Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

Bond's back.

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


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)


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


Monday, November 5, 2012

Elephant (Gus Van Sant)

A 'kiss' in the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 3, 2012

L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)


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


Friday, November 2, 2012

Escape from L.A. (John Carpenter)

A Snake in Hollywood.

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

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


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Escape from New York (John Carpenter)


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


1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Ivan6655321's Schneider 1001 movies widget