The Skin I Live In (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) was a renowned plastic surgeon whose wife’s body burned in a car crash while trying to get away with her boyfriend (Roberto Álamo). Robert transported Gal home and took care of her for months, but when she saw her reflection on a window, she jumped out because she couldn’t bear living with her teratoid appearance. Since the tragedy, we learned that Robert had been performing experimental skin treatment on Vera (Elena Anaya). Although artificial, it was resistant to burning and insect bites which was promising for the scientific community. However, Robert’s colleagues were led to believe that he had been experimenting with mice, not on humans. “La piel que habito” had plenty of ideas about how anger and grief could drive a person into trying to achieve something so radical, it threatened to destroy him. The picture was most fascinating when it allowed the camera to observe the surgeon’s work sans dialogue. I liked watching him navigate his hands with precision while cutting a piece of skin and applying it onto his model. When something went wrong, he maintained his composure and consistently found a way to work around the problem–a quality that also served him well outside the lab. By observing his routine, though shot with cold detachment, we learned a lot about his experiment and how invested and desperate he was to make the seemingly impossible a reality. The film held a lot of secrets about identity. The most curious was Vera and why she lived like a prisoner. While it made sense that she lived in a relatively contained environment because her skin was being replaced, there were some red flags that grabbed (or should grab) our attention. For example, she wasn’t allowed any visitors, never handed sharp objects, and there were writing, like tallies of dates, on the walls of her room. If she was a voluntary patient, why was she considered a danger to herself? Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director, did a solid job on keeping a lid on what was really happening. The less information was available for us to put the pieces together, although I felt a bit of frustration due to its unhurried pacing, the more I felt compelled to think of increasingly ridiculous hypotheses. One of the most interesting characters was Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who, to Robert, was just a trustworthy longtime maid, but was actually his biological mother. I loved looking at her face, the way she moved across the room, and why she was convinced that Robert ought to kill Vera. Marilia provided another layer, if you will, to the story. I just wished that she had been used more. The most critical opportunity that the film lost was not relating its story deeply enough to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature. Marilia was Robert’s creator and Vera was Robert’s. Instead of looking to the future and exploring the repercussions of the surgeon’s transgressions, the screenplay went back in time about halfway through and gave us images of what happened to the wife and daughter. While it was necessary for us to know, several lines of dialogue would have sufficed. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” “The Skin I Live In,” wonderfully shot even without Almodóvar’s usual primary colors, could have used less family history and focused more on horror that came about from ignoring certain moral obligations.
Julia’s Eyes (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During a neighborhood blackout, Sara (Belén Rueda) stood in the living room talking to someone but we couldn’t see who was there in the shadows. When lightning came, the corner that she seemed to be transfixed on revealed no person despite flashes of a polaroid camera directed toward her earlier on. As the camera focused on her face, we saw that she was blind. Attempting to escape her invisible tormentor, she ended up the basement. She climbed a stool, put a rope around her neck, and a second person knocked the stool from under her. Julia (also played by Rueda), Sara’s twin sister, felt a choking sensation while at her job in the observatory. She just knew something was wrong. Written by Guillem Morales and Oriol Paulo, “Los ojos de Julia” took inspiration from Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark” and made it much more sinister. It was suspenseful because from the moment Julia suspected foul play, she felt compelled to gather clues that would prove her sister was murdered. It didn’t help that she shared her sister’s medical condition: extreme stressed diminished her eye sight. Ironically, the more knowledge she attained, the less she saw clearly, thus the less reliable her testimony. The best scenes were of Julia’s interactions with people who knew her deceased sister. For instance, when she visited a home for the blind, they smelled her presence… and of a man’s. But she came alone. She aggressively looked behind her and there was, in fact, a man watching her every move. Similar scenes worked in two ways. First, it served as a foreshadowing of what was eventually going to happen to the lead character. It should come to no surprise that she was going to lose her sight completely. If she was to survive, she needed to learn how to depend on her other senses and instinct. Secondly, it worked for the chase sequence that came right after the realization that she was being followed. We saw most of the action through Julia’s eyes. The majority of her peripheral vision was already gone so being forced into her perspective was awkward and claustrophobic. There was an effortless horror in it. What if the killer decided to attack from the side? She had no chance. Much to the dismay of her husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), it seemed as though there was nothing he could do to stop Julia’s obsession. In here, the romance wasn’t utilized as currency to simply buy minutes until the next scary moment. What they had was tender and believable. I felt as respected as an audience because we really got to experience their history and what they meant to one another without necessarily using words. Their relationship held weight and it was, in a way, the picture’s emotional core though we weren’t always aware of it. The villain was truly monstrous. A hotel janitor (Joan Dalmau) described his motivation so perfectly, I almost began to feel bad for the silent stalker. Although we saw glimpses of him early on in the film, it wasn’t until much later that we observed his face dominating every inch of the camera. When he screamed at Julia without restraint, watching him through her eyes, it felt like such an invasion of my personal space, I wanted to push his face away for being so close. “Julia’s Eyes,” directed by Guillem Morales, skillfully placed us into Julia’s nightmarish experience without it being contrived. Other movies of its kind pale in comparison even under bright lights.
★ / ★★★★
A wealthy family was in the process of moving into their new home. As the movers scrambled to empty the trucks, Marta (Ana Wagener), the matriarch, stressed about having all the members of the family to have dinner together and celebrate. Isa (Manuela Vellés), the spoiled, whiny, and inconsiderate daughter, would rather go out with her boyfriend (Xoel Yáñez) than to grant her mother’s simple wish. The patriarch, Jaime (Fernando Cayo), couldn’t care less. One could argue that the events in “Secuestrados,” written by Miguel Ángel Vivas and Javier García, were repercussions of bad parenting. In its first few minutes, instead allowing us to relate to the family, it wasn’t difficult not to dislike them because they passively and unnecessarily allowed small annoyances to turn into big problems. When three masked thieves (Guillermo Barrientos, Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper) broke into the family’s new house on the same night as the move-in, there was a cold disconnect between the audiences and the horrific events that were unfolding. For example, when forced to show their credit cards and write down their pin numbers on a piece of paper, the camera was at least fifteen feet from where the family trembled in their seats. There were yelling, screaming, and protesting but the distance represented a lack of sympathy. I argue that if the filmmakers’ intention was for us to care about Jaime, Marta and Isa, to root for them to be able to extricate themselves from their plight, the camera would have been as close as possible to that couch because mostly everybody can relate to suffering. The picture eventually started to feel gimmicky. Since there wasn’t enough cash in the house, one of the robbers, unmasked, took the father for a drive so that they could look for various ATMs and withdraw money. In order to simultaneously keep track of what was happening in the house, the screen was divided into two. Split-screens can be effective if used wisely and sparingly. The problem was, splitting the screen didn’t feel necessary. While we had a chance to observe two events at the same time, only either the left or the right was interesting. Both was never involving at the same time so that we would feel compelled to move our eyes in either direction. Furthermore, I found that in order for one side to capture my attention, someone would have to raise his voice or scream bloody murder. Lastly, I wanted to focus on the psychology of Isa. She was probably one of the most despicable daughters (or persons in general) I’ve seen on screen for quite some time. When she and her mother had a chance to escape by locking themselves in a bathroom with a window big enough so that a person could fit one at a time, Marta actually had to beg Isa to climb out and find help. Isa didn’t want to do it because the masked men had her boyfriend in the other room and threatened to kill him. I watched in astonishment. After several attempts to carry her daughter out of the window (and Isa selfishly wouldn’t budge), I actually wanted Isa to break her neck if she happened to make it outside. She was idiotic and useless. Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas, “Secuestrados,” also known as “Kidnapped,” was bleak and uncompromising. I would have admired its audacity if the characters were fighters instead of punching bags and if it had been more sensible of its craft.
★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene of the Spanish film “Eskalofrío” depicted Santi (Junio Valverde) desperately running away from the sunlight as if he was a vampire. When he woke up from the nightmare, we learned that he wasn’t a vampire but had a condition in which his skin had an acute sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Direct contact to sunlight weakened Santi and could potentially kill him so the doctor recommended that Santi and his mother (Mar Sodupe) move to an area where the sun did not appear for very long. Coincidentally, when the mother and son moved to an isolated village in the mountains, grizzly murders started to occur. The film successfully generated genuine thrills and scares. Even though the movie felt small due to the budget, it had confidence in putting characters in really scary situations and allowing them to extricate themselves from painful deaths. Santi was someone we could immediately root for because he craved the life of normalcy but instead had no choice but to only be active at night due to his strange condition. He was outsider in the city and he was still an outsider in the small village. For a horror film, it was extremely fast-paced. Quick cuts were abound but I did not find them distracting because each scene was straight to the point, one rising action after another up until the first murder in the woods. Was the murderer a person, a monster, or perhaps both? Once the movie forced us to ask questions, its momentum and sense of dread consistently increased. What I loved about the film was once it reached a boiling point, it delivered one or two terrifying scenes, and would continue to build again. The most memorable scene for me was when Santi was alone in the house and he started to panic about the murderer possibly wanting to break in. It was very funny to watch because he did exactly what I would have done: Run like the wind and lock all the doors and windows, block the fireplace using a couch, grab a weapon, and sleep in the biggest area of the house. But it was also scary because we knew nothing of the intruder other than it was very strong and capable of killing in a heartbeat. Another great pay off was when Santi and his friends went into the woods à la Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez in “The Blair Witch Project,” video camera and all, in hopes of catching the killer on film to prove to everyone that Santi was not the murderer. “Eskalofrío,” directed with quiet power by Isidro Ortiz, is one of those gems that worked as a thriller and a horror film. It had a small twist in terms of monster flicks and it made me wish that American horror and thrillers would aspire to be just as inspired and imaginative.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
Considered as one of the most important Spanish films, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” written and directed by Victor Erice, tells the story of a little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who, after watching the 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and being told by her sister named Isabel (Isabel Tellería) that his spirit exists, goes off to find a real-life monster. I really admired this film because the use of words was minimal yet it was more than able to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling. It truly captured how childhood was the peak of curiosity and how our perception at that point in our lives may be a bit skewed from reality. The way Ana and Isabel tell stories, play games and tricks on each other reminded me and my brother many years ago. I also liked the broken relationship between a husband (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a wife (Teresa Gimpera). Little do they know that no matter how much they try to interact with their daughters separately (or not interact), the children feel that there’s something wrong even though they do not yet know how to tackle such feelings. The awkward scene at the table when the whole family was eating together was somewhat elusive because I noticed that there was not a frame in the film that each of the family member was in. I think that divide between the two parental figures was another reason why Ana decided to plunge into her own imagination as an escape. The scenes in their big mansion of a home were painful for me to watch because there was a very noticable lack of stimulation such as books and toys for the two children. At least for me, they looked more alive when they were watching a movie in the town, while they were at school, and when they were roaming around outside. This is a very strong motion picture that should be seen by movie-lovers everywhere. However, one should be warned that it requires a lot of patience because it may get a bit slow at times due to the lack of happenings in the small village that they live in. Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding experience because it works on several angles, cinematically and psychologically.
★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Frida” is a biopic that focuses on how Frida Kahlo emerged and evolved as an artist as well as a person who shines despite her many flaws and tragedies. Salma Hayek is simply electric; although pretty much everyone defines her for her beauty, I’ve always seen some kind of inner strength in each of her roles and I was happy that it was at the forefront in this picture. Frida’s relationship with her sister (the gorgeous Mía Maestro), husband (Alfred Molina) and father (Roger Rees) are fascinating because each of those three characters have shaped Frida’s many colorful (and very dynamic) personalities. Julie Taymor, the director, shows her audiences impressive visual effects such as when Frida’s paintings would become a real-life scene and how some real-life scenes would become paintings. I’m not at all familiar with Frida’s artwork but after watching this film, I want to look more into them because they are symbolic in the least. Now that I’m aware of what the events that prompted Frida to paint certain works, I think I’ll be able to appreciate them more. There’s a great atmosphere of culture that pervaded this film and it made me think of my own culture whenever there’s a wedding or a big gathering of some sort. Every actor is so into his or her own character and the film popped whenever they would talk about art, passion, politics and the uncertainties of life. The film then becomes more than a visual experience; it becomes a powerful emotional exprience that has a distinct resonance. However, I wish this film would’ve been entirely in Spanish (except for the scenes when the characters are in the United States). I thrown off a bit when I realized that everyone spoke in English despite living in Mexico. Also, as a Diego Luna fan, I wish he was in it more or was given more to do. Still, this is a very good (if not sometimes ordinary) biopic even though the second half could’ve been stronger by focusing on Frida as an individual instead of other characters that have more to do with politics.
Bear Cub (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I didn’t expect to love this movie because of its coy title and familiar plot summary but the way it told the story with such intelligence and emotion is impressive. This Spanish gay-themed but not gay-centered film, written and directed by Miguel Albaladejo, focuses on José Luis García Pérez and the way he takes care of his nephew (David Castillo) when his mother decides to go to India. Each of the character is memorable because they are full of surprises. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh and have a smile on my face afterwards when the hippie mother revealed that she thinks her son is gay and it’s wonderful/a gift. She has a certain energy and spunk which made me think of my own mother. Pérez may be gay and lives an openly gay lifestyle but that’s not even half of who he really is. He’s a great father-figure but he just doesn’t know it because he’s too preoccupied asking himself what would be best for his nephew. As for Castillo, he was actually given a character to portray, a character that helps to drive the story forward. As the film went on and we get to meet other characters such as the grandmother (Empar Ferrer), the story gets that much more interesting and serious. Toward the end of the film, some revelations occured and I couldn’t help but gasp because I didn’t see such twists coming. This gem of a Spanish film knows how to tell a simple but extremely layered story with colorful characters that doesn’t result to stereotypes. It manages to use its characters in such a way that if a particular character didn’t exist, the story would be that much weaker. I can only wish more American films are like this because it puts the characters’ motivations on the foreground and doesn’t judge their background. It really does make a difference when it comes to overall feel of the picture. Definitely check this one out if one is remotely interested.