‘The Wolves’: A Stunning Story About Sacrifices

Samuel Kishi crafts a remarkable film that reflects on the immigrant experience and the sacrifices they must make to survive.

I am a son of an immigrant, my father had to make the toughest decision to come over to a country he knew nothing about to be able to be with my mother. My mother is a daughter of immigrants, her parents made a tough decision to cross the border and provide a better life to their children than the one they had in Mexico. My family is filled with a history of being immigrants and we carry that with us every day of our lives. We are reminded every time we look around of the countless struggles and obstacles we crossed to be able to stand comfortably in this land we still don’t know a lot about. These are not easy decisions to make but sometimes they are the only viable ones. You have to leave your life back home and start from zero in a new place where you know nothing of the customs, language, and culture that you find yourself in now. There are many like you around but even then you still don’t entirely feel like you belong over here but you remember that in this life you have to sacrifice a lot. The Wolves is a film that follows these exact beats and speaks on this very experience.

The Wolves is directed by Samuel Kishi and stars Martha Reyes Arias, Maximiliano Nájar Márquez, and Leonardo Nájar Márquez as a family that immigrates to the United States from Mexico. The boys stay in their apartment that does not have a proper bed to sleep on while their mother works long shifts for multiple jobs while trying to make ends meet. The boys spend their days hanging out with each other and listening to tapes that their mother has left them with stories of the past and English lessons. The boys are given a set of rules they must follow but as their stay prolongs things get harder and harder to understand. All while they are told that one day they will get to go to Disneyland. These boys befriend their landlords while staying at this complex and get to know the neighborhood children who pose problems for them.

The film is expertly directed with a beautiful screenplay to accompany it. There was not a single moment here where my attention was somewhere else. I was emotional throughout this whole ordeal watching as these boys try to understand how much their mom is sacrificing for them. Maybe it is because I relate a lot to what these boys feel because I grew up a lot like them with not a lot as times were very tight with money. The film also is crafted with some exquisite and powerful cinematography by Octavio Arauz. Our main cast also give wonderful performances that creep right into your heart even when there is not a lot of words being spoken. The Wolves enriches your experience with empathy and beauty in understanding the immigrant experience. What is not being said directly is discussed through its moments of tenderness in the story.

We are following this journey with these children as viewers to understand the sacrifices someone must make to provide a good life to those they love. We understand everything must be given up when we have to leave all we know. We sympathize with the feeling of being lost and not knowing how to ask for the help when we really need it. We learn to be patient because we don’t always understand the severity of the situations we find ourselves in. Most importantly, we learn to just keep moving forward because at the end of the day we are all a culmination of the sacrifices that those who came before us made.

The Wolves is available to watch on HBO Max.

‘Ema’: Dance The Pain Away or Fight Against It

Pablo Larraín’s Ema transcends many fields to create a somber piece about the loss of control of one’s life.

CREDIT: Fabula

I have been long overdue my exploration into the filmography of Pablo Larraín since I am really excited about his upcoming film with Kristen Stewart, Spencer, based on the life of Princess Diana that has been making lots of noise at the film festivals so far. Of course, this film is very different from what I imagine Spencer is going to be. Before this Larraín had made his academy award nominated film based on the life of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Jackie. By looking at the synopsis you can tell that this a very different type of film and it was well worth the watch.

Ema looks at a tumultuous relationship between Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and Gastón (Gael García Bernal) after having to return their adopted son because of his pyromaniac behavior. Ema is a reggaetón dancer along with her other colleagues, while Gastón is a director of a dance company that does not align itself with the reggaetón style. Both of these two are very different individuals and leads to them having a different outlook on life and how to raise their child. The film is expertly shot by Sergio Armstrong with some exquisite framing especially of the dance scenes. The film also has some very tasteful and interesting lighting setups that help set up the atmosphere that these dancers find themselves in. Ema also includes some incredible musical compositions from Chilean American musician Nicolás Jaar that really makes this film’s sound and feeling unique. It is very influenced by an unorthodox style of reggaetón that does not sound nothing like the first or new wave of the genre.

The movie is wonderfully performed by our main protagonists, but I don’t think this movie is concerning itself with telling a tightly knit story more so examining the environment and what it means for those who want a little more out of this life. Ema is not your “normal” protagonist, but she does want things that all of us humans want. We want to be appreciated, understood, and most importantly given the chance to love or be loved. Ema does not go about it the right way to achieve most of these things especially given the overall plot and how she plans to take her child back. Throughout all of this there are two things that she knows that she at least loves, those being her child (both Polo and the eventual one she will have) and dancing. Both of these allow her to feel like the person she is and no one can take that from her. I found Ema to be a very surprising film and cannot wait for what else this director can offer.

Ema is available to rent on most video purchasing sites.

‘Identifying Features’: The Harrowing Realities of the Borderlands

Fernanda Valadez shocks with her quiet and petrifying feature directorial debut look at the dangers of crossing the U.S. Mexico Border.

CREDIT: Kino Lorber

I won’t lie, it has been difficult to put pen to paper when it comes to what I thought about this film. Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features is incredible and that is a complete understatement. What she is able to accomplish is so moving and harrowing at the same time. I kind of hate myself for waiting so long to finally watch this. This is not just a film about unconditional love but the absolute terrifying reality of crossing the border. This is a story that is known all too well, I mean there are a lot of movies that have done this story before like Babel, Desierto, Under The Same Moon, and others that have discussed the pain and dangers of trying to gain a better life by crossing to a neighboring country. Valadez constructs this masterpiece by engrossing the viewer in a journey that absolutely never lets go of you or maybe you just can’t help but keep looking.

Identifying Features is a pretty simple movie on paper, a mother goes looking for her child after he goes missing when he and his friend embark on a journey to cross the Arizona/Mexico border. The cast includes actual mothers who are still looking for their missing children today like our main actress Mercedes Hernandez. This is already something that impressed me because I am a fan of non professional actors’ performances. There is something about someone who is not experienced in the art of acting that can come on and express themselves artistically without ever having acted on stage or in front of the camera. In regards to this film though you have people who know from experience these hardships. They are able to bring another level of experience and knowledge that any other actor could bring to it. The film is expertly shot by Claudia Berrecil Bulos who captures natural lighting in some beautiful external shots. My jaw was on the floor throughout the third act with all of its rich visuals accompanied by an exquisite color palette. The music adds to the hypnotic and mesmerizing nature of the film that creates this very uneasy atmosphere. Throughout it all, the strongest part of this film is the script and beautiful direction from Fernanda Valadez.

It is really hard to approach these stories for me living on the border and being a son of immigrants. Part of me wants to scream to the industry that we don’t need more and more of trauma stories being the only stories about Latinos on the screen, but also we fail to understand that these are our stories whether we like them or not. These are the stories of our ancestors and we have to make sure to not let these stories die off. We have to point the mirror to society and show them exactly what is happening because then they will never understand the immigrant experience. Every single time Mercedes Hernandez is on screen I am heartbroken. I want to reach over the screen and hug her because this is a reality that is too well known in Latin America but especially on the border. Valadez is hoping that if we cannot understand the immigrant experience we can at least begin to empathize with the immigrant experience. Sadly, I know there are still people who will watch this and say, “well they should have stayed in their country.” I think this film perfectly tells you that we wish it was that easy. I just hope anyone who is still going through this can watch this and find a sense of community of grief knowing that they are not alone in their experience.

Fernanda Valadez has a great career ahead of her. Her directorial knowledge shines bright throughout the whole film. The way she chooses shots, lingers on looks, and is able to get these performances out of first time actresses is groundbreaking for her upcoming career. She has a very patient approach to her thematic characteristics being discussed. She is an impeccable artist who will make more wonders like this in her lifetime. I know I am really excited to see what else she will make.

You can buy or rent Identifying Features on most purchasing sites like Amazon Prime Video.

‘Annette’: It Sings Itself Into an Abyss

The English language debut film of French director Leos Carax is ambitious but it just does too much to work that falls unbelievably flat.

CREDIT: UGC Distribution

It’s finally here after premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it received a standing ovation (even though that seems to be tradition at this point for most movies at Cannes). French director Leos Carax creates his first English language film with the help of Sparks duo Ron and Russel Mael. The film is shot by Caroline Champetier along with music created by Sparks themselves. The film received raving reviews at Cannes especially many praising the performances by our leads. One can definitely agree that there was some anticipation for this film especially for fans of Carax and his last film Holy Motors.

Annette stars Adam Driver as, Henry McHenry, a comedian on a steady downfall in his career and life and Marion Cotillard as Catherine Defrasnoux a successful and beautiful opera singer who fall in love, get married, and have their first child. It is after they have their child that they face a slew of problems ranging from bad communication to jealousy. The film also stars Simon Helberg and Devyn McDowell who show off an incredible range of performances in the film. The film is definitely heightened by the performances included along with their singing abilities.

Now, let’s get one thing covered before we get into what this movie is doing. Annette is bizarre, ambitious and at times both of these characteristics are what helps the film stand out, but it is also what makes the film stay convoluted. The film succeeds in getting its message across about power hungry jealous men who are not content with their life and career, so they must manipulate those around them to help keep their career alive. It is exactly who Henry is and who he realizes he became by the end of the film. The film also has some stunning cinematography that is elevated by some genius production design. Everything from the lighting setups to the set pieces really help create the atmosphere of the film.

After all that well you are probably asking, “well what did not work for you then?” Everything else basically from story to music to pacing just did not work. I am a firm believer that a musical should at least be good in the music department, and even though I am sure that the Sparks have made some good music the music in Annette was just uninteresting. It helped create its atmosphere but at times it felt very out of place within its story where it should be helping service the story. As mentioned before, Driver and Cotillard are magnificent performers but the music just does not work for the film to execute itself.

The story of Annette is interesting but because of its off pacing it just does not seem to ever capture more than it is grasping. The themes are far more interesting to digest than this convoluted story that just does not find its footing. A lot of that is to blame for a very dragged out second and third act that just keep going and going. If the film could have been shaved down 30 minutes I think it could have worked better but who knows when the pacing is only one part of multiple problems this film finds itself in. Now, you’re probably thinking that I just did not like this film at all? Well, I found it to be just fine because its ambition even though it is what limited it at times is what I think pushes it to be a good film. There is a lot of love and care within the film that just helps create this bizarre flick and because of that it is worthy of that praise. Even though there is a lot ground that can be improved Leos Carax does a good job of creating a very stylized film that only he can make.

Annette is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

‘The Suicide Squad’: The Violently Weird Gem From DC

The newest installment from the DC Universe brings out one of its best films from the “horribly beautiful mind” of director James Gunn.

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

We have a new DC film in cinemas and on HBO Max and it is the highly anticipated Suicide Squad film from director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super). The bad guys are back to save the world from other bad guys. We are introduced to some new faces and are greeted with the return of some familiar faces. Of course, we all remember the last Suicide Squad film and all that went down during that production. Not to get stuck in the past, but James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is the definitive film about the rag tag group of bad guys!

The Suicide Squad stars a huge ensemble cast of Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, and Peter Capaldi. We have new faces like Peacemaker (Cena), Bloodsport (Elba), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), King Shark (Stallone), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). While we have new faces we are also treated to some familiar ones from the prior Suicide Squad film like Kinnaman’s Rick Flag, Harley Quinn (Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Courtney), and Amanda Waller played by the incredible Viola Davis. This time the group is being sent to fight the villain Starro as it plans to terrorize a fictional Latin American country from the control of Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker.

James Gunn constructs one of the most entertaining and thematically interesting interpretations of comic book characters. I loved our new heroes but I especially liked the care and development they had like Polka-Dot Man and Ratcatcher 2. The film never stops being unapologetically a James Gunn film from the beginning. It is filled with incredible soundtrack choices, witty comedy, and some strong gorey visuals. Nearly everyone stands out with their performances with my personal favorites being David Dastmalchian and Viola Davis. Everything just works out so well to create an entertaining and weird film from the creative body of work of James Gunn. One would hope that Gunn will return for another installment after he gets done with his work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 but for now we have an HBO Max Peacemaker series to look forward to. Whatever we get after this, I am sure it will be just as good or better than this film. DC has found itself another gem in this movie!

Watch The Suicide Squad in cinemas or on HBO Max right now.