Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Avengers (Joss Whedon)

Assembled.

At last, the unbearable anticipation is finally over. "The Avengers" has finally reached countless theaters and boy how successful it has been in terms of how it has delivered both stylistically and substantially, thanks to director Joss Whedon and company who have never repeated the same mistakes committed over and over again by those mediocre superhero/comic book films in the past.

Now, I wouldn't really delve on the breath-taking, action-packed set pieces because we all know what a stacked film, superhero-wise, such as this one can bring to the table. Instead, I would deservedly commend how a film of such magnitude, under constant pressure (mainly from fanboys and critics), specifically on whether or not it can bring these larger-than-life superheroes together within the premises of a 2 and a half hour film without being overbearing, contrived and deficient in characterization, was able to solve potential cinematic problems by applying patience in its narrative, constant energy to its main characters and fun in its immediate atmosphere.

Surprisingly, Samuel L, Jackson (playing Nick Fury), who has never looked so damn slick and composed in the face of certain peril since he's had it with those slithering titular creatures in the cult hit "Snakes on a Plane", isn't the only producer of energetic abundance here. Although at times he may sound more like a royally pissed off Jules Winnfield than a legitimately enigmatic leader of an equally mysterious group, he was able to carry the film in certain moments without overusing the film's humor nor squeezing dry the film's supply of campy one-liners. At times, he's even the most serious of the bunch, but for good measure, because it has given the other main actors their time for some comic horse plays other than Robert Downey Jr. of course, whose knack for such is already given.

The cast, led by Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo (a rookie to the whole 'Avengers' project), with the addition of Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Tom Hiddleston, who has been very good in his Loki character, never succumbed to the quasi-legendary presence of Sam Jackson and to a certain extent Downey Jr.'s and was just as impressive on how they have balanced each other on all aspects, be it the action sequences, the conversational moments or even those random in-betweens.

But of course, this can be laudably traced back to the film's very screenplay itself, written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, which has properly built up the titular superhero group's chemistry on screen. So, after all, "The Avengers'" success, although how mind-bogglingly large and explosive (and expansive and expensive) the film's scale is, can be summarized in one simple yet very apt word: patience.

For the more jaded viewers, this patience on the whole project can be seen as nothing but a largely profitable scheme that has milked the whole Marvel lore by individualizing the superheroes through the production of their respective films (which are, in all fairness, quality ones) and then finally putting them all in one movie to create the ultimate money machine.

Well, if that's the case, I can live with that because if a film of such overwhelming scale can be pulled off in such a highly satisfying and entertaining fashion the way "The Avengers" had without making its audience feel that their money has gone to undeserved corporate pockets, then people will keep watching, and enthusiastically at that.

For once, it's even us who are truly indebted to a film like "The Avengers" because it has taken within its shoulders the mountainous task of actually realizing a 'wet dream' of an idea and being successful at it. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk; who would not watch a film of such escapist promise?

The audience knew it, the film and all that were involved are aware of it. The viewers have been let down many times before and we have seen the disappointing results. The rushed action consciousness of "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", the lazy mishmash of villains in Joel Schumacher's "Batman" installments and the 'biting more than I can chew' mentality of "Spider-Man 3". "The Avengers" has heeded the unlearned lessons of those aforementioned superhero films and has absorbed them as cautionary measures.

Dwelling more on how Captain America and company would gel as characters and, later on, as a team in a genre-merging (science fiction, fantasy and action) cinematic whole, this has been proved very fruitful because it has given the film enough grounds for character dynamics mainly due to the film's fairly strong screenplay, which has utilized dialogues that may not be particularly believable (it's still a comic book film, after all) in some ways but nevertheless ones that have properly ( and even emotionally) advanced the story without resorting to much cheese.

Though the film is not exempted from those notoriously contrived moments that were inserted just for the sake of collective laughter in theaters, they were surprisingly passable and does not distract from the film's more dominant tone of action seriousness and also does not make the film an unintentional CGI-laden slapstick.

In my "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" review, I've written that despite of the film's countless flaws, it still has set the bar high for climactic CGI action set pieces. Admittedly, "The Avengers" has never surpassed it in terms of its indulgent length, but for good reason.

Though "The Avengers'" climactic battle in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, New York is a bit generic in its overall look and execution, it still satisfies because instead of bombarding us with non-stop, pedal to the metal action that may result to nausea and overly tired eyes, the film's final action sequence has been, although it is still destructively exhausting like most CGI films, compact and to the point, with enough breathing spaces and even an awe-inspiring continuous shot of the whole climactic carnage (arguably the film's definitive moment) to put it in a relatively sober perspective.

So now, we have finally reached a final, most crucial query: How does "The Avengers" rank in the list of greatest superhero films ever made? Well, in terms of an almost orgasmic abundance of superhero presence and the film's balanced approach to characterization, action and fun, the film may very well rank among the best. But is it really the eager representative of the whole comic book genre? I really can't say, but the whole "Avengers" project, from the very first "Iron Man" installment up to this very film, has been rather successful and is, collectively, one of (if not) the best the genre has to offer, both commercially and critically. But then again, there's always Christopher Nolan who may beg to differ.

FINAL RATING
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Friday, April 20, 2012

My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis)

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe.

"My Week with Marilyn" is a textbook example of great performances trapped within the confines of an 'okay' movie. The film, mainly about the tension between Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier during the making of "The Prince and the Showgirl" and also about her brief (though harmless) liaison with an employee working on the said production named Colin Clark (whose memoirs this film has been based), lacks in storytelling urgency and may have been too mundanely directed (by Simon Curtis) that it has resulted on it being less fascinating than it should have actually been mainly because of the fact that it has relied more to its actors' strong performances (which, in ratio, is not particularly healthy for a film that seeks balance), specifically Michelle Williams' and Kenneth Branagh's, rather than the substance of the very material itself.

Not turning their roles into complete caricatures nor try-hard impersonations, both Michelle Williams, who deservedly got an Oscar nod for her incredibly vulnerable portrayal of cinema's greatest sex icon that is Marilyn Monroe, and Kenneth Branagh, who played the legendary film and theater actor Laurence Olivier, stayed true to what the film is humbly all about and did not act beyond the stature of the very topic itself.

"My Week with Marilyn", though it features movie icons (include Vivien Leigh there, played by Julia Ormond) in a light that bared their all too human side, is not really about their lives but more about the nuances of their fame. Hell, the film is not even mainly and solely about Marilyn Monroe either. Instead, the film shows the exploits of Colin Clark (well-played by Eddie Redmayne) when he worked as an employee in Laurence Olivier's production company and his subsequently unforgettable 'week' with Marilyn Monroe herself that is self-affirming yet heart-breaking and worth forgetting.

The said production outfit, at the time preparing for a film called "The Sleeping Prince" (later renamed as "The Prince and the Showgirl") starring Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, is a dream come true for Colin, who grew up constantly watching motion pictures with utmost delight. The film's production then started, and so is Colin's fueled enthusiasm as he navigates through dressing rooms and movie sets with starry-eyed curiosity and as if functioning on a trance. He indeed enjoys what he's doing so as far as existential clich├ęs are concerned, he finally found the place where he truly belongs. But for Marilyn, in contrast with Colin's workplace 'high', seems to sleepwalk through the production, with her heart struggling to find the essence of her showgirl character, her emotions a mess, and her mind a confused car-wreck. As a result, shoots are delayed, casts are frustrated and Laurence Olivier (who's also the picture's director) surely is infuriated.

Branagh, playing Olivier in one of the most perfectly cast roles in quite a long while, which is an understatement, really, because the inevitability of him crossing paths with Olivier one way or another is but given (both Shakespeare graduates, on stage and film), seems to channel him in a way that is humorous, melancholic and on-the-edge all at the same time; indeed an aspect in his Olivier characterization that he has purely derived from his very own acting energy and his inclination in combining overwhelming emotions with quasi-theatrical gestures.

Michelle Williams, on the other hand, has fully erased all skeptical notions towards whether or not she can do justice to the Marilyn Monroe role. Once, I've even read many posts in an internet forum repeatedly stating that she was terribly miscast in the part and the likes of Scarlett Johansson, who's appropriately buxom just like Monroe, should have played her instead.

Well, to begin with, I beg to differ with that alternative choice. If by chance Monroe has been played by Johansson instead, who's a modern sex icon in her own right, it will probably distract from Monroe's almost mythical screen presence (As a result of countless comparisons between the two that may also conjure up futile arguments) which will ultimately ruin the film's very impact.

So Michelle Williams, although armed with the proper acting credentials (with her great, Oscar-nominated performance in "Blue Valentine" the previous year), still has insurmountable odds working against her. But still, she has succeeded with what she's tasked to do, which is indeed a very tall one, to say the least. Mixing seductive playfulness that has always been a Monroe trademark with the illicit sadness commonly identified with larger-than-life movie stars, Williams, in a rather stellar effort that has certainly paid off in a very exemplary way, has finely portrayed Marilyn Monroe both as a movie star and as a conflicted young woman (though I think she has succeeded with the latter more) lost in a haze of bright lights and disheveled by the burden of fame.

All in all, I have to say that "My Week with Marilyn" is a fairly forgettable venture towards a potentially otherwise territory. But with the help of the performances (with Dame Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper and even Emma Watson providing additional attractions) and the film's conscious commentary regarding the sad and empty lives that many famous people pitifully lead once the novelty of fame finally wears off, the film has been at least particularly memorable. But still, I felt that it all just came and go, with only the portrayals being the ones able enough to leave a relatively enduring mark.

FINAL RATING
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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh)


"3 days of peace and music". This has been the phrase that has been most associated with the monumental music event that is "Woodstock". But this documentary film itself, aside from being able to highlight just that in an epic (it runs for a staggering 3 hours and 50 minutes) and almost hypnotic kind of way, is a definitive benchmark in documentary filmmaking.

Today, it can be particularly debated that what happened in "Woodstock" is but a niche manifestation of an obscure state of mind not representative of what America really was at the time. There's also some who may argue that the far out, violence-free miracle that has occurred at that vast dairy farm at Bethel, New York is merely a temporary illusion of transcendental happiness completely demystified by what happened at Altamont Speedway (see "Gimme Shelter") when the Rolling Stones held a free concert there less than four months later; a tragically sobering event (one homicide and 3 other deaths) that is commonly regarded as the "Anti-Woodstock".

But still, after more than 40 years since the figurative birth of this 'hippie' counterculture generation at this legendary music festival, "Woodstock" the documentary is truly potent and also often times genuinely powerful and moving in its truly flawless documentation of both a fragment of social history and a particular highlight not just of pot-induced rock and roll but the unparalleled sway of music in general.

Director Michael Wadleigh, supported in editing and directing by the likes of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese (both were then-unknown), who painstakingly covered the whole festival with an unbounded passion and goal to cinematically present and capture "Woodstock" not simply as one of those rock concert documentaries that usually come and go but as a simulated experience of what it could have been to walk through mud and smoke some weed at the time, has pulled off the nearly impossible by way of how he has put this massive Aquarian assemblage into a cohesive cinematic whole without sacrificing the minute details of almost everything that has happened there. So, although "Woodstock" the documentary is a solidly realistic time capsule of a film that has finely preserved the era itself, it has also transformed, after all these years, into a timeless film that is as much a thing of envy for free willing, flower-minded folks today as much as it is a perfectly documented curiosity piece for present social scientists.

But aside from being limited into what it merely is (a documentary film), what this documentary can be specifically proud of aside from the very content itself is its utter display of great cinematography and skillful editing. Jumping back and forth between simple interview footages and complex multi-image coverage of every musical performances ranging from that of Richie Havens' to that of Janis Joplin's and Jimi Hendrix's (all spine-chillingly great performances, mind you) that seemingly converge in a trance-inducing visual feast, the film, as it progresses, slowly changes form from being your usual documentary feature into a full-fledged experience; from your usual cinematic collage into a kaleidoscopic wonderland.

As equally fascinating as the musical performances themselves are the slices of existence during the 3-day event that were finely captured by Wadleigh and company's ever-observant lenses with poignant subtlety, which is what makes it a documentary film that is on the league of its own. Just like the great "Gimme Shelter", "Woodstock" is also devoid of any post-production voice-overs or narrations that may simply render the whole film as thematically contrived and emotionally artificial. Instead, the film lets the whole event and all the people speak for themselves in a quasi-surrealistic presentation of images and music that has been masterfully put together to create a potent statement on its own with little to no spoken words.

Commonly branded as the definitive rock concert documentary, I think it's much more than that. For many people including myself, "Woodstock" is not just a simple music festival. Boundless in its audacity and rich in love, it is a cultural revolution that has thankfully found its place in the annals of socio-cultural history, much the same way as how this film has deservedly found where it truly belongs: in the shortlist of the most important documentary films ever made.

FINAL RATING
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

Hugo Cabret.

Well, I can really say that 2011 has really been a great year for cinematic love poems. We have "The Artist", which pays tribute to the seminal greatness of silent films, and then we also have Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris", a film that has not only been an endearing piece about the eponymous city itself but also one that embraces the people behind great works of art and timeless literature. And finally, there's Martin Scorsese's "Hugo".

A film that centers on the beautiful power of imagination and the innocent wonder of early cinema, it is, overall, a piece of cinematic work that has truly breath fresh air into the boundless limits of storytelling and has also been a larger-than-life portrait/tribute to the great Georges Melies: a revolutionary director and the first true cinematic artist to whom we owe our wondrous film-watching lives and whose pioneering works have contributed to the advancement of cinema as a strong artistic medium.

Martin Scorsese, a man who I have been and will always consider as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and a man who we all loved by way of his films that deal with violence, loneliness, criminal perversions and even thematic controversies (with his truly masterful "The Last Temptation of Christ"), directed "Hugo" with surprising humility and simplicity without any traces of recklessly self-imposed panache. Sure, there have been countless elements in the film which may come across as truly audacious (the most glaring example being the automaton), but come on, "Hugo", a film adaptation of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" written by Brian Selznick, is in no way up for something grounded in reality here.

Combining magical realism with the ironically down-to-earth story of Mr. Melies himself, "Hugo" is a balanced film which, in a very good way, wallows on 'adventure' that isn't literal in the Jules Verne sense of the word but more about the journey of the mind and the heart towards a hidden treasure chest not filled with tangible gold and pearls but one that is located somewhere within the very passionate soul of a truly great man.

Armed with visual sensibilities that closely mirror Tim Burton's recent child-friendly films, Martin Scorsese, furthered by that comparison may, on an initial glance, look out of place and sync with what he's working on, which is an adventure film that appeals to both the adults and the younger ones alike; a truly far-fetched idea considering that he really hasn't worked with the latter demographic before.

But looking at how "Hugo" actually turned out as a whole, right there and then surfaces the fact that he is indeed an unbelievably flexible filmmaker whose greatness cannot just be contained within the crime genre. As I watch the film, the joy of making it is evidently abundant in "Hugo's" very atmosphere which when coupled with the transcendental-sounding musical score created by Howard Shore, is a feast both for the eyes, the ears and, as corny as this may sound, the heart.

The actors do not disappoint either, and although Asa Butterfield may have done a bit better as the titular character, he has been quite a joy to watch in his convincing chemistry with Chloe Grace Moretz in a very sweet and 'harmless' (Remember "Kick-Ass"?) performance. Along with the enjoyably bit parts played by the legendary Christopher Lee and Jude Law and the comic part played by Sacha Baron Cohen as the train station inspector, it was Ben Kingsley's performance (which I believe should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award) as Georges Melies that has served as the figurative coal that has constantly kept the film's narrative locomotion on the right track.

Martin Scorsese, aside from being repeatedly heralded as one of the best filmmakers ever, is also one of the most passionate and vocal lovers of cinema out there. And here in "Hugo", he has expressively created a near-perfect cinematic love letter to the very medium itself that was initially seen as nothing but a passing fad (a statement ironically given by the Lumiere Brothers themselves), but now generally regarded as one of the most powerful means of expression, if not the most. And it all started with a trip to an all-smiling moon courtesy of a man motivated by endless wonder and fueled by nothing but his own dreams.

FINAL RATING
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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

"The Artist", with its fascinating charm, wit and wonderful emotions that have served its entirety well in its ode to the beauty of silent filmmaking, is pretty much a throwback to the olden times which may not have offered anything very new to the table but is simply just irresistible in its irrevocably tantalizing, lighthearted allure.

If you may come to look at it in its actual themes and content, one can easily see that "The Artist", directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is nothing really special in terms of what it has to say. Are we talking about 20's silent film nostalgia here? Well, I reckon that it has already been tackled in the same outright fashion by Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain". Are we talking about the post-fame and fortune lives of silent film stars as the dawn of 'talkies' came about? I guess Gene Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." is the definitive film to highlight that.

So what, in the end, made "The Artist" so special? I, for one, think that one of the reasons why is because of its utter innocence and lack of pretense and well, maybe because its ode to a bygone yet golden era is just too hard to ignore and all too easy to appreciate and embrace, thanks to star-making performances by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. Dujardin, an actor that is completely unfamiliar to me except for this very film, oozes with effortless grace, appeal and dramatic range. Armed with finely studied physical movements that finely evokes the awkward, oratorical-like gestures that has been the trademark of so many silent films, while at the same time embodying a look that seemingly combines a traditional silent player's to those of Gable and Grant (ironically two of the most well-known faces of the golden era of talkies), Dujardin took on the role of George Valentin as if he was born to play it or, in a more 'art imitates life' perspective, born to be him.

Same commendation goes for Berenice Bejo, who played the role of bit silent player turned talkie movie star Peppy Miller with an almost magical enthusiasm peppered with just the right amount of romantic fervor.

On the technical side, "The Artist" was able to mimic the beautiful Black and White shadow plays of such masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang while injecting within this two-tone world a sort of colorfully dimensioned wonder hidden beneath every frames, acts, and characters waiting to inevitably burst into an escapist whole. Of course, for a film like "The Artist", there must be a considerably weighty conflict to complement the lightheartedness of the whole affair.

In "Singin' in the Rain", there's Gene Kelly and company's transitional difficulties from silent films to talkies. In "Sunset Blvd.", there's Gloria Swanson's madness to keep up with. Here in "The Artist", although it took me awhile to convince myself that it's indeed strong enough a device for narrative complication, it was George Valentin's pride. Yes, the melancholy contained in the said cinematic transition has been a wonderful topic to explore and further develop in films, but what is always overlooked is the fact that silent players are adamant of change not mainly because they are technologically caught off-guard by the sudden arrival of dialogues but because they are mostly a proud lot. They stay loyal to their belief that moving pictures are an art form that need not any talking mouths or swirling tongues because, for them, gestures and musical scores are enough. This is the main concern for George Valentin, along with his declining finances and his flop "Tears of Love" picture.

Subtle as it may seem, "The Artist" is, on its own, a sentimentally outdated commentary that challenges the longevity and artistic integrity of voices in films and whether or not it can keep up with the already established wonder of silent pictures. But more than anything else, "The Artist" is a wonderfully-weaved little love story that bridges the artistic gap between sounds and mere gestures, dialogues and title cards.

And within the film's great silence accompanied only by orchestral musical scores, it's quite evident that, in all the film's joy, laughter and tears, it has more to say, romantically and whatnot, than any other love-oriented films these days. "The Artist", instead of being an untimely elegy to the art of silent films in the same fashion of how Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" may be to Western films, has breathe uncommon life into washed-out cinematic memories of a bygone era and has turned them into sounds, images and emotions that are as lively as they can be and are worth treasuring and relishing one more time, 'with pleasure'.

FINAL RATING
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