64 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2009
"Sin Nombre" is a fantastic debut for Cary Joji Fukunaga - an epic about all the harrowing obstacles that illegal immigrants from Central America face before they ever even reach the U.S. border, if they even make it that far. You can appreciate this movie whatever your politics because it's refreshingly free of preaching and lectures and messages. I'm against illegal immigration but I still got caught up in it on an emotional level. Fukunaga simply presents a straightforward story concerning Sayra, a Honduran girl about 15 y/o and Willy, a Mexican boy a little older, maybe 17 y/o. The viewer is left to draw his or her own personal conclusions regarding the Big Picture of illegal immigration and Third World poverty and colonialism and imperialism and exploitation and economics and gangs and so on. I can remember seeing a TV newsmagazine segment a few years ago on how these migrants cross Mexico on the tops of cargo trains. Not inside the boxcars, but clinging to the tops of the cars. Apparently, the interiors of the cars are too dangerous because of bandits and/or rapists and murderers - both free-lance thugs and organized gangsters. At any rate, the whole scene is totally lawless. Anybody who attempts this journey is taking their life into their own hands. They're beset upon by not only the aforementioned bandits, but also the Mexican authorities, who seem entirely unsympathetic, to put it mildly. At the time I thought: "What a great premise for a movie!" Seems like Mr. Fukunaga agreed.
I think the trailer gives away too much already, so I'll try to be careful what I say here. Willy is a member of Mara Salvatrucha and Sayra is making her way North when their paths intersect atop a train. Willy makes a moment-of-truth decision that permanently and irrevocably disrupts his life and suddenly binds the wide-eyed Sayra to his side from that instant on. Then the chase is on and it's a great one.
This movie is not only extremely graphic, but also very true-to-life and thoroughly realistic. For example, there's a scene where an unarmed Willy is being hunted by two gunmen and I figured he would simply turn the tables on them and get their guns. After all, Sylvester Stallone would just laugh if it was a mere two killers after him, right? Sylvester would then easily kill them both bare-handed in a few seconds, right? Even with his eyes closed if he wanted to. But then I realized that Willy without his own gun and without his gang was just a scared boy running for his life like a rabbit. At that point, I realized just how good this movie was and I really got into it.
Fukunaga gets uniformly fine low-key and histrionics-free performances out of his entire cast. Not a single weak link among all of them. The two leads are obvious standouts but there's a lot of superb work by the other actors. Lil' Mago is absolutely terrifying; a figure straight out of a nightmare but still seeming human. Martha Marlene is funny and very touching when we realize what her fate is going to be. Smiley is right on the money - a great peformance by a child actor. Scarface reminds us that not all of the Mara Salvatrucha are kids; some of them actually survive into their 30's and 40's and so on. I think the guy playing El Sol gets somewhat overlooked. His character doesn't have Lil' Mago's eerie appearance but he manages to be every bit as scary just the same.
Also, Mr. Fukunaga clearly knows his Shakespeare. Willy has two different relationships that both echo "Romeo and Juliet" and there's a scene at the end that's a modern version of "Et tu, Brute?" from "Julius Caesar". But what I like most about him is his obstinacy. He was given a Sundance Studios green light to make a film and he came up with a Spanish language epic made in Mexico with an all-Hispanic cast. Not a single gringo in sight, but don't let the sub-titles discourage you from experiencing a top-notch, extremely well-made, deeply moving film. Go see it and buy the DVD when it comes out - it's that good.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2009
Sin Nombre has it all - great acting, beautiful cinematography, powerful themes, and amazing realism. The realism is no accident. Young filmmaker Cary Fukunaga spent months in Mexico, interviewing both immigrants and gang members about their experiences. He shot on location, and many cast members are nonprofessionals. For example, Edgar Flores, in the lead role as a member of the Chiapas chapter of the brutal Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, is straight off the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Despite the specific setting of the tumultuous U.S.-Mexico border, Sin Nombre addresses powerful and universal themes of damnation and redemption. At least, that's how I saw it. In an interview, Fukunaga himself said he sees it as being about family - "the disintegration and recreation of the family unit in its unique and varying forms."
The plot centers around a chance and fateful encounter between gang member Willy and a 15-year-old Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who is riding north through Mexico atop a train. Though Sayra's journey, viewers get an appreciation for the intense dangers faced by Central Americans trekking toward the promised land.
Without giving away anything, I can tell you a bit of background on how the film came about. Fukunaga, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, was in film school in New York when he read a New York Times story on a group of Mexican and Central American immigrants who died of asphyxiation and heat exhaustion while trapped and abandoned inside a refrigerated trailer. His short 2004 documentary about that case, "Victoria Para Chino," won multiple film awards.
That project evolved into Sin Nombre, as Fukunaga explained in an IndieWire interview. Doing the research, he said, "I learned about the awful journey Central American immigrants went through in order to get to the United States - crossing the infinitely more dangerous badlands of Mexico on top of (not in) freight trains bound for the US Border. It was like a world that belonged to the old wild west."
Against the advice of friends, Fukunaga gained intimacy with his topic by taking the same harrowing train-top ride that he would film. On his first ride, with 700 Central American immigrants, the train was attacked within three hours:
"We were somewhere in the pitch black regions of the Chiapan country side. In the alcove of the next train car I heard the distinct pops of gunshots, always louder than they seem in the movies, then the screams of immigrants passing the word: 'Pandillas! Pandillas!' (gangsters). Everyone scattered, I could hear them running in past our tanker car. Not having any where to run to, I stayed on.... The next day I talked to two Hondurans who were next to the attack. They told me a Guatemalan immigrant didn't want to give two bandits his money so they shot him and throw him under the train. [Later] I learned the police had found the body of a Guatemalan immigrant, shot and abandoned.... Nothing could have driven home the sensation of fear and impotence than what I had felt first hand with those immigrants."
Fukunaga's willingness and ability to see through the eyes of others probably owes much to his upbringing. Fukunaga is described in an L.A. Times article as "a wandering spirit with a Japanese father, a Swedish mother, a Chicano stepdad and an Argentine stepmom [who] can't be reduced to the sum of his parts, ethnic or otherwise. Growing up, he shuffled from the suburbs to the country to the barrio ('Crips and Bloods, people getting shot') to the East Bay's hillside bourgeois enclaves. His family, he says, always has been a 'conglomeration of individual, sort of displaced people,' recombinations of relatives and step-relatives, blood kin and surrogate kin, parents and what he calls "pseudo-parents" who treated him like a son."
With this background, Fukunaga was able to capture not only the immigrant experience, but the pathos of gang life in Central America and Mexico, with brutality and hopelessness transmitted from generation to generation. Sin Nombre doesn't give the history or context for the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), which at 100,000-strong is widely considered one of the most fastest-growing and dangerous gangs in the world. But you can get that elsewhere on the Web.
In brief, the MS-13 is an outgrowth of the 1980s war in El Salvador, which led to a massive migration of up to two million refugees into the United States. Many settled in the Ramparts area of Los Angeles, where the gang was founded. Strict U.S. immigration policies in more recent years have paradoxically worsened the gang problem, allowing the MS-13 to gain footholds in Central America and Mexico. The MS-13 is known for its vivid tattoos, but some say members are moving away from tattoos because they so brilliantly illuminate gang membership for authorities. A documentary on the MS-13, Hijos de la Guerra (Children of the War), can be previewed at hijosdelaguerra dot com.
Sin Nombre is getting universal acclaim, and richly deserves the directing and cinematography awards it garnered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
First time director Cary Fukunaga rode the rails himself in preparation to tell this heartbreaking story of a family on their way to the United States by hitching on top of a dangerous train. The narrative flows between the life of Mexican gangster Willi, whose secretive relationship with a city girl puts a rift between him and his "homies," and an introduction to Sayra, whose father has just been deported from the U.S., and plans to take her back with him to the family he has in New Jersey. A series of tragedies bring them together and force them to go on the run from Willi's former gang. The pacing is intense, and yet in the editing there is ample exploration of the setting, of the atmosphere and flavor, and a very strong sense of the wide variety in the geography and local culture encountered on the trek from the southern border of Mexico to Texas. It is beautifully shot, and brilliantly cast. The lead actor in the role of Willy (Edgar Flores) does such a remarkable job that it is hard to imagine he is playing a part -- even more astonishing given that this was his very first role in film. Paulina Gaytan as Sayra is equally convincing and compelling. This is a very impressive debut film -- and I have every expectation that we will continue to see excellent work from director Cary Fukunaga in the future. Highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2009
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
I was interested in purchasing this movie due to the fact that I had seen previews at a theater and it looked quite captivating. When it was released in video, I tried renting it for 2 months and it was never available so I just assumed that it was a popular movie. I decided to purchase it and the movie was different than what I had expected. It was a love story but moreso it had a twist that was quite a realistic plot about gang life of the MS-13 El Salvadoran gang and the gang culture and about what happens when you try to leave the gang. It also depicts the illegal immigrant way of life and the dangers encompassing their escape to the U.S. The story ending was very sad, almost depressing, but it leaves the viewer with the hope and anticipating that the young lady will be able to start a new life of freedom and opportunity.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009)
It was early in the year when some critics (most notably Turner Classic Movies daytime host Ben Mankiewicz) started proclaiming Sin Nombre the best film of 2009. (I just checked Huffington Post for his year-end list, and yes, it's still at the top of the list.) And Sin Nombre, the first feature-length film from Cary Fukunaga, is a very good film, but the best of 2009?
The story focuses on two teenagers, Honduran Sayra (Never on Sunday's Paulina Gaitan, a Mexican actress) who comes to Mexico to be reunited with her father, and Mexican gang member Willy (Provocacion's Edgar Flores, a Honduran actor--see what they did there?--in his second film role). Sayra and her father want to hop a train to America to start a new life, while Willy and his friend Smiley (Kristian Ferrer, recently of Days of Grace) are just trying to get along gettin' along as members of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha. Or they are until an incident of shocking violence leads Willy to reconsider his place in the world.
The film's trailers, and many of the reviews, focus on the train journey, which is a bit disingenuous (and something of a spoiler), since the train journey occupies, at most, the final third of the film. Sayra and Willy's stories don't come together until then, which gives the first part of the film something of a disjointed feel. Not bad, mind you, just disjointed, as the movie ping-pongs back and forth between them. It's all very well-done, very solid filmmaking with a compelling pair of stories and a lot of heart, but I can't help comparing it to Cidade de Deus, which did much the same thing with a much smaller budget and a stable of amateurs. Again, it's not that Sin Nombre is a bad movie in any way. In fact, it's a very good movie. It's just not Cidade de Deus, though it comes close. *** ½
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2009
Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a teen-age girl living with her grandmother. She knows she will have few opportunitie in Honduras. So when her father, who had once abandoned her, offers to bring her along on the dangerous trek to America she reluctantly decides to join him. While riding atop a freight train in Mexico she is nearly raped by a Mara Salvatrucha gang member. But is saved by another disillusioned and bitter "pandilla" named Willy (Edgar Flores). Both now on the run, Willy and Sayra form a powerful bond trying to survive the journey through Mexico.
"Sin Nombre" is one of those very rare films that tries to make an epic artistic statement and actually succeeds. Sayra and Willy reminded me of Huck and Jim making their down the Mississipi River. But while Mark Twain wrote about the injustices of slavery in the mid 19th century, director Cary Fukunaga powerfully portrays the dangers and hardships faced by illlegal immigrants as they try to make their way to the US.
The excellent cinematography really brings the poverty stricken and brutal side of Latin America to life. In fact, the early scenes with the Mara Salavatruchas were so violently realistic that my wife, who is originally from Ecuador, asked me to pause the film as it was becoming too painful for her. The movie is like a great work of literature in that one day it may be analyzed by scholars for it's themes of family, betrayal and redemption as well as it's socio-political content. But the intense narrative manages to carry even the casual viewer along on a heart pounding and uncertain journey. Perhaps the best movie I've seen in 2009.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2010
A lot of gangster movies are romanticized or just over the top. This was not one of them. A simple, wonderful, and horrifying gangster movie about the issues going on in Mexico and South America. Watch it watch it watch it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2009
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
What a powerful story. A window inside the lives of people who are trying to make a better life for themselves, and of those who have no respect for life at all. Tender moments take over, and love and bonding defeats a harsh and dangerouse world. Unforgettable acting performaces!
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Sin Nombre" is a Central American thriller written and directed by American Cary Fukunaga. Instead of creating a barely believable scenario to keep the audience on the edge of its seat, Fukunaga finds thrills in the real-life drama of Mexican street gangs and hopeful immigrants making their way north in hopes of entering the United States. In Honduras, a father (Gerardo Taracena) whose family is in the US plans to take his brother (Guillermo Vilegas) and teenaged daughter Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) through Mexico by train and then into the States. Meanwhile, in Mexico, a young man named Casper (Edgar Flores) has a violent falling out with his Mara Salvatrucha street gang, forcing him to flee by the same train.
Thanks to Cary Fukunaga's research and attention to detail, "Sin Nombre" is at once the personal drama of two young people caught in difficult circumstances and a realistically violent thriller. The plights of Casper and Sayra both produce tension and open different worlds to their audience. The cast seems to be a combination of professional and non-professional actors who work together seamlessly. "Sin Nombre" is a smart, suspenseful thriller that also sheds light on lifestyles and circumstances that are very foreign to most Americans. I wouldn't recommend it to squeamish viewers, but if you don't mind realistic violence, this is a great alterative to stale, overproduced crime films. In Spanish with optional subtitles.
The DVD (Universal 2009): Bonus features are some short deleted scenes (10 min) and an audio commentary with writer/director Cary Fukunaga and producer Amy Kaufman. They discuss locations, sets, challenges of shooting, Fukunaga's research, dialects and accents, the director's intentions with many scenes, and more. Not a bad commentary, but I wish more were said about the actors, immigration, and the Mara Salvatrucha gang. The commentary is in English. Subtitles for the film are available in English SDH and French.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2011
Solid gritty gang movie all around. Sin Nombre follows a member of the notorious MS-13 gang and it offers a pretty sobering view into the life of a young man who while being a part of this gang seems to have some morals and interests that would lead him in a better direction. We get to follow him make some choices that drastically change his life, and consequently follow him on a journey as he tries to escape his own gang and flee to the United States. This is definitely the type of film that is scary to watch, partly because you know that stories like this most certainly happen quite frequently all around the world. It's violent and brutal at times, but doesn't go overboard; it however uses brutality to establish the harshness of gang life south of the border.
I definitely recommend this as one of the more realistic crime/gang thrillers I've seen. I'll also add in that the cinematography was top notch, visually this one is a treat. It never quite reaches 'classic' status though and it does have some issues with the story I wish could have been better expanded and explained; however for a first time director this is an amazing debut. 3.5/5 stars.