The New World (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
English settlers landed on Louisiana in 1607. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) was to be hanged, on the grounds of mutiny, the moment they reached land. But Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) changed his orders because he knew Captain Smith was a good explorer. He just needed to be controlled. When Captain Smith met Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of an Indian leader, the two began a forbidden love affair. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” moved at a deliberate slow pace in order to highlight man’s relationship with nature. It worked most of the time. I saw beauty in the way the director captured the wind caressing the grass, the way the characters leaned into the magnificent trees, and the elegant movement of the water as the ships heaved its way onto land. Pocahontas had two men in her life and the emotions were dealt with complexity. In the end, I was convinced she loved them both in different ways. When she was with Captain Smith, I noticed that they always looked into each other’s eyes. The way the camera lingered as the captain taught Pocahontas English words held a sweetness and innocence. As their bodies slowly inched closer to one another, we felt their concern that someone could be looking. There was an understated joy when they touched each other’s skin. When Pocahontas was with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the two spent their time looking at a distance, as if transfixed at the sight of the future. But when they did look into each other’s eyes, they shared an outward passion whether it be in a hut or out in the garden. Through the men in her life, we saw the way she changed. She left her culture because she was a dreamer. But leaving didn’t mean forgetting. She was curious of the life outside of her sphere and she felt as though her sarcrifices were worth it. Like Captain Smith and John Rolfe, she was an explorer. But my favorite scene didn’t have anything to do with a shot involving a gorgeous scenery or her interactions with the two most important men in her life. It was when Pocahontas handed a homeless man a coin and gently touched his cheek. It held a great meaning for me because it was reassuring. Even though her style of clothing and the way in which she carried herself had changed, she was the same person we met in the beginning of the film. She was playful, compassionate, and connected with the Earth. It’s understandable when I hear people say that the film is just too slow for their liking. It wasn’t plot-driven. Most movies are but they don’t need to be. “The New World” was an exercise of the senses and, in my opinion, how we can relate our personal experiences with it. As an immigrant, scenes like Pocahontas smelling a book because she had never seen one before had meaning for me. I grew up in the Philippines not having a computer in my home. When I moved to America, I didn’t know how to type on the keyboard or even use the mouse to click at an icon to go to the internet. In small ways, I saw myself in Pocahontas. Sometimes small is enough.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Mark Polish and Michael Polish, “Northfork” told the story of a community in Montana forced to be uprooted from their homes because the area that they lived in would soon be underwater. Six men (James Woods, Graham Beckel, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, Jon Gries, Rick Overton) were assigned to persuade the residents to move out of their homes by any means necessary. On the other side of the spectrum, a dying child (Duel Farnes) was dropped off to an orpanage by his parents to be in the hands of a priest (Nick Nolte). In the child’s mind, the child tried to persuade ghosts (Daryl Hannah, Robin Sachs, Ben Foster, Anthony Edwards) that he was an angel and therefore they should take him with them when they leave Northfork. I love the fact that the film and was not really about anything; there was a plot but there was no story yet it was such a pleasure to watch. The way it played with the atmospheric images of the landscape to match the very eccentric characters somehow moved me. Even though there were times when the scenes with the six men did not completely work for me because some of the humor were not easily accessible, I couldn’t help but appreciate those scenes because of the creative visual puns. For me, the stronger scenes were the ones focused on the dying child. I was on the verge of tears when I thought about how his parents just left him to die because it was more convenient for them and how desperate he was leave the world of the living. There was a nice contrast between how alive he was in his mind and how weak he was in the “real” world which made the experience all the more touching. My favorite aspect of the film was the fact that it was very open to interpretation. I saw it as a story of loss and renewal. The residents may be losing the comfortable world they lived in but outside their comfort zones is a possibility of a better life. The boy may be losing his life but the result might offer a world where he need not be abandoned. “Northfork,” directed by Michael Polish, is a challenging picture. Less thoughtful audiences may be quick to judge and claim that nothing happened and therefore it wasn’t a worthwhile experience. Others may argue that it borderlines insularity. I may agree to an extent but I thought it worked because it captured the mindsets of residents living in a small town. I admired the ambitious philosophical questions it raised. I just wished it had more scenes when the camera would pull into a wide shot and showcase the breathtaking landscapes that were about to be erased.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Madeo” or “Mother,” directed by Joon-ho Bong, told the story of a mother (Hye-ja Kim) who would do anything to prove her son’s innocence (Bin Won) regarding a schoolgirl’s cold-blooded murder. Realizing that the police was not at all motivated to look into the case a little deeper, the mother did her own investigation about who the real killer was. Her first suspect was her son’s ruffian of a friend (Ku Jin). The look of the movie grabbed me instantaneously. There was something very poetic about the background imagery and the way it sometimes highlighted a character’s state of mind. My favorite scenes to look at were the shots taken outdoors when the mother was one with nature accompanied by music perfect for exotic dancing. Those scenes moved me because, as beautiful as the images were, my focus was on the mother’s facial expressions and body movements. By intently looking at her, I couldn’t help but feel her frustration, desperation and guilt. I am not quite sure that the picture started off well. The first twenty minutes felt like it was all over the place and I did not understand where the film wanted to go. However, it found its identity when the mother decided that she was going to perform her own detective work, specifically when she broke into someone’s home and found (what she believed was) a piece of evidence. I couldn’t help but care for her because she looked so frail and, more importantly, her unwavering conviction that her son was innocent. The last thing I wanted to see was her to be pushed around because she already looked as if she was defeated. I loved how the director framed the idea of truth and let it evolve naturally. Certain truths were true at a specific moment in time but then they changed five minutes later as new pieces of the puzzle were introduced. As a result, the movie was unpredictable and I was constantly questioning whether the mother was truly on the right path to earn her son’s freedom. The last few minutes were full of emotion. I was impressed with the way Bong dealt with the complexities of each emotion as the characters tried to deal with the final hand they were given. “Mother” is the kind of movie that is difficult to place under one genre. There were times when I thought it was a comedy (the beginning), a thriller (the middle), and a drama (the ending). It’s not the kind of movie that everyone will necessarily enjoy because the tone is vastly different compared to more mainstream projects. But what I can say for sure is that I thought the film was a rich morality story and a joy to watch.
George Washington (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by David Gordon Green, “George Washington” tells the story of a group of friends (Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, Damian Jewan Lee) who lived in small rural town whose lives changed forever after a tragic accident. That may sound like any other coming-of-age film but “George Washington” was much more complex than that because it was told with such a delicate touch and poetic lyricism. Being familiar with Green’s later projects, I was impressed that this was his first movie because he allowed his characters to speak to each other, to themselves and to us via narration. The characters expressed themselves like real people to the point where I thought at times that it was too naturalistic (but in a good way). I loved the fact that the characters evolved over time but the evolution didn’t come hand-in-hand with big realizations and deafening score. Their growth came in the quiet moments when they would just sit around and express to each other what they felt at that moment compared to how they were when we saw them in the beginning. I guess what I loved most about the picture was it didn’t go out of its way to impress and simply told the circumstances surrounding the subjects’ lives. A common theme I was most interested in was the suffocation both the adults and children felt living in that one particular town. One way or another, they expressed how they wanted to leave their homes to learn more about the world or possibly meet someone who could inspire or challenge them yet accept them for who they were. I’ve read some reviews claiming that not much happened or that the movie was too slow. On the contrary, I thought it was dynamic because even though the outside remained more or less static, there was so much struggle and hurt and questioning going on inside the characters. In a way, it reminded me of my childhood, especially during the summer, when all I would do was hang out with my friends or with my cousins all day. Our biggest worries almost always concerned our parents’ disapproval or someone getting hurt when would play games. So I thought the film was honest and painfully real and I was captivated by it. The final twenty minutes or so really pushed to reach a new level of imagination specifically the scenes about the boy yearning to be a hero. I thought it was symbolic of a person wanting to be someone else but not just to be any regular folk–someone who was worthy of fantasy and who everybody looked up to. “George Washington” is definitely for patient viewers who strive to look and feel beyond the surface. In the end, even though it had so much sadness in its core, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.
The Road (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” focused on a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they traveled to the south of the United States, on foot, in hopes of finding a place where they could be safe from cannibals and starvation. A post-apocalyptic film in every respect, the look of the picture was very bleak–everything was grey and characters were covered in mud and grime. The only warmth that was present was the bond between the father and son as they evaded gangs who killed and ate people and who had stooped so low that they were willing to molest children. Mortensen did a great job portraying a father who wanted to be a model for his son just in case he met an untimely death. I was impressed because even though his character was nurturing (the mother, played by Charlize Theron, passed away), there was a certain toughness about him that was so precise when circumstances turned for the worst. On the other hand, I was very annoyed with Smit-McPhee’s character because he was so whiny about everything. For having a father who obviously tried his hardest to protect and provide for him, during the first half, the kid found every reason to whine and mope. I seriously wanted to shake (or punch) the kid to knock some sense into him. Fortunately, during the second half, he grew on me because he provided a much needed heart to the story, especially when they met an old man and a thief, Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams, respectively. As much as this film was depressing, I didn’t think it was monotonous like some audiences suggested. I thought it was very suspenseful, especially the scene when the father and son went into a cellar to find the most horrific images. Strangely enough, I also thought it was hopeful because of the strong relationship between the two leads. They kept talking about a “fire” inside them (a religious implication, I’m not entirely sure) that helped them to continue their journey while at the same keeping their humanity. The tone was complex and it was definitely easy to get lost in bleak atmosphere if one was not emotionally invested in the characters. As the film came to an emotionally draining conclusion, I started to think about life and how it would eventually end for myself, my friends and my family. It just made me incredibly sad and I couldn’t help but turn on the waterworks. “The Road” may not have been as strong as critics expected it to be but it’s nonetheless a solid film with a heart despite the exploration of the darker side of humanity. There was something very poetic about the whole experience right from the start so I was glued all the way through.
★★★ / ★★★★
This coming-of-age urban drama was about James (William Eadie) and his increasing guilt which started when he got into a fight with another kid who accidentally drowned. He doesn’t have an outlet for his negative emotions and his environment is far from helpful. His family is somewhat unstable led by an irresponsible, unloving father, they live in an impoverished neighborhood and there’s a garbage strike (the story is set in Scotland during the mid-1970s)–which means that the garbage do not get picked up which causes tremendous health hazards for everyone (lice, rats, contaminated water, you name it). Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, I couldn’t help but get engaged in the film’s poeticism. There was a nice contrast between how children see the world and how children hopes the world should be like. I was greatly affected by James’ struggle to want to be a good person but couldn’t because his parents and older siblings are not good models on how to express emotions. They’re always cursing, yelling, hitting each other and avoiding the main issue altogether. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, with the exception of an older girl Margaret (Leanne Mullen) and the mentally challenged Kenny (John Miller), both of which are constant targets of the older boys. It pained me whenever he ran away from home to visit a nice house because it’s his dream for his family to finally get out of the miserable place where they’re currently living. I felt his desperation and I knew he was just a character but I really wished I could provide him some sort of comfort. I liked the atmosphere that Ramsay created because it reflected the main character’s mindset. I also liked the fact that the story did not shy away from sensitive issues such as death and childhood depression. As for its ending, I didn’t expect it but I thought it was handled with such craft. In some ways, it’s hopeful because the director sets up an argument which straddles the line between spirituality (not necessarily religion) and imagination. This is a great effort from Ramsay and I’m very interested in seeing what she has to offer from her other films.
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.
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.