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Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

There are same faces that drip with character. They may not necessarily be expressive, yet in watching such a face regard the world, one already has a strong sense of the soul behind it. Edgar Flores, the hero of Sin Nombre, has such a face. In his late teens, his is a face that’s weary with experience and hopelessness. Even the faintest glimmer of hope has little positive effect on him. You can’t really blame the guy – the optimism of a new start dwarfs in comparison to the senseless rage of his past.

Flores plays Willy, a young MS-13 member. Part of his job entails recruitment, and he finds Smiley, a pre-pubescent boy who can only see the glamor of the gangster lifestyle. The only positive thing in Willy’s life is Martha, a sweet girl who dimly understands what Willy’s life entails. Gang members share everything, so when the leader discovers the cute young secret, he tries to rape Martha and accidentally kills her in the process. Soon Willy, his boss, and the young recruit have a new assignment: they hop on the roof of a train, and steal from the desperate travelers who want nothing more than to cross the border. Here the boss finds Sayra, another sweet girl. Willy thwarts the second rape attempt by killing his boss, an act which also ensures his fate. The young gangster has no choice but to cross the border with the girl he protected.

The plight of border crossers could easily have become too political. Writer/director Cary Fukunaga, making his debut, sidesteps such land mines, thereby giving the movie some emotional resonance. His style is mostly understated, and there are some excellent long takes, reminiscent of Martin Scorsese, that detail the routine of a violent lifestyle. When the train arrives to pick up the immigrants, the image is haunting. The details, however, are ultimately what make the story memorable. While riding on the train, Sayra and her family encounter friendly locals who toss fruit on the roof; later, they encounter mean-spirited boys who throw rocks. Ironically, the inevitably of the story is its biggest hindrance – the MS-13 code seals the fate of all the characters, so the conclusion lacks any substantive impact. Sin Nombre‘s strongest asset is the quality of the acting. Flores memorably plays a young man who was once angry, and now sees the senselessness of his harsh world. He seems to mourn his youth with every waking moment. Tenoch Huerta, who plays Willy’s boss, is striking not just because of his monstrous facial tattoos, but because of his casual misanthropy. As Sayra, Paulina Gaitan exudes an interesting combination of innocence and determination.

Reading over the preceding paragraphs, I realize how much of a downer this movie sounds. Only a handful of the travelers make it across the border. It seems as if no one can escape the gang’s clutches. Yet for all its depressing content, Sin Nombre is not a downer. There’s a tenacity that the Willy and Sayra embrace – it’s a value that makes it easy to cheer for them, even when the conclusion seems foregone. Fukunaga easily engaged my sympathies, but offers a comparatively ordinary story. If nothing else, his debut shows potential, so I anxiously await his next feature.

Here are other examples of teenagers who prematurely lose their innocence in a world of violence:

Pixote. Long before the release of City of God, director Hector Babenco gave us this disturbing look at young criminals in a Brazilian slum. The movie follows the titular character as he enters a reformatory with other orphans. Once inside, Pixote witnesses a rape and other acts of brutal violence. He escapes with Lilica, a transvestite, and a handful of others, yet life in Rio is no less desperate. The kids form an unlikely family with Sueli, a prostitute who has seen better days. Despite the desperate need they have for one another, the bond they form is hopelessly fragile. The movie is episodic in nature, and shows in wrenching detail just how hopeless their lives are. Some sequences, such as Sueli’s gruesome self-inflicted abortion, still linger in my memory. The cast is excellent and natural (most are taken right off the street). Babenco’s movies is certainly less exciting than City of God, and probably better for it – the inelegant style accurately reflects the desperate, lonely lives the boys lead. And in a poignantly sad development, Sao Paulo police gun down the actor who played Pixote six years after its release.

Bully. No one documents the depths of youthful depravity better than Larry Clark, and this movie (based on a true story) is his most haunting. Bobby (Nick Stahl) is the head of small circle of friends in Hollywood, Florida. He’s a sadist who gets his jollies by humiliating his best friend Marty (Brad Renfro) and by forcing himself on any girl in his path. The friends have enough of it, and conspire to kill Bobby. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock knows that murder is no easy task, and the inevitable death scene is especially ugly. Once Bobby expires, the friends agree to hide their secret. The combination of dim minds and narcotics makes for loose lips, so once the police start asking questions, the plan crumbles. Sure, the kids are amoral and have no sense of responsibility, and that’s what makes them so terrifying. It’s conceivable that kids so reckless could be walking among us. Of all the performances, Stahl is most memorable as a monster who maybe gets what he deserves. Clark, who also directed Kids, again depicts the youthful void that exists when teens lack  imagination and amibition. He does not exploit, and instead strives to understand what makes their minds so hollow.

La Haine. I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids from The Class grow to resemble the characters in this French drama. It focuses on three young friends who live in a Paris housing project . They all come from different ethnic backgrounds – Jewish Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is the most hot-headed, African Hubert (Hubert Koundé) the most mature, and Middle-Eastern Said (Saïd Taghmaoui) the most carefree. The small group may be diverse, but they face the same cruel treatment from the French police – a point that director Mathieu Kassovitz shrewdly argues with his harsh black and white photography. Similar to the characters of Bully, the young men of La Haine (which means hate) violently lash out over their lack of opportunity. The movie follows them over the course of a day, not really developing a plot, and instead focusing on how alienated from society these outliers feel. They reference hip-hop and Taxi Driver (see above), showing how disconnected they feel from French culture. With such personalities, it is only natural that the conclusion erupts in a violent confrontation. The movie is compelling for its visual sense and fierce acting, and for reminding us The City of Love casts tens of thousands aside.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I protect a cute girl from a deranged pervert.