Thursday, December 29, 2011

50/50 (Jonathan Levine)

The big shave.

Echoing its very title, which tells of the survival rate of people suffering from the spinal cancer that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character has contracted in the film, "50/50", at the same breath, equally focuses both on despair and optimism as it pushes its way to highlight the often tackled issue of mortality.

Almost single-handedly carried by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's simple yet very effective performance as the cancer-stricken Adam Lerner, the film, directed by Jonathan Levine and written by Will Reiser (which I found out to be Seth Rogen's real-life friend who was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s), is a bittersweet eye-opener regarding the reality of cancer patients that stare death at its very eyes on an everyday basis, while making the often uttered and always superficially imposed phrase 'live like you're dying' literally a thing of urgency. But what's wonderful with this film is how it has gravely wrapped its narrative around the inescapable reality of being diagnosed with cancer yet never completely succumbed to what's bleak and hopeless.

"50/50", fully advertised as a buddy dramedy of sorts between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, surprisingly does not capitalize on the very mere idea of these two starring in a film. Hell, even the tagline teasingly said so ("It takes a pair to beat the odds"). While both of them had their share of poignant moments together, the film's emotional drive is not concentrated to just both of them but is instead finely rationed among its other characters, namely Adam's mother, played by Anjelica Huston, his rookie therapist, played by Anna Kendrick, and his artist girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

As I'm watching the film, I initially thought that Seth Rogen's character Kyle, Adam's best pal, was integrated into the film merely for some sideshow comedy and nothing more, which entails the fact that maybe, the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen may end up humorously great but dramatically lacking.

But then I realized that having Rogen and his usual improvisational self in the film made him a potent antidote to counter the film's potential brushes with dramatic clichés. Making him all too serious and suddenly turn him all too teary-eyed at Gordon Levitt's pitiful character can be a bit awkward and is a complete departure from what made Seth Rogen popular in the first place. Fitting enough, Rogen's comic performance made the film more naturally dramatic and his character's relationship with the main character Adam feel more genuine.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a truly versatile actor who can play a lovestruck average Joe on one film, transform into a convincingly stern, gravity-defying action hero on another while still skillful enough to turn all psychotic and murderous on the next, embraced subtlety in this film, portraying the different psychological phases of a cancer patient, the various physical pains and the seemingly cold acceptance of the inevitable with a great display of bravery but also of an evident 'Why Me?' frustration.

Although "50/50" centers at the harsh reality of cancer, it has prevented itself to be completely overwhelmed by hodge-podge sentimentalism and preachy utterances about hope and survival that make films of this type all too fleeting. Instead, with this change of tone, it has given the film a cleaner and infinitely more honest emotional atmosphere.

"50/50" is relatively unique in its dramatic and comic effortlessness as it ironically tackles a laborious, life-threatening illness. And while we may all have immediately foreseen the sad inevitability of Adam Lerner's fate, there's still an unconsciously lingering thought, with the film successfully equalizing optimism and the otherwise, that it may just be a boulder-like obstacle that can certainly be endured.

'Keeping up with the battle' or 'dying without a fight'; 'family and faith' or 'to concede and surrender'. "50/50" takes these absolutes and laid it into the open. The film maintains the fact that the act of 'fighting' or 'giving-up' does not just apply to battling cancer, but also to life in general. And that cancer, although it has prematurely claimed countless lives, is not always an end but sometimes just a phase. "50/50" surely holds on to that claim for a reason.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story

Asiong in action.

This might as well be the first time that I'm reviewing a film without a director. Of course it was, during production, helmed by veteran film director Tikoy Aguiluz, whose film "Segurista" I truly admire. But because of some post-production politics and creative clashes between him and the producers, Aguiluz's name, by his own request, was removed from the posters and the film itself, leaving screenwriters Roy Iglesias and Rey Ventura as the only people left at the top of the creative hierarchy.

"Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story" was, above all, branded as a resurrection of sorts for the very dead action genre of the local film scene: an alternative cinematic reality reigned over by the likes of Lito Lapid, Rudy Fernandez, FPJ, and lots and lots of blazing machismo. It was truly a haven of myth-making capable of solidifying silver screen stars such as Ramon Revilla Sr. as an amulet-empowered 'crime does not pay' icon and Paquito Diaz as villainy and ruthlessness personified. This is the powerful formula only action movies have the strength and endurance to carry on for more than 40 years or so without looking, even at the slightest bit, exhausted. And in this film's case, it was that same, enduring formula that was utilized by George Estregan Jr. (or E.R. Ejercito) and company to serve us thirsty fans a tribute to the genre's lore and also a blood-drenched gangster tale that we can call our own.

Namely, some of the film's strengths are its exquisite cinematography and set design, which have genuinely evoked the 50's period with its nostalgic, often times claustrophobic and grayish visual treatment. Take note, 'evoked', not 'replicated'. If replication is the film's real intent, then they should have gone braver and filmed it in full color. But with its purpose being to merely create a distinct visual 'feel' completely free to express its own artistic liberties rather than to completely emulate a bygone era to the teeth, "Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story" succeeded.

But although the film has meritoriously upheld its own visually, it has fallen short substantially. The film suffered in severe one-dimensionality in terms of characterization, with George Estregan Jr., most known for merely playing loud-mouthed, smoker-voiced supervillains such as Dr. Zyke in "Batang Z" and Ivan in Andrew E.'s "Extranghero", although showing relative depth and previously unseen dramatic intensity in his performance as the savage but gold-hearted titular crime boss, obviously looked awkward at times as he makes most out of the stereotypically-written lead role. While character actors like the ever so psychotic John Regala and the subtle Ronnie Lazaro seem to enjoy in their respective characters' caricature-like brutality, the always reliable Phillip Salvador suffered in his role's tiring and predictable 'although my brother's a hardened criminal I still love him' mentality as Asiong's older cop sibling.

Ping Medina, one of the best young actors working today, was underused in an underdeveloped character, and so were Yul Servo and Ketchup Eusebio. Though I can't say the same for Baron Geisler's, which fueled and enforced the film's theme of betrayal and split loyalty with his dimensioned, though predictable Judas-like character to Estregan's Jesus Christ. With Geisler and his mocking smiles and stares like that of a manipulative schemer, you can clearly read within his character that it's just a matter of time before he goes all Robert Ford to Asiong's Jesse James behind.

True, "Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story" may have, in certain ways, hopefully reverberated the action genre with the urgency of its ambition, thanks to George Estregan Jr. and all the people involved. But I think that in time, this film will and should be more remembered as a pioneering crime film that just happened to have one action scene and two or three kissing scenes (!) more than the usual. And just when I'm merely recovering from a "Mad World" LSS hangover, here comes this film complete with its own instrumental rendition of the said song which puts a preachy, 'this is what you should feel' vibe to an otherwise well-executed, "City of God"-esque bullet ballet of a climax.

Now, despite of my scrutiny of the film no one really asked for, I truly enjoyed watching the film for what it is: A textbook action/crime opera. And as the film's credits roll and as the lights in the theater were switched back on, I can see the geriatric majority of the audience; a bittersweet sight that made me think of one thing: "These are the fans that you've left behind, action genre!" Fans that, for so many years, have settled for those pixelated 16 in 1 Robin Padilla DVDs and Cinema One reruns to compensate for the lack, or even the complete absence, of new, locally-produced action pictures.

Now, with not much left to say, I have appreciated this version more than I thought I would, but I'm still particular of the fact that in the long run and in the overall definition of what cinema is all about, the director's vision matters more than all the commercial-minded producers' combined. Now, can we have the Tikoy Aguiluz cut, please?


Friday, December 23, 2011

Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)

Donnie and the Manipulated Dead.

(Note: It's the Director's Cut that I have seen)

I think it's quite a mistake to brand "Donnie Darko" solely as a horror let alone a thriller film. Sure, the film's prevalent elements suggest that it is, but the film completely transcends both genres to which it's most commonly attributed to. On the other hand, I can't also say that the film is inclined to be a full-fledged drama film either, as its emotional content is often times overshadowed by the film's overwhelmingly menacing visual texture. A film written and directed by Richard Kelly, it's a film that I have fully expected to deliver and also to disturb, but its thematic complexity I haven't seen from a mile away. It's one of those films that you're going to watch for the first time out of curiosity but for the second strictly for cathartic clarity.

"Donnie Darko" is a deceptive film that, in initial impression, asks for nothing but your senses, making you think that it's merely one of those typical psychological thrillers, but then catches you off-guard with its beautiful convolutions and blasts your senses and your bedazzled mind away. It is a difficult watch, mind you folks, but not in the sense of how epic period films are. It's difficult in a way how reading a complex literary gem is: intellectually frustrating, even discouraging in the beginning, but is ultimately rewarding.

Description-wise, it's quite challenging to state what this film is all about in a one paragraph, five-sentence synopsis. But seeing it fit to combine various films to create an impression of what the film might look and feel like for braver souls who may want to give it a go, then this is how I see it. It's like a cross between Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides", with Brian De Palma's "Carrie" and even Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" dually sneaking somewhere in a dark corner to provide the dream-like scares. That and some heavy-handed concepts of time travel.

Set in an 80's American suburbia, it's a bit of a stretch for the film to have etched some fantastical science deeply into itself. But with what I've said earlier, seeing that the film's true motive, at least from how I see it, is to give its characters dramatic pay-offs that are wholly unique (producing a sense of emotional catharsis out of the idea of portals and vortexes) in terms of how they were built up more than to depict an adolescent schizoid's mad internal world, it has nonetheless made the film's distinct mood shifts and tonal overlaps seem justified.

Jake Gyllenhaal, now a very fine actor of considerable fame, can be proud to call "Donnie Darko" as his great coming-out party, but the same can also be said regarding how Richard Kelly and company felt about Gyllenhaal's performance. Seething with deranged half-smiles and enigmatic behavioral patterns, it can easily be surmised that his Donnie Darko, a teenager with distorted visions of an impending oblivion and an evil-looking, six-foot tall rabbit, is one murderous freak. But on the other hand, with his acting talents winded to the fullest, Gyllenhaal was also able to merge those with childish tenderness and youthful naivete. With that, what came out is a character that may externally be judged upon as a doomed nightmare incarnate but is, after all, still entirely human.

One may regularly see people dressed as Donnie Darko on certain Halloween parties but I think he's not meant to be seen like that. "Donnie Darko" is a film that agreeably shows the dangers of psychological distortions but does not focus on its negative consequences but on how it affects lives in ways both unexpected and unseen, either good or bad. For some, with this kind of character treatment, it's an opportunity to yet again exploit give-away murders and bloody mayhem that may even breed dreadful sequels, as it is even quite fitting to see the title "Donnie Darko 2" dwell in movie marquees, complete with cheesy taglines that border on the desperate, but I'll just stop right there.

The film may or may not have provided all the answers regarding its hidden truths, but nevertheless, "Donnie Darko", with its conceptual complexity that deservedly inspires an intellectually stimulating post-viewing discussion or two, has awaken my ever-analytic sensibilities and my urgent need to understand. It is a film that achieves to simulate the sensation of reading an intriguing little book without trying very hard to do so. The film, for the magnitude of its ambition, can easily be branded as nothing but extreme cinematic pretense on Richard Kelly's part, but what it surely can't be accused of is cowardice of vision. A true modern classic, I believe.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)

Above image: What movie stunts are all about.

The "Mission: Impossible" film franchise never really had any major missteps. In fact, all previous films are solid ones in their very own right regardless of how they were received by critics. But then there are always these particular flaws that may have never really affected the quality of the installments but nonetheless still left obvious holes in terms of execution. Brian De Palma's extreme complexity in the first film: an aspect that is very difficult to overlook let alone comprehend. And then there's John Woo's fetish for cool-looking, slow-motion action sequences (and those pigeons) in the second film which, more or less, beautified the film but seemingly favored pure stylish brawns over brains. Then finally, J.J. Abrams created the third installment, mixing just the right amounts of blockbuster spectacle and simplicity, but with the latter making the finale seems rather anti-climactic and stale.

Now we're into the fourth film in the franchise. It's the first film in the series that has a subtitle, and you must admit that 'Ghost Protocol' sounds rather pleasing. It's also the film in the series with arguably the hardest mission for the IMF yet (trying to stop a nuclear war), not even mentioning the fact that they must accomplish it as a rogue squad branded as fugitive terrorists. And most significantly, it is, I think, the first Mission: Impossible film that has flawlessly excelled both in storytelling and thrills, and also featured the most ideal incarnation of Ethan Hunt.

Maybe it is how Tom Cruise shows his maturity both in character and in looks, maybe it's Hunt's 'been through so much' game face nature or maybe because his status as an action hero skyrocketed because of his larger-than-life mission in this film. Wherever you look at it or whatever you choose among those aforementioned reasons for his forward march towards character transcendence and true iconic ascendance in the hierarchy of action heroes, "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol", with its purity of intrigue and globe-trotting peril, complemented Tom Cruise's arguably most well-known film role in a manner that admittedly neither you nor I have anticipated or expected.

In strict confession, I never thought that "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" will even be a worthwhile watch as it looked, as the first trailers were released, nothing but a retirement tour of sorts for our ever so skillful and intelligent agent Hunt. And to add more to my initial skepticism, although Brad Bird is an Oscar-winning director, I really can't see him, a man who has directed heart-warming animated films after another, with one of them being about a gourmet rat, to helm such a frenetically-paced action movie.

Surprisingly, he has delivered a truly and thoroughly solid action movie that is relentless in its innovative action set pieces (the opening Russian prison brawl and the sandstorm-plagued car chase, among others) and imaginative in its new IMF devices, such as the retina-identifying hologram-like projector and the remote-controlled magnetic floater or whatever those things are called. Oh and there's also this little stunt involving Cruise's Ethan Hunt, some technologically-enhanced sticky gloves, and a tall-ass building.

However exciting the climactic sequences situated in Mumbai may be, it's this skyscraper-navigating mega stunt set in Dubai that will certainly be this film's flag-carrying image, just like how every previous installments had their own. In part 1, we have Ethan Hunt, with arms outstretched and body hanging in mid-air, infiltrating a secured CIA facility with a thin rope in his waist. In part 2, we have the black-clad, shades-wearing Hunt riding a bullet-evading motorcycle. In part 3, we have him sliding and jumping a tower somewhere in Shanghai.

But the more I think of the sick building stunt here in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol", the more I think that it is indeed not just this film's highlight, but of the movie franchise's as a whole. It is indeed a most proud moment for the action genre.

While Simon Pegg's humorous on-screen skills is a given, it's a surprise to see Jeremy Renner, known for playing hardened characters such as the war-addicted bomb expert in "The Hurt Locker" and the lethal bank robber in "The Town", stretching some comic muscles and building a great relational chemistry with Pegg, Cruise, and the smokin' Paula Patton; a true revelation to me considering that the trailers suggest that his character in the film, an ally of Ethan Hunt, may or may not be what he seems to be.

But indeed another surprise is Michael Nyqvist of the "Millennium Trilogy" fame. An actor which I came to admire as a heroic journalist in the form of his character Mikael Blomkvist in the said trilogy, he is a breath of fresh air as the film's sublime chief villain, a bold yet risky character choice that has given the film a bold benefit, considering that most popcorn blockbusters prefer a more outspoken and often theatrical antagonist.

When all is said and done, the "Mission: Impossible" series, with what "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" has done to give it a forceful upward pull, may have solidified its position up there as one of the most enjoyable action franchises of all time with enough tricks in its sleeves to immerse us in a world of covert agents, dangerous adventures and complex missions, while at the same time indulging itself in a cunning chess match with cinematic timing and delivery. Light the match and play the film's musical score in your head over and over again, get pumped up or maybe buckle up, let the clichéd testosterone-filled statements flow, this is a genuine blockbuster treat, and it's quite adamant that you accept it.


Monday, December 19, 2011

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn)


Because of the dismal "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", I never really looked forward to watch "X-Men: First Class" mainly because of a premature thought that if even the iconic Wolverine can't seem to bring the film franchise into places other than 'Mediocrity Avenue', what more a bunch of barely adolescent mutants? I saw the film's stills showing them young lads wearing yellow-colored battle gears of some sort and wasn't particularly impressed. I found out about how Wolverine isn't even included in the mix and was immediately sensing doom. But then I saw that Matthew Vaughn, the director of the underrated gem "Layer Cake" and "Stardust" (not to mention "Kick-Ass", which I consider a bit overrated and oh so over-the-top but still quite decent) will direct it, that wonderful actors James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender will headline it, and I was intrigued. I read about how "X-Men: First Class" would tackle the 'secret ' history of the Cold War and I was slightly elated.

But still, I haven't seen it in theaters for no particular reason other than the fact that my anticipation towards it wasn't really that high like that of a devoted fanboy or a pumped-up viewer. After watching the film, considering that I'm not even a fan of the previous films or a compulsive reader of the comic books, which of course suggests my slight indifference towards the "X-Men" universe in general, I still immediately thought that it is indeed one of the best superhero films that I have ever seen. Color me surprised.

Was it the actors, the story or the execution? I think that these three have indeed contributed to the overall experience, especially McAvoy and Fassbender's great and seemingly effortless portrayals of Charles Xavier a.k.a. Professor X and Erik Lensherr a.k.a. Magneto respectively, who both equaled and, at times, even fully surpassed the standards set by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen's performances in the earlier "X-Men" film incarnations. Although on a slightly negative note, I thought that Kevin Bacon's character Sebastian Shaw is too exaggeratedly maniacal considering that the film's core premise is more or less still particularly grounded in reality, or to be even more specific, in history. And really, I just can't imagine anyone else other than Magneto wearing that telepath-blocking, Greek warrior-like helmet.

Aside from the semi-tragic regression of Professor X and Magneto's relationship from best friends into eternal foes which is the film's real highlight, "X-Men: First Class"' other real star is the very scope of the narrative. Never have I seen a popcorn superhero movie, aside from "Watchmen" maybe (though I can't consider that to be a popcorn film), that has bravely tackled a quiet yet extremely turbulent part of our history which is the Cold War, or even more specifically, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is the closest the world has gotten to a full-blown nuclear war, and was also able to create excellent, special effects-laden action set pieces out of it.

And what's more impressive with "X-Men: First Class" is that it even squeezed an engaging and entertaining story out of such a politically-charged military affair without feeling forced or distracting, execution-wise. Hell, Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor's" love triangle story arc feels even much more contrived when compared to this, which really proves the strength of this film's screenplay.

And considering that it's about mutants and nuclear war, and especially the fact that "X-Men: First Class" basically belongs in the superhero genre, a category which we all know to have been following a flawed storytelling dogma ever since Superman messed with the idea of dual identity and Lex Luthor with megalomaniacal villainy, sure, the film has all the energy and visual force prevalent in a typical superhero feature, but more importantly, it also has enough threads of reality to counter an otherwise chaotic CGI fest with filmic sobriety.

With a story and presentation neatly balancing its tone to appeal to everyone, from the typical blockbuster suckers to the more nitpicking purists who want source material faithfulness more than anything else up to the history buffs who appreciate a parallel reality once in a while, "X-Men: First Class" is both substance and style, power and grace, a film that teeters between 'rage' and 'serenity'; a rare feat for a film categorized in a genre where it's perfectly fine, or sometimes even compulsory, to neglect the first and wallow in the latter.

This film may not be like "Watchmen" in terms of thematic depth and quasi-philosophical take regarding the superhero mythos and the end of days, but "X-Men: First Class" delivered what it needed to in ways that are extremely satisfying, truly exciting and even thought-provoking: As a commercial and critical sleeper hit that gives a fast-waning superhero movie franchise a much-needed jolt of life, as a picture-perfect origin story that sets the bar high for other cinematic prequels, and as an allegorical exploration of discriminatory hate. This is the most definitive "X-Men" film yet.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Father and son.

By immediate definition, "The Tree of Life" cannot really be considered as a film based on its lack of narrative, plenty of randomly befuddling visual spectacles and little to no dialogue. I think it's much apt to categorize the film strictly as a motion picture poetry piece whose reason for existence is not to be merely watched but to be experienced. "The Tree of Life" is pure esoteric cinema; a film that does not require narrative comprehension but emotional and psychological involvement. It explores life both in its simplicity down to its complex conception. It visually articulates both the world's creation and the very landscapes of the soul.

Given that "The Tree of Life" is a difficult watch much in the same way Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void" is, it is a film conscious of its own awe-inspiring beauty and is also a strong meditative piece with enough sorrow and despair as it has hope and deliverance.

One of the things that I liked most about this film is how it has purely prioritized its metaphysical nature while at the same time gearing away from the A-list presence of both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. For some, it's a perfect time to capitalize on these two actors' fame, but director Terrence Malick never did. Numerous times, there are even scenes where Pitt and Penn were shot from the neck down or over the shoulder. For Malick, at least from what I see, his vision is the film's real star, and considering the magnitude of what he's ambitiously trying to depict here in "The Tree of Life", everyone and everything must take the backseat.

But then, although the film will certainly be remembered as a deep-treading and almost psychedelic visionary work, it is finely balanced by a simple family drama in its middle part, with child actor Hunter McCracken delivering a beautifully realized performance as the Young Jack (Sean Penn's character), Jessica Chastain as the joyful, loving but vulnerable mother Mrs. O'Brien, and of course Brad Pitt in a surprisingly subtle turn as the father, Mr. O'Brien.

For some suckers for psychedelic visuals, a trait that was brilliantly displayed by the film in the beginning (with its "Discovery Channel-esque" visual representation of dinosaurs and some hammerhead sharks), they may think that the slightly plodding little drama inserted in the middle was there just to form a sense of dramatic coherence. I, for one, loved the middle part, but fleshing out such a segment then jumping back into the surrealistic, mind-numbing journey of metaphysical proportions later on may have cost the film some tonal consistency.

As the film returns to its phantasmagorical netherworld with whispering voices echoing some questions of existence, "The Tree of Life", instead of purely having the free-flowing feel of poetic filmmaking, has embraced a more patterned approach (Surreal visuals in the beginning, drama in the middle, surreal visuals yet again in the end), which resulted with the film having to separate its imagery into two fragmentary parts.

There really is no doubt regarding Terrence Malick's elegant audacity as a filmmaker, but "The Tree of Life", although a powerful film that holds within its hands an unhindered vision, is slightly inhibited in its otherwise successful attempt at cinematic bravery.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carnage (Roman Polanski)

A most impressive cast.

"Why can't they leave?" Luis Bunuel asked Gil Pender in Woody Allen's fantastical "Midnight in Paris" after the latter pitched the former a film idea (that is to say, the plot basics of "The Exterminating Angel"). "They just can't," Gil answered. Such is also the case for Roman Polanski's protagonists in "Carnage", a film based on the Tony award-winning play "God of Carnage", written by Yasmina Reza.

If the bourgeoisie characters in "The Exterminating Angel" can't seem to find a way to leave a lavish dinner party, "Carnage's" characters can't seem to break a cordial meeting (they decided to hold such because of their respective kids' earlier altercation in a park) because of, well, some cobblers, coffee, and just the right amount of angst and mutual disgust.

Watching the film with a certain consciousness of the performers involved, I can't help but feel a larger-than-life thump somewhere within me that reminds me of something akin to a beautiful heart-ache. John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet. 4 Oscars and 8 nominations combined. As a film lover, if the mere idea of those names and these numbers joining forces for a film project is not enough to put you into a state of bliss, then I'm afraid nothing will.

Although in essence almost the same with Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in its approach on situational degradation, only this time armed with parental sensibilities, "Carnage" is tightly humorous and uniquely energetic in all its hard-edged argumentative glory that these actually evoke a certain charm that can only be attributed to this film alone.

The cool but sharp-tongued Alan (Waltz), a lawyer whose intent to actually join in onto the whole conversational fiasco is constantly failing because of the repeated rings of his cellular phone. And then there's his wife, Nancy (Winslet), an elegant woman in her mid-thirties whose collected exterior is not enough to fend off the power of Scotch and nausea.

While on the other side, there's Michael (Reilly), your typical American husband who is, as what his wife claimed him to be, seemingly contented with living a life of mediocrity. And lastly, Penelope (Foster), Michael's wife, a writer who feels the plight of people in Africa (Darfur, specifically) but can't seem to feel the plight of her own lack of emotional control.

These four parents, after they have initially welcomed each other and ate cobblers together like fine, civilized folks, gradually transform into all-out verbal warriors one moment, pathetic criers the next. With wide-reaching topics in the tip of their tongues such as the "John Wayne" concept of manhood, the superficiality of writers, and, well, some hamsters, "Carnage", aside from being a study of contemporary parental thinking, is a teeth-gnashing, word-jousting, vomit-inducing (quite literally) little confessional of a film with just enough unraveling tirades that finely express the film's honest-to-goodness take on the oftentimes childish vulnerability of adult life.

Roman Polanski, after directing the more than impressive "The Ghost Writer", a thriller that is also a borderline adventure film, chose to direct a small, enclosed and set-limited film with only his actors and actresses to create wonders with. Fortunately for the exalted exile, his actors are immediately wonderful all on their own, with a powerful material working greatly to his advantage. What came out is a film that is a bit too standard in its technicalities, but one, just like other stage-to-film adaptations, that is relentless in its verbal athletics, poignant in its emotions and purely articulate in its entirety.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In Bruges (Martin Mcdonagh)

Ken and Ray, in f***in' Bruges.

A second viewing.

Oh, the beauty of style and substance. Stripping down the very essence of filmmaking and wherever which way you try to go around its principles, it will just bring you back to these simple words. "In Bruges", a slick crime comedy, a most surprisingly solid morality play and a meditative travelogue that explores the historical and religious significance of the much-preserved medieval sights of Belgium's Bruges, is an exemplary flag-carrier of the two nouns. It's like a film that could have been directed by Guy Ritchie but with an added strength by way of its thematic depth.

If the aforementioned British director, whose films I particularly admire but have never completely drooled and obsessed over, puts contemporary gangsterism into certain feats of absurdist twists of fates and distortion of events, "In Bruges'" director Martin Mcdonagh had, in some ways, also incorporated such playfully omniscient style into his characters but only as a superficially conscious device. Mcdonagh has put his two protagonists, Ken (the great Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (a revelatory performance by Colin Farrell which won him a Golden Globe) into the 'fairy tale-like' corners of Bruges because of a botched hit, which claimed the life of a child, but dared not to laugh at their predicament.

Sure, it's easy for the film to elicit sardonic smiles and chuckles from its audience judging from the scenario alone, which centers on the idea of two seemingly hardened criminals entrapped in an ennui-inspiring place, especially for people like them which the film has assumed to despise culture and history (such is not the case for Ken, it is for Ray). But unlike Ritchie's half-serious gangster films, "In Bruges" looks humorous only in its very surface. It is very distinct on the way it has conveyed the ever-recurring and ever-haunting notions of guilt and redemption without looking forced at the slightest bit. Maybe it's Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell's performances, maybe it is the freshness of the material itself, or maybe it is the brilliant cinematography, by Eigil Bryld, and musical score, by Carter Burwell. But to argue for each side would be very futile. Maybe, they just all work together perfectly.

And then there's Ralph Fiennes, whose portrayal of the rabid but highly principled gangster Harry Waters, the man who has sent Ken and Ray into the dreamy, cobble stone-laden streets of Bruges because of the latter's careless mistake, has caused many viewers to compare or even consider his performance as something of a homage to Ben Kingsley's unexpected turn as the unpredictable crime boss Don Logan in "Sexy Beast".

With the help of the film's great screenplay filled with trivial cues and modern conversationalist tones, which we just can't deny to have been influenced one way or another by "Pulp Fiction", Fiennes' character, which has the negative potential to be very caricature-like, passed off as somewhat believable and genuinely menacing in his distinct way.

We know of his principles, we know that he does not stand for killing innocent people, especially children, and we know that if some unexpected shit hits the fan, he won't think twice to fix everything himself and lull breakers of his code into an eternal sleep. His beliefs are forged of extremism, his methods violent but strangely understandable, his paradoxical impulse to kill someone who wrongly killed somebody is harshly immediate but completely undeniable.

Looking at the parallels of the film's themes with biblical concepts of hell, purgatory and the penance for sins, 'Bruges' might as well be both the purgatory and hell, and the penance for sins may be the film's depiction of the psychological manifestation of guilt, or may also be Harry himself, who just arrived, armed with a handgun and some 'dumdums', to collect.

"In Bruges" surely has been nothing but a sleeper hit more than 3 years ago, with the likes of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Dark Knight" taking over and dominating 2008's cinematic scene. Sure, that's also how I perceived this film at the time: A fascinatingly humorous, uniquely made crime film and nothing more (although I saw my 2008's top 10 movie lists on my old blog and saw it ranked at no. 3. I may just need to move it up a bit higher). But after rewatching it to once again witness its richly layered take regarding the context of existential woes, personal demons and bitter regret unfold in a beautiful ballet of humor and violence, it is, I can personally say, one of the greatest postmodern crime films in existence and simply put one of the decade's best films.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Source Code (Duncan Jones)

A minute to live.

Director Duncan Jones has already explored the genuine value of humanity by way of a relatively simplistic and observant film in the form of "Moon". He dared to redefine what really makes one human in the said film without even being, well, immediately human in nature. He has highlighted such in the fashion of say, "Blade Runner", and laid down a visual texture akin to "2001: A Space Odyssey". It's the struggle of a complex idea and visual stagnation (with it being set at the far reaches of the moon) that Duncan Jones has finely combined and from these was able to forge a brilliant science fiction film.

With his encounter with sci-fi minimalism a flat-out success, Here's "Source Code" coming within the midst of our viewing sensibilities. Molded more out of the same blockbuster tone like that of Nolan's "Inception" and a scenario close enough to Tony Scott's lukewarm "Unstoppable", the film, with its tight focus on the emotional content but still not deprived of some good ol' popcorn fun, is quite a well-balanced sci-fi affair with enough heart and soul on one side, energy and adrenaline on the other to fully present a complete film experience.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who's genuinely proven to be a capable actor to portray vulnerability in otherwise gun-equipped and battle-hardened roles ("Jarhead", "Brothers"), is very effective as the film's very Philip K. Dick-like protagonist Colter Stevens, a reluctant man clueless of what and where he's got himself into, emotionally needy yet articulate of his humanity.

Characterization-wise, that's just about it, I believe, in terms of complexity. With director Duncan Jones quite uninitiated with handling many characters at once (he only had the characters of Sam Bell and the robot Gerty to play with in "Moon"), this little hole in his skill has slightly showed itself in "Source Code".

Although the supporting roles, specifically the Goodwin and the Rutledge characters, were well-portrayed by the very dependable Vera Farmiga and the ever-impressive Jeffrey Wright respectively, the said characters were stereotypical at best. But with the material's imaginative edge, by Ben Ripley, reigning over the entirety of "Source Code", this slight flaw of deficient characterization is not really that noticeable as the film itself is just too overwhelming in its execution that you just wouldn't bother to look anywhere else.

To be frank, I expected this film to be very action-packed like, maybe "Deja Vu" (another Tony Scott film) in its race-against-time tone. I wouldn't really bother about an action set piece or two, but I'm impressed as to how "Source Code" has maintained its pulsating nature without resorting into unjustified action sequences.

Right now, as I ponder the reason as to why I liked this film very much, I realized that my admiration towards "Source Code" roots out more from its unorthodox view of humanity and the beauty of life rather than its intelligently magnified playfulness with space-time continuum and the mind. "Make every second count", the film's tagline preaches. Well, "Source Code", in its overall cinematic execution, verily did just that.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

A stroll.

Woody Allen, which we all know to be a truly psychological and philosophical filmmaker as well as a humorously cerebral director, an aspect of his being that collects much admirers as well as some haters, completely shines through in yet again a film of unique charm, intelligence, wit and imagination set in a city where beauty and mystique converges into one: Paris.

Although it stars Owen Wilson (alongside impressive supporting performances by Michael Sheen, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard among others) as Gil, a character who seemingly treats his flirtation with the idea of premature infidelity (his character is just about to be married) merely as an exercise in curiosity by way of an unexpected trip into his 'Golden Age' subconscious (in 1920's Paris where he met countless demigods of art and literature), which as a result came out to be quite harmless and at the same time maintained naivete in its depiction of a brief psycho-sexual adventurism, the character still could have been played by a younger Woody Allen. Often times, I can even see Owen Wilson channeling Allen himself.

I believe that although this film could have been done in Woody Allen's cinematic heydays (maybe in mid-70's to early 80's) and still be as effective as it was today, "Midnight in Paris" nevertheless still stimulated my hidden cravings for new ideas and moved me with its gentle approach regarding the ideas of artistic confusion, romantic crossroads and the subsequent individual growth by way of traveling into a subjectively ideal past.

In the hands of a purely narrative-driven filmmaker, "Midnight in Paris" could have been a try-hard romantic/fantasy film with the hero torn between living his love and life in the present and reliving a past he quickly learns to love. But just like, say, Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day", this film is too busy with its brilliant articulation of its fresh idea that tackles the paradox of insecurity, shown here in the form of "The Golden Age" mentality, which beholds the idea that it's a human tendency to hope, reminisce and visualize for a more ideal moment in time where everything's akin to an artistic and literary utopia, that the film isn't shallow enough to conceptualize a too far-fetched an explanation as to why Owen Wilson's character travels back into his personal 'Golden Age' every midnight.

For Allen, it's the characters that speak for the film itself. All we know, Owen Wilson's character is too exhausted with the overly urban and inch-deep intellectual exercises of working as a movie scriptwriter that he dares to internally lash out. All we know, he wants 1920's Paris, write pure novel, and walk in the rain more than anything else. Woody Allen injected these subtle characteristics on the Owen Wilson character to serve as simple catalysts for the film's turn of events and nothing more. No flashy time-travel nonsense, no unnecessary plot devices and no silly folklorian justifications as to why these historical jumps were possible.

Instead, the film's seemingly esoteric tone puts itself into a separate plain of romanticized existence; an alternative landscape where impenetrable icons like Dali, Picasso, Hemingway and Fitzgerald adhere into a single route of interconnected existence, where one may bump into the other, or where a man may travel back in time, develop romance with a charming lady, travel back into the present the next night and then see a memoir with his name mentioned all over the pages in romantic adoration, penned by the very same lady almost 90 years ago.

It is things like these, although devoid of any logical explanations, that can really put a genuine smile into your face. And it is films like "Midnight in Paris" that can really restore your faith in the hidden capabilities and the wonderful complexities that the romantic comedy genre can offer and conceive. I can only thank Woody Allen for that.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another Earth (Mike Cahill)

Earth 2.

It's a true breath of fresh air to really watch something like "Another Earth" especially in a time where science fiction films almost always equate to aliens, colorful spaceships and the expanse of the outer space. Although this film has small doses of each of the aforementioned sci-fi stereotypes, "Another Earth" is a whole lot different, highly inventive all on its own and, in the fashion of films like Duncan Jones' masterful "Moon", beautifully dramatic.

Unusually, the film is founded by two narrative extremes: One is its angle of human drama, which exemplifies simplicity in approach, and the other is its transcendental vision, which highlights the film's ambitious scope. With this kind of double content which may risk the equal depiction attention of both ends, balance is most important, and the film, for that matter, does not disappoint.

Mike Cahill, who directs his first cinematic film (his previous one, co-directed by Brit Marling, being a documentary), did what most fresh filmmakers must do, and it is to enter the film scene not with anxieties and insecurities of visions, but with utter confidence and a slight dash of flamboyance. Such ideas like this one here in "Another Earth" admittedly does take a lot of guts and unbounded devotion to really pull off and be successful in its execution. And of course, such far-reaching exercise of the imagination do need a 'more than adequate' budget, but the film nevertheless proved that it isn't always the case, and that often times than not, mind outweighs currency, vision exceeds the means and conceptual quality reigns over monetary quantity. Even just for that reason alone, "Another Earth" should be viewed as an ideal celebration of the creative affluence of the independent film spirit.

The performances in the film, although done by fairly unknown performers, were still able to convey the film's dramatic essence. Brit Marling (also the film's co-writer), who plays the film's main character Rhoda, is assured and effectively compact in her portrayal of a young woman and her guilt-ridden (because of her involvement in a tragic car accident) descent into a directionless existence. Although Marling's character is a fairly complex role to play with her constant transformation from being lost, finding herself, being lost and finding herself again, her performance captured Rhoda's lack of existential motivations early on in the film that it made her character simpler to empathize with.

William Mapother, playing John, is quietly affecting in his portrayal of the anguished musical composer/professor who lost his family in the said accident, is blank-eyed in his detachment from life, but whose connection with Rhoda, being unaware of her involvement in the accident, soon slowly brings him back into its tender symphony.

"Another Earth", although as what I've said earlier, purely relies on the counterbalancing of its main dual content (simplistic human drama and grandiose sci-fi vision), it's also significant in its subtle irony. What if in the aftermath of death there's more to life? What if in tragedy there's love? What if in the presence of a celestial wonder there's disillusionment? "Another Earth" can only contemplate the answers, but rest assured, it's inclined towards what's more hopeful.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)


Now here's a cinematic vision of the apocalypse which does not linger on wastelands, viruses, or famous landmarks being destroyed, but on something that is much more tautly compelling. "Melancholia" portrays an end of the world scenario where there isn't any last ditch efforts for heroism, but instead only passivity and fatalism.

But this film, another masterful creation by Lars von Trier whose auteur visions never cease to amaze me, more than anything, is a psychological drama. Yes, it does have a great build-up towards an apocalyptic situation, but "Melancholia" started as a dysfunctional mental drama and ended as a surprisingly tender one. More than ever, I think that the film's fictitious planet, named 'Melancholia', that is about to collide with Earth in a colossal, space-bound "dance of death" is an immense dramatic device and is there purely to accentuate the film's drama and give it a more desperate edge. It's a drama film enveloped in dreaded hopelessness, it's a film filled with frightening ideas but more importantly, it's a film that shows imagination at one of its highest but at the same time at its darkest, and produces a fluctuating dramatic depth quite reminiscent of films by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Judging from his previous works, it's quite evident that Lars von Trier is firmly growing not just as a filmmaker of ideas but a director of actors. This can be seen in Bjork's emotionally draining performance in his "Dancer in the Dark" or even in his most recent "Antichrist", which is highlighted by Charlotte Gainsbourg's staggering performance (who also stars in this film). "Melancholia" further elevates this budding directorial skill of his with its manifestation in the form of Kirsten Dunst in a heavily complex performance (she won the Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) as the emotionally impaired Justine and, again, Charlotte Gainsbourg in a vulnerable role as her sister, Claire. Lars von Trier has started the film with a lavish yet nightmarish wedding (with Justine as the bride and Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard, as the groom), which suggests the unconscious, entropy-like effect of the 'Melancholia' planet even in the subtlest of human relationships.

From this sequence, populated by great character actors like John Hurt as Justine's father and Stellan Skarsgard as her boss, amid a highly-populated environment, the film has built a genuine connection between Justine and Claire; a connection that may not be perfect (Claire repeatedly stated how sometimes, she hates Justine so much) but a deeply felt sisterly bond, nonetheless.

And then there's Kiefer Sutherland who coolly played Claire's husband, a wealthy scientist whose skepticism about the planetary collision between 'Melancholia' and Earth brings emotional tranquility to his wife but worry within him. He is, after all, living in pretension, just like how Justine pretended she's all smiles at the wedding.

I'm not much of a fan of child characters in film (only the unnecessary ones) because often times they can be a drag, but Cameron Spurr as Leo sure is a revelation especially with that distinct voice which really fits the film's tonal disposition. Now, some may argue that "Melancholia" has broken some rules in the 'Dogme 95' film movement, which Lars von Trier himself has founded, but seeing that this is a film made 16 years after it, I think it's time for him to deconstruct, and "Melancholia", combining art house sensibilities with technology, came out to be a worthy end product.

Aside from the ethereal shots in the opening sequence and some special effects here and there, von Trier maintained his usage of a non-stagnant camera (brilliant cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro) and kept his grasp on the whole film's emotional nuances and themes. Although it can be stated that von Trier has compromised with some visual magics of the mainstream, "Melancholia", as an aesthetic whole, is still wholly independent and utterly pure.

Should the planet "Melancholia" be taken literally? Being aware that it is also a name for a psychological condition, the fictitious planet can be an encompassing metaphor for emotional transformation (notice how Justine and Claire trade positions, emotional-wise, as the film progresses) and degradation (how the once cool and collected John has suddenly met his fate in a fashion too unfitting for him).

As much as it is a vision of the apocalypse, "Melancholia" is also a psychological discourse, albeit not too showy about it. As the planet 'Melancholia' looms large above, it may be a bringer of end to human existence, but it can also be a sign of the arrival of a distorted state of mind. One of the genuinely 'great' films of 2011.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Basquiat (Julian Schnabel)

Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a common practice in the film world to explore the lives of painters and artists, particularly those who lived and died by their art. Jean-Michel Basquiat is surely not an exception but rather a most definitive representation of it. He gives life and form to his countless statements through graffitis, shows his messily ecstatic but ultimately epochal visions through his paintings and evokes a new voice of artistic non-conformity by way of his creations.

But then, to counter this searing passion prevalent among artists like Basquiat, the film, directed by Julian Schnabel both with an attention to content and a slight delve into the experimental, then puts all of these into a final salvo towards self-destruction. Jeffrey Wright, one of the more impressive character actors of our time, delivers an unrecognizable performance as the title role. For roles like these, stars always have this tendency to either unnecessarily steal scenes or bury the real people they're playing in the afterthought of their very own persona. This is not the case for Jeffrey Wright. As I may describe it, his performance 'took its own form, life and time'.

His on-screen rendition of Jean-Michel Basquiat developed not through an obvious 'pen and paper'-bound emotional and psychological metamorphosis but through a more simple approach: Wright, as an actor, preferred not to merely play or portray Basquiat, but to embody him. Although he does not look like the late artist himself, Jeffrey Wright achieved to embrace the role not for the sake of showcasing some superficial acting prowess but to internally channel Basquiat as a human being. This unconscious but fruitful connection between Jeffrey Wright and Jean-Michel Basquiat was particularly enhanced by the fact that Julian Schnabel is also an artist/painter.

Considering that the artistic connection is fairly established between Wright, the mythical Basquiat and Schnabel, the film, in effect, has been much more transcendental and relatively honest in its emotional backbone and at the same time, also purer in its artistic merit.

The film's cast is great, with supporting roles by Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, a bit of Christopher Walken as his usual patented self playing an interviewer (this therefore completes an unofficial "True Romance" cast reunion), Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat's friend and Willem Dafoe as an electrician. David Bowie is wonderful to behold as Andy Warhol, whose facial resemblance with the enigmatic pop artist himself immensely helped in his portrayal and also added some authentic weight into his performance.

Although there were scenes that were too dormant for their own good, the film is quietly successful in almost all levels, specifically on how it was able to lift itself into a higher form of human 'drama' without accidentally spelling it out with an additional 'melo'. "Basquiat", as a biopic, is quite unique in its position. The film does celebrate the short-lived life and genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat but does not overly glorify him. The film shows his bleak self-decline but does not fully capitalize in it to exaggeratedly highlight a drama that is more than the film can swallow.

"Basquiat" is urgent in its neutrality as an observer. An observer of a man whose voice was deemed as coming from the gutters but whose art was deemed as a gift. With this middle ground stance, the film, with a great black and white look upon the short and bittersweet life of a "young black painter in a white art world", is an uncommon triumph.


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