Thursday, March 31, 2011

127 Hours (Danny Boyle)

Ralston triumphant.

Though I was quite caught off-guard with director Danny Boyle's visual approach to the film's potentially claustrophobic theme of isolated survival, "127 Hours" is a great showcase of emotions, music (by Oscar winner A.R. Rahman) and imagery, all converging to enhance the raw powerhouse performance by James Franco in what might be the best performance of 2010.

What's very impressive in the film's overall execution is how it has able to merge the momentary pain and suffering of protagonist Aron Ralston (it's a true story, for the uninitiated) while trapped under a boulder with the almost surrealistic longing, self-reflection and intermittently spiraling state of mind of a desperate man victimized by too much free spirit and gutsy individualism. Danny Boyle, after creating a much praised exploration of Indian optimism amidst urban squalor and third-world poverty that is "Slumdog Millionaire", entered a project with a very different emotional arc and injected it with the relentless 'trademark' imagery that made his film "Trainspotting" so popular and 'slick', at least for those inclined for some other cinematic devices other than the narrative.

What resulted is a harrowing tale of both the deterioration of the body and the mind, captured by James Franco with a sense of naturalism and urgent consciousness that the man he's portraying on-screen isn't just an individual akin to a 'T-shirt at best' (borrowing from 'Se7en' there), but a fairly enduring testament of a 'clamor' for life and the will to live, which is more or less, the definitive nature of any straightforward man.

"127 Hours" is by no means a film that offers something new emotionally and aesthetically; in fact, I've seen a considerable amount of films that have utilized such type of editing style (particularly films dealing with postmodernism or at least those who pretend they do) and theme ("Cast Away?"). What makes this film significantly memorable and one of the better pictures of 2010 is its thorough observation of the semantic difference between 'deep' and 'profound': exploring the natural depth of a perilous mountain crevice, the irrevocable consequences to its every chance encounters (the first), and the landscapes of the soul (the latter); the inner recesses of a harmonious alliance between the heart and the mind to hold the words 'I'm giving up' fairly at bay.

'Do not lose it', said Aron Ralston to himself during the critical moments of his 'rocky' predicament. To which he is pertaining to isn't important; it is the fact that whatever it is, he never will and he never did. The generalized proof of human tenacity in the presence of certain death.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)

'The Duke Abides.'

I really cannot say that this is a considerably dark rendition of the novel of the same name in comparison with John Wayne's version. Aside from the occasional violence fully prevalent in almost all of the Coen brothers' films, this "True Grit" is still particularly colorful in its characterizations, and with Jeff 'The Dude' Bridges playing the same role that has given John 'The Duke' Wayne's sole Oscar statuette, one can't go on to see this film without even expecting a slight hint of 'fun'.

I do think that Mr. Bridges is simply put, the best actor that has able to portray the guiltless stagnation of a modern-day slacker via his role in "The Big Lebowski". And here in "True Grit", which marks his reunion with the Coen brothers since that classic cult film, he portrays Rooster Cogburn with almost the same unfathomable sweat, liquor and scratchy beard; a perfect companion description to his 'mean' reputation as a reckless marshal, yet a physical contradiction to his skills in gun fighting.

Hailee Steinfeld is very animated and lively as Mattie Ross that I think her performance equals that of Kim Darby in the 1969 film and her chemistry with Mr. Bridges almost on par with the latter's wonderful connection with John Wayne's Rooster.

Now on a slightly negative note, Matt Damon's build-up as LaBoeuf isn't particularly convincing; one sequence he is an enigmatic Texas ranger lighting a cigarette and silently looming over the sleeping Mattie Ross. On the next, he's suddenly saddling a horse, already with Rooster and on the course for Mattie's father's killer's hunt (this is where the 1969 adaptation is better). Matt Damon did very fine on the role, but his character's introduction was quite hazy at best that in some ways, it has put down the essence of the film's idea of an adventure inhabited by a richly detailed 'trio'.

"True Grit" is a gritty (not a pun, mind you) re-imagining of the, realistically speaking, quite obsolete novel, putting the action not on vibrant landscapes seemingly taken from an illusory yet perfect western world, but through a rocky, icy, and pale environment that puts the 'dread' in the violence and the concept of revenge seemingly at ease.

This is an immense improvement over the 1969 adaptation with an equally compelling though at times inconsistent chemistry, a collective effort from very talented actors to boot, and a screenplay that has given way to a more powerful and emotionally penetrating final sequence that the John Wayne version has completely neglected for the sake of a happier resolution.

In the end, aside from being a film deservedly belonging to the great western handfuls made today and a film that reunites the duo of cinematic geniuses that is the Coen brothers with arguably their most charismatic lead in the form of Jeff 'The Dude' (let's repeat that 'moniker', shall we?) Bridges, "True Grit" also stands as a benchmark for the brothers' cinematic emotional capacity and a proof that even these filmmakers commonly associated with the idiosyncratic and cynical nature of man also have a sentimental side. A 'side' deeply devoted to the contemplation of a violent adventure's aftermath rather than the constructed wit and complexity of a narrative leading into it.

Being different and deviant is normal for these cinematic non-conformists (the Coens), but as "True Grit" displays its utmost straightforwardness in terms of plot and characters, ironically, by their body of works' standards, it's their most 'unusual' film to date.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)

Miller, not Bourne.

Whether you are a 'Bourne' fan or not, it's almost impossible to look forward to watching "Green Zone" without even the slightest inclination of at least expecting an 'Iraq' war deviation of the famous spy franchise, especially with its last two film's director and 'shaky' cam master Paul Greengrass on the helm and Matt Damon as the lead.

I have to say that although the epileptic cinematography will never be denied of its place in the film, "Green Zone" has surprisingly focused more on the complexity of its story and the scope of its intrigue rather than the simple pleasures of some formulaic action sequences. The film's premise is mainly about the supposed 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' hidden and secretly created by Saddam Hussein, the fear and the symbol of ultimate villainy that it has created to distort the minds and perception of a world searching for someone to ultimately blame for the 9/11 attacks (stupid) and to model a tailor-made foe for a United States government hungry for war and profit (stupider).

Matt Damon plays a heroic soldier tired of all the red tapes, bent on disproving the idea of a 'weapon' said to be buried somewhere underneath the ruins of Iraq, and also to answer puzzling questions of his own about a reality where patriotic ideologies are being bastardized and compromised for the sake of saving faces and preserving images.

Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson were both good in supporting roles that although look familiar and feel like cliched staples of political thriller films, carried the characters with some sort of short-tempered intensity and momentary urgency scene after scene, as if the current line they deliver is more important than the last. No redundant and unnecessary beatings around the 'bush' (no pun intended). With less than 1 and a half hours for exposition (I estimate the other 30 minutes to be dedicated to obligatory action sequences), the film's screenplay has proven itself as very tightly written and effectively compact.

The Vietnam War has always been criticized primarily because America's unsolicited intervention was a bit shallow in its justification. It also caused a lot of 'misplaced aggression'.

The War in Iraq can also be classified with the same deficiencies, although I think it's a bit 'deconstructive' (as if it served as a slight euphemism) in its approach: destroyed the common, accepted notions of war and instead relied on the unpredictable ripple effect of an 'illusion'; a big-time trick without reservations and with casualties involved. The deceptive manipulation of the higher ones: the ignobility of war indeed.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

The American (Anton Corbijn)

George Clooney as the enigmatic 'American'.

"The American", in some ways, shares the same conflict and premises of "In Bruges" but minus the dry wit and dark humor. It's about an assassin retreating into a peaceful Italian village after a hit has gone grimmer than it should have been. George Clooney plays the eponymous role in what may be one of his most serious and subtlest roles to date. He strolls the brick-floored countryside, he forms a bond with a priest, he finds love in the form of a loving prostitute (yes, you may say 'not again!'), and he is able to enjoy the peace and quiet that could have easily been ennui for some.

Now let us not pretend that George Clooney's character Jack's life as a contract killer won't catch up with him even in the most obscure of places. He's an assassin, and as what cinematic hitmen has been trying to prove ever since, it's quite comfortable to resolve conflicts in a slick European setting. But as cliche-bound as the film may be, it's quite rich in its characters and effective in its overall execution. The film looks upon Jack not as an almost super-human hitman with constant tingling senses, but as a weary and directionless middle-aged man embracing the temporal comforts of the tranquil Italian landscapes.

There's even a scene that shows his almost paranoiac nerve response even to the slightest sound of a motor vehicle. Then, finding out that it's not what he thought it will be, not a man with a gun or femme fatale with a knife, he carefully shrugs and walks away. He never even bothered for a second look. He's tired.

"The American", in accord with its intriguingly simplistic yet paradoxical poster (entitled as "The American" yet looking like a European film in its lay-out), is a considerably compelling little thriller torn between two identities: The existentialist idea of a lone protagonist in an unfamiliar environment and the penetrating manifestation of a tragic love between two social misfits; either way, "The American" is still a rewarding watch that works both as an observing drama about mistakes and a solid commentary about regret. For the action skeptics, on the other hand, do not worry, George Clooney do have a fairly intense chase scene here.

Foot Note: Paolo Bonacelli, known for playing the sadistic fascist in "Salo", portraying a priest? Did he ever had any disturbing thoughts while he cooked that stew? Right now, I surely do.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Spit on Your Grave (a.k.a. Day of the Woman) (Meir Zarchi)

Left for dead.

Sometimes, there are pieces of provocative filmmaking that although tackle sensitive, graphic and taboo themes, can still pass as art. This may be a personal bias, but I do regard the likes of "Irreversible" as a daring cinematic art. The original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" had its artistic merits amidst its exploitative slaughterhouse feel. Hell, even Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" can be considered as a masterful exercise of gothic storytelling. And then there's "I Spit on Your Grave".

This is where the pretense of unorthodox cinematic art really exhausts reasons and justifications. A revenge-themed independent production that actually climaxed in the gruesome and harrowing series of rape scenes. It is a film that can never find its place in a positive consensus. It is a deeply offensive display of feminine violation on celluloid. It is a highly nauseating exploitation picture that is tailor-made for that little, almost neglected 'fast-forward' button on your DVD remote control. Yet it sparked endless curiosities, garnered an underground cult following and even inspired a remake. Why? In one of my rare (cough, cough) instances as a film watcher and reviewer, I honestly do not know why.

"I Spit on Your Grave" is, above its surface of violence, murder, and physical and emotional torture, is primarily founded by two negative extremities fighting for hegemonic balance: misandry and misogyny. After all, as I question myself as how the 'momentary' capturing wonder of the video camera ever reached such a pathetic low point, the film is surprisingly, although unconsciously, split into two parts: The first being 'women' through the viewpoint of sexually shallow men and the second being the literal physical deconstruction (and dismemberment) of the idea of advantageous masculinity as the tables are finally turned.

Actually, I never thought that I will ever have the chance to see this film; but in a cruel twist of fate, I finally did, and although I really wish I hadn't, it gave me genuine firsthand reasons why.

This is disturbing stuff, and yes, even in today's standards, "I Spit on Your Grave" is still extremely disquieting. Just one tip for men, if ever you are planning to watch a horror film with your girlfriend, please do prefer Freddy and Jason's campy exploits more; this piece of questionable cinema doesn't belong in the 'horror' genre or does it even qualify as a film. It is a revenge-fueled assault to the senses completely devoid of any moral sanctions, nor traces of narrative cohesion, nor characters with common sense.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Across the Universe (Julie Taymor)

'A spot on a random haze.'

With all its moody visuals and a combination of acid psychedelia and some satiric doses regarding the Vietnam War (especially the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" sequence), "Across the Universe" is also filled with great sequences that at times are even better than it's sum. It's also a refreshing reverberation of the musical genre, a film that did not compose any songs to substitute as verbal lines for its characters, but narrates a romantic tale set during late 60's America through bona fide Beatles classics that have individual stories, sensibilities and messages of their own that the film has successfully merged to create an emotionally coherent whole that brilliantly explores the counter cultural scene amidst the paranoia and protests, set during the waning days of the great American pretense towards conservatism.

Yes, I know 'The Beatles'. I know their names. I'm aware that John Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman. But all of those are nothing but pure information, so having the idea that not all people know (or even 'like') the Beatles and their music that much (except the likes of "Hey Jude"), "Across the Universe" has given their songs vibrant visual accompaniments to appeal to both the immediate aesthetics and the deeper emotions about the idea of a transcendental love; and there's even politics on the side.

For some, watching the film without enough knowledge of the said songs, may be an alienating experience. But with the creators' (especially director Julie Taymor who has weaved it all together) awareness about the probability of a thematic and contextual misunderstanding that may put down the film's connection with its potential audience, the film ended up having a hint of familiarity within us all. No, not just as a piece of musical to make us celebrate the Beatles' established legend (though that can be a bonus), but as a film ranging from sweet to nightmarish conceived to touch, affect, emotionally stimulate, and even violate us viewers with its overall display and content.

The performances, although generally good, isn't what's important in the film. Yes, it's the characters' story to share, but they are just a spot on a random haze. A slight blur on a sharp crowd. Yes, it's their feelings, but it's all heading and converging towards a common sentiment. A steady bond in the middle of an era of uncertainty and fear that may just as well go by overlooked and neglected. But with the help of songs looking for love, change, and connection, "Across the Universe" has given these 'nobodies' an uncommon voice, with some colorful alterations to back it up and great music to make sure it will certainly be heard.

I went to watch it knowing that the story will be progressively put into motion by Beatles songs; as the film ends, its prolonged grasp on my emotions tightens its hold like a tender hug. Yes, the narrative was surely and convincingly moved by the songs, but so was I.


Friday, March 4, 2011

The Legend of Drunken Master (Chia-Liang Liu)

Drunken and victorious.

Simply put, Jackie Chan at his most relentless best, using every tricks from his disposal and utilizing almost all the prop techniques that he had shown in his documentary film "My Stunts" into great effect. Yes, it's Mr. Chan's finest moment, in terms of fight sequences.

But when we talk about the plot itself and the seemingly weird over-the-top response of the characters in certain situations (really, doing all of it for the sake of some pesky artifacts? Sending hordes of axe-wielding militia to attack an old man and an incompetent martial artist?), "The Legend of Drunken Master" (or "Drunken Master II" for those very concerned with continuity) still has some issues.

Jackie Chan, known for combining flawlessly choreographed fight scenes with slapstick comedy, has not faltered in a single scene, and at times, even convincingly shifting from overtly animated laugh riots into sudden dramatic pathos. Some may call this 'transitionally implausible" to execute. But for Jackie Chan (he's playing Wong Fei-hong in this film again, by the way), who's got lots more to cover than cheaply-conceived emotions (such as a stint on literally playing with the wonders of fire), nothing is complex when great 'timing' is involved.

This is martial arts cinema at its peak. No wires, no majestic philosophical notions about heaven and earth. Just the Buster Keaton-inspired Jackie Chan with lots of guts, a talent to showcase and, inserting the excitement and almost spell-bound sensation that I have felt while watching the climactic showdown in an extremely combustible steel factory, some breath to take.


The Emperor's Club (Michael Hoffman)

Something suspicious.

Sheds of Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" manifest in this fairly heartwarming film about the transcendent relationship between a teacher and his students, and how the first may undergo extreme anxiety and regret if ever he failed to inspire change to the latter.

Kevin Kline, whom I knew most as the bumbling criminal Otto in "A Fish called Wanda", reversed all the characteristics of the role he became famous for and took on a mostly formalistic persona as the straightforward teacher, Mr. Hundert. Like all sentimental films yearning for some recall of memories to make a character evolve or eventually grow as a person, the film was told in a continuous flashback, looking at how his life as a Classics professor to able students could have been an ideal exercise of both his intellectual and emotional life; too bad he crossed paths with Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a hard-headed, unprincipled youngster bent on breaking the conventions and rules of adequate education and the seemingly strong authority of Hundert himself.

The true highlight of the film for me is the first 'Mr. Julius Caesar' contest, because there it lay the raw tension and anticipation of every questions and answers. Every slight pauses of the contestants. Every utterance of 'That is correct' by 'Mr. Hundert. Yes, for me, there should have never been a contrived rematch 25 years later for some kind of 'regaining an intellectual honor' (That's Sedgewick Bell right there). What is he trying to prove? That after all those years, he wanted to retell the tale of how he outsmarted his professor and the whole school by cheating into victory? Or was it just pure cinematic 'contrivance' to bring up another 'contrivance'?

But then again, though I just can't fathom the logic of that particular 'rematch', I still quite liked the message of the whole film. If "Dead Poets Society" was about an educator's 'influence' to his students, "The Emperor's Club' is completely about the opposite. Although some teachers may say that they only teach because of the paycheck or because they just want to impart their knowledge to random minds, an unconscious inclination, I believe, always grows within them: that in some ways, they teach because they also want to touch 'lives' and in accord with human nature, also want theirs, although how experienced and filled up it may be, to be nurtured and embraced as well.

For the majority of his life, Mr. Hundert was always haunted by the idea of how Sedgewick Bell got away with all of it. He questioned himself how he hasn't done anything about it. Here came the essence of the whole 'rematch' contrivance (which I learned to embrace as it is); it's not Mr. Hundert that failed Sedgewick Bell. He was given a chance to excel, he transgressed. It's himself.

(This is a paragraph tailor-made for my reaction paper in Values Education regarding this film) "The Emperor's Club", above all, is an exploration of the realities of being a 'leader'. We live in an imperfect world inhabited by flawed individuals. Even Gandhi had his share of detractors. You just can't go in front of many people and collectively change their lives. What counts is whom you've changed, how, and if they are willing to. And in that case, Sedgewick Bell isn't. The Dathan to Moses. The Cassius to Julius Caesar. But beyond that are some 'Marc Antonys' that may just lend their trust, loyalty, and time for what you have to say.

Early performances by young actors who has since made names for themselves by starring in equally great films by their own rights (Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood", Emile Hirsch in "Into the Wild" and Jesse Eisenberg in the most recent "The Social Network").


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