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Mysterious Skin

Gregg Araki’s first adaptation, “Mysterious Skin,” is based on Scott Heim’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title. Less devastating than the novel, the film depicts a challenging subject matter with an aesthetically mind-bending and vivid style. In contrast to the story, which is dark and unsettling, the cinematography is as lush and beautiful as cotton candy. Araki incorporates icons of suburban childhood — colorful cereals, Halloween costumes and Polaroids — in his portrayal of two children being molested by their Little League baseball coach.

With a loving mother, (Elisabeth Shue) who is negligent enough to have sex with her boyfriend in the backyard, young Neil perceives his Little League coach’s (Bill Sage) interest in him as love. Brian, on the other hand, completely suppresses his experiences with the coach and believes those hours of mystery to be due to an alien abduction. Neil experiments with strange men to satisfy his curiosity in sex, careless in his choices, while Brian searches for an explanation to his lost childhood memories. Eleven years later Brian turns up at Neil’s door.

Neil’s voyage introduces a homophobic gay monster, an AIDS patient in need of affection and men who can’t have sex without drugs. All these encounters are portrayed with starkness and deliver heightened emotion. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance is stunning. He conveys Neil’s character with subtlety, demonstrating Neil’s affliction with his actions and his eyes. Brady Corbet is equally adept in portraying Brian, delivering a distress and innocence that makes the viewer want to take care of him.

“Mysterious Skin” is less outrageous than Araki’s former films. It is a film about child abuse more so than it is about homosexuality. The story is heartbreaking, the acting is brilliant and the cinematography is breathtaking. Araki takes a dark subject and illustrates it with an absolute aesthetic splendor that pulls the viewer in and shocks them even more when they realize what is happening. Perhaps that is what makes the film as visceral as it is. “Mysterious Skin” is not for everyone, but it surely is one of the most powerful and moving films of the last few years.

Rating: A

Look At Me

Somewhat unlucky in physical appearance and neglected by her pompous father, Lolita seeks escape by singing in a choir. She despises her father’s young, pretty wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), and believes everyone who reaches out to her is essentially after her father. Notwithstanding Karine’s endless attempts at peace, Lolita remains distant to her, while her father, Etienne consistently avoids her.

Her music teacher, Sylvia (Agnes Jaoui), also starts being interested in Lolita because of her father, though she ends up being a likable and affectionate character. Married to an aspiring but unknown writer, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), Sylvia befriends Lolita in order to help out her husband. Meanwhile, among her constant badgering about life, her neglecting father and all else, Lolita meets Sebastien (Keine Bouhiza), one of the rare few who doesn’t care about her father’s fame. Lolita never ceases to be bothered by the people around her, and none of the remaining characters truly change for the better at the end. Yet, that is what makes the film realistic. Just as in real life, instead of a picture-perfect ending, there is one with compromises and unanswered questions.

“Look at Me” is a slice of dysfunctional life. It is neither an example of cinematic brilliance nor does it bear an ensemble of inspiring characters, even so, it portrays believable characters with a genuine screenplay. The pace of the film feels drab at times, but the assortment of characters and their diverse vibes balances this out.

The factual and objective viewpoint of the film allows the audience to watch without being influenced. Just as in real life, each character has their flaws. Whether this takes away from or adds to the narrative is a whole different story. The impartial role of the camera makes the storytelling genuine, even though the simplicity and the realness of the characters might seem routine.

One thing is clear: there are no climactic peaks in this film, there are only peek-holes to “look at” the life of a dysfunctional group of individuals.

Rating: B-

Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)

Inspired by true events that took place in Tokyo in 1988, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows” tells the survival story of four children abandoned by their mother in a tiny apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo over a period of six months.

The story starts when twelve year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira) and his mother Keiko (You) move into a new apartment. The three other children move in to the apartment secretly -two young ones in suitcases-, hiding from the landlord. His two sisters Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), and their younger rascal brother Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) have never been to school and other than Akira; none of them are even allowed to step outside their confinement to avoid being spotted by neighbors.

When their child-like mother goes out one day as if to work, telling only Akira that she might take a while to come back and appointing him as the person in charge, their journey into orphanage begins. Unable to work, the children have to endure with the measly money their mother has left until they no longer have electricity or water, let alone food on the table. Nevertheless, they never lose their childish naivete. Faced with the predicament of not being able to bathe or even drink water, they set off outside. Their exhilaration once outside is ingeniously portrayed. Seeds of plants, playgrounds and children going to school mesmerize them. Yet these worldly things are not matters that breed jealousy in them, these children are never willful or heartless.

The film could have been the coming of age story of Akira, if Kore-eda had chose to portray the story as a melodramatic vexation. Instead he steers clear of manipulation and depicts the dramatic story as simplistically as it can be told. The audience is never choked and even though the obstacles the children face and the intensity of their affliction is overwhelming; the rendering of them is not contrived or manipulative, but remarkably transparent.

Akira’s demeanor is wiser and more mature than even some who are thirty years his senior. Burdened with providing for his siblings he strives to remain levelheaded and in fact does so with great ease. Yagira’s performance is spectacular; and combined with the other three –who never cease to amaze, or make us wonder whether they are acting or if they really were the children abandoned for six months– the film offers profound drama.

Small details –Kyoko cleaning the playground toy after Yuki goes down and leaves trails of soil, or Akira giving his siblings money for Christmas pretending it is from their mother– are what make this film affectionate and pleasant. In contrast to the story, which is heartbreaking; the storytelling is pure and that is what makes the film spectacular.

Rating: A