Secreto de sus ojos, El (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.
Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, Das (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.
Espinazo del diablo, El (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.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events, director Mike Newell tells the story of how FBI special agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), whose mob alias is Donnie Brasco, climbs the ladder of the mafia hierarchy. Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino) takes Brasco under his wing because Brasco can become somebody that he always aspires to be–a high-level member of the mafia who has genuine power so he can be proud of his life and the things he has done. As Brasco becomes more into the mafia life, he starts to detach from his responsibilities to his job and, more importantly, his family (Anne Heche plays his wife). “Donnie Brasco” was not the kind of movie I expected. Although I did expect for it to have very entertaining tough guy conversations that were common to gangster films, I did not expect it to have as much heart. The relationship between Brasco and Pistone was fascinating because the two almost had a father-son relationship. The tricky thing was that Brasco knew all along that he eventually had to turn Pistone in to the FBI; how could he do that to a friend or a father figure? The performances were exemplary, especially from Depp and Pacino, because there’s a real complexity and tension between the characters and their respective families. I felt like the more they tried to help each other out, the more their families’ lives started falling apart–as if their relationship was toxic or was never meant to be. I also really liked Michael Madsen as Sonny Black. His tough-but-cool persona reminded me of his character Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs.” Ultimately, this film is about the two lead characters’ evolution: one toward the mafia life and one away from it. For a two-hour running time, we wereable to observe the differences between what a character was thinking and what a character was doing. Although there were a plethora of similiarities between the two, the differences were enough to trigger a certain nuanced intelligence that are worth discussing when the credits start rolling. “Donnie Brasco” is arguably unlike other gangster pictures because it does not necessarily focus on how to be a gangster but on what it means to be a gangster. It’s worth seeing.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was pleasantly surprised how effective this psychological thriller was. With a running time of two hours, it was able to build up the tension it needed to truly scare the audience when the evil child began to unravel what she was capable of. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Orphan” was about a mother who is still mourning for the loss of her baby (Vera Farmiga), a father who wants to help the family move on from a tragic loss (Peter Sarsgaard), and their decision to adopt a precocious girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to join their family. Little did they know that Esther has a plethora of secrets of her own and it would take a great deal of effort and energy (and a whole lot of convincing) to unravel just one of them. It is really difficult for me to say any more about this film without giving away the final twist. But let me just say that this movie did not cheat (i.e. result into supernatural explanation or fancy camera work) to achieve that twist so I was impressed. This picture definitely reminded me of “The Good Son” and “The Omen,” just because a child was a villain in both. However, I think this film was on a different level of excitement because, unlike “The Good Son,” the villain’s methods are much more graphic yet insidious, and unlike “The Omen,” it is actually grounded in realism and that made the picture more haunting. I also liked the fact that the other two kids in the family (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer) had important roles that drove the movie forward. If I were to nitpick, the only thing I thought the movie could have worked on was the history regarding Esther. By the end of the film, I felt like there were a lot more that the audiences did not find out about her and what made her the way she is. Other than Farmiga as the mother who no one believes in and labels as paranoid (which brought “Rosemary’s Baby” to mind), Fuhrman is a stand out. I want to see her in more movies and her range of acting because she made me believe that a child was capable of doing all those horrible things. Even though “child-killer” movies have been done before, I enjoyed this flick because I could not help but imagine that if I was in the mother’s situation, I would do absolutely anything to keep that evil child away from me and my family.
Dead Man Walking (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” tells the story of a man on death row (Sean Penn) and a nun (Susan Sarandon) who takes his request to be his spiritual advisor despite people’s attempt to dissuade her from doing so. I thought this film was particularly effective because it was able to provide multiple insights regarding the issue of capital punishment, while at the same time I was curious whether or not Penn’s character really did pull the trigger that resulted the death of the two teenagers. Not only that, we really got to know the grief of the teenagers’ parents (Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston); that their rage and hatred do not come out of nowhere and that some of them might even be willing to move on. I was really touched by this film in its entirety because I felt like I was watching real people instead of actors merely playing their parts. The interactions between Penn and Sarandon–especially the close-up scenes–got me so involved to the point where I found myself beginning to truly understand the convict’s fear of death even though he is a racist, disagreeable, unfriendly man. Whenever they argued, I felt genuine tension between the two but I still could feel that Penn needed her and Sarandon cared for him. The issue of redemption was also explored. I’m not a big fan of religion but even I have to admit that it was effectively used in this film. Robbins managed to avoid telling a story that was self-righteous and manipulative, which I think was a difficult task because the picture ultimately geared us to sympathize for the convict. As a person who do not support capital punishment, I thought “Dead Man Walking” was able to both entertain and educate (and even enlighten, which is on a different level altogether). This is a strong film with so many layers to it so, naturally, I’m recommending it to anyone–even to those who do not have an opinion about the death penalty.
Abyss, The (1989)
★★★★ / ★★★★
James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Aliens,” “Titanic”) directed this deep sea adventure which stars Ed Harris as the leader of a team of divers hired for a rescue mission after a nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks. His ice queen of a wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who he does not get along with comes along and a lot of tension brews between them. The divers are aided by the Navy led by Michael Biehn but we later discover that he is not emotionally, psychologically, and physically equipped enough to handle the pressure (pun intended) of staying underwater for an extended period of time. This film surprised me because I did not think it would be as emotional as it was. I thought what was going to happen was the divers would find the submarine, encounter some aliens and head back home. I did not think that it was going to be a story of survival, clashing against differing positions of power, dealing with fear and paranoia, and pushing an extraterrestrial agenda. The underwater scenes were nothing short of amazing. I really felt like I was deep sea diving with the characters because all I could see were giant rocks, endless darkness, and blue light coming from their mode of transports. It reminded me of scenes from a fascinating documentary (also directed by Cameron) called “Aliens of the Deep.” I also liked the fact that the alien angle of the story was minimized up until the very end. The tension rises after each scene due to human errors and vulnerabilities so I had no trouble buying into everything that was happening. When Biehn’s character finally lost it, I was scared for all of the characters that he considered his enemy because he knew how to kill and do it efficiently. Although the film could have been shorter, in some ways it worked to its advantage because we really get to feel how it was like to be stuck underwater for almost three hours. Two stand out scenes for me were the resuscitation and the falling into the abyss scenes. I felt a whole range of emotions during those scenes and even I had to tear up a bit because I had no idea how it was all going to turn out. In many ways, it had the drama of “Titanic” and the horror of “The Thing.” There’s a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche (or some version of it) in the beginning of the film that perfectly summed up the experience. That is, “If you look into the abyss, the abyss will look into you.”
Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was told in the eyes of an eight-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) who likes to explore his surroundings and play with other children. One day, his family decides to move from Berlin to a remote place in Poland because his father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi soldier and he is promoted there by the higher ranks. Bruno, being unaware of the horrors that the Jews are going through, assumes that the concentration camp that he can see from his bedroom is a farm. He also takes notice of the people there and tells his mother (Vera Farmiga) that he thinks they are quite strange because they wear pajamas all day. As a young explorer, he eventually visits the concentration camp and meets another eight-year-old boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) and the two become friends. I liked that this picture was told from the eyes of young person who didn’t know anything about what was going on around him. While his mistaken assumptions were amusing at times, it was very sad in its core because little by little his innocence got stripped away. I liked the scenes when the private tutor would teach Bruno and his sister (Amber Beattie) how to think like Nazi and labeled Jewish people as “evil” (among other things). Such scenes showed two crucial reactions from the children: the sister’s total acceptance of the Nazi ways to the point where she started putting up clippings and posters on her wall; and Bruno’s as he tried to resist what he was being told by asking questions such as if there were nice Jewish people. Since this was aimed as a children’s story, it was important for me to see how Bruno processed the varying information that was being presented to him by his strict Nazi father, his mother who was having a breakdown after finding out a secret that her husband kept from her, his patriotic but ultimately deluded sister, and his Jewish friend who was clearly miserable. And I did see and feel his confusion and frustration about what people have told him and his own experiences. As for the ending, it completely took me by surprise. But I suppose the director (Mark Herman) did a good job building up the tension that led to the conclusion. This film provided a nice change from other Holocaust pictures. If the fact that all of the characters spoke in English instead of German does not bother you, this is a pretty good find.
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.