Sunday, September 14, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (9/7/14 - 9/13/14)

Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wadja) *** - The third film in director Andrzej Wadja's War trilogy, this one is about the tail end of World War II when communists and the non-communists are fighting for control of Poland after the German occupation. The film starts strongly and ends very strongly but kind of meanders a bit in the middle. It is beautifully shot with sprinklings of suspense and black comedy but overall, I think I strongly prefer Kanal. This is another one of those admire and like a lot but not love type of films.

The Big House (George W. Hill) ***1/2 - This is yet another film from 1930 that is rather obscure but was recommended to me. This is about a young man who was sent to prison for manslaughter and we're introduced into an over-populated prison and harsh prison life. The film takes twists and turns that you may not expect (for instance your sympathies change from act one to act two). The ending is also quite violent, more violent than Scarface. Great performances by all especially Wallace Beery who created a fully human character which could have easily have been a one-dimensional stereotypical villain.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern/Amanda Sundberg) ***1/2 - Joan Rivers sadly passed away this week. I thought this would be a perfect time to finally check out the acclaimed documentary chronicling her life and career. It is truly a wonderful documentary. It was a very eye-opening, fascinating look into the ups and downs of a very fascinating and determined woman committed to her craft. It is often funny, sad, sweet, moving and even inspiring. If you only know Joan Rivers from her abrasive persona on TV, this documentary will definitely make you see her in a different light, maybe even respect her more. Well, now, it's a film that's bittersweet knowing that she's now gone and is a reminder on what we have lost.


Westfront 1918 (G.W. Pabst) ***1/2 - Forgive me if I keep on comparing this film to All Quiet in the Western Front but one can't help it since they tackle the same exact subject: German soldiers during World War I and they were even released the same year. They even follow a similar structure: It doesn't follow a conventional narrative thru-line, just a series of scenes that happen chronologically featuring some of the same characters all through out. I must say this one did it better. Admittedly, it is a less emotional and sentimental film. It doesn't try and milk your tears. It's also a lot less preachy and more nuanced on tackling the subject of war. It also has a sense of humor and a more complex depiction of its female characters. Even though it's my least favorite G.W. Pabst film I've seen so far, it's still quite a solid piece of work.

Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy) **** - A brazen, arrogant, notorious gangster shoots his way to the top of the crime world. This is one of Edward G. Robinson's most famous iconic roles. Despite the fact that I already know the ending (I think most film buffs are already familiar with the line, "Is this the end of Rico?"), I found this to be a really gripping, intriguing film. Edward G. Robinson, despite not being the most handsome face and despite his character being largely unlikeable, really holds your attention and creates one of cinema's most fascinating anti-heroes. Say, I really wasn't seeing things when I think the title character is gay, right?

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau) ***1/2 - This is sadly F.W. Murnau's final film since he died from an automobile accident a week before it premiered. It's a somewhat of a silent film focusing on a love story between two south sea islanders. Unfortunately the girl is the "Chosen One" and must be required to be celibate and having desires on her is "tabu". What follows is a beautiful but rather sad love story. The film is beautifully filmed and Murnau (along with Robert Flaherty who helped him direct it) gets very naturalistic performances from the largely non-Western/non-professional actors. The score is fantastic as well. Despite being of a very different milieu, Murnau still managed to make it feel like his film.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (8/31/14 - 9/6/14)

The Giver (Phillip Noyce) **1/2 - I guess very low expectations made me enjoy this a bit more than I should. Admittedly, I have not read the Lois Lowry young adult (actually middle-school, I believe) novel about a dystopian society where emotions are de-programmed and sameness is valued above all others so I approach this PURELY as a film. And as a film, I thought it was an entertaining if rather derivative YA adaptation. I'm aware that this novel was written and published way before the YA craze happened and it's sad that they felt the need to make it more like those movies by throwing in a love story and making the main character older. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep do well as supporting characters and I do recognize that there's a greatness buried underneath all those compromises that makes me want to read the book. All in all, disposable, pleasant entertainment.

Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky) *** - Three stars is usually a "good" rating for me but in the standards of filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as his collaborator in this film, Tonino Guerra, this is a bit of a disappointment. A Russian writer travels to Italy to research about the life of an 18th century Russian composer. This being a Tarkovsky film, it's not as straightforward as that. I love Tarkovsky. Stalker and Ivan's Childhood are among my all-time favorite films. But even for me, this was way too slow, ponderous and oblique especially in the first 2/3rds of it. It felt a bit derivative of his and his screenwriter previous works. The cinematography though is breathtaking and it is a work that comes from a master filmmaker. But definitely not my favorite film of his. I do not recommend this film for Tarkovsky virgins.

The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson) ***1/2 - Wow. This is a very neat discovery, a rather obscure one, might I add. A military officer from the Russian army wants to discover the secret to winning at cards and is willing to, so to speak, sell his soul to get it. This is actually slow-burn horror film. It doesn't feel like a horror film for the most part. It builds on a few scares and there's a supernatural element to it. I don't want to give it away since part of the fun is in the unfolding. I didn't know what to expect from this so I was kept on my toes a lot of the times. It paid off quite well. Anton Walbrook, once again, is brilliant in the leading role, as well as Edith Evans.


Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle) ***1/2 - I've actually never heard of this film until a couple of people raved about it to me and I have to say they're absolutely right. This is a rather funny comedy about a woman in a dull marriage who while jewelry shopping gets robbed by a very charming and clever thief (he prefers the term "robber") whom she falls in love with. William Powell plays the robber and he's perfect since he also charms the pants off of you so you find yourself rooting for him just like the woman played by Kay Francis. This film is I think Pre-Code so it's surprisingly naughty. (Were those special cigarettes pot?) They don't make romantic comedies this fun anymore.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth MacFarlane) **- I've said it before. Seth MacFarlane is hit-and-miss with me. But I really enjoyed Ted so I was looking forward to this. Well, first the positive parts: I really loved the fact that they shot this thing in Monument Valley. You can tell that effort was made to remind you of classic Westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks, etc. in the cinematography and the production design. As a comedy, I can say that there are three or four really good jokes that made me laugh along with a few that elicited pity chuckles. This is unfortunately a misfire. It felt way too long and the effort to weave in some earnestness fall flat. You're better off watching Blazing Saddles or even Rango.

Paid (Sam Wood) ***1/2 - This is yet another film from 1930 that I've never heard of before until someone recommended it to me. And it's yet another winner. I can't help but wonder why this isn't more popular. This one stars a young Joan Crawford as a woman who was wrongly convicted of grand larceny and plots her revenge against those who set her up. She does so by scamming people out of their money but doing it legally through loopholes and creative machinations. It is, in essence, a bit of a caper film where you have to guess who's playing whom but it takes a lot of dramatic and suspenseful turns. It is quite unpredictable. Joan Crawford was amazing. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (8/24/14 - 8/30/14)

The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill) *** - This is my own way of commemorating Robin Williams who sadly passed away a week ago. This is the first film of his which really showcased that he's much more than just a brilliant improv comedian. He can also be a subtle dramatic actor as well. He's of course excellent, as is the cast especially Glenn Close as his mother (who despite being only a few years older than Williams manages to convince you she's his mother with barely any makeup). The film, based on a John Irving novel, feels a bit like a fantasy but it's not. It's just really, really quirky. It mixes quirky elements with more serious darker elements and of course recurring feminist statements contained within, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so. It's a very good film. But I hesitate to call it great.

City Girl (F.W. Murnau) ***1/2 - A waitress in a big city diner falls in love with a country guy visiting the city. They quickly get married and move to the country where she faces his stern father. As I was watching, I thought this is kind of lightweight for a Murnau film. I mean, the director of Nosferatu and Sunrise? But then as it progressed, I saw that it has gotten more complex and darker. It pretty much turned into somewhat of a companion piece of Sunrise. It's not quite as great as that film. He uses some of the same notes but it's still a wonderful film worth checking out since hey, it's a Murnau film.


Boyhood (Richard Linklater) **** - This film has been very much hyped up and talked up ever since people have laid eyes on it. Almost everyone I know loves it. I tried my best to lower my expectations so as not to be too disappointed. I have to say: The praise is definitely earned. Beyond its hook of filming the same group of actors for a couple of weeks once a year for 12 years and with the children literally growing up before our very eyes, this is a journey in the lives of not just a young boy but that of a family (a divorced mom and dad and their two children). All the happy, sad, painful, scary, tragic, triumphant, funny moments that growing up bring. Richard Linklater somehow manages to encapsulate a something magical and universal as seen through the prism of what's essentially someone who's kind of ordinary. There's drama, for sure but Linklater never falls into the trap of being emotionally manipulative or sentimental. Wonderful performances (though, yes, the kid kind of becomes the weak link once he got older but that's an extremely minor quibble). These are one of those films that remind me why I love the cinema. I can't wait to see it again. Best film of 2014 so far.

Anna Christie (Clarence Brown) **1/2 - A young woman who used to be a prostitute finds her estranged father who is a sailor and works for him. Then she falls in love with another sailor. There's really one reason to see this and that's Greta Garbo who plays the title character. She, along with the three main supporting cast, members elevates the material and the often stage-y purely perfunctory direction. There have been better films made with a similar subject before and since. But none of them have Greta Garbo in it though.

Project A (Jackie Chan) ***1/2 - Can you believe I've never seen any of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films all the way through? Well, it's time to remedy that. I must admit, I really had fun. Here, Jackie Chan plays a guy in the coast guard who must team up with the police to help capture pirates. The plot is kind of lame but of course plot is just an excuse or rather a template for Jackie Chan to show off his unique mixture of exciting, death-defying martial arts and hilarious slapstick comedy. It's all silly fun. Hollywood doesn't quite do justice to what Jackie Chan can do, really.


Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg) **** - Is it wrong for me to say that this feels like Stagecoach set in a train in China instead of the Old West? Well, feels that way at least and that's a compliment. Marlene Dietrich leads an excellent ensemble cast as "Shanghai Lilly", an "escort" of sorts traveling to Shanghai on a train with a group of characters in the middle of a Chinese civil war. The film is superbly crafted, has sprinklings of humor along with some genuine suspense but I'm surprised it's also kind of moving and sweet in the end. Dietrich's character is kind of almost the opposite of her character in The Blue Angel.

The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco) *** - I didn't see the first Purge movie although I seriously considered it because it's such a really great idea for a dystopian satire: for 12 hours every year, the government legalizes all crime including murder in order to control the population. I've been hearing from people whose opinions I take seriously that this one is an improvement and you don't need to see the first one in order to appreciate and follow this. I must say, I kind of liked it. Of course the story is pure pulp and the satirical elements are not handled all that well (it needed more black humor, IMO). It's entertaining but nothing more than that. I'm trying to imagine something like this on the hands of someone like John Carpenter or Terry Gilliam.

M├Ądchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan) ***1/2 - I can't believe this film was made in 1931! A teenage girl sent to a very strict and conservative all-girls boarding school falls in love with her beautiful female teacher. Yes, a lesbian drama involving teenagers! Though the film has no sex scenes or nudity, the themes tackled are still pretty daring. I can't imagine viewing this through 1931 audience's eyes. But it's Europe so I guess they must be more liberal and open-minded there. That alone makes this film worth checking out. Add to that the great performances and the emotional third act. This also strikes me as the female equivalent of budding-sexuality-in-repressive-boarding-school subgenre that includes If... and Zero for Conduct. It doesn't quite reach the heights of greatness of those two films but this is still a film more people should see.

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.