★★★★ / ★★★★
Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Two very attractive assassins (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) decided to get married, unaware that the other worked for their agency’s rival. Five or six years into their marriage, they found out the truth and they were assigned to kill each other or else they would be the ones that would end up dead. I saw this movie back in 2005 but it was not at all what I remembered it to be. While it did have over-the-top and very in-your-face destructive action sequences, I did not expect it to have more than a handful of funny running jokes. Some of which included living in suburbia and adhering to its unstated rules, keeping their extracurricular activities a secret (or is their extracurricular activity their marriage?), the rut of being in a relationship where both are sick of trying to pretend to be normal and, most common of all, the increasing frustration on both parties when sex was taken out of the equation for quite some time. I thought the picture was at its peak in its first two-thirds when the characters were not aware of the truth and the decisions they had to face when finally found out each other’s true identities. It was painfully obvious that they weren’t going to kill each other (I thought it was hilarious that Jolie hit Pitt in the face multiple times but not vice-versa) but I had a good time picking sides regarding who would outsmart the other (I was on Jolie’s team). The two leads were very different and that’s the reason why the movie worked. Mr. Smith liked to have fun on the job and wasn’t afraid to detach from the plan and let his instincts take over. Mrs. Smith, on the hand, was very dedicated to sticking with the rules and was not willing to compromise both on and off the field. The last third was more or less a typical action picture where the protagonists tried to evade grenades, raining bullets and rocket launchers. I started to get bored but at least Pitt and Jolie looked good and it was obvious that they were having fun. As for the supporting actors like Vince Vaughn and Adam Brody, they did not bring much into the film but when they were on camera, it was a nice break from the deafening explosions and pots and pans hitting the floor. However, it would have been nice if there was some sort of twist involving those two. Written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Doug Liman, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a very commercial action movie that everybody can watch and have a good time. With movies like this, it’s easy to try too hard and difficult to be effortless. Fortunately, with Pitt and Jolie’s charm and a great script, the film was effortless when it came to balancing action, comedy and sexiness.
Exterminating Angels (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
“Les anges exterminateurs” or “Exterminating Angels,” written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau, tells the story of a filmmaker (Frédéric van den Driessche) who wants to create a movie which documents what it takes for women to reach intense carnal pleasure. Two fallen angels (Margaret Zenou and Raphaële Godin) helps him on his project by whispering to other women (Lise Bellynck, Maroussia Dubreuil, Marie Allan) that they should audition and engage in sexual acts with each other. Even though the premise of the film was unconventional (to say the least), I thought it was interesting all the way through. It didn’t quite explore its emotional core but I appreciated the many ideas it had. I have no problem when it comes to full frontal nudity and even very realistic sexual acts but I thought that this film had way too many of those scenes. I thought the movie had a certain special glow whenever the characters were just talking to each other. Just like real people, each of the characters had a mask that sometimes wavered and the audiences got a peek of the characters’ true motivations and what they were really thinking and feeling instead of what they wanted the world to see. I also thought it was interesting how Driessche’ character failed to use a camera time and time again to record his supposed project about female sexuality. It then begs the question on whether he really did just use the girls for his own pleasure or if he really did care about them in some way. I admired this picture’s daring nature to tackle certain taboos head-on and that’s probably why I forgave its inconsistencies. It’s better than watching a mainstream project that puts a veil on sexuality because this one is not afraid to show the dark side of humanity and how passion sometimes blinds us and eventually might destroy us. But I should note that “Exterminating Angels” will be difficult to sit through, especially for those who are not used to foreign cinema and art-house pictures. Some may label this film as pretentious or even pointless. But what couldn’t be denied is the fact that it was raw, had some sort of brain behind it, and it transgressed may lines that most movies dare not cross.
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.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.