Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)


Aside from it being an almost Dickensian look into the world of hustlers (or male prostitutes, if we get a bit more direct), the film is also a tear-jerking look at how great of a loss River Phoenix really is to the movie industry and also to the furthering of the Marlon Brando-esque leading man mystique in films. From the minute River, with all his James Dean-like mannerisms and uncanny good looks, enters the frame, one can't help but be sad about the wasted potential of what he could have been and what wonders he could have done working with other talented filmmakers. In a way, this was his great coming-out party as a truly serious dramatic actor, and he didn't disappoint. And if Keanu Reeves' character Scott, a rich heir who, for reasons unclear, has chosen to be a hustler instead, is the one highly pivotal in terms of the film's connection with Shakespeare's "Henry IV", River Phoenix's role is its throbbing heart and aching soul, and he makes us feel every single ounce of his character's silent cries through his narcoleptic ways as a hassled hustler.

Though set in the polluted streets and dingy sidewalks of modern-day America, the film is surprisingly flowery in its wordings (to of course keep up with its Shakesperean roots) and perhaps often a bit stagy on how the washed-up characters describe off-screen events and explain themselves to their fellow low-lives. Sometimes, though, the film then suddenly switches from overlong, quasi-poetic utterances to brief, street-smart talks, which makes it quite incomprehensible and, subsequently, infuriating to watch at times.

Gus Van Sant, an openly gay filmmaker, is equal parts brave, bold, and even elegant in directing this film that even the more explicit sex scenes were shot in a series of beautiful, tableaux-like images that seem to be a very tasteful aesthetic choice on his behalf. There's no denying the fact that the themes explored in "My Own Private Idaho", from homosexuality to downright prostitution, is hard to portray in a cinematic manner that would not tread the territories of exploitation and smut. Yet Van Sant, who has directed his fair share of modern film classics ranging from the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting" to the shocking indie gem "Elephant", has never let that happen, for he knows that although the highly sensitive issue of homosexuality is the area where the film extracts its primary emotional force from, the film is still simply about this gay man (River Phoenix's character) who just wants to find his mom and also to love somebody on the side, and isn't that, regardless of gender, the default story of our lives?

As expected, with this being the story of male prostitutes, it is a given that odd fetishes will be handed enough share of the spotlight, just like the ones in "Belle de Jour" and especially in "Midnight Cowboy", a film that, I believe, is kins in spirit with "My Own Private Idaho". There's the singing Udo Kier, for one, and also the fat client who seems to get off when he hears the sound of cleaning brushes making contact with dirty floors. And in the middle of the oddity of it all and these night people who seem to be more of themselves when the sun is out, stands River Phoenix's Mike and his struggle to literally keep himself from constantly falling asleep and also to keep whatever's left of his memory of her mother, who seems to continuously pester his mind with recurring childhood scenes of Oedipal-like affection. 

Physically speaking, the character is already challenging for River Phoenix to play because there's the difficult obligation of accurately portraying narcolepsy on-screen. And then, there's the trickier part of mustering all the fragile nuances of playing someone as emotionally scarred as Mike and then keeping them all at bay so that he can project a false sense of street grit. Jon Voight, who played Joe Buck in "Midnight Cowboy", has finely captured that, but Phoenix, I think, has even perfected it. I don't know, perhaps I'm a bit biased about his greatness in the role simply because he's already no more, but there's a kind of elegy in his eyes and in his actions that makes the experience of watching him play someone as tragic as Mike even more heart-rending, and dwarfs Keanu Reeves' unexpectedly effective performance all the more. 

"My Own Private Idaho", though included in many 'essential films' list, is by no means a masterpiece, but it's the kind of movie, no matter how happy and contented you are with your life by the time you've decided to pop it into your DVD player, that will certainly make you seek your own private whatever, in terrible longing for loneliness. It's an odd feeling, but it sure is something.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rushmore (Wes Anderson)

Max Fischer: prep school rebel. Or not.

Perhaps a film that really was quite a puzzle during its time that even veteran film critic Pauline Kael was "thoroughly mystified" by it, "Rushmore" bursts into the screen with a kind of humor and passive grace reminiscent of Robert Altman's works, but is sadly lacking in solid focus and direction. For newbie filmmakers, it is but normal to either commit rookie mistakes or wallow in self-indulgence (or both) along the way; for Wes Anderson in this film, it surely is the latter. Unlike his later works which are all clear about what their central themes are ('family' in "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic", and "Fantastic Mr. Fox", 'brotherhood' in "The Darjeeling Limited", and 'young love' in "Moonrise Kingdom", among others), it is quite obvious that "Rushmore" isn't really sure about what kind of film it really wants to be. 

On one side, it's kind of like trying to be a coming-of-age story about a popular, seemingly self-taught student named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) who's consistently getting his ass beat by the eponymous school's stern educational system. On another, it's really about an unlikely friendship between Max and a quirky industrialist named Herman Blume (played by the 'godfather' of quirks: Bill Murray), and also their intense romantic interest on a young, newly-widowed teacher (Olivia Williams). And then, as if in hundreds of other corners, there are also these little happenings that seem to have little to no significance to the whole story, but are nonetheless scattered all throughout the film by Wes Anderson simply because he is Wes Anderson, and that he can do off-kilter things in his films and still be labelled 'cool'. 

The performances, although all are imprinted with a sense of wry passive-aggressiveness that emanates from almost all of Wes Anderson's characters, come up quite short in terms of making me feel that this is indeed a Wes Anderson film. Adding on what I've said earlier, the script is a tad too aimless to begin with, which of course resulted in the film being two sizes too small for its projected ambition. It is, for me, like a standard-sized blanket that was stretched far beyond its limits to accommodate 5 sleepers. In short, "Rushmore" is like 3 films worth of stories were crammed into one 'school misfit-centric' picture and was then left just as that, which is nothing short of a textbook exercise in 'more being less' coming from the Futura font-loving director himself. 

Although much has been said about how Wes Anderson is slowly perfecting the art of handling multiple narratives with every film he makes, "Rushmore" is still here to remind us that he and his films were once not so masterfully absurd and quirky but instead quite mischievously unfocused and clumsy. And just like its hero Max Fischer, "Rushmore" seems more interested in extracurricular activities rather than its core priority, which is to tell the story in a non-alienating way. And is it just me, or is Max Fischer really isn't that likable and strong of a protagonist to really carry the film through? Perhaps there's a reason why Anderson's later films feature more than one main character, and also why Jason Schwartzman has merely taken on relatively smaller roles in his films ever since. It appears that one of Wes Anderson's weaknesses is extracting and then sustaining an interesting enough narrative from a single character, and "Rushmore" just goes to expose this glaring fact. The film is like "Dead Poets Society's" detached and peculiar younger brother, and he couldn't care any less about you, your opinion, and whether or not he gets himself understood. This is, quite simply, a film made by a director who's still testing the waters.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

A Greek dramedy.

We have ventured with them through the streets of Vienna and tagged along on their reflective walk one Parisian afternoon. Jesse and Celine, as far as modern cinematic couples are concerned, is indeed the thinking man/woman's love team, thanks to Richard Linklater's deeply contemplative yet very entertaining style of writing. And after all these years, the first film, "Before Sunrise", still stands tall as a wonderful testament of how bittersweet a happenstance romance can be, while "Before Sunset" effortlessly goes to show how a hyper-idealized overnight love can completely change when, paraphrasing Jason Silva, lovers finally go their separate ways and return to their respective task-based existence. 

9 years ago, we were left to draw our own conclusions regarding what can happen to Jesse and Celine and whether or not their picture-perfect romance can carry itself away from the pragmatic hassles of reality, as Jesse is after all already married and has a son. Finally, though, we now have the answer in the form of "Before Midnight": the final chapter to the 'Jesse and Celine' saga. Yeah, that totally sounded like an epic superhero film.

In this film, Jesse and Celine are on a Greek getaway, and this time, it's not, in any way, a happenstance encounter but an official family vacation (along with their twin daughters). Yes, here in "Before Midnight", Jesse and Celine is finally (and permanently) together, albeit unmarried. Not the exact set-up you might expect if you think of an ideal kind of love, but hey, better to have that than nothing at all. Sure, both of them were physically withered by age quite a bit, but the energy of how they connect with each other is just as fresh and young as the moment when they first met in a sleepy train ride back in Vienna. "Before Midnight", with its preservation of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's on-screen chemistry that spans close to two decades, delivers just the right amount of ups and downs, romance-wise, to leave unto us a feeling that we've just been witnesses to what may be the closest cinema has gotten in perfectly capturing the essence of a flawed but nonetheless true kind of love.

Comparatively speaking, watching "Before Midnight" in all its sexual innuendos, hurtful gender slurs, and overwhelming pragmatism makes "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" seem like two innocent younger brothers who have just gotten out of the house long enough to frolic freely in the streets for a while. Simply put, "Before Midnight" looks just like the big brother who has finally arrived to fetch his younger siblings so that he can smack some sense into them that no, it should never be all play. Though the film is still ripe with nostalgic talks about time in relation to love and love in relation to life at large and all that idealizing romantic bull, it's more clear on what it wants to examine, and that is the separation of love from the conundrums of life and vice versa. Unlike the first two films which seem to indulge only on reflections about what can be and what could have been between Jesse and Celine, "Before Midnight" is the realistic wake-up call that things are bound to inevitably fall apart. 

With Richard Linklater on the helm and on scribe duty, it's not a surprise that the film is just as layered as the first two films. This time, though, everything seems to be very much at stake, as both Jesse and Celine, for the first time in their screen lives, are quite careening into an emotional climax that may just be as explosive as the one in "The Avengers". Are we going to see them just as strong as before? Or, as surreal as it may sound, are we going to see them bitterly part ways? In ways more than one, "Before Midnight" is the maturation that we've all been waiting for and are unconsciously dying to see, because as much as it feels good to see them together at the end of "Before Sunset", it's still an altogether different kind of ballgame to tackle the all too real things (such as career conflicts, priorities, and family) that go along with love like prickly bonus items. And for that, I guess Linklater has nothing short of done something that makes me believe that, no, the telling of great love stories in films is yet to run its course. On the other hand, though, it's sad to think that to make me believe just that, it has to be done by ending one of the bestest modern ones there is. 

Like a more optimistic and infinitely more humorous "Scenes from a Marriage", "Before Midnight" is an extraordinary film that will force you to think twice about being married, but at the same time will convince you to just hold on to the imperfect truth that holds two people together like Velcro. And as Jesse and Celine struggle through a mudflow of insecurities, misled accusations, and complex decisions, the Velcro still sticks, and neither of them know the definite reason how and why save for the fact that, well, it just does. And remember what Celine was repeatedly saying while watching the sun set? "Still there." In the end, perhaps she can say the same to the love that she and Jesse have stumbled upon one fateful day in Vienna nearly 20 years ago; a kind that they thought would only be nothing but a fling, only to find out that there's definitely more to it than the aimless walks through cobblestone streets.

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor)

Thor's once again ready for some arse-smitin'.

Without any reservations or holding anything back, I can confidently say that "Thor: The Dark World" is the best Thor film to date, which really isn't saying much considering that this is only the second one. The film, as expected from Marvel Studios, is ripe with spontaneous humor, effective one-liners, and smirk-inspiring references that you may think that Marvel's head honchos have seen "Man of Steel", looked at each other in utter disbelief specifically during the climax, and contacted, within minutes, some of their friends in the comedy business. Lesson learned: never trust a Marvel trailer, for it will tease you with the prospect of sheer ominousness, but will almost always bring you an all-smiling kind of escapist popcorn stuff. 

Though the film is with a subtitle that seems to suggest a more brooding sense of adventure for the 'Thunder God' himself, "Thor: The Dark World" is a very fun and innocuous 'might and magic' outing that's as relentless in its action as it is in its comedy. Plus, you will know that you're in for a ridiculous type of enjoyment when one of the first things you will see in the first 10 minutes or so of the film is a stark naked Stellan Skarsgard running aimlessly around the Stonehenge while parading his very Swedish behind. 

Also, for the first time, we're given an otherworldly villain that's not really a kin to our long-haired hero. His name's Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a dark elf who wants to destroy all the realms and revert the entire universe back to its dark state because, like rats, his kind is most comfortable in the dark. Of course, no matter what it takes, this will not be allowed by the future king of Asgard, or by the incumbent Odin (Anthony Hopkins), or even, surprise surprise, by the god of mischief himself: Loki (Tom Hiddleston in a definite scene-stealer). 

For someone who's really not into the whole fantasy and sci-fi stuff, "Thor: The Dark World", in some regards, may come across as something too jargon-y, especially when Natalie Portman's Jane Foster starts to talk about gravitational theories and whatnot. On the other hand, though, coming in as a fantasy fan will surely be a treat all on itself because, compared to the first film, Asgard (plus the other realms) is in fuller view this time around, and we're also finally able to behold its sheer size and very Rivendell-esque aesthetic. 

In addition, the film is also more well-endowed in its action sequences, though I can definitely see the visual dissonance that seems to suppress the film's search for a kind of identity. I see a group of bearded warriors engaging in a very fantastical skirmish and "The Lord of the Rings" is what immediately enters my mind. I see a metal-hulled ship that's being shot at by giant laser guns and "Star Wars" involuntarily pops up in my head. Though it is but given that "Thor", in its own right, already has a fairly established universe in the comic books, I still just can't buy how it was realized on-screen, and it also doesn't quite help that director Alan Taylor is a "Game of Thrones" luminary. 

On a more positive note, though, the film's climactic set piece, which sees Thor and Malekith do battle in a highly spasmodic gravitational condition (in layman's term, they're fighting while being spontaneously teleported from one realm to another), is on par with "Iron Man 3's" firecracker of a payoff. 

Chris Hemsworth, in his third outing as the titular superhero, is more effortless than ever in Thor's otherwise unwieldy boots and heavy garb while holding the even heavier Mjolnir, though him being completely overshadowed by Hiddleston's even more effortless portrayal of the unpredictable Loki just can't simply be avoided. This time around, after being defeated in "The Avengers" by, well, the Avengers, Loki is the obvious victor, performance-wise. 

And the ending? Well, I can't believe what I've just seen, but did Kevin Feige and company just borrow from "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra's" playbook? It's a great sleight of hand (the ending, that is), sure, but I've seen it before, and sadly in an infinitely lesser film. Does this suggest that Marvel's creatives are finally reeling? In terms of the overall quality of "Thor: The Dark World", it's quite evident that, no, it's not anywhere near that, but the ending sure speaks a lot about the fact that even air-lifting Joss Whedon into the set for emergency rewrites just couldn't save a relatively lousy ending. 

Nonetheless, the film is still good enough for what it is, and has some nice enough surprises and in-jokes up its sleeve to make it adhere more tightly to the ginormous hull of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, man, just seeing Heimdall the Gatekeeper (Idris Elba) single-handedly kick some dark elf ass secures "Thor: The Dark World" an automatic spot in my list as one of the more truly enjoyable Marvel movies to date. Again, that's not saying much, but the film sure is staggering in scope, which has pumped me up even more for the astronomical degree of awesome that's in store for us when "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" finally rears its head.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

Bride of Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna)

Red Rock West.

Folks both living and dead, the mad re-animator that is Herbert West is back (assuming that nothing fatal has happened to him when Dr. Hill's giant intestines have coiled him in the first film) and as lively and demented as he can be, and, along with his colleague Dan Cain, we next see him in, wait a minute, in Peru?! Am I missing something, or has Herbert West suddenly taken heed of Bruce Banner's exploits? 

Anyway, the plot suggests that Herbert West, ever the clandestine doctor who will, even without thinking twice, fit his whole laboratory inside a rat hole or what have you if he must just to evade suspicious eyes and potential dangers alike, has suddenly put himself in the middle of a not-so-subtle and not-so-secret South American war zone for reasons unclear.

The film, in terms of visually upping the ante for the franchise, has succeeded even in this opening scene, because nothing screams 'I will top the first film' more than explosions, a war-torn setting, and some brief gunfight sequences. I wouldn't really bet nearly anything in favor of Herbert West over a highly-trained guerrilla in a shoot-out, but hell, in the opening sequence alone, every horror fan's favorite diminutive doctor has just conveniently shot two skilled soldiers dead in just a blink of an eye, all while performing a surgical procedure on a military casualty. As it turns out, the title of the H.P. Lovecraft short story should not be "Herbert West: Re-Animator", but "Herbert Wild Wild West". That's a joke. Moving on... 

Even just a few scenes in, I can already feel a sense of deliberate epicness that this film is trying to gun for, in the same vein as "Hellbound: Hellraiser 2" when it has successfully transported the horror from the humble doorsteps of an old house (as in the first film) to the fiery gates of Pinhead's version of hell itself. Only this time, though, "Bride of Re-Animator" has so much going on with it that there seems to be no space for proper exposition anymore. On one of the film's many and flimsy sides, there's Dr. Carl Hill from the first film, or, to be more exact, there's Dr. Carl Hill's 'severed head' from the first film that desperately wants to have a piece of Herbert West. On another, there's the whole 'creating a perfect woman' angle that's obviously a nod to the Frankenstein lore. There's also the awkward romantic arc between Dan Cain and this Italian journalist (played by Fabiana Udenio), whose every scene seems to emit a similar vibe as a perfume commercial, and whose thick accent and lethargic presence perfectly complements my occasional yawns.

On the up side, though, Jeffrey Combs is even more entertaining and better-suited this time around as Herbert West, what with his very theatrical-esque portrayal of the said character's mad drive to play god with science, and his uncommon loyalty to his only friend Dan. Physical-wise, Combs seems to be a carbon copy of Johnny Depp; that is if the latter's growth is a bit stunted and if his forehead is ten times more generous. 

Bruce Abbott, on the other hand, who was so effective in the first film, pales in comparison to Combs' unworldly charm, and even more so when she was paired with the said journalist who's even more lackluster in retrospect. Should I say that they deserve each other?

There is a scene deep into the film that is, though impeccably lighted and set-designed, too carelessly-handled that I do not know where to look at or what's happening to whom or who's killing which poor sap anymore. Yes, I'm talking about the climax, which, generally speaking, isn't really one of the franchise's strongest suits. Like a horror house in some county fair, the said climax struggles to cram as many shock elements as possible within a span of 5 or so minutes that anyone who may go in will be more exhausted than they are frightened, post-entry. But hey, as lousy as this sequel may be, "Bride of Re-Animator" is still one hell of a bumpy ride worth taking, and I wouldn't be surprised if I'll once again see myself creeping back to the end of the queue, fingers-crossed, and ready to relive this sloppy experience one more time.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon)


Perhaps one of the horror genre's more enduring and uniquely humorous classics, "Re-Animator" is kind of like a respectful bastardization of H.P. Lovecraft's short story (entitled "Herbert West: Reanimator"), and may also be seen as a mock ode to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein". It is intentionally campy in its set-up and fittingly goofy in some of its over-the-top gore, not to mention that Jeffrey Combs' insanely cult performance is a genuine thing of 'slapstick horror' legend. Sure, the film may not have aged that particularly well especially in moments when it actually tries to scare the bejeezus out of us viewers, but it still holds up quite nicely as an absurdist effort to squeeze out something fresh and conceptually new from the seemingly exhaustive world of the undead. Suddenly, at least through director Stuart Gordon's outrageously horrific playfulness, hospital morgues aren't that monastically creepy anymore, and medical schools not much hives of bright minds but of psychotic lobotomists and of future Josef Mengeles. 

Indeed, it's a twisted and perverted world that the characters of "Re-Animator" live in; add up Jeffrey Combs' Herbert West, the 'roommate from hell'/'mad medical student' who has ingeniously created a serum that can bring dead people back to life, into the mix and you've got one hell of a, well, hell ride into the bloody corners of human anatomy and back. The film may not be as smooth as the "Evil Dead" trilogy in terms of blood-drenched shtick, but at least, it can boast of an iconic image long-time fans of the horror genre can very well recognize: and that is of Herbert West looking somewhere near the camera, pointy-lipped and all, armed and ready with his serum-filled syringe. He may not be as romantically heroic as Lionel in "Braindead", as slick as Ash in "Evil Dead II", or as manly as MacReady in "The Thing", but his persistent madness oozes a kind of detached, ironically magnetic charm that, despite being despicable by default, still makes him very easy to root for. It's also quite nice to see the Dan Cain character (played by Bruce Abbott), a medical student who becomes West's roommate, unusually serving as both confidant and foil to West's loony bin aspirations at the same time. Even David Gale, playing the villainous Dr. Carl Hill, is also quite enjoyable to watch even though his performance screams 'poor man's Christopher Lee' all over. 

The special effects, although indelibly cartoonish even if you try to convince yourself that this is a serious horror picture, are top-notch and hard to look away from, but in a very humorously implausible kind of way. But be that as it may, "Re-Animator" is still a thoroughly entertaining picture with enough obligatory gore, quotable one-liners, and even an apt exposure of flesh, to satisfy the red-blooded cravings of an average horror fan. Though I must admit that the film's climax is probably better on paper than when it was finally executed by Stuart Gordon and company on-screen, the film is still tons of fun, thanks of course to its dreadful kind of energy, tongue-in-cheek execution, and a dose of wit that's even sharper than the hypodermic needle on Herbert West's big-ass syringe. The only problem, though, is that it has every right to go out with an unprecedented kind of vomit-inducing bang, but has instead chosen not to. And is that an iteration of Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" score?

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Transit (Hannah Espia)

Israeli dreamin'.

There's this highly popular and overly-heeded phrase in "The Wizard of Oz" which states that there's no place like home. I, for one, can nonchalantly and confidently say that, indeed, there's no other country that can compare to the Philippines' awe-inspiring, sun-baking, and smoke-belching glory. But here in "Transit", a film directed by Hannah Espia and is shot mostly in Israel, the states of mind of Filipinos who were forced by circumstances to assume a foreign country as their homeland are explored, and the end result is something that validates the claim that Philippine cinema is, yet again, relatively on the rise. 

Edited in a highly non-linear fashion that's quite reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's films and whose story was told in a way that makes it a distant kin to Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation", "Transit" effortlessly crisscrosses between its otherwise all-encompassing and sensitive subject matter (religion, politics, race) and its smaller, more observant drama without losing a sense of balance. The film, about the Israeli government's decision to deport the children of immigrant workers, could have easily descended into the typical and highly mechanical territories of a cinematic thriller. After all, "Transit's" story is ripe with racial tension and international intrigue; two themes that most politically-charged thrillers commonly tread. Even the title, honestly, has steered my guts into expecting a relatively tense arthouse film. 

Surprisingly, what I got instead, along with all the others who were lucky enough to see the film for free, is a painfully realistic, impressively assured, and unexpectedly lyrical look at the plight of those affected by the said implementation. And as much as the film is about the consequences of politics, "Transit", in terms of characterization and story, is evidently more focused on its human elements rather than the bureaucratic technicalities that truncate them. Even the Israeli characters in the film, which, if we consider Espia's potential bias as a Filipino filmmaker, could have easily been transitory and completely one-dimensional, were fleshed out and were also given their respective hearts. 

Jasmine Curtis, once known in Philippine showbiz merely as, quote unquote, "Anne Curtis' pretty little sister", has developed into a full-fledged actress, thanks of course to Espia's impressive direction. Reliable character actors Ping Medina, Irma Adlawan, and indie nymph Mercedes Cabral, on the other hand, were almost unrecognizable in their roles. Be it through how Medina intentionally 'carabaos' the way he speaks English, how Adlawan, even without doing anything, evokes, through her gestures, facial expressions, and even her slightly hunched posture, the hardships of a typical OFW, or even how Cabral uses her eyes so effectively that they seem to have lives and characters of their own, the cast successfully makes use of dramatic subtlety to finely complement the film's effectively simplistic cinematography (by Ber Cruz and Lyle Sacris). But then again, the emotional center of the film is Marc Justine Alvarez as Joshua: the kid that's in danger of being deported back to the Philippines. 

Personally, I can sometimes tell that a film is finely-directed by way of how the kids in it act. And here, Alvarez' naturalistic acting just goes to show how promising Hannah Espia really is (I forgot to mention that this is her debut feature) both as a nuanced filmmaker and as an actor's director. And though there will always be, at least for a local filmmaker, the temptation to turn a film like this, which was shot in a foreign country, into a travelogue of sorts (eherm, Star Cinema, eherm), Espia never succumbed to it. Instead, she has utilized Israel's quaint beauty and religious traditions to further a sense of cultural insight into the so-called Holy land, to validate the characters' genuine attachment to the place, and to answer just why, aside from financial needs, it's just really hard for them to go. 

Of course, Dorothy was right when she happily exclaimed that "there's no place like home", but would the meaning of this very naive phrase still apply to people (like the ones in the film) who adhere themselves to the concept of home not because of sentimental or nationalistic reasons but of simple necessity? "Transit" quietly shakes its head and takes the statement with a grain of salt (Dead Sea pun intended). The way I see it, the film is a highly resonant reminder to the independent film industry here in the Philippines that 'poverty' is not the only topic there is, nor squatter areas and non-redemptive lowlives the only ones that deserve attention from filmmakers. Sometimes, we need to peek outside of our immediate realities and snoop on our more affluent neighbors because, who knows? One of our family members may be hopelessly lost in there, and who are in dire need of help and also of a voice.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bayaning 3rd World (Mike De Leon)

Marupok. Third class.

"Bayaning 3rd World", in a nutshell, tackles the grave dissonance that besets two filmmakers about whether or not a Jose Rizal movie is really worth making. Is Rizal really national hero-worthy, or is the much-talked about 'retraction' letter that he has supposedly written and signed before his execution enough to dethrone him of the honor? Eclectic Filipino filmmaker Mike De Leon, whose works range from the disturbing family drama "Kisapmata" to the outrageous "Kakakabakaba Ka Ba?" is the only one audacious enough to examine the Rizal myth with a sort of satirical glee. Originally, he is slated to direct a Rizal film starring Aga Muhlach, but when the project fell through, perhaps it dawned on him that a romanticized Rizal film is not what the country needs. Perhaps that episode of contemplation may have resulted to this. As what George R.R. Martin has once written (another instance when I'm quoting a famous literary figure just to sound smart): "Life is not a song, sweetling."
Reminiscent of how Orson Welles has, step-by-step, investigated the reason behind Charles Foster Kane's utterance of 'Rosebud' in "Citizen Kane", "Bayaning 3rd World" pushes aside all the nationalistic clichés that ornament Rizal's life to arrive at the very root of its own inquisition: Does Jose Rizal really deserve the endless veneration and, to a lesser extent, the immortalization of his mug in all those one-peso coins? Ricky Davao and Cris Villanueva, portraying the two filmmakers hungry for truth, further investigate, and the result is the kind that opens eyes.
Styled in a way that's very self-referential and postmodernistic, "Bayaning 3rd World" is equal parts emotional and comedic. From Rizal's mild-mannered brother Paciano (Joonee Gamboa) to his flame Josephine Bracken herself (Lara Fabregas), every character in Rizal's briefer than brief life had their say, in a series of loose faux interviews, about the national hero's ambiguous psychology and also about the controversial retraction letter, and whether there is indeed a possibility that Rizal has written and signed it himself, and sincerely at that, without the nefarious goading of several friars. 
The script (co-written by De Leon and Doy Del Mundo), on the other hand, is deliciously balanced both as a fairly radical comedy and as an involving period piece, which prevents the film from being overly ridiculous in its humor or being overly stern in its drama. While the accompanying performance by Joel Torre, who plays the said national hero in the film, exudes the needed vibrancy, insecurity and emotional torment to successfully pull off a memorable Rizal performance. Jose Rizal, after all, is a very flawed hero, but is that such a bad thing? 

In a way, as much as the film is a deeply investigative albeit playful exploration of Rizal's heroism, it also digs deep on our very own nationalistic consciousness, or on whatever's left of it, and makes us confront Jose Rizal in the same way how we may look at our own selves in the mirror to see all the grimy imperfections. I doubt that we can do the same after watching Marilou Diaz-Abaya's very polished but ultimately too safe "Jose Rizal" or Tikoy Aguiluz's too detached "Rizal sa Dapitan".
With "Bayaning 3rd World's" unexpectedly incisive attempt at honesty, I doubt that the people who have seen the film may look at Jose Rizal the same way again; that is, as a perfect Malayan who has done nothing worthy of reproach. The film may not be as big and sprawling as "Jose Rizal" or as picturesque and romantic as "Rizal sa Dapitan", but its uncommon stylistic approach and fascinating dissection of history are what make it very special. It's a film that's brave enough to question Rizal's heroism but is also assured enough to let us, the Filipino viewers who have forever lived in the shadows of his martyrdom, ultimately decide for ourselves on how we may see him. The film is, quite simply, a strange love letter to the life, love and heroism of Jose Rizal, but with a postscript that asks a pointed question or two.

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Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza)


By mastering a certain visual style that seems to have little to no regard on proper framing and composition and also distilling his films through perennially impoverished eyes, Brillante Mendoza has navigated through the local and international film scene alike (while nabbing some prestigious awards in the process) as some kind of master of derelict cinema. From the sex and filth of modern Filipino urbanites to the incidental violence that occurs in the far south, he has debunked the so-called mystique of social change by presenting unto us films that deal with seemingly insoluble societal problems. And by depriving his films of any melodramatic garbs (except maybe "Kaleldo"), he gives us new albeit pungent insights into the strains of modern Filipino existence. But here in "Foster Child", penned by regular collaborator Armando Lao, his concern is not much geared towards something broad and socially pervasive as in his later films but specifically on the beauty of 'foster care' and how it functions as a seemingly odd vocation.
Its story, quite simple enough, is about a mother of two named Thelma (the underrated Cherry Pie Picache in a most emotionally involving performance) and her government-sanctioned job as a foster parent. Taking care of a supposed Filipino-American kid named 'John-John', the film explores her everyday life as a surrogate mother to this poor, parentless little sap. Even her close acquaintances, namely a gay man and her very own employer (Eugene Domingo) are, in a way, parents in the most unnatural of circumstances. The first, being a homosexual, takes care of his lover's daughter from a previous marriage, while Thelma's employer, presumably a 24/7 kind of worker, is determined to be the best mother and wife that she can be despite a most passive husband. 
Although it's not overtly suggested, "Foster Child", a most emotionally sound film, hints at the fact that the lives of foster parents are, in many ways, enclosed in a painful cycle of loving and letting go. I know it by fact because our family has once taken care of a parentless baby for about 2 months, and the pain of finally giving the baby to its legal adopters is just quite hard to bear. Now, think of repeating this emotional rollercoaster again and again. This, for me, is at the heart of what "Foster Child" is trying to empathize with, and Brillante Mendoza succeeds in immersing us into this bittersweet world with little to no emotional artificialities. Best scene? The part where the camera lingers on a premature baby inside an incubator, and how it slowly tilts up to reveal Thelma's priceless body language and facial expression; she knows that only the likes of her can give meaning to this little boy's life, and as hard as it is to bear, hers is a motherly love that's on retail.         
The film, typical of Mendoza, has no concrete script. Instead, the film is comprised of scenes that are merely brought to life by clever improvisations and reactionary acting. Even the plot, as free-flowing as it is, seems to work purely by intuition. The cinematography, as shaky and as non-intrusively observant as it is, just goes to show how Brillante Mendoza has mastered the art of cul-de-sac filmmaking: that is, the style of shakily shooting films through narrow passes, concrete dead ends and shanty-jammed mazes. And by combining it with improvisational acting, "Foster Child" was able to achieve a purer and infinitely more spontaneous form of filmmaking not seen since the heydays of Brocka and Bernal. 
"Foster Child", aside from its individual merits as a film, is also a sign of things to come for Brillante the auteur. It's a film that's so painfully unseen by most people that many quickly dismiss Mendoza's body of work, often immediately after seeing his darker films like "Serbis" and "Kinatay" and nothing else, as socially exploitative hogwash. On the contrary, I think Brillante Mendoza may perhaps even be the most emotionally articulate director working today without even trying hard to do so, and it is in his more tender films like "Foster Child" where it truly and glowingly shows.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

The love that loves us.

Infamously known for taking an awful lot of time between projects, Terrence Malick has uncharacteristically weaved a quick follow-up (a little more than a year) to his critical hit "The Tree of Life" in the form of "To the Wonder", a solemn rumination on how love affects the lives of those who search for it. Faster than a bullet train, many have immediately predicted the film's unanimous critical triumph. But sadly, what happened was quite the opposite, as "To the Wonder" finally proved that Terrence Malick, one of the more beloved art film directors today, can also truly divide. 
Met with mixed amounts of laughter, applause and boos during its Venice Film Festival premiere, saying that "To the Wonder" is polarizing is quite an understatement. Perhaps some have grown tired of Malick's loose-structured style, while some may have seen through the grave pretense of his themes. As for me, "To the Wonder" proved to be quite a transcendent experience. 
To state the fact, it's not, in any way, a 'movie' in the most intrinsic sense of the word. Dominantly, "To the Wonder" is more of a feature-length mood piece. And like a sweeter Alain Resnais, Terrence Malick, through the use of deeply pleading narrations and breathtaking yet fragmented imagery, explores love at its most trying and at its most pure. From a Parisian woman's (Olga Kurylenko) search for the meaning of her romance with an American man, played by Ben Affleck with a sort of detached silence, to a Spanish priest's (Javier Bardem) quest to make one with his spirituality, the film approaches the many forms of love with articulate questions and wandering thoughts that it has delivered through the profound nuances of the French and Spanish language. 
By doing so, the film takes on a more personal level. As the film continues on with its various reflections, the film becomes less and less about love in general and more and more like a silently thankful prayer. And just like "The Tree of Life", "To the Wonder" is a highly personal project for Terrence Malick, as he himself, from what I've read, is basically the Ben Affleck character in the film. So in many respects, "To the Wonder's" creation is basically a form of unhindered personal expression. For an artist like him, expressing whatever he feels through written words is certainly not enough.
Like a well-wrought diary entry, "To the Wonder" is Malick's remedy to his various emotional ellipses. And although the film is as ambiguous and baffling as the next artsy fartsy film, its emotional content, as far as I'm concerned, is as coherent as it can be. The film may be branded as an utter piece of pretentious art, but what it cannot be accused of is deluding the audience's emotions. Like a beautiful romantic symphony, "To the Wonder" is a film that you just can't help but stop and hum along with. 
Terrence Malick, unlike any directors of any kind out there, treats cinema as his personal poetry book, and I couldn't be more thankful about it. Ultimately, 'thankful' is the key word here. Lyrical, elegiac and also quite life-affirming even despite its perceived ambiguity, "To the Wonder" is a film that speaks more truth about love than some 30 romantic films combined. "To the love that loves us, thank you."

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Ted (Seth MacFarlane)

Cuddle the fu**er.

"Ted", with its cute stuffed toy lead, looks just like one of those films that can easily be mistaken as a highly disposable children's movie. After all, the film stars a middle-aged man and a fluffy Teddy bear. On paper, "Ted" seems to have 'family' and 'General Patronage' written all over it. It's a film that kind of looks like a thing that's reason enough for families to celebrate, for a movie date during the weekends will surely be set. But wait, did I forget that Seth MacFarlane is the director? Yes, cue in the obligatory 'vinyl scratch' sound. Damn that "Family Guy" guy.

With an initially misleading opening narration reminiscent of all those Christmas movies, "Ted" opens up telling us about the story of a lonely boy who literally wished upon a star for his teddy bear to come to life and be his best friend forever. For the first 30 minutes, the film is surprisingly wholesome and, I can't believe I'm writing this about a Seth MacFarlane film, innocently magical. From talking snowmen to a kid suddenly inheriting an entire chocolate factory, many magical, film-bound stories have led us to believe that people, especially those with the purest of hearts, can indeed live happily ever after. "Ted", in its essence, is a postmodern reflection on all those children's movies but with all the realistic repercussions intact. What if Charlie Bucket was asked to appear on Larry King live and be forced to explain how his employment of Oompa-Loompas is, by no means, illegal? What if Matilda's parents were suddenly asked to appear on the Jerry Springer show? "Ted", in all its irreverence, tries to explore the notion of whether or not the "...And they lived happily ever after" part in children's stories has a follow-up sentence or two.

Turns out, John's teddy bear became quite a television sensation. Appearing in countless talk shows and whatnot, he gradually became kind of like the post-fame Macaulay Culkin (already a fact) and Justin Bieber (just wait): cocky, pot-headed and hopeless. And now, even John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), the kind-hearted young boy who just wanted to have a friend, is now also a Ganja-smoking slacker. Talk about 'happily ever after'. 

Ripe with crude humor and littered with jokes that range from the offensively sexual and racial to the downright scatological, "Ted" is surely not the film to bring a conservative girl to on a first date. But on the other hand, it sure is the perfect film to watch baked. But aside from that, coming from a viewer who has seen the film sober and all, "Ted" is, sadly, quite forgettable and, at times, even boring. Though it boasts of competent lead performances by Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and MacFarlane himself (he voiced the titular character), the film quite suffers from its predictable, run-of-the-mill plot and some one-bit gags that seem to have been directly recycled from "Family Guy". Giovanni Ribisi though, on the other hand, was quite gratifying to watch in a very far-out role.

But despite that, the chemistry between the titular CGI bear and Mark Wahlberg is hard to deny. Though Wahlberg, post-"Boogie Nights", is more commonly known as a 'go-to' movie tough guy, he exudes a kind of careless boyishness in this film that complements the film's reckless comedic tone. While Seth MacFarlane, voicing the titular character, is perfect foil to the film's every pseudo-attempt at showing order. In a way, he's like a conflation of a non-murderous version of Chucky and a fuzzier Borat. Yeah, that's basically Ted.

With an abundance of intensely subversive jokes and parodying cameos, "Ted" succeeds as a sort of comedy movie of the week. But aside from that, what with its uninspired plot and repetitive humor, the film lacks that certain punch to propel it to something higher. I've seen funnier fragments of "Family Guy".

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)

Master Yip.

Yip Man, whose life is a common favorite among filmmakers to interpret and is also perhaps the Asian cinematic equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, headlines yet another film about his chain-punching exploits. But this time, we've got a cinematic heavyweight at the helm in the form of Wong Kar-wai. Plus, we've got the Asian king of cool Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Yip Man himself. Despite the question of "The Grandmaster's" true necessity as a biopic (the 2008 Donnie Yen-starrer "Ip Man" may have already sufficed), the film has nonetheless sparked immediate interest among cinephiles because, why wouldn't it? It has Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung Chiu Wai in it, not to mention that Zhang Ziyi (Zhang Ziyi!) is also part of it. It also has an amazing cinematography and an obvious promise for some solid, kick-ass martial arts action. Now who would not figuratively jizz all over such a project?
Set in Foshan a few years before the Japanese occupation (but then again, so was the Donnie Yen film), "The Grandmaster" chronicles, through Wong Kar-wai's trademark, quasi-poetic visual style, Ip Man's well-deserved rise to high esteem as a martial arts master and sudden fall as a wartime-stricken citizen. The film also fascinates by highlighting the fact that a brothel, named the "Golden Pavilion", has been the favorite haven among martial artists (and also the most preferred venue for their fisticuffs) during the time. Well, let's just say that it's kind of like the early 20th century equivalent of those modern, organic coffee shops and the masters themselves as the hipsters that inhabit them. Things indeed just recur. 
In a nutshell, well, the film is basically about this bunch of high-flying, philosophy-uttering bohemians who fight for some obsolete sense of pride, respect and discipline, even amidst a time of guns, bombs and widespread hunger. Surely, it was a fascinating thing to tackle, especially since the earlier "Ip Man" film is so much more focused on a bombastically illusory narrative (its title should have been "Ip Man vs. Japan") more than Yip Man's intensely spiritual personality. But still, "The Grandmaster" is, after all, supposed to be a martial arts film, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, basically, is supposed to kick some ass. Heavy philosophizing, for me, should belong in other films. Hell, even his eventual student Bruce Lee, who also had his share of martial arts movies, would certainly agree. You don't mix forced dramatics, contrived verbal symbolism and uncalled-for romance with some good ol' bone-cracking action because, sooner or later, it would definitely overwhelm what the film is really destined to be. And alas, that's exactly what happened with "The Grandmaster". 
In some sense, the film has even lost itself halfway by not being about Yip Man anymore. Instead, it has problematically focused on what is an otherwise very sub-par revenge narrative instigated by what is otherwise a very forgettable character in the form of Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er. Now, that's two aspects right there that "The Grandmaster" has missed its mark on: first on being a true martial arts film, and second on being a memorable biopic.  
As for the imagery, well, you really wouldn't expect anything short of brilliant from Wong Kar-wai. Dream-like in its execution and peppered with Wong's fevered slow-motion shots, the film's visuals flow like an achingly beautiful lullaby. Suddenly, shades of Zhang Yimou's more reflective martial arts films come to mind. But then again, "The Grandmaster" is too weak and indecisive regarding what its narrative really wants to cover and whether its fight scenes were there to really matter that the film ultimately achieved only a third of its potential greatness. Sadly, the film is an 'almost' masterpiece. And with 'almost', I mean stuck in a gas station two miles away from its supposed destination. It really could have been so much more.

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)

Here's lookin' at you.

Alright, before anything else, I just want to express my utter disappointment on this film for not even hinting at Hitch's Ovophobia (fear of eggs). There I said it. Moving on…

Biography films are not given enough credit for being trickier to execute than how it looks. For them to be successful, they must highlight the life of the man/woman they're focusing on with sheer definitiveness and completeness that people would not look for any further films. This has been the very problem that has plagued seemingly incomplete biopics such as "Ali", the Will Smith-starrer which has chronicled the boxer's life only until his fight in Zaire with George Foreman; hardly the best way to end a story about one of the great icons of modern sports history. And hell, even "Capote", a great Oscar attention-grabber during its time, was deemed not perfect enough that a second-tier film about the exact same subject, entitled "Infamous", was conceived. What I mean is that for a biopic to be effective, one must begin and end it at a certain highlight of the person's life which we can all deem as his greatest (or worst) moment. I think you will all agree with me: "Ali" should have ended somewhere in Manila. Even if your knowledge of boxing history is at the slightest, you know what certain pay-per-view I'm talking about. To this day, I'm still slightly disappointed as to how Michael Mann never saw the emotional potential of ending the said film at that particular segment of Ali's life. 

But on a more positive note, that biopic lesson, which was often ignored by some films of the genre, was finely heeded by "Hitchcock", a highly-polished biography of perhaps the most influential filmmaker in history. 

Yes I know, perhaps everyone's quite infuriated about the fact that the film was entitled "Hitchcock" simply because it is not, in any way, a proper chronicling of the man's life. But before we go all ruckus-minded about the matter, please be reminded that the original title is supposed to be "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"; sounds more like a routine special feature from a newly-remastered DVD rather than an actual film, doesn't it? Well, we should at least thank the makers for at least doing that last-minute title change.

For a supposed biopic of arguably the greatest icon of modern cinema, "Hitchcock" runs for a mere 98 minutes, which is really quite puzzling because Alfred Hitchcock is such a complex and interesting character to explore. Even his well-known 'blonde' obsession, which is a fine thing to focus upon on its own, was merely hinted at but was not given much attention. But then again, the film, based on what I have seen, merely guns for something that is playfully Hitchcockian in style (the Ed Gein scenes, the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents-esque" opening) but is also very light and, sadly, quite disposable a fare. 

Anthony Hopkins, the only actor that I believe can convincingly pull of Hitch, shines as the titular filmmaker. Although scenes of a superfluously dark-humored Hitchcock overshadow those of a more psychologically tortured one, his interpretation of the 'Master of Suspense' is, for a lack of a better term, masterful. While Helen Mirren, who's as scene-stealing as Hopkins, is effortless as Hitch's wife, Alma Reville. Because of this film, I therefore conclude that without Ms. Reville, Hitchcock could not have pulled off the horror mammoth that is "Psycho" and a whole bunch of his other masterpieces too. This then brings me again to this very tired but truthful adage: "Behind every great man is a woman". In Hitchcock's case, it sure is an icy blonde. Or that's what he has been hoping for all his life, at least.

In terms of execution, "Hitchcock" is, by and large, very conventional and ordinary. Even the insights into Hitchcock's character and the certain happenings on the set of "Psycho" I have already read on the Internet. But what makes this film quite special is its substantial inclusion of Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who has inspired the source novel by Robert Bloch; a sort of creative liberty that has proved to be a very nice touch. Although I would have preferred it if it was Norman Bates himself (because I want to see more of James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates) and not Ed Gein who Hitchcock tries to find and identify himself to in the film's certain, dream-like scenes, it is still a flavorful extra garnish to an otherwise standard biopic. And Scarlett Johansson, despite some eager protests from fans prior to the film's release, nails Janet Leigh convincingly in a way that is sweet, safe and non-controversial.

"Hitchcock", if I am to treat the 'biopic' rules that I have mentioned above as canon, is quite a success and a failure. A success because the film was able to start and begin at perhaps Hitchcock's greatest moment (the creation of "Psycho"); a failure because some of the characters were reduced to mere caricatures. The film nailed the dark humor, the unrelenting obsession and the murderous vibe that comprise a Hitchcock film, but it lacks a more thorough psychological dimension that most biopics often tread. Ultimately, "Hitchcock" lacks the extra courage to dig through Hitch's tailored suit to look right at his heart; we were promised a quite incisive treatment of Hitchcock's persona, and we were left hanging. What we chanced upon is a film that shows us things that we've all heard, seen and read about before, and there seems to have been no effort to pick up from that and go further. Alas, there were no corpses to discover.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black)

Stark realism.

At last, I was able to squeeze in "Iron Man 3" into my otherwise busy schedule partly because I cannot take the attention-whoring spoilers on social media anymore and also because, well, who wouldn't? Iron Man is, after all, our most beloved Avenger. He is the coolest billionaire on film outside Bruce Wayne. Hell, the film's about an egotistically charismatic guy in a robot suit. Who wouldn't find time for that? 

Unlike "Iron Man 2" which is quite unsure if whether it really wants to be an action-packed comedy or a brooding drama, "Iron Man 3", directed by Shane "I am Hawkins from Predator" Black, is a whole new monster. For me, this marks the first time that an Iron Man installment really feels more like a Tony Stark movie, and for good reason. 
The plot, although the usual science fiction/quasi-political mix, feels more fun than it has any right to be simply because the film is effective in being half-serious and half-camp. In this regard, we must give proper credit to Mr. Black, whose experience in character and chemistry-driven action movies (the "Lethal Weapon" franchise) has benefitted the film a hundredfold, not to mention that he has already directed Downey Jr. in the brilliant crime-comedy "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" alongside Val Kilmer. In short, "Iron Man 3", despite its unsurprising abundance of visual effects, feels a whole lot more grounded because we see a lot more of Tony Stark outside that pesky armor. This time, we don't see Stark as a mere alter-ego but as a believable action hero who just happens to own a robot suit or two. For all I care, the film could have easily been entitled "Tony Stark" and it will still appeal to the audience. This aspect is what makes "Iron Man 3" quite an innovation, execution-wise. We see Tony run around a lot like a bearded Sam Witwicky, wield service pistols and neutralize enemies with make-shift weapons, and it entertains because his trademark, all too human wit is admittedly at a better high when he's not suited up. 
For some, seeing Stark more often without the armor suit lessens the essence of what the film promises to be, but for me, it has even made the film a whole lot better. Well, of course, there's that big 'Iron Men' scene at the film's climax, but aside from that, there really isn't much time to bask on Iron Man's individual awesomeness. After all, this is a pained Tony Stark we're dealing with here both emotionally and physically, so seeing him all rusty and desperate, without much time to go all CGI Fonzie inside the suit, just fits the film's overall tone.
The performances, on the other hand, are quite great by superhero movie standards. Robert Downey Jr., after being the evident scene-stealer in "The Avengers", has once again proved that, well, he is currently the 'King of Cool' by giving what might be his best Tony Stark performance to date. Guy Pearce was also quite outstanding in his role as the villainous Aldrich Killian, whose performance mirrors that of Kevin Bacon's in "X-Men: First Class". But the real spark plug of a revelation here is Ben Kingsley, who's just, well, 'deceptive' in his portrayal of the Mandarin. Take my word for it: I think he's perhaps the biggest surprise of the year so far, and that's both a compliment and a slight dig.
Admittedly, "Iron Man 3's" trailers are really the most misleading things to come out for quite a while. At the time of the teaser materials' release, some have even speculated that Marvel, perhaps after seeing the success of "The Dark Knight" trilogy, has also finally decided to go all 'Nolan' on this installment. Instead, what the film has done was take just the right amount of insightful character psychology, throw it in with the staple explosiveness and fun that make Marvel films such a joy to watch, and mix well. The crucial part, naturally, is on the mixing. Unlike blockbuster filmmakers like Michael Bay and whoever made the G.I. Joe films, Shane Black has this certain, '80s 'buddy cop' feel in his directorial style which lifts "Iron Man 3" on a league of its own. I also loved how he used some narration (by Tony Stark) to tell the story on a more personal level, as opposed to the passive narrative technique of the previous two films. "Iron Man 3", despite its flaws and slight unevenness, has nonetheless hit the right notes. Off to a great start, Marvel's Phase 2 seems to be.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Kelvin and Hari.

Considered by Andrei Tarkovsky to be the least favorite film that he has ever directed and is also lowly regarded by the source novel's author (Stanislaw Lem), "Solaris" is not quite the cinematic darling before than it was today. And if that is quite the case, that even the director himself is not that keen on singing praises about his own work, then who are we to like it more than the one who created it? But then I suddenly remember that I liked "The Virgin Spring" immensely: the film that Ingmar Bergman himself has also considered to be one of his weakest works. And damn, we all love "The Seventh Seal", a film that Bergman has labeled as nothing more than a 'lousy imitation' of Akira Kurosawa. Perhaps to really be a great artist, one must have an adequate dose of insecurity, because if one does not have any, then how can that artist properly discourse on the weakness of man (a most favorite topic to tackle among great filmmakers)? 
In this film's case, Tarkovsky himself, knowing that "Solaris" has not been powerful enough to transcend the science fiction genre, reflects what the film itself is all about: that man can never reach an ambiguous goal because it is something that he 'fears and doesn't want'; that man, whatever knowledge he may have, is but a minuscule detail in the whole thick of the universe, and that man, as he seeks intelligence, creates more confusion in the process. 
There has always been this preconceived notion that the vastness of space is indeed something that 'we can't fully understand'. But what if it's the one that wants to understand us? And what if it's just us who can't really comprehend ourselves? These are such questions raised by "Solaris", a masterful interstellar drama that tries to expound on the mysteries of the great beyond and, subsequently, of our very soul. What results is, bar none, one of the most emotionally articulate science fiction films ever conceived and also one of the most inquisitive.
The film's plot, perhaps the most linear and derivative of all Tarkovsky films, concerns a psychologist, named Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), and his mission to find out what's really going on in a space station orbiting a mysterious oceanic planet. When he arrived, he found the crew emotionally disheveled, extremely worrisome and jumpy beyond belief. And to add to that, his already dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), has suddenly materialized back into life. What's really going on?
Tarkovsky, a filmmaker who we all know is careful not to be limited by the mechanics of a specific genre, makes it sure that expository dialogue and special effects are kept at a minimum. In addition, his pacing is as deliberate as it can be. After all, he never went to space to visually showboat, to tell a lightning-fast story or to discuss mere technology; he's there to philosophize about humanity. 
Just like his later, very companion-y "Stalker", "Solaris" also operates under its own set of cerebral, emotional and physical rules. It's also less concerned on explaining things just like how a magician is never inclined on revealing the secrets of his trade. Mysterious plot devices, such as the 'Annihilator', are mentioned but not fully expounded upon. Characters' inner landscapes are further explored but never explained why. There's also a recurring sense of futility in the characters' numerous philosophical clashes. In the end, something may have been ostensibly resolved, but surely at a bitter cost. 
Andrei Tarkovsky, however challenging his works may be, is in fact a subtly didactic and optimistic filmmaker. Deeply submerged in existential despair his films may sometimes be, Tarkovsky never forgets to insert the idea that man can be better off if only he can know his limitations; if only he can be less grandiose in his ambitions; if only he can be aware of the fact that man only needs man. 
"Solaris", aside from being a meditative psychological drama, is also a timeless parable on humility. We've always been deluded by the idea that we're not alone in this universe and that, ultimately, we can make first contact with whoever they are or whatever it is. But as what this film suggests, such intention to see and know too much negates the very essence of existence itself.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

It Takes a Man and a Woman (Cathy Garcia-Molina)


After the well-received "A Very Special Love" and the record-breaking "You Changed My Life", the much-lucrative romantic tandem of John Lloyd Cruz and Sarah Geronimo is finally back to once again rekindle the love story between rich hotshot Miggy Montenegro and the quirky Laida Magtalas, and people sure are elated. It also sure helps, anticipation-wise, that the film is widely accepted and believed to be the last one in the 'Miggy-Laida' movie franchise. But then again, I just want to remind you that, after all, this is Star Cinema we're dealing with here, so the next thing we know, we're watching Miggy and Laida, geriatric and all, inside a nursing home.
"It Takes a Man and a Woman", entitled so because it deals with the intrinsic essence of being a man and a woman in the context of love and also because, well, there's not much love songs left to choose from, is a rom-com film that capitalizes on the first two films' humor and one-liners too much that it ended up looking more like a rehash of its predecessors rather than a pure, standalone sequel. But thanks to Sarah Geronimo's infectious energy, the film's reliance on recycle humor has ironically proven to be one of the film's strongest points. After all, the movie is centered upon her character and on the humor that she endlessly churns out, so it just feels right for Ms. Geronimo to be a complete stand out among the rest, including even John Lloyd Cruz himself. But viewers beware: "It Takes a Man and a Woman" is a movie that can only be enjoyed by those who have already seen (and liked) the first two films. As for me who has always been slightly indifferent towards movies of this kind, I quite liked what I have seen. Although of course, typical for a Star Cinema feature, this one's got some issues too.
One of them is the fact that it has re-manufactured too much scenes from the first two films. Granted, the film, as what I have mentioned above, has been very conscious of what wonders recycling certain moments from its predecessors can do to elicit humor. But doing it too much can easily become quite a nuisance because one, it clogs the narrative with utter redundancy, and two, because it just goes to show that the screenwriters only have a few new things to offer.
I also hated how the movie has lazily resorted in using a thinly-written, blandly-realized character (played by Isabel Daza) as a momentary foil to the love team (Really? Aren't there any other options?). For me, with the Laida and Miggy characters being naturally repellant of each other (they are grudge-filled exes after all), the writers should have capitalized on that angle more and downplayed the surface level idea that they can't be together simply because there's an insubstantial third character involved. 
But despite of that deficiency, I loved how the movie has balanced work and play; that is, the film was able to mix the sentimentality and the humor without overcooking either. Well, let's just say that "It Takes a Man and a Woman" is the end product when we combine "A Very Special Love's" happy-go-lucky, abundantly comedic feel with "You Changed My Life's" more subtle dramatics.
But then, just when I thought that the film is quite walking the path of sun and breeze, the abominable final scenes came; scenes filled with globs and globs of sugar that even Willy Wonka would cringe. Suddenly, the balance that the film has maintained all throughout has suddenly vanished to give way to the utter glucose fest at hand. 
To be fair, "It Takes a Man and a Woman" is a very entertaining and well-realized crowd-pleaser, but for your own good, please do quietly walk out of the theater midway through the final 'airport' scene and calmly save yourself from the impending horror, for the final scenes are basically diabetes on celluloid.

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