The Illusionist (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A French magician (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) made a living by playing in small pubs, basements, and coffee shops. If he was lucky enough, he was allowed to perform in a music hall after a big band with a whole lot of screaming and giggling admirers. He loved his craft but the magic of illusion was waning. It probably had something to do with the lack of variety in his tricks. But when he met a girl named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) who believed that the magician possessed real powers, he invited her on a trip to the capital of Scotland. They lived together and he gave her wonderful gifts. However, he knew that it was only a matter of time until he had to inform her that he was just an ordinary man. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, “The Illusionist” was a touching film because it captured the many complex emotions the magician felt as he went on stage and saw that not many people were interested in his art. It was personal for him because he defined himself as his art. If his art was forgotten or ignored, so was he. During his performances, the applause were very scattered; the awkwardness was so pronounced, I wished I heard no applause at all. I was impressed with the hand-drawn animation. It was easy to notice the attention to detail. When the magician was on stage, there were moments when the director showed us the audiences’ expressions. Some were hopelessly bored, others were slightly amused, and a few didn’t want to be there at all. I found it important that their expressions told me a story. For instance, those who didn’t enjoy the tricks probably felt obligated to stay because they paid a good sum of money to see a performance. Maybe some were simply too tired to get up from their seats because the last performance took a lot out of them. What I found fascinating was its lack of dialogue. Some French and English words were occasionally thrown under surreptitious whispers and exasperated groans but the recognizable words didn’t mean anything. The meaning was in the body language, the facial expressions, and the way a light of a certain color hit a character’s face. (Even the rabbit the magician used had a personality.) The insignificance of language was highlighted when we watched the characters converse behind windows. We heard no sound. The images didn’t have to mean anything. It was up to us to think and interpret what we thought the characters were feeling or thinking when they were admiring an article of clothing or just standing in the rain and not really looking at anything. The strength of “L’illusionniste” was its willingness to take risks. As a society, we’re so dependent on language to tell us what is that we often forget that sometimes the more important things are discreetly embedded in the unsaid. The careful musings supported by delicate music felt very zen. Despite the story’s medium being animation, it worked as a slice-of-life picture.
★★★ / ★★★★
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.
You, the Living (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Roy Andersson, “Du levande” or “You, the Living” painted an inspired picture of how the tragic moments in our lives were almost always counter-balanced with small and often unexpected comedic events. What I loved about this film was it felt as though anything could happen. Characters even broke out in song. Despite the ordinariness of the individuals at first glance, highlighted by the nondescript rooms and the dominance of the color gray in every frame, there was magic in each of their circumstances. Some scenes were solely played for laughs such as the Arabian barber and the businessman who was far from being in a great mood. Some were incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to watch. For instance, the couple who were having sex but only one was really into it. Others were downright pointless like a man cleaning glass windows. However, quite a handful were fascinating. I loved the couple in which the woman complained about everything wrong in her life while the man tried to endure her interminable tirades. At first glance, I thought she was just a spoiled woman who desperately needed a hobby (and perhaps a better sex life). But as the film went on, I actually grew to like her. It turned out that she was aware of her actions, that she may at times come off as selfish, and she knew that she was loved by those around her. The one that moved me most was the psychiatrist who spoke directly to the camera (and to us) and confessed that after twenty-seven years of practice, turning a mean person into a happy one was an impossible task. The only way to really “cure” them or to mask their unhappiness was to give them drugs. In the doctors own words, “the stronger, the better.” I thought it was an honest moment and ultimately a stronger message that lingers in the mind than the popular belief that all people in the medical field find it so rewarding to help people. Finally, there was Anna (Jessika Lundberg), a regular fan girl, who fell in love with Micke (Eric Bäckman), a boy who played in a band. Personally, the highest point of the film was when she recalled a dream she had about their wedding day. Throughout the scene of Anna looking beautiful in her wedding dress and Micke looking handsome in his rock star ensemble, I had a silly smile on my face. On top of that, there was a neat imagery in which their apartment moved like a train and, from their window, we could see strangers clamoring to offer their congratulations and best wishes. I wished the scene did not have to come to an end. It made me want to believe in romance all over again. “Du levande” was successful at embodying an unconventional stream of consciousness with images that crackle and pop with originality and earnestness. It may have been on another language but the emotions it conveyed overcame such boundaries.
10 Items or Less (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, “10 Items or Less” was about Morgan Freeman playing himself who wanted to research being a person who worked in a supermarket for his upcoming role. When his driver (Jonah Hill) did not pick up Freeman after a couple of hours like he was supposed to, Freeman bonded with a checkout girl (Paz Vega). This movie interested me from start to finish because the events and dialogue that we saw and heard felt real. There were times when I wondered if the actors veered off from the script because certain stutters and awkward pauses made the final cut. Even though I noticed such things, strangely enough, I didn’t find them distracting at all. The experience became that much more enjoyable because the filmmakers proved to me that they had confidence in their project. The picture had a nice balance between understated drama and perfect comedic timing. I thought it was hilarious when Freeman would delve into his techniques in terms of building a believable character in his films and how amazed he was when he stepped into Target and couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. I was touched during scenes where Freeman tried to give Vega’s character courage to face her fears, such as her upcoming job interview, and to convince her she was good enough and she needed not prove herself to anybody. Vega reminded me so much of Penélope Cruz not just because of the accent but the way she delivered certain lines with such intensity and passion. I loved how Vega’s character seemed tough at first and eventually she was able to open up character so we could relate to her thoughts, fears and insecurities. If I were to pick one best scene, it would have to be when Freeman and Vega talked to each other about ten things they loved and then things they hated about their lives. There was a certain honesty about it and the scene reminded me of the time when a friend and I did the exact same thing. I read a review saying that nothing happened in the film and there was no progression in the story. I couldn’t disagree more because since “10 Items of Less” was essentially a slice-of-life film, it really was more about how the characters evolved from the moment we met them until the moment we said goodbye to them. From my perspective, both characters grew in both significant and small ways so it was ultimately a rewarding experience. “10 Items or Less” may be simple but it was smart with the way it showcased the ordinariness of life–that the real value of living one’s life, whether one is a celebrity or just an ordinary Joe, is embedded in the moments in between.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother and son (Ellen Burstyn and Alfred Lutter III) decided to go on a roadtrip to Monterey after the head of the family (who was emotionally abusive) unexpectedly passed away. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie because I’m used to Martin Scorsese’s other projects which usually involved tough men drowning in dangerous situations. In here, it was more about a woman’s sense of self-worth and the way she kept picking herself up for her son after numerous heartbreaks. I think the picture had a great balance between drama and comedy but at the same time Scorsese wasn’t afraid to experiment with certain shots such as his homage to “The Wizard of Oz” in the first scene. It surprised me how amusing moments came off sad situations and vice-versa. The movie really embodied that 1970s feel; even though it was released thirty years ago, oddly enough, I thought it was fresh and I was fascinated with how it was all going to unravel. Two of my favorite scenes were when Burstyn said goodbye to her best friend and when the son tried telling his mother an unfunny and endless joke. Instead of going for the easy laughs and melodrama, it felt more like a slice-of-life picture that happened to work as a road trip film. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character was dependent on men and although she knew it, it was sometimes difficult for her to put her son first when she had a boyfriend. Even though that specific trait of hers bothered me, I still couldn’t help but root for her because she was essentially a good person. Even though her life was full of disappointments (such as her dream of becoming a singer not being realized), those things didn’t get her down. I also enjoyed watching the side characters such as the plucky waitress (Diane Ladd), the weird waitress (Valerie Curtin), and the kind but sometimes unpredictable farmer who the main character eventually fell in love with (Kris Kristofferson). All of them brought something special to the table that gave the movie a certain edge. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a great film with strong acting (especially from Burstyn) and an interesting script. I’ve read reviews saying that since this was one of Scorsese’s first movies, it didn’t quite have Scorsese’s style that could be found in his other works such as “Casino,” “GoodFellas” and “Raging Bull.” I disagree. One of the things that made those movies so great was a fantastic ear for dialogue and I think “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” had that quality. The dialogue just didn’t have that “tough guy” feel to it but it certainly had strength.
The Son (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Le fils” or “The Son,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, tells the story of a sixteen-year-old (Morgan Marinne) who is taken under the wing of a grieving carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who lost his son five years ago. As the film goes on, Olivier becomes more and more interested in the teenager and not until we meet Olivier’s wife (Isabella Soupart) do we find out exactly why he is so fixated on his new apprentice. This is probably one of the most bare-boned films I’ve ever seen but it has such a powerful emotional wallop. I can understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by this movie because not a lot of things happen on the surface. The dialogue was minimal and the camera had a penchant for close-ups to really absorb the nuances in the facial expressions of the actors. I argue that the film is very eventful when it comes to the internal rage and depression that each character is going through. Yet they also want to not be angry anymore and to move on with life. Just looking in their eyes made me feel so sad because I felt as though they had a story that they were ashamed of and would do anything to keep hidden. Once that connection is made between the two leads and the audience, each movement was purposeful and had some kind of meaning. I was really curious about whether Olivier wanted to hurt the teenager in some way or if he has something else in mind. The silences that they shared were so painful and awkward to watch at times yet I thought it was very realistic. When I think about it, there are some days when I say less than ten words to another human being because either I’m so into my own thoughts that I don’t even notice or I actively choose not to speak to avoid some kind of collision. The directors really knew how they wanted their story to unfold and it’s a shame because the majority of less introspective viewers would most likely miss the point. There’s a lot to be said about “Le fils” but this is the kind of film worth discussing between two people who have seen it than between a reviewer and someone contemplating of seeing it. The organic manner in which the picture revealed itself to me touched me in a way that it was almost cathartic. If you’re feeling like watching something that doesn’t conform to Hollywood typicality, this is definitely a great choice. My advice is to be patient during the first twenty to thirty minutes. It will hook you in when you least expect it.
The Child (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
I believe “L’enfant” is another one of those movies where audiences will be quick to judge and label it as the kind of movie where “nothing happened.” Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the film told the story of a couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François) who recently had baby. However, both of them were very young and the first few scenes of the picture established them as parents who were far from ready to raise a child. What’s even worse is that the father actively doesn’t want to get a job. He would rather steal from people and sell the objects he stole for a quick buck. Faced with the responsibility of raising a child, he saw the child as another means of making money. There’s a certain sadness about this picture that fascinated and angered me at the same time. I was very angry with the characters’ decisions, especially the father’s, but I could not help but wonder how the consequences of their actions would change (or not change) them in the long run. While the movie did not have a lot of dialogue, the silent moments and body movements were enough to let the audiences feel the gravity of certain situations and the desperation of the two leads. I also enjoyed the brilliant symbolism regarding the father and his way of constantly selling things. I thought it was very fitting considering that he was the kind of person who did not want to get attached in fear of finally being responsible for something. Lastly, the use of bright colors for a somewhat grim story provided a nice contrast. This is a small movie but I found it to be quite powerful because it had a certain insight without really judging its characters. It simply shows what is and sometimes that’s enough to make us question ourselves how we would have done things differently if placed in similar situations. Strangely enough, even though I did not agree with more than half of the characters’ choices, I still felt for them and ultimately wanted them to succeed or maybe even lead a better life, especially for the newborn. If one is up for an honest experience via a cinematic medium, one should consider to watch this movie.