★★★ / ★★★★
On the outside, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seemed like he was living the dream. As a thirtysomething single man living in New York City, he commanded a fancy job, lived in a fashionable apartment by himself, and was very capable of having most women because of his preternatural good looks and charm. But inside, Brandon was a mess. His sex addiction consumed every aspect of his life. Whether he was at work, on the subway, or at home, all he could think about was sex and how he was going to get it. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), paid him a visit, the control he built for himself was threatened like it had never been before. “Shame,” based on the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, held a vise grip around the issue that is sex addiction in its first half only to lose vigor toward the final act. Within the first ten minutes, although I found the handful of penis shots quite distracting, it felt almost appropriate because it braced us on what we were about to see. The implication I extracted from it was that it was very easy to get a reaction from seeing a titillating body part. What was difficult, however, was being open-minded, getting into the mind of someone with an addiction, taking him seriously, and perhaps sympathizing with him. As nudity was paraded on screen, the accompanying shots involved Brandon intently starting at a woman on the subway (Lucy Walters). At first, I could relate. I admit that I’ve been on a public transportation and couldn’t help but admire someone due to his or her physicality either from afar or right across front me. But then it began to get creepy when the woman, probably around fifteen years younger than Brandon, returned his look of complete lust. When someone catches me starting, what I tend to do is smile then look away. Instead, the two continued to look at each other so fiercely, like it was a game, to the point where the woman began to get very uncomfortable, as if she sensed that there was something very wrong with this guy who kept looking at her. The evolution from awkwardness to lust to danger was quite riveting and I admired that the director, Steve McQueen, allowed the scene to play out so naturally until the woman felt like she needed to run and escape the situation. I found the movie quite brave. It created an argument that although Brandon–and people who share the same affliction–was addicted to sex, he was still human because he could discern between right and wrong, even though sometimes he was forced to do the right thing, like allowing his sister to stay with him because she had nowhere else to go. Brandon’s struggles in wanting to have a genuine relationship with another person was most beautifully framed by his date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), so different from what he initially thought she was like. I was certain that he went into that date expecting sex at the end of the night. On one of their conversations, there was one question that was brought up that proved, at least to me, that Brandon did want to change. To state that question here, I feel, would do the film a disservice. I wished that Brandon’s relationship with his sister, though mostly involving, didn’t result to such predictability as the material began to wrap up certain strands. The attempt to get us to care felt cheap and off-putting. For a picture so loyal in embedding implications between the lines, the obvious catharsis came off as, at best, out of place. “Shame” did a great job suggesting that there is no cure for sex addiction without one scene taking place in a counselor’s or a psychiatrist’s office. For most people who don’t seek help because they are not aware that they have a problem, there is only another day of trying not succumb all over again.
★★ / ★★★★
“Les égarés” was set in World War II as Germans began to occupy France in 1940. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clémence Meyer) were caravanning across the provinces when they were targeted by German planes. Pressing forward would most likely lead to death so, along with a seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), the four darted into the forest and found refuge in an abandoned home. “Strayed” was a simple film driven by questions. Should we trust Yvan despite the fact that he was a compulsive liar? Since he was so good at lying, how much did he really care about the family of three? Was it possible that Odile suspected that there was something not quite right about him to the point where she found the need to grab the first opportunity to hide the stranger’s gun and grenades? Was she scared of him losing control more than the Germans finding them? There were a plethora of questions and most of them were answered by the end. But the main problem with the film was if the viewers failed to look beyond the obvious and ask questions, they would feel as though the movie was pointless. The majority of the running time followed the characters catching animals for food, having lunch or dinner, discussing what they should do the next day, and reflecting about the lives they left behind. There was sexual friction between Odile and Yvan. The latter wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. After all why would he when he was a teenager filled with raging hormones? There was no doubt that Odile, highly attractive for her age, was interested in Yvan but she felt like being with him was wrong because he was essentially still a child. Even Yvan admitted that he was more about taking action than taking the time to think things through. His transitory age was a template for his childish and child-like tendencies to collide, reflective of the Freudian id–“If it feels good, do it.” Another interesting part was Odile’s children. There was a strange scene when Cathy, still around seven or eight years old, decided to climb onto Yvan’s bed, who was naked under the covers, and claimed that she wanted to get pregnant. How did she know of such a concept? Less obvious implications consisted of Philippe constantly wanting to gain Yvan’s acceptance. Did Philippe see him as a brother, a father, or something else? Perhaps Odile’s overprotective parenting was successful at keeping the children alive, but the more important question was will they be able to function after the war was over? Again, it was up to us to ask the questions and, in some ways, answer them as well. Based on a novel by Gilles Perrault and directed by André Téchiné, “Les égarés” had a rather simple premise but it was challenging in the most unexpected ways. That challenge could appeal to some while others could be repelled.
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.
Bad Education (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favorite directors because he is often willing to take bold risks. Instead of feeding his audiences Hollywood typicalities, he tries to reinvent the formula by challenging us to see movies in a different way. In his film “La mala educación,” two childhood friends (Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez) who fell in love with each other in Catholic school crossed paths after sixteen years of separation. Enrique was experiencing a drought of ideas for his next film so Ángel offered Enrique a story that was half non-fiction (based on their childhood) and half fiction (when they eventually reunited). The only thing Ángel wanted in return was to play the lead character because he desperately needed work. The first time I saw “Bad Education” (which was around 2005) I didn’t completely understand it because it was essentially a dynamic exercise of perspectives. Back then I didn’t have the experience to really hone in on what was really going on underneath the scenes that Almodóvar painted for his audiences. But after becoming more familiar with his work and other movies that may have influenced his techniques, I am convinced that “La mala educación” is one of his best movies to date. The funny thing (and what I love most) about Almodóvar is he pretty much uses the same basic elements in all of his pictures: bright colors that hint on what we should feel and/or what the characters really feel despite their self-delusions, bittersweet irony, awkward camera angles, mistaken identities, razor-sharp dark comedy and eccentric characters willing to go through great lengths to keep certain secrets hidden. What impresses me is he (arguably) just shuffles things around, makes tiny tweaks here and there and voilà!–a new Almodóvar film is born. But what makes this picture one of his best is every scene has a certain focus and confidence so each one contributes to the big picture. In about an hour and forty-five minutes, the director was able to elegantly construct a web of deceit with characters who had questionable morals yet we couldn’t help but care for them because we knew their backstories. Bernal was simply electric. His character is the kind of character I love to watch and dissect because every decision he made had a purpose and would ultimately most benefit himself. He appeared charismatic on the outside but he was capable of great subterfuge. That element of film noir completely enraptured me and I didn’t want the experience to end. “Bad Education” is not the kind of movie one will fully understand in just one sitting. Anyone who claims to have understood everything about it is either lying or has completely missed the point. I highly recommend “La mala educación” for its feverish passion to tell a very personal story which expertly balances ambiguity and complexity. Don’t get distracted by the drag queens and sexual positions because those elements are just half the fun.
Double Indemnity (1944)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This noir classic about a man (Fred MacMurray) who works for an insurance company who plots with a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband (Tom Powers) was impressive through and through. Unhappily married to her husband because she married him only for the money, Stanwyck suggested to MacMurray that they commit murder, collect her husband’s insurance money of $100,000 (assuming the husband dies on a train–a situation covered under the double indemnity clause) and be together forever. Only things started to go seriously wrong when an insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) began to feel like the death was due to murder rather than accidental because everything was set-up so perfectly. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character (played by MacMurray) narrated the picture and told the audiences outright how everything was going to turn out. So then the focus turned to the journey of two conniving individuals so blinded by greed and passion, they failed to consider the ramifications of what could happen after the deed was done. Stanwyck’s character was an expert of hiding her true emotions and an excellent liar; MacMurray’s character was obsessed with details and had a natural ability to think ahead. But both of them needed each other and that was ultimately their downfall (in which a train became a perfect metaphor). I thought it was fascinating how we saw the story through the antagonists’ perspectives. With most noir films I’ve seen, the story is always through the good guys’ eyes so watching this movie was a refreshing change. “Double Indemnity,” directed by Billy Wilder, being a noir film, I expected it to have a great ear when it comes to dialogue and a stunning use of black and white cinematography. What I didn’t expect was for the script to be very amusing, especially in the first half when MacMurray and Stanwyck conversed for the first time. It provided a nice contrast with the film’s darkness and cynicism. This movie kept me on my toes because just when I thought the characters were at the crest of the wave and were going to get away with everything, they hit a trough just as quickly and they started to figure out ways how they could survive even if it meant sacrificing one another.
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.
Kiss the Bride (2007)
★ / ★★★★
This movie goes downhill after the opening credits. The story is about a gay man (Philipp Karner) who works in the magazine industry in the big city who one day gets an invitation from his first love’s (James O’Shea) wedding with a woman (Tori Spelling). This is kind of like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” only I can’t sit through it because it sounds like most of the actors are reading off a script. For an LGBT film made for gay men, I found the women to be the most interesting: Spelling, Amber Benson (the bride’s sister) and Jane Cho (Karner’s plucky lesbian assistant). Another aspect I found to be unforgivable was Karner’s character. When he returned to his hometown, I felt as if he felt like he was better than everyone else. His main goal is to persuade O’Shea to call off the wedding right when they see each other. When things didn’t go according to plan, he mopes around like a little kid. I couldn’t identify with the main character at all because he’s too self-absorbed. I didn’t appreciate the twists and turns of the story as well, which was predominant in the last fifteen minutes. I felt like the script was trying too hard to impress. To me, it just highlights the film’s flaws such as its poor pacing, acting and direction. The ending didn’t make sense either. Overall, I just wanted to get to know Benson’s cynical character who was sent to jail for vandalizing a wedding store. She stood out to me because she’s not like any of the cookie-cutter characters. She has drive, anger and thoughts that doesn’t have anything to do about love or weddings. Avoid this film if you can. If you want to see a much better movie with 90% similarities with this movie, go watch “My Best Friend’s Wedding” instead. That one was actually funny and clever. And if you want to see a much better film from C. Jay Cox, check out “Latter Days.”
The Reader (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
If Kate Winslet doesn’t get nominated and win two Oscars for her performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader,” I would be very disappointed with the Academy. Having seen pretty much all of the films that generated the most buzz in the Best Actress category, I can vouch that she’s the one who truly deserves it. In “The Reader,” Winslet shines as a woman who gets sexually entangled with a fifteen-year-old boy, played with such vulnerability and innocence by David Kross. Strangely enough, even though their relationship is taboo, I’m willing to admit that I did find chemistry between the two of them. In the first half of the picture, Stephen Daldry, the director, was smart enough to focus on the two leads’ hunger. That hunger is presented both emotionally and physically but never completely separate. Both of the characters intentions are never completely clear which makes the film that much more interesting. I was often questioning myself about who was really using the other. Just when I thought it was about to lose its focus, the second half was able to summon all of its power and give its audiences reasons why they should care for the Winslet and Kross (played by Ralph Fiennes as time went on). Even though the two are deeply flawed, we relate to them in many ways because they tend to choose the more difficult path in order to keep protecting their secrets. Such secrets may seem so simple at first glance but there’s a lot of shame in those secrets, especially those that belong to Winslet’s character. Some of the best scenes of “The Reader” are its silent moments when the images do not require an explanation. Having said all of that, I think this film would’ve been much stronger if the last thirty minutes were more fluid. I thought there were many “final” scenes where the film could’ve ended. The “choppiness” could’ve been taken care of with a little bit more time. I’m giving this a high recommendation for the reasons mentioned previously but especially for Winslet’s performance. But the real surprise for me was the newcomer Kross, who I hope to see more in the future. He’s so brave for deciding to star in a film of this caliber. He not only sheds his clothes but ultimately his soul–which is far more challenging for any actor his age.
Love Songs (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although the ending is abrupt, it impressed me because of its implications. Deceptively simple on the outside, this French film has something to say about young love/lust and it is executed in just the right way without being too heavy-handed with its messages. Even though the template of the picture is the three-way romantic relationship between Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, and Clotilde Hesme, I thought the relationship between Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet–how Leprince-Ringuet brought Garrel back to life, more aware than ever, after a certain tragedy was the best part of the film. I love how this movie uses musical numbers when a certain character cannot put his or her thoughts into the right words. It’s true to life because relationships (romantic or otherwise) get complex and sometimes we can’t say what we want to say in order for others to understand our point of view. It’s very honest and the singing voices reflected that honesty–the actors actually sang without attempting to make the voices polished or grand (like in most American musicals). Written and directed by Christophe Honoré, one can tell that this movie had a low budget but that doesn’t stop it from trying to achieve something great. The only quibble I have with “Les Chansons d’amour” (“Love Songs”) is it didn’t explore Garrel’s relationship with Leprince-Ringuet enough. They are really opposite and it would’ve been beneficial if they had a little more conflict while at the same time learning from each other.