Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shame (Steve McQueen)


It's a coincidence for this film to have included a reference to "Gimme Shelter" (describing it as 'hell') because, along with the said Rolling Stones documentary, "Shame" is really one of the few films that has truly left me shaken, despite of its polished filmmaking facade, because what it shows is all too real. And despite of its extreme sexual content, this is also one of the few instances that it was absolutely necessary. 

But aside from that, "Shame" is also my solid proof, based on their powerful performances, that Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are genuine acting forces to be reckoned with. "Shame", for a lack of a better description, is what "American Psycho" would be minus the killer instinct and the violence but with uncontrollable lust and utter regret as their substitutes. And unlike the said Mary Harron adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, "Shame" speaks volumes of truth that "American Psycho" can't even muster to raise save for its satiric tone towards '80s yuppie narcissism. Oh, and did I forget that "Shame" has heart?

Composed of scenes that have seemingly rendered New York city as a 'sleepy' metropolis merely populated by few nightly nocturnes roaming the city's underground bar and sex club scenes, "Shame" is an intense character study of one man leading an all too isolated sexual life in an all too big a city with little to no care in the world. 

Living in a posh, minimalist apartment filled with boxes and boxes of pornographic materials and a steady income more than adequate for some nightly prostitutes, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), originally born in Ireland and has grown in New Jersey, is now living his own version of the American Dream. And where's better to consume it in excessively emotionless amounts than in the so-called center of the world that is New York City?

But then we can't accuse Brandon of not going after any emotional connections either. Trying his romantic luck with a co-worker named Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he forces himself towards love; an idea, along with marriage, that he was otherwise skeptic about. 

But like Travis Bickle's complete opposite, a character that's desperately in search for some genuine romantic attachment, Brandon's intended connection with Marianne might have been done just so he can tell to himself that at least he has tried this pesky little 'love' thing. And assuring himself with that fact, that he can't really exist within the context of genuine romantic affection (marked by his inability to have proper sex with her), he once again wills himself back to his empty pleasures.

For Brandon, his is a life worthy of envy, but not until his quite unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly comes to visit. With too simple a story, also written by its director Steve McQueen, we are given an unforgettable tale of obsession and sexual descent. But given that those themes have been tackled in many films before, "Shame" separates itself by highlighting another: the painful, guilt-ridden emotions the morning after. 

There's this powerful scene in the film that shows Brandon, after spending a night of sexual experimentation, in a complete emotional breakdown. Twisting his body in a semi-fetal position and gnashing his teeth, with fists closed, he implodes in a controlled and inhibited rage not towards the prostitutes and the sexual materials that have been the instruments of his sexual excesses, but towards himself.

Michael Fassbender, in probably the most overlooked but also maybe the best performance of 2011, has painted and embodied a painfully complex character in the form of Brandon. By conveying a very convincing and an almost frightening character transformation, from a silent and laid back young professional into a sex-chasing desperation-incarnate to a poor sap trapped within his own compulsions, not to mention Brandon's intimate yet hostile relationship with his sister, Fassbender has brilliantly portrayed a modern man's conflict between extreme hedonism and familial affection. 

What would he choose more? a path of sexual self-destruction or his dysfunctional relationship with his sister? The fine line has already been blurred, and maybe, just maybe, Brandon can handle them both, but not without any absolute consequences, and with a hand 'shamefully' covering a side of his face. 

"Shame", one of my most anticipated films of 2011, has equated my hype towards it and has introduced unto me a major collaborative force in the form of Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen. Fassbender, who has portrayed a revolutionary psychiatrist in "A Dangerous Method", has now played here in "Shame" a man who might be in dire need of one.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu)


After his emotionally powerful "Death Trilogy", Alejandro González Iñárritu has since left us to wonder what will be his next step. Enter "Biutful", an emotionally devastating and painful film that has, at least, shown what Iñárritu can do by relying purely on his own emotions as a filmmaker. 

With this film sorely missing Guillermo Arriaga's powerhouse screenplays which have made his three previous films infinitely more special than they already are, Alejandro González Iñárritu, impressively, has never faltered in handling the film's dramatic eloquence as he guides it seamlessly both in how its story will unfold and how its emotional investments will pay off. What's also very commendable is how Iñárritu was able to tell an encompassing tale even when the very film itself is only limited through an almost singular (which is Javier Bardem's Uxbal) point of view. 

If the films in the "Death Trilogy" were able to intimately portray mosaics of happenstance character interactions through multiple and overlapping subplots, "Biutiful's" approach is more simple but one that's still with a similar feel, with a lesser chance of having contrivances in its execution due to its more plain narrative structure. And by far, this may also be his most personal film. 

Being dedicated to his father, "Biutiful" is not just a film that merely tells a thoroughly fictional tale made special by the abundance of gritty realism. Behind every emotions, actions, and decisions, those of which determine the fate of everyone in the film, Iñárritu is seemingly backing all of them up piece by piece with a love poem, fully manifested in the film's numerous scenes of poignancy, for his father and to the very beauty of redemption and personal peace. So touching and emotionally provoking this figurative love poem really is that in the end of the film, what one may feel is both sadness and transcendence; two aspects that we surely can find in an Alejandro González Iñárritu film. 

The film tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a weary man who, after being informed by a doctor that he is terminally ill, tries to fulfill his paternal role to his children to the fullest that he can, mend the emotional distance between him and his bipolar wife Maramba (Maricel Alvarez), and make his every actions matter as much as possible within the two-month time frame that he has left. What makes him even more on the edge, aside from the fact that he is dying, is his involvement in illegal dealings with two Chinese businessmen and his unusual gift of being able to talk to dead people. 

In a sense, "Biutiful" might be what Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" wants to be in the sense of how the former has successfully injected the tender yet tormented nuance of the afterlife. And also, maybe, "Biutiful" is the perfect antidote to Rob Reiner's extremely romanticized and sweetened take on terminal illness in the form of "The Bucket List". But then, none of this would have been that possible if not because of the actors involved. 

With tour de force performances by Javier Bardem, who has never looked so emotionally vulnerable and physically weak on film, and Maricel Alvarez as his wife, scenes flow easier and more naturally that it has heightened the film's sense of brutal honesty regarding the usually painful fact of life of having so much to do with so short a time. But aside from this vibrantly existential vibe, "Biutiful" also tackles the more alarming issues of abusive blue-collar exploitation and illegal settlements on foreign lands, but not in the form of a subdued social commentary. Instead, they have been turned into subplots which make up not just the very soul of the story and of Uxbal himself but also a very potent and pungent portrayal of life's numerous social truths. 

Playing a playboy painter who leads a bohemian life in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", here in "Biutiful", Javier Bardem now portrays a man living on the, I'm clinging on a cliche here, edge of society desperately trying to be the best father, husband and person that he can be amid the surrounding poverty. Through these dichotomous performances in both films, Javier Bardem has exposed the extremes of Barcelona in terms of human existence, with the latter one shining forth within Iñárritu's masterful directorial hands. 

To be a bit personal, my affinity towards Alejandro González Iñárritu's films started with my initially perplexed reaction to his film "Babel" (the last film in his "Death Trilogy" but is, ironically, his first film that I have seen), with that slow pacing, raw performances and ethereal musical scoring by Gustavo Santaolalla. Then followed up by "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", and a further "Babel" rewatch, I think it's just apt to say that his films are the ones that have truly introduced me to the emotional complexity of cinema. And after seeing "Biutiful", a film with an intensely beating heart, I reminisce the trilogy, and again, I'm hearing the guitars.


The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)

He's got her under the skin.

Pedro Almodovar, known for films that contain unique mixtures of human comedy, dramatic absurdity and gender commentaries, is unusually darker and bizarre in "The Skin I Live In", a film that greatly offers a very, very morbid take on grief and infatuation but is also able to preserve some of Almodovar's trademark humor, albeit a more underlying one. 

As if partly inspired by Victor Frankenstein's travails or even Scottie Ferguson's (of Hitchcock's "Vertigo") obsessive fixation towards a mysterious blonde woman, Almodovar's cinematic touches in this film are infinitely more brooding and, in some ways, also more pitiful in tone as it brings our protagonist, a brilliant plastic surgeon named Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), into a fate already sealed by certain doom and imminent futility as he obsesses himself in endless experimentation with a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya).

I know, I know, there has been an almost automatic requirement for any film review to contain at least two to three sentence plot synopsis so that readers can familiarize themselves to whatever film the reviewer is tackling, ranting or plainly rambling about. But with me excluding one in this review, do think of this as a favor. See the film for yourself and be enlightened of what may be one of the most unique cinematic experiences that you may ever lay your senses upon for quite a while. Now, with that being said, let's go back to the review proper (or something like that). 

Obsession and tragedy, these has been one of the more recurring themes on film as far as the 'mad scientist' sub-genre is concerned ever since Victor Frankenstein found out (maybe 'discovered' is the posh word) that electricity can resurrect the dead. It has been nothing but a tired cinematic vehicle, but just like David Cronenberg's "The Fly", "The Skin I Live In" offers a truly thought-provoking story and some unforgettable characters that genuinely remind us of the potential narrative and emotional power that the said sub-genre really has. 

But with that being said, it does not mean that "The Skin I Live In" merely exists within the 'mad scientist' boundaries and not a step more. Instead, the film's quality is truly multifaceted that viewers may attend the theater runs with different expectations but can still come out individually satisfied in different ways. 

To watch the film expecting a tense and suspenseful film, one would not be disappointed. If one comes into the film expecting a humane film about flawed love and emotional tragedy, you won't be let down either. Perhaps this is how Pedro Almodovar has intended the film to be seen: as a deeply human film about the inhumanity of cognitive and emotional irrationality that balances profundity and some suspenseful storytelling. But still, I believe those are not the main reasons that has made this film a truly special one. For me, it was Almodovar and his trademark directorial self that has. 

A filmmaker known for his sensitive and tender approach to gender-bending narratives, Almodovar has made the film sexually unnerving and shocking in the surface for the purpose of capturing enough attention so that his real message concealed within the film's sensational imagery can be absorbed more thoroughly, which now reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk's novel "Rant". 

In there, the main character's mother used to put thumbtacks or other mouth-crimsoning objects into foods that she cooks. In that way, she sternly believes, their great taste would appeal to the palate more competently because you've dissected through the meal to get there. In layman's terms, she believes that ecstasy comes after difficulty, which is what "The Skin I Live In" is all about. Beneath the detestably explicit visual content, there lies Almodovar's ever-compelling gender commentary, waiting to enlighten its audience with what it has to say. 

A perfect companion piece or, should I say, a more twisted cinematic brother to "All About my Mother", "The Skin I Live In" raises questions that provoke not just the mind and the heart but also the very perception of one's own gender and where does it really reside: In the mind, in the genitals, or in the heart?

Whether it is in a person's physical appearance or somewhere deeper is not what's important. Even Almodovar is cautious enough not to preach his side all throughout the film. What counts is that he was able to raise this very idea seamlessly, with capable emotions and with proper humanity, within the film. As the plot twist (yes, there is one) reveals itself, it's not much about how it was unveiled, but how it affects us afterwards. Call it an emotional twist if you may. 

With a penetrating story, powerful performances, notably those of Antonio Banderas (overlooked) and Elena Anaya (terribly unnoticed), and a sobering outlook that questions the requisites of what really makes one man or woman, not mentioning the effectively dream-like visuals and musical scoring, Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" is, bar no genres, one of the best films of 2011.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)

Mikael and Lisbeth.

To be honest, my first reaction when I first heard about this Hollywood adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel was that of utter irritation. Although I haven't read the novels, I just believe at the time that there's no absolute necessity in making a western adaptation of a book that has already been masterfully made 3 years ago by a Swedish production. 

I remember that I even shook my head when I saw both the first pictures of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander and the very run-of-the-mill (by thriller film standards) trailer itself. Though I more than agree about the casting of Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, all in all, I just don't really care that much about this project from its pre-production stage up to the initial releases of promotional materials. 

"The Swedish film is enough for me, let them have this Americanized Dragon Tattoo." This has been my subliminal mantra before the film's very release. Now reminiscing my ridiculous demeanor towards this Hollywood adaptation as I write this review, fresh from watching the very film of which I have been quite disdainful of, I can only think of one phrase to sum up this pre-judgmental flaw of mine: "Oh, how wrong I was". 

But with that, I'm not saying that this adaptation, as great a stand-alone film it is, is head over heels better than the 2009 film. For a lack of a better word, both films, as far as overall quality is concerned, are 'stalemate', which applies even to the performances themselves. Although I would say that, with a gun pointed at my head, Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander has the softer spot in my heart, I believe that Rooney Mara is as enigmatic in her interpretation, if not as charismatic. 

Daniel Craig, on the other hand, offers a more athletic-looking Mikael Blomkvist and is very into his character that his body language in the film is very effortless in scenes of unbearable suspense and surprising tenderness. Despite of his affiliation in that little movie franchise about an indestructible and highly sexual spy agent we call James Bond, Craig has been very, very believable in this film as a vulnerably mild-mannered journalist torn between the sheer passion of his investigative work and the preservation of his pristine name as a well-known one.

Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer, on the other hand, offer great presences in vital roles, while Robin Wright makes up for her limited screen time as Blomkvist's editor and lover quite well.

Though I must say that Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish Mikael Blomkvist) possesses the more world-weary physical demeanor that suits the character better, Daniel Craig is the more intense one compared to the former, which makes him more capable in shouldering the heavier scenes as the peril of the story piles up. 

Just like what I've mentioned in my review of the earlier Swedish adaptation, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", as intriguing as its little whodunit murder mystery is, is a thriller of characters, not of plot. David Fincher, the perfect man in Hollywood to handle this film (and the whole "Millennium" Trilogy) with great composure, balance and proper genre experience, did just what the expectations call for him to do. 

A man that I can rightfully regard as one of the contemporary greats of the thriller/suspense genre, with works like "Se7en", "Zodiac" and even "Fight Club", Fincher is a humane handler of characters even within the most unbearably disturbing (e.g. Cops tracking down gruesome killers, a founder of a gazillion dollars worth of social networking empire (just kidding)), or the most unusual (e.g. a man physically growing old backwards, an insomniac with a split personality), of situations. And in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", it really shows. 

In a worst case scenario, both Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Bomkvist can be turned into characters that may closely mirror members of Scooby-Doo's mystery machine, with the Vanger murder mystery serving as the shadowy plot to unmask and the 'it's him all along' twist serving as its burdening cliche. 

David Fincher, armed with a strong source material and a screenplay of considerable strength by Steven Zaillian, was able to give great priority to the characters without sacrificing any chances of turning the very story into a muddled maze merely solved by taking the wrong path just so a sort of closure, however half-baked, can be attained. 

Our protagonists, aside from being a two-team investigative force, are also two people wrapped in romantic ambiguity. Tackled by the Swedish adaptation with recurring hints of mutual affection, this film has even rendered their relationship close to perfection. It's not much their sexual scenes that have enforced this idea but the subtlest of moments. 

One poignant scene near the end of the film is when Blomkvist and Salander are lying considerably apart in bed as if two reflective lovers. In the scene, there has been no direct gestures of affection directed to each other save for Lisbeth's retelling of her scarred past and their lingering eye contact. 

The camera position perfect, that little space in the middle a spot-on balance-giver to the whole moment and the lighting totally exact. As they lie there subliminally contemplating what their relationship really means and as we absorb this key scene, the more that we already know what the answer is. And surely so that in another scene, as a sales clerk asks Lisbeth to whom will she give the jacket she had just bought, a gift obviously intended for Mikael, she answered that it's only for a 'friend'. 

Well, after all that she has gone through in the film, that which involves digging up absolute truths hidden layers deep within the snow-covered wilderness of the fictional town of Hedestad, we're quite aware that what she said to the sales clerk was a lie.

"What is hidden in snow, comes forth in the thaw" is the film's tagline that's also a Swedish proverb. It was indeed a half-century old tale of hate, murder, and misogyny that was unearthed, but so are shades of something that resembles love. One of the absolute sleeper hits of 2011.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)

Across 110th street.

Known for his brash and trashy, but ultimately brilliant, cinematic sensibilities, "Jackie Brown" may unusually be Quentin Tarantino's subtlest film to date. With its characters more focused on committing actions based on the narrative's impulses rather than on raw characterization, Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who would rather dwell on what his characters are thinking than what the story dictates upon them to do, may very well be out of his groove in this film. 

An adaptation of Elmore Leonard's double-cross novel, "Rum Punch", a book that is highly enjoyable and bursts of great literary energy, "Jackie Brown" is a plot-based screen adaptation that does not expose its characters through the trivialities of a hustle and bustle life that made Tarantino a cinematic household name but merely through the very strict context of the film's central conflict. 

Immediately greeting us with the image of Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) slouched on a sofa watching the former's self-produced 'gun' movies, an image that has been the very representative of "Jackie Brown" in much the same way that Uma Thurman in a "Game of Death" motorcycle suit is to "Kill Bill", the film begins without that initially puzzling opening chapter in the novel which dwelled on a Neo-Nazi parade and instead started headstrong to tell, through a seminal image and the dialogue, who these two main characters are and what they do: Ordell, a street smart gun dealer, and Louis, a fresh from prison low life who's taken in by the former, his old pal, for a job. 

Unlike Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", both of which begun with not so relevant opening conversations, "Jackie Brown", proving Tarantino's intent to direct against his staple style, is evidently tight in its storytelling that it dared not to let its characters fall that much on some small, unrelated talks just for the mere sake of it. 

One of the great aspects of the film, aside from Tarantino's rapid dialogue, is the casting itself. Elmore Leonard, a novelist more concerned with how his sleazy story would play out more than his character's back stories, still has properly conveyed in "Rum Punch" how his characters would look and act like. Except for the obvious main character change from a middle-aged white woman named Jackie Burke in the novel to a smoky, middle-aged African-American woman named Jackie Brown here and the complete overhaul of Bridget Fonda's Melanie character, the film is particularly spot-on with the characters, their demeanors, and how their literary interactions would translate into film. 

The story, in simple terms, is about the eponymous character's thrilling attempt to play the cops and Ordell with each other so that she can be able to escape with the latter's half a million dollar payoff, with a bail bondsman named Max Cherry (Robert Forster) assisting her in the process. But with Tarantino exercising his usual dry wit, the 'thrilling' part has been, in a way, transformed into an edgier brand of dark humor which has been one of the reasons for Tarantino's directorial successes.

As much as possible depriving the more tense sequences of generic musical scores, these particular moments, instead, have been perfectly peppered not with musical accompaniments but with an underlying humor that has been greatly established in the film's earlier scenes that it's like you're part of Jackie Brown's intent to scam everybody but is secretly smirking, with sweating forehead and all, while you're doing it. 

But then there's also the film's problem, which is the utter devaluation of Max Cherry's emotional connection to her estranged wife; an aspect of the story that has been finely tackled in the novel but is entirely absent in this film. Because of this, Max Cherry has been rendered as Jackie's stiff, lovelorn accessory and nothing more. It's a shame because, as far as characterizations are concerned, I think Max Cherry is the most fleshed-out of all the characters in the novel, which serves as an antidote for "Rum Punch's" half-serious and caricature-like portrayal of the criminal underworld.

As for the performances, there's nothing much that can be said about it because both Sam Jackson and Robert De Niro have, time and time again, proved that they are the staple greats of this industry, especially in portraying hard-edged criminal roles. Even Bridget Fonda is great as Melanie. But I, for the life of me, can't fathom how such a beautiful junkie like her can get into any man's nerve THAT easily (you'll see why). Oh, well, maybe the word 'junkie' does. While Pam Grier, one of the most resonant faces of the '70s blaxploitation scene, made the Jackie Brown character her very own that it's just difficult to read "Rum Punch", with a prior idea of who plays who here in "Jackie Brown", without imagining Jackie Burke as Pam Grier no matter the descriptions.

By Tarantino's standards, "Jackie Brown" may very well be the least violent of his films but is also the least natural one. It's quite obvious that this film has made Quentin exert the additional effort to pull it all off in the name of giving the source novel some screen justice. There's also this sense of inhibition in "Jackie Brown" that suggests the idea that QT has been utterly reserved all along and is quite cautious to pull out all of the tricks in his sleeves for this one. Maybe it's really just better for Quentin Tarantino to make films based on self-indulgent inspirations, not pure adaptations. 

But to end on a positive note, who would have thought that this is a 2 and a half hour film? Some may point out that the running time made the film a bit sluggish as it goes, but I never felt it. In some ways, I may have even preferred it more if "Jackie Brown" runs for 3 solid hours so that it can properly cover Max Cherry's emotional conflict regarding his divorce plans for his wife and may even leave enough time for that little Neo-Nazi mission spearheaded by Ordell Robbie himself. And the ending, well, it couldn't have been handled better.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton)

Barnabas Collins.

If ever their continuous trio efforts have thought Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter anything, then maybe it is the reality that film collaborations can only last so much, quality-wise, if every new film they create won't end up to be more disappointing than the previous one. With the exception of the very good "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street", the triumvirate has but recycled their seemingly manufactured comic sensibilities and staple gothic cum fantastical imagery to suit up and take on one project after another. Their previous film, the disappointing "Alice in Wonderland" proved that they are slowly running out of steam, and now, here in "Dark Shadows", a cinematic retelling of a classic '60s/early '70's TV series, they have presented quite an alarming fact that they just may need to take some time off and part artistic ways. Well, temporarily, at least.

Tim Burton, one of the most reliable filmmakers of our time in terms of gothic storytelling, especially with some added bits of deadpan humor that he can only call his own, is slowly becoming a passively commercial one. Although I have to say that there are still hints of faded greatness in "Dark Shadows", especially on how the film has introduced itself, it lacks emotion, a sense of purpose, and a pure narrative, with the latter being the thing that I question most about the film.

Yes, it's quite interesting to see how Tim Burton would interpret a TV series that has been aged by time, but then there's the thing we call a 'smoothly-told story', an aspect which, as we all know, is a staple Burton strength but has strangely gone AWOL here in "Dark Shadows". With a beautiful cinematography and set designs that have perfectly captured the atmosphere of the 70's which reminds me a lot of Hitchcock's "The Birds" (I know, it's a 1963 film, but still), all we need that can really put this film's engines into a creative high is a story that will be compelling and, at least, involving enough for 120 minutes or so.

Mentioning the introduction again, as we see Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) slowly transform from a mild-mannered heir to the Collins family business and fortune to a blood-thirsty vampire as a result of a curse, "Dark Shadows" has finely highlighted the classic elements of a great Burton film: A timeless and emotionally-charged gothic tale, some quirkily strange characters and a twisted take on history.

But as it proceeds to the narrative proper, which suddenly brings Barnabas and an old (and evil) flame in the guise of the beautiful Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), both of whom have lived their mortal lives in the 18th century, into the 1970s, its middle part has somehow begun to dwell on nothing really important or integral to the story at hand. Some pointlessly brief 'blink or you'll miss it' comedic scenes from Depp's character, various beating around the bushes here, some '70s musical references there, and an awkwardly aggressive sex scene. It's as if the film's introduction and climax (specifically the last 5 minutes or so) are the only ones that are worthy of Burton while the whole segment in the middle are nothing but bitter-tasting nails that have sealed shut any traces of potential. Well, why bother to feed us frustratingly rusty nails when it could have been more than gracious, umm, cinematic pastries (or any, say, figuratively scrumptious cinematic delicacies. Well this is getting awkward) of some specific kind that "Dark Shadows" could have offered.

Also, what's with the whole fish-canning business rivalry that Barnabas and Angelique have ignited in the 1970s timeline? Maybe it's a thing of faithfulness to the original TV series, maybe it has worked before in the small screens because TV shows have better chances for stretched-out narratives, but for a film that can only tell a story within a limited time frame, it's just so hard to buy.

So, as what the film has suggested, if your cursed ex-darling has suddenly returned within your reach, a man which you have both despised and so passionately loved at the same time, the first thing you are going to offer him is a mutual business concession? Wait, isn't this supposed to be a fine semi-comic film about immortality, blood-drenched vendetta and vampires? And where are the emotions that have supported the film's opening scenes very well?

"Dark Shadows", instead of carrying the cult TV series in its shoulders to bring it into the high heavens of the big screens, has sadly succumbed to a lazy story and deficient character development. Great example: just look at how poorly handled the revelation about Chloe Moretz's character was?

While directing "Dark Shadows", Tim Burton should have retained within his line of thinking that what they're doing is a 2-hour film, not a long-running, 30-minute a week, boob tube show that can certainly afford a bush-beating or two; could have saved the story. But then again, maybe he did, and it's really the screenwriting department that is particularly at fault here.

The performances, however good they are, particularly those by Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer and even Jackie Earle Haley have been rendered quite pointless because of the film's strained storytelling. While Johnny Depp, well, what would you expect? Depp is his typical self here, which is not a bad thing, but perhaps a bit too 'typical' and a bit too 'himself'.

Started up like "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and ended like "Edward Scissorhands", both of which are Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's prime works as creative collaborators, "Dark Shadows" ended up as a cluttered proof of what may appear as an artistic exhaustion on their part as far as actor-director partnerships are concerned. Add up Helena Bonham Carter in the mix and you got a panting little film begging for its creators to have some break.


Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me (Erick Salud)

Star-crossed lovers.

Its themes jumbled; its central love story a baffling one; its ultimate pay-off rather anticlimactic. But despite of those, Director Erick Salud's cinematic interpretation of "Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me", based on the book of the same name by Eros S. Atalia which I've immensely enjoyed despite of its peculiar and overly ambitious perspective, is quite successful on how it has portrayed the emotional confusion brought about by the blurring of the fine line that separates hedonistic sex and real love.

First and foremost, the film is a comedy which laughs at the idea of how an average-looking lad was able to indulge in a sexual escapade commonly reserved for the Adonis types. Secondly, it is a drama of realization which, after its initial pokes on the ribs, then attempts to reach out for your heart asking for you to understand. It really is a film which is quite difficult to describe save for the safe labeling of it being a film about 'postmodern' romance. Jessica Zafra once stated in one of her 'Twisted' books that to be able to save face, it is a particular last resort to label films that you don't understand as 'postmodern'. That particularly works with "Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me", but the catch is, it actually is one.

Combining the sexual compulsiveness of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris", a great example of a film that has veered away from the usual cinematic norms about romance and sexuality, and "Annie Hall's" non-linear, fourth wall-breaking and animation-interjecting exploration of a moody love affair, "Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me" has finely captured the first's raw sexuality and the latter's moodiness to create a romantic story that really isn't. Quite an anomaly, but I think this is how the film wants itself to be perceived. If the source material wants to be seen more as an experimental merging of existential and pseudo-romantic bits with social commentary and surrealism, the film evokes love but at the same time repels the very idea, and at its very center, flawed and all, is a character nicknamed Intoy but whose real name, Karl Vladimir Lennon G. Villalobos, may suggest that he may be fathered by a weed-loving social extremist.

An ordinary college student both in looks and academic standing, Intoy is your perennial representation of an everyman. But along came Jen: a beautiful yet very moody and puzzling woman who has immediately swept Intoy's feet and has also reawakened his stirring carnality with a subtle inner thump, all at the same breath. And with not much introductions necessary, they have suddenly agreed to engage in a strictly sexual relationship within the 'per hour' confines of a seedy motel room (well, aren't they all?). Was it sexual curiosity or a simple call of the flesh? Or was it a sexually deconstructed love at first sight?

Edgar Allan Guzman, who plays Intoy, is very good not just because of the rather strong material already at hand but also on how he was able enough to keep up with the film's pace and his character's weird voice-overs with an eager energy but still leaves enough space for genuine emotional range. In fact, his character is trickier to pull off compared to Mercedes Cabral's Jen because with Intoy's character being your average Juan, it's easier for him to just recede in the background in favor of her more imposing and enigmatic presence.

Instead, they have balanced each other out and Mercedes Cabral, ironically quite the shoo in, physically, for characters that physically embody the average Filipina both in looks and manners, was surprisingly very believable as a confused and moody sexual nymph who effortlessly charms men to the point of drooling. Although at first her performance is quite, should I say, uneasy to watch because Ms. Cabral is oh so playing against type that it's quite difficult and unconvincing to see her as someone as sex-craving as Jen, her portrayal is one of those performances that slowly grows on you and, as the film progresses, becomes quite a joy to watch.

"Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me", with its strict focus to the on and off relationship between the two central characters, still gave enough thought to its screenplay (by Jerry Gracio) to capture some of the novel's witty dialogues that range from trivial discourses about the feline content of a 'siopao' to the more satiric mentions of religion. It is indeed the best film adaptation that we can get out of the Eros S. Atalia novel, but if I have a major complaint about it, I think it is the fact that the cinematography lacks enough visual composure to create a truly fitting emotional atmosphere that could have enhanced the whole film. 


A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

Freud, Spielrein and Jung.

Here in "A Dangerous Method", David Cronenberg dips his fingers into the realm of Analytical Psychology. Directing this film with two of the founders of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, as the chief characters, Cronenberg, one of the most visually audacious filmmakers out there, is surprisingly mellow and at ease with reality here, add to the fact that "A Dangerous Method" is a historical period piece which follows a true story very closely.

But that does not mean that he won't play with some peculiar stuff here. Being a director of this film but at the same time also a keen observer of the entire psychological unraveling wrapped in its very debauched innards, Cronenberg covers various truly unspeakable things in the film but is utterly dignified while doing it as he navigates through every scene with a gentle demeanor. Of course, the fact that Jung and Freud, both blessed with the utter characteristics of the perfect gentleman, are the main players in this film has helped to make the film externally pristine as they walk through the equally elegant backdrops of Vienna and Zurich.

But, as they say, looks can be very deceiving.

With Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud being successfully played by great contemporary actors Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen (who has made his third film now with David Cronenberg) just like two genuine intellectuals wasting their days through the dissections of the human mind, it can be said that the very 'psychiatric' subject matter of the whole film should have stayed where it should have been: in Psychology 101 classes. Though at some points that's particularly agreeable, especially when the film seemingly begins to be too 'lecture-y' in its tone, specifically when Jung and Freud start to talk in a language that is too abstract outside of their field, the film still has managed to be truly riveting at some points.

Some of those said 'points' can be traced back to Sabrina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley who just might have been robbed of an Academy Award nomination, and the brief but penetrating presence of Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel who has now made his second film with Cronenberg following "Eastern Promises".

Sabina, a hysterical young woman aspiring to be a psychoanalyst who's under the analytic care of Carl Jung, may initially look as if she's a lost cause, but knowing how she became a professional child psychologist after the events in this film while also changing the lives and the very field of both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, the more that her utterances in this film increasingly become more and more fascinating as it goes.

While Otto Gross, the man responsible for goading Carl Jung's little 'experimentation' with the darker possibilities of sexual exploration via the deprived Sabina, is Jung's patient who believes that the thing we call 'maturity' is what he calls a mere 'parameter' that hinders people to achieve complete sexual fulfillment, among others.

Jung, initially introduced by the film as a seemingly stern man made almost invulnerable by the flaws of the mind, is surprisingly easily persuaded to try out Gross' view of sexuality. Cassel, a great French actor tailor-made for these kinds of edgy roles, is effortless as the subtly manipulative and magnetic Otto Gross as he delivers, in semi-cryptic utterances, his very own sets of sexual beliefs while greatly highlighting a tone of 'if you don't want to listen to me, it's okay' passivity.

Throughout the film, I can't really say if Fassbender and Mortensen, as great as they are as individual actors, both have made a truly cohesive chemistry in the film. Sure, their presences alone made this film worth the watch, but there's an underlying flaw that runs through the film's veins that speaks of forced character dynamics. Though some scenes between them gives the film its needed tension, especially in the scenes when they both exchange scathing yet formal letters as their professional and personal relationship dwindles into oblivion because of contradicting ideas and a terrible secret, I would have preferred if the film has been a bit longer. In that way, I believe the film could have developed the relationships better and also would have given way for more thematic exposition.

"Only the clash of destructive forces can create something new". At the time quite a revolutionary insight, Sabina, with those words, might have just also prophesized Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud's relationship. Cronenberg, now more than ever playing with words both conversational and philosophical in nature, has managed to throw into the air various intriguing ideas but was quite unsure of what he wants to do with all of it.

But in the end, I believe that the whole film, although it has dwelled within the deterioration of Jung and Freud's closeness both as a mentor to an heir and as a friend to a friend, comes down more strictly as Carl Jung's story viewed from the perspective of the grim reaper looking at the aftermath of a man who may have stumbled upon a great intellectual discovery but is internally destroyed by uncontrollable impulses and made weak by guilt as he drifts away in silently fractured contemplation, burdened by the visions of the apocalypse; of thousands of corpses bathing in the blood of Europe; of the First World War.

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)

Mark V.

With the anticipation that surrounds the film as to whether or not it can live up to its predecessor and if it can really give 'War Machine' enough on-screen justice, "Iron Man 2" is a film full of pressures both as a sequel and as a build-up for a far greater thing: "The Avengers" (which is, as we all know, indeed great). Writing this review and knowing that the said ensemble superhero film is now considered as arguably the best superhero film ever made, the more I consider "Iron Man 2" as a mere front act to the real, larger-than-life Supershow. But then again, that does not mean that this film should be now rendered as entirely irrelevant; 'immensely flawed' may be the better description.

With Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux going semi-contemplative with Tony Stark's mortality for the better part of the film while at the same time being able to pull out a worthy (and more vengeful) enough villain from the deeper comic book pages to stand up against Stark and his 'world peace-privatizing' iron suit, "Iron Man 2" worked as a medium to channel Stark's true emotions and his response if faced by the idea of death and vendetta. Of course, being a sequel, it means that it will be less about seminal characterizations and more about how Tony Stark's character would be able to pull through for another film; trickier, really.

Now fully highlighting Stark's extravagant life and his brush with mortality, "Iron Man 2" should have been a film about emotions. While it may not be in the same emotional proportions like that of Batman's revisionist character arc, the film should have gone for something that is more existential in tone. "Existential?" You may ask. "Why fit in some heavy philosophical nonsense in a film built for nothing more than the usual thrills and entertainment?" You may follow-up. In all fairness, I've seen what the film has done, and that is to turn Tony, while in the process of finding a new element to combat the poisonous substance that the very technology that keeps him alive has been inflicting to his heart, into a self-destructive drunkard that recklessly goes his way through (what he believes), potentially, the final days of his life.

Yes, indeed that's what "Iron Man 2" has been quite successful in handling. But instead of giving us a more emotionally vulnerable hero that we can be able to care for more save for some of the disposable laughs, they gave us scenes where Tony Stark comes out as a total dickwad and not as a man suffering from mortal anxiety. Robert Downey Jr., as what he has always been, is very effortless as Tony, with the fast talks, verbal quips and all, but there's something in his Tony Stark now that is lacking. "Iron Man 2", evidently yearning for some emotional dimensions on Stark's part, may have written one funny sequence too much that is has made the film more of a transitional sequel rather than a follow-up that should have been more concrete in its emotional depth.

In terms of the cast, I really have no complaints regarding Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as Lt. Rhodes, but there's something in Cheadle's eyes that tells me that he, playing Stark's best pal, does not want to be in it at all. While Scarlett Johansson, playing Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow here, is there to serve as nothing but a prelude to his infinitely more integral role in "The Avengers". Gwyneth Paltrow is entertaining enough in the role of Pepper Potts and Sam Rockwell is, with all the superficial swagger and awkward flamboyance that he has successfully infused into the character, perfect as Justin Hammer, Tony Stark's incompetent business rival. Samuel L. Jackson, on the other hand, is surprisingly a bit too ghetto as Nick Fury that I can't help but think of another infinitely more 'double-daring' afro (please tell me that you get the reference) character in place of his eye-patched one here, specifically in the scene inside a diner, where I just can't help but imaginatively replace RDJ with a long-haired John Travolta.

But then there's Mickey Rourke, who was able to convey the silent intensity necessary as the revenge-seeking Ivan Vanko/Whiplash that Tony Stark's character should have provided in the first place (I think the writing is the one that's at fault here, not RDJ's performance). Rourke has given, what I think, the second best performance in the film (first being Sam Rockwell's) and, if the Academy Awards have awarded him the Best Actor for "The Wrestler" instead of Sean Penn in 2009, could have started an 'Oscars' trend for the "Iron Man" franchise here.

"Iron Man" featured Jeff "The Dude" Bridges as the villainous Obadiah Stane, who won his first Best Actor Oscar playing a lost, worn-out soul bent on redemption in "Crazy Heart". And now, "Iron Man 2" featured Mickey Rourke, who has been nominated and should have won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing a lost, worn-out soul bent on redemption in "The Wrestler". Struggling to finish this review, I have instead arrived at that 'Rourke should have won the Oscar' sentiment yet again after all these years. It's a pity that I'm yet to be at peace with that. But then, coming back to the real film at hand here, it's also a pity that "Iron Man 2" came out as a bit forgettable, came up short with its true emotional potential and is even lesser in its action sequences compared to the first film. The climactic set piece is cool though.


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