The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Secret in Their Eyes” was about a former criminal investigator (Ricardo Darín) attempting to write a novel based on a brutal rape and murder of a newlywed 25 years ago. The Morales case was particularly important to him because the love of the husband (Pablo Rago) for his deceased wife reminded him of his love for his former co-worker (Soledad Villamil) that never came to fruition. She was engaged and he didn’t want to get in the way of her happiness. The picture’s style was to go back and forth between the present and the past making an excellent blend of thriller and drama. Co-workers falling for each other was nothing new. In fact, it had become a formula. But one of the elements I loved about the movie was it kept romance between Benjamín and Irene fresh and challenging. Unlike most romantic movies, they didn’t have say what they felt in order for us to understand what they might be going through. It was in the small gestures such as the closing of a door, a pause mid-sentence, or a quick look to the side that revealed their expectations of each other. The tension between them reflected what we would have done if we liked someone but couldn’t find the right words to say how much we want to be with them. As for the thriller aspect, I was glued to the screen because it was unpredictable. During the most intense scenes, Benjamín’s friend (Guillermo Francella), who had a drinking problem, would appear from nowhere and could potentially ruin everything. We hated him but at the same time we couldn’t help but love him. We hated him because he appeared at the most inopportune times which could make or break the case in question. But we loved him because he made the plot that much more complicated and therefore more fun to try to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle would come together. I was highly impressed with the last thirty minutes. To even hint at what transpired, I think, would do this film an injustice. All I want to say about it is it was at the point where the past and present finally converged. Many practical questions were answered but so many more moral questions were brought up. Like the characters, I found some sense of closure but at the same time I felt as though it wasn’t the closure I was looking for. The theme of men clinging onto their past was at the forefront and I couldn’t help but feel moved (and scared) when I realized how much the past could turn into a monster if we kept leaving it on the side instead of confronting it directly. Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed by Juan José Campanella, “El secreto de sus ojos” was compelling and rewarding in every way.
Jackie Brown (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) was a flight attendant caught by two detectives (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) when she tried to smuggle money into the country. However, she was not arrested because they knew that she worked for an arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and they wanted him more than they wanted her. Realizing that she nothing else to lose considering her age and her prior conviction, she constructed a plan that might lead to her freedom from the police and her cruel boss. “Jackie Brown,” adapted from the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard, was an intelligent film which was highly unpredictable because of its constantly scheming characters. I admired the way Quentin Tarantino put his stamp on the project in terms of building tension and delivering truly rewarding pay-offs. Despite the violence and rapid-fire tough guy dialogue, it was ultimately a human story. I loved the way it took moments of silences and allowed us to guess what the characters were thinking and the manner in which they strategically reevaluated their priorities. With these specific characters, as sad as it was accept, sometimes money was more valuable to them than their lives. Tarantino juggled the characters with elegance. He was smart enough to make a film that was longer than two-and-half hours but not wasting a single minute. I thought it was pleasure to watch because I learned something new about each character in each scene. The most complex of them, except for the lead, was Max Cherry (Robert Forster). He was the most difficult for me to read and I did not find out until the very end what his real intentions were toward Jackie. Was he just pretending to be a friend because he wanted the money for himself or did he genuinely care about the woman he bailed out of jail? And even if it was the former, I can understand why he might choose to do it because I saw him as this lonely person who, despite the thousands of people he bailed out of jail, no one really cared for. He was a person defined by his occupation and not those who loved him for just who he was. “Jackie Brown” is one of Tarantino’s lesser-known works but I think it is one of his best. I loved that the picture was uncompromising, suspenseful, and surprisingly warm in the smallest dosage. I was engaged throughout its running time because in Tarantino’s world, the heroes (or anti-heroes) do not necessarily have to survive. And I was desperate to see the brave Jackie Brown make it through the tricky spider webs she weaved for herself.
★★★ / ★★★★
I love spiders. I used to capture and raise them when I was a kid. When I was bitten, it didn’t stop me from wanting to capture more, make them battle, and observe the way they ate. In “Arachnophobia,” an undiscovered killer spider from Venezuela hitched a ride in a coffin to terrorize a small town in the United States. The killer spider mated with a typical house spider and lived in the barn next to the house that a doctor (Jeff Daniels) and his family recently moved into. It didn’t help that the doctor had a great fear for spiders. Despite my adoration (and respect) for spiders, the film gave me the creeps. The director, Frank Marshall, craftily balanced horror and comedy. As the picture went on, it became scarier but at the same time the laughs were that much more pronounced. The comedy scenes worked because it relieved a lot of tension such as when a spider would sneak up on someone taking a shower. John Goodman’s performance was a catalyst because his mere presence elevated the funny bits. The picture expertly and confidently took advantage of vulnerable situations such as when a character would reach into a cereal box and expect to get food or when they would sit in a toilet. I didn’t find those scenes cheesy because the film established how dangerous the spiders were within the first few minutes. But at the same time, we were aware that these spiders did not take pleasure in killing; their actions were simply means of survival and colonization. What impressed me most was the final duel between man and spider. The filmmakers did a fantastic job weaving three elements that scared people most: darkness, enclosed spaces, and bugs. It was terrifying to watch but I couldn’t look away because I wanted to see how the protagonist could wiggle himself out of another dangerous position. The scene was relentless. I caught myself holding my breath when the doctor did not know where the spider was and voicing out advice about what he should have done next to lure or trick the spider. The jump-out-of-your-seats moments were efficient. Lastly, but most importantly, the film had an after effect. After I finished the movie, I headed to the bathroom and from the corner of my eye, I saw a black figure on the floor. For a split-second, I thought it was a spider and I became very alarmed. For a person who normally adores spiders and then suddenly be scared of them, that’s when I know the film had done something right.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tetro” was about a young man named Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his short stop in Buenos Aires to visit his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). The two have been apart for a very long time because Tetro decided to cut himself off from his family since their father hated the fact that his son wanted to be a writer instead of pursuing a career in medicine. I tried to really love this movie because all of the elements were there to make a really great picture. In the end, although it more than satisfied me, it didn’t quite resonate with me as much as I thought it would. I loved the two lead actors because they had contrasting styles in terms of approaching their characters. Gallo was rough around the edges and it was difficult to relate with his character. However, he eventually opened his character to us and even though we didn’t always agree with his choices, we came realize why he decided to take certain paths. Ehrenreich was more sweet and relatable. He instilled a certain hunger within his character–a hunger to get to know his brother more despite the fact that his brother always kept him at arm’s length. Deep inside, he knew that it was his brother’s destiny to live a tortured life of unfulfilled genius. Still, he hoped that he could bring his brother home and attempt at a life of normalcy. Since the brothers were so different, there was often tension between them and I was riveted because I saw myself and my own brother in the two characters. Written and directed by the great Francis Ford Coppola, the emotional gravity matched the film’s artistic flourishes. I loved that the film’s present time was in stunning black and white and the past was in color. The way Coppola played with the shadows complemented certain secrets and unsaid thoughts of the characters. The scenes in color highlighted important events in Tetro’s life that made him the way he is. The majority of this film was carefully planned and executed with such flow and beauty. But in the end, it left me wanting more. It’s strange because I’m not quite sure how else it could have been done better. Perhaps a longer running time would have taken the movie to a next level so the characters had more time to absorb certain truths about each other. On the other hand, I thought it ended in such an elegant manner and it didn’t need to explore further because the rest of the film was about the evolution of the brothers’ strained relationship. Maybe I’m just being way too critical because, as I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to love the movie. “Tetro” is definitely worth watching because of its insight, nice balance of naturalistic and stylized tones, and strong acting. I’ve read some reviews comparing Ehrenreich to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. At first I didn’t quite see it but the more I observed his style of acting–especially body movements and intonations–the more apparent the resemblance. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him because he has potential to be a great actor.
The White Ribbon (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte” or “The White Ribbon,” written and directed by Michael Haneke, was a stunning black-and-white picture that tried to offer some explanations regarding the cruelty of the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Although I liked this film because it was on a league of its own, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed because it was wildly uneven. Having a pattern of a great scene followed by two or three banal scenes hindered this film tremendously. The movie started off with a man on a horse tripping on an almost invisible rope. The whole small village was stunned by the horrible crime but little did they know that it was only the beginning of such monstrous acts. Throughout the film, with many main and side characters, we were given the chance to play guessing games on who might have committed those crimes. Was it the adults who were tired of the Baron and his family? Was it the children who were abused and mistreated by their parents? Or was it nobody from the village and all of it were just random acts of violence? Half-way through the picture, I grew exhausted of the film because the payoffs were few and far between. I could feel something sinister going on under the surface but the director either was too afraid to tackle the issue head-on or he was simply being pretentious by masking everything in “subtlety.” I didn’t understand what he was trying to do because his execution was so vague. I thought his goal was to explain possible reasons why unnecessary evils were committed in the ’30s and ’40s because it was promised by the narrator. Instead, we get scenes like a doctor having an affair or the Baron’s wife confessing her transgressions to her husband. When I look back on it, I felt like this movie could have been ninety minutes long and it would have been more interesting and more powerful. The best scenes were definitely the ones that featured the way different parents disciplined their children. Not only did those scenes say something about the parents but it told the audiences something about the children–the manner in which they immediately reacted to such punishments and later on when faced with decisions with similar consequences. I was able to think back to the child psychology courses I’ve taken and think about how repression, forceful application of shame (without the kids fully understanding why what they did was wrong), and one-dimensional way of raising children could impact the kids in both short-term and long-term. In that respect, I thought the movie did a good job. It’s just that the technical elements didn’t quite click with me because it lacked focus. For a movie about brewing evil, it didn’t have enough tension so it wasn’t exciting. It was interesting but in a monotonous manner that requires a lot of patience.
Broken Embraces (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Los abrazos rotos” or “Broken Embraces,” written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, was about a blind writer named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who began to tell a story about a love affair he had in the 1990s with a beautiful actress (Penélope Cruz) to the son (Tamar Novas) of his agent/manager (Blanca Portillo). The affair was riddled with sneaking around, feigning emotions, and spying because the actress had a boyfriend (José Luis Gómez) who eventually became aware of the situation with the help of his gay son (Rubén Ochandiano) who had a penchant for the videocamera. When I dive into an Almodóvar picture, I expect melodrama, complex storytelling, interesting use of camera angles, vibrant colors, and passionate characters. On that level, I strongly believe that the film delivered. However, it didn’t quite exceed my expectations. I think this is the kind of film that requires multiple viewing on my part because there were times in the picture where I found myself confused with what was happening (notably the middle portion). Although it eventually started coming together toward the end because certain characters stopped holding onto their secrets, it didn’t change the fact that I had to take myself out of the experience for several seconds to figure out where everybody else stood. That lack of flow was the main reason why I didn’t quite love “Broken Embraces.” I admired that this film strived not to fit into one genre. Sometimes it was comedic, sometimes gloomy but there were times when it was thrilling; the director’s use of shadows and the way he used the build-up of tension were very noir-like (particularly the stairs scene–a definite stand-out) and almost Hitchcockian. “Broken Embraces” was teeming with ideas. If the director made a film from each genre he tackled, I’d be interested in watching them as well. I was fascinated with how the characters became so engulfed in their passions to the point where they weren’t even aware that they were ultimately hurting themselves. I couldn’t help but get into the lives of the characters because each of them had passion in their eyes and the way they expressed themselves via body movements. Each of them had a purpose and none of them was a simply caricature. I could feel Almodóvar’s passion for filmmaking in every frame. I just wished that he made sure that the audiences could follow his vision without a significant amount of mental acrobatics because there was already a lot going on.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El espinazo del diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” written and directed Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), was about a newcomer in an orphanage named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and the dark secrets that were about to unfold during his short stay. I love the fact that the film started off trying to define what a ghost was. When the proposed definitions seemed unfit, it jumped into the story and actually showed us what a ghost could be. Of course, by the end of the picture, it was astute enough to let the audiences define for themselves what a ghost was after we’ve seen the events that happened in the orphanage. The three main adults in the story set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War included a lady with a prosthetic leg (Marisa Paredes), a doctor (Federico Luppi), and a caretaker (Eduardo Noriega). Stuck in the orphanage for so long during the war, tension begins to arise and secrets begin to mount among the three. Caught in the middle of it all were the children such as Carlos and Jaime–as one of the tougher older kids with a secret (Íñigo Garcés) involving a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). The organic manner in which all of the various elements came together and the extremely atmospheric orphanage was exemplary. By that I mean that the shadows in the backdrop looked alive and haunting even if the focus was supposed to be on a character’s facial expression as he discovers something morbid or shocking. I admired del Toro’s use of foreshadowing involving a missile that landed but never exploded though that event marked the day where everything changed. Each scene had some kind of purpose which began to make more and more sense as the film progressed. I also liked that half of this film was more of a supernatural thriller with elements of mystery and the other half was a story of survival. The director balanced the tone so well that each half complimented each other and ended up with a work that was touching, heartpounding and quite clever. There were certain shots in this picture that stood out to me. One of them was whenever the camera was fixated on a character’s face in a close-up as something terrible happened, the lens would zoom out and show a beautiful and peaceful background. Even though techniques like that stood out to me, it never distracted me from the film. In fact, it enhanced my experience because the events that transpired in “The Devil’s Backbone” often had a silver lining. I saw this film back in 2002 or 2003, liked it, forgotten about it, and since then became a sleeper hit. I’m not surprised at all because it was so well done. There’s still a lot of people out there that haven’t seen the movie and they really should because it takes ghost stories on a new level.