Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
The Flower of My Secret (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
This film did not look or feel like it was completely directed by Pedro Almodóvar. It was a little too straightforward in its storytelling so it made me feel uncomfortable. “La flor de mi secreto” or “The Flower of My Secret” told the story of a writer (Marisa Paredes) who published her novels under a pseudonym because she valued her privacy. Only her best friend (Carme Elias) and a few others who were really close to her knew the truth about her career. Sick of writing romance novels especially since her marriage was on the rocks (her husband played brilliantly with cold disregard by Imanol Arias), she decided to write for a newspaper and was assigned to write critiques of her own novels. There were some excellent scenes in this movie such as the lead character’s interactions with her frustrated sister (Rossy de Palma) and stressed out mother (Chus Lampreave), when the lead character received a lecture from her publishers about why they couldn’t and wouldn’t publish her new novel that was dark and edgy (the description of the events in novel was very amusing because it sounded like something Almodóvar would make into a movie), and the scene with her husband in which it showcased how lonely the lead character truly was in terms of not having someone that she could be fully be open to whenever she felt like lowest in her life. However, there were many scenes shot outdoors, especially in the beginning, that were supposed to be funny but fell completely flat. Those scenes looked too commercial and they didn’t have Almodóvar’s signature use of extreme colors, they lacked tension, and given that they were taken out from the movie, the end product would have been the same. Such scenes felt like fillers and they quickly wore out their welcome. I understood that perhaps Almodóvar was trying to do something different with his style but I felt like he didn’t have complete control of the material when he was experimenting. The best scenes in the film had focus on the relationship between the main character and the women in her life and how they helped each other move past seemingly insurmountable emotional challenges. I think more scenes with the eccentric family would have benefited the movie greatly because de Palma was simply electric. She wasn’t in the movie much but every time she was on screen, I was drawn to her and I noticed the subtleties in her body movements. And in a way, the family reminded me of my own relatives because even though we get under each others’ skins, there’s a lot of undeniable love between the awkward silences. I liked “The Flower of My Secret” because it did have fantastic moments. However, I’m not sure how forgiving most people can be if they are not familiar with Almodóvar’s colorful and bold repertoire.
The Color Purple (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Alice Walker’s novel and directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Color Purple” stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson who endured years of suffering in the hands of a very abusive husband (Danny Glover). Celie lost everyone she loved–her son, daughter and sister (Akosua Busia)–and since she was so used to being treated as less than human, she learned to shut herself down and live as though she was a ghost. But when her husband’s kind mistress (Margaret Avery) came into her life, Celie learned to not hide her smile and then everything else fell into place. Most importantly, she learned to fight for her freedom. Watching the lead character struggle physically and emotionally touched me in so many ways to the point where I wanted to cry or yell or scream for her. I admired her because she was so strong–she didn’t break when everyone else told her that she was useless, ugly, unloved, and dumb. She took all of it because she had nowhere else to go. I liked that although the picture was primarily Celie’s story, it was also about the bond between strong women. The bond between Celie and her sister was so powerful and I loved watching them interact, especially the scene when Celie’s sister taught her how to read. It was a huge catharsis when Celie realized that her sister had been writing to her for years but she never received any of it. The bond between Celie and Shug–the mistress–was just as heartbreaking, notably the scenes when Shug would give Celie a boost of self-esteem. There was also a bond between Celie and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a strong charismatic woman who everybody wanted to talk to and get to know. Celie looked up to the three women not only because they were strong but also because they were free. The film didn’t take any shortcuts. It tackled the complex issues head-on whether it was about sexuality, race, gender and societal norms. Even “evil” characters like the husband were not one-dimensional. One of the many lines that stood out to me was “Even sinners have souls, too.” Despite the picture being two hours and thirty minutes long, I thought its pacing was exemplary. The passing of the years as the characters we came to love (and hate) growing considerably older was painful to see because one minute they were at their primes and the next they were shriveled up and almost defeated. I think it’s a shame that this picture was nominated for eleven Oscars but did not win a single one. I’m at a loss because the performances were all excellent, the soundtrack tugged at my heartstrings, the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking, and the writing was multidimensional.
London to Brighton (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I love that feeling when I come out of a movie being absolutely blown away because I knew nothing about it prior. Paul Andrew Williams’ directoral debut had a certain quiet power that did not quite let go until the very end. His picture was told in a non-linear fashion which first showed two girls: one about twelve years old (Georgia Groome) and the other middle-aged (Lorraine Stanley). At first, I thought they were sisters but I was surprised to learn later on that they were actually strangers. The audiences knew right away that they were injured and running away from something–the bloody details of from who or what were revealed later. I think it is for the audiences’ best interests not to know much about this movie like I did. Right from the get-go, I wanted the two women to escape to safe havens despite them being very rough around the edges because throughout the film, we get to learn that they are essentially very good people, especially Stanley’s character. Since Groome’s character was a runaway, Stanley became the sister or mother-figure by default because everyone else wanted to harm the little girl or take advantage of her in some way. The way Stanley valued the girl and put the girl in front of herself really touched me because they knew each other in less than a day. Given their dire and downright scary circumstances, I honesly do not know if I would have done the same for someone else. As the picture went on, more and more was asked of Stanley’s character and I constantly had to evaluate what I would have done if I were in her shoes. The supporting characters include Johnny Harris and Nathan Constance, as the two men who were on the hunt for the two leads, and Sam Spruell as a rich guy who wants to collects something that he feels like was owed to him. This is a small picture but the budget did not limit the crafty and touching writing about the two women’s plight by means of losing their innocence and eventual redemption. Their path to freedom was undeniably dark but the challenges they had to face could have potentially taught them to be stronger individuals.
Set It Off (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was about four ladies (Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise) who decided to pull off several bank robberies to untangle themselves from each of their respective binds. Smith wanted to put her brother through college, Latifah wanted to customize her car, Elise needed the money to get her son out of the city’s protective custody because they suspected that she was a negligent parent, and Fox was fired from her bank teller job because she “didn’t follow procedure” when another group of criminals robbed the bank she was working in. I’m glad that this film did not fall into an all too common trap of featuring criminals who do “bad things” just because they were African-American. F. Gary Gray, the director, actually took the time to establish each of the four leads so the audiences could truly understand their motivations. I actually rooted for the leading ladies even though, indeed, they decided to rob banks and harmed people along the way. I felt the desperation of each character. I completely understood that their actions were not who they were on the inside. In fact, they really were good people who were pushed into a wall without any means of escape other than to attack the aggressor (in this case, the cops and the law). I also liked the fact that Latifah’s character being a lesbian was not a big deal. It was simply who she was and there was no need to comment on it. Still, this picture is far from perfect. The four characters have street-smarts so I expected them to get better at what they did (robbing banks) as the film went on. Instead, eventually all of them became too sloppy and risk-taking. Not one would them suggested that they slowed down or planned things more thoroughly especially when the banks that they decided to rob became increasingly more difficult to get through. Despite its shortcomings, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because it was nice to see Black actresses carry an entire film. Most pictures I’ve seen of this kind usually go to white men so “Set It Off” offers a nice change.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Jellyfish,” directed by Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, peeks into the lives of three women in Israel: Batiya (Sarah Adler) who one day meets a little girl on the beach and wakes her up from the seemingly meaninglessness life she’s living; Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipina who takes care of older people whose children do not have time for them and at the same time feels a lot of guilt for leaving her son to earn money from another country; and Keren (Noa Knoller), a recent bride who breaks her ankle on her wedding night and fears that her husband is cheating on him during their honeymoon. This is definitely not everyone’s kind of movie because it doesn’t have a traditional way of storytelling: a defined exposition, rising action and climax. The camera simply drops in and out of the three women’s lives yet at the same time it strives to find a commonality among them. The idea of loneliness and fear is at the forefront but one can also argue that this film is ultimately about hope and strength to keep on living. And that’s what I love about it: it’s very open to interpretations because it’s full of symbolism and elements that may or may not be real. Even though the three women’s paths do collide at some point, it doesn’t feel forced like many American movies where one circumstance changes everybody’s lives by the end of the movie. In my opinion, “Jellyfish” is the perfect title for this film because its way of telling the story and structuring of the characters is mostly dependent upon the movements on the ocean, which means it’s organic and natural. However, I do think that some of the subtitles weren’t accurate enough. I can understand Tagalog and there’s a certain disconnect between what the character is saying and what’s written at the bottom of the screen. However, most foreign films have that problem so I’m not going to heavily hold that issue against this picture. If one is up for watching something a little different, “Jellyfish” is a recommendation because of its inherent poetry and sadness.
Working Girl (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by Mike Nichols, this romantic comedy has something to say or two about women in the work force. Set in the 1980’s, I was very amused by looking at people’s hair, clothes and the lingos they used. Even though those things are not that relevant today because they went out of fashion, there is one thing that persisted: Women are still considered less equal to men. Melanie Griffith plays Sigourney Weaver’s hardworking secretary who one day pitches an idea to Weaver. Even though Weaver promised Griffith that she will get some credit if Weaver’s boss liked her ideas, Weaver pitched Griffith’s ideas as her own. After an injury that left Weaver in bed for a couple of weeks, Griffith stumbled upon Weaver’s betrayal and decided to climb the corporate ladder. Even though this is a romantic comedy, it’s not an ordinary one because of the wit in its writing. Just when you think the story will unfold one way, it completely veers off another way and it surprised me (in a good way). Griffith is completely believable as an astute secretary who wants to be something more. Weaver did a great job as the boss from hell. It was hard for me to read her intentions because she’s so good at lying and manipulating everyone despite her sweet facade. Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack are also found here and they all have scenes where they truly shine. What didn’t work as well for me was the romantic angle. Sometimes, I felt as though it dragged the story down and shifted away from the business angle of the story. I can imagine this film being talked about in Women’s Studies courses because it has something to say about marriage, the workplace, and the home. The most interesting aspect in the film was even though Griffith wants to fight against a man-centered world of business, her enemy is a woman, just like herself. When I saw Weaver for the first time, my first instinct was Griffith and Weaver teaming up to climb the corporate ladder. I only realized later that it’s even better if they’re up against each other. As for its ending, it was so well-done. I was so touched because, in a way, it summarized Griffith’s journey in a different angle. This is a strong film by Nichols because it ultimately inspires.
In Paris (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s a lot of complex dynamics between the characters in this film but most of them were not explored enough. The best scenes were when the two brothers, Romain Duris and Louis Garrel, would talk to each other about women, the value of life and their childhood. I also found the father (Guy Marchand) interesting but he wasn’t given much to do except hover in the background like some sort of annoyance for the two leads. Duris returns home after a bad break-up and stays in bed all day. Garrel tries to find ways to alleviate his brother’s depression by–strangely enough–sleeping with other women. That statement doesn’t make sense but after seeing the entire picture, in a strange way, it does have some hidden meaning. I wouldn’t have gotten it either if Garrel’s character didn’t literally voice it out to his brother in the final scene. Still, this film is very uneven. In the beginning, Garrel talks to the camera and he claims that he’s going to be the narrator. As the film went on, that narration was completely thrown out the window. It would’ve been wiser if Christophe Honoré, the director, was more consistent about the narration because the film got a little confusing at times. One minute we’re looking at something that happened a week ago and the next we’re looking at something that happened a few months ago. The fact that this film is in French (I have no problem with that; I love foreign films) is another issue because there were some dialogues that do not directly correlate with the subtitles. (I know a little bit of French.) Given that handicap, jumping from one moment in time to another makes it that much less accessible. I liked that this film referenced other great filmmakers from the likes Jean-Luc Godard (scenes outside the home) and Bernardo Bertolucci (scenes in the home). Plus, that one scene when Garrel was looking at movie posters of “Last Days” and “A History of Violence” made me laugh due to the fact that Garrel looked at Michael Pitt’s picture with a certain recognition. (They worked together in one of my favorite films “The Dreamers.”) Little tidbits like that made me enjoy this movie despite my frustrations with its techniques. This is definitely not for everyone but if you’re the kind of person that likes to see movies which honor certain signatures of other great filmmakers, check this one out. (I still say it should have been more character-driven…)
Girls Rock! (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
After hearing about this film, I knew I had to rent it because I liked what it was trying to accomplish. However, as much as I like the ideas behind the film, I can’t quite recommend it because I felt like it didn’t have enough focus; it tried to tell stories of about five bands so its an hour and a half running time wasn’t enough to dig deeper into these children’s lives. There were moments in the film–especially near the end–when it captured some of these girls’ loneliness and their reasons for joining the camp. I wanted to know more about that instead of how they make music. There’s also a great message about kids having to learn to work through their problems in front of those same people who they are having frustrations with. It not only applies in a band or group dynamics but also in the real world. However, what I found distracting was the little animations and statistics flashing on the screen. I felt like I was watching a college student’s documentary and those tidbits took me out of the whole experience. Those minutes combined should’ve been used to further explore the campers’ psychology. Still, there were some interesting characters here such as the Korean girl who hates herself, the girl who has a brother with Downe Syndrome and the girl who’s been through a lot of tough times being transferred from one foster home to another. I wish the filmmakers would’ve primarily told their story and then talk about how music has changed them. This is not just about the camp. It also comments on how society is designed to make women feel second rate, how music has changed in the 90s and how that correlates to women and expectations regarding their bodies. Having taken a few Women’s Studies courses, I found it to be insightful but (at times) a bit preachy. Again, this film has a plethora of good ideas but it needed to have an extra punch by working on its execution.