Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

Wolverine to Mystique: "Let's reboot this shit, bub!"

Before anything else, let me just say, with utter conviction, that “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not the masterful “X-Men” movie that many people are making it out to be, because Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” is leagues better. And, yes, screw those who think otherwise. I’m not kidding. No, really, I’m just playing with you. Now stop staring at me as if I killed Kennedy!

Seriously though, while I don’t really get the enormous hype surrounding this film, I understand why it’s easy for people to label this one as the greatest “X-Men” movie out there. Of course, one of the obvious reasons is its merging of the actors from the original trilogy and those from the prequel into one tremendous ensemble cast. Another is Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise after Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood have turned it into a watered-down joke (even now, I still can’t believe what they did to Deadpool *shudders*). Superficial reasons, those two.

But with that being said, I think it’s quite fair to say that you still can’t go wrong with “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in terms of entertainment, which is often kept crisp by its ambitious thematic flourishes. Yet sadly, narrative issues prevent it from truly being superior to its predecessors. Though this qualm of mine can be heavily attributed to the film’s complete disregard for continuity issues and character inconsistencies (the last time I checked, Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat enters walls, not people’s minds), what I’m pretty sure about is that this is the densest “X-Men” movie of the bunch. However, it has so much going on with it that instead of its narrative strands adding up for a highly satisfactory experience, there’s a feeling that the film, as a whole, never really pushed the envelope further when there’s more than enough space for it. In some ways, Bryan Singer, with a potential super-epic in his hands, has squandered the chance by instead playing it safe, with his intention not on delivering a staggering superhero masterwork but only on rebooting the very franchise he himself has initially helmed. Like a social worker who has handed out a pack of salty instant noodles to a hungry, malnourished refugee, Bryan Singer has fed the franchise and gave it an additional jolt of life, but nothing really long-term, for its continuity issues will always come back to haunt it.

The film, as what is admittedly posh among superhero movies nowadays to bolster their cinematic self-importance, heavily tinkers with history, and for that, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” instantly elevates itself as a different kind of superhero film. But unlike “Watchmen”, for example, which maximizes its use of historical events by integrating them within a most potent and well-built alternate reality, “Days of Future Past’s” dose of history is but a nostalgic ornament, used only to support the story’s “Terminator-like” time-travel gimmick. Also, the way the story tells us that Magneto is involved in JFK’s assassination, unlike how “X-Men: First Class” fits perfectly into the whole Cold War subplot, is a bit forced and inorganic, especially when, you know, “Watchmen” has already made use of that shocking historical event as an interesting plot nugget some years ago. Though on a positive note, they absolutely nailed Richard Nixon this time around without using much prosthetic on the nose part.

In addition, the plot also seems to be so focused on Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) being this fate-altering wildcard that Magneto, somnambulistically played by Michael Fassbender, has no choice but to relegate himself to a side villain role despite the fact that the story, if logic is to be followed, dictates that he should be fighting alongside Charles Xavier for survival’s sake. Instead, what he did was telephatically lift a big-ass football stadium, drop it on the White House to trap Richard Nixon and Henry Kiss-Ass-inger, among others, and discourse about mutant respect while being a bit of an ass about it. With him being listed as the number one greatest comic book villain of all time in a list I’ve read quite a long time ago, Bryan Singer and company should have known that Magneto is much better (and wiser) than that. And don’t tell me that he’s merely being his younger, reckless self in this film to excuse his nonsensical Mojo Jojo-like actions. Man, Joker was already as sharp as a shiv and on the brink of breaking both Batman’s sanity and the entire moral fiber of Gotham in “The Dark Knight” and he was not even 30 yet during that time.

But despite all those (it’s really not possible to write a review about this film filled with nothing but rants), the franchise (not just this film) was still more than successful in rebooting itself without recasting any major lead characters or starting from scratch again. When the whole superhero world is scrambling on fast-tracking a remake of this and a reboot of that, the “X-Men” franchise has remained confident about the universe it has built, privy of the numerous shit it has churned out but also aware of the gems it has intermittently created all throughout these years. Though Rebecca Romjin’s blue-scaled seductress will always be my Mystique and Ray Park’s tongue-lashing badass my Toad, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, though slightly uncalled for, has made the necessary changes to make the franchise more appealing to a new generation of audience. I mean, come on, who would not want to see Jennifer Lawrence in an uber-fit bodysuit?

But on a more serious note, given the film’s star-studded cast, I was surprised that there really weren't any standout performances in it, except for Evan Peters, maybe, who truly rocked his Quicksilver turn, specifically in THAT one scence, which would give the Wachowski siblings a run for their money. Go watch it for yourself. Tyrion Lannister, err, Peter Dinklage, also shines as the hard-to-hate villain Bolivar Trask, who just wants to murder millions to save billions by way of his giant sentinel dudes. Such a sweetie, this guy is, “Watchmen’s” Ozymandias will be happy. A little trivia: Trask was first played by Bill Duke (!) in “X-Men: The Last Stand”. Google him if you may. Now that’s some epic recast.

The CGI fight sequences, although good, are oftentimes too dark and hard to follow, and the sentinels’ bodies sometimes contort in physiologically unrealistic ways. And, seriously, do they really need to recast William Stryker again? I know, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is pure dung, but Danny Huston has done a more than decent job in portraying Stryker in it that they should have just used him again instead.

All in all, though I have lots of complaints toward “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, I still thoroughly enjoyed the film for what it is, which is an ambitious, thinking man’s superhero film. In the end, it all comes down to two things as to why I never liked the film that much: either I just was never a fan of “X-Men”, or I am just a much bigger fan of proper narrative continuity.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)

Kaiju badassery.

If last year’s “Pacific Rim” has offered more than a passing hint of kaiju nostalgia, then this year’s “Godzilla”, Gareth Evans’ modern and westernized take on the monstrous pop culture icon, gives out more than just a splotch of it. And if Roland Emmerich’s 1998 dud of a remake is more about shitting on the entirety of the monster’s mythology and, as much as possible, distancing itself away from its Japanese origins, this one right here, from the title card itself up to the way the music hits certain notes at key moments, is a faithful tribute through and through, if not a bit imbalanced. It boasts of high-end special effects that even the genre itself is yet to be fortunate enough to be often blessed with, and it can also be just as proud with its impressive cast, led by “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston and reliable Japanese character actor Ken Watanabe.

Just like the very first “Gojira” film in 1954, the “Godzilla” of today is focused on looking at the larger-than-life entity (literally) with a dominantly human perspective. We see Godzilla clash with his monstrous contemporaries (labeled as MUTOs – Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), but often only through express train windows and TV screens and rarely through the ‘monster mash’ point of view that all of us are quite used to, kaiju film-wise (what with those miniature temples and electric posts); that is, until the super awesome final battle.

The problem, though, as what all the other reviewers have noticed, is that the grounded human characters aren’t all that interesting, to say the least. Sure, there’s the uber-talented Bryan Cranston, who often steals every scene (or even each film, for that matter) he’s in and always makes do with what little screen time he has, but his character is one hour gone too early for him to really set in and complement the kaiju action in the film with his acting power.

Aaron-Taylor Johnson, on the other hand, who has already proven his worth with leading roles such as in the “Kick-Ass” films and even in the John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”, struggles because of generic writing, which hinders his character from really growing into someone whom you can really root for at the height of a monster takeover. I’m not a Roland Emmerich fan or anything, you know, but the German lad seems to always have a knack of letting his characters develop into on-screen people you can actually laugh, cry, and be valiant with, all while some form of natural disaster destroys famous landmarks in the background.

Aside from those mentioned above, I also have a slight issue about the film’s way of explaining certain plot details, with Watanabe, who is obviously not the greatest of English speakers, oddly being given the honor to deliver the film’s exposition-heavy dialogues. Maybe I’m asking too much now, but Cranston should have easily been given that task because, what the hell? That man can have an intense on-screen meltdown and still intelligibly discuss perhaps even the hardest parts of rocket science with great ease.

But with that being said, as a movie fan who’s really bent on having his money’s worth with a film entitled “Godzilla”, I was still more than impressed. I mean, do you really expect this film, which is essentially about an atomic-breathing dinosaur that often fights off monsters of varying sizes, to really go on great lengths to profoundly discourse about the human condition? Go grab a Tarkovsky film or something, you sniveling snob. This is about a prehistoric apex predator which destroys buildings and creatures slightly lower to him on the big-ass kaiju food chain on a whim, and the film never wasted a minute to visually tell us anything but that. Though there are mild attempts to show Godzilla’s connection with the human populace (there was a brief scene where the creature and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character shared a brief yet knowing glance), what the film is really recklessly careening into is the climactic kaiju battle that puts those in “Pacific Rim” to utter shame. And just like the moment when Gypsy Danger finally unleashed his retractable sword, “Godzilla” has pumped up my adrenaline level to an unbelievably crazy height, especially when I finally saw bluish hints slowly accumulating along the monster’s spine, which, as we all know, is followed by its atomic belch, err, breath.

If you’re looking for a monster film that fulfills its promises and more, “Godzilla” will never disappoint a living soul, except of course those who still strangely consider Emmerich’s version as some kind of canon and expect Godzilla to once again brainlessly wreak havoc on Manhattan and chase a merry band of survivors led by Ferris Bueller. If for anything else, “Godzilla” successfully shows a new generation of audience what a kaiju film is really all about while also letting us in on a crash course about the titular monster’s unpredictable heroism. Now, let us quietly close our eyes and forever erase from our memories 1998’s “Godzilla”, watch Toho bury the hell out of the weird, iguana-looking abomination from that wretched film in “Godzilla: Final Wars”, then drown it all out with this latest Godzilla’s beautiful growl, which is nothing short of music in the ears.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

The Budapest.

Fresh off the success of his pre-adolescent love story that is "Moonrise Kingdom", Wes Anderson is back, after a mere 2 years, for "The Grand Budapest Hotel", a film that is as deeply troubling as a penny dreadful yet as deft in its storytelling as a great piece of literature. It is also particularly notable for having in its disposal a wide array of well-known actors, no matter how out of place some of them may ostensibly be in a Wes Anderson picture,  that figure perfectly into this otherwise odd little film.

For almost every single one of the esteemed filmmaker's niche fan, this project is undoubtedly a great step towards the right direction because Anderson finally ventures into a genre that is yet to be tread by his cinematic shtick. If almost all of his previous films deal largely with the dysfunctions of certain families and how they affect the already idiosyncratic world they live in, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" adversely creates a vast, "Dr. Zhivago-like" dreamland of quirks and unexpected politics that seem to overwhelm the main characters in ways both good and bad. Reminiscent of Charles Chaplin and how he has specifically concocted fictitious nations that mirror real countries (Tomainia as Germany and Bacteria as Italy) for his dim-witted dictators to rule over in "The Great Dictator", Wes Anderson has created the Republic of Zubrowka: the place where the titular hotel is situated. Run by the charismatic, well-mannered, and overly cordial Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and assisted by the 'divine' lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori), the hotel, as lavish as it is, is shown as something that's kept alive not just by the quantity of rich guests that flock it, but also by the odd kind of discipline Gustave indoctrinates to his subordinates. It is also quite in order to mention that Gustave consistently engages in sleazy friendships with "rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, and blonde" women, which makes his job all the more financially rewarding.

For Wes Anderson purists, watching "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a gratifying experience, and even that, for some, is an understatement. With his visual symmetry evidently at its most impressive in this film and his deadpan humor now deliciously lined with some hints of classic slapstick and shocking violence, he has admittedly upped the ante. Because of how Anderson has slightly altered his game for this film while tackling themes previously unfamiliar to him (murder, wartime politics, and the likes), he has made genre archetypes conform to his patented aesthetics and not the other way around, and that, at least from where I see it, is a mark of a true auteur.

On the other hand, though, for film fans that are slowly getting quite irate of Wes Anderson's gimmicky style, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may very well sound the death knell for any chance of them being endeared to his future works. Abundant and almost abusive in its use of tableaux, intentional lack of comic timing, and self-conscious clichés, the film can very well turn people away because Wes Anderson's deadpan approach to filmmaking is at is final, most unbreakable form here. In "Rushmore", it's quite obvious that he's still unsure if what he's making is a coming-of-age dramedy or a romantic comedy. In "The Royal Tenenbaums" and even "The Darjeeling Limited", the emotions are still that of a traditional indie crowd-pleaser. Even the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is still a children's movie in every sense. But here in "The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson seems to care lesser about what people may say about it or whether or not it defies genre classification. There are moments where vignettes are used in awkward ways while there are also scenes where movements are obviously sped up (perhaps to channel comedy pictures from the silent era). Also, he is quite unapologetic in using artificial-looking backdrops to reinforce the film's cartoonish appeal, which unfamiliar viewers may perceive as utterly phony or just plain indulgent. But on the upside, the film's screenplay is clever, fast-witted, and absurdly hysterical, which is the primary reason why Wes Anderson is still quite a darling among film critics despite the fact that he often inspires polarizing sentiments among cinephiles.

As for the performances, Raph Fiennes may have just punched his ticket for a trip to Dolby Theatre for his scene-stealing yet completely effortless turn as Gustave H, while the all-star cast never faltered in providing the film some energy to convince us to be part of the almost magical realist world of Zubrowka for less than 2 hours, and also the ample wit in delivering seemingly archaic lines in sarcastic ways that miraculously make them seem very much refreshing.

Reality check: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" may not be Wes Anderson's best work (though it's really, really close), but it's definitely the most entertaining, what with its chase sequences, all that Willem Dafoe moments, plus that specific (at least for me) "Holy shit, is that Jeff Goldblum?!" scene. Though its wartime setting may put off some fans who have grown accustomed to Wes Anderson films that are typically smaller in scale and centered on a particular family's collective troubles, this film is a peek into how great Wes Anderson can be if he tries out things and themes that are on the opposite side of his comfort zone. There's something in this film which really suggests that Wes Anderson, despite the fact that he will no doubt live and die by his trademark aesthetics, is in for a certain reinvention, storytelling-wise. Indeed, I am sold; sold to this man who was once only seemingly concerned in featuring the Futura font and some gramophones in his films but is now adventurous enough to take on murder, war, and politics and make them seem laughable instead of distressing. It's a 'grand' illusion, what he has created here.     

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

A mad gaze.

For the sake of posterity, I will dare state that this is my first Thomas Vinterberg film (it has always been all Lars von Trier for me), and though I'm not yet fully familiar with his style as a whole, I think it's already fair enough to believe that his polished visual approach for this one is already many years removed from his Dogme 95 roots. But what "The Hunt" lacks in showcasing its director's cinematic trademarks it more than makes up in its intense exploration of everything morally gray. There has been this widely held belief that the things children say are almost always true. Although "The Hunt", even in itself, can't dispute this very fact, what it really wants to say is that once a rare white lie comes out of a kid's mouth, that of which involves you as the make-believe perpetrator of an abhorrent deed, prepare for hell.

Set in a sleepy town populated by people who know each other like family, "The Hunt" is as innocuous as any film can be. And to add yet another dose of harmlessness to this calm and collected scenario, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher named Lucas who does nothing all day but play with his diminutive students. Among the kids is a cute girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who is as mysterious as she is irresistibly adorable. Lucas often walks her to school, and Theo does not seem to mind. One day, though, after Klara inexplicably kissed Lucas in the lips and was subsequently rejected, she then unexpectedly concocted a story detailing how Lucas has shown her his 'willie' and then proceeded to molest her. Shocked and distressed, the school's principal and also the entire community, without even thinking twice, immediately turned their back on poor Lucas.

Ostracized and alone, Lucas, aside from being socially banished from the town he grew up in, also becomes a victim of mass hysteria that he never could have foreseen. Slowly, even the boys who he often plays with in the playground start to craft their own anecdotes of how they were sexually abused by Lucas, even going as far as vividly describing the minute details of their teacher's rustic household. Like a more infuriating, teeth-gnashing small town version of "Rashomon", "The Hunt" is an even trickier film about subjectivity and perception mainly because the bending of facts comes from innocent children who do not even have any stake on anything. If nothing else, it is a grating essay on how a person's deeply-held beliefs about perception can destroy the life of another. Who said innocence is bliss?

Mads Mikkelsen, who most of us will recognize as Le Chiffre in Daniel Craig's very first Bond outing, is utterly believable as a mild-mannered teacher who, in some ways, is content in living a very simple life. Though one must only look at his face to realize that he's the perfect actor to play any psychotic character (hence why he was cast as Hannibal Lecter in the on-going TV series), Mikkelsen has still made me believe in this film that he can play a wronged everyman in such a way that you will back him fully no matter what he does, ala Dustin Hoffman in "Straw Dogs". And yes, this may be far-fetched, but I believe "The Hunt", as much as it is a quiet drama film, has borrowed elements from the western genre, specifically on how Mikkelsen's nursery teacher role closely mirrors the brash town outsiders guys like Clint Eastwood have played in countless gun-toting films in the past, but without the oozing bravado. And as with all western films, it is but necessary for the 'wronged outsider' to prove that he's worth the ounce of respect that his co-villagers owe him. Lucas may not be a gunslinger (well, his affinity for hunting does not count) in the mythical sense of the word, but he treads such a path towards vindication just the same. 

If the film portrays, in detail, how easy it is be put in utter disgrace based solely on a baseless accusation, it also deeply shows the difficulty of reclaiming respect after losing it overnight. Lucas learned it the hard way, and although it's easy to make amends with people, it is hard to re-tie the knot that was already severed. The film is by no means a thriller, but how it unfolds really does flirt with the conventions of the genre. There's also a certain kind of emotional impact in the film that makes it just as powerful a depiction of incorrect indictment as "Dancer in the Dark", which is coincidentally a film directed by Vinterberg's Dogme 95 co-pioneer, Lars von Trier.

"The Hunt", as with all slow-moving drama films of its kind, requires a considerable amount of patience. But at the same time, the film is also borderline humorous in its intense elicitation of anger that it almost literally asks for us viewers to control our collective fury as we watch Lucas' bleak attempt to prove everyone his innocence unravel in all its futility. As frustratingly polished as "The Hunt" may be for a film directed by a Dogme 95 luminary, its themes are still fairly consistent to the said film movement's loose collective intention to explore isolation and moral ambiguity in claustrophobic social settings. There is pure power hiding beneath the film's seemingly plain nature, and it will suck you in until you can only look at a lie, no matter how harmless and white, whether by a sickly octogenarian or a naïve child, as something that truly destroys.

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

A family on fire.

"Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter... Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold... that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."
 – Dr Manhattan (Watchmen, 1987)

Starting off like a typical 'family' film as we get to see the twin siblings Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) trying to make sense of their late mother's strange last will, the film makes it apparent that the film's conflict will strongly be of familial nature, and its plot revelations be more implosive in tone. "Incendies", which is basically Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" minus all the prophecies and is based on a play written by Wajdi Mouawad, is Denis Villeneuve's quiet yet intense study of a nuclear family that harbors a secret so painful that it gives the film a distinct feel of a horror story. The film may not be necessarily entertaining or generally appealing for audience to thoroughly enjoy, but it is the kind which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and then makes you wonder if such bitterness is really that of a bad thing.

"Incendies", as what I've repeatedly said about emotionally unsettling films, is a difficult one to sit through, but will nonetheless make you sit back in awe at Villeneuve's deftness as a peculiar storyteller. Instead of letting the film progress just like the objective mystery piece that it should be, Villeneuve is quick on shifting the film's point of view, with it jumping from the twins', their long-lost brother's, to their mother Nawal Marwan's, and then back again. There's also this ambivalent placing of blood-red title cards in the beginning of each of the film's chapter, which does nothing but enforce the film's narrative ambiguity even more. The heavy reliance on political and religious overtones, coupled with the positioning of Nawal Marwan as a reckless activist, also cleverly distracts from the film's shocking twist in the end, which, as what I've mentioned, hits close to freaking home as any bloody secret can get.

The performances in the film, which are all quiet, naturalistic, and nothing particularly scene-stealing or remarkable, take the backseat in favor of the film's slew of heavy and perception-altering revelations, which is, admittedly, "Incendies'" true selling point. Lubna Azabal's turn as Nawal Marwan, however, is, simply put, nothing short of stunning, which is only fitting because her character is, without a doubt, the film's heart and soul.   

Again, just like any other film with such a quiet, economical pacing, it may really take a while before "Incendies" can grab your attention. But once it does, rest assured, it is as tight as any strongman's grip, and the bad news is that it will keep on tightening the more you think about the film. It's a 'Holy shit, what the hell have I just seen?!' type of cinematic experience, and I tell you, its effect simply just won't go away. And even though its impact ranges from the religious to the utterly ideological, what "Incendies" is all about is how it has miraculously managed to make a film about an otherwise obscure conflict in an equally unknown Middle Eastern country and make it very personal and relatable regardless of racial boundaries. The film is a powerful examination of faith marred by senseless conflicts, and also of fate and how it oftentimes fucks everything up to the point that life ultimately mirrors the cruel formula of a Greek tragedy. But as what this film suggests, out of such an anomalous fate, out of a myriad of almost literary misfortunes arises a certain kind of miracle that "Incendies", despite it being a thematically unsettling film, was able to hold on to the same way Dr. Manhattan, a God-like entity, did when he mused about how the conception of human life is the reason why the world is worth saving.

Villeneuve may have directed the most disturbing family film there ever will be, but in the middle of "Incendies'" abundant cynicism, he also wants to make it known that there's still something pure and outwardly lovely in the sordid little truth that the Marwans are trying to unearth. Suffice it to say, there's still an element of bittersweet pain in finding out a certain secret no matter how pedestrian or persistently life-changing it is. This then reminds me of the ending to Roman Polanski's "Chinatown". Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), after witnessing with his own eyes how a decades-old secret savagely unravel, his friend whispered to him, distraught and all, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Now, if only someone can gently whisper the same to any of the Marwans, then coping would be easier. Or would it? Though the film's story consistently progresses with closure in mind, the film is still, by and large, a haunted soul. The secret was known, but then what? Villeneuve seems content in ending his film with a depleted sigh of relief and chests heavy with sadness and guilt. And as how Dr. Manhattan would put it, "It ends with you in tears."

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

The cracks in S.H.I.E.L.D.

Every time a Marvel film is released, an altogether new reason arises for DC people to tremble in their complacent seats, and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is just the kind of Marvel project to make them all apprehensive (and more) while they try and cram almost everything under the sun in that upcoming "Batman/Superman" film. If DC, as of now, is an image of inconspicuous pressure because they're still quite unsure about what to do with their product, Marvel, in comparison, is kind of like the scout leader who's as organized and assured as all hell. 

In all honesty, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", in terms of its storyline, does not really feel like a superhero movie but more like a stoic political thriller. And though it's being considered by many as the best solo Marvel film to date (some even consider it highly superior to "The Avengers" itself), some may also argue that the reason it became such a quality movie was because it really didn't try to be a superhero film in the classical sense. Its conflict, for instance, doesn't materialize from a formidable villain who wants to proverbially take over the world but from within the ranks of the titular hero himself. So, basically, what makes "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" so great is that it highly contradicts the notion raised by Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" that everything is well and good within the conspiracy-crushing, Chitauri-manhandling organization that is S.H.I.E.L.D. If "The Avengers" is the seminal sing and dance for Cap and company, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the part where the music suddenly stops. And if the said ensemble superhero film is the colorful celebrity magazine, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is freakin' WikiLeaks. The S.H.I.E.L.D., as expected, is really not what it seems to be, and Captain America, the symbolic super-soldier representing pride, honor, and all the other positive adjectives you can possibly think of, is predictably dead set in getting to the bottom of it, and the result's explosive in every sense of the word. 

Chris Evans, who we formerly knew as the 'Human Torch' guy who just happened to nab the Steve Rogers role (many were skeptic about him back then), has firmly grown in the role, with him getting better at it with every film. In "Captain America: The First Avenger", he was believable as the likable misfit who suddenly becomes a dependable (not to mention indestructible) super-soldier whose orders American soldiers eagerly anticipate. 

In "The Avengers", he has shown that a pretty boy like him can confidently bark orders at the likes of Robert Downey, Jr. and hold his own ground against Samuel L. Jackson in an on-screen argument. Here in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", Evans has delivered his most multifaceted performance to date as the patriotic, U.S. flag-clad superhero by emphasizing the fact that Steve Rogers is as wary of the present as he is haunted by his past. And that despite his seemingly all too perfect track record as an unreal specimen of a foot soldier who gets things done, he is all too puny compared to the entire conspiracy that's slowly poisoning the S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside. 

Evans, who's now relatively edgier in the role, was able to makes us believe in this film, in all his facial expressions and displays of physical struggle, that this may just be the first time an Avenger will be vanquished. Even Nick Fury, who we all consider as this eye-patched badass who does nothing more than eagerly watch the Avengers' every move behind closed doors and on computer screens, was fleshed out in a way that makes one think that this entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, if stripped down to the characters' bare essences, is basically a series of films starring a bunch of head cases with a death wish who all just happen to want to save the world. And just like "X-Men: First Class", "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" effortlessly adopts an additional layer of complexity due to its dose of political intrigue. 

Essentially, the film's dominant priority is to be a potent spy feature, and as a movie fan, it's just valid to label this film as an intense yet patient espionage thriller despite it starring one of the most unsubtle superheroes of all time. And just as we thought that the film's layered plot line is compelling enough, here then cometh the titular villain, played by a genuinely intimidating Sebastian Stan. 

For comic book fans, it's common knowledge that the so-called 'winter soldier' is Bucky Barnes: Steve Rogers' best friend from years past. And for casual film fans, it's given that this is a great opportunity for the film to give proper focus on emotional exposition, which it just did in a fashion similar to "Star Wars", specifically the chemistry between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Added bonus is the magnetic performance by Robert Redford, whose involvement in the Tony Scott-directed "Spy Game" legitimizes this 'superhero' film as an equally game spy picture that's very much at home in wrecking big-ass Helicarriers as it is confident in staging quiet, clandestine conversations within soundproof rooms. 

In short, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is infinitely more than just an escapist fare because it has a little bit of everything (even Falcon's here!). With its non-campy seriousness and a serviceable lack of implausible humor (unlike the swords and punchlines epic that is "Thor: The Dark World"), this film officially makes it known that Marvel is indeed capable in producing not just great superhero films, but also great, well-written films, period. And if superhero films typically cram everything they can within the limitations of the climax, this film is seemingly unstoppable, as it unleashes one awesome setpiece after another while still fully preserving the integrity of its sophisticated narrative. Also, this teaches revisionist Hollywood of today that superhero films can appeal to modern audience without so much as darkening a single inch of the narrative or brooding up the main character's back story. Now, I wouldn't end this review with a tired "Your move, DC!" catchphrase because, as of this moment, there really is no rivalry. Marvel is at the top of the heap by a wide margin, and it will take more than the combined appeal of Batman and Superman to dethrone it. Marvel's bigger than U.S. Steel.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Metro Manila (Sean Ellis)

Jake Macapagal as Oscar Ramirez.

For many years, Philippine cinema has been more than welcome in unabashedly exposing and exploring in equal parts the dark underbelly of the nation's capital. From Lino Brocka's timeless "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag", Ishmael Bernal's sprawling "Manila by Night", to the more recent "Manila" starring Piolo Pascual in a unique three-character turn, I think it's a bit rational to mention the fact that our local cinema has been utterly shameless in showing Manila's unforgiving side in a harsh, socio-realist light. Films like these are ever-present especially within our local independent film circuit, and we cinephiles oftentimes worship at their figurative feet. But then again, there will come a time, film-wise, when Manila as a cesspool of the impoverished will finally run its course, and honestly, signs of it finally arriving are already very much evident. 

In the opening scenes of "Metro Manila", which is Oscar-nominated director's Sean Ellis' (for the short film "Cashback") riveting take on the titular metropolis' marginalized few, highly suggest that this will be another one of those films whose creators are still in utter awe of the aesthetic wonders of shaky cam and still haven't moved on from Brillante Mendoza's entire body of work. A naïve man from the province who's struggling to make ends meet? There's Jake Macapagal as Oscar Ramirez for you. An equally myopic wife whose travails very much reflect on her face? There's Althea Vega at your service. Now, add up those two with the thematic question of what awaits them in Manila and you already have a potent narrative mix that will sustain 2 hours worth of stale poverty porn. Honestly, with such a run-of-the-mill start, I almost turned away from this one. But thankfully, because of its uncharacteristically smooth cinematography, I was relatively hooked enough that I didn't. As it turned out, the film is really something else.

Oscar Ramirez, as we all know, is a farmer from Banaue who, because of financial woes, tries his luck in the titular metropolis. There, he gets hired as an armored truck driver and is befriended by Ong (John Arcilla), a senior officer and former cop, who slowly teaches him the ways of the trade and initiates him about its perils as well. Like his character in the cult film "Ang Babaeng Putik", Arcilla exudes a certain level of manipulative charisma and jovial artifice that only he could ever muster. One minute, he's a confiding friend, the next, a scheming fiend, and vice versa. Though his screen time in this film is not that much, I personally think that it's enough to warrant him a 'Best Supporting Actor' trophy of any kind. In an ideal world, he should have had numerous nominations and awards for this film. 'Ideal', though, is the keyword, and in this very 'real' one where Vice Ganda gets to beat the likes of Joel Torre and Jake Macapagal for a Best Actor award, there's little to no hope for this personal dream of mine for Mr. Arcilla, so I fully digress.

Moving on, Macapagal is a perfect foil to Arcilla's mercurial intensity. Even though his performance is built around subtlety and his character being of soft-spoken demeanor, Macapagal's task is admittedly trickier because he must make us believe that he is indeed a socially-challenged man who one time even slathered his face with Listerine because he thought it was facial wash. I have nothing against John Arcilla, but his performance, in comparison, looks easier to pull off because he has this inherent, almost contagious energy in him that makes his turn seem like nothing more than a leisurely walk in the park. But regardless, both of them have given exacting performances that neither went over-the-top nor came across as somewhat lazy. With that being said, Macapagal may be easily accused of the latter because of how heavily understated his portrayal of Oscar Ramirez is. But seeing him, a classically-trained theater actor who's obviously more at ease with exaggerated facial expressions and larger-than-life hand gestures and body movements, pull of a crucial character with such quiet grace and poignancy is a feat on its own. Even JM Rodriguez, who I have first seen on TV in "On Air" (oh, the irony), is effectively empathetic as Alfred Santos, a mild-mannered family man-turned-desperate plane hijacker.

Though "Metro Manila" was initially mounted just like any other 'poverty porn' films, not to mention that it borrows elements from Brocka's masterful "Jaguar" and maybe also from "Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim", "Metro Manila" really is an incendiary thriller that merely disguises itself as a social realist film. But then again, the film is so much more than the sum of its two or three plot twists combined that to label it merely as a suspenseful fare is a bit of an injustice. Obviously, director Sean Ellis was never gunning for an explosive style for this film. Instead, what "Metro Manila" is trying to persistently evoke is a sheer feeling of helplessness that consistently sustains itself. In simple terms, the film's slow-burn narrative progression up until its stunning climax can be likened to a catatonic patient who, after hours and hours of merely speaking in tongues, finally utters something of extreme significance. It's an effective emotional ride that will brace you and pierce you through. And with a cast of virtual unknowns except for brilliant character actor John Arcilla (up until now, I am in pain because of how terribly wasted he was in THAT "Bourne" film), "Metro Manila" looks effortlessly authentic, and because the unfamiliar faces far outweigh the familiar ones, its degree of unpredictability, in terms of character swerves, is a tad higher too. This is not the kind of film that casts Michael Rooker as a seemingly harmless ex-husband. It is not.

Bar none one of the very best 2013 films you'll ever see, "Metro Manila" is thrilling in its exposition yet very much lyrical in how it unfolds. But due to its various plot twists and fast-paced sequences, the film initially seems to be more at home with being an action film. But with its layered drama and relatively poetic feel, the film ultimately transcends the thematic limitations of being one to become something that's utterly difficult to categorize. It may not be the most definitive cinematic representation of our beloved capital or even the most original (the first 30 minutes, at least), but it certainly excels as something that perfectly captures the malice fairly apparent in its citizens' every urge and need. This is Lino Brocka by way of Paul Greengrass, and it is sublime.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous)

The hills are alive with the sound of killing...

Taking direct inspiration for this review's opening statement from "The Godfather" in probably the same way those Indonesian death squad leaders did for their murderous deeds, Al Pacino's Michael Corleone character has once said in the sequel that if history has taught us anything, then it is that you can kill anyone. "The Act of Killing", a disturbing documentary film that, in equal measures, brutally condemns and trivializes genocide, shows us that, indeed, people can kill anyone they wish. But worst of all is that someone can kill thousands and still be revered as some kind of a savior. That happens, of course, if history books are written by the crazed victors, and that exactly what has occurred in the Republic of Indonesia sometime in the '60s.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, plus an unknown native with the help of many other crew members that have chosen to stay anonymous (in fear of reprisal from the executors), the film is an oftentimes humorous but ultimately stomach-churning documentation of murderous mad men slowly going even madder and the despicable cinematic work that they attempt to make for kicks. You know, imagine Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot or even Kim Jong-un (well, I think the latter is really not that "left for the imagination") making genre films about their genocidal fits. "The Act of Killing", at least from how I see it, is an 'almost snuff film', as it reenacts, in accordance to the Indonesian executioners' romanticized memories of the killings, the way they whacked countless commie scums in numerous practical ways. These 'gangsters' ultimate goal is to remind Indonesian people about their brutal past. But do they really speak about the whole truth? Did history judge them right? 

Joshua Oppenheimer and company, by distancing themselves and the camera as much as possible from the constant hullabaloo transpiring among the 'grotesque' human circus in their midst, are able to tell a gripping story of power, pride, and political madness that's both subjectively dramatic and convincingly journalistic. It also certainly helps that their subjects, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, among others, are obnoxious 'characters' in their own rights, which further underlines the documentary's slow descent into insanity in a fashion that's even more animated than Al Pacino's scenery-chewing tendencies in "Scarface". To a jestful extent, I even imagine the two of them starring in a weekly reality show aptly entitled "The Killers", but I digress. 

With the subjects' odd chemistry that, in a very morbid way, reminds me a lot of the one Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung have shared in their prime, "The Act of Killing" successfully comes across as some sort of an energetic comedy film for all the wrong reasons, but its effect, once the misled humor fades well into the background, is painfully persistent. It's as unsettling a commentary on the darkness of man as Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", but this time, there seems to be little to no remorse at all. Here is a film that portrays insanity not as something brought about by psychological trauma (unlike Kurtz in the aforementioned novella) but as something molded and justified by extremist beliefs. "The Act of Killing" is so powerful and real and pitch black (the humor makes it all the more bleak) in its depiction of modern evil that I sometimes can't help but wonder if the whole thing is staged, and Anwar Congo and company are but hired actors. Well, I can only wish that it was all fake, the same way these thugs imagine that they're Hollywood actors merely portraying 'gangster' roles like Paul Muni and James Cagney. 

There are films like "The Killing Fields" and "The Last King of Scotland", which are brave in their own rights by both recreating a violent point in an otherwise obscure country's history. But then, there are also works like Alain Resnais' short documentary "Night and Fog" and "The Act of Killing", which show, in all their tragic strands, the consequences of violence, inhumanity and extreme political will. 

For the sake of everyone's peace of mind, I think it is a good thing that the film (or films?) Anwar Congo and company have made was not shown in its entirety in the documentary, except for Anwar's reaction while watching it, which seems to bode remorse. I think there's no sight worse than a bunch of murderers shamelessly feeding their huge, blood-drenched egos with a hagiographic film naturally made to make them look like superstars of their own ideology. But then again, as their vision of their fantasy film dwindles slowly into the absurd and the utterly surreal, so do their reputations as noble guardians of the state. A big-ass gangster playing a heavily made-up prostitute? An executioner, fresh from dying his hair black, being visited by the ghost of one of his victims in an outfit that's an amalgam of kimono sensibilities and Edward Scissorhands'? The joke's on them. 

To look at things more lightly, I think what Joshua Oppenheimer has done to these people can be likened to what a mild-mannered student may possibly do, in retaliation, to the resident school bully. In that respect, "The Act of Killing", in an odd way, is a revenge film (at least from how I see it) that one ups these Indonesian harbingers of death without them even knowing it. I never thought that a film like this can be entirely possible. Now, can somebody make a film entitled "The Act of Torturing" about the Abu Ghraib prison?

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Monday, February 10, 2014

When the Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami)

A nuclear couple.

Still fresh from watching "When the Wind Blows", I just can't fathom why this film is not as well-known or as highly-regarded an animated film as, say, "Grave of the Fireflies": Isao Takahata's devastating pacifist masterpiece released two years after this one. Admittedly, I would not have been able to know about this film if not for Pink Floyd's official Facebook page (again, thank you), which once posted about "When the Wind Blows" as a sort of look back to Roger Waters' involvement in it as a musical scorer. Though not as quietly painful as the aforementioned Studio Ghibli classic, "When the Wind Blows" still holds its own ground by being arguably more innovative in how it conveys the horrors of war through an assortment of visuals that often border on the psychedelic. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Raymond Briggs (which I definitely must read), the film tackles the paranoia that has spread across the globe like a plague during the Cold War period, and then filters it through an elderly couple's (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft) distorted states of mind in an idyllic British countryside. 

Perspective-wise, the film is definitely on par with "Grave of the Fireflies" in terms of treating the impact of war on a highly personal level. For the elderly couple, though, the Russian missile threat, which they view as nothing that the government could not handle, is something that they can live through, no sweat, just like the Second World War. Mockingly labeling the Russians as 'Ruskies' and praising Winston Churchill's wartime deeds while calmly building a bomb shelter (or "the inner core or refuge") as ordered by the government, the couple seems unfazed by the threat as they go on with their everyday routine. But through the film's use of 'acid' imagery in between seemingly ordinary scenes as a sort of visual foreboding, "When the Wind Blows" excels in underlining the immensity of what's about to come even when we're often greeted by the couple's confounding smiles. 

As an exploration of wartime psyche, the film is really quite stunning on how it emphasizes the couple's naivety and inept grasp of modernity; a sight that's very painful and heart-sinking to watch. But be that as it may, the film is more fascinating in its humorous undertones, that of which do not minimize the impact of war but merely acknowledge its funnier side. 

More often than not, the greatest of dark comedies stem from the very idea of war and destruction, and "When the Wind Blows", although not blatant and showy in its humor, is just as potent a comedy of wartime horrors. But just like a true war comedy, the scarring emotional impact is still very much in place despite its funnier moments. 

But with that being said, I'm not saying that "When the Wind Blows" is strictly a comedy film. On the contrary, I thought that the film is as serious as any film about war can get, specifically due to its intimate approach. But still, there's something funny about the elderly couple's cluelessness about the kind of full-scale nuclear war out there that it's just more natural to smile than to weep at their predicament. Consciously or not, perhaps they have seen so much of the horrors of war that they choose to just shrug them all off into non-existence instead of moping in and around its ravages. A quote from Kurt Vonnegut: "Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward." 

For the elderly couple, to greet the onset of complete annihilation with nothing but smiles on their faces and denial in their minds are all but enough. It may not literally save them, but it can at least preserve the lives they've led as they know it. In the case of "When the Wind Blows", there's indeed something oddly bittersweet in not acknowledging doom for some kind of selective thinking. And in that respect, the couple live on in a way they may not have thought they would, but nevertheless do in a way only the both of them know.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

There's a storm coming...

There's this one quote that I've read somewhere on the Internet (where else?) which says that dreams do come true, but so do nightmares. In "Take Shelter", the line between nightmare and reality gets blurred within the mind of a man compelled to enact on his eschatological visions. With yellow rain, black birds forming unusual patterns across the sky, and intense thunderclaps flooding his consciousness, Curtis, a blue-collar worker who is as depressed psychologically as he is financially, anticipates an impending storm quite the same way Noah did thousands of years ago. But if the latter has prepared a humongous ark to accommodate his family and the entire animal kingdom and save them from the great flood, Curtis squeezes out his loans dry by building a storm shelter some 10 feet underground. "Take Shelter", directed by Jeff Nichols, is a small-scale film whose themes are ironically biblical in scope. Is Curtis insane, or is he just a man who is after all crying a very real kind of wolf? 

Perhaps, there's no other form of mental disturbance worse or alarming than the kind where one sees frightening visions of the apocalypse, but what's scarier is the idea that such visions can be easily shrugged off. Michael Shannon, one of the most intensely specialized character actors right now, portrays Curtis in such a way that his perceived craziness seems to be bordering murderous but still comes across as someone very fatherly and sweet. Jessica Chastain, playing Curtis' wife, also excels in her role as a typical homemaker who wants nothing but an orderly and financially secure life for her family.

In all fairness, the film takes a while before its pace really picks up, but once it does, it really is quite shattering, to say the least. With Curtis' visions subdued and perfectly made ambiguous throughout most of the film, "Take Shelter" takes perfect advantage of its narrative's mysterious aura to create a schism between what's true and merely imagined. Indeed, what's so admirable about "Take Shelter" is how, being the doomsday prophet that he is, Curtis' visions affect his family more than it do other people that when he finally lashes out to tell the latter of the storm, what we see is a sympathetic man who knows that he miserably failed his family by squandering their life's savings and letting his insane projections of the armageddon seep out of his mouth for them to hear. 

But, surprise surprise, "Take Shelter" is also more than a quasi-apocalyptic drama. Set amid the backdrop of the U.S. economic crisis, "Take Shelter" is also effective as a subtle commentary on America's depression-stricken economy at the time, which also makes Curtis' excessive expenditure on building the shelter seem more ridiculous and unjustified. It also certainly aids the film's implosive nature by setting the story in a relatively sleepy community as opposed to setting it within the heart of America, as it welcomes a more unsettling kind of 'apocalypse aesthetic' without looking like a climax of a superhero film. 

"Take Shelter", visual-wise and as far as the idea of the world being no more is concerned, is indeed the antithesis to the films made by Roland Emmerich, who definitely knows how to put on an eschatological light show in the biggest of cities and the most popular of landmarks every now and then. After all, "Take Shelter" is an unsettling psychological drama, so it's only fitting for the film to unravel from the inside. "Take Shelter" may understandably be left unseen by many due to its acquired taste kind of pacing and narrative approach, but it's definitely something that flirts with the sublime. 

For many years, we have been given films about the end of the world that are chock-full of inspirational speeches and heartstring-tugging melodrama. Even the bible has made it look quite intense and a bit fun with Noah and his zoo-like ark. But perhaps, "Take Shelter" is the most accurate in its delineation of the end: somber, terrifying, and something akin to the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". What this film highlights is that the world may certainly end, and here comes the cliched T.S. Eliot quote, "not with a bang but with a whimper." And if ever this film has proven anything, then it is the fact that it's a real bummer being a doomsday prophet.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Her (Spike Jonze)

Lying on the moon.

For years immemorial, films are not entirely reserved in their use of artificial intelligence as a way to prove a point regarding the human condition. We've witnessed HAL 9000's descent into computerized ruthlessness when he tried to murder David Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey". We've seen "Blade Runner's" Roy Batty, a humanoid replicant, cry his heart out regarding his memories "that will be lost in time like tears in the rain." And just recently, we felt all there is to feel when Sam Rockwell's astronaut character in "Moon" found out about the painful truth about himself, all while Gerty, a good guy version of HAL, shows primitive signs of compassion and morality in the background. Yes, I admit, I did shed some tears when I saw "Moon" for the second time. And while we're at it, I swear I also quietly wept for a few minutes after seeing Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence".  

Perhaps in more ways than one, indeed we've really reached a phase in cinema where we may cry not much anymore about the tragedy of human relationships but more about man's inability to grasp his real place in the universe. Unofficially, I would want to call our generation the 'sci-fi film mopers'. What that really means, I don't exactly know for sure, but I really think we are the kind that would brood about the relentless progress of technology because of how it redefines life as we know it, and love as how we feel it. "Her", Spike Jonze's first ever feature-length love story, firmly takes on its effects on the latter, questioning how will the notions of romance adopt to our ever-advancing world without losing so much as a spark. The film is very romantic in a very sad, 'your lover's hand is slowly slipping off yours' way, but very hopeful in its view of the modern sentient man's ability to love the intangible. Without a doubt, the film is a tender reminder that sublime cinema is not all the time built around harsh themes and provocative storylines. And as simple as "Her" is, there is still a pervasive sense of philosophical depth in its every scene and moment that the film itself seems a miraculous feat in its own right. 

Spike Jonze, a filmmaker whose two major works, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation.", exemplify what cinematic oddity should be, proves in this film that he can indeed stand on his own without Charlie Kaufman on scribe duty. But more importantly, there's finally something in "Her" that has slightly been amiss in his past films: a beating heart.

Judging by "Her's" story of a letter writer who falls deeply and madly in love with his operating system, it is easy to dismiss the film as a gimmicky project that merely capitalizes on the currency of Siri. On paper, it's nothing but a piece of 'what if' story that seems lucky enough to even be green-lit by a production outfit. It is a story that's as far-fetched as it is entirely ludicrous. But hey, so is "The Running Man", but look at how prophetic and potent its commentary on reality shows has ultimately become. Look at "The Truman Show". Look at "Network". Again, look at "Her". Goddamn, that last sentence reads so beautifully.

Anyway, if we finally get through the superficial uniqueness of the story, "Her" is actually a film whose emotional quality is of the highest order. Honestly, it's been a very long time since I last cried watching a film (the weeping episodes I have mentioned above were like ages ago), so when I finally did once again, I was kind of like cleansed. It was therapeutic in a way knowing that I wept over a film that's close to perfect, but quite pathetic on my part for not bringing with me a box of Kleenex. Instead, a pillow became the proxy absorber of my tears. It was quite a 2-hour experience now forever fossilized in the corners of my memories, and I'm quite sure that it won't leave anytime soon. 

For sure, many people will surely remember this film mainly for its concept and perhaps not much else, but for me, what I will hold dearly in my heart about it are the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and, of course, Scarlett Johansson, who provided her voice for the OS Samantha (who deservedly won the Best Actress award at the 2013 Rome Film Festival). More than the story, what makes "Her" so much more than an ordinary sci-fi drama is how well the three of them has handled the film's seemingly ridiculous premise (in some respect) while at the same time lighting up the screen with the most intimate kind of chemistry. Also, from the very first time Joaquin Phoenix's character appeared on screen with that extreme close-up of him dictating to his computer a touching letter supposedly sent by a husband to his wife, rapport was instantly established. 

This man right here, named Theodore Twombly, is someone who writes love letters to all kinds of people every single day but is devoid of love himself. Now estranged from his wife, he visibly trudges through life like an invisible man, aware of the technological advancement happening around him but is oblivious of his need for affection. Along then comes Samantha, a new, state-of-the-art OS who is as intelligent (or even more so) as an actual person. Slowly but tenderly, they were able to nurture a different kind of romance that knows no judgments and knows no bounds. Should I say that it was love at first click? 

Unexpectedly, Theodore finds himself once again falling fully for a woman who truly essentiates love, but this time without a body for him to hold and a face for him to touch. I think this is where "Her", as an essay about the beauty of unconditional romance, really excels. 

Throughout the historical course of both literature and film, more often than not, technology has always been seen as this frail substitute to real human connection. Surprisingly, "Her" is, if my memory serves me well, the very first film that I have seen which looks upon technology not as something that cripples our emotional capacity but as something that actually improves our ability to care. "Her", a visual love poem fitting for our times, embraces the inner heartbroken outcasts in us that yearn for someone ideal even if truly imperceptible to the eye. Indeed, there's something so perfect in that which we cannot see but can nonetheless feel, and there's also something so extraordinary in a film so awfully simple and silently bittersweet yet can make your heart cave in and your eyes swell in tears. "Her", for a lack of a better description, is the ultimate 'feel' trip of our generation.

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Monday, February 3, 2014

Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Watch, wipe, repeat.

For anyone at least over 15, "Don Jon" is, by itself, reason enough to get all jealous over Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the strings he can pull over at Hollywood. Only in his early thirties and fresh from his breakout roles in a slew of highly successful films ("Inception", "Looper", "The Dark Knight Rises"), Gordon-Levitt now tries his hands on directing. But unlike his contemporary James Franco, whose dilettante self seems content in directing artsy films that perhaps no one would be able (or even want) to see, "Don Jon" has enough mainstream appeal to easily catapult Gordon-Levitt's potential as a filmmaker immediately into the forefronts of the movie industry. "Why is that?" You may ask. Well, if you're not familiar at all with "Don Jon", do yourself a favor and look it up on IMDb, read its plot, and then skim through its cast. Done? A malicious grin is definitely in order.  

With its title being a Caucasian iteration of everyone's favorite moniker of sleazy womanizers, "Don Jon" is a film about a man addicted to porn and his relationship with a blonde bombshell he met in a bar, played by none other than Scarlett Johansson. "Don Jon", for the narrow-minded folks, may be deemed as nothing but an opportunistic vanity project on Levitt's part. Surely, with its sexually-charged tone and crucial casting of Johansson in a prominent role, this film may also make some people raise their eyebrows and others shake their heads both in admiration and utter disbelief. "A film about a porn addict with Scarlett Johansson cast as his sexy girlfriend." Honest to goodness, that's almost every heterosexual man's dream film project. On the surface, yes, "Don Jon" may seem like Joseph Gordon-Levitt's ultimate wet dream realized on film. But in all seriousness, if ever "Don Jon" has proven anything, then it is the fact that Gordon-Levitt, as a filmmaker, definitely has the genuine chops, and also the balls.

Story-wise, the film is not the kind that you would expect to blow you away, as it is a bit laid-back in its narrative flow and relatively light in execution. Quite simply, though "Don Jon" is mounted just like your typical rom-com film, it excels on how it depicts the so-called 'rush' of porn addiction in a series of repetitively kinetic camerawork that will rival the aesthetics of the likes of Danny Boyle and even Edgar Wright. "There's more to life than a happy ending." The film's tagline safely suggests. For me, the perfect tagline for the film, judging on how modernized its take is on the apathetic transience of libido, is "Watch, Wipe, Repeat." After all, the film is all about man's sexual relationship with technology, so what better way to emphasize this fact than with a not so-emotional and highly detached tagline such as that? Oh jeez, I'm already thinking out loud.

To get back on track, let's check on the film's characters. Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon, who frighteningly looks just like a "Jersey Shore" staple, is made to look grotesque and peculiar and highly detached from reality despite the fact that most men often do what he does, and that his problem with porn has already been tackled more believably in Steve McQueen's masterful "Shame". As a character, Don Jon, an Italian-American bartender and a devout churchgoer, is easy to empathize with on paper because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's effortless wit and also simply because of pretty obvious reasons. But perhaps due to how heavily caricaturized Don Jon is (his ripped musculature, freakish tan, and perfectly-gelled hair), there seems to be a slight disconnect between the character and us, the audience, who should be able to easily identify with him. Don Jon, I guess, is a tad too larger-than life for the film. 

Don Jon's parents in the film, on the other hand, though entertainingly played by both Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, are sadly too similar, characterization-wise, to Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara's turn in "Buffalo '66", from their dysfunctions as a couple up to their affinity towards football. Scarlett Johansson's character is also finely portrayed, what with her surprisingly apt accent. But sadly, the writing seems too weak to back the on-screen performance. Personally, it's Julianne Moore who has given the best performance in the film. Playing a middle-aged night student who has captured Jon's fickle attention, her line deliveries, which are oftentimes whisper-like and prosaic, bode well with her broken character.

In all fairness, the screenplay has numerous bright spots, such as the climactic scene between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Julianne Moore, and some really fun moments (the confession scenes come to mind). But overall, it may just need 10 more pages or so to further flesh out the characters. If not for the film's surprisingly poignant final sequence, "Don Jon" would have been less memorable than it actually is. 

Ultimately, looking past all of the film's flaws, "Don Jon" is actually a fun little portrait of a man's unhealthy addiction to internet smut, and a simple yet potent eye-opener regarding the delicate line that separates fucking from making love. After watching "Don Jon", you will realize that there's indeed a BIG difference between the two, and I'm not talking about sizes or anything, you dirty-minded fellow you.

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Friday, January 31, 2014

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Solomon chained.

In 2012, we were given multiple films about slavery, one about its abolition and the other plainly about its utter insanity, in the form of "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained": two films directed by premiere filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino. This time, Steve McQueen ("Hunger" and "Shame"), a filmmaker who has steadily established himself throughout the past few years as a potent auteur, brings us "12 Years a Slave": a film that dares to strip 19th century slavery down to its bare essentials and examine the utter savagery that permeates its heart. 

Granted, "12 Years a Slave" is not an easy film to watch, as it contains plenty of racially discomforting scenes and is characterized by a sort of brutal realism that would make you feel awfully heavy all throughout. But as cliched as this may sound, this is perhaps one of the most eye-opening films about racism that I've seen. It is visceral, soulful, and even melancholic. It's without politics and gratuitous fantasy violence. It is sans sentimental speeches and a courageous, white man-slapping hero ala Sidney Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night" at its center. It is an ugly 2-hour portrait of racial oppression and inequality, sure, but what makes it even more heart-rending is the tragic character that exists in its core in the form of Solomon Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor with so much nuanced honesty that to just look at his suffering face is already painful enough to do. It's a film that will wrench your guts and twist your bones in anger, but at the same time, it will also move you to tears. Only a handful of films have made me so furious yet very much helpless, and this is definitely one of them.

The cast, comprised mainly of unknown but immensely talented African-American actors (watch out for Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané  Wallis of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" fame), have finely taken on the film's somber tone while also being intensely emotional in all the right moments without being overly dramatic. And if Chiwetel Ejiofor's devastating performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who was tricked into slavery (and who has also written the book from which this was based), was the film's heart and soul, Lupita Nyong'o's empathetic turn as Patsey is its flesh, blood, and bones. 

On the other hand, Michael Fassbender, who just never ceases to amaze everyone with his almost unreal acting skills, is pure evil as Edwin Epps, the cotton plantation owner that Solomon and company were unfortunate enough to be sold to. Perennially drunk, ever-amorous, and always armed with a whip and his tendencies to power trip, Epps is the worst kind of slaver (not that I'm saying that there were actually good ones). As crazy as this may sound, countless times have I wished for "Django Unchained's" King Schultz to just magically appear out of nowhere, saunter along Epps' cotton plantation, and just blow his brains out. But then again, this is not how films work. Trust me, though; you will surely have a desire to really rewatch "Django Unchained", what with its not-so-diplomatic way of getting rid of the slave trade, as a sort of natural post-viewing reaction. It's that infuriating a film.  

For some, "12 Years a Slave" may come across as a film that desperately asks for pity the same way beggars ask for alms, or perhaps unnaturally incites moral indignation the same way how films about anything remotely biblical upset hardcore believers. But what it is certainly not, for sure, is a film devoid of emotional power. For only 2 hours, the film was able to delineate the violent extent of bigotry, both in action and in words, without resorting to unnecessary discourses about the politics of the situation. The film is assured in its stance about racism, but its power comes not from the white characters' shocking utterances of the 'N' word or from the disturbing scenes involving slaves and whips but from the tranquil scenes of the laborers humming soulfully while harvesting cotton, singing sadly yet defiantly while they bury a dead colleague, and from scenes of them painfully trying to keep their human decency intact even in the face of inhumanity. And if ever the age of slavery has taught us anything, then it is the fact that it never hurts to once in a while look back in retrospect and reflect at things that ultimately matter. 

"12 Years a Slave", undoubtedly one of the best films of 2013, is hardly a crash course about the historical scope of slavery, or even a cinematic indictment of all its evils. Looking at it personally, the film is essentially a story of resilience in a time when hope usually gets swatted away by condescending slaps and skin-tearing whiplashes. And kudos to Steve McQueen, who has finally made a relatively mainstream film but was still able to preserve his trademark aesthetics (that unsettling long take when Solomon Northup is hanging on a tree), he has created another film, after "Hunger", that marvels at the strength of the human spirit and makes the pain of proving it seem yet again palpable and all too real.

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