★★★ / ★★★★
Miguel (Christian Mercado) and Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), a happily married couple, were about to have their first child. Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter, visited the seaside village to see Miguel. Despite having grown up together in the coast, nobody knew about their secret affair. That is, until Santiago drowned one night and appeared in Miguel’s home as a ghost. Santiago’s spirit wouldn’t rest until he was given a very public burial. Rumors went around that Santiago was a homosexual and nobody wanted anything to do with him. They treated homosexuality as a contagion. They couldn’t even say the word. They used hand gestures to describe such a phenomena. So it was up to Miguel to give his lover a proper send-off. “Contracorriente” was a smart and moving film about a man torn between his identity and tradition. The beginning of the picture established the importance of tradition in Miguel’s community: the residents in the village attended church, they orally read from the bible, and they shared an open form of communication. When their tradition was challenged in the form of Miguel’s sexuality, it was difficult to watch our protagonist’s friends and neighbors turn their backs on him. His closest friends didn’t even bother to drop by when Mariela had her baby. But writer-director Javier Fuentes-León was careful in highlighting the complexity of the village’s situation. They lived in a bubble and it was probably the first time a gay person bothered to stick around despite the judging whispers and lack of eye contact. I liked that it showed people being capable of acceptance. In reality, while some treat a shocking revelation from the perspective of black and white, others just need some time to digest the information. Not every subplot provided a definite solution but there was a sense of closure that tied it all together. Despite not knowing a lot of details about how Miguel and Santigo got together, it was easy to see that their passion for one another ran deep. There was palpable pain when they discussed plans that never came into fruition and when they argued about being tired of pretending not to know each other in public. But the film was also about the love between Miguel and Mariela. There was a special bond between them not just because they were about to have a baby, but because they’ve learned to lean on each other when things became unbearable. Naturally, their bond was tested when Mariela found out the truth about her husband’s bisexuality. The film’s biggest risk was the ghost that only Miguel could see. It could be seen as a literal ghost, but I interpreted the spirit as the leading character’s guilt and anger for not summoning the courage to come out of the closet when his lover was still alive. The risk worked because the director was in control of the message he wanted to portray. I was impressed with “Undertow” because it was emotionally authentic without sacrifing an ounce of its complexity.
★★★ / ★★★★
When Magdalena (Emily Rios) found out she was pregnant without actually having sex with her boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) before her quinceañera, she ran away from her family (Araceli Guzman-Rico, Jesus Castanos-Chima) because they believed she would not own up to her actions. Magdalena stayed with her kind uncle (Chalo Gonzalez) and cousin (Jesse Garcia), a gang member who happened to be gay and experimenting with the gay couple (Jason L. Wood, David W. Ross) next door. This independent film was no “Juno.” Quirkiness and snarky dialogue were absent but it was refreshing because the story was told without glossy pretension. It was not afraid to put its characters in difficult situations and let them deal with their problems without plot conveniences and typical Hollywood offerings about what one should do when one found out she was pregnant. I thought it was also refreshing that the character did not deem her life to be over when she found out she was pregnant at fourteen years old. It was nice to hear that she had plans for her future and I liked the way she stood up for herself when others criticized and laughed at her. I rooted for her because even though she was young, she was brave and she was not afraid to ask for help when she needed a bit of support. As for the subplot involving the homosexual cousin, I enjoyed it for the most part because Garcia could have played his character in an obvious way but he managed to avoid the usual traps about sexual experimentation. His character was a good foil for Magdalena. Even though the two were very different, they found commonality in being (essentially) exiled because their Latino culture have certain beliefs that directly challenged their modern lives. I thought the film was at its best when the two interacted because they found purpose and strength from each other. However, I have to admit that Garcia’s storyline sometimes outshined Rios’. The more the picture spent time on the gay cousin, focus and intensity was taken away from our lead protagonist. Lastly, I loved that the script sounded natural (so natural that sometimes I thought the characters were adlibbing). Having grown up in a very diverse neighborhood, the way the teens spoke and the topics they talked about were to true life. Ultimately, “Quinceañera,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, told a story beyond a fourteen-year-old finding out she was pregnant. It was also about her support systems (and lack thereof), her responsibilities as a young woman, materialism, and traditions of a culture in an increasingly modern society. The film was astute in tackling the issues and it was even sharper in conveying the emotions that the characters would not necessarily outwardly express.
Leap Year (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A woman (Amy Adams) in a relationship with a cardiologist (Adam Scott) for four years thought that he was finally going to propose to her to get married. But since that wasn’t the case, she decided to fly to Ireland on a whim to surprise her husband-to-be and propose to him on a Leap Day–which she was lead to believe to be an old Irish tradition. But things didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had planned because even though she didn’t get along with a charming man (Matthew Goode) who agreed to take her Dublin, she started falling for him (and vice-versa) because he was everything her boyfriend was not: simple, didn’t let her get away with being a brat and someone who had her back when it mattered most. Directed by Anand Tucker, “Leap Year” was pretty much the same kind of romantic comedy released every month (more like every week) but I ended up somewhat liking it because I love Adams and Goode in just about every movie they star in. They both had this strange chemistry even though all they did was bicker and ended up in the most unfortunate situations. In a way, they were perfect for each other because she was too controlled and she had a list on what she wanted in life, while he was a person who was fine with wherever the wind took him. It also helped that he was a bit brooding but that darkness I felt wasn’t really explored. My main problem with this film was its script. I thought the dialogue lacked another dimension–it was too simple and there were times when I felt like I was watching an episode of a television show than a movie. While it did have some cute touches such as Scott playing a cardiologist but he had no idea what was in his girlfriend’s heart, those weren’t strong enough to make this a superior romantic comedy. It didn’t have gravity so I wasn’t at all emotionally invested. The middle portion was a bit too much and it dragged on in what felt like an eternity. I wish the movie explored the Irish tradition a lot more instead of just showing Adams in the most embarrassing situations. By the tenth time things didn’t go her way because of the black cat that crossed her path, I pretty much got the picture and I wanted it to move on. Without its leading stars, I could easily have hated “Leap Year” because it didn’t strive to be something more. It was safe, sometimes sweet and often clichéd. I couldn’t help but think Adams and Goode were too good for the roles they’ve chosen to play.
Whale Rider (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, “Whale Rider” was about a little girl named Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) who possessed the ability to communicate, through prayers, with whales. Unfortunately, her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) was so caught up in traditions regarding the leader of the Whangara people being a boy that he was blind to his granddaughter’s gift. In a way, he connected Paikea and the death of her male twin with their tribe’s increasing lack of passion for their culture. Desperate to find a leader, the grandfather gathered the local boys but no one could match Paikea’s natural abilities and passion for what she was meant to do. Even though I’ve seen the angle of older generation clashing with a younger generation with respect to traditions, I thought the film was still refreshing because I knew nothing about the Maori tribe and the Whangara people. So I saw the picture through a fresh set of eyes and I was curious with how they were so in touch with nature. Castle-Hughes blew me away because she was so good at exuding strength but at the same time remaining vulnerable. Her acting culminated in the scene where she had to present a speech in front of an audience dedicated to her grandfather but he didn’t bother to show up. The way she composed herself and delivered her lines, despite the tears, showed so much strength that I couldn’t imagine an American actress so young as she was pulling it off quite as swimmingly. I also enjoyed the scenes when the community tried to help the whales when the animals swam to the shore to meet their demise. That sense of unity made me feel warm and I wanted to join them because I was so inspired. As for the supporting actors, I loved the grandmother played by Vicky Haughton because she was not afraid to say what she wanted to say to her stubborn husband when everyone else were forced to swallow their words. But at the same time, she was warm to others, especially her granddaughter. I just wished that Paikea’s father (Cliff Curtis) was in it a bit more because the movie didn’t spend enough time establishing his role in his daughter’s life. “Whale Rider” was a magical film full of fascinating culture. It’s a nice reminder that there’s this whole world out there that is so immaterial and far values working together more than competition. I expected a movie for kids because of the synposes I read but I got to see something much more rewarding.
Trick ‘r Treat (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, “Trick ‘r Treat” is a whole lot of fun to watch and it’s a shame it didn’t get a proper (and well-deserved) theatrical release. The film was an anthology of four stories that featured what would happen if the traditions of Halloween were broken: a virgin (Anna Paquin) who gets teased by her sister and friends for being awkward with men and saving herself for that “special someone,” a high school principal (Dylan Baker) who poisons his candies and has an even darker secret inside of his home, a group of friends (Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Isabelle Deluce, Britt McKillip, Alberto Ghisi) who pulls a prank on a lonely girl (Samm Todd), and a couple (Leslie Bibb, Tahmoh Penikett) whose first scene didn’t make much sense but became pretty important as the film started wrapping up everything. “Trick ‘r Treat” wasn’t particularly scary for me other than Sam, a child-looking sack-headed treat or treater with button eyes, but I thought it worked because all of the mini-stories had a commonality that was explored from beginning to end. However, don’t get me wrong because even though I didn’t think it was scary, it still had an element of darkness. For instance, the film was not scared to kill off children and even show the audiences their dead and sometimes mutilated bodies. This movie reminded me a lot of “Tales from the Crypt” because even though it explored morbid subject matter, there was always that element of humor and campiness which often remind us that it’s just a movie. I also liked that it referenced some of the other actors’ works through their characters outside of this project. For instance, Brian Cox’ independent film called “Red” and Anna Paquin’s popular television show “True Blood.” I admired that self-awareness because it didn’t get distracted from the storytelling, which is very difficult to be achieved, especially by Hollywood mainstream horror flicks. My only complaint about it is that maybe it could have used one more storyline for a slightly longer running time. I was so fascinated with what was going on so when the credits started rolling, I felt a bit sad that it was over. I will not be surprised at all if this eventually becomes a cult classic because it has a purpose, is smart and not afraid to be different. I wouldn’t mind adding this to my film collection.
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed watching this indie drama about an Orthodox Jew (Zoe Lister Jones) and a Muslim originally from Pakistan (Francis Benhamou) who build a friendship out of commonalities despite their religious backgrounds. Even though the crux of this film is about arranged marriages and arguments whether it works or not, it’s not afraid to tackle some issues between Jewish and Muslim people. Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer, the directors, were efficient with each scene by astutely using contrasting scenes and ideas: man vs. woman, work place vs. home, self vs. family, traditionality vs. modernity… Yet at the same time, Crespo and Schaefer sometimes fused two opposing ideas in order to draw insightful but valid conclusions. I also liked the fact that even though the setting was in Brooklyn, New York, and there’s a lot of diversity on both the background and the foreground, there are still characters so soaked in bigotry but they don’t even know it. What’s more interesting is that though they feel like they’re helping the situation, as a third party, one could feel like they’re making the situation worse as each word is expressed. The writing must also be admired because I felt like the conversations are the kind that I would overhear from friends, random strangers, or even family members (racism, narrow-mindedness at the dinner table and all). Although, personally, I wouldn’t want to be placed in an arranged marriage, as a person of color, I’m open-minded when it comes to cultures who do follow certain traditions. What this movie could’ve improved on was the last three scenes. I thought everything was presented so quickly to the point where it diminished the momentum it had. Still, this is a strong movie for fans of indie dramas and for people who want to learn more about other cultures.