Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chinatown (Roman Polanski)

A nosy fellow.

A second viewing.

What make film noirs such a joy to watch are their own unique ways of weaving complex plot devices and interestingly enigmatic characters into one riveting narrative. And as a bonus, we also get to see compelling notions about morality and some hints of psychology. This is the generalized beauty of the said genre that we come to love. But then there's also a sole ingredient in it that is also the flavor base of the whole course: An exemplary anti-hero.

This is what Jack Nicholson's great performance as J.J. Gittes has particularly achieved here in "Chinatown" with his combination of passive body languages and a sense of motivational indifference. He is a seedy private investigator who helps (with cash on the side, of course) husbands and wives find out a truth or two about their marital problems by way of his sleuth abilities. He talks with clients briefly, calls for a standard contract, and done, he is in for the job. This is Gittes' job that even makes him a sort of a celebrity for some but an object of disgust for others. Director Roman Polanski (handling an original material written by Robert Towne, who has gone on to win an original screenplay Oscar for it), who directed the film with low-key mastery, has able to highlight Gittes' occupational detachment from those commonly accepted (banker, insurance agent, police) in society or at least, in its late 1930's L.A. setting.

Consider the scene in the barber shop where he engaged into a brief but loud argument with a banker about the validity and social soundness of his job. As far as we're concerned, we want Gittes to win the said argument and put the banker into a whole lot of verbal beating. But Polanski, who is acting like a personality censorship agent (a brief display of selective exposure), immediately cuts the scene and transitioned it into the next where we see Gittes calm and cool again. This can be Polanski's unnoticeable answer to a potential criticism of the film not having enough back story to fully expose Gittes' psychological connection with the eponymous place. In Gittes' world where everyone wants to find out skeletons in one's closet by way of a private investigator, he prefer his own to be in utter concealment.

And then there is "Chinatown's" handful of unforgettable characters, ranging from the most enigmatic (Evelyn Mulwray, one of the film's highlights, greatly played by Faye Dunaway) to the most villainous (Noah Cross, played by the great John Huston), and even to the most mundane of fellows that hates 'nosy fellas' (cameo by Polanski himself).

As the film progresses with its one-bit pace that may detract some viewers who prefer their mystery/thriller films shaken and quick to the fullest extent, we also come to immerse into the sepia-toned Los Angeles setting, back in the days where it is still labeled as a 'desert city'. The dried riverbeds that is repeatedly visited by a boy riding a horse, the orange groves that speaks of both serenity and danger, and the desolately oriental mood in the Mulwrays' home, which also houses a salt water garden pond that is ornamental as it is pivotal. These key places of mystery and intrigue has been established with an almost otherworldly musical score and an escalating sense of dread that makes the film a lot more arresting, despite of its degree of quietness, than any other 'louder' films of its kind.

Judging from Gittes' actions that transforms him from an amoral observant into an unconditional hero, it can be wholly concluded that J.J Gittes', no matter how far he may put his emotions away from the conflicting gist of what he is trying to investigate, unhealthy trait of increasingly treating every case he handles a tad too personal is his obvious downfall. But isn't that what essentially makes him human?

The allusion to Chinatown is, contextually speaking, quite misleading. Unlike the earlier "Midnight Cowboy" (in its case, New York City) or the later "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag" (Manila), "Chinatown", aside from the happenstance connection of Gittes' past to the said place, never treats the culturally different area as a visual protagonist unlike how the other two aforementioned films have done so. The place was even introduced with nothing else but bits of establishing shots. But what the film has powerfully highlighted instead is the fact that it may not evoke the stirring qualities of a definitive visual texture that may accompany the said place, but it gave texture to J.J. Gittes' heart and soul even more so, especially when the silently doomed climax creeps into the screen in a sequence that is one of the most devastating amalgamations of honest emotions, violence, outright hatred and confusion ever on cinematic display, downplayed by the raw innocence of Chinatown's bewildered silence and cheap neon lights.

'Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". It may be an immortal line that stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of 'Rosebud' and 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn', but judging from the overall cinematic wallop of "Chinatown" itself, to 'forget' it is the last thing you'll ever do. This is powerful stuff.


Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hangover (Todd Phillips)

The remains of the day.

(Second Viewing: Opinion still hasn't changed.)

Oh, how this fell short for me. "The Hangover", a very ingeniously-structured comedy film with an original stroke and naturally appealing characters, although how everyone seem to deem as a modern emulation of a comic masterpiece, never really delivered as what it is heralded to be. The film's establishment was good enough as we see a garden wedding being prepared and readied to the tooth, while looming overhead shots of the proverbial 'Sin City' that is Las Vegas reveal themselves as the opening credits roll.

It is quite menacing a foreshadowing that seems to belong more in a thriller film than in a raunchy comedy, but it is still an effective build-up. Then we get to meet the characters/culprits of the titular dilemma that roots out from the mere idea of a conventional bachelor's party: Alan (Zach Galifianakis), an eccentric, behaviorally ambiguous brother-in-law to be for Doug (Justin Bartha), the groom that is nowhere to be found and is the reason for the quest in and around Vegas and the Mohave desert. Then there's the pretty boy Phil (Bradley Cooper) and the dentist Stu (Ed Helms) who are both clueless on what they have done yet sublimely relishing all of it.

One of the most inventive things in the film is how these particular characters wake up, clueless, aching heads and all, in a room filled with residues of an overtly wasted and distorted night. A tiger in a bathroom, a mattress impaled in one of the Caesar Palace's adorning statues, a missing tooth and a baby. Oh, and add up an impromptu wedding that even predates the one that they're actually going to attend.

The said room (or villa), filled with out of place objects (and animals) here and there for the characters to pick up the pieces and re-trace their steps, is very unique, otherworldly and even surrealistically over-the-top. Indeed a promising initial entry pass into the craziness of it all. But after that, the whole film started to slowly disintegrate and tread the grounds of contrivance by way of how it tries to mend and connect events that led to their disordered villa and their pitiful physical states. At certain sequences, out of nowhere and of the blue, assortment of low-lives and pesky criminals suddenly enter the scene from all sides.

There's nothing wrong with that, The Coens' great "The Big Lebowski" executed that well without looking the slightest bit of being forced. But in "The Hangover", it's just too flimsy in its handling, letting the likes of Mr. Chow (great portrayal by Ken Jeong) and some other baseball bat-wielding scums crash and attack their way into the forefronts of the film. At least in "The Big Lebowski", we got a reason for the suddenness of the attack on the Dude's house and carpet, and it's articulate in its characters' exposition. In this film, on the other hand, the entrances of such characters are just too meddled and a bit exaggerated in their reactions considering that what happened the night before is just too uncontrollable and downright crazy to be easily and shallowly reciprocated with retribution. Add up the 'Black Doug' character near the end that is inserted suddenly without any prior introductory scenes, we got some characters whose immediate presence are questionable at best.

"The Big Lebowski" is brilliant in its gallery of bizarre characters that are lively and offbeat all at the same time. "The Hangover", in comparison, just offered nothing more but a sideshow of caricatures merely there to serve as oblique, one-dimensional ornaments in the whole shebang, and it's really quite disappointing.

Now you may ask, why compare "The Hangover" to "The Big Lebowski"? Well, considering the praises that this film has garnered that hyper-molded it as an instant comedy masterpiece, I think comparing it with a 'true' comic genius of a film is quite logical and valid. And based on what I've came up with, this film does not have enough on its sleeve. 'Some guys just can't handle Vegas'. Yeah, that's a fact, but there are also people who just can't handle too much hype. Count me as one.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Hangover Part II (Todd Phillips)

The pack is back, and they're in deep s**t again.

"It happened again." That line uttered by Phil, played by Bradley Cooper, isn't just a dialogue that welcomes an expected rehash of the million to none mishap in the first "The Hangover" film. In a way, it is a pure declaration of things to come. If the first film dared to create an outrageously original narrative out of two split ideas of a delayed wedding and a very bad hangover, this second introduced us to something consciously cinematic and contrived: they're now officially nothing but a plot device.

But despite of the fact that "The Hangover Part II's" overall quality both in and out is basically just the same with its predecessor, I think this film is now more focused more than ever to its characters than the far-fetched plot. And although the 'Wolfpack' (their name, according to Alan) do not have any control to whatever happens in the film, their profanity-laden, insanity-driven and drug-addled antics surely reign over it.

"Bangkok has them now" is more or less a phrase about the idea of hopelessness and being done for, but I think the phrase "They are now IN Bangkok" is a more apt generalization. Do you really think that they are the victim here? Or is it the other way around?

Much has been said about the film's extreme one-dimensional Asian stereotyping, Eric Cartman-style, by way of Zach Galifianakis' Alan. But looking at it, Galifianakis' character's suggestive racism is much more depleted compared to the film's visual texture that is more or less the one with the more judging, eyebrow-raised tone. The camera pans over Thailand's dirty streets, claustrophobic alleyways and cheap transvestite clubs. And if ever it goes through high-rise buildings, they're just treated as places for criminal deals. The police are portrayed as silent idiots who can't discern an old man from a young I.D. picture, a Kim Jong-il look-alike criminal (perfectly portrayed by actor Ken Jeong in both the first film and here) shown as an effeminate little bastard and an exploited elderly monk on the side.

Of course, to a viewer whose comfort zone is in the open and a sensitivity that is considerably heightened, "The Hangover Part II" can easily be seen as a comedy piece about third-world condemnation. Unconsciously (maybe), some critics who have rated it below average may have done so because of its heavy-handed undertones or because of its distasteful visual preferences. But you know what? This film, for whatever it tries to achieve, whether it is to be a reluctant adventure feature, a mystery film or a naively transgressive exploration of Bangkok's underbelly, pulled it all off quite convincingly and without relent.

And surprisingly, the much-needed performance push for the film was never undermined for the sake of shock comedy. Zach Galifianakis is quite successful as the eccentric Alan, Ken Jeong, as what I've mentioned above, is great as Chow and even Paul Giamatti's cameo is never wasted. But I think Ed Helms as Stu is the best in the film in his ability to convey and contain both vulnerability and contempt in his predicament, both for his pungent exploits in the streets of Bangkok the night before and his uneasily cold relationship with his bride's father .

As a sequel, I think "The Hangover Part II" is arguably better and more resonant with its exotic choice of country and pseudo-cultural crash course compared to the first's colorful though bland Las Vegas setting. And as a comedy film, it has all the goods and clumsy energy of a charged summer farce, well-conceived plot twists and turns, to say the least, and some commonly-placed grotesques.

Only the sense of 'I've seen it all before' (even the picture slideshow during the end credits is still intact, there to do nothing but (clears throat) fill up potential plot holes) and an awkwardly mishandled Mike Tyson cameo prevent it from being outright 'solid' and truly exceptional, save for its great cinematography and some scattered hilarity.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun (Jason Eisener)

Rutger Hauer as the Hobo.

If you think "Machete" is bloods and guts galore, well, you haven't seen "Hobo with a Shotgun" yet . The film's concept, once merely a fake 'Grindhouse' trailer winner, fully delivers despite of its seemingly limited premise of a homeless man trying to clean the streets of an anarchic town. Initially, when I first laid my eyes upon the said trailer, I thought it was quite imaginative in its idea of creating a gun-toting character out of a hobo, but I thought the man playing the eponymous role in the 2-minute imaginary project (at the time) is too young and fairly unconvincing. This is where great tweaks in characterizations come to play; specifically, this is where Rutger Hauer enters the scene. 

So from being just a film that mainly highlights a man's exploitative exploits of exploding heads and maniacal sadists "Taxi Driver"-style minus the immense psychological baggage, with the help of Rutger Hauer's Clint Eastwood-ish presence, "Hobo with a Shotgun", in a way, transformed into some kind of an all-out urban western with a no name hobo at the crimson spotlight.

At first, I thought that the primary villains in the film were too exaggerated that it borders outright outlandishness even in the standards of 'do-it-all' B-movies. But then I realized, if this is not the way how these actors would act, then how should they? Brian Downey, who played the attention-seeking town kingpin 'The Drake', is a perfect contrast to Rutger Hauer's reserved and laid back Hobo, and so are Nick Bateman and Gregory Smith as the kingpin's sons. I do not know, but in "Machete", when I saw good ol' Steven Seagal as the primary villain, I can't help but notice the dry antagonistic chemistry between him and fellow few-worded Danny Trejo as they both struggle for an unsure, short-lived climax.

"Hobo with a Shotgun", on the other hand, fully capitalizes on how characteristic contrasts (the silent Hobo and the foul-mouthed Drake) help the psychological and emotional drive of the story. Indeed, the dichotomy between Hauer and Downey's character makes the pay-off all the more enthralling to anticipate and we, as audiences, are quite assured that the build-up won't just culminate in a big stare-off contest.

Molly Dunsworth, although how cliched it is to have a 'prostitute with a heart of gold' as the feminine lead, is energetic, boisterous and sweet all at the same time as Abby, the girl who Hobo envisions as a school teacher and tells of metaphorical stories about bears. Oh, and she also has an Ash-like "Groovy" moment in the film and an encouraging speech that is the thing of 'cheese'.

As for the screenplay, there's nothing much to say as it is more concerned about the Hobo's one-liners and doomed soliloquy. Now, if you want to watch a film solely for fun that you can repeatedly watch even if you're brain dead yet with enough adrenaline left, "Hobo with a Shotgun" is pure, razor-edged, brain residue-littered entertainment for you. It is a film conceived from perversion and exists in bad taste, but what you may find out is that it's also surprisingly dramatic and hopeful in a silly and flawed kind of way. Plus, do not expect much explicit sexuality. Yes, the film is violent, profane and rabidly morbid, but it's never gratuitously sexual. And for that, I salute the film.

Indeed, in a reality of a hobo armed with nothing but a rusty old shotgun and some aspirations for idealistic change, sex is not an option. But frankly, judging from the film's overall content of everything bloody red, crushed and dismembered, where would you really put those scenes? Even its bar and club settings aren't really very welcoming to such. What we got instead are harshly-situated innuendos that fit into the film's pumped-up feel but do not really materialize into any pumping scenes. But is that a bad thing?


Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

The kids staring at a potential 'production value'.

Just like the case with Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist", "Super 8" will certainly be more remembered as a Spielberg-produced spectacle than it is a J.J. Abrams-directed film. Abrams, who in my opinion has not proved anything yet in terms of cinematic imagination and vision (a full-length directorial resume that merely boasts of a "Mission: Impossible" sequel and a "Star Trek" reboot) because of the fact that he does not necessarily have to start from scratch from those film projects, could have capitalized on "Super 8" as his genuine coming-out party. But instead, what he did is ride on Spielberg's sci-fi, kid-friendly, wholesome fixation on aliens (come on, let's not pretend that extraterrestrials aren't the ones involved) and became somewhat an obligatory man on the helm to carry out the superstar director's 'been there, done that, seen that, heard that' concept. And worst of all, seemingly with puppet strings attached.

Yes, "Super 8" is a gargantuan letdown for me, but not because of the film's tired content and mindless use of explosions and CGIs in its clumsy second-half, but because of its broken promise to deliver something new and bring forth an intriguingly-themed film to reverberate the once prosperous conceptual disposal of the science fiction genre that is slowly running out of stock. Now come on, do not pretend that you have not felt even the slightest bit of curiosity when you've seen the enticingly minimalist trailer. It's the main reason why I have even seen "Super 8" in the first place. And also mainly due to the hyped nostalgic feel that comes along with it that may potentially bring the stellar, one of a kind atmospheres of Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." back to prominence for a new generation of audiences to see.

Now granted, the premise of the film is new and quite puzzling, inspires revelatory anticipation and its opening sequence up to somewhere before all those prolonged forebodings (come on, how can you maintain a strong sense of silent menace when you have heard that otherworldly creature's wail before? "Jurassic Park's" Tyrannosaurus Rex, anyone?) is potent at a considerable degree. Even the characterizations of the kids who set on to make a short film called "The Case" about zombies and stuff, although forced and emotionally compressed just so we may properly care for them before complications start, is interestingly dramatic and naively charming.

The sad-eyed girl next door (Elle Fanning), the straight-laced main kid (Joel Courtney) and the bossy overweight one (Riley Griffiths). Oh, and there's also the cartoonish pyromaniac (Ryan Lee). Initially, they're a joy to watch, being overly animated and concerned regarding their cheesy film production and all, but in the subsequent scenes, they just plunge down along with the film's qualitative execution.

Suddenly, they are heroes. Suddenly, the sad-eyed girl is now the missing damsel in distress. Suddenly, it just all felt wrong. There's nothing bad to see those pesky kids running and fending off some shrapnel here and bits of metals there, hell they're at the peak of adolescence, they truly are supposed to run. It's an age of physical restlessness. But heroes? Really? A film which promised something different, resorting to a cute swash-buckling bunch? And in a more extreme extent, one of them as an alien persuader? Haha, I'm sorry, but no thanks.

And that grieving father/deputy character (Kyle Chandler) who even disguised his way to find out the exact truth behind it all. He never even really found anything of utter importance that may serve as a solution. The next thing I know, he's there, with his child, looking up into some out of this world creature and subliminally saying goodbye.

Oh please, that abomination is far worse looking than those in "District 9". And aside from the inability to move on which the deputy character and the alien indirectly share (one emotionally and the other quite literally), there's no bond between them whatsoever, so weeping and a sense of longing shouldn't have even been an option for the first.

"Super 8", although a bit inappropriately titled, could have been an above average science fiction blockbuster fare. It's got these mysteriously looming vibes surrounding it. It has good leads and it's packed with suspense and thrill-a-minute laughs. If only those are rationed in exact moments and its forebodings ultimately leading into a creature worth the wait, the build-up and the running time, "Super 8" could have been infinitely better.

The kids' cheesy, awkwardly edited zombie flick "The Case", which was shown during the end credits, turned out to be the real highlight of the film. It's momentarily fun to watch, but it's hardly worth my money.

Director J.J. Abrams and executive producer Steven Spielberg, who tried to revisit the old ways to thrill, let us feel and make us believe, came silently blazing with "Super 8" in their hands, but with all the grumpy old cliches holding on tight along with them. And an ugly alien.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Stardust (Matthew Vaughn)

Tristan and Yvaine.

"My dear, I will give you everything, even the stars, just for the sake of our love". From that romantically far-fetched a line that is oh so abstract a thought and all too hyperbolic a statement begins the startlingly original adventure of "Stardust", a film adaptation of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel of the same name that vibrantly tells of magical realms and transcendent love that may initially look as if we've seen it all before, but with a comedic execution that makes it seem fresher and genuinely a notch more enjoyable than any films of the fantasy genre had ever been.

It's like Tim Burton's fantastically twisted vision merged with bits of Monty Python and some conventional fairy tale staples. As the film starts, with that deep-voiced narration by Ian Mckellen, "Stardust" created a distinct universe of myths and magic with eager flamboyance and familiarity, visually decreasing the sense of otherworldly surprise (that is clearly present in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" via the wardrobe and in "Alice in Wonderland" via the rabbit hole) and minimizing the line that separates the human world from those of flying vessels and ambitious witches.

But this time, there's no spells to cast or tornadoes to be felt just to enter the land of whatever, but merely a wall to cross secured by a not so quick-witted a guard. Now there's Stormhold for you.

Matthew Vaughn, who previously directed the great "Layer Cake", captured the essence of the said parallel universe without any foreboding of age-long reign of darkness a la Sauron or suggestions of full-fledged random craziness a la Lewis Carroll. It walks along the fantasy land with Shakesperean opportunism (as to how the film has portrayed the ambition of power by means of the King's (the legendary Peter O'Toole) sons' struggle to possess the ruby that is the affirming object of kingship) and the commonly grim characterization of witches who want nothing but eternal youth and beauty.

They can separately try to get what they want and get done with it, right? Without getting on each others' nerves and may even inhabit two different films to isolate their goals, isn't it? But as it unfolds (effortlessly that is, thanks to Gaiman's source material), their goals manifest in the guise of Yvaine (played by Claire Danes), a fallen star that is as knowledgeable as she is clueless. But wait, there also enters our alliterated hero Tristan Thorn (played by Charlie Cox) who, based on the opening line of this film review, also strives to capture Yvaine and bring her to his true love as a romantic gift. And just like that, "Stardust", with a relentless but wholesome narrative pulse and high doses of magically bizarre slapstick, begins its rat race for a star that, in some ways, resembles that in "Maltese Falcon".

Now, if there's something I'll definitely remember in the whole film, it will be the 'characters' themselves and no, it's not Yvaine and Tristan. Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, who gave unforgettably comic, over-the-top performances as Lamia the witch and Captain Shakespeare respectively, provide the sideshows that paint the world of Stormhold with contrastingly two-sided hues of eccentricity. With Claire Danes and Charlie Cox in the lead roles whose star powers and on-screen charisma (but based on what I've seen in the film, there's not much to scrutinize in their performances and formed chemistry) still isn't particularly tested that may also potentially give its studio a clunker of a film, veterans Pfeiffer and De Niro lend their shoulders for a share of the burden and oh what a support it was. "Stardust" just isn't the same without the presence of Pfeiffer's vain witch and De Niro's closeted pirate.

Add up Mark Strong, whose villainous roles in films bring him closer and closer on the verge of type-casting, portrays the sole-surviving prince Septimus (among his seven brothers) with that kind of vilely murderous instinct unforgettably displayed by Macbeth minus the downward spiraling insanity. Yeah, at first, I was quite unimpressed. Another antagonistic one for Mr. Strong, indeed. But all throughout his portrayal of the said character, one can sense his 'tongue-in-cheek' intent.

He bullies, brutalizes and kills anyone on-sight who hinders him in his goal for Yvaine and her ruby necklace. He renders anyone not on his side dead or dying, but he's deadpan in what he does. In this Septimus role, "Stardust" has immensely succeeded with its darkly comic tone. With the film being a fantasy picture, with such heavyweights as the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films serving as the genre's flag carriers, "Stardust" may have used some ideas that can easily be branded as repetitions.

But to what it is particularly disadvantaged, it makes up for its perfect approach for comedy. And to where it may look cliched (specifically in its magical and romantic elements), it makes up for its uniquely conveyed gallery of characters. "Stardust" is a beautiful, sometimes softly tender, sometimes ruggedly fast-paced and grotesquely overwhelming fantasy film that has achieved to leave a mark in such a conceptually-loaded genre.

By observation, after I watch some fantasy movies, there's always this recurring feeling of wonderment and awe mainly because of the visuals and nothing more. But after watching "Stardust", of course there's still the same feeling, but with a delightful smirk traced upon my face.

"My dear, I will give you everything, even the stars, just for the sake of our love". If that rings true to the one who promised the words and a place such as Stormhold a thing of reality, there will surely be a hundredfold of star-chasing adventures here and there. Yeah, right.


Friday, June 3, 2011

City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund)

A kiss for a joint.

A third viewing (or fourth perhaps).

Reading my old "City of God" review once more (a very short one at that), I can still visualize and feel through the praising adjectives that I've previously used (such as 'breathless', 'brilliant' and 'powerful'), the extreme awe and cinematic revelation that I have witnessed. And even after all those years when my copy of the film rested somewhere inside the bowels of my black CD wallet, popping it back once again in the DVD player reignites a personal film experience quite unprecedented. And watching it once more, although like visually revisiting a chaotic moral hellhole, proves one thing: its power, both from its narrative drive and its despicable yet richly molded characters, is purely inexhaustible.

As the knife appears out of the initial blackness and creates contact with the chopping block in the film's raw and frantic opening scene that shows the eponymous place's abundant disorder, we suddenly see a doomed chicken which suddenly broke free of a cook's hands and inspires a hood chase. The scene, shot as if drifting between carelessness and control, may simply look like a vignette-like slip-in to expose the life in the ironically named slums, but it is particularly vital for the film. In its entirety, with its non-linear progress, we eagerly anticipate the film's highs and lows as the protagonist Buscape (Rocket), played by Alexandre Rodrigues, narrates the brief but violent history of the place.

In a way, the film's narration is a cinematic comfort. It is a re-assurance, delivered both in a conversational glib and half poetics, that what we see on-screen isn't just witnessed by the fourth wall population that we are. Of course, it's adventurously insightful to see a film created out of a 'fly on the wall' perspective, but like De Niro's Sam Rothstein in Scorsese's "Casino", we need a distinct personality to somehow filter everything that occurs. And even though Buscape is neither special nor participatory in the film's crucial events, he is our bridge that leads us into the gang-overtaken, drug-financed urban mutation that is the 'Cidade de Deus' and the ever-investigative world of journalism (considering that he is an aspiring maverick photographer).

Analogically speaking, he is our Virgil into Ze' Pequeno's (Lil' Ze') (award-worthily played by non-actor Leandro Firmino) 'Inferno', and in this hell, there's no fires and brimstone but guns, trigger-happy fingers and lots of drugs. Now, for it being set in a repugnant slums and it being based on a true story, I think it's expected for those who still haven't seen the film to mention "uber realism" as its primary visual preference. But with its clever, stylish and fast-paced usage of flashback transitions and montages that are usually accompanied by percussive musics, it has elevated the film from being an excellently written crime film into a truly unforgettable representation of a modern masterpiece. One that shows violence through close range, observant eyes and redemption through distant but hopeful ones.

'Join in or die out'. that may ultimately be the clockwork maxim that runs through Lil' Ze' and other hoods' minds, but for Buscape' and, to a certain extent, Benny (Lil' Ze's best friend, played by Phellipe Haagensen), there's something in it for 'or', and it is worth a try.

"City of God", pitch-perfectly directed by Fernando Meirelles (who also directed the great "The Constant Gardener" and the quite abysmal "Blindness") and Katia Lund, does not condescend to the harsh realities of living the life of illegalities and crime. It criticizes, exposes and sometimes even understands, but it never looked upon the 'Cidade de Deus'' extreme alternative of a lifestyle with a fully raised eyebrow. I think the film concedes to its existence but never the pertinence of escape. With that, "City of God", albeit a transgressive facade, provides a slight relief.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)


Love. Oh how sweet and promising it really is when it first flourishes between two people's hearts. It shows how everything seems to be all too easy, how nothing seems to hinder no one, and how everyone around you is but a blurring haze. That is the description of 'love' in the earliest of its budding, but when all those reside somewhere into a corner and reality once again sets in, well, what then? "Blue Valentine", a heartbreaking, charmingly funny yet emotionally draining independent film that depicts with utter realism and emotions stripped off of all the gloss of cinematic consciousness, the disillusioning eventuality of the aforementioned romantic euphoria.

The film, directed by Derek Cianfrance and shown in a 'back and forth' non-linear structure, perfectly captured both a relationship's magical first weeks to the shattering trials and slowly settling indifference of the latter ones. The couple, Dean and Cindy, (performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams that certainly warrant spots in a shortlist of best performances of 2010) although with a hint of an escalating spatial gap, clearly still have love for each other. And unlike other films who show a couple's connection through quick smiles, hugs and kisses, Dean and Cindy's relational strength are underlined by hardships.

Of course there's a time where the film seems to slightly go into romantically 'cute' sequences to develop both the characters' mutual affection, but between those lines, we see the passiveness of their deteriorating love. In the opening scene, we see Dean, along with their daughter, go into their bedroom to wake Cindy up. Dean dives into the bed and playfully kisses Cindy, but she shrugs off. From that scene onwards, I think it's fair to say that at least we can weigh it off that Dean is much more enthusiastic to redeem their downward spiral of a marriage than his wife. He even sets up a romantic revitalization of sorts in a 'future' room (filled with all those sci-fi buttons and stuff) in a themed motel with Cindy.

But the thing with Dean is, he's too defensively fragile. "You're never going to guess who I saw at the liquor mart." Cindy said to Dean while they're on their way to the motel. "Bobby Ontario", she then followed. It turns out, this Bobby Ontario is Cindy's old flame. And after hearing the name, Dean turns into a short silence and engaged into an uneasy argument with Cindy that furthered the fact that he is insecure with himself. And as what was subsequently followed by a conversation inside the said 'future' room between the two about what Dean really wants to do with his life aside from being a life-long blue collar worker, he is insecure with what he really want to be. A hint of an unconscious quarter-life crisis rising in the midst of a couple in trepidation. I think 'falling out of love' is an understatement.

Michelle Williams, in these scenes I've mentioned and a whole lot more, flawlessly inhabited the character Cindy's evolution from being an innocent young lover at a crossroads to an innocent young lover whose last-second epiphany taught her the ropes of 'responsibility' and finally, a wife whose own emotional exhaustion, because of an unhappy marriage, suggests desensitization.

Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, with his carefree demeanor all throughout the film, substantially portrayed Dean, a character of considerably stern masculinity (in terms of knowing what to do in the right times but sadly, barely knowing what to say in truly important ones) that despite of his educational limitations and lack of adequate parental guidance and upbringing, hesitates being meek in life.

Both characters are flawed, has gone through so much yet still knew too little. As their utterances of 'for better or for worse' fade into an ethereal image of their longingly long kiss, they have experienced with delight the 'better' but they have not prepared for the 'worse'. But aren't all couples?

"Blue Valentine", with its grounded approach to the nuances of love and the transformation of romantic warmth to consuming coldness, depicts love stripped bare from all the picture-perfect qualities of its immediate visualization upon the sweet acceptance of vows and wearing of the rings. And also explicitly shows the transitory pleasures and disappointments of the supposedly passionate sexual connection that comes with it.

Any imagination for a transcendental love will all be for naught once the storm settles in, and no motel room can rightfully compensate for the shortcomings of sex. But when it finally subsides and all seems to be back to the usual normality of marriage stability, then what? "Blue Valentine" supports the fact that though a marriage ceremony ends with short answers like 'I do' , every step from then on always begins with some questions, half-finished sentences, tearful apologies and even lessons along the way.

Beyond that point, 'Do I?' resonates more. It's not a question to fully reevaluate one's feelings toward his/her love, but an emotional disambiguation of a romantic perspective in a state of confusion and doubt. Love is too complex, tangled and often times painful a phenomenon that we just have to accept it as a fact. I'm sure "Blue Valentine" wholeheartedly does.


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