Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

Wolverine to Mystique: "Let's reboot this shit, bub!"

Before anything else, let me just say, with utter conviction, that “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not the masterful “X-Men” movie that many people are making it out to be, because Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” is leagues better. And, yes, screw those who think otherwise. I’m not kidding. No, really, I’m just playing with you. Now stop staring at me as if I killed Kennedy!

Seriously though, while I don’t really get the enormous hype surrounding this film, I understand why it’s easy for people to label this one as the greatest “X-Men” movie out there. Of course, one of the obvious reasons is its merging of the actors from the original trilogy and those from the prequel into one tremendous ensemble cast. Another is Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise after Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood have turned it into a watered-down joke (even now, I still can’t believe what they did to Deadpool *shudders*). Superficial reasons, those two.

But with that being said, I think it’s quite fair to say that you still can’t go wrong with “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in terms of entertainment, which is often kept crisp by its ambitious thematic flourishes. Yet sadly, narrative issues prevent it from truly being superior to its predecessors. Though this qualm of mine can be heavily attributed to the film’s complete disregard for continuity issues and character inconsistencies (the last time I checked, Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat enters walls, not people’s minds), what I’m pretty sure about is that this is the densest “X-Men” movie of the bunch. However, it has so much going on with it that instead of its narrative strands adding up for a highly satisfactory experience, there’s a feeling that the film, as a whole, never really pushed the envelope further when there’s more than enough space for it. In some ways, Bryan Singer, with a potential super-epic in his hands, has squandered the chance by instead playing it safe, with his intention not on delivering a staggering superhero masterwork but only on rebooting the very franchise he himself has initially helmed. Like a social worker who has handed out a pack of salty instant noodles to a hungry, malnourished refugee, Bryan Singer has fed the franchise and gave it an additional jolt of life, but nothing really long-term, for its continuity issues will always come back to haunt it.

The film, as what is admittedly posh among superhero movies nowadays to bolster their cinematic self-importance, heavily tinkers with history, and for that, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” instantly elevates itself as a different kind of superhero film. But unlike “Watchmen”, for example, which maximizes its use of historical events by integrating them within a most potent and well-built alternate reality, “Days of Future Past’s” dose of history is but a nostalgic ornament, used only to support the story’s “Terminator-like” time-travel gimmick. Also, the way the story tells us that Magneto is involved in JFK’s assassination, unlike how “X-Men: First Class” fits perfectly into the whole Cold War subplot, is a bit forced and inorganic, especially when, you know, “Watchmen” has already made use of that shocking historical event as an interesting plot nugget some years ago. Though on a positive note, they absolutely nailed Richard Nixon this time around without using much prosthetic on the nose part.

In addition, the plot also seems to be so focused on Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) being this fate-altering wildcard that Magneto, somnambulistically played by Michael Fassbender, has no choice but to relegate himself to a side villain role despite the fact that the story, if logic is to be followed, dictates that he should be fighting alongside Charles Xavier for survival’s sake. Instead, what he did was telephatically lift a big-ass football stadium, drop it on the White House to trap Richard Nixon and Henry Kiss-Ass-inger, among others, and discourse about mutant respect while being a bit of an ass about it. With him being listed as the number one greatest comic book villain of all time in a list I’ve read quite a long time ago, Bryan Singer and company should have known that Magneto is much better (and wiser) than that. And don’t tell me that he’s merely being his younger, reckless self in this film to excuse his nonsensical Mojo Jojo-like actions. Man, Joker was already as sharp as a shiv and on the brink of breaking both Batman’s sanity and the entire moral fiber of Gotham in “The Dark Knight” and he was not even 30 yet during that time.

But despite all those (it’s really not possible to write a review about this film filled with nothing but rants), the franchise (not just this film) was still more than successful in rebooting itself without recasting any major lead characters or starting from scratch again. When the whole superhero world is scrambling on fast-tracking a remake of this and a reboot of that, the “X-Men” franchise has remained confident about the universe it has built, privy of the numerous shit it has churned out but also aware of the gems it has intermittently created all throughout these years. Though Rebecca Romjin’s blue-scaled seductress will always be my Mystique and Ray Park’s tongue-lashing badass my Toad, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, though slightly uncalled for, has made the necessary changes to make the franchise more appealing to a new generation of audience. I mean, come on, who would not want to see Jennifer Lawrence in an uber-fit bodysuit?

But on a more serious note, given the film’s star-studded cast, I was surprised that there really weren't any standout performances in it, except for Evan Peters, maybe, who truly rocked his Quicksilver turn, specifically in THAT one scence, which would give the Wachowski siblings a run for their money. Go watch it for yourself. Tyrion Lannister, err, Peter Dinklage, also shines as the hard-to-hate villain Bolivar Trask, who just wants to murder millions to save billions by way of his giant sentinel dudes. Such a sweetie, this guy is, “Watchmen’s” Ozymandias will be happy. A little trivia: Trask was first played by Bill Duke (!) in “X-Men: The Last Stand”. Google him if you may. Now that’s some epic recast.

The CGI fight sequences, although good, are oftentimes too dark and hard to follow, and the sentinels’ bodies sometimes contort in physiologically unrealistic ways. And, seriously, do they really need to recast William Stryker again? I know, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is pure dung, but Danny Huston has done a more than decent job in portraying Stryker in it that they should have just used him again instead.

All in all, though I have lots of complaints toward “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, I still thoroughly enjoyed the film for what it is, which is an ambitious, thinking man’s superhero film. In the end, it all comes down to two things as to why I never liked the film that much: either I just was never a fan of “X-Men”, or I am just a much bigger fan of proper narrative continuity.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)

Kaiju badassery.

If last year’s “Pacific Rim” has offered more than a passing hint of kaiju nostalgia, then this year’s “Godzilla”, Gareth Evans’ modern and westernized take on the monstrous pop culture icon, gives out more than just a splotch of it. And if Roland Emmerich’s 1998 dud of a remake is more about shitting on the entirety of the monster’s mythology and, as much as possible, distancing itself away from its Japanese origins, this one right here, from the title card itself up to the way the music hits certain notes at key moments, is a faithful tribute through and through, if not a bit imbalanced. It boasts of high-end special effects that even the genre itself is yet to be fortunate enough to be often blessed with, and it can also be just as proud with its impressive cast, led by “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston and reliable Japanese character actor Ken Watanabe.

Just like the very first “Gojira” film in 1954, the “Godzilla” of today is focused on looking at the larger-than-life entity (literally) with a dominantly human perspective. We see Godzilla clash with his monstrous contemporaries (labeled as MUTOs – Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), but often only through express train windows and TV screens and rarely through the ‘monster mash’ point of view that all of us are quite used to, kaiju film-wise (what with those miniature temples and electric posts); that is, until the super awesome final battle.

The problem, though, as what all the other reviewers have noticed, is that the grounded human characters aren’t all that interesting, to say the least. Sure, there’s the uber-talented Bryan Cranston, who often steals every scene (or even each film, for that matter) he’s in and always makes do with what little screen time he has, but his character is one hour gone too early for him to really set in and complement the kaiju action in the film with his acting power.

Aaron-Taylor Johnson, on the other hand, who has already proven his worth with leading roles such as in the “Kick-Ass” films and even in the John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”, struggles because of generic writing, which hinders his character from really growing into someone whom you can really root for at the height of a monster takeover. I’m not a Roland Emmerich fan or anything, you know, but the German lad seems to always have a knack of letting his characters develop into on-screen people you can actually laugh, cry, and be valiant with, all while some form of natural disaster destroys famous landmarks in the background.

Aside from those mentioned above, I also have a slight issue about the film’s way of explaining certain plot details, with Watanabe, who is obviously not the greatest of English speakers, oddly being given the honor to deliver the film’s exposition-heavy dialogues. Maybe I’m asking too much now, but Cranston should have easily been given that task because, what the hell? That man can have an intense on-screen meltdown and still intelligibly discuss perhaps even the hardest parts of rocket science with great ease.

But with that being said, as a movie fan who’s really bent on having his money’s worth with a film entitled “Godzilla”, I was still more than impressed. I mean, do you really expect this film, which is essentially about an atomic-breathing dinosaur that often fights off monsters of varying sizes, to really go on great lengths to profoundly discourse about the human condition? Go grab a Tarkovsky film or something, you sniveling snob. This is about a prehistoric apex predator which destroys buildings and creatures slightly lower to him on the big-ass kaiju food chain on a whim, and the film never wasted a minute to visually tell us anything but that. Though there are mild attempts to show Godzilla’s connection with the human populace (there was a brief scene where the creature and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character shared a brief yet knowing glance), what the film is really recklessly careening into is the climactic kaiju battle that puts those in “Pacific Rim” to utter shame. And just like the moment when Gypsy Danger finally unleashed his retractable sword, “Godzilla” has pumped up my adrenaline level to an unbelievably crazy height, especially when I finally saw bluish hints slowly accumulating along the monster’s spine, which, as we all know, is followed by its atomic belch, err, breath.

If you’re looking for a monster film that fulfills its promises and more, “Godzilla” will never disappoint a living soul, except of course those who still strangely consider Emmerich’s version as some kind of canon and expect Godzilla to once again brainlessly wreak havoc on Manhattan and chase a merry band of survivors led by Ferris Bueller. If for anything else, “Godzilla” successfully shows a new generation of audience what a kaiju film is really all about while also letting us in on a crash course about the titular monster’s unpredictable heroism. Now, let us quietly close our eyes and forever erase from our memories 1998’s “Godzilla”, watch Toho bury the hell out of the weird, iguana-looking abomination from that wretched film in “Godzilla: Final Wars”, then drown it all out with this latest Godzilla’s beautiful growl, which is nothing short of music in the ears.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

The Budapest.

Fresh off the success of his pre-adolescent love story that is "Moonrise Kingdom", Wes Anderson is back, after a mere 2 years, for "The Grand Budapest Hotel", a film that is as deeply troubling as a penny dreadful yet as deft in its storytelling as a great piece of literature. It is also particularly notable for having in its disposal a wide array of well-known actors, no matter how out of place some of them may ostensibly be in a Wes Anderson picture,  that figure perfectly into this otherwise odd little film.

For almost every single one of the esteemed filmmaker's niche fan, this project is undoubtedly a great step towards the right direction because Anderson finally ventures into a genre that is yet to be tread by his cinematic shtick. If almost all of his previous films deal largely with the dysfunctions of certain families and how they affect the already idiosyncratic world they live in, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" adversely creates a vast, "Dr. Zhivago-like" dreamland of quirks and unexpected politics that seem to overwhelm the main characters in ways both good and bad. Reminiscent of Charles Chaplin and how he has specifically concocted fictitious nations that mirror real countries (Tomainia as Germany and Bacteria as Italy) for his dim-witted dictators to rule over in "The Great Dictator", Wes Anderson has created the Republic of Zubrowka: the place where the titular hotel is situated. Run by the charismatic, well-mannered, and overly cordial Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and assisted by the 'divine' lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori), the hotel, as lavish as it is, is shown as something that's kept alive not just by the quantity of rich guests that flock it, but also by the odd kind of discipline Gustave indoctrinates to his subordinates. It is also quite in order to mention that Gustave consistently engages in sleazy friendships with "rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, and blonde" women, which makes his job all the more financially rewarding.

For Wes Anderson purists, watching "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a gratifying experience, and even that, for some, is an understatement. With his visual symmetry evidently at its most impressive in this film and his deadpan humor now deliciously lined with some hints of classic slapstick and shocking violence, he has admittedly upped the ante. Because of how Anderson has slightly altered his game for this film while tackling themes previously unfamiliar to him (murder, wartime politics, and the likes), he has made genre archetypes conform to his patented aesthetics and not the other way around, and that, at least from where I see it, is a mark of a true auteur.

On the other hand, though, for film fans that are slowly getting quite irate of Wes Anderson's gimmicky style, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may very well sound the death knell for any chance of them being endeared to his future works. Abundant and almost abusive in its use of tableaux, intentional lack of comic timing, and self-conscious clichés, the film can very well turn people away because Wes Anderson's deadpan approach to filmmaking is at is final, most unbreakable form here. In "Rushmore", it's quite obvious that he's still unsure if what he's making is a coming-of-age dramedy or a romantic comedy. In "The Royal Tenenbaums" and even "The Darjeeling Limited", the emotions are still that of a traditional indie crowd-pleaser. Even the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is still a children's movie in every sense. But here in "The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson seems to care lesser about what people may say about it or whether or not it defies genre classification. There are moments where vignettes are used in awkward ways while there are also scenes where movements are obviously sped up (perhaps to channel comedy pictures from the silent era). Also, he is quite unapologetic in using artificial-looking backdrops to reinforce the film's cartoonish appeal, which unfamiliar viewers may perceive as utterly phony or just plain indulgent. But on the upside, the film's screenplay is clever, fast-witted, and absurdly hysterical, which is the primary reason why Wes Anderson is still quite a darling among film critics despite the fact that he often inspires polarizing sentiments among cinephiles.

As for the performances, Raph Fiennes may have just punched his ticket for a trip to Dolby Theatre for his scene-stealing yet completely effortless turn as Gustave H, while the all-star cast never faltered in providing the film some energy to convince us to be part of the almost magical realist world of Zubrowka for less than 2 hours, and also the ample wit in delivering seemingly archaic lines in sarcastic ways that miraculously make them seem very much refreshing.

Reality check: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may not be Wes Anderson's best work (though it's really, really close), but it's definitely the most entertaining, what with its chase sequences, all that Willem Dafoe moments, plus that specific (at least for me) "Holy shit, is that Jeff Goldblum?!" scene. Though its wartime setting may put off some fans who have grown accustomed to Wes Anderson films that are typically smaller in scale and centered on a particular family's collective troubles, this film is a peek into how great Wes Anderson can be if he tries out things and themes that are on the opposite side of his comfort zone. There's something in this film which really suggests that Wes Anderson, despite the fact that he will no doubt live and die by his trademark aesthetics, is in for a certain reinvention, storytelling-wise. Indeed, I am sold; sold to this man who was once only seemingly concerned in featuring the Futura font and some gramophones in his films but is now adventurous enough to take on murder, war, and politics and make them seem laughable instead of distressing. It's a 'grand' illusion, what he has created here.     

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

A mad gaze.

For the sake of posterity, I will dare state that this is my first Thomas Vinterberg film (it has always been all Lars von Trier for me), and though I'm not yet fully familiar with his style as a whole, I think it's already fair enough to believe that his polished visual approach for this one is already many years removed from his Dogme 95 roots. But what "The Hunt" lacks in showcasing its director's cinematic trademarks it more than makes up in its intense exploration of everything morally gray. There has been this widely held belief that the things children say are almost always true. Although "The Hunt", even in itself, can't dispute this very fact, what it really wants to say is that once a rare white lie comes out of a kid's mouth, that of which involves you as the make-believe perpetrator of an abhorrent deed, prepare for hell.

Set in a sleepy town populated by people who know each other like family, "The Hunt" is as innocuous as any film can be. And to add yet another dose of harmlessness to this calm and collected scenario, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher named Lucas who does nothing all day but play with his diminutive students. Among the kids is a cute girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who is as mysterious as she is irresistibly adorable. Lucas often walks her to school, and Theo does not seem to mind. One day, though, after Klara inexplicably kissed Lucas in the lips and was subsequently rejected, she then unexpectedly concocted a story detailing how Lucas has shown her his 'willie' and then proceeded to molest her. Shocked and distressed, the school's principal and also the entire community, without even thinking twice, immediately turned their back on poor Lucas.

Ostracized and alone, Lucas, aside from being socially banished from the town he grew up in, also becomes a victim of mass hysteria that he never could have foreseen. Slowly, even the boys who he often plays with in the playground start to craft their own anecdotes of how they were sexually abused by Lucas, even going as far as vividly describing the minute details of their teacher's rustic household. Like a more infuriating, teeth-gnashing small town version of "Rashomon", "The Hunt" is an even trickier film about subjectivity and perception mainly because the bending of facts comes from innocent children who do not even have any stake on anything. If nothing else, it is a grating essay on how a person's deeply-held beliefs about perception can destroy the life of another. Who said innocence is bliss?

Mads Mikkelsen, who most of us will recognize as Le Chiffre in Daniel Craig's very first Bond outing, is utterly believable as a mild-mannered teacher who, in some ways, is content in living a very simple life. Though one must only look at his face to realize that he's the perfect actor to play any psychotic character (hence why he was cast as Hannibal Lecter in the on-going TV series), Mikkelsen has still made me believe in this film that he can play a wronged everyman in such a way that you will back him fully no matter what he does, ala Dustin Hoffman in "Straw Dogs". And yes, this may be far-fetched, but I believe "The Hunt", as much as it is a quiet drama film, has borrowed elements from the western genre, specifically on how Mikkelsen's nursery teacher role closely mirrors the brash town outsiders guys like Clint Eastwood have played in countless gun-toting films in the past, but without the oozing bravado. And as with all western films, it is but necessary for the 'wronged outsider' to prove that he's worth the ounce of respect that his co-villagers owe him. Lucas may not be a gunslinger (well, his affinity for hunting does not count) in the mythical sense of the word, but he treads such a path towards vindication just the same. 

If the film portrays, in detail, how easy it is be put in utter disgrace based solely on a baseless accusation, it also deeply shows the difficulty of reclaiming respect after losing it overnight. Lucas learned it the hard way, and although it's easy to make amends with people, it is hard to re-tie the knot that was already severed. The film is by no means a thriller, but how it unfolds really does flirt with the conventions of the genre. There's also a certain kind of emotional impact in the film that makes it just as powerful a depiction of incorrect indictment as "Dancer in the Dark", which is coincidentally a film directed by Vinterberg's Dogme 95 co-pioneer, Lars von Trier.

"The Hunt", as with all slow-moving drama films of its kind, requires a considerable amount of patience. But at the same time, the film is also borderline humorous in its intense elicitation of anger that it almost literally asks for us viewers to control our collective fury as we watch Lucas' bleak attempt to prove everyone his innocence unravel in all its futility. As frustratingly polished as "The Hunt" may be for a film directed by a Dogme 95 luminary, its themes are still fairly consistent to the said film movement's loose collective intention to explore isolation and moral ambiguity in claustrophobic social settings. There is pure power hiding beneath the film's seemingly plain nature, and it will suck you in until you can only look at a lie, no matter how harmless and white, whether by a sickly octogenarian or a naïve child, as something that truly destroys.

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

A family on fire.

"Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."
 – Dr Manhattan (Watchmen, 1987)

Starting off like a typical 'family' film as we get to see the twin siblings Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) trying to make sense of their late mother's strange last will, the film makes it apparent that the film's conflict will strongly be of familial nature, and its plot revelations be more implosive in tone. "Incendies", which is basically Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" minus all the prophecies and is based on a play written by Wajdi Mouawad, is Denis Villeneuve's quiet yet intense study of a nuclear family that harbors a secret so painful that it gives the film a distinct feel of a horror story. The film may not be necessarily entertaining or generally appealing for audience to thoroughly enjoy, but it is the kind which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and then makes you wonder if such bitterness is really that of a bad thing.

"Incendies", as what I've repeatedly said about emotionally unsettling films, is a difficult one to sit through, but will nonetheless make you sit back in awe at Villeneuve's deftness as a peculiar storyteller. Instead of letting the film progress just like the objective mystery piece that it should be, Villeneuve is quick on shifting the film's point of view, with it jumping from the twins', their long-lost brother's, to their mother Nawal Marwan's, and then back again. There's also this ambivalent placing of blood-red title cards in the beginning of each of the film's chapter, which does nothing but enforce the film's narrative ambiguity even more. The heavy reliance on political and religious overtones, coupled with the positioning of Nawal Marwan as a reckless activist, also cleverly distracts from the film's shocking twist in the end, which, as what I've mentioned, hits close to freaking home as any bloody secret can get.

The performances in the film, which are all quiet, naturalistic, and nothing particularly scene-stealing or remarkable, take the backseat in favor of the film's slew of heavy and perception-altering revelations, which is, admittedly, "Incendies'" true selling point. Lubna Azabal's turn as Nawal Marwan, however, is, simply put, nothing short of stunning, which is only fitting because her character is, without a doubt, the film's heart and soul.   

Again, just like any other film with such a quiet, economical pacing, it may really take a while before "Incendies" can grab your attention. But once it does, rest assured, it is as tight as any strongman's grip, and the bad news is that it will keep on tightening the more you think about the film. It's a 'Holy shit, what the hell have I just seen?!' type of cinematic experience, and I tell you, its effect simply just won't go away. And even though its impact ranges from the religious to the utterly ideological, what "Incendies" is all about is how it has miraculously managed to make a film about an otherwise obscure conflict in an equally unknown Middle Eastern country and make it very personal and relatable regardless of racial boundaries. The film is a powerful examination of faith marred by senseless conflicts, and also of fate and how it oftentimes fucks everything up to the point that life ultimately mirrors the cruel formula of a Greek tragedy. But as what this film suggests, out of such an anomalous fate, out of a myriad of almost literary misfortunes arises a certain kind of miracle that "Incendies", despite it being a thematically unsettling film, was able to hold on to the same way Dr. Manhattan, a God-like entity, did when he mused about how the conception of human life is the reason why the world is worth saving.

Villeneuve may have directed the most disturbing family film there ever will be, but in the middle of "Incendies'" abundant cynicism, he also wants to make it known that there's still something pure and outwardly lovely in the sordid little truth that the Marwans are trying to unearth. Suffice it to say, there's still an element of bittersweet pain in finding out a certain secret no matter how pedestrian or persistently life-changing it is. This then reminds me of the ending to Roman Polanski's "Chinatown". Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), after witnessing with his own eyes how a decades-old secret savagely unravel, his friend whispered to him, distraught and all, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Now, if only someone can gently whisper the same to any of the Marwans, then coping would be easier. Or would it? Though the film's story consistently progresses with closure in mind, the film is still, by and large, a haunted soul. The secret was known, but then what? Villeneuve seems content in ending his film with a depleted sigh of relief and chests heavy with sadness and guilt. And as how Dr. Manhattan would put it, "It ends with you in tears."

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

The cracks in S.H.I.E.L.D.

Every time a Marvel film is released, an altogether new reason arises for DC people to tremble in their complacent seats, and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is just the kind of Marvel project to make them all apprehensive (and more) while they try and cram almost everything under the sun in that upcoming "Batman/Superman" film. If DC, as of now, is an image of inconspicuous pressure because they're still quite unsure about what to do with their product, Marvel, in comparison, is kind of like the scout leader who's as organized and assured as all hell. 

In all honesty, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", in terms of its storyline, does not really feel like a superhero movie but more like a stoic political thriller. And though it's being considered by many as the best solo Marvel film to date (some even consider it highly superior to "The Avengers" itself), some may also argue that the reason it became such a quality movie was because it really didn't try to be a superhero film in the classical sense. Its conflict, for instance, doesn't materialize from a formidable villain who wants to proverbially take over the world but from within the ranks of the titular hero himself. So, basically, what makes "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" so great is that it highly contradicts the notion raised by Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" that everything is well and good within the conspiracy-crushing, Chitauri-manhandling organization that is S.H.I.E.L.D. If "The Avengers" is the seminal sing and dance for Cap and company, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the part where the music suddenly stops. And if the said ensemble superhero film is the colorful celebrity magazine, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is freakin' WikiLeaks. The S.H.I.E.L.D., as expected, is really not what it seems to be, and Captain America, the symbolic super-soldier representing pride, honor, and all the other positive adjectives you can possibly think of, is predictably dead set in getting to the bottom of it, and the result's explosive in every sense of the word. 

Chris Evans, who we formerly knew as the 'Human Torch' guy who just happened to nab the Steve Rogers role (many were skeptic about him back then), has firmly grown in the role, with him getting better at it with every film. In "Captain America: The First Avenger", he was believable as the likable misfit who suddenly becomes a dependable (not to mention indestructible) super-soldier whose orders American soldiers eagerly anticipate. 

In "The Avengers", he has shown that a pretty boy like him can confidently bark orders at the likes of Robert Downey, Jr. and hold his own ground against Samuel L. Jackson in an on-screen argument. Here in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", Evans has delivered his most multifaceted performance to date as the patriotic, U.S. flag-clad superhero by emphasizing the fact that Steve Rogers is as wary of the present as he is haunted by his past. And that despite his seemingly all too perfect track record as an unreal specimen of a foot soldier who gets things done, he is all too puny compared to the entire conspiracy that's slowly poisoning the S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside. 

Evans, who's now relatively edgier in the role, was able to makes us believe in this film, in all his facial expressions and displays of physical struggle, that this may just be the first time an Avenger will be vanquished. Even Nick Fury, who we all consider as this eye-patched badass who does nothing more than eagerly watch the Avengers' every move behind closed doors and on computer screens, was fleshed out in a way that makes one think that this entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, if stripped down to the characters' bare essences, is basically a series of films starring a bunch of head cases with a death wish who all just happen to want to save the world. And just like "X-Men: First Class", "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" effortlessly adopts an additional layer of complexity due to its dose of political intrigue. 

Essentially, the film's dominant priority is to be a potent spy feature, and as a movie fan, it's just valid to label this film as an intense yet patient espionage thriller despite it starring one of the most unsubtle superheroes of all time. And just as we thought that the film's layered plot line is compelling enough, here then cometh the titular villain, played by a genuinely intimidating Sebastian Stan. 

For comic book fans, it's common knowledge that the so-called 'winter soldier' is Bucky Barnes: Steve Rogers' best friend from years past. And for casual film fans, it's given that this is a great opportunity for the film to give proper focus on emotional exposition, which it just did in a fashion similar to "Star Wars", specifically the chemistry between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Added bonus is the magnetic performance by Robert Redford, whose involvement in the Tony Scott-directed "Spy Game" legitimizes this 'superhero' film as an equally game spy picture that's very much at home in wrecking big-ass Helicarriers as it is confident in staging quiet, clandestine conversations within soundproof rooms. 

In short, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is infinitely more than just an escapist fare because it has a little bit of everything (even Falcon's here!). With its non-campy seriousness and a serviceable lack of implausible humor (unlike the swords and punchlines epic that is "Thor: The Dark World"), this film officially makes it known that Marvel is indeed capable in producing not just great superhero films, but also great, well-written films, period. And if superhero films typically cram everything they can within the limitations of the climax, this film is seemingly unstoppable, as it unleashes one awesome setpiece after another while still fully preserving the integrity of its sophisticated narrative. Also, this teaches revisionist Hollywood of today that superhero films can appeal to modern audience without so much as darkening a single inch of the narrative or brooding up the main character's back story. Now, I wouldn't end this review with a tired "Your move, DC!" catchphrase because, as of this moment, there really is no rivalry. Marvel is at the top of the heap by a wide margin, and it will take more than the combined appeal of Batman and Superman to dethrone it. Marvel's bigger than U.S. Steel.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Metro Manila (Sean Ellis)

Jake Macapagal as Oscar Ramirez.

For many years, Philippine cinema has been more than welcome in unabashedly exposing and exploring in equal parts the dark underbelly of the nation's capital. From Lino Brocka's timeless "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag", Ishmael Bernal's sprawling "Manila by Night", to the more recent "Manila" starring Piolo Pascual in a unique three-character turn, I think it's a bit rational to mention the fact that our local cinema has been utterly shameless in showing Manila's unforgiving side in a harsh, socio-realist light. Films like these are ever-present especially within our local independent film circuit, and we cinephiles oftentimes worship at their figurative feet. But then again, there will come a time, film-wise, when Manila as a cesspool of the impoverished will finally run its course, and honestly, signs of it finally arriving are already very much evident. 

In the opening scenes of "Metro Manila", which is Oscar-nominated director's Sean Ellis' (for the short film "Cashback") riveting take on the titular metropolis' marginalized few, highly suggest that this will be another one of those films whose creators are still in utter awe of the aesthetic wonders of shaky cam and still haven't moved on from Brillante Mendoza's entire body of work. A naïve man from the province who's struggling to make ends meet? There's Jake Macapagal as Oscar Ramirez for you. An equally myopic wife whose travails very much reflect on her face? There's Althea Vega at your service. Now, add up those two with the thematic question of what awaits them in Manila and you already have a potent narrative mix that will sustain 2 hours worth of stale poverty porn. Honestly, with such a run-of-the-mill start, I almost turned away from this one. But thankfully, because of its uncharacteristically smooth cinematography, I was relatively hooked enough that I didn't. As it turned out, the film is really something else.

Oscar Ramirez, as we all know, is a farmer from Banaue who, because of financial woes, tries his luck in the titular metropolis. There, he gets hired as an armored truck driver and is befriended by Ong (John Arcilla), a senior officer and former cop, who slowly teaches him the ways of the trade and initiates him about its perils as well. Like his character in the cult film "Ang Babaeng Putik", Arcilla exudes a certain level of manipulative charisma and jovial artifice that only he could ever muster. One minute, he's a confiding friend, the next, a scheming fiend, and vice versa. Though his screen time in this film is not that much, I personally think that it's enough to warrant him a 'Best Supporting Actor' trophy of any kind. In an ideal world, he should have had numerous nominations and awards for this film. 'Ideal', though, is the keyword, and in this very 'real' one where Vice Ganda gets to beat the likes of Joel Torre and Jake Macapagal for a Best Actor award, there's little to no hope for this personal dream of mine for Mr. Arcilla, so I fully digress.

Moving on, Macapagal is a perfect foil to Arcilla's mercurial intensity. Even though his performance is built around subtlety and his character being of soft-spoken demeanor, Macapagal's task is admittedly trickier because he must make us believe that he is indeed a socially-challenged man who one time even slathered his face with Listerine because he thought it was facial wash. I have nothing against John Arcilla, but his performance, in comparison, looks easier to pull off because he has this inherent, almost contagious energy in him that makes his turn seem like nothing more than a leisurely walk in the park. But regardless, both of them have given exacting performances that neither went over-the-top nor came across as somewhat lazy. With that being said, Macapagal may be easily accused of the latter because of how heavily understated his portrayal of Oscar Ramirez is. But seeing him, a classically-trained theater actor who's obviously more at ease with exaggerated facial expressions and larger-than-life hand gestures and body movements, pull of a crucial character with such quiet grace and poignancy is a feat on its own. Even JM Rodriguez, who I have first seen on TV in "On Air" (oh, the irony), is effectively empathetic as Alfred Santos, a mild-mannered family man-turned-desperate plane hijacker.

Though "Metro Manila" was initially mounted just like any other 'poverty porn' films, not to mention that it borrows elements from Brocka's masterful "Jaguar" and maybe also from "Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim", "Metro Manila" really is an incendiary thriller that merely disguises itself as a social realist film. But then again, the film is so much more than the sum of its two or three plot twists combined that to label it merely as a suspenseful fare is a bit of an injustice. Obviously, director Sean Ellis was never gunning for an explosive style for this film. Instead, what "Metro Manila" is trying to persistently evoke is a sheer feeling of helplessness that consistently sustains itself. In simple terms, the film's slow-burn narrative progression up until its stunning climax can be likened to a catatonic patient who, after hours and hours of merely speaking in tongues, finally utters something of extreme significance. It's an effective emotional ride that will brace you and pierce you through. And with a cast of virtual unknowns except for brilliant character actor John Arcilla (up until now, I am in pain because of how terribly wasted he was in THAT "Bourne" film), "Metro Manila" looks effortlessly authentic, and because the unfamiliar faces far outweigh the familiar ones, its degree of unpredictability, in terms of character swerves, is a tad higher too. This is not the kind of film that casts Michael Rooker as a seemingly harmless ex-husband. It is not.

Bar none one of the very best 2013 films you'll ever see, "Metro Manila" is thrilling in its exposition yet very much lyrical in how it unfolds. But due to its various plot twists and fast-paced sequences, the film initially seems to be more at home with being an action film. But with its layered drama and relatively poetic feel, the film ultimately transcends the thematic limitations of being one to become something that's utterly difficult to categorize. It may not be the most definitive cinematic representation of our beloved capital or even the most original (the first 30 minutes, at least), but it certainly excels as something that perfectly captures the malice fairly apparent in its citizens' every urge and need. This is Lino Brocka by way of Paul Greengrass, and it is sublime.

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