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.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

The driver with no name.

Humanity and brutality. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who deservedly won the Best Director Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has beautifully tackled both in a stark existential light, that which echoes the likes of "Taxi Driver", and ultimately weighed both in a blurring contrast which highlights the compromises of poor choices. "Drive", with its violent nature and perverse tone, could have easily been a disposable Grindhouse-like feature. Its exaggerated depiction of nerve-wracking gore, an aspect that is a most common reason for audience polarization, complements the whole film but still suggests a heightened feel of sensationalism for the sake of shock.

Yes, these violent scenes are truly unnerving, but looking at the main character, a skilled driver who works in the movies and also for night heists, played with great control but also with unflinching rage by Ryan Gosling, his mysterious transformation from a passive loner to an involved, blood-drenched avenger is the one that's much more disturbing. Forget the violence first, it is this protagonist's motives and questionable decisions that is the film's center. With him lacking enough character background, it makes his actions all the more intriguing, but his surprising notion towards love and connection without much words to back it up, on the other hand, makes him all the more affecting.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (basing his screenplay on the novel of the same name by James Sallis), exposes two primal human impulses, to kill and to love, and brilliantly incorporated it into the film's stylized, almost poetic take on noir. What resulted is a perfect amalgamation of both substance and form, with a fair amount of adrenaline rush to sweeten it all up.

In its very immediate surface that echoes some action film formulas, It is expected for "Drive" to contain one-dimensional characters, particularly the villains, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. But these displays of intended shallowness is overwhelmed by the film's pitch-perfect rendition of tender love. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan sure has never worked before. Ryan Gosling sure is already initiated with love stories. But Carey Mulligan has been memorable via her turn as a naive young woman in "An Education", so jumping from innocence to maturity, performance-wise, is really quite challenging on her part.

It's almost a thing of miracle, but their chemistry here in "Drive" flowed smoothly despite of some initial constraints. Carey Mulligan, although very young, has portrayed Irene, the main reason for the driver's daring decisions, with this sense of desensitization towards life. It's as if she has gone through so much that she simply wants someone to hold. And him, the driver, on the other hand, being lonely and a complete nobody all his life (albeit him being a stunt driver for the movies), only wants someone's life to touch. With the use of great lighting, cinematography and music (with the elevator scene being the best example), "Drive" has successfully established these two characters' link with an almost melodious feel but also is effective in breaking it.

Narrative-wise, the film is tight in its execution, holds on firmly with what it is all about, and never went on for something else. This particular focus for what's immediate rather than to experimentally delve more on something that is marked with pretense only highlights the film's material strength in its consistent ability to tell a story and also to seamlessly state why it has been told in the first place. It roots out, of course, as what I've said earlier, from the characters' flawed choices.

Nicolas Winding Refn has stated that "Drive" is a tribute to surrealistic director Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose cinematic deviance is a thing both of beauty and disgust. That is particularly limiting because "Drive" is, above all, a general tribute to what great, uninhibited filmmaking is all about.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)


Things happened. Mysteries were unraveled. A woman's adventurous desires and curiosities were explored. Yet first-time director Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" felt like nothing has occurred in its entirety. With its sterile cinematography that surprisingly enhances the film's numerous scenes and effectively infuses a certain fascinating spell into its very mood, this visual stagnation that seems to pull "Sleeping Beauty" into the more elitist forays of art house self-indulgence, ironically, has also been its most appealing quality.

With a thematic feel that somehow reminds me of "Belle de Jour" and a bit of "Eyes Wide Shut", this film deeps its fingers into the dark waters of moral decadence, that which involves prostitution, without articulating much explicitly about it. Though it sure shows high-class hedonism brought into the extremes and has initiated Emily Browning's character Lucy into a world of worldly desires and emotional abstractions, Julia Leigh has able to handle all of these heavy-handed subject matters with finesse, therefore highlighting the film's very elemental issue of sexual and psychological adventurism without visually going over-the-top.

With enough reason, I sure did expect this film to be a bit more daring than it actually was, based on its compelling gist, some hearsay, and Emily Browning's intent to flex her indie muscles, which more or less suggests that it's a given that she will delve into nudity. Admittedly, the film sure had its issues, particularly its sudden transitions from one pointless scene to another that really shouts of incoherence. But in many moments, Emily Browning's uninhibitedly strong performance subtly redeems all of these missteps. Of course, it's hard to rescue a film, however great its starring actors or actresses are, from narrative imperfections. Even the characterization of Lucy had its major flaws, specifically the fact that she did the things that she has done in the film without any concrete motivations.

Was it for money? Then why did she burned one during a scene? Is it for carnal pleasures? Then why is she constantly hesitant and unsure of what she's doing? Ultimately, maybe Julia Leigh is too set on molding a very complex character that she has unwittingly brought Lucy into a place with a tad too much questions without clear signs of answering them, let alone some tries to do so. But to redundantly express myself, Emily Browning sure has delivered a stellar performance in this film that completely erases her earlier fiasco in Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch".

Now, to consider another perspective, Maybe Julia Leigh has intentionally painted Lucy's character in an obviously abstract form simply because she wants to convey her female protagonist's boundless alienation, both from her immediate environment and from us, the audience. "Sleeping Beauty" is, after all, a tale of a woman's aimless descent not into some cliched madness, but into a conscious reality of submitting to depravity.

But as deficient as the film may be in terms of its certainty for narrative goals, a scene halfway into the film has stood out the most on how it has perfectly deviated from the film's overall nature of existential aimlessness with its all too vulnerably human voice. It's the scene where this old client, as he gets ready for his 'turn' for the sleeping Lucy, poignantly recounts a short story to the madame, Clara (played by Rachael Blake), that relates to his existence.

He expressed the fact that all his life, he didn't have any 'broken bones' (symbolically presenting his mundane, all too normal and restricted existence) but merely pretended. And now that he's broken down and wearily old, he has regretfully conceded to the fact that they are now, sensing that everything's too late, that time cannot be turned, and it is only from this carnal retreat (in the form of Lucy) that he may find momentary peace.

This sequence really did struck a chord and left a relatively powerful impression within me with its assurance that at least in a film filled with meaningless encounters with sexuality, perversity and whatnot, there's someone who's indeed in the mix not for the utter senselessness of it all but for a tired admittance of defeat. A film that is truly not for everyone, and I mean it.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar)

Cecilia Roth as Manuela.

With the brilliant "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" being the Pedro Almodovar film I've watched prior to this, his exploration of the unparalleled emotional strength of women, at least in my self-chronology, continues on with "All About My Mother", a film that lightly caresses your heart with its poignancy but also puts into humorous situations after another the subtle absurdity of life. Although it's Almodovar's witty screenplay that is the film's beating heart, it's the sheer talent of its cast that has fueled it with pure and unbridled energy.

Performances by Cecilia Roth, who played the main character Manuela, a single-parent hardened by the terrible highs and lows of life, Marisa Paredes as the stage actress Huma Rojo, Penelope Cruz who contrasts all the other performances with her subdued turn as Sister Rosa, and especially Antonia San Juan's colorful portrayal of the character Agrado (the best performance in the film), a person whose socially unacceptable transsexualism never hindered her from being an optimistic representation of a hard-living modern woman, sweeten the screen with a unique vigor for life.

The film's title, "All About My Mother", when you look at how the narrative has unveiled itself, does not fully suggest that the film is indeed purely about Manuela's individual exploits as she searches on to locate her son's father and as she takes care of numerous colorful characters. With the use of the possessive pronoun 'My', which of course pertains to Manuela's son Esteban, who before dying in a tragic car accident wishes to know who his father is and who, after death, may have continued to look down upon her mother as she copes up with his death, with her quest and with life itself, it suggests that the story is spiritually progressing through Esteban's birthright to know his father. So the film, in essence, does not merely get its life force from Manuela alone, but also from the memory of Esteban's final wish.

"All About My Mother" is, in context, a humanist adventure fueled by a two-sided notion for a tribute: One given by the already omniscient Esteban in an underlying manner, who flowers up her mother's endeavors by means of his prose taken from his diary, and one by Manuela herself as she tries to keep the fire burning in Esteban's torch of memory by way of fulfilling his dying wish: To find his father.

Unlike the later "Goodbye, Lenin!", a film from which we rarely see the character of the mother but infinitely more of her son as he desperately find ways to fend off any shock or surprises that may worsen her health, "All About My Mother" views this idea of a parent-child relationship in an opposite way by championing the concept of a mother's love to her son (instead of the other way around), but in an equally unconditional light.

In the film's entirety, its urgency is more inclined towards the dramatic rather than the comic. Of course, the spontaneity of the more humorous moments adds to the film's effective tonal shifts from colorful to gray and vice versa, but "All About My Mother" is infinitely more important to be absorbed as a drama that articulates the emotional context of promises, mistakes and reconciliations rather than as a comedy of blunders, innuendos and homosexuality. Nonetheless, the film works in either way.

But what has slightly put me off about the film, on the other hand, is its running time. Pedro Almodovar greeted our senses with exuberant, highly original characters yet ends the film with suddenness. It's one thing for a film to end and for us to want more, but to ask for more plainly because something lacks is another. I don't know what I've felt between the two when the film has ended, but I surely would have loved the film more if it would have been a bit longer, and I don't care if the conflict is already resolved. Well, on second thought, maybe it's just delusion.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Tower Heist (Brett Ratner)

Comic actors Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy star in "Tower Heist".

With a half-engine steam of energy seemingly got from Danny Ocean's capers and John Mcclane's shoeless skyscraper escapades coupled with a fine comic establishment by way of the 'recruitment for a mission' treatment, "Tower Heist", though pure disposable fun and nothing more, is truly well worth your time.

Ben Stiller, with his usual gentleman approach to humor, is the sober center of the whole film while Eddie Murphy, in his pure ghetto ass glory, serves as the film's riotous catalyst for its scattered, language-driven comedy. With director Brett Ratner having successfully handled Chris Tucker's mouth in the "Rush Hour" films, there's no doubt that he can also pull it off with Eddie Murphy. Even more so that he has greatly incorporated considerably resonant dialogues into Murphy's character without going over-the-top.

With many actors in the film for the director and the writers to potentially play up a convincing chemistry, Ratner and company conjured up a nice balance among the chief players, with established actors like Casey Affleck and Matthew Broderick having their respective moments, while budding ones like Gabourey Sidibe and Michael Peña stealing scenes of their own. For some, "Tower Heist" may seem a bit too formalistic in its execution of a comic caper. Though that and a slight lack of climactic ingenuity may very well be considered as hindrances for it to achieve a certain uniqueness that will separate it from other films of its kind, its 'no detours' take on its narrative makes it all the more enjoyable and easier to take that at least, though stealing a car from a secured skyscraper isn't really what 'reality' suggests either, creates a vulnerably believable atmosphere where thieves may get caught anytime and that plans can be half-baked as best. No twists to spice up the character dynamics, no plot distortions to sweeten up what's happening and no far-fetched surprises for us to surmise.

For once, it's truly refreshing to see a film dealing with a big-time caper without complexities that were there just for the sake of surprise. "Tower Heist" captures what is 'enjoyable' without any plot pretensions and instead sticks with what the story is all about and what the characters are going to do. I'm just having a problem with the fact that the main antagonist isn't that well-formed as a character and too hands-off with what he's accused to do (securities fraud, especially inflicted to his own employees) that I consider having a bunch of laid off guys (well, and a hardened thief) storm his expensive flat and break glasses and walls to steal a millions' worth of an article a bit of an overkill. He's just too corporate and too thinly-introduced as a villain to be remembered and be taken seriously. For a film to succeed, a memorable adversary must be of the essence.

Sadly for "Tower Heist", it had its 'James Bonds' in the guise of Stiller and company but seemingly neglected the notion for a more crucial 'Blofeld'. The film had numerous high points, especially Eddie Murphy's scenes of comic tirades that may seem generic and over-used but admittedly never gets old. But as the film heads towards a potentially explosive 'climax', the part where I often ultimately weigh off a writer's talent in how he/she can properly wrap all of a film's happenings into one final justification, "Tower Heist" exhausts itself on its own ideas that it reaches a climax where the words 'lukewarm' and 'underwhelming' are written all over.

Maybe the film being all too linear is both its strength and weakness. With that, "Tower Heist" surely isn't a perfect heist film nor is it an excellent comedy film. But at the end of the day, "Tower Heist" mixed both genres in moderate amounts and as a result, created a finish product that may not be ideal representatives of either but nonetheless a film that has the ability to deliver just the right dose of adequate escapism, but one that certainly won't last that long.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Serpent's Egg (Ingmar Bergman)

Liv Ullmann and David Carradine.

I am really not quite sure what really is "The Serpent's Egg" more weighing flaw: The whole alienating premise of the film or David Carradine's robotic performance. But basing my choice on my better judgment, I'm gearing more towards the latter.

Throughout this whole Ingmar Bergman-directed feature, aside from that final, pseudo-scientific revelation, the film really felt nothing but an aimless exercise in existential angst. With our disillusioned and hapless protagonist roaming the decaying streets of 1920's Berlin that is completely unaware of a governmental take-over being led by someone named Adolf Hitler, I think that the groundwork as to why he's slowly being consumed by despair was not properly established, resulting with us being left with a main character that is both underwhelming and emotionally plodding.

I just don't think that David Carradine, a cult actor known for roles such as "Caine" in "Kung Fu" (a bit unrelated but it's interesting to note that his character here is then named "Abel"; a sort of an unconscious biblical allusion) and later as "Bill" in Tarantino's "Kill Bill", fits these kinds of roles. He's just relatively too tough-looking to really make his character believable and empathetic. Even Liv Ullmann, an actress of great emotional depth, is a bit out of place playing a forgettable character.

But then, there's Sven Nykvist's calculated cinematography that constantly puts dread and bleakness even in the most joyous cabaret settings and at the same time, finds emptiness even in a crowd. This is particularly evident in the film's impressive and disturbingly ambiguous opening scene (that is, until the climactic final exposition) where Nykvist has shot a scene of people of different ages and walks of life descending a stair with deeply melancholic and exhausted faces in stark, grainy black and white.

At certain points, the film's flimsy hands seem to let go of my already fleeting attention, but there's no doubt about the uncannily fascinating impression that the climactic 'explanation' scene, pulled off rather brilliantly by Heinz Bennent who played an experimentation scientist who knows the core secret as to why people like Abel are slowly slipping off from sanity, has left me.

Yes, it does felt that that crucially revelatory sequence looked and sounded more like a scene that you may see from those 'mad scientist' movies rather than from 'art' films like this, but for it to prophetically foretell the Nazi revolution's supposed 'New Society' and at the same time highlighting and comparing its idealistic superiority to an old one founded by the goodness of man is truly unnerving and, in a way, very brave.

And considering that this is Ingmar Bergman's first and only Hollywood film, "The Serpent's Egg" should be remembered more as a testament of his unbounded audacity rather than as a disappointing speed bump in his otherwise flawless oeuvre.


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