians) and even people who work in the morgue actively staying away from dead bodies were interesting to me. I could definitely relate with this picture, especially with the recent scare regarding swine flu. I was so paranoid about getting a cold because of this thought that I won’t be able to live for very long once I get it. There was a certain sensitivity and respect about the issue but it’s not too light or flowery; it’s just enough to tell a story from a specific point of view. Lastly, I liked the fact that the characters’ sexualities weren’t really a big deal. Unlike most American films that touch upon the subject of homosexuality/bisexuality, this picture did not have any I’m-gay-so-I’m-alienated-and-I’m-self-hating moment. I admired this movie’s focus because it never waivers from the message it wanted to get across even though it had to juggle four very different personalities.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I can understand why most people would dismiss this film due to its disorganized way of telling the story and featuring a lifestyle that was not (and still is not) fully accepted in society. “Velvet Goldmine” was about a journalist (Christian Bale) who was assigned to write an article about a glam rock star named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whose stardom quickly plunged because he faked his own death. Incidentally, Bale was a fan of Slade when he was younger so the assignment was a lot more personal to him than any other projects he had before to the point where he rekindled some of that obsession he used to have for the rock star. In order to get the full picture regarding Slade’s life, Bale interviewed the people that knew Slade most: the one who discovered him (Michael Feast), his wife (Toni Collette), his manager (Eddie Izzard), and his competition/partner/lover (Ewan McGregor). I must give kudos to Todd Haynes, the director, for featuring strong performances from the four leads (Rhys-Meyers, Bale, Collette and McGregor). He told the story in such a way that each of the four had an equal share of the spotlight and really gave scintillating performances. I also liked the fact that Haynes’ message about music was different. Most pictures that tackle the meaning of music tend to argue that music is a meaningful entity. In here, the message is the antithesis: music is meaningless; music is driven by the artists’ ego and thirst for taking over or changing the world; lastly, music–or real music–should not and does not contain anything personal from the artist because its purpose is to simply entertain; to put something personal in it is to contaminate it and thus defying itself. Well, at least that’s how I interpreted the film. I found this film to be particularly cold: It did not make an effort to convince its audiences why they should care for the characters. Interestingly enough, I loved it because it embraced the feeling of the 1970’s glam rock era which consisted of revolting against the norm, being apathetic to things that should matter, and embracing the dirtiness and griminess of atypicality. For an independent film, I thought it was particularly powerful, especially when it used techniques from the film “Citizen Kane”–fusing past and present in order to truly understand the characters that have been so wrapped up in the darkness they’ve created for themselves. I also appreciated the fact that it featured the fluidity of sexuality, emotions and ideas. This is a rich film with fascinating images and ideas but it’s not particularly accessible so one should be wary on whether he or she should watch it. But if one has an open mind, this should be a pleasant surprise. This reminded me of a weaker “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (though the two are very different films); a little bit more focus would have made this an instant favorite of mine.