Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Healing (Chito S. Roño)

Oh, here we are again with what I would call a 'pattern' horror film: One convoluted curse, several people destined to die and some twists here and there. Call it a localized "Final Destination". With Chito Roño's very own "Feng Shui" being the first local film to use this horror formula to great effect, it's just great to see him retrace his 2003 roots and is now directing "The Healing", a visually stunning film that's hindered by some thematic contrivances and slight predictability. 
It stars Vilma Santos in a role that many brand as the commemorative performance for her 50 years in the local film industry. Acting aptly as her character, Seth, but dressed quite awkwardly as her typical governor self, Vilma Santos slightly distracts from the film's horrifying atmosphere of murder and disturbances, as her various looks in the film fits better inside a capitol building rather than within a moody horror film. But other than that, "The Healing" is particularly well-acted in the sense that everybody is in on the film's whole spirit of dread and disgust. Well, maybe except for Vilma Santos herself, whose outfits make her look quite untouchable from all the horrors that the film has to offer. 
Now for the supporting cast (that which includes Kim Chiu, Martin del Rosario, and Pokwang among others), although they were reduced to the stereotypes of 'alive now, dead later' characters, they have still pulled off their respective characters quite convincingly. But despite of that, I personally hate the Odong character, played by seasoned veteran Robert Arevalo. With Odong being Vilma Santos' character's cancer-stricken father who was miraculously healed by faith healer Elsa (played by Daria Ramirez), I know where Chito Roño and company is coming from when they've written the character the way he appeared on-screen. 

Taking on an attitude of an old-timer making up for lost time, and with that I mean retreating back to his good old adolescent mentality consisting of naughty flings and some wet dreams, this Odong character was written just for the sake of humor. But then again, considering the utter seriousness of the film's story and thematic elements, his character is just too distracting. Just when I thought that I'm ready to let myself be magnetized by the film's horrific allure, here's Mr. Arevalo nonchalantly entering the frame with his cheesy comic presence. Why was he written to look that way? I, for the life of me, do not know. If he was created as a humorous breather, then I think the character is a failed attempt at that. What he succeeded to be is a distraction to the film's otherwise nice exposition. He is as unnecessary as the film's gigantic title card atop a hill.  
As for the film's story, it's safe to state that there's nothing new. It is already given that one by one, because of a curse, the movie's pitiful characters will predictably meet their bloody demise one way or another. But aided by the film's beautiful cinematography, this all too familiar pattern is transformed into a cinematic feeling of Freudian helplessness. The term that Freud has coined for it was 'involuntary repetition'. Perhaps we've seen it all before. Perhaps we know that when everything seems right in a horror film, it really isn't. Perhaps we're aware that when a killer is seemingly lifeless and lying on the ground, he really is just playing possum. These are some of the thematic repetitions that we are always experiencing in horror films, and Chito Roño utilized the concept here in "The Healing" quite successfully. 
Yes, we already have this conscious idea that, obviously, Vilma Santos will certainly be one of the survivors in it. But we're still drawn to the film just like how a cat is always fascinated with a ball of yarn. It's indeed a bona fide weekend thrill ride of a film, but it is not because of its originality, sorry to say, but because of its familiarity. Chito Roño (along with writer Roy Iglesias) played its audience through every suspenseful twists and bloody turns with great mastery of execution, but sadly, the scares are all surface. The 'shriek and it's gone' type of fear is what the film is all about. 
Ironically, the thing I consider the most disturbing in the film is the idea of faith healing itself in how it has swayed countless minds towards irrationality. The next one is the all too contrived color motifs. 
Maybe mirroring Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy on how it has visually and emotionally channeled the colors of France's national flag, "The Healing" is more than obvious in coloring itself with the hues of the Philippine flag, and for what reason? Well, maybe because the film tries to be a commentary about how our Filipino society reacts to mass hysteria, religion and the supernatural. 
We have already seen the devastating effects of these sociocultural enigmas in Ishmael Bernal's "Himala", and here in "The Healing", we now revisit them again. But this time, we do so with a heart not inclined towards absorbing the profundity of a commentary but leaning more towards enjoying the meager thrills. "The Healing" could have succeeded in a much deeper level, but as it turns out, the only aspect that the film has succeeded to be deep in is the literal wounds displayed on-screen.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)


Being one of the most hyped films of the year, "The Dark Knight Rises" is one of those motion pictures that are very easy to venerate yet just as easy to bash. It's prone to criticism and fevered hate because, well, it's an easy target. There's also that little "The Avengers" vs. "The Dark Knight Rises" thing going on in the internet so the pressure for this film to deliver is quite great especially compared to the former's unexpected critical success. 

But after watching "The Dark Knight Rises" after more than a year of utter anticipation, it's very fair to say that this film has immensely delivered both in scope and emotional magnitude. It has also solidified Nolan as the best blockbuster filmmaker and his vision of Batman as the most definitive ever. Oh, and did I mention that this film completely blows "The Avengers" into the deep waters? Oh, well, enough with the comparison. 

Like the previous installments, "The Dark Knight Rises" is successful not just as a superhero film but as a drama of human flaws and as a deeply penetrating tragedy of lies and loss. But this time, it's even more than just a Batman film. It's not even just a story of Batman's heroics. Instead, it's the story of Bruce Wayne and his ultimate struggle against fear and his ever-consuming savior complex. Judging from his performance, it's quite easy to see that Christian Bale is back in his groove as the narrative center (he took the backseat for Ledger's scene-stealing presence in "The Dark Knight"), and after this film and the trilogy in general, it's really quite hard to see any other Bruce Wayne other than him. 

Now, reckon how many people consider "The Dark Knight" as a Joker film and not as a Batman tale? I think "The Dark Knight Rises" is the answer. Never has Wayne's unconditional martyrdom as a crime-fighting man in a cape and cowl better highlighted and explored than in this film. If "The Dark Knight" is all about the rise and fall of the alliance between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Batman (Christian Bale), "The Dark Knight Rises" is all about the inevitable rise of Batman long after his chosen path of self-incrimination (of Dent's murder). But with the brooding atmosphere that was frenetically sustained all throughout the film, we're not sure anymore if that rise will be all the way or will it entail a most fatal fall. And with Bane (Tom Hardy) in the villainous seat, the man we all know as the one who broke Batman's back in "Knightfall", it strongly suggests an inescapable destiny for the caped crusader. Can he save Gotham City from the terrorist clutches of Bane? Can he match Bane's brains and brawns? Or to be more exact, can he even survive it at all? 

These are the questions that Nolan (with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer) is more than happy to tease us with for the past year or so, and his answers embedded within this film are really more than satisfying. This is not just a superhero film anymore. It's something that walks the thin line between action and gut-wrenching drama and the result is just astounding. And although the film's first half or so is something that can be repaired a bit by better pacing and less clunky action, the film's second half has more than supplied the power that has seemingly been amiss in the early half. 

As with the performances, I believe that this is the best-acted film in the series. And although "The Dark Knight" is particularly special because of Ledger's performance (easily the best in the series), "The Dark Knight Rises" is the most emotionally draining of the three. Michael Caine's Alfred, for instance, with his controlled demeanor in the two previous installments, is a complete revelation in this film. He has both been Bruce's butler, friend and father; we saw how he has always been the calm spirit that constantly guides Bruce through confusion and psychological torment, and we saw how well-cultivated his relationship with Wayne really was in the previous films. But we have never seen their relationship as being on the line as in this one and we have never seen Alfred so emotionally fragile and elegiac ("I've buried enough members of the Wayne family"). Michael Caine certainly saved his best performance for last. 

Same goes for Gary Oldman's Gordon (my favorite character in the whole series) who, after hiding everything Dent has done and letting Batman take all the blame for the former's murderous deeds, is seemingly struck with guilt and an impulse to tell the whole truth to the city of Gotham. Even Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, the easygoing, technologically savvy CEO of Wayne Enterprises, is having a hard time wearing a smile here. But then again, with arguably the most iconic superhero to ever grace the screen finally reaching a cinematic conclusion of eschatological proportions, it really is hard to wear one. 

But aside from the regulars, there are also some new characters introduced: John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an idealistic cop whose utter devotion to his work is quite reminiscent of a younger Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the cunning burglar who we also know as the pun-filled Catwoman, and the mysterious Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a woman who's more than interested to invest in Wayne Enterprises. And finally, there's Tom Hardy's Bane. 

We all know the burden of pressure and expectations of being a Batman villain ever since Heath Ledger took the bar sky high. But nonetheless, Hardy has still pulled off a Bane rendition that he can wholly call his own (with that peculiarly menacing accent) and can stand alone not in the shadows of Ledger's Joker but somewhere that is just as potent and convincing. 

"The Dark Knight Rises" is the final, tearful salvo of Christopher Nolan's Batman legend. And evident of the film's massively chaotic scale which, if I may say, has rendered the happenings in "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" quite small in comparison, Nolan's trilogy wouldn't just go quietly into the night. It went with flying colors and with a bang. The whimper part is for us to handle. 

And with that, this trilogy is really something more. If a costumed superhero like Batman can make you shed a tear, then there's something really, really special going on. That, I think, is the case with "The Dark Knight Rises". The drama is just so multi-layered and so affecting that I couldn't care less about the special effects. This is not just a superhero film at its best. This is blockbuster filmmaking at the height of its promised power. Cheers to that.


The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)


Hell, if I can only turn back time just to experience this once again in a movie theater. "The Dark Knight", as much as I admire its greatness, is one of those rare films that I have never enjoyed that much inside the Cineplex but grew to love with each rewatch on DVD. This, I believe, is a mark of an 'epic' film in every sense. Wherever you may put it, whether it's on television, DVD, or the theaters, its greatness still and always will shine forth. This is also the great strength of "The Dark Knight" that's completely absent in other superhero films. Take out all its eye-popping visuals and you still have enough narrative, emotional weight, and pure characterizations to carry you through. Plus, unlike other side characters in other films of the same kind, "The Dark Knight" has characters that you would really care for. 

Jim Gordon, Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent. The triumvirate that stands up for everything that's right. These are the characters that have risen and fallen in the epic graphic novel "The Long Halloween", and here in "The Dark Knight", their dynamics as complex allies have never been displayed more effectively, affectingly, and with appropriate justice. Gary Oldman, in his portrayal of Jim Gordon, blows his earlier "Batman Begins" performance in the water with his reprisal here. Christian Bale is also great by balancing torment and transcendence in his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman. 

With "The Dark Knight", Batman isn't just your 5 cent superhero anymore. Here is a superhero that does not merely thrive on apprehending killers and petty criminals anymore. This is also a man who refuses to lead a better life as a billionaire for the sake of protecting the one thing he believes he is destined to fight for: Gotham City. But he also knows that it is never easy. 

Fresh from thwarting Ra's Al Ghul's destructive plan against Gotham in "Batman Begins", he is now confronted here in "The Dark Knight" by a murderous agent of chaos known only as "The Joker" (played by the late Heath Ledger).

Now, this review is not for the sake of describing, commending and fully admiring Ledger's miracle of a performance as Batman's greatest foe. Words, as what has always been said, are not enough. There is indeed something in Ledger's legendary turn that doesn't just appeal to the mere aesthetics but somewhere deeper that's raw, ferocious, and animal. His 'Joker' provokes some sort of primal fear within us all; of some hidden anarchic inclination hidden deep inside all of us. 

For me, this is the ideal portrayal not just of the Joker but of human vileness pushed to the extremes. Unlike Jack Nicholson's earlier yet also iconic portrayal of the clown prince of crime which has relatively told a clear and very human back story for the Joker (He even had a pre-Joker name: Jack Napier), Ledger's is, as how Nolan has interpreted the character, a complete absolute. 

From his custom-tailored suit to his ever-changing origin stories regarding the scars on his face, this is a nameless entity forged out of the depths of utter abomination and nowhere else. This is one of those men, as what Alfred (Michael Caine) has unforgettably stated, who just want to watch the world topple and burn, and laugh with it. 

Now, with all that being said, we all know how great Ledger's performance really is, and it will truly stand the test of time as one of the best villainous roles ever performed. But aside from him, there's also one actor who stood out among the rest; and yes, he even outperformed Christian Bale, and it's none other than Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face. 

Being one of the most tragic antagonists in the history of comic books, Eckhart has captured the so-called 'white knight's' gung-ho ferocity as a brave district attorney yet has also gathered enough dramatic range to also be an empathetic character and a frighteningly vengeful soul. His Harvey Dent is someone you would perceive as someone who's heroic but also someone who's humanly flawed. He is for justice and for lawfulness, yes, but his Dent is also brash and subtly arrogant. Maybe what makes his character's sad transformation from being a clean-cut DA to a monstrous incarnation of confused duality even more gripping is how Dent was portrayed as an ordinarily mild-mannered man who just happens to have a healthy dose of human decency. 

Unlike Batman, he is a man driven towards the path of heroism and justice not because of some tragic undercurrents but because he is born and raised to be one. And what makes his metamorphosis even more tragic is the fact that it could and should have been prevented and also because he was never destined to be the very thing he swore to fight against. 

Destiny, duality and identity; these are the themes that Nolan's "Batman Begins" has focused on but were also re-used here in "The Dark Knight". But this time, its collective emotional effect is heightened even more that "The Dark Knight" came out not just a superhero film or merely as your typical 'Batman' film but as a massive drama about the clashing beliefs and ideological extremes that form Gotham's crumbling soul. And in the middle of it all are some spectacular action sequences that are quite reminiscent of Michael Mann's "Heat". 

In truth, "The Dark Knight" is so emotionally rich that the action seems secondary. Before Nolan, "Batman" films have always been on a crossroad of whether or not to prefer camp over seriousness and vice-versa. "Batman Begins" came and surprised us with its depth; now, "The Dark Knight" enters forth and blows us away with its emotional magnitude. From this point on, I believe that the cinematic "Batman" has already chosen a path: a path that was not chosen and never was an option before by either Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. This is the film that the caped crusader is unconsciously asking for, and for that, he got what he wishes for, and so do we.


Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)


And so it has begun 7 years ago. With Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" leaving a bad, almost insulting taste in our mouths, a reboot is definitely due. And what we got here in "Batman Begins" is something much more than a revisionist superhero film. Instead, it has also become the perfect blueprint for succeeding superhero films dealing with origin stories. 

It stars Christian Bale in what may be the most canonical portrayal of Bruce Wayne on film and also explores the literal beginnings of arguably the most iconic superhero of all time. But of course, what separates this film from all the other "Batman" movies of the past is its distinct visual and thematic tone. Thanks to director Christopher Nolan's patented inclination towards realism, "Batman Begins" is quite effective in keeping its feet on the ground in terms of its borderline science fiction technologies and its action set pieces yet soaring with an almost philosophical take on justice, identity and destiny. 

With Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" serving as one of the prime bases for this film, it's almost a given that this one will indeed be a quality superhero venture. But no one has really anticipated "Batman Begins'" transcendental quality as an origin tale. 

And then of course, what makes "Batman Begins" even better and more easily involving is the presence of three (4 if you'll count Rutger Hauer) legendary actors in the form of Liam Neeson, Michael Caine and the irresistible Morgan Freeman. Looking at it, although their performances are based on pre-existing characters from Batman's established comic book universe, they are still able enough to give the parts that they're portraying the distinct trademarks of their own established personas. 

Oh, and then there is Gary Oldman, an actor that has always been on a league of his own. To be honest, I was quite excited to watch the film back then because I was intrigued when I saw Gary Oldman in the trailers. Being my typical ignorant self with little to no knowledge of Mr. Oldman's acting range outside typical villainous roles at the time, I immediately marked him to be the primary antagonist in the film. 

With Pat Hingle's Gordon still quite untouchable in my mind, it never even crossed my mind that Oldman is even remotely okay for the part. Yes, at first, I was skeptic if whether or not he's believable enough to pull off a mild-mannered and quite heroic role when he is in fact more at ease with over-the-top characters. As it turns out, it's his performance and embodiment of James Gordon that I have loved the most in the whole film. There's really something in his portrayal that evokes empathy yet also displays an unbounded sense of derring-do. This is the portrayal that Gordon deserves. This is the Gordon that we need.

As for the film's villains, well, for non-comic book readers, it will be quite difficult to grasp Ra's Al Ghul's (Ken Watanabe and someone else that I would not mention) and Scarecrow's (Cillian Murphy in an evidently insane yet subdued performance) villainous capabilities and backstories because they are not as well-known as the Joker or even The Penguin in terms of overall fictional popularity. But still, both antagonists were fleshed out quite well by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer that they came out overwhelmingly menacing even when they're not that familiar to many non-comic book readers that may watch the film.

When put shoulder to shoulder with "The Dark Knight", "Batman Begins", in truth, pales in comparison in some areas. The 2008 follow-up, for once, has a much bigger scope and also contains heavier elements of both tragedy and the strains of duality. But despite of that, "Batman Begins" will always be that one film that has forever changed the landscapes of the superhero genre and has also set the bar quite high for superhero origin stories that may follow after it. It has also paved way for the said genre to loosen its limits in terms of characterization and to embrace a sense of grit and some brooding here and there. This is the superhero origin tale to end all superhero origin tales. Hans Zimmer's masterful musical score is still playing in my head.


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