Sunday, July 31, 2011
The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle) *** - This is a low-budget black comedy/thriller/love story based on the true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers who robbed and killed as many as 20 women during the 1940's. The tone is all over the place shifting from borderline campy dark comedy and straight-up thriller and it doesn't always work. In other words, the parts are better than the whole. However, the performances of the two leads, Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, are pretty great and holds your attention althroughout and the film does contain lots of great moments.
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston) *** - I always thought that a Captain America movie would be tricky to pull off. In the wrong hands, it would come off as overly jingoistic, red-state, flag-waving type of film. But placing the character in World War II is a good move that perfectly justifies the character in a very tasteful way. The result is a very entertaining, well-made Americana/World War II film with a superhero in it. In a way, it also feels like an Indiana Jones movie as well and it's a better Indiana Jones movie than The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Missing (Costa-Gavras) ***1/2 - The film is the true story of the search of the father and wife of an American journalist who disappeared during the U.S. government-sponsored Chilean coup in 1973. Jack Lemmon gives a simply magnificent performance as a father, who despite their differences, simply wants his son back. It's a very human and beautiful performance which trascends the political thriller/intrigue angle of the film which fades into the background but is always present. It's not a perfect film; but Lemmon's performance sells it for me.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Someone I chat with online has said that a friend of his referred to the 2011 Oscar Best Picture winner The King's Speech as "an arthouse film". My response? "In what Bizarro universe?". Now, I'm not saying The King's Speech is a bad film. It's a very well-made, extremely well-acted, independently produced, artistic film that's perfectly straightforward and very accessible. One thing it is not is an arthouse film, at least not the way I and all my fellow cinephile define an arthouse film.
Much like the political discourse in the U.S. has shifted radically to the right where people can actually get away with calling a moderate conservative like U.S. President Barack Obama a "radical socialist", the definition for "arthouse" films have also shifted. I place the blame squarely on the phenomenon of tentpole $100 million-plus dollar blockbusters which caters primarily to teenagers. I'm not saying this to be a snob or to impugn the entire concept of blockbusters (I enjoy them a lot; a few of them are even great films) but to point out a reality. With the proliferation of cable and satellite TV, the internet, video games, DVD's, Blu-Rays, etc., less and less people are actually going to the movies. For most Average Joe moviegoers out there, the only times they would get off their asses to pay and see a film in the movie theaters is if it's a big blockbuster with lots of eye candy and to a lesser extent, stars their favorite movie star. That's the reality.
This shift in moviegoing culture has also caused a shift in the definition of "arthouse". During the '60s and '70s, mainstream films like Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, etc. would be considered "arthouse films" today. Why, when adjusted for inflation, the 1979 Best Picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer, a courtroom drama about divorce from the point of view of the man would be a $200 million blockbuster. Today, it would be an indie drama which, if successful, would be considered an "arthouse" hit. But it's a perfectly accessible, mainstream film.
These days films that don't contain explosions, state-of-the-art visual effects, elaborate action sequences, snarky lines, juvenile gross-out humor or big named stars are, in most cases, already considered "arthouse". Jeffrey Wells, in a column, pointed out that Cannes Film Festival Best Director winner Drive is an action-thriller complete with guns and car chases and car crashes. Fast Five also is an action-thriller with guns and car chases and car crashes. One is a little more serious and substantive, the other is a fifth in a franchise with Vin Diesel and The Rock. Yet one is being released in "arthouses" while the other already raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in the box-office. Drive would just be a plain blockbuster if it was released in the '70s.
True arthouse films fall into one of three categories, at least in my opinion: a.) Films that dare to tackle subject matter or contains content that's either very difficult or very taboo or very provocative that will definitely turn off a lot of people; b.) Films that have a very non-conventional and/or highly unusual narrative or even NO narrative at all; c.) Films that do both. True arthouse films seldom become breakout box-office hits, get nominations at the Oscars or even seen by people who are not serious film buffs. I'm talking about films by filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, John Sayles, Derek Jarman, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Lav Diaz, Guy Maddin, Bela Tarr, Maya Deren, Dusan Makavejev, etc. These filmmakers seldom have true breakout hits and they often work just in the fringe of the mainstream. I mean, Lav Diaz, a fellow Filipino, made an 11-hour black & white silent film. You can't get anymore less mainstream than that. That is REAL arthouse. The King's Speech? Slumdog Millionaire? Not arthouse.
A grown-up mainstream film without elaborate special effects, gross out humor or big-name stars does not an arthouse film make even if it has subtitles or even if it was released independently. I'm not saying that arthouse is necessarily superior to mainstream cinema. I've seen arthouse films that are crap like I've seen my share of mainstream films that are crap. This is just pointing out how the word "arthouse" has changed and bandied about to ghettoize grown-up non-franchise mainstream films who dare to not to cater to teenagers.
Monday, July 25, 2011
This is my final blog entry on the recently concluded CineMalaya Film Festival here in the Philippines. I've seen four films from the festival which is a record for me since I only watch like one a year but since the festival has opened screenings at a theater where I frequent, I was able to catch 4 films. This is the final one.
Amok gets its title from an area in downtown Manila, an intersection where traffic is heavy and crowds of different people going about their business is always congested. The film contains multiple intersecting storylines from various people going about their day in that area. Opening with a group of teenage boys freestyle rapping in the streets, we meet: An old blind man trying cross the street; A father meets up and has a talk with his jock son; a female street food vendor reprimands her smartass daughter; a washed-up movie star has sex with a prostitute in his flat in a nearby building; an elderly lady talks to her junkie daughter as her younger brother chaffeurs her around; a gay man and his younger lover deals with an apparently homophobic cab driver; a dubious police officer pays off an old woman to commit arson to get rid of a squatters slum village; an uncle accuses his nephew of fraud and wasting his brother's money; and most importantly, a man beats an ex-cop with a homemade gun in a pool game. These storylines will be united by an explosion of violence that will not result very pleasantly for some of them.
The film itself is an amazing feat of filmmaking. The film was shot in broad daylight, on location, in the actual streets where the film takes place with a very low budget. The fact that they got the film made at all is a minor miracle. The editing is simply pulse pounding, the way co-writer and director Lawrence Fajardo juggles all the storylines into one narrative without losing or confusing the audience is amazing. It helps that it features a huge ensemble of actors who gamely bring to life their characters. It's also pretty tight and brisk at 90-plus minutes but the script and the acting allows most of the characters to make an impression to the audience enough to make them unforgettable and make an impact. It's a testament to a tight three-way marriage of direction, acting and writing.
Though the film would draw comparisons to the works of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman, I would argue that is more apt to compare it to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu. For me, this is the type of film Inarittu should be doing. Unlike Inarittu, the characters here are vivid and believable and oddly enough, it has a sense of humor and not relentlessly bleak. I would say it is definitely superior to most of his work. This film is wonderfully made, thought-provoking and enormously thrilling. It's probably my favorite of those that I've seen in the festival. (****)
Sunday, July 24, 2011
i-Libings (Rommel Andreo Sales) *** - See review below.
Bahay Bata (Eduardo Roy Jr.) ***1/2 - See review below.
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai) **** - This is my second time watching this film. Still a great film after all these years.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
I saw two films today at the CineMalaya Film Festival and just by coincidence, they seem to have complimented each other well. One is about birth and the other is about death. I shall begin at the end with death. i-Libings or in English, i-Funerals is about a film/communications student who very reluctantly accepts an internship where they do video coverage of funerals for internet and DVD with the intent of it being viewed by relatives living abroad or relatives unable to attend them. The film starts out just being okay. The first two-thirds or so is a rather quirky generic dramedy, that's reminiscent of other Filipino indie dramedies particularly one called Crying Ladies (which also tackled the issue of funerals in the context of Filipino society). However, the film comes alive in the dramatic twist in the third act which I will not reveal here. But the film turns both into a really interesting depiction on how technologies the internet and video have ingrained themselves into modern everyday life (as well as everyday drama) and a nice coming-of-age story of a young woman in the cusp of adulthood. (***)
The film about birth is Bahay Bata or Baby Factory. I shall preface this review by saying that I happen to be friends with the director of this film, as well as the publicist. But I assure you that I am as unbiased and objective as I can be when I say that this is quite an exemplary film. This film is set -- and shot -- at a real-life maternity hospital in Manila that's government-run and are patronized by the urban poor during Christmas Eve. Its central character is a nurse (played by Diana Zubiri) who during the course of the day, finds out her boyfriend is married and that she's pregnant with his child. But that's just one story. We get various glimpses of little stories from the various patients and staff of the hospital itself. It has an almost documentary like feel and its got moments of raw honesty interspersed with surprisingly comic and inspiring moments. This film is rather relevant in Philippine society today due to something called the Reproductive Health Bill that's currently up in the air on Congress and the Senate. It's very controversial due to the strong opposition of the Catholic Church and conservative groups. So in the context of Philippine society, this could be seen as a political statement but it doesn't hit you over the head with it and also doesn't descend into melodrama. It's a really refreshing, honest-to-goodness slice of life film. (***1/2)
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words of appreciation for the Criterion Collection. As any film buff worth his/her salt knows, the Criterion Collection is a wonderful company that started in the '80s releasing certain titles on LaserDiscs and one of the pioneers in including "special features" on home video releases. They have since segued into releasing DVD's as well Blu-Ray's but their commitment to quality still continues. Much of Criterion Collection's catalogue are composed of independent films, art films and foreign classics both famous and obscure. Many of them have tons of extra material: Commentaries, essays, documentaries, etc. They are like little film schools and are often the pride & joy of any serious DVD/Blu-Ray collectors. They even released Michael Bay movies like The Rock and Armageddon which helped subsidize their restoration of more obscure titles. They made Michael Bay not totally worthless.
Because of their attention to quality, they are pretty expensive, costing almost double the average DVD disc. However, sales happen all the time and film buffs like me go crazy over them. Barnes & Noble currently has a 50% off Criterion sale lasting until August 1st. Plus their catalogue is also now available on Hulu and Netflix.
Sure, they're not perfect. I mean, not every transfer of theirs are created equally. Masters of Cinema and Kino are also doing the same thing. Plus one thing that I dislike about them is their limited number of non-Japanese Asian films in their catalogue.
As a film lover, I must salute them for giving indie, foreign, obscure and art house films a wider audience that they deserve.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates) **** - Yes, I'm a Harry Potter fan and an unapologetic one at that. I would say that this is absolutely the best Harry Potter film since The Prisoner of Azkaban. The second half of the film version of the seventh book of the series is a spectacular piece of pop entertainment that pretty much rivals, say, The Lord of the Rings in terms of sheer visual delights but more than that, it's also as emotionally involving as the books and I have to say the final showdown between Voldemort and Harry is better in the film than it was in the book. I'll stop comparing the books now. But all in all, one movie, Part 2 is pretty fantastic as a whole 5-hour film, I would have to say it absolutely works. It will definitely satisfy most fans. This is my 2nd favorite film of the year so far.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
When Chris Columbus was announced as the director of the first movie version of the books, The Sorcerer's Stone, I was concerned. He's not exactly an auteur and is mostly known for his juvenile comedies. The film suffers from being a rather slavishly faithful film adaptation rather than an actual film, lifting whole scenes from the book rather than trying to turn them into something more cinematic. But the strength of Rowling's material still managed to make this film a pleasant experience. Columbus improved quite a bit with The Chamber of Secrets where you can see slivers of potential greatness of this series.
Things changed in 2004 when Alfonso Cuaron, coming off his success from Y tu mama tambien, was chosen to direct what many critics regard as the best book of series so far The Prisoner of Azkaban. I was really excited since this is going to give this series a much-need shot-in-the-arm and get it to be cinematically respected. It absolutely worked. Cuaron delivered a beautiful piece of dark fantasy that both fits in with his ouevre and pretty much laid the groundwork for the darker, more grown-up films to follow.
Mike Newell added his own touch in the fourth film, The Goblet of Fire. He gave it a more epic feel and polished up the comedic elements of the series. Then acclaimed veteran of BBC miniseries, David Yates, took over in The Order of Phoenix and pretty much never let go. He built on everything Cuaron and Newell had introduced and more.
The young unknown newcomers, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, have since blown up into big stars, forging their own respective careers and also vastly improved as actors. It probably also helps that the great supporting cast of A-list British actors are their co-stars from Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, etc. Each one clearly having a ball in their respective roles.
The series is by no means perfect but they do contain lots of moments of cinematic greatness. It is a testament to the strength of J.K. Rowling's writing that these movies work. I mean, how many films can have 8 movies with the same cast and work both critically and commercially? That's no easy feat.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Amigo (John Sayles) ***1/2 - This is John Sayles' latest film and it's about one of the more, little-known wars in both American AND Filipino history (I think we only mention this in passing during our history lessons). It's the turn of the century and after the Philippines was liberated from Spain, in comes the Americans. This is a fictitious story about a small rural Filipino village and head of village (Joel Torre) that find themselves in a crossfire between insurgents and the American troops wanting to introduce democracy to the country. Although Sayles often gets a bit preachy and more than a little heavy-handed, the extremely talented American and Filipino ensemble group of actors deliver great performances (especially Torre, Dillahunt, Locsin and DeHaan) and he does a great job of humanzing every side. It's not a perfect film but it's still a very worthy effort.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Wow. This is most definitely in the running for my favorite Godard film, right up there with Band of Outsiders and Breathless. Anna Karina gives a great central performance as a young woman who gets into prostitution. The film is divided into chapters and filled with literary, philosophical and pop culture references, classic, classic Godard. Is it just me or did Godard do his best work when his still friends Truffaut?
A Face in the Crowd (1957) Dir: Elia Kazan
Andy Griffith delivers a stunning performance as a drunk ne'r-do-well plucked from obscurity by a small-town radio producer (Patricia Neal) and is turned into national media superstar. This film was quite a bit ahead of its time and was probably seen as exaggerated then but is strikingly relevant today. I can't believe the Andy Griffith I see here is the same one who's Matlock. Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau provide excellent support. Terrific direction and script too.
Tokyo Drifter (1966) Dir: Seijun Suzuki
A former gang boss and his young faithful henchman goes straight. Then a rival decides to take over their legit business, chaos ensues and the young henchman goes on a lam. Then crazy shit happens. That's basically the plot which is sometimes there and sometimes not there (hard to explain but see it and you'll know it). I've wanted to see another Suzuki film since Gate of Flesh. This one's just as wild. Suzuki's use of colors is amazing. It at times felt like a Japanese gangster film shot like an MGM musical (and to make matters even crazier, this can qualify as a musical). It's definitely a must-see.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) Dir: Leo McCarey
I've heard lots of critics and film buffs proclaiming this one of the best films ever made. It's really a wonder that it's only quite recently that this film has been made available for any type of video format courtesy of Criterion. Now that I've FINALLY seen it, I have to say those critics were not exaggerating. For what is essentially a very sad film, this film has a surprising amount of humor. The performances of Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are absolutely exquisite. The scene in the hotel did to me what no film has ever done at least to my memory: Made me smile and get misty-eyed at the same time.
Director Darren Aronofsky's four-for-four so far (not counting Black Swan yet) in my book at least. The film about an ageing professional wrestler trying to get his personal and professional life back together is anchored by the truly beautiful, heartwrenching performance of Mickey Rourke (and he's ably supported by Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei). This film is at times tough to watch, not so much because of the violent, gory wrestling scenes but because of the powerful raw emotions of it all. It's a testament to the greatness of Rourke's performance. It's one of the best of its year.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1946) Dir: Max Ophuls
Toy Story 3 (2010) Dir: Lee Unkrich
PIXAR has done it again. How do they do it? This movie is quite simply pure and utter joy and fits quite nicely with the previous two installments and is definitely another feather under PIXAR's cap. Face it, if your weakest film is Cars, you're doing something right. There are lots of clever gags in this one as well as lots of genuine heart. The ending is particularly very moving and beautiful. And great voice acting all-around too. Most of the voice performers were given a chance to shine. Very easily the best film released in 2010.
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos ("Three Godless Years") (1976) Dir: Mario O'Hara
Filipino critic Noel Vera called this "arguably the best Filipino film ever made". I don't think I agree (there are several Filipino films I like better) but it is definitely in the Top 10. A young Filipino woman (Nora Aunor, in one of her best roles) is raped by a Filipino-born Japanese soldier (Christopher de Leon) during the start of the Japanese occupation of World War II. The two eventually fall in love and face the horrors and savagery of war first hand where no one (Japanese, American or Filipino) gets away without blood on their hands. Despite the poor quality of the print of the DVD, I can still tell that this is first-rate extraordinary filmmaking and certainly a great World War II film.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
One of the things I do look forward to every time a Transformers movie comes out are the critics reviews. This one is my favorite. It's BBC critic Mark Kermode's review. Enjoy:
Monday, July 4, 2011
This film is a masterpiece.
I do not use the word lightly. This film is a freakin' masterpiece. Terrence Malick is a revered auteur who has a rather scant filmography. This is only his fifth feature film in a career spanning 40 years. Each one is a deliberately paced, beautifully and masterfully photographed, poetic and introspective, one-of-a-kind piece of celluloid that enrage some and completely enrapture others and are considered widely influential pieces of American cinema. The Tree of Life is a culmination of what came before and dare I say, the highwater mark of what's to come after.
The plot, if you can call it that, is about a suburban Texas family from the 1950's composed of a stern father (Brad Pitt - embodying 'nature'), a loving mother (Jessica Chastain - embodying grace) and three boys (wonderfully played by newcomers Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler & Tye Sheridan). Sometime in the future one of them dies and the parents grieve and it seems to have affected the oldest son (played as an adult by Sean Penn) in his middle-age life in the modern day. Then it cuts into the film's most famous and controversial sequence, the Creation of the Universe. During my screening, this is where a group of people in front of me walked out. It is a beautiful sequence (made with very minimal CGI) but will test the patience of some people expecting something else. Malick tackles very heady themes with heavy symbolism that does not follow the linear three-act structure that most other films follow. It seems to be a vignette of memories cutting back and forth from past, present, future and into dream-like sequences.
Though I can understand why this will not appeal to some people, I can speak for myself when I say only a handful of films have moved me and affected me the way this film has. Yes, this film has great cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki and much has been written by the wonderful performances of Pitt, Chastain and the boys. But deeper than that, by juxtaposing the joys and tragedies of this family into the context of the creation of existence, Malick created a film that's both very epic and intensely intimate in a way that I found poignant and it truly moved me spiritually and even religiously, in a way. People who are open-minded enough and can get past the slow pace and the unconventional narrative will take away different things from it, all of them equally valid. The film has so many complex layers, cinephiles, philosophers and theologians will be dissecting it for years to come. It is a deeply spiritual work from an intelligent man of faith who is gifted with the art of filmmaking.
Again, this film is a masterpiece.