Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)


Christopher Moore, a contemporary author of fantasy fiction, has once said that "children see magic because they look for it". This, for me, is the foundation and the root of all questions raised in "Fanny and Alexander", a complexly-themed masterpiece that is, sadly, also Ingmar Bergman's very last feature film. In hindsight, it may look as if "Fanny and Alexander" is merely about children's innocence and the power of imagination; two themes that are otherwise quite alien to Bergman himself. But seeing the film unfold in its three glorious hours, "Fanny and Alexander" came out to be so much more than that. In many ways, the film is also a complex extension of Bergman's provocative meditation on the non-intervening nature of God (see "Silence of God" trilogy) and his passive role in human existence. Personally, watching "Fanny and Alexander" is like finally putting the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in place. 
But Ingmar Bergman, ever the abstract filmmaker, is indeed not the kind that will bail you out with some clear-cut answers. For the record, "Fanny and Alexander" is littered with magic and the supernatural; two aspects of the film that can be taken either as truly literal or completely symbolic. Nonetheless, the film, on surface level a period family drama, wonderfully takes on a new texture and thematic dimension by utilizing some elements that defy physics or explanation. In addition, the film even flirts with the idea that magic may perhaps be the one and only substitute for the complete absence of God; an absurdist approach on Bergman's part but is also very compelling in how it slightly satirizes the extent of our adherence to the unexplainable. 
With no real story or narrative, "Fanny and Alexander's" first half is all about the everyday trivialities in the life of the Ekdahls, a well-to-do family of stage actors which, after a relatively happy Christmas eve, was struck by an unexpected tragedy, which suddenly finds Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and her older brother Alexander (Bertil Guve) emotionally astray and fatherless. 
By way of Sven Nykvist's dreamy cinematography which has won him a well-deserved Oscar, the film was able to subtly depict both the difficulty of losing a father in the formative years of one's life and the silently mercurial nature of familial existence at the time (early 20th century Sweden) through its use of empty spaces, distant shots and anguished faces. 
After the burial of the titular characters' father, a bishop named Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö) then enters the scene. Extremely authoritative and ruthless, the bishop is Fanny and Alexander's, both of which were raised in a tender and carefree environment, worst nightmare realized. But just when they thought that things won't get any worse after the death of their father, Fanny and Alexander then find themselves under the wing of the bishop himself, who has decided to marry their newly-widowed mother (Ewa Fröling). 
From this point on, after much foreboding early on (with those moving statues and the apparitions of Alexander's father), the film slowly but surely abandons the first half's relatively realistic and lively portrayal of the Ekdahls in favor of a more metaphysical, abstract and gloomy second part. From the approach to the characterizations, it's quite easy to see the definite influence of "Fanny and Alexander" in all those stepmother/stepfather films that it has since predated, specifically Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth", what with its stepfather subplot and whole 'magical realm' aspect. 
But then, "Fanny and Alexander" is never a film that can easily be defined by classifications. It is, in fact, a challenge to our own grasp of cinematic reality. If an emotionally-focused drama like "Fanny and Alexander" suddenly goes all supernatural (which it did), what then can be our potential response as viewers? Well, it's much preferred to just keep mum and simply relish it; after all, this may just be magical realism's finest moment in cinema.  
But aside from being a stunning amalgamation of both fantasy and reality, "Fanny and Alexander" is also a conscious allegory about the importance of cinema in relation to our lives ("Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better") and is also a film that challenges our perception of the unknown, of the things we can't define and of certain life phenomena that we can't explain and articulate about. But more importantly, "Fanny and Alexander" beautifully pushes the limits of cinema unlike anything I've ever seen before.
As what the Ekdahls' matriarch (played by Gunn Wållgren) has said at the end of the film, "Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns." From where I look at it, this is the subtle justification of the film's surprisingly magical nature; a justification that is quite directed to us, the viewers, who are neither children nor naïve and who never expected or anticipated magic but stumbles upon it anyway because of this film. How sad that Ingmar Bergman's great swan song has come too early. But nonetheless, we should still be thankful that a film like "Fanny and Alexander" has come at all. Now I'm more than eager to watch the five-hour version.


Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam)

The Python troupe.

4 years after "Life of Brian", the Monty Python troupe, composed of John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, is back and as insightful and profound as ever in "The Meaning of Life", a surrealistic comic masterpiece that is quite possibly their most ambitious film ever. Hell, I wouldn't even bother to label it as their best. 
Unlike the previous two Python features, namely "Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian", both of which have modicums of a narrative, "The Meaning of Life" is infinitely more lose, non-cohesive and random. It is, for me, their most 'stream of consciousness' creation of the three. Opening with an awe-inspiring short involving geriatric employees and their very pirate-like attempt to take over the world's whole economic landscape, it is quite easy to see how bigger in scope "The Meaning of Life" is compared to the comic troupe's previous creations. And as the film progresses, it's also quite wondrous to sense and feel that Monty Python has since fully grown not just as an assemblage of comic geniuses but also as a thought-provoking lot. 
Ranging from sex to the very idea of heaven, hell and death, "The Meaning of Life" tackles almost everything under the sun (alas, even the very creation of sun itself and its brotherly stars), over the war-time trenches and inside the uterus. Split into various chapters, "The Meaning of Life" is comprised of sketches that are overwhelmingly funny yet also poignant with the truths that each of them speaks. And although the film's main intent is to leave you in stitches, it will also make you laughingly question yourself as to how relevant your minuscule place in this universe really is. But do not worry; Eric Idle will treat you with an affirming song of how miraculous your birth really is. And no, there's not a hint of sarcasm both in the tune and the lyrics. Despite of the film's bizarrely mocking tone, the film is embedded with an indelible humanity that actually means what it wants to say. Suddenly, here is Monty Python, the most humanly offensive and irreverent comic group that has ever graced the screens both small and big, traversing their most vulnerably human side. 
For me, what eagerly exemplifies this side is the scene when Eric Idle's French waiter character leads the camera (presumably representing us, the viewers) in a relatively long walk towards his humble home. He then explains, in a very non-philosophical, layman's manner, the meaning, for him, of life. "You see that house? That is where I was born. My mother said to me, "Garcon. The world is a beautiful place, and you must spread joy and contentment everywhere you go."" That was what Idle's waiter character has stated. Although it's a random, seemingly out of left field scene that's truly in contrast with the rest of the film's tone, it nonetheless strikes me as very life-affirming and, to a certain extent, even worthy of tears. 
Yes, "Life of Brian" is arguably their greatest work, but I will always reserve a special place both in my heart and mind for "The Meaning of Life". Not only is it a proof of how Monty Python is and will always be the best in terms of avant-garde comedy, it has also solidified the fact that the Python troupe indeed never lacks the silent sensitivity needed to tackle the very nuance of human existence itself. They have just made God quite irate, is all. 
Personally, I find "The Meaning of Life" to be more than just a comedy. Fittingly, I have watched it at around three o'clock in the morning. Waking up, I felt as if I haven't had a dream. Well, maybe the Sandman have had quite a hard time replicating or even surpassing the things I have just seen. The Pythons may have given the Dreamer a run for his money.


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sisterakas (Wenn V. Deramas)

Sisterakas: Sounds like 'carcass' to me.

Perhaps the last MMFF film that I will be able to watch in theaters, "Sisterakas", expectedly, is an extremely formulaic comedy film that seems uninspired even for director Wenn Deramas' standards. Instead of inspiring hilarity by way of the story or the script, the film instead relies on the sheer comic presence of stand-up comedian turned movie star of sorts Vice Ganda and Kris Aquino's painfully funny awkwardness. Surprisingly, Ai-Ai de las Alas, technically the most experienced cinematic comedienne among the three, is the least funny in the movie. Perhaps her mother roles are slowly becoming stale.   
Like Deramas' previous, relatively funnier film "Moron 5 and the Crying Lady", "Sisterakas" narrative core focuses on revenge, a theme which almost always results in solid comedy gold. But instead, because of the film's lazy execution, not to mention some obviously borrowed elements (Vice Ganda's evil boss is too "Kimmy Dora"; Ai-Ai's role is too Ina Montesillo yet again) from other comedy movies and an irritating abundance of self-referential jokes (the big offender here is the scene when the three exchange one-liners about their multi-million peso commercial endorsements), "Sisterakas" never quite makes it as a good comedy film. And do we really need a "James Yap" joke, like, every 2 minutes. As if Kris Aquino's love life isn't already a parody on its own. 
The film's plot, about a fashion designer (Vice Ganda) who has made it big and whose focus now is to exact revenge on the family that has wronged his own, isn't anything new or a valid enough reason to excitedly anticipate every bits of narrative progression. What "Sisterakas" is mainly all about, fitting for its three larger-than-life lead stars, are the random in-between jokes that either poke fun on their real-life showbiz personas or just make bland scenes look livelier than they actually are. 
The real strongman here, surprisingly, is Vice Ganda. By letting him take over all of his scenes with his patented fast-mouthed mockery of other people, the film was slightly saved from its irrevocably fast descent into the waste bin. Even Joey Paras, most known for his masterful performance in the indie film "Last Supper No. 3", had his nice moments. 
But what was real funny yet sad at the same time in the film was Kris Aquino; funny because she was effortlessly so in every instance that she attempts to act or emote and whatnot, and sad because she was highly exploited in every scene she was in. 
Deramas, after all, seems to be more interested in making a laughing stock out of Kris rather than creating an adequately comedic character for her. This, in the context of proper screenwriting, is almost offensive. Those who think that Kris Aquino playing Kris Aquino is the funniest thing there is should watch "So Happy Together". In that particular film, Kris was at least tolerable in the acting department yet was still able to be quite funny, thanks to a much better director in the form of Joel Lamangan. Kris proudly convincing PNoy to watch "Sisterakas" will always be a big mystery to me. The film should have been entitled "Gawin nating Mukhang Tanga si Kris: The Movie". I doubt that the film, or her performance in it, will do Noynoy (or even Bimby for that matter) proud.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

One More Try (Ruel S. Bayani)

Try and try and try...

I thought it will be different. I thought that, with this film, Star Cinema would temporarily veer away from their uncontrollable obsession for infidelity. I thought that, for once, here's something that will infinitely be more sensible compared to the said film outfit's recent products. But no, "One More Try", an official Metro Manila Film Festival entry, has merely used some medical excuse in the form of severe aplastic anemia so that they can push forth their mouth-foaming inclination towards anything extramarital and morally questionable yet again. 
But before we move on with the review, the obligatory synopsis first: Dingdong Dantes' Edward is happily married to Angelica Panganiban's Jacq. Along then comes Angel Locsin's Grace, a woman who had a brief romantic relationship with Edward and is now mothering the fruit of their love (they had a child, alright) somewhere in Baguio, asking for Edward's help. 
The child, much to the very motherly sadness of Grace, is inflicted with a kind of life-threatening illness that can only be cured by bone marrow transplant and Edward is the only possible donor. But the catch is this: Edward is incompatible to give his marrow and the only other cure is to get it from a second, still non-existent child. To conceive the baby, they first tried in vitro fertilization but it failed. The only remaining option, as what Carmina Villaroel's irritating 'Doctora' character has stated, is for Grace to be impregnated through the 'natural way'. Meaning, Edward and Grace must have sex once more, much to the complication, of course, of their respective relationships and their lives. All four main characters (including Zanjoe Marudo's immaterial character Tristan: Grace's beau)
While the establishment of "One More Try's" scenario is quite provocative, the film, as it goes along, transitions from interesting to slightly plausible to idiotically preposterous. Sure, the film has raised certain moral questions regarding this very difficult psycho-sexual predicament, but the way the characters were realized is so irrational and obtuse that they ultimately looked ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious despite of the film's self-serious tone. 
Okay sure, some may argue that "One More Try" is indeed a cinematic essay about the idiocy of love, and I may be missing the point. But be informed, the idiocy of love is really different from sheer simple-mindedness. Specifically, I am pertaining to Angelica Panganiban's character who, despite of her being an epitome of an intelligent career woman, has quickly allowed Grace to enter their married life, knowing that situations will subsequently conspire against her. 
From where I look at it, I think that "One More Try's" ultimate flaw is not on the direction (by Ruel S. Bayani) or the performances. In fact, the performances range from good to great. It is, in actuality, on the screenplay itself, which has allowed its own characters act upon a crucial situation with sheer lack of logic and thought. 

And then, after much emotional despair and lots of tears, all of a sudden, the film jumped into a heavily sugar-coated happy ending that's ever-characteristic of every Star Cinema films. Plus, I found out through research that there's an alternative treatment for severe aplastic anemia other than the bone marrow transplant called immunosuppression, which has little to no 'early mortality' rate. 
Well, if that's the case, the whole dilemma raised by the film is all for naught. We have been fooled, it ultimately seems. Carmina's doctor character may have been the one needing some hair-pulling and bitch-slapping and not the main characters. But medically-speaking, is there really a need for conflict? 

(Note: As I'm writing this review, I just found out that the film has won the Festival Best Picture. Congratulations, but the film could have been better or, if my research will prove to be quite right, even easily invalid.)


Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné)

Baptiste and Garance.

The great Francois Truffaut has once stated that he would indeed give up all of his films to have directed "Children of Paradise" himself. If that's not a testament of the film's more than impressive whole, with its ability to impress and stir up healthy jealousy among other equally heralded filmmakers, then I don't know what else will be. The film, shot during the turbulent times of Nazi occupation in France (French Resistance members at the time even secretly worked in the film's production), is a miraculous achievement not just of cinema but of the entire realm of art. By merging the symphonic beauty of two of the greatest art forms the world has ever seen (theater and film), Marcel Carné, the film's director, has created an unforgettable screen masterpiece that is both aesthetically moving and emotionally evocative. 
Although it was cleverly marketed in America as France's cinematic answer to Victor Fleming's "Gone with the Wind", "Children of Paradise" is so much more than just a foreign substitute to an epic Hollywood picture. It is, by its own right, a stand-alone film that ambitiously treads the territories of both love and artistry, not to mention that it is also a visually stunning rendition of 19th century France. Populated by characters that seem to be molded after Charles Dickens' creations, "Children of Paradise", in a way, moves and unfolds like great literature (the film was even split into two distinct, very novel-like chapters). But unlike the lively pageantry of "Gone with the Wind", "Children of Paradise", even at the film's early moments, is already burdened by a running sense of melancholy, specifically when the camera first focuses its lens on the face of Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a great pantomime who will find himself slowly falling under the spell (and pain) of love. The object of his affection is Garance (Arletty), a stunning woman who sees love merely as a simple phenomenon and who, at first sight, was immediately magnetized by Baptiste's romantic peculiarities. 
But then, it's not only Baptiste who's smitten by Garance; on one side, there's Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), a flamboyant theater actor whose acts atop the stage bleed through life itself. On the other, there's also Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a part-time poet and full-time criminal whose great contempt of life can only be matched by his enormous pride. And finally, there's Count Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), a rich man who baits Garance with his unequaled fortune so that she will not love any other man ever again. 
Together, these four characters engage in a slow dance of doom that finally justifies the melancholic undercurrent that runs through the film. But even though "Children of Paradise" plays like a tragedy, the film, for plenty of reasons, will surely put a smile in every cinephile's face mainly because of its visual and thematic perfection. And even though the film runs close to 3 hours, I honestly would have wanted 3 more. Hell, the film, with its highly eloquent and intuitive screenplay (by Jacques Prévert), could have been an audio book. But then again, it could have also been an enjoyable silent film, what with its pantomime fluidity and swift physical timing. 
Considered by many as one of the greatest films of all time, "Children of Paradise", again despite of it being a romantic tragedy, is a celebratory film that embraces and makes one with art even in the midst of a violent global conflict. "Children of Paradise", a flawless masterpiece of French cinema, will always stand the test of time not just as great art but also as a proof that cinema can never be crippled by war-time destruction, be forced underground by bombs and be shackled by fear. "Children of Paradise" powerfully persists.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

El Presidente (Mark Meily)


After last year's surprisingly good period gangster film that is "Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story", here is E.R. Ejercito again with an Emilio Aguinaldo biopic entitled "El Presidente", an infinitely trickier film to pull off, scope and exposition-wise.
If E.R.'s previous film focuses mainly on gangland altruism, "El Presidente" is all about patriotic resilience amidst imperialism, and it definitely shows on the film's abundant dose of sentimentalism. And if E.R. seems tailor-made for the role of Asiong Salonga (after all, he has already played Asiong in the '90s film "Asiong Salonga: Hari ng Tondo"), he seems feverishly out of place in this whole historical drama, especially when he's surrounded by character actors that are ten times more talented than him.
Now do not get me wrong, when I think of a more suitable and relatively bankable actor to play Aguinaldo, I can't really think of anyone save for Ejercito himself (as of the moment, that is). Except for his bulldog-ish cheeks, Ejercito nicely fits the title role specifically because of his relative mass appeal and sense of authority. But then, somebody has seemingly forgotten to remind him that "El Presidente" is, after all, a film and not a theatrical play.
With his repetitively oratorical hand gestures and monotonous line deliveries, despite of the stature of the person he's playing, E.R. is easily dwarfed by his co-actors in the film, specifically Cesar Montano, whose brief but strong turn as Andres Bonifacio is a mild cause for celebration. Except for his hair that's anachronistically gelled upwards, Cesar Montano's Bonifacio is so well-portrayed that I wouldn't bother for him to have more screen time than Aguinaldo himself. Granted, "El Presidente" is quite sophisticated with its cinematography and action sequences, but its whole narrative seems fairly derivative and very 'Philippine History 101' that the film's human aspect was left terribly wanting.
Complete with cursive texts beneath every establishing scene that continuously remind us that the film is more of a crash course on the history of pre-republic Philippines rather than a fairly humanizing story of a great man (this, of course, depends on who's seeing the film), "El Presidente" never quite connects on the emotional level. Instead, and this is quite saddening, it merely gives out the occasional 'wow' factor with its action set pieces, mammoth scope and nothing more. And although I also liked Baron Geisler's intense performance as a Spanish captain, the film's supporting cast was fairly uninspired and a tad too unconvincing; indeed, a bunch of artificially mustachioed lads sputtering things about independence and going slow-motion on simulated battles is not enough. Well, maybe that is the ultimate downside of a historical drama: the scope is almost always so big that the characters are rendered as nothing but glorified plot details.
In a way, "El Presidente" is "Jose Rizal's" (the film, not the man) campy and overly sentimental half-brother who gets into too much unjustified scuffles. If Cesar Montano's portrayal of Jose Rizal is one founded upon complexity, dedication and utter intensity, E.R. Ejercito's Emilio Aguinaldo is founded upon monotony, misplaced emotions and uncalled-for action star-ism. In one action scene when he has suddenly pulled out a very gangster-looking boot knife, I even expected E.R. to suddenly show his ever-wriggling tongue and shout "Ako si Boy Sputnik!" His performance is just so all over the place that at the end of the day, "El Presidente" has made me root more for Andres Bonifacio. Now I have this sudden craving to watch Richard Somes' Bonifacio biopic "Supremo".
But in all fairness, the film's final 15 minutes or so is quite powerful. In a way, it reminds me of the final moments of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" in how both finely convey the elegy of time in the lives of the most powerful and seemingly immortal leaders. The appearance of Nora Aunor as Emilio Aguinaldo's second wife though, who was cast just so she can be put into the posters as a potential crowd-drawer, is a complete non-event. In my opinion, they could have put Lilia Cuntapay in the role and it wouldn't really even make a strand of difference.
"El Presidente", although admittedly a grand, sweeping production, is a very clunky film that offers little to nothing that our history text books have not taught us yet. Perhaps showing some of Aguinaldo's trivial humanity wouldn't hurt. And yes, "Manila Kingpin" is better.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)


Aside from being a masterful surrealist, it is also very notable to state that Federico Fellini is also a morally powerful and spiritually transcendent filmmaker. This is, of course, very much evident here in "Nights of Cabiria", an unforgettable cinematic masterpiece that traverses the widely unseen and unheard (at the time) world of prostitution and the soulful humanity that bleeds through and through albeit the blind sexuality contained within it. 
Although it is much expected that the film shall highlight the more obscene aspect of what many consider as the 'oldest profession in the world' just like, say, Luis Bunuel's later film "Belle de Jour", "Nights of Cabiria" is surprisingly very mellow with the jobs' details and instead delves not on the inner workings of the affordable sex that they offer or on what motivates prostitutes to continue on doing what they're doing but on the reasons why they should not anymore. At the center of it all is the energetic yet at times very temperamental Cabiria (played by Giulietta Masina), a prostitute who can be the most romantically jaded one minute yet can also be the most hopelessly romantic in the next. With a face that still echoes her heartbreaking turn in Fellini's earlier film "La Strada", Giulietta Masina, with her sometimes tomboyish facial expressions and mime-like gestures reminiscent of silent film stars, is a beautiful embodiment of both melancholy and hope. 
With her consistently comical body language and a face that fluctuates between naughtiness and confusion, Cabiria is evidently a most complex character to pull off. But despite of that, Masina has done it as if without much effort. Yes, perhaps there are no scenes that show her participating in any simulated sexual congress. And yes, perhaps Giulietta Masina does not, in any way, physically resemble an actual prostitute, what with her small stature and relatively frail body frame. But with the help of her masterful evocation of Cabiria's romantic naivety and pure humanity, she has been most believable as one in much the same way Philip Seymour Hoffman is never a dead ringer for Truman Capote (Toby Jones relatively gets that distinction) yet he has made us believe that he actually is the "In Cold Blood" writer for close to 2 hours mainly because of how inspired his performance was. 
But then of course, Giulietta Masina's powerful performance wouldn't really be as penetrating if not for Nino Rota's stirring musical score, the film's often dream-like photography and Fellini's patient direction which has perfectly built-up the film until its heart-breaking yet hopeful finale. 
Just like Fellini's masterpiece "La Dolce Vita", "Nights of Cabiria" is a film that's highly dependent not on how or where the so-called 'carnival of life' will bring the main characters to but how he/she may figure in the playfulness and hysteria of it all. In one of the film's most resonant sequences, Cabiria, along with her co-workers, joined a small pilgrimage heading towards the Santuario della Madonna so that they can ask her for forgiveness and guide. Albeit her countless pleads for mercy and various promises to change her way of life, Cabiria never felt any better or different, and so do her co-workers. Although a filmmaker that largely incorporates religious symbolism into his films, Fellini seems always aware that religion will always be a mere spiritual opiate and nothing more; that fate solely depends on whatever life a person leads and not on some higher power; that some music and a smile, not some wooden idols and a haplessly fevered devotion to the great unknown, can make the world of difference. With "Nights of Cabiria", Federico Fellini has made us all believe that despair can merely be shrugged off by a more than hopeful countenance. 
For the longest time, cinema has often made us feel the utter fruitlessness of existence and how it is almost impossible to graduate from life pristine and unscathed. "Nights of Cabiria", perhaps the best film ever made that deals with the emotional and moral conflict buried deep within the heart of prostitution, is a precious piece of art that genuinely captures the elusive essence of hope amidst anguish rarely seen in today's cinema.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)

A bridge run.

If one would want to witness the sheer complexity of love without the utter abundance of unnecessary despair, then I believe that one should not look any further than this film. Although a visually joyful film, "Jules and Jim", based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, is ironically all about the slow decay of a freewheeling love affair. The film's central focus, of course as suggested by the title, revolves around a friendship between two men and how time (or war) can never undo such a strong knot. But then again, the film is also about how a friendship can easily fall prey to the idiocy of romance, the bipolarity of love and the captivating beauty of a woman before they can even know what has hit them.
Effortlessly becoming the best of friends immediately after their first meeting, Jules and Jim's friendship is suddenly drawn into a moody yet, to a certain extent, wonderful ride of both love and life via an adventurously unpredictable woman named Catherine (perhaps a prelude to the character trope we now know as 'The Manic Pixie Dream Girl'). 
Francois Truffaut, a most visually playful auteur, is dead set on exploring love with a sure grasp of irony and relentless energy. "Jules and Jim", with its constant visual frolics and overall feel, is really hard to categorize within a single genre. Part-comedy, part-drama and part-romance (with some hints of war-time dramatics), the film is everything a cinephile can ask for. For the entirety of the film's almost 2 hours of running time, I was just engrossed with what I'm seeing, and it's not just about the film's pioneering visuals. Even when the three central characters are just talking, exchanging reflective remarks and laughing, one can still sense the same tight energy that was fully evident in the film's fast-lipped narration, silent film-like music and playful cinematography. This is definitely because of how well-realized and inspired the performances in the film really are, specifically by the centerpiece threesome comprised of Oskar Werner (Jules), Henri Serre (Jim) and Jeanne Moreau (Catherine). 
Despite the film tackling a relatively heavy-handed tale about romantic deceit, Truffaut was able to inject a sense of childish gayness in it all. And it is in this childishness that the film was able to separate itself from other films of its kind. 
For me, what makes "Jules and Jim" stand out and be rightfully heralded as one of the best films of all time is how it has took on infidelity and romantic apprehension with such carefree warmth and transcendental tenderness. Truffaut, one of the ultimate film intellectuals in cinema history, has relied solely on one concept and it has repaid him and "Jules and Jim" a hundredfold: Optimism. 
Even in the face of tragedy and melancholy, Truffaut was hopeful enough to make us feel that the pursuit of love, no matter the context, the situation and even the consequences, is something that is just truly wonderful to be denied an entry into our hearts. But in the end, he was also able to highlight the fact that obsession, even in the context of love, is an entirely different matter. "Is it the pursuit of an elusive, on and off love or the subtle pains of moving on?" That, for me, is the film's ultimate question. "Jules and Jim" is about how something's got to give.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)

The spirit of adventure.

Watching "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", for me, is like being reunited with a good old friend who has since become all rich and famous but still hasn't changed a single thing either with his/her looks or behavior. It is, at least, a very emotional experience for me. For someone who has grown up during the times when "The Lord of the Rings" franchise's popularity is in full phenomenal swing and its influence to its fans reaching Star Trek-like proportions, witnessing a spin-off like "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", with pretty much everything that has made the original saga so endearing to almost every single living being fully intact while also maintaining a sense of humility in its story, is truly extraordinary. Let's just say that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the best adventure film that I have seen for quite a while since, you've guessed right, "The Fellowship of the Ring". Well, you just can't go wrong with Peter Jackson and a handful of halflings. 
Although officially a prequel, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is, all together, an entirely different cinematic experience in its own right, and that's what's truly admirable about the film. If you'll look at it, it's easy to see how it is more advantageous for the film to relish and indulge on the already established mythology of the three legendary films before it. But instead, it took some nice creative liberties with the overall narrative, characters (except of course for the likes of Gandalf and other character reappearances) and atmosphere, which resulted in an experience that's as familiar as it is fresh.  
Aside from that, there's also the evident ambition in the film. Then again, let's not kid ourselves because, hey, the word 'ambition' is always attached to any Middle Earth-related creations. But still, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a sure-fire testament of how Peter Jackson, though already 10 years removed from the year the first part of his colossal 'Ring' trilogy was released, is still keen on constantly topping himself, visual-wise at least. With this film, he has thrown everything in, from trolls and dwarves to dragons and griffins (and even some rock giants who have a penchant for some earth-shaking fisticuffs), but the Shire's kitchen sink, and I couldn't be happier. Hell, even the performances were top-notch, especially Ian McKellen as the beloved Gandalf and Martin Freeman as the awkward but courageous Bilbo Baggins. While appearances by Christopher Lee (as Saruman), Hugo Weaving (as Elrond) and Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel) among others, are nice extra treats that make the experience even more fulfilling and, to a certain extent, almost tear-jerking. Oh and there's also that little 'riddle game' scene with that obscure character named Gollum. That, my dear reader, is worth the price of admission alone. 
5 years ago, I would have never even imagined that I will be able to witness the mercurial beauty of Middle Earth and the wonders of its adventures on the big screen (fact: I have never seen a single "Lord of the Rings" film on the multiplex). Suddenly, here comes "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", a cinematic creation of two of the greatest minds working in the fantasy genre today (Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro), with arms wide open and ready to embrace me as if I'm an old friend. Hell, even with just the first notes of that beautiful Shire music, I'm sold. All I need is a pony and some damn 'burglar' contract. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"; I never expected it to be this good and the journey to be this big. Ladies and gentlemen, we're officially in for an epic three-part saga once again.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

Bond's back.

After the dud that was "The Bourne Legacy", we finally got the espionage film of the year that we all deserve in the form of "Skyfall", the 23rd entry in the Bond film franchise which also serves as an apt commemoration of 007's 50 years of cinematic existence. 
Compared to the masterful "Casino Royale" and the mediocre "Quantum of Solace", "Skyfall" is far less complicated in its narrative but heavier in terms of what is at stake. Our beloved 'M' (played by the great Dame Judi Dench), Bond's stern superior who has always been one step behind our equally beloved master spy, is at her most involved in this film, not to mention the fact that she's also the one who's gravely in peril this time. On the other hand, there's also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a man whose firm principles often clash with his bureaucratic job.  
If one would notice, "Skyfall" is a bit less in its action compared to Daniel Craig's first two Bond outings. With the film's biggest action set piece audaciously positioned even before the lush opening credits (with that beautiful song by Adele), director Sam Mendes has taken the ultimate gamble. If the film's best action sequence was immediately presented at the beginning, what, then, is left for "Skyfall"? Well, quite plentiful, really. 
Aside from the film's simplistic yet infinitely more compelling plot, the film is also rich in great performances, specifically by Judi Dench and Javier Bardem, whose portrayal of the villain Raoul Silva is as vengefully realistic as it is larger-than-life. Though he is not, in any way, a random anarchist like the Joker, Silva still mirrors the 'Clown Prince of Crime' especially in how he is concerned with flamboyant theatrics and metaphorical speeches. 
But then despite of Bardem's potentially scene-stealing role, I believe no one can easily overshadow Daniel Craig's power and screen presence as James Bond himself. If "Quantum of Solace" has served as a fairly muddled, speed bump-like transition film for him as 007, then I think "Skyfall" is the testament of how much he has really grown in the role. Right now, I can't help but think that he is indeed the most ideal Bond of all time, with apologies to Sean Connery and company of course. 
By possessing a more-than-convincing physique apt for a chick magnet, the physical abilities perfect for a globe-trotting, train roof-jumping secret agent and also the subtle wit that finely contrasts his intimidating exterior, Craig has all the elements of the quintessential Bond. No offense to both Sean Connery and Roger Moore, but can you really imagine either of them instigating a convincing fisticuff with anyone whom Daniel Craig has encountered all throughout his three Bond films? I doubt it. Granted, Sean did have that masterfully intense and claustrophobic train compartment fight with Robert Shaw in "From Russia with Love", but aside from that, there's next to nothing. What "Skyfall" has revived in the Bond tradition, at least in my view, is pure action grit. Never has Bond been more hard-hitting and convincing in action since Timothy Dalton and his brief 007 tenure. 
By relying less on the typical Bond ingredients (the girls, the gadgets and the usual dose of megalomaniacs) and more on how to put the words 'grit', 'emotion' and the name 'Bond' in the same sentence, "Skyfall" was able to elevate itself into something more than an action-packed spy feature the same way, eherm, here it goes, "The Dark Knight" trilogy has transcended the superhero genre (But then, I found out that "Skyfall" was indeed influenced by Nolan's powerful interpretation of the Batman legend). 
In a way, "Skyfall" is a film that's both ambitious in scope yet steadily humble in execution. It has the needed sense of modern-day sophistication and geographic vastness yet it also has this kick of old school flair, especially when that classic James Bond theme finally seeps in at almost exactly the same time the Aston Martin DB5 makes its on-screen return. Oh, and there's also the reinvention of both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris); a bold move on Sam Mendes and company's part that has helped the film attain a fresh, more contemporary look while also maintaining a running sense of nostalgia. 
In the end, "Skyfall" may not be the most action-packed Bond film of all time, but it surely is the most emotionally demanding since, say, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Although "Casino Royale" certainly had its fair share of adequate dramatics that were seemingly amiss from previous Bond features (especially the Roger Moore vehicles), "Skyfall" still marks the franchise's highest emotional point. Why? Well, it's for me and all the other film fans that have enjoyed "Skyfall" to know and for you to find out. This is a roller coaster ride of a film, and that's not just pertaining to the action. Bond, amid the jumping, the fighting and lots of running, just proved in this film that he can also carry some serious dramatic weight. I think we're officially in for a new Bond Renaissance.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)


Deemed by Martin Scorsese as the 'boldest' film in Michelangelo Antonioni's trilogy of emotional isolation (the other two films being "L'Avventura" and "La Notte"), "L'Eclisse", especially in its final moments, has displayed just that and has also solidified, at least in my eyes, Antonioni's status as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. 
Enhanced by Monica Vitti's powerfully disillusioning and mercurial performance as Vittoria and Alain Delon's animated turn as her overly passionate (but I doubt that this is the right term for his character) stockbroker of a lover named Piero, "L'Eclisse" is an exemplary depiction of the qualms of leading an ennui-ridden life in a materialistic world. As highlighted by the film's almost nauseating visualization of the stock market, Antonioni is eager in exposing the chaotic repercussions of money. But more importantly, I think that, more or less, the film is truly an ambitious meditation on loneliness. 
Throughout the film, we see Vittoria do all sorts of recreational things to alleviate her angst-ridden state of mind. From riding a plane, dancing in the tune of a native African music to chasing dogs, she has done it all. But still, empty she was. Along then came Piero, an aggressive, over-materialistic lad whose advances to Vittoria was first received with coldness, and then with passionate abandon. Both slightly cautious at first, they then began to have a series of brief romantic encounters that has neither meaning nor worth. 
In many ways, "L'Eclisse" is a thoroughly pessimistic view on modern romance and how it's just impossible to maintain one in a money-driven world. In its majority, the film is exclusive in its observation of Vittoria's alienation. But by the end of the film, by way of a conclusive montage that has a certain power only a few scenes from a select number of films can muster, Antonioni suddenly transfers the alienation from Vittoria to us, the viewers. 
By focusing mainly on a mundane street corner, its various trivialities and several 'alien' faces while completely removing Vittoria and even Piero from the whole picture, we ourselves are lost. 'Where have the characters gone?' 'Who are these people?' 'Where am I?' These are the questions that Antonioni has sparked within me as the montage kicks in. Through this striking sequence, Antonioni lets us feel that particular feeling of isolation and fear of not being able to perceive and interpret the things we're seeing. The resulting feeling, at least for me, is truly transcendent and somehow spine-chilling. 
As those final minutes play out, I was literally lost for words; I can't decipher the holistic meaning of the images because the scene, I believe, is really meant to be 'incommunicable'. Bar none, "L'Eclisse" is certainly one of the most emotionally and perceptively unique cinematic experiences of my life. 50 years after its creation, its themes are still supremely relevant. At the end of the day, I think it's either "L'Eclisse" is truly a timeless masterwork or our everyday living hasn't really changed that much after all. For me, I think it's a great combination of both. Despite of "L'Eclisse's" esoteric quality, it has an emotional and reflective appeal that transcends cinematic barriers. This is auteurism at its best.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Elephant (Gus Van Sant)

A 'kiss' in the room.

With a mere running time of 81 minutes, "Elephant" is a relatively short film by today's standards. But still, its succinct study of teen angst is cinematic power at its rawest form. By using unknown actors (except for Timothy Bottoms), devious long takes and painful irony, director Gus Van Sant was able to weave a film that's subtle in its societal commentary but fully incisive in its spontaneity. Though its appeal may ostensibly look as if it's a film that merely caters to hipsters and niche teenagers, "Elephant" is really much more than that. 

On one side, it is a stirring indictment of homophobia and school bullying. On the other, it's a well-realized portrait of high school life. But unlike films like "The Breakfast Club" or any other teen-oriented ones that rely on stereotypes, "Elephant" depicts its teen-aged characters not as categorized social beings but as emotionally distant and ennui-laden youngsters that are in for the whole pointlessness of it all because, hell, they don't have any choice. To channel the realistically free-flowing randomness of high school life, Gus Van Sant shot the film entirely in a series of long takes and multiple points of view to create a "Rashomon-like" perspective on things and also to give the seemingly stagnant Watt High School (fictitious) some sort of dimension. 

In addition, Van Sant has also decided to shoot the majority of his characters from behind (which sometimes renders them faceless) so that, in a way, we wouldn't care for them that much when they become nothing but casualties. For me, this is particularly cruel on Gus Van Sant's part, but in some respect, it's also the rightful thing to do. He has purposefully deprived us of any of the characters' faces and back stories so that we wouldn't be attached to them that much when things go out of hand. 

In the end, Van Sant has shown how fervently humanistic he is. He cares for his characters and he cares for us too. He knows that pain is just around the corner, so in an act of goodwill, he makes us see their backs, shoulders but never much their faces so that the pain of seeing them 'go' will not be too hurtful. Instead, he has focused his camera lenses precisely on the two characters whose irrational gun assault to the aforementioned high school students echoes the tragedy that is the Columbine shooting. But still, Van Sant has also depicted them in a way that’s also worthy of empathy. 

Indeed, there's no denying the fact that these two students have gone out of hand in their line of thinking. In one scene, as they map out their plan for their school rampage, they have even reminded each other to 'have fun'. But looking at it, they are also victims here. So if it's not really them, who are the real culprits then? Was it their parents that are at fault here? Perhaps, but the real suspect here, aside from these two students, is mass media and the brutal extent of our homophobic society. Mass media because it is the one that has welcomed these two to the fact that shooting people is just as easy as breathing (mainly through video games), and society because it is the one that has created this notion that people who may try to come out of the closet will be utterly crucified and laughed at. That, aside from the very sight of the shooting, is what's most disturbing in the film. 

"Elephant", one of the most deeply unsettling and harrowing films in recent memory, is also a very sensible, understanding and gently elegiac film that has brought these putrid social truths into the forefronts of cinematic discourse. Yes, "Elephant" is outright troubling, but it's also quite enlightening.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)


Before anything else, let me first, for the record, state that I love Michelangelo Antonioni's films. Be it the psychological enigma that is "Blowup", the mysterious identity thriller that is "The Passenger" or the marital woe-laden "La Notte", he has always been a hit to me. Without exaggeration, I consider him as one of the greatest auteurs of all time, and I'm not even halfway through his sterling filmography yet. So with that in mind, I went on to watch "L'Avventura", the first film in his informal 'Incommunicability Trilogy', with an expectation of being blown away once more. But alas, it has not happened. 
Hailed as a cinematic work that has revolutionized the way films are structured and executed, "L'Avventura" is quite a disappointment for me as far as Michelangelo Antonioni and his films are concerned. But then again, maybe that is the film's point. After all, the film is a prolonged observation of emotional detachment, which is the same thing that I have felt while watching the film. 
Though I understand where the characters are coming from, the film has still alienated me to high heavens. If perhaps that is Mr. Antonioni's ultimate intent, then I am impressed once more. If it's not, then maybe I deserve to be sentenced to an eternal cinematic damnation for not liking a film that everyone seems to love. But kidding aside, I think that "L'Avventura" is really that kind of film that is quite difficult to like but is easy to admire.
Antonioni, being the existentialist filmmaker that he is, is more concerned not with the film's literal mystery (the sudden disappearance of one of the characters) but with the emotional enigma that pervades throughout. The primary premise is simple enough: After the shocking disappearance of her friend Anna (Lea Massari) during a yacht trip, Claudia (Monica Vitt) suddenly finds herself trying to resist the urge of falling in love with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), the man that's no less than Anna's current lover. But still, fell she did. 
All throughout the film, Michelangelo Antonioni finely questions the validity of the romance between Claudia and Sandro and invites us to witness the subtle awkwardness of it all. We see them kiss and hug in hotel rooms and on discreet street corners. We can sense that, somehow, they look fine together, but what about Anna? 
As the film progresses, Antonioni lays down the question of whether or not we should take Anna's disappearance literally or symbolically. Whatever our personal answers regarding it may be, it is quite evident that Antonioni has used Anna's sudden absence as a device to further explore the emotional uncertainties of the kind of love that mushrooms from such situation rather than as a shallow means to compel and excite. 
Despite of its slow pacing, bloated running time and alienating characters, "L'Avventura" is still a seminal film that is worthy of great veneration mainly because of how it has changed the way how cinema can communicate such things as love, existence and the feeling of being lost. I may not have liked the film that much compared to Michelangelo Antonioni's other works, but I sure do respect it for what it has contributed to the artistic progression of cinema as a whole. By creating this film, Antonioni has proven that cinema has no limitations, that it is not necessarily all about the plot and the payoff, and that cinema can exist outside the four corners of a tightly-structured narrative; the shackles are no more.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Escape from L.A. (John Carpenter)

A Snake in Hollywood.

After rescuing Blofeld, oh, I mean the U.S. President and escaping from the madhouse that is New York city in the first film, Snake Plissken (reprised by Kurt Russell), in a logic applicable only to action movie sequels, gets drawn back yet again to this little parlor game of rescue and escape. This time, the place of choice is the city of angels. 
Although this film is not that successful in recreating the unique atmosphere of "Escape from New York" and may also be accused of having one action scene too many, this is still one hell of a ride. Plus, it has also solidified Snake Plissken's status as perhaps one of the greatest cult anti-heroes ever. 
With this film being almost identical to its predecessor's story and premise, "Escape from L.A." has also re-introduced us to Snake in very much the same manner as in "Escape from New York": In cuffs, escorted by armored guards and wearing that perennial frown. 
As usual, before he was even officially incarcerated, he was greeted yet again with another potential pardon riding on the shoulders of another dangerous mission. Oh, the bars were raised a bit high this time too; if Snake was given a full 24 hours to save the President in "Escape from New York", here in "Escape from L.A.", he's only given nine hours to successfully recapture a doomsday device brought into the Los Angeles wastelands by none other than the President's daughter. And to up the ante and heighten Snake's sense of urgency even more, a toxic substance was once again put into his system. These bureaucratic people know that Snake is a dangerous man yet they are also aware that he always gets the job done. But what they are not aware of is that Plissken is not named after a predatory creature for nothing. In the end, you'll laugh at the world and smile with Snake.      

Tone-wise, "Escape from L.A." is very, very different from the first film mainly because of the generational gap between the two. Made during an era (the mid-'90s) when the MTV culture is the 'thing', John Carpenter has dropped the visual aspects that have made "Escape from New York" so fascinatingly atmospheric (the slow pacing, the dark renditions of graffiti-laden street corners and whatnot) and has instead chosen to conform with what is in-demand at the time (abundant action scenes and some heavy doses of rock music); the result was definitely a hit and miss. 
It's a 'hit' because we are given the fun chance to see Snake play some life-threatening hoops, surf his way through a tidal wave alongside Peter Fonda and hang glide with a male-voiced Pam Grier amid the ironic ruins of an apocalyptic Los Angeles. But then again, it's also a 'miss' because we're not given enough time to absorb Carpenter's visualization of a Los Angeles gone mad quite enough because the film itself is much more concerned with the progression of the film's MacGuffin-furthered plot and how action scenes may fit into it more than anything else. But despite of that, I have still enjoyed the film well enough, particularly its overall campy tone and clever ending (written entirely by Kurt Russell himself). This is pure escapist fun right here.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Escape from New York (John Carpenter)


With "Escape from New York", director John Carpenter (alongside co-writer Nick Castle) offers us a frighteningly war-torn vision of 1998 where the eponymous city is nothing but a maximum security prison and the hope of mankind solely resting on the shoulders of an eye-patched criminal named Snake. Oh how screwed Carpenter's world is.  
As a seminal action film, the picture's visuals and simple yet compelling premise (adhering to the 'lone man on a mission' film archetype) is very, very potent even to this day. Although there were moments that seem to call for some swifter editing and some scenes that suggest that the film has not aged that well, the whole experience is still quite unique. Kudos to Kurt Russell (in his great coming-out party as a cinematic badass), who has played the anti-heroic Snake Plissken in a manner that oozes dark charisma and irrevocable screen presence. The supporting cast, comprised mainly of seasoned veterans like Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine, is also quite great despite of the one-dimensionality of their characters. 
As a filmmaker, John Carpenter is very admirable in how he was always able to project flinching social commentaries while still being able to retain the integrity of various genre trappings. "Escape from New York", a truly gripping action picture, is one of the earliest examples of how action films can go all-out on the thrills but can still be articulate enough to say a thing or two. With the demoralizing trails left by the Watergate scandal and the Cold War paranoia raging at the time of the film's release, John Carpenter was able to share a piece of his mind regarding these sociopolitical issues by letting the film's visuals and exposition speak on his behalf. The commentary may be a tad too cynical, but hey, aren't they all? "Escape from New York" may just be the American answer to "Mad Max".


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dictator (Larry Charles)

Admiral General Aladeen.

After 3 years, Sacha Baron Cohen is back yet again with his comic shenanigans, but this time, it is on a bigger political scale. "The Dictator", a film that marks Cohen's third collaboration with director Larry Charles, is a gross-out satire of, obviously, everything dictatorial and politically unethical. But unlike "Borat" and "Bruno", "The Dictator" is visually more polished (mainly because of its bigger budget) and a tad more ambitious in scope. 
But then again, compared to the two earlier films, "The Dictator" is also quite forgettable. Sure, the trademark Sacha Baron Cohen comedy is still there, but the ingenuity and effortless wit seem amiss this time around. The politically incorrect jokes are spot-on yet there's something off in their deliveries. As one racial joke bombards the screen after another, I sure have let out some laughs, but they are ones that are hollow and abrupt. 
Although I wouldn't go to great lengths by describing the Cohen-Charles combo as a 'train finally running out of steam', I think that there's just a lack of general inspiration and twist in how the film was realized. It has sure made me laugh numerous times, but the jokes (especially the racial ones) are often generic and sometimes just plain bland. As far as I'm concerned, this is their weakest film yet in terms of comedy, but as a potent political satire, "The Dictator" is a bit of a success. The Cohen-Charles team seems to be humorously degenerating yet satirically improving with every film. Perhaps that's quite a consolation. 
With majority of current world news circling around controversial dictators from parts unknown and the quasi-humorous manias they so nonchalantly flaunt, it is inevitable for a comic provocateur like Sacha Baron Cohen to take on such a persona. Sporting an overly thick beard, a mock Middle Eastern accent and a complete lack of common human decency, he has transformed into Admiral General Aladeen: a monster of a dictator (of the fictional Republic of Wadiya) who orders murders at will and has a penchant for nuclear supremacy. By combining Borat's political tactlessness and social ineptitude with Bruno's vulgarity and sexual promiscuity, Sacha Baron Cohen was able to form the foundations of his Aladeen character, with some additional touches of 'control freak' wickedness. 
While this may not be Sacha Baron Cohen's best character (that would still go to Borat), his turn as Aladeen is still quite memorable because of the way he has displayed the humorous extent of how a man raised in an isolated manger of violent political power deals with the reality outside his own. The result may not have been the freshest in terms of execution, but nonetheless, there were flashes of comic brilliance all throughout the film that were relatively able to carry "The Dictator's" satirical weight. 
Compared to "Borat" and "Bruno", "The Dictator" is the closest that both Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles can get to a narrative. But the way I see it, perhaps the film's adherence to a standardized plot is quite a disadvantage because Aladeen was utilized not as a freewheeling character much like Borat Sagidyev is but as a parody of a character who merely operates within the confines of a predictable narrative (notice how the film, as it progresses, slowly takes on a tone akin to a rom-com?). Although Aladeen as a character was in no way wasted, I think it's fair to say that his utmost potential as a riotously funny character was mostly left untouched. 
On the other hand, I have to give the rest of the cast lots of credits, especially Anna Faris and Jason Mantzoukas (with bits of Ben Kingsley) in how they have complemented Sacha Baron Cohen's often times overbearing presence. 
As a comedy film, "The Dictator" is too heavily flawed to be ranked shoulder-to-shoulder with the very masterful "Borat" (still Sacha Baron Cohen's best film). But as a no-holds-barred political satire, the film is very, very effective. I especially loved the scene where Aladeen and his nuclear scientist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), are talking about innocuous things in their native language aboard a tourist helicopter when, suddenly, two tourists riding along with them mistake their conversation as an insidious plan to go 9/11 on the Empire State Building's ass. It is moments like this that makes "The Dictator" more special than it has any right to be. Oh, and also maybe Edward Norton's cameo.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti)


Finally, the first Filipino film to be shot entirely on green screen has been released. With that piece of fact, I am really quite torn: Are we supposed to be proud of this giant leap of technological advancement or should we be frustrated by the fact that we may be in an age where computerized style is more prioritized than narrative substance? Suffice it to say, "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles" has nothing new to offer, story-wise, but there's something in its comic self-awareness (thanks in part to Jade Castro's participation in the film) that separates it from countless horror films being locally released today. 
Without any of "The Healing's" thematic pretenses or "Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang's" seemingly forced psychological angle, "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles" is more successful compared to the two not because of its special effects but mainly because it knows for a fact that depiction of 'Aswangs' on film need not any complexities and that horror movies can be as riotously funny as it is disturbing. 
Known as a relatively humorless filmmaker, director Erik Matti was surprisingly able to balance both the comedy and the fright throughout the course of the film. Just like how Jade Castro's "Zombadings" is a satire of our local horror film scene's zombie sub-genre (and also of our 'drag queen' culture), "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles" is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of what comprises not just a true 'Aswang' film but also a good black comedy. One of them, of course, is a solid cast. 
Dingdong Dantes, playing the film's brash protagonist, is very effective in his abundant display of both arrogance and reluctant heroism. With a spot-on sense of urban bravado, Dantes has perfectly captured a city dweller's perceived self-importance and superiority when interacting with humble country people, or so they seem to be. While Joey Marquez, a great comedy actor by his own right (especially in his films with Lito Pimentel), is an inspired casting choice. In his role as Lovi Poe's character's father, he has paradoxically combined both cowardice and misplaced machismo in an Aswang-laden backdrop that asks for neither. And arguably in the film's most shockingly hilarious moment involving Marquez, a dead body and a fresh, beating heart, he has humorously performed a sickly vengeful act that will surely do Hammurabi proud. 
But among the strong supporting cast, that which include Janice de Belen, Roi Vinzon and Mike Gayoso among others, it was Ramon Bautista who has stolen the whole show. His performance was in no way the greatest ever (or even the best in the film for that matter), but his natural comic rapport with the camera is just so effortless that he has seemingly put the majority of the film's humorous weight on his shoulders.
By mainstream standards, "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles" is very, very violent; and for a horror film that promises innovation, the film's plot and premise is relatively derivative. But that's what makes this film so enjoyable. It's conscious of its own trashy sensibilities and it flaunts it with bloody gusto and comic craftiness. Despite of the fact that it was obviously inspired by western horror films, "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles" is still undoubtedly Pinoy, especially in its peculiar capturing of our own supernatural roots by way of slapstick horror. The only thing that I have found to be quite off in the film is its extreme use of Zack Snyder-esque slow-motion and the unnecessary CGI-fication of the 'Aswangs' themselves, which has made them a tad less threatening and more of a collective of creatures antagonistically believable only if put side-by-side with Enteng Kabisote. 
Nonetheless, "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles" is still a very enjoyable cinematic experience. Hell, it has even made product placements look fun. By turning bits of Boy Bawang into potential long-range weapons reminiscent of Marc Solis' projectile corn bits in "Magic Temple" and Lipps candy into an elixir of bravery, the film makes me want to be a make-believe Aswang hunter in a wasteland of scattered flesh and bones. Despite of its violent content, the film has still managed to touch a chord or two in my inner child. Now that's something.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Looper (Rian Johnson)

Looper Joe.

Considered as one of the most highly original science fiction films in recent memory, I personally think that "Looper" is more of a great example of a cinematic pastiche done right. Think of a hundred times more vulnerable T-800 randomly meeting up with a more dead serious Doc Brown inside a dilapidated Xavier Institute and you have "Lopper". 
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and frequent time-traveler "Bruce Willis" (remember "12 Monkeys"?), "Looper" is a relatively bleak film with a beating heart. In a haze of modern sci-fi films that are more concerned with the extravagance of CGI rather than the beauty of human emotions, "Looper" is a commendable exception because it stimulates both the heart and the mind at the same breath. 
Set in the year 2044 where hitmen (called 'loopers') are paid to kill for the gangsters of the future (the invention of time travel in 2074 has made it possible to zap people back in time), the film is about a looper named Joe and his surprising encounter with his older self. 
Though not as action-oriented as "Inception" or "The Matrix", "Looper" has this visual appeal that makes me want to hug director Rian Johnson in great appreciation. Instead of relying to the wonders that computer-generated effects can do to action sequences, Rian Johnson's treatment of the film's scenes of action and violence is sort of a throwback to the olden (and maybe also golden) age of action films reigned by the likes of Paul Verhoeven and John McTiernan. This is "RoboCop" violence right here. 
Given the fact that everything in the film seems to be borrowed from other pre-existing creations, director Rian Johnson has handled it all very well. As what French New Wave champion Jean-Luc Godard has said: "It's not where you take things from – it's where you take them to." 
Though not necessarily a great film, "Looper" is still a fresh science fiction creation worthy of praise. But of course, it is not without its share of flaws. One of my main issues with the film is how the younger and older versions of Joe (the former being Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the latter being Bruce Willis) were not given enough time to truly interact. Perhaps the urgency of their situation calls for them not to, but their friction as two extreme states of mind, despite of them being one and the same, was not properly explored either. In that aspect, I was short-changed. 
I also was not overly impressed by the whole 'Rainmaker' concept. In case you still haven't watched the film, 'The Rainmaker' is a futuristic and telekinetic Hitler, plain and simple. Because of his unmatched power, he has single-handedly taken over the future and is now closing all the loops. By the way, to close a loop means that a looper's future self is to be sent back in time so that it can be killed by none other than his younger self. 
For me, just the very idea of a present and future self freely interacting with each other and the dangers of doing so is enough to form one thematically weighty film. But wait, the film's creators thought that that would not properly suffice so they have integrated the overly ambitious idea of a Book of Revelations-esque figure like 'The 'Rainmaker' to complexify (yeah, give me that red underline, MS Word) things even more. I sure do love cinematic complexity when I sense one, but what I do not want is thematic overload, which this film is a great example of. 
But on the other hand, I did enjoy the performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quietly intense as the younger Joe. Though his narrations may be quite spoon-feeding at times, his on-screen performance is comparably lesser (yet effective) in exposition. His face may display the same constipated look throughout the course of the film but you can constantly sense the escalating conflict brewing within him. Here in "Looper", Joseph Gordon-Levitt has just proved that the less showy characters are always the hardest ones to portray because it's a make or break kind of thing. As an actor taking on such a role, it's either you'll be accused of lazy acting or praised for your powerful subtlety. In his performance's case, it's definitely the latter. 
Now perhaps I'm quite biased on this one because I have always been a big fan of his, but I really think that it was Bruce Willis who has exuded the better presence in the film. In his portrayal of the older Joe, there's this certain air of 'nothing to lose' desperation and melancholy that really makes his character so sympathetic yet frightening; echoes of his performance in "12 Monkeys" persists. 
As for the rest of the cast, I think that two other actors have really stood out. The first one is the beautiful Emily Blunt, whose turn as a desensitized, no-nonsense Southern woman named Sara is very convincing. The second one is Pierce Gagnon, whose terrific juvenile performance as Sara's mysterious son has elevated the film to a whole new level. Now this might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not since Catinca Untaru in Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" have I seen a better child performance. 
All in all, I was very impressed by "Looper", especially in how it has preferred silence and dialogue over cheap plot twists and slam-bang action. But from where I can see it, I think that the film is ultimately a victim of its own ideas. Torn between time travel, telekinesis and dystopia, what resulted is a finely-executed yet fairly confused film. Perhaps some thematic trimming is what the film needs.


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