February 28th: Desperado

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Release Date: 1995
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Why I picked this: It’s the sequel to “El Mariachi”

This movie is certainly spewing of energy and creativity, but I felt that something was missing when comparing it to its predecessor. “El Mariachi” was a miracle in filmmaking; with a $7,000 budget, director/producer/writer Robert Rodriguez crafted a fun and inventive action movie. He does the same with this movie, instead with a higher budget and more prominent actors. The higher budget definitely shows; while hitting all of the visual cues of the original film, the production values are much better. This certainly looks like a Hollywood film. Instead of Carlos Gallardo playing El Mariachi, instead being recast into a smaller role, Antonio Banderas is the one carrying the guitar case this time. After the ending of the original film, El Mariachi becomes more of a hardened character rather than running around confused. He comes across like a gunslinger from a Western, and as a result, is less easier to relate to. The female lead is played by Salma Hayek, with the antagonist Bucho being played by Joaquin de Almeida. These two characters have the exact same roles as their counterparts in the first film. The female lead is a love interest who assists El Mariachi, but is also involved with the protagonist in some way. The antagonist is some sort of crime boss who sends his goons on a wild goose chase for El Mariachi, even with little information on who he is. What’s new are great supporting performances from actors Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, and Cheech Marin; they all have small parts, but are very memorable in their short time. It is worth mentioning, however, that they play similar characters to others they have played on screen. I was a little confused about the plot; what was El Mariachi’s conflict with the antagonist? I’m sure it had nothing to do with the ending of the first movie, as the female lead and antagonists were all dead at the end. It was hard to invest myself in his journey without knowing his motivation. Plot-wise, this has a very similar structure to the first film, ending with a crazy climax and a non-sensical resolution with people being shot at, an element that I didn’t even like in the first movie. I enjoyed all of the references to the first movie, but at times, I felt that I was simply watching a bigger budget remake of the first movie. The action is very well directed though; one shootout in a bar had very impressive choreography and camerawork. However, the henchmen in this movie have shots like intoxicated and blindfolded Stormtroopers; it was hard to suspend my disbelief. The explosive climax was fun to watch, but the inclusion of one particular weapon was ridiculous.

There is some fun and creative action; the cast overall is pretty good, and I like the references to the first film, but it feels very much the same, and even lacks a certain charm that the first film had.

February 27th: Seven

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Release Date: 1995
Director: David Fincher
Why I picked this: I’m a fan of Fincher

Again, it was difficult to watch this movie knowing some key elements that arise ahead of time. Still, this is a very well directed film with a great atmosphere. There is quite a lot of disturbing content, violent and gruesome content that some might not be able to handle. But, and forgive me if I come across as morbid, I enjoyed it. The gruesomeness was done in such a smart and clever way that I didn’t care too much. The movie focuses on two detectives following a serial killer who bases his murders on the seven deadly sins; as mentioned, these are very smartly thought out and executed murders. The two detectives are David Mills, played by Brad Pitt, who has recently transferred to this unnamed city. He partners up with old-fashioned detective William Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, who is due to retire soon. They are both effective in their roles, and have good on-screen chemistry together. The whole young/old cop dynamic is something that is overdone in fiction, with Pitt’s character being more impatient and quick to act, while Freeman’s character is more wise and by the books. Though cliched, the performances of the two main leads actually freshen up this dynamic. There aren’t any moments where the acting from these two will stand out, save for maybe the ending. In fact, I felt that the two lead characters took a backseat to the visuals and the themes. There were aspects of the plot that I simply didn’t care about, such as one subplot involving Mills’ wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, confiding in Somerset on a secret. However, an introduction of another character will definitely stand out. As previously stated, this movie has a great atmosphere; the city is alive, but there is this dirtiness and scumminess that covers it. Scenes in which it is raining heavily enhance this atmosphere, and overall, the movie has a dark and cynical tone. It certainly has a cynical tone as well, and a cynical message regarding society. The movie depicts the world as not only corrupt, but imperfect. There is a great conversation between Mills and Somerset about the inherent qualities and flaws of man, an they both come to a fundamental disagreement. The movie uses low angles, shadows, and smooth camera movement, with the exception of some scenes of action. The movie’s color palette ranges from very warm colors to darker colors to convey bleakness. The score is loud and pretty standard, but surprisingly enhances a lot of the suspense of the movie, particularly at the end. Overall, this feels like a modern day noir film; dark, cynical, and sharing many of the visual and audio qualities of classic noir films.

The characters aren’t very strong, with a special exception, but what is strong are the well crafted visuals and dark atmosphere, with an effective use of graphic and shocking content.

February 26th: The Sixth Sense

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Release Date: 1999
Director: M. Night Shaymalan
Why I picked this: …I’ve only seen the last half hour, okay?

It was hard to watch already knowing the ending, but the writing, directing, and acting created a suspenseful atmosphere that made the entire experience of watching this film worthwhile. The movie has a very patient and rewarding style; scenes are slow, yet still engaging, and information is revealed at a nice pace and fashion. “Show, don’t tell” is probably the most important trait that visual media should have, and this movie is perfect in this regard. I loved how the characters were framed by parts of the environment, I loved the subtle foreshadowing, and I especially loved the use of the color red, which makes more sense after the movie’s end. The camera is still when focusing on characters, and when it moves, it moves slowly. The camera pans slowly from person to person as each character takes their turn speaking during a conversation; conversations staged like this are sort of like a game or a struggle between the characters speaking. And while this movie isn’t necessarily a horror film, there are some frightening images and jump scares, but none of this feels cheap. They are more to unsettle rather than to scare. The film revolves around child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, who after being shot by a former patient, Vincent Gray, played by Donnie Walhberg, finds himself in a slump in both his personal and professional lives. He takes young child Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment as a patient, as Cole reminds him of Crowe’s Vincent, whom he failed to help. Willis is great in this understated role of his, but Osment’s performance is the best in the film. Cole is a troubled youth, with no friends and strange behavior. Cole says unsettling things that have led his peers to see him as a freak, and he has a problem that is not made clear until halfway through the film, demonstrating the steady release of information in the film. But Osment portrays Cole as thoughtful, mature, and aware, even though he suppresses his thoughts. Cole is skeptical about Crowe being able to help him, but the dynamic between them changes progressively. Crowe feels that he must help this child to make up for his failure with his Vincent, but at the same time, must repair his relationship with his wife, played by Olivia Williams. Actress Toni Collette makes a great turn as Cole’s mother, Lynn. She is concerned, but still very loving; she constantly reaffirms to her son that there is nothing wrong between the two of them, despite his apparent erratic behavior. A scene between Cole and his mother made for one of the most emotional scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. This movie has various themes; Malcolm Crowe attempts to redeem himself, while balancing his personal and professional lives. Crowe and Cole’s trust for each other grows, and they both begin to help each other, with Cole finally confiding in Crowe, and Crowe accepting Cole’s help with his wife. And later in the movie, Cole discovers that he has a higher calling that he accepts. Overall, this is a very well crafted film, but be observant, as you may be tricked.

Slow, patient, and engaging, this is an emotional, suspenseful, and occasionally frightening movie with one of the best child actor performances ever, along with having one the best endings ever.

February 25th: Touch of Evil

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Release Date: 1958
Director: Orson Welles
Why I picked this: It’s about time to watch some older movies

It’s one of the last “classic noir” films ever directed, and it sure is a good one. Beginning with a masterfully directed tracking shot following a car and a couple, this classic is instantly memorable for its visuals, dialogue, and use of music. There’s some great directing here, as expected from the man who gave us “Citizen Kane.” Shots are framed very well, with a creative use of shadows to shroud certain characters in mystery. Deep focus is used, putting everything on frame in focus; every shot is densely filled as a result. The dialogue is very intricate and detailed as well. There’s a certain classiness to what many of these characters are saying. I loved moments in which conversations would overlap and characters would talk over each other. All of the conversations in this movie felt organic as a result. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is the use of diegetic sound, specifically the use of music. Songs playing in the background of the scenes perfectly matched the tone of the conversations being held; it really set the tone for these scenes. Songs are constantly playing throughout the movie, but it is seamless and never distracting. There is also a great musical score that fits very well with the music played within the world of the movie. The film’s plot is an interesting one; it takes place at the U.S.-Mexico border, and begins with a car bomb planted on the Mexican side killing the occupants of the car on the U.S side. Most prominently involved in the investigation are drug enforcement official Mike Vargas, played by classic movie actor Charlton Heston, and police captain Hank Quinlan, played by writer/director Orson Welles. As the plot progresses, there becomes a clearer line between the two characters, regarding their motivations and intentions. The U.S.-Mexico border could very well be a metaphor for the line between good and evil. Quinlan comes across as having a philosophy of “the ends justify the means”; upon watching his actions in the film, the title “Touch of Evil” will begin to make more sense. The end result of his actions might not make him look like a bad man, in fact, he has quite a good reputation, but his methods are questionable. The visual atmosphere of the movie creates a shroud of ambiguity. Welles plays Quinlan with an appropriate amount of menace. Vargas is shown to have standards; he has some heroic qualities, but there are moments where he might considered being right on that line between good and evil. Heston’s performance is effective, but not necessarily impressive. I also find it strange that they didn’t have a Hispanic actor play Vargas. The only other performance I really took notice of was Dennis Weaver as a mentally challenged manager of a motel in which Vargas’ wife stays at; he is very good at playing someone who is frantic and confused. This movie has a lot of classic noir elements, such as the use of low angles and an overall cynical tone. The ending did a decent job wrapping the plot up; I found the editing to be a little haphazard at this point, though.

Very well directed with a special attention to dialogue and music; the visuals and themes are very much like those you would find in noir, but Orson Welles himself is really the only impressive main actor.

February 24th: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Release Date: 2012
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Why I picked this: It looks like something I personally can relate to

A coming-of-age film following a high school freshman, this movie contains some of the common cliches of high school, yet still manages to be very relatable and personal. Logan Lerman plays Charlie, said high school freshman; Charlie is introverted and shy, and Lerman plays him very well. He brings Charlie to life and the audience feels some satisfaction when he succeeds. There are a few particular scenes where I could see myself in him; I felt anxiety just as he did just from watching the movie. Of course, he doesn’t always makes the best decisions, but he never really did anything that made him unsympathetic. Lerman’s body language is subtle and effective, displaying his nervousness and awkwardness. After struggling during his first few days of school, he finds himself befriending two seniors, Patrick, played by Ezra Miller, and his stepsister Sam, played by Emma Watson. Ezra Miller is the standout in the principal cast; Patrick is  showy, unfiltered, and very outspoken. He goes through an interesting character arc, starting off as described, but showing a more vulnerable side later in the movie. Emma Watson is very charming as Sam, who Charlie becomes smitten with. It was initially hard to concentrate on her performance through her American accent, but audiences will be won over her  perceptive and loving character. This movie was designed to be a very faithful adaptation of the novel which it is based on; it is written and directed by the author, Stephen Chbosky. The script is sharp and runs at a nice pace, and I really enjoyed the visual direction. There is a great tunnel shot that begins the movie that foreshadows one of the memorable scenes of the movie; clever camerawork, editing, and a great soundtrack are used to show Charlie’s nervousness, confusion, and stress. There are scenes in which Charlie has “blackouts,” and other scenes where he has flashbacks about his aunt killed in a crash, all which are well edited. There is one scene in particular near the end that was more intense than what I expected from the film. The themes of the film is what should hit home for most viewers. It contains basic themes of love and happiness, but the movie delves into what we deserve, how happy we deserve to be, and what we want from life, and whether or not it is worth making others happy at your own expense. It has an interesting perspective on loneliness; it is by far the biggest problem that Charlie suffers, and his friends go through lengths to show him that he is never alone. And one of the movie’s more important themes is to simply enjoy the moment; I’d be surprised if there is someone who couldn’t find a lesson from watching this movie.

Its depiction of the high school experience isn’t anything unique; what is unique is its take on various social aspects of high school. The direction and acting are very good, making for an emotional and personal coming-of-age film.

February 23rd: Zero Dark Thirty (Oscar Week Day 7)

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing

It is a wonder that this movie was made so quickly. This movie attempts to chronicle the search for the then-leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, after the events of September 11th, 2001. It takes place during the long stretch of time from then to May 2nd, 2011, in which bin Laden is killed in a raid conducted by Navy SEALs. Between this time, the narrative focuses on Maya, presumably a composite character, a CIA officer played by Jessica Chastain. Maya essentially devotes her entire career on the trail for bin Laden. She and her colleagues find themselves in the midst of some major terrorist incidents while on this trail, which led to some shocking and tense sequences. In building a narrative of the past decade or so, this film may go on to define this era, as it not only depicts important events, but touches upon many of the political issues that arose over this search for the “world’s most dangerous man.” One interesting change was the change from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration; the earlier parts of the film had the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to gain information; after Obama takes office, their methods obviously have to change. However, these time jumps are sudden, and we are left wondering what occurred during the time in between. The concept of the Maya character is interesting; as mentioned, her entire career is focused on this one manhunt. She comes across as a very strong and determined character, who grows more hardened as the years pass by. But she makes some bizarre choices, such as her use of a profane word during an essential meeting with the CIA Director, for example. I personally did not enjoy Chastain’s performance. While not bad, I found her moments of intensity and anger to be unconvincing. It is clear when the movie is a political thriller/action film, and when it is a character study. The thriller/action scenes are far more compelling. This movie never glosses these real life events. This movie has a visceral feel, and there are moments that truly shocked me. Sometimes shock may be generated from an unexpected explosion; sometimes you may just feel tension from encounters and the potential of danger. None of these sequences fail to be gripping. By far the most compelling sequence is the raid near the end of the movie. Seeing this raid with no music and from various perspectives is a truly intense experience. The sound of each individual bullet shot should have some sort of jump effect, and the moment of the actual killing, without telling too much about how it is presented, is very appropriate. Even the sequence afterwards which depicts the cleanup is intense. While I never got into the characters, I must admit that the ending moment was very powerful. Kathryn Bigelow, along with her editors and sound designers, have crafted a very realistic looking and sounding film that is very timely, though a bit lengthy.

Shocking, gritty,  and real, this movie has some of the most intense sequences put on film. However, the movie skips around time messily, is very long, and its characters might not be as compelling as one might hope for.

February 22nd: Silver Linings Playbook (Oscar Week Day 6)

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Director: David O. Russell
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (Robert de Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing

On the surface, an uninformed fool may dismiss this movie expecting a standard rom-com. How wrong this fool is. This movie is shot and edited, written, and acted in unconventional ways. It follows Philadelphian Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, who demonstrates just how talented he is as an actor in this movie. Pat has bipolar disorder and has been released from a mental health facility, and upon returning home, attempts to pick up the pieces of his life. He mainly strives to win back his wife, who has recently moved out and filed a restraining order against Pat. In Pat’s immediate family are his concerned and loving mother, played by Jacki Weaver, and his father Pat Sr., played by Robert de Niro. Pat Sr. is an interesting character; he is a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles and is shown as having various OCD traits and a dependency on certain elements to be in place while watching football games to ensure the Eagles’ victory. This film continues to explore mental conditions and disorders when introducing Tiffany, the sister-in-law of one of Pat’s friends. Tiffany is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who is electric in this role. There isn’t a moment of her screen time where you don’t realize (or aren’t thinking about) what is on her mind and what she is feeling. Tiffany is stern and emotional, and Lawrence does a fantastic job. A recent widow, Tiffany immediately forms an interesting dynamic with Pat. Right from their first encounter, they ask personal and intrusive questions, yet they both appear to be on the same page, as their conversations flow well and they are both unfazed. They both discuss their various medications, and overall waste no time whilst talking to each other. They both form a strange bond with each other due to their quirks and instability, though Pat takes special attention to her due to her connection to his wife. These two characters are shown to be highly volatile; there are various scenes demonstrating this, and Cooper and Lawrence are able to bring out their best during these scenes. Their tantrums are loud, but feel realistic; they are filmed in a sort of uneasy filming style. It isn’t something you see every day, but it is something you COULD see. In fact, this movie as a whole feels very genuine. The dialogue, as bizarre as it may sound depending on who is speaking, feels genuine. It is easy to get immersed into this small chunk of Philadelphia. The camera is rarely static, but never shaky; it gives you a place of being, and the camera movement always fits within the context of what the characters are doing. Some of the weirder visual moments occur when the police officer charged with watching Pat appears; unconventional camera movements and editing convey a sense of foreboding trouble. The camera sometimes takes the perspective of Pat when observing Tiffany, with the camera glancing as he would. The movie, while exploring mental conditions and disorders, has the main theme of looking for happiness, or that “silver lining,” as the title obviously suggests. This happiness could be found in unexpected places through unexpected methods. I also felt that the film suggested that there is something within everyone’s mind that makes us all strange and unique.

It might not be what you’d expect, probably for the better. Featuring career-high performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, this look at mental illness, sports culture, love, and happiness is unconventional, yet charming and enjoyable.

February 21st: Lincoln (Oscar Week Day 5)

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Director: Steven Spielberg 
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Design, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

It’s a period piece directed by the most famous director of our time, written by a prestigious playwright and starring a two-time Oscar winning method actor as America’s most famous President. This movie is exactly what you would expect from that combination. This movie focuses on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, mainly on the end of the Civil War and his efforts to have the Thirteenth Amendment passed by Congress, while also focusing on some aspects of his personal life. It begins with a scene of brutality, depicting a battle during the Civil War. Besides a few scenes showing observations of destruction, the movie rarely focuses on this aspect of the time period. Instead, the movie focuses mostly on the political atmosphere at the time. The House of Representatives is depicted as being more vibrant and loud compared to the present day. Congressmen yell and openly insult each other on the floor; they jeer and scream in either anger or celebration. We also see the work of political operatives, mainly Republicans played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson. Their sometimes amusing methods of winning votes from Congressmen form the more lighthearted moments of the movie. At the center of the movie, we have Daniel Day-Lewis going all out as Abraham Lincoln; he has transformed into the man himself, adapting a historically-accurate voice along with various other subtleties in his body language. Day-Lewis performs long monologues and tells drawn out stories to convey the relaxed and pensive nature of the 16th President, but he is loud and intense when he needs to be. Opposite Day-Lewis is Sally Field as the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. The First Lady has been through much before the events depicted in the movie, such as the loss of a child, which is reflected by her unstable nature. This movie has an expansive cast, and one of the best ensembles in recent memory. This would include Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of the State William Seward, and most prominently Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens is stern, loud, bold, and colorful in his language. Steven Spielberg’s direction takes a backseat in favor of Tony Kushner’s script and the acting; this movie is full of monologues. But visually, this is still an impressive film. Washington D.C. is made vibrant and lifelike, and the production design is very detailed.

As a way of understanding how politics worked during the time of the Civil War and the character of Abraham Lincoln, this movie excels, especially thanks to its wonderful performances. Its play-like nature may turn off a few, however.

February 20th: The Sessions (Oscar Week Day 4)

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Director: Ben Lewin
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hunt)

It isn’t eye-opening or life changing, but it is very hard to not enjoy this movie. The movie is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who is paralyzed from the neck down to to his polio. Mark O’Brien is portrayed by a horribly Oscar-snubbed John Hawkes, who makes the best of not being able to move most of his body. Hawkes develops a very distinct voice. His portrayal of O’Brien makes him come across as an anxious romantic who desires love and intimacy. To achieve this, he is given the idea to hire a sex surrogate (which as the movie points out, is very different from a prostitute). Mark hires Cheryl Cohen-Greene, played by Helen Hunt in a very honest performance. Some of the women in this movie have a slight struggle, that being that they grow too close to Mark, and Cheryl is not different. It was certainly entertaining to see these sessions between Mark and Cheryl; Cheryl treats this work in a very professional manner, and Mark acts anxiously the entire time; he initially screams in pain when his shirt is being removed and overall is very nervous during these sessions. Many of these moments form the basis of the comedic moments in this movie, and they are, for the most part, effective. Again, Cheryl becomes closer to Mark, and vice versa. Mark relates this information to his local pastor, Father Brendan, portrayed by William H. Macy. It was amusing to see Brendan’s reactions to Mark’s casually-told but graphic recollections of the sessions. He is overall a good supporting character, but I disliked how scenes with him and Mark were intercut with other scenes, such as the sessions themselves. It sometimes made for a messy narrative. There were also some scenes with Mark’s different nurses that were utterly pointless, like a conversation with one of his nurse’s and her boyfriend, whom we never see again, and recurring scenes with a hotel bellhop hitting on his nurse. This movie has nice themes of love and intimacy, and working with the limitations you have. Mark had already had this condition for quite sometime by the time we meet him. He never complains and has accepted his condition, yet frustrated with the limitations he has that prevents him from achieving intimacy. These are nice themes, but the movie overall isn’t very emotionally powerful.

Narrative problems aside, John Hawkes and Helen Hunt make the movie as a whole work, which contains nice themes and some amusing moments.

February 19th: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Oscar Week Day 3)

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Director: Benh Zeitlin
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Best Adapted Screenplay

It’s charming and unique, and features one of the more interesting parent-child relationships I’ve seen in a film. Taking place at a Louisiana bayou in a community named the “Bathtub,” this movie follows young child Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis in one of the best child performances in recent memory. She has a lot of dialogue and narration, and delivers all of it with the proper weight that comes with the words; Hushpuppy comes across as thoughtful and mature for her very young age. Her father is Wink, played equally as well by Dwight Henry. The two have their conflicts; Wink is not abusive or mean-spirited, but he is troubled. Wink is tempered and has problems with alcohol and his health. While he is sometimes angry, he is still shown to be very caring for Hushpuppy, even with some of his irrational behavior. One sequence has Wink leaving their home during a storm and “fending it off” with a shotgun to make Hushpuppy feel safer. Wink wants nothing more than for Hushpuppy to be safe and to grow into a stronger person. This movie is shot in a very visceral shaky-cam style. The concept of shaky-cam turns off many, but never did I feel annoyed or disoriented. In fact, I think this visual style made the movie for what it is. It gave the film a very naturalistic quality, and some of the sights of this environment were stunning. It is filmed in a way so that some of the more fantastical elements of the film, mainly sequences featuring “Aurochs” (presumably the titular “Beasts”) fit perfectly into the established aesthetic of the film. The community of the “Bathtub” is shown to be very vibrant from the get-go; its inhabitants are energetic and happy, and when conflict arises, they find a way to handle it all together. However, these inhabitants all basically function as extras and never grow into characters, even though they add to the energy of the movie.

Charming and emotional, this look at an interesting father and daughter relationship in a worn-down but vibrant environment is a unique and worthwhile tale.