Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (8/17/14 - 8/23/14)

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone) *** - This Best Picture from 1930 is an adaptation of a novel that chronicles the experiences of a group of German soldiers during the first World War. This film has a lot of great moments and sequences but it is another case of the parts being better than the whole film. Some scenes falter and drag and other scenes are undeniably spectacular and emotionally powerful. With the exception of two or three, the characters tend to be fairly forgettable. I agree 100 percent with the film's anti-war message (how appropriate that this would be released just before the start of World War II) but it tends to be a bit too on-the-nose and subsequent films on the same subject matter would build upon and improve on it. It's a very good film. Best Picture of 1930? It's a very good picture but I don't know.

The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt) ***1/2 - Someone recommended that I see this teen romantic dramedy that I was unable to see during its initial release just a year ago. I'm glad I did. Miles Teller and Shaleine Woodley actually make a cute, perfectly nice on-screen couple in this film that's actually darker and more serious than its reputation suggests. The film handles its humorous, sweet and romantic content and its dark and serious content quite well. It falters a bit on the third act but manages to stick its landing so to speak. The film mostly avoids the pitfalls that often come with this sort of material.

 
Locke (Steven Knight) ***1/2 - A construction manager on a 2-hour drive to London takes care of personal and professional problems on his car cellphone. The film is set entirely inside the car and it focuses only on this one character the entire running time while we only hear the voices of the other characters. When I first heard of this film, three questions came to mind: Will this kind of thing be compelling and interesting for most if not all of a feature-length running time? Will it be cinematic? Will it stand as a nice piece of drama instead of just a gimmick? The answer is surprisingly yes to all of that. Tom Hardy who's pretty much the entire movie, makes it work. There's a temptation to over-direct this type of one-man minimalist film to compensate but Steven Knight does just enough to make it cinematically dynamic but not intrusive. It's not the best but it's a very good piece of work.



Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Keishi Otomo) *** - Here's a crazy idea: Why don't I watch a sequel to a film I never saw based on an anime TV series I haven't watched which is in turn based on a manga I've never read? What could possibly happen? Well, as it turns out, it wasn't such a bad idea. I mean, it's about samurai and I love samurai flicks. So why not? Despite only barely knowing about the existence of this franchise, I was able to follow the story with little problems. I thought the fight scenes were fun to watch. Although a lot of it was a bit cartoony and cheesy than what I'm used to seeing in this particular genre (which I'll attribute to its anime origins), I was entertained and I do wanna see how all this ends. It's no Yojimbo or even 13 Assassins but it's good entertainment.

Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes) *** - Seeing as this was released the same year and tackles pretty much the same subject matter (the first World War), I can't help but compare this and All Quiet in the Western Front which I also saw recently. This one doesn't quite have the dramatic impact of that film and it's not really an anti-war but just a straight up war film (it's more of a story between two brothers than that of a war, really). It does have a sort of episodic structure that follows the two brothers in their experience within the war as well as their relationship with a woman of questionable morals. What this film outdoes All Quiet is the presence of Jean Harlow who's, let's face it, was fucking hot and somehow injects some life into what could have just a macho war drama. It also features some really amazing flying sequences which outdoes Wings and special effects that actually kind of hold up to today's CGI behemoths. It's far from a perfect film but it's still pretty good.

Le Million (Rene Clair) **** - A penniless artist discovers he just won the lottery but left his ticket in his jacket which was in turn unknowingly given away by his fiancee to a...well, that's just giving away the movie. Among all of Rene Clair's 1930's musical comedies, this one is by far my favorite. It's got the best music (still not memorable but better than the other two), it's got the most laughs and it's the most well-directed. It's somewhat comparable to Preston Sturges, if I'm being all film geeky about it. You'll be surprised at how much fun you will have watching this black and white 1930's French film. I couldn't recommend it enough.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (8/10/14 - 8/16/14)

Animal Farm (John Halas/Joy Batchelor) **** - I was gonna read the book before watching the movie but what the hell, I'll just read the book afterwards and I might have to because I loved the movie. This animated adaptation of George Orwell's cautionary allegory on communism may feature cute animals and some of them do cute things but it doesn't shy away from the novel's darker, more grown-up themes. Bambi is nothing; This is 10x more traumatizing if you're gonna make the mistake of showing this to your little ones. It has twisted humor and has the power to make you angry. A superb piece of work.

Scanners (David Cronenberg) *** - Trust David Cronenberg to turn what I always considered to be cool super powers: telekinesis, mind control, telepathy, etc. into something frightening and grotesque. That's just what he did in this very good sci-fi horror thriller about a group of people who possess such powers and they're called Scanners. This film had a strong beginning (I for one was kind of shocked that the famous shot of the head exploding happens early in the movie) and a strong ending with the final end game finally revealed and features Cronenberg's signature body horror. The middle, for me, is kind of hit and miss. It's a very good film but definitely not my favorite Cronenberg.

Monte Carlo (Ernst Lubitsch) **** - A broke countess runs away from marrying a duke and decides to go to Monte Carlo to make her fortune by gambling and catches the eye of a count. This is one of Ernst Lubitsch early musical comedies. The musical part is just okay for me (only one or two songs are any good, really) but the comedy is great. Lots of the jokes hold up (and it's surprisingly a bit racy too!). There's a sequence where there are three men singing about seducing women over tea but they couldn't look more...umm...not straight, I guess. I laughed. I can't help but wonder if that was deliberate or not or if that was just the way it was at the time. It is also such a fun film. Jeanette MacDonald was fantastic.

What If (Michael Dowse) ** - I thought I'd try my first romantic comedy after seeing the film They Came Together. I have to say that film pretty much would ruin most romantic comedies from me from now on. This film steps on a lot of the cliches, tropes and story beats that most romantic comedies follow that that film poked fun of mercilessly. Which sort of puts a damper on my enjoyment of this flick. The film itself is not bad per se but it ain't great either. As far as rom-coms go, it's got funny stuff, there are funny lines and Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan both give perfectly good performances and have nice chemistry but it's all kind of meh. There are twee flourishes here that sort of reminds me of (500) Days of Summer which reminds me how much better that movie was.

Barber's Tales (Mga Kuwentong Barbero) (Jun Robles Lana) ***1/2 - Set in a rural province of the Philippines, during the Marcos dictatorship, this is about a widow of the small-town barber who takes over her late husband's job but soon she becomes entangled into getting involved with the resistance movement. Eugene Domingo is a well-known broad comedienne in my country. She takes the lead in a drama and runs away with it. She's supported by an excellent supporting cast especially Gladys Reyes as her perpetually pregnant neighbor. In the surface it is a film about the struggles under Marcos dictatorship but it's really more of a feminist tales of women, in the rural Philippine provinces, in the 1970's taking charge of their destiny the best way they can. Though they're wildly different, the film sort of reminds me of the TV series Mad Men in a way without much of the male storyline. The film falters in the third act but still a wonderful film.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Cinemalaya Film Festival Round-Up

The celebrity deaths this week delayed the posting of this special separate round-up of the films I've seen in the recently concluded 10th annual Cinemalaya Film Festival. I was able to see four features and five shorts and here are my reviews of all of them.

FEATURES

Ronda ("Patrol") (Nick Olanka) **1/2 - I think Ai-Ai De Las Alas is actually an excellent dramatic actress even though she's more known as a broad comedienne. This film lets her stretch her dramatic chops and she gives an outstanding, yet also subtle performance as a police officer going about her usual duties all the while worrying where her son was. The ending of this film was actually spoiled in the synopsis given in the promotional materials so I advise not to read them which is understandable because the script is kind of thin and the film just ends when it got REALLY interesting.

Sundalong Kanin ("Rice Soldiers") (Janice O'Hara) *** - A group of young boys from different social strata in their small rural town face the realities, tragedies and horrors of war during World War II. This should have been the Filipino entry to the subgenre of war movies from the POV of kids/teens: Hope & Glory, Ivan's Childhood, etc. By the end, it reached its potential but the road getting there was very clunky. It's a film where I felt the director bit off more than she could chew by juggling different story lines and layer upon layer of plot and sub-text as well as balancing tone. The concept was pretty complicated. It needed a master's hand to make it truly fly. It's very flawed indeed. It came together in the end though and worth seeing just for that. While I was watching I felt there are notes of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos in it but it turns out it wasn't coincidence: The script was based on a story written by Mario O'Hara. Janice O'Hara is his daughter. 



Dagitab ("The Sparks") (Giancarlo Abrahan) ***1/2 - My personal favorite among the 4 features and 5 shorts I saw during the recently concluded Cinemalaya Film Festival. This is about a middle-aged couple, both college professors. One is a literature teacher who faces a scandal involving her college-bound godson. The other is a writer in the final phases of writing a book about his long-missing lost love. The film is flawlessly acted (led by Eula Valdez and Nonie Buencamino) and beautifully shot and goes into unexpected directions without falling into the traps of simplistic sensationalism or histrionics.

K'Na The Dreamweaver (Ida Anita del Mundo) *** - This is a film focusing on a Filipino ethnic group called the T'Boli and is in entirely in their own language so I needed subtitles for this one. Even though it's still a Filipino story, it is of a different culture so it's almost like watching a foreign film. The film has an almost documentary-like feel, timeless really (but I'm guessing it's pre-Spanish colonial times). The title character is a young woman who must be betrothed to another man in a warring tribe in order to achieve peace but she's in love with another man. Like with Sundalong Kanin, this is a film with a strong concept and ambition but the execution is a little rocky. Still a fine, well-made film. 



SHORTS

Asan si Lolo Me? ("Where's Grandpa Me?") (Sari Estrada) **1/2 - A mother tells her young son that his recently deceased grandfather has turned into a goat. What happens next is alternately weird and comic. It's an amusing enough film but it only addresses the issue of how to deal with loss superficially and sacrifices it for the sake of comedy and the weird ending. It's still an entertaining enough film.

Padulong sa pinuy-anan ("Going Home") (Eden Vallarba) *** - An American meets up with a prospective Filipina wife he met online only to be robbed. He is taken in by a single mother and her son. It's a nice little film that works because the central performance was strong but I feel that this could have been better as a feature.

The Ordinary Things We Do (David R. Corpuz) *** - This is more of an experimental film. It consists of three shots shown in split screen featuring three married couples: one straight, one gay, one lesbian. Things happen. I don't know if the filmmaker intended for this as a statement on marriage equality or not but it is an interesting enough concept.

Tiya Bening (Ralph Quijano) **1/2 - An elderly woman with Alzheimer's is left under the care of a caregiver by her daughter. The film's heart is in the right place but it's a rather thin story bolstered by artsy touches. Kind of forgettable.

Mga Ligaw na Paruparo ("The Wandering Butterflies") (J.E. Tiglao) ***1/2 - Despite the fact that I sort of guessed the ending of this film right when it's about to happen, this is probably my favorite of these bunch of shorts, mostly due to the great performances and sparkling, energetic dialogue. The story is about a loving husband finds out his wife may be cheating on him. But there's a twist!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

R.I.P. Lauren Bacall

Less than 24 hours after Robin Williams shockingly left us, another giant of cinema passed away. Lauren Bacall, widow of Humphrey Bogart and a star for over seven decades, left us at the age of 89. Unlike Robin, this wasn't a complete shock given her age but after one major celebrity death, I wasn't expecting another so soon (though it does happen more often than you think). Anyway, posted above is one of her most iconic moments from the film Key Largo but she's had tons of memorable moments from To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Written on the Wind, Dogville, The Mirror Has Two Faces and Birth. She will be missed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams


The news came as a bit of shock for me but at the same time, not really. I knew Robin Williams has been having some problems in recent years but I never thought we would lose him so soon. At only 63, he truly is gone too soon. However, he leaves behind  a rich and varied filmography that made us laugh and cry and everything in between. From The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. He's also a brilliant stand-up comedian. Here, I post his Broadway special. Some jokes are kind of dated but most of it is still freakin' hilarious. We lost a true force of nature, a talented actor and a comedic genius.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (8/3/14 - 8/9/14)

The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey/Joseph Santley) *** - This is the Marx Brothers' first feature length film. Like with all Marx Brothers movies, the plot merely serves as a platform on which the Marx Brothers do their schtick. Only this time around (well, first time around), the plot got too much in the way and it's kind of lame. This movie is not as fantastic as their subsequent works where they perfected how they do their brand of comed on-screen but it still has some good laughs and quite a few good bits. It's far from their best but Marx Brothers completists and fans will find something more than worth their while.

Arsenal (Alexander Dovzhenko) **** - Most film buffs know who Sergei Eisenstein is and how he's such an important figure in the history of world cinema. Less of them know who Alexander Dovzhenko is which is a pity because I think they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath more often. I've seen Earth but not for a long time. After seeing this today, I think it's due for a revisit. The copy I viewed didn't have English inter-titles nor did it have subtitles either but you almost don't need since you can basically get the gist of it. This one is about an uprising of workers and the Bolshevik army in one chapter of the Russian Civil War. The cinematography and the editing of this film simply breathtaking. I also have to say, Dovzhenko has more nuance than Eisenstein who, while technically brilliant, is way RAH-RAH-RAH! with his war pictures. Dovzhenko manages to allow a bit of humanity and grey areas seep in. Man, those faces are haunting!

Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis) **** - People sometimes ask me why I love films so much. I would list this film as one of the reasons why I think film is such a fantastic art form and an important medium. It's a documentary about the Vietnam War released either shortly before or shortly after the Vietnam War was officially over. It is probably one of the most definitive films on the subject whether documentary or narrative feature. It is shocking, heart-wrenching, devastating and thought-provoking. And also, sadly still timely since the U.S. government apparently still hasn't learned its lesson. We still have fear-peddling war-mongers and war profiteers in places of power all over the world. The Vietnam War has been over for 40 years now (I've been there...beautiful country) yet its lessons still ring true today as it were back then.

An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky) ***1/2 - Writer-director Paul Mazursky passed away about a month ago so I thought why not see one of his major works. I have to admit that I was a bit hesitant. Would I like a film about a white woman from NYC going through a divorce made in the late 1970's after watching so many films and TV shows on similar subject matter over the years? The answer is yes! A good movie will always be a good movie. It helps that Jill Clayburgh was absolutely outstanding in the title role of a woman whose rug was pulled right from under her after her husband confesses he's in love with another woman. I hope no one misunderstand me for saying this but I'm kind of impressed that a man wrote a very feminist, very female-POV script all by himself!


The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau) **** - Un Chien Andalou isn't the only weird, surreal, somewhat fucked up film of its era. It was shortly followed by this strange masterpiece by Jean Cocteau. Divided into 4 sections, the film has a somewhat clearer narrative than the Bunuel/Dali piece but it is no less avant-garde with tons of alternately beautiful, grotesque, occasionally shocking but almost always strange imagery. Cocteau utilizes pretty much every visual effect and cinematic trick available to him to produce something kind of masterful. What exactly does it all mean? All sorts of things. Maybe even nothing. But it's still a joy to watch and that's what counts.

Lucy (Luc Besson) *** - People who are even a little science-literate would most likely know that this film's entire entire conceit, that humans only use 10% of our brain, is a myth. However, once you get over that, this is a pretty enjoyable film. Preposterous and ridiculous, yes. Filled with plot-holes and contrivances, yes. But still a hell of a lot of fun. Scarlett Johansson actually gives a strong central performance as a woman who acquires super mental powers after ingesting a large dosage of a new designer drug that unlocks unlimited mental capacity. This is probably Luc Besson's strongest film in a long time but that's not saying much since he's largely on a downward spiral post The Professional. It's still slickly made fun.

Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont) *** - This one was an enthusiastic recommendation made by a friend. A night club owner replaces his main dancer/paramour with a Chinese girl and starts a romance with her triggering a series of complications. The film of course is kind of a melodrama, something we've seen a lot but the performances make it work. Anna May Wong one of the few non-whites to be have prominent work in this era is especially terrific. The film handles the theme of interracial romance, certainly very controversial in its time, quite surprisingly well considering (though I had some problems with the ending). Overall, a very good film.


(NOTE: I've also seen a bunch of films during the Cinemalaya Filipino Independent Film Festival. I will review all of them in a separate blog post.) 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (7/27/14 - 8/2/14)

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda) **** - This is a wonderful film. I really should see more of Koreeda's cinema. He's sort of like a modern day Ozu or a Japanese Dardenne. This film is about a family with a mother and father and a 6-year-old son. Then they find out their son was switched with another family at the hospital. Under the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would have been an overwrought family melodrama but Koreeda manages to treat the emotionally charged subject matter in such a way that it feels honest and real. It moves you without feeling cheap. It's easy to milk cheap tears out of this thing but thankfully, it does not. Spielberg is gonna produce a Hollywood remake. I strongly suggest checking the original first.

Dinner at Eight (George Cukor) **** - A high society wife plans a fancy dinner party in honor of some visiting royalty. The film basically takes a look at the lives of most of the invited guests one week before the party. Even though they're all technically in the upper-class, they all have their own problems: professional, financial, personal and a combination of all three. This film has superb acting and a very witty screenplay. Probably one of the best ensemble of actors put together on-screen with most of them absolutely shining especially Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. It is a comedy and it is often very, very funny but I was surprised by how dark and sad it was sometimes! Thank you to the person who recommended this to me.


Laura (Otto Preminger) **** - The film centers on a murder mystery, a brutal murder of a young woman named Laura. A police detective is tasked with finding out the killer and interviews all the people in her life and soon finds himself falling in love with her. This is another one of those major films which I haven't gotten around to seeing. So many films, so little time! I finally got the chance to see it and I'm kind of glad I managed to stay away from spoilers because the third act is a twisty doozy and the last 10 minutes was a real nail-biter. The moody cinematography helps along with the great cast which includes Vincent Price in the most "normal", least creepy role I've ever seen him in. This is truly one of the best film noirs out there.

Hallelujah! (King Vidor) ***1/2 - By contemporary standards, this is definitely far from the most politically correct film not only race-wise but gender-wise as well. However, a mainstream film funded by a major studio with an all-black cast is kind of progressive in 1929. This is a musical about a man who just tries to do the right thing but he keeps meeting up with a devious woman who brings him down. The music, the acting (most especially Nina Mae McKinney as the woman sinner who I can't believe was only 16!) and the filmmaking are all very top-notch. Considering this is one of the earliest "talkies", the sound mix/recording is pretty impressive.

 
The Normal Heart (Ryan Murphy) *** - This is the Emmy-nominated (probably soon-to-be-Emmy-winning) HBO film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway play by Larry Kramer, a thinly veiled fictionalized account of his own experiences during the early years of the AIDS crisis. When I heard that this is being adapted for HBO, I thought, wouldn't this be a too preachy, or dated or even redundant since they already did And the Band Played On and Angels in America, already both really good films (well the latter more than the former) and the fact that Ryan Murphy is involved, would it even be GOOD? Well, it's no groundbreaking masterpiece but it's still a compelling drama with excellent performances (Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer and Joe Mantello are all outstanding) and of course their heart, so to speak, is in the right place. I would probably consider this one of, if not THE best thing Ryan Murphy has ever done.
 

Enemy (Denis Villenueve) *** - The premise is intriguing: A history teacher discovers that a bit player actor looks EXACTLY like him. Then it just gets weird. Although based on a Jose Saramago novel, this is more like Denis Villeneuve's attempt at emulating David Lynch (I mean casting Isabella Rossellini in a small role can't just be a coincidence, right?). High concept films like these rely on how it lands: Shocking twist, batcrap crazy and ambiguous. The film does a little bit of the latter two. It is intriguing work but I'm not sure I was completely satisfied with it. This could go either way. I can see people arguing about it for a long time. Gyllenhaal was terrific, of course.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) ***1/2 - I have to say that this is probably my favorite Marvel movie to date. Let's face it. I was sold when I saw the machine-gun toting raccoon! It's the funniest Marvel movie but oddly enough, it's also the most emotionally resonant. Nearly every element of what makes a great popcorn movie is there. There's fun action sequences, hilarious moments and a strong emotional through-line as well as well-defined character arcs for every character. James Gunn, despite an increase in budget, managed to make his voice shine through. This is every bit as fun and more as Slither and he even managed to sprinkle in fun bits of references every now and then. I expect Chris Pratt to become a real star after this. I can't wait to see this again.

Diva (Jean-Jacques Beiniex) ***1/2 - The copy I saw of this film was unfortunately dubbed which I really dislike however, that didn't tarnish much of how much I dug this movie. This is a film about a delivery boy who becomes enamored of a classical opera singer who never wanted to record any of her performances but he secretly records a bootleg of one of her concerts. Then he somehow becomes involved in a case involving another tape which implicates a police officer in international prostitution and drug trafficking. The two plot lines don't really have anything to do with the other apart from the involvement of the delivery boy. It's like one plot was somehow shoe-horned in another plot.....yet it somehow WORKS! It's like a pulpy crime thriller wrapped in a nice classy plot thread about artistic compromise and the relationship of the artist and the audience. If that doesn't entice you, there's a really WILD chase scene in this one which is frankly kind of unbelievable. Thanks to the person who recommended this to me.