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Good Day, Ramón

Directed by Jorge Ramírez-Suarez

      Ramón (Kristyan Ferrer), a young man, lives with his single mother, Rosa (Arcelia Ramírez), and grandmother, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), in a small Mexican town. He struggles to find work to support his family, so instead of turning to a life of crime, he immigrates to Germany in hopes of working for his friend's aunt. When he can't find the aunt at the address his friend had given him, he's left wandering the streets homeless without being able to speak a word of German. Fortunately, he meets a kind stranger, Ruth (Ingeborg Schöner), who agrees take care of him as he were her very own son.

      Every once in a while comes a film that combines arthouse and mainstream qualities while keeping you moved, entertained and uplifted. Good Day, Ramón is such a film. Writer/director Jorge Ramírez Suarez tells a story that's part of a familiar formula, but it's much more important how he tells that story. Fortunately, the story here feels fresh because it's told with warmth, tenderness and complex, well-development characters. Writer/director Jorge Ramírez Suarez truly cares about his characters because each one of them, even the supporting ones, have their own chance to shine. Moreover, the performances from both the Mexican and German actors are all superb with not a single performance that doesn't ring true. Kristyan Ferrer resonates charisma and warmth while Ingeborg Schöner gives a quietly moving, well-nuanced performance. One particularly poignant scene is when Ruth vividly recalls the memory of how her parents had bravely hid Jews during the Holocaust, and how the Nazis shot her father. Ramón doesn't know what she's saying, yet there's still a connection between them. Suarez wisely doesn't milk that scene for too much sentiment or schmaltz. The power of Ruth's words are enough to generate emotional resonance. Even the delightful scenes of Ramón teaching Ruth and a neighbor, Karl (Rüdiger Evers), to dance merengue remain brief enough without overstaying their welcome. In other words, Suarez understands that less is more, and he trusts your intelligence/imagination as an audience member especially given the fact that he avoids resorting to flashbacks when Ruth speaks about her past.

      To balance all of the serious drama, Suarez includes some very funny comic relief and wit, some of which comes unexpectedly, so none of those surprises to be spoiled here to ensure your maximum enjoyment. Suarez grasps that the friendship between Ramón and Ruth remains at the film's very core. You'll find yourself thoroughly engaged by how they bond and help one another despite their many differences. A less talented writer/director would've probably veered off into a distracting tangent or two, i.e. by including a romance between Ramón and the young woman at the grocery store, but Suarez knows better. Good Day, Ramón tackles many profound issues ranging from friendship to compassion and joie de vivre while never becoming preachy, corny or dull. It's a genuinely heartfelt and delightful crowd-pleaser that will make your spirit soar.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by 20th Century Fox.
Now playing at AMC Empire.

Wild Tales

Directed by Damián Szifron

      Isabel (Maria Marull), a model, learns upon boarding an airplane that she's not the only one who knows someone named Gabriel Pasternak. Thus begins the first story, "Pasternak," among a total of six separate, yet thematically connected stories. To reveal more plot details about the opening story would spoil its many surprises. "The Rats", is about waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) who contemplates exacting revenge on a customer (Cesar Bordon) with the assistance of the restaurant's cook (Rita Cortese). In "Road to Hell," Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a business man driving an Audi, expresses road rage against another driver, (Walter Donado), only to find the table has turned on him in more ways than he (or you) could possible imagine. Ricardo Darin stars as a demolition engineer in "Bombita." His life gradually spirals into chaos and tragedy, a la Falling Down, as he expresses his anger and frustration toward the company that towed his car. In "The Bill," Mauricio (Oscar Martinez), a wealthy man, discovers that his son, Santiago (Alan Daicz), was involved hit-and-run accident that killed a pregnant woman, so he promises Jose (German de Silva), his groundskeeper, monetary gains if he came forward to take the blame instead of his son. The situation gets out of hand as others, including his own lawyer, wants his own share of the deal. Finally, there's "Till Death Do Us Part," about a bride, Romina (Erica Rivas), who learns that the groom, Ariel (Diego Gentile), has been cheating on her with a woman who's also a guest at their wedding.

      Writer/director Damián Szifron brilliantly infuses each story with comedy and drama while walking a fine line between comedy and tragedy. He truly has a very dark sense of humor which is apparent from the very first story, "Pasternak," which also happens to be the one that generates the most laughs thereby hooking you right into the film as you anticipate more brilliance. The other stories have various degrees of comedy and drama/tragedy, with "The Bill" being the least comical, but that doesn't make it any less biting than the others. Szifron's major strength is his knack for being perceptive about human nature and how volatile it can be. One small incident can awaken the beast within someone who may never have exhibited aggressive behavior in the past. What's separating us from animals, after all? Very few films can make you feel happy, sad, angry, hopeful, depressed, shocked, intrigued, and exhilarated all at once, but Wild Tales, a wickedly funny and smart roller coaster ride of emotions, succeeds at that with aplomb.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Directed by Damien Chazelle

      Miles Teller delivers the best performance of his career as Andrew Neyman, a student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music who aspires to become a professional jazz drummer. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor at the school, conducts the jazz band at the school and picks him as a new member of the band. He leads Neyman through physically and emotionally strenuous experiences as he pushes him to his limits in his many attempts to acheive perfection. Meanwhile, Andrew has to deal with his not-quite-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and the challenge of balancing his fervent passion for jazz drumming with his blossoming romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist).

      Writer/director Damien Chazelle might change the way you look at drumming or at relationships between students and teachers for that matter. Andrew and Terence have plenty of talent, but, just like any complex human being, they're infallible. Terence instructs Andrew and other members of the band much like a drill sergeant would push a soldier. He's domineering, emotionally abusive and draconian. It's equally moving, fascinating and thrilling to observe how the dynamics between he and Andrew evolve over time. Moreover, the camera work during the drumming scenes, particularly the final scene, captures the intensity and helps it to emerge on a palpable level. Don't be surprised if you'll find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of awe and suspense throughout those scenes.

      Fortunately, Chazelle knows that the meat of the story lies in Andrew's stress-inducing journey as a jazz drummer, so the subplots involving Andrew's dad and Andrew's girlfriend aren't in the forefront or distracting, and it's clear how they affect and shape Andrew on an emotional level. It's also refreshing that Terence doesn't become a caricature or a villain/monster per se because there's more to him than meets the eye as you eventually learn about events from his past that haunt him. Much of the film rings true and feels organic except for one minor, unexpected scene toward the end that lacks plausibility given the consequences which seem too "Hollywood". Still, despite that minor flaw, Whiplash remains an emotionally-charged, captivating triumph brimming with powerhouse performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deserve an Oscar nomination. Bravo to casting director Terri Taylor for selecting them. You've never seen them in roles like this before, and they truly hit it out of the ballpark while helping to elevate the film into greatness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at select theaters.


Directed by Richard Linklater

      6-year-old Mason lives with his divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and 9-year-old sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), in Texas. His father (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring musician, shows up on occasion. As Mason grows into a teenager, many changes and events happen including a new home, an alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella), and his first girlfriend, April (Jessie Tilton).

      Writer/director Richard Linklater follows Mason over a 12-year span from the age of 6 until he goes off the college at the age of 18. For the first time in American film history, Linklater filmed the actors year after year for 12 years instead of using other actors or prosthetics/make-up/CGI as the characters age. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what makes Boyhood so extraordinary. Linklater infuses so much naturalism within his film that every single scene rings true, and every small detail becomes an essential part of the tapestry of Mason and his family as a whole. Are you expecting big Hollywood moments like car accidents, fist or gunfights that send someone to the hospital or, perhaps, flashbacks to key scenes to connect the dots thematically for you? If that's the case, our culture/society has probably conditioned you to respond in that way much like Pavlov's dog was conditioned in the classic experiment which Boyhood refers to in yet another small, but profound scene. Linklater gives you the task of connecting the dots and deciding how much weight each moment should be given and how it affects Mason; a Hollywood director would've spoon-fed you everything. After all, growing up can be a roller coaster ride of, among other things, angst, happiness, sadness, confusion as well as a sense of hope, and Linklater captures all of that more palpably and authentically than any American film director has captured before. To summarize the plot doesn't really do it any justice because, just like life, it's simply complex.

      Yes, Boyhood clocks at 165 minutes, but you know you're watching a truly great film because you don't feel the weight of its running time and you never want it to end. Every scene feels genuinely poignant and, at least to a certain degree, relatable. The acting all across the board is very natural, and, unlike most American films that fall apart by the end credits, Boyhood boasts a strong beginning, middle and end. Moreover, within all of the moments of gravitas, Linklater infuses the film with just the right amount of comic relief without any sense of unevenness that would've taken away from the film's momentum. For 165 minutes, you'll join Mason along for his emotional journey through adolescence, and laugh when he laughs, feel happy when he's happy, sad when he's sad, and proud of his achievements. He's the kind of character that you'll still be thinking about for years to come. If you were to watch Boyhood again 10 years down the road, you might perceive new layers of insight within its complexity. Ultimately, it's one of the most profound and human American films in years and, if it does well enough in theaters, it could crack the ice to begin a new Golden Age of American Cinema. Why can't Hollywood make films like this anymore? Now critics need only worry about their other 9 Best Films of the Year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by IFC Films.
Now on DVD, VOD and playing at select theaters.
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