★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) lived in a poor neighborhood but they didn’t mind. What they were unhappy about was the fact that both of them had an abusive family. Dylan had an alcoholic father (Paul Roe) who beat up his wife (Neilí Conroy) and only child, while Kylie was sexually molested by his uncle (Sean McDonagh). When the violence reached a peak in Dylan’s home, the two kids ran away from their hometown and headed to Dublin with the help of a sailor (David Bendito) who introduced them to Bob Dylan’s music. The two hoped to find Dylan’s older brother who ran away two years prior. I was impressed with this coming-of-age film because it managed to do so much with so little. Its story was simple, the script was bare and the camerawork was relatively standard. However, it had moments of real poignancy when the lens would focus on the kids as it highlighted a specific emotion they were going through aided by an excellent soundtrack that allowed us to feel as we were with them. The city was a double-edged sword. During the day, it was a haven for Dylan and Kylie because their parents weren’t around. They had enough money to go shopping for new clothes, eat as much sweets as they wanted, and get to know each other. They learned that despite the fact that they were neighbors and friendly to one another, they weren’t really close. From an outsider’s perspective, it was obvious they liked each other, but they either weren’t aware of it or they weren’t willing to accept it. After all, they were just kids. I think we can all relate to the feeling of spending a couple of hours with someone and suddenly seeing that particular person in a completely different way. The film was successful in its mission of underlining that critical change without being melodramatic and cliché–something more mainstream romantic comedies commonly fail to accomplish. During the night, the city was plagued with monsters. Even people that seemed to mean well should be approached with caution. The characters were smart so they knew how to handle themselves for the most part especially when they were in a public space. However, dark alleys were abound and the most dangerous tend to hide in the shadows and await the perfect opportunity to strike. The bond between the two was challenged and ultimately strengthened. “Kisses,” written and confidently directed by Lance Daly, knew what it wanted to tell the world and it did so with elegance in just over an hour and ten minutes. It reminded me of Shane Meadows’ “Somers Town” because it was highly efficient and both stories’ root was a beautiful friendship. As for the film’s title, well, like best kisses, you just have to experience it.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Lance Hammer, “Ballast” was a powerful film about how three people who lived in Mississippi Delta began working toward a better future after a suicide. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) tried to kill himself after finding out about the death of his twin brother but a neighbor (Johnny McPhail) arrived just in time to call for help. Marlee (Tarra Riggs) was a hardworking mother who desperately wanted to provide for her son James (JimMyron Ross), unaware of his involvement in violence and drugs. As the film went on, Lawrence, Marlee and James had no choice but to be a family and help each other to move forward. I loved the bare bones look of this film because it really got me in the mood to look inside the characters–their motivations, feelings, thoughts and plans for the future. What’s brilliant about this picture is the fact that it’s not just about poor people being poor people and therefore we can’t help but feel sorry for them. It’s about people in poverty who constantly try to provide for themselves even though all hope seems absent. We also got to learn about a certain character’s history with drugs, why Lawrence and Marlee didn’t get along, and why Lawrence was very understanding with James. Even though the movie did not have any soundtrack and had minimal dialogue, when the characters did engage in conversation, the words struck me. I especially was touched by that scene when the mother got fired from her job because of the bruises on her face (and she didn’t have any more sick days so she could take a day off). She said that her appreance shouldn’t matter anyway because she was invisible to everyone else. She had such strength throughout and I couldn’t help but root for her. I’ve heard from people that they were frustrated with the abrupt ending. I had no problem with it at all because it implied that no matter what challenges faced the main characters, they would find a way to overcome them. For me, the picture ended at just the right moment. “Ballast” shows how powerful independent cinema can be. This is not for viewers expecting fast pacing, a defined story structure, or any of the Hollywood conventions. This film is all about the nuances and it was pretty much observing the painful realities that others have to go through from day to day.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Gangs of New York (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I admire Martin Scorsese as a director but I do not think this film is one of his best even though I did like it quite a bit. “Gangs of New York” tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) thirst for vengeance after his father (Liam Neeson) was killed in the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) when he was a child. But since this is a Scorsese film, it simply cannot be that simple. It was also about the frustration and eventual uprising of the poor against the corrupt rich and those of power, rivalry between gangs, the rapid rate of immigration to New York, and the intolerance that comes hand-in-hand when people of very distinct cultures and mindsets are forced to live together. It is an epic picture in every sense of the word but yet there’s something about it that made me believe that it did not quite reach its full potential. When I think about it, I believe that one of its main weaknesses is its almost three-hour running time. While the first twenty minutes were necessary to establish the movie’s emotional core, the next hour was banal. Nothing much happened except for the fact that DiCaprio’s character returned to New York and wanted to gain The Butcher’s trust. So they attend social gatherings together, walk along the streets, go drinking… Pretty much what “tough guys” were supposed to do back in the day, I suppose. I found it really hard to care; perhaps if the whole charade did not last for an hour, I would have stuck with it. However, it did regain its footing half-way through after The Butcher finds Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) sleeping together. (It’s not a spoiler. Everyone should know it was bound to happen.) Starting with that scene, I felt like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis were playing a cat-and-mouse game from who they really are to what their motivations are, especially Day-Lewis’ character. The second part of the film felt so much more alive and exciting; I also noticed how grand everything looked–the set, the clothes, the soundtrack… I was sucked into this world that Scorsese had envisioned like I was in his stronger motion pictures. Nevertheless, I cannot quite give this film a four-star rating and feel good about it because it did have that one hour that was pretty unnecessary. Regardless, DiCaprio and Day-Lewis gave very strong performaces and should be appreciated. I loved it when they had scenes when it was just the two of them in a room. I felt like I was right there with them and feeling like I shouldn’t be.
★★ / ★★★★
I have no idea why the movie was titled “7 Virgins” but I was relieved that it wasn’t about the sexual lives of the characters. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Juan José Ballesta was granted a two-day leave from a juvenile reform center because his brother was getting married. Upon his release, despite his immediate return to his old ways, he slowly realized the things that he was missing out on while he was in that center. Even though Ballesta’s character was hard around the edges and was prone to very questionable behavior and ways of thinking, by the end of the picture, I had this feeling that he did want to change even without the help of the facility. The implication about the power of internal locus of control was subtle enough so it wouldn’t sound preachy. I liked the friendship between Ballesta and Jesús Carroza because they understood each other to the point where they fight one minute and forget about the whole argument just as quickly. However, I wanted to know more about Ballesta’s relationship with his brother, grandmother and girlfriend. Perhaps I was lost in translation but I felt like there was something else underneath the seemingly benign conversations that they had. The film could’ve used less scenes involving the two friends being involved in petty crimes and more scenes exploring the depths of the characters and convincing the audiences why they should ultimately care for the teenagers. This Spanish film, directed by Alberto Rodríguez, had potential to be powerful but it didn’t have enough focus to get to the next level. Instead of revealing the many insights that the main characters were capable of, such elements were stifled. It shouldn’t be that way because the characters were on a journey toward a possible maturity. Growth should come hand-in-hand with one learning various ways to express himself, one of which is effective communication. Still, this was not a bad movie by any means. Even though I wanted to beat the lead character until I knocked some sense into him, I still cared what would happen to him because the film shows that he was capable of good in subtle ways but he wasn’t emotionally equipped to accept it.
No Regret (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hee-il Leesong, the first openly gay director in South Korea who leads a gay-themed film, is someone to watch out for. “No Regret” is about a recently-turned-eighteen orphan (Young-hoon Lee) who leaves the orphanage and heads to Seoul to find a job. Unable to balance school and several low-paying jobs, he decides to work as a male prostitute with the hope of earning enough money to go back to school. The main character meets a rich upcoming businessman (Han Lee) several times including the strip club where he works. Eventually, after a plethora of inner and outer conflicts between the two, they finally fall for each other. But that’s only the beginning of their problems. What I love about this picture is that it didn’t glamorize male prostitution. It managed to paint a picture that people who are involved in such underground jobs are miserable and messed up yet still have human longings that are almost never achieved. They keep telling themselves, “If I earn enough money, I’ll get out of this place and lead a better life” but insecurities of not being good enough for “normal” society soon take over and they get stuck from moving on. Young-hoon Lee impressed me because he can brood really well. When he cried (and he did several times), I felt the sting of his depression and desperation. The moment when I could identify with him the most was when he expressed his insecurities to his lover; mainly that he’s poor and not well-educated. To me, that explains why he initially did not want to get in a relationship with Han Lee’s character. The lead character’s lover is rich, educated and has several options with his life. When they finally get into a relationship, that jealousy never really goes away and it sucks them into a negative spiral. I also thought that the lead character feels guilty for taking away his lover’s opportunities just to be with him. That negative spiral is then aided by Han Lee’s family because they want him to marry a girl despite finding out that their son is a homosexual. The complexity of the situations and morals of these characters are well-integrated in the script so I enjoyed watching the story unfold. However, my biggest problem is the film’s last twenty minutes. The events that transpired were so out of character, I thought the whole sequence was a dream (or a nightmare?). Though the ending did make me laugh in some sick, twisted way (one either loves it or hates it, I suppose), I feel like it could’ve ended better. I felt like the moral implications that pervaded the rest of the film were thrown out the window and, I must admit, I felt a little cheated. Nevertheless, I’m giving this a recommendation because the acting, script, and story are commendable. I’m looking forward to Hee-il Leesong’s next film because he proved to me that he is very capable of telling stories that are both rewarding and unpredictable.
The Family That Preys (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“You can’t make yourself happy [by] bringing misery into other people’s lives.” I think that quote sums up the central thesis of this film. Even though it may be a bit soap opera at times because of the multiple storylines and their big revelations, I can’t help but really like this film. There’s something about the characters that are very true to life, especially in a society where everyone wants to climb up on the economic ladder. While most may initially watch this just to see the drama unfold between and within each family, I think it’s worthy to notice the dynamics between the rich and the poor, between the young and the old, between the man and the woman, and between the whites and the blacks. I admired that this film didn’t have any African-Americans that live in the ghetto. To be honest, I want to see more African-Americans living the “normal” life because they do exist and they should be represented. I love Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates as the two mothers of the family. The way they interacted with one another reminded me of times when I was with my best friend, just laughing our lungs off and not caring about what people think of us in public. I also loved Taraji P. Henson and Sanaa Lathan as the two completely opposite sisters, one sensible and supportive and the other is disrespectful and vindictive, respectively. But I have to admit that Lathan reminded me of myself at times because I can be quite insidious and sometimes I forget where I come from. I don’t like that about myself and I’ve been trying to get rid of those qualities over the past three years (which, I think, has been successful so far). I wanted to hate her but at the end of the day, I just felt really sorry for her because of the way she treats the ones that love her most. There are a lot of memorable and insightful quotes that could be found all over the film; they made me think where I am in life, where I was, and where I will be. This is the kind of movie that made me so happy that I choose to surround myself with people that I can love and will love me no matter what happens. Upon watching the characters figure each others’ intentions, it goes to show that you can have all the money in the world but if you’re not happy with yourself and you forget where you come from, your life is truly not worth much.