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Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's Get Critical: Part I

Photo: Mariel Kon

Of the many complaints hurled at the film industry over the past few years, perhaps the one most frequently heard is that a hugely disproportionate number of films released each year are targeted to a teenage audience. Critics and fans alike bemoan the recent explosion of superhero franchise films and dumbed-down comedies, and see filmmaking in the new century as reduced from an art form to the lowest common denominator. I wish that those who believe that the cinema is on the edge of being obliterated by CGI explosions could have witnessed the incredible work of the students of this year’s Young Film Critics program at BAM. To begin, we approached the idea of what a “teen” movie can be by exploring some of the greatest films ever made about that age. We went as far back as Jean Vigo’s scabrous short feature on the oppressiveness of life in school, 1933’s Zéro de conduite. We followed the portrayal of teen life in such classic films as Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Godard’s still-edgy Masculin-Feminin (1966) and George Lucas’ breakout feature, American Graffiti (1973). We also examined what Hollywood still appears to consider to be “outsider” voices with three recent movies that were first films for their respective directors: Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, Justin Simien’s Dear White People, and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.

For those out there who fret over the future of film, in terms of both its content and its audience, the pieces in this series will testify to the imaginative power and sharp critical eye that teenagers can bring to bear on films worthy of their intelligence.

—Josh Cabat, Instructor

Sin Nombre (2009) 
Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Photo: Photofest
Amirah Ford, Sophomore 
Yonkers Montessori Academy

Photo: Mariel Kon
Throughout my ten weeks at BAM, my classmates and I have watched several films, ranging from Fruitvale Station to Dear White People to Masculin-Feminin. I can honestly say the films we’ve watched together have all exposed me to something new, whether it was a perspective on something or just simply an idea. However, there was one film that really hit home for me. Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga as his debut film, Sin Nombre tells the stories of two teenagers, Casper (Edgar Flores) and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who come from two extremely different backgrounds with the same goal: to reach America by any means necessary. This movie touched on points I feel are vital, relevant, and timeless, especially when regarding the issue of immigration, both legal and illegal, in America.

This film is beautiful in several ways. As for the visual aspect of Sin Nombre’s beauty, the scenes (particularly the ones where Sayra and Casper are on the train in Mexico) feature these naturally postcard-worthy skies that catch the end of the golden hour of the sun. The beauty also comes from the striking landmasses in the background of the scenes. Trees, mountains and strong, tall plants fill the screen, adding some calmness to hectic situations in the plot. Also, the camera’s position on the actors added to the grace of this movie. Simply putting the camera on an actor’s face in a particular position (especially when their eyes show a specific emotion) brings the viewer into the moment, leading them to forget that they are in their home, or local movie theater, staring at the screen. To really grasp the gorgeousness of the visual aspects of this movie, you’d have to see them for yourself; to explain them through words doesn’t even give the visuals half the justice they deserve.

Photo: Photofest

Taylor Taglianetti, Senior
Saint Saviour High School

Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre is not a film with a political agenda. Rather, it serves as an opportunity to expand our knowledge of the inner workings of gangs and the plight of impoverished illegal immigrants, putting a human face on said topics, those of which society spends a lot of time arguing about. At a skinny 96 minutes, Sin Nombre manages to be a drama, a road movie, a chase film, and at times is tinged with elements of noir. That might sound like an ambitious recipe for disaster, but fear not: Cary Fukunaga has cooked up one of the best films of the 21st century. 

The film follows two teenagers, one of whom is Willy, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha. The other is Sayra, a Honduran teenager trekking to New Jersey in hopes of finding a better life for herself. When their paths cross, Willy and his prepubescent protégé Smiley are aiding the leader of their gang, Lil’ Mago, in a holdup. Location: literally atop a freight train heading north. Holding refugees at gunpoint, and, well, machetepoint, the gangbangers take the immigrants for all that they’ve got until enough is enough. When Sayra becomes one of the victims, Willy reacts by slaying his “brother.” He refuses to see another girl murdered at the hands of Lil’ Mago, whose attempted rape of Willy’s girlfriend, Marta Marlen, resulted in her death. 

Much of the film’s success can be credited to the director’s penchant for realism. Perhaps this is best demonstrated in terms of cinematography, which boasts no gimmicks and opts instead for an objective, unobtrusive camera style. The choice to shoot on 35mm was a good one, for the grain and texture of the film itself adds another layer of grittiness to the character’s lives and makes the milieus of Willy and Sayra much more tangible than the polished look of digital. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman often juxtaposes gorgeous sights of nature with the uncompromising circumstances Willy and Sayra must endure, making even gloomier the fact that violence and poverty can exist in places so striking.

Stay tuned for parts II and III of this year's Young Film Critics series, featuring reviews of American Grafitti, Fruitvale Station and more!

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