Friday, February 25, 2011

Three Kings (David O. Russell)

The three kings staring at the 'treasure'.

We've all seen the 'madness' of war through the eyes of distraught soldiers grasping what is left of their humanity and their innocence, be it the inner turmoil in "Jarhead", or even a slide into horror/thriller domain in "Jacob's Ladder".

Now with "Three Kings", masterfully directed by David O. Russell, 'madness' was viewed not through the horrors of war, but by its integration to what was senseless and awkwardly free-spirited. A daring adventure to obtain Kuwaitian Bouillon amidst the celebration of the end of the first Gulf War, for example.

The cast, which is more or less as unorthodox as ever (two rapper turned actors, an auteur and a Hollywood A-lister), provided raw performances not in the sense of how they genuinely jumped and dodged bullets and explosions, but by how they have embodied their respective roles as soldiers whom, despite of their belligerent affiliation, seem to look upon the words 'heroism' and 'bravery' as nothing but distant pretenses. They have successfully represented the archetypal image of U.S. Army draftees and officers compelled to do battle for their country not just for the hell of it, but because of circumstances.

But then the story, written by John Ridley for only a week, after showing much images and characterizations that are seemingly against the idea, suddenly plunged its characters into something akin to what is truly 'heroic' and 'right'.

Now, the quick character turn-around (from self-indulgent mavericks to unsung heroes) may be my slight criticism towards the film, but the combination of its fairly surreal cinematography and the overall theme of the film ('the hidden nobility within us all') that finally took over its more comic moments makes up for this slight flaw.

War. Almost all of us look upon it as a senseless display of machismo and misled idealism covering up the 'profiteering' involved on it all. But as how "Three Kings" fully depicted it, it isn't just an endless showcase of mass killings masquerading as 'patriotism' and a series of individual death wishes furthered by 'medal of honors'. At times, it's also a test of one's character. A dress rehearsal to life's numerous crossroads. A 'hardcore' reality check of who you really are.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nell (Michael Apted)

Lovell and Nell; the quiet struggle to understand.

Though certainly not a 'great' film in any way, "Nell" is probably an ideal film to be shown on Sociology classes. It's a tale about the eponymous girl who was raised in extreme isolation, talking in unfinished old English, and often initially mistaken to be inflicted with mental retardation. Jodie Foster (in perfect Oscar-bait mode) gave a very believable, often unrecognizable rendition of her, stripping of the intelligence, psychology and measured calculations of Clarice Starling (a role that launched her A-list status in Hollywood) and ably portrayed the deficiency of her actions resulted by lack of social exposure, and the uncommon depths and purity of her heart brought forth by not being able to do so.

Liam Neeson was quite good (though a bit stiff, I may say) as the concerned Dr. Lovell, a character that, along with Nell herself, formed the film's primary emotional connection whose slow development was very prevalent throughout. Yes, "Nell" is a pure tear-jerker for the easily touched, but for the more experienced film-goer that has gone through and endured so much Hollywood cheese, 'tears' is never impossible, but an almost otherworldly 'sob' is quite pushing it. Which brings me to my personal conflict as to "what will be the real reason if ever I let out a tear for the film?" Will it be the penetrating human drama displayed? Or will it be a genuine thump into my heart regarding Liam Neeson's struggles to cope up with her real-life wife Natasha Richardson's (who played Paula Olsen in the film) untimely death? Seeing them all happy and hugging and kissing each other in the film makes me lean on the latter more.

"Nell" isn't just about Nell herself and her subsequent integration into mainstream reality. At some point, it's also about the doctors themselves. And as what Richard Libertini's character Dr. Paley stated (a quote that lingered with me long after the film has ended): "Even caring has an ulterior motive". Beyond all our aspirations to help others, to give meaning to other less fortunate people's lives, is an unconscious, buried search for our own and an impulse to internally conform with how other people may view us. Dr. Paley followed it up with the claim that even Mother Teresa's unconditional caring in Calcutta is truly a mission for her existential re-assurance. That may be debatable, but the film's clear and considerable articulacy of the sociological human condition clearly isn't.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)

Ree in the woods.

With its "Brother's Keeper-like" 'squalor in the woods' visuals and the emotional and economic burden felt throughout the film that echoes that in "Frozen River", I knew that by looking upon those simple parallels, 'pace' is a tertiary concern. Jennifer Lawrence is very effective as the independent, though constantly puzzled female protagonist Ree, using every means to hold her family together, put food on the table, and keep their house from being taken away.

I have to admit that I have fully anticipated some big time plot revelations in the end, as what many films dealing with mysterious disappearances and murders often lead to. With that, "Winter's Bone" has been rather quite exceptional. Instead of focusing on 'whodunit' plot devices, the film's central theme is within the emotional arc and choices of Ree herself.

The sheriff came into their house and told her that his crank-cooking (illegal drug maker) father is a 'runner' from the law, with their house being considered as his 'bail bond'. "I will find him" is Ree's sole answer to the sheriff. With that response, the camera pans into her face. Conflicted, clueless, but ultimately decisive. She will set on to locate her father whatever it may take. But there enters the conflicting duality of her true goal: Is she really trying to look for her father because of the simple idea that he, beyond all that he has done, is still 'family'? Or is she going to find him solely for the reason that they can keep their house? There may be no one that would outright and unconditionally help her in her mission considering the helplessness of her two young siblings, a mother resigned from reality, and a husband-dominated best friend. Her extended family of criminal grotesqueries may even be in on all the troubles, and going into the military is not a way out.

Then there were sequences where Ree constantly looks upon her father's closet filled with his clothes, boots, and a banjo (signifying that she may have really loved her father after all). And then on the other end, she will never let their house let out of her grasp. It's a two-way complication, but one which she is more than willing to resolve. She's compelled, not by outer forces, but by an inner call for order and emotional complacency.

Based on a novel, but with the film's extreme subtlety (though there was a peculiar use of a framed black and white sequence of squirrels and trees being cut down) and constant stagnation, the prevention of it being a cinematic adaptation that may connote and recognize its source material's page-turning quality was the one that was ultimately achieved. Great performance by John Hawkes as Teardrop.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The King's Speech (Tom Hooper)

'Your Majesty' cometh.

Aside from the terrific work on the cinematography and overall mise-en-scene, "The King's Speech" also worked perfectly both as a period drama (which portrayed the stirring anxiety of late 30's England about to collide head-on with the Second World War), and as a dynamic display of acting talents, particularly Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, whose exchanges, ranging from the most subtle to the most intense, overwhelm the visual scope of the whole film.

Yes, it is about a piece of royal history, which of course is impossible to tell without wallowing a bit into the majestic and exquisite corners of the Buckingham Palace or the Westminster Abbey. Or touching a bit of Winston Churchill's presence (even though how insignificant he may be in the story). But beyond the external intricacies of the film's palaces and chambers is a humble story of human connection developed not by cinematic twists of fate, but by a verbal stammer under royal pressure. We get acquainted with the stuttering Duke and soon to be crowned King George VI (Colin Firth) with his initial embarrassment as he failed to properly deliver a speech in front of a crowd. His wife (a surprisingly radiant Helena Bonham Carter) then brought him to an unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose peculiar personality initially clashed with the Duke's, but then soon evolved into a brotherly bond.

I admired how the film looked upon the story with little intent on politics but more on the emotional atmosphere surrounding the monarchy itself: the prime minister's relationship with the royal family, the painstaking process of kingship, the pressure of being an heir to the throne, and finally, the most significant of all, the angst-laden anticipation and last-minute rehearsals of delivering a speech on radio broadcast, which of course would mean the 'whole' of England.

All of us have unexplainable jitters towards speaking in front of many people. And with that, although how far up King George VI's social status is compared to humble viewers like us, we can connect with him, and at certain points of our lives, we ARE him. Different situations, but similar difficulty with enunciation.

His stammering could have easily served his head on a platter to his critics for endless bashing and one-sided scrutinies, but with the help of Logue's masterful effort gathered through experience and a firm belief that King George VI (or 'Bertie', as he preferred), amidst his outer imperfections, can be an able king, he inherited the throne prepared. Not just with how the way he talks, but also how he may think and feel.

And evidently, as he looked upon a footage of Hitler roaring with his Aryan speeches (ironic considering how brilliant a speaker Hitler was and how frail King George VI's ability to do so really is), he gathered his senses and stared at the Fuhrer with indifferent confidence; he is indeed quite ready.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark)

Jet Li as the legendary Wong Fei Hung.

Highly kinetic martial arts film in terms of execution and framing that even the slower scenes look exhausting. Jet Li starred as the legendary Wong Fei Hung (previously played by Jackie Chan in "Drunken Master"), an herbalist/martial artist/patriot whose principles and nationalistic standpoint were caught off-guard by the sudden wave of American culture and western arrogance.

The film, directed by Tsui Hark, portrayed the Chinese as highly gullible people who will never back out from a fight yet will consider alien words that describe America (such as 'Gold Mountain' and 'gold dusts in the rivers') as absolute truths. Yes, it's chief villain were basically Americans (with irritating voices and performances) but never the entirety of the country's mores. The root of the conflict was not mainly a cultural clash, nor a friction created by opposite viewpoints. "Once Upon a Time in China", although at certain times heading into something as close as that, is not a propaganda film. It's a film that rendered illegalities at its most chaotic, and how a country bound in simplicity such as 19th century China would respond to such: with utter defiance, and some kicks and punches on the side to further the point.

There's no question about Jet Li's ability in fight sequences, but in his acting range, there sure is. I see him do flashy moves, repel fights, engage in some himself, rescue people, assist sick people with his herbal know-hows, but I never saw him do all of it as Master Wong. He goes through the more demanding scenes, actor-wise, with facial expressions that suggest indifference. We can't blame him. He's an action star. But I sure would have preferred it if he had brought some Jackie Chan-type enthusiasm into the character. The kicks landed perfectly, the punches were thrown with accuracy, I even felt the abundant patriotism in the air. But Wong Fei Hung, amid his highly impressive fight scenes and ballistic fingers (that match perfectly with some lead balls), is sorely missing both in presence and in character. And where's some drunken boxing?


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ip Man 2 (Wilson Yip)

Training for a boxer.

The first Ip Man film's extreme sentimentality and some added weight of cliche were very tolerable as the story was very compelling anyway. Ip Man 2 started with the same promise of a great narrative (backed by a wonderful recreation of 1950's Hong Kong), initially focusing on Yip Man's family's urban plight since the second World War ravaged Foshan. But then the countless cliches start to set in: The arrogant turned loyal apprentice, the bandit turned humorous sideshow Jin Shanzhao, and lastly, the Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed-type relationship between Yip Man and Hung (played by the film's action director Sammo Hung).

The fight scenes, although there's that same old hard-hitting effect, lost its degree of believability, especially in the scene of Yip Man's test to carry on with his martial club. Kung-Fu Masters jumping from small chairs to small chairs to reach a table with dead-set accuracy (and with a physically recognizable use of some wires) and numerous other small doses of gravity defiance. And the performances of those Brit actors. They were too damn over-the-top and annoying that they ended up looking like caricature characters that were just inserted for the sake of single-minded propaganda.

This is not a scathing review. More of one founded with disappointments towards the film's plot elements and characterizations. And though I like it when master Yip meets a worthy opponent (the Japanese in the first film ate truck loads of chain punches) once in a while, I hate how they portrayed a great adversary as a trash-talking lunkhead. And they gave him a great fight. He almost defeated Yip Man, for crying out loud. Based on Master Yip's reputation as a transcendent figure of the martial arts world, the boxer's not worth it.

Amusing scene of a young Bruce Lee (they really got a child actor that looked like him) naively requesting a Wing Chun lesson from Yip Man, though.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nixon (Oliver Stone)

Nixon, Lincoln, and War.

From "All the President's Men" to the most recent "Frost/Nixon", many films have been created regarding Nixon's shameful stint as U.S. president, yet not a single brave soul dared to chronicle the entirety of his life. Enter Oliver Stone, a man that almost borders political obsession every time he renders topical figures on-screen; a bit too much that his film "JFK" looked like a subjectively self-indulged investigation transformed into a lengthy docudrama. But unlike that previous film, "Nixon" is really far more interested with the man himself than the entirety of his intrigues. The whole film may have deeply focused on highly political places such as the oval office or Mao's communist territory in China, but the editing, along with Oliver Stone's use of highly unsettling cinematic style (playing around with color and black and white), is an expressionistic translation of Nixon's inner disturbances, masterfully played by the great Anthony Hopkins.

It was said that Mr. Hopkins' portrayal of the mysterious American President was ''miraculous'; that, I think, is still an understatement. Hell, I even consider 'divine transformation' a slight complement. Though carrying the burden of being 'too British' in playing one of the representative American figures of the 70's, Mr. Hopkins played the part very convincingly, commanding the screen with his subtle smiles and desperate tantrums that even though his voice and features were nothing compared to that of the real Richard Nixon, he has able to embrace and embody his fragmented persona successfully.

The 1970's is the defining era of America, giving way for the birth of subversiveness and counterculture, hippies and pseudo-communists, paranoia and conspiracy, the Vietnam War and Fidel Castro. It also revealed the side of America few had ever anticipated: rebellious, restless, radical, but quietly revolutionary. It may look far-fetched but I can't help but see "Easy Rider" as a great companion piece.

Nixon may have left a trail of scandals and intrigues, but seeing the era's descriptions and seeing his, it's a perfect duo of revelation; yes, it has paved way for the wild side of American culture, but it has also undoubtedly molded it.

The United States of America. 'The Land of Promises'. Oh, how it continuously preached about the Great 'American' Dream, yet the Great 'American' Tragedy merely resides in its highest office playing on and on. We'll never know if Nixon really resigned in pride or in guilt. The Watergate. The Bay of Pigs. The ill-advised bombing of Cambodia. All incriminating devices for 'Nixon the politician'. but Stone, looking more humanistic and less political than ever, used them as mediums to expose the heart and soul of 'Nixon the man'. In the film, I distinctly remember what Nixon said about the Kent State massacre: "I'd like to offer my condolences to those families. But Nixon can't."

The grocer's son is indeed not as heartless as everyone thinks.


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