Tuesday, January 31, 2012

R.I.P. Damien Bona (1955 - 2012) author of "Inside Oscar"

This will probably be one of my more personal blogposts thus far. Damien Bona, co-author of Inside Oscar, a book widely hailed as one of the most definitive behind-the-scenes showbiz books on the Academy Awards, died a couple of days ago after suffering cardiac arrest. He was only 57. Why is this personal? Because I happen to have come to know him on-line through a message board posts and e-mail exchanges for almost 13 years. I have known him online almost as long as I've been using the internet. In addition to being an expert (and very vocal critic) of the Academy Awards, he was also a very intelligent, very passionate film enthusiast who has done more than his share of shaping my film education and film tastes through his sharp, witty sometimes biting and caustic film critiques and his very enthusiastic recommendations. He also has, on occasion, read some stuff that I've written (scripts, articles, etc.) and gave me very encouraging words and helpful feedback. I did not always agree with him (he hates PIXAR and Martin Scorsese, for the most part) but I respected him very highly. Even in message board posts and e-mails, he seems to have also been a kind, generous man who was loyal to his friends and family and with a deep love of film. I will miss him. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (1/22/12 - 1/28/12)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen) ***1/2 - A fictional character from a movie steps out into the "real world" to charm the pants off a woman with an unhappy marriage during the Great Depression. It is a wonderful, charming, funny film that's essentially about the magic of the movies. It's not Woody's funniest film but I had a smile plastered throughout a huge chunk of it. Jeff Daniels is terrific in a dual role and Woody Allen's muse, Mia Farrow, is also as strong as she's ever been. The final shot of the film is absolute perfection, IMO.

Manhattan (Woody Allen) **** - It's one of the handful of canon films/all-time/top classics I haven't seen and by God, why did I wait so long? This is an amazing film and without a doubt it's one of Woody Allen's masterpieces. The script is funny and nuanced. Although Woody's films are often not praised for their visuals, this one contains some really jaw-dropping cinematography courtesy of Gordon Willis. Despite clearly made and set in the 1970's, it does not feel dated at all. It's a true classic, one of the greats.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) **** - The worst thing I can say about this film is that it isn't quite as great as Woody Allen's masterpieces from the '70s and '80s. But it is very much a highlight on his current contemporary European phase of his films. It's a funny, joyful infectious romp about writer who longs for the past and suddenly getting his wish come true at the stroke of midnight. Owen Wilson manages to make the "Woody Allen"-type lead character without doing an overt impression. I'm watching this right after a marathon that consisted of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Manhattan and this film has plenty of elements that strongly reminds me of both films.

We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe) **1/2 - The highest praise I can give this film is that it's fine and it could have been a hell of a lot worse. It's a highly unremarkable film that somehow managed to entertain thanks to the charm of Matt Damon and the cast. The script dials down the potential for silly sap and annoying cute moments. It's an interesting enough story that could have been a bit better as a TV pilot, I think. Still, it's just....fine.

Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen) *** - It's 8 1/2 meets Wild Strawberries with F-words, C-words and sex jokes. That's the best way I can describe writer-director Woody Allen's probably most vulgar, explicit film. There are some good laughs in it and the supporting cast is terrific (Kirstie Alley especially). It's not quite as great as Allen's finest works but it's overall, a solid, respectable and fascinating film. It's a wilder, wackier Stardust Memories in a way, if I think about it.

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood) ** - I usually really like Clint Eastwood's films. This one is probably the weakest I've seen from him in a long time. Granted his last few films were far from masterpieces, I really struggled with this one. The film is full of potential. Somewhere in there is a great film waiting to be made especially since the subject of this film is such a fascinating, complex character. It seemed to want to be so many things that it lost me. Leonardo DiCaprio is a bit miscast though he has moments of greatness, I can't help but feel a LOOK AT ME!!!! I'M AAAAACTINNNG!!! vibe from him from time to time. Armie Hammer was really good but I agree that his old age makeup was horrendous.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Great Scenes # 21: The Tree of Life (2011)

Directed by Terrence Malick
The Oscar nominations have just been announced this week. And one of the most pleasant (sort of) surprises were the nominations for The Tree of Life in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. I personally think it's one of the classiest, most amazing things the Academy has ever done and I've criticized and disagreed with many, many, many Oscar choices over the years. This is not really a "scene" per se but rather an excerpt from the controversial "creation of the universe" sequence. Many people have walked out of the film during this sequence. For me, it's a visually jaw-dropping sequence and very emotional as well. The visual effects here (which was very wrongly ignored in the Visual Effects category) was supervised by Douglas Trumbull who did the effects for 2001 and it was created largely old-school but very little, if any, CGI. I think it's still amazing that a divisive experimental art-house flick would get a huge mainstream recognition like this. Bravo to the Academy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (1/15/12 - 1/21/11)

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi) **** - Wow. What an intense, devastating drama. A husband and his wife separate. But an incident involving a miscarriage of a pregnant female caretaker of the husband's father opens up a whole new can of worms. This is one of the reasons why I love cinema. This is an eye-opening look into what goes on in Iranian society. This story can only be told in Iran yet its humanity is universal. The cast is amazing. I also absolutely love the fact that you really sympathize with all the characters involved, which makes this film all the more heartbreaking. It is one of the best films of the year.

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga) ***1/2 - I haven't read the Charlotte Bronte book it's based on but I've found out that it's actually a Gothic novel with supernatural/spooky undertones. This film adaptation actually brings out some of that. So in that way, the film kind of reminds of Twilight, however, this story has a far more well-written, stronger female character. And that character is brought to life beautifully by Mia Wasikowska, who's well on her way to becoming a major actress. (And supported by a great supporting cast too). Speaking of that, the young director of this film, Cary Fukunaga is also likewise on his way to becoming a major director. Despite being a period romance, the film is totally absorbing and never feels stuffy, this is all due to his direction. A solid piece of work.

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) *** - This is yet another modernized adaptations of one of Shakespeare's plays and this is one of his more obscure ones. For good reason, it isn't quite as great as Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet or Macbeth but it's still an interesting, compelling story anyway. As for the film adaptation, Ralph Fiennes acquits himself well both as a lead actor and first-time director with the help of a great supporting cast. It's very good but far from great.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Listology # 4: Top 10 Best Best Picture Oscar Winners

Oscar nominations will be unveiled next week. Cinephiles like me have often criticized and bash the Oscars for mediocre, middlebrow choices and often missing the mark on what are considered truly great films. The list of great films not even NOMINATED for an Oscar is frankly embarrassing to say the least. But the Academy Awards have been around for 84 years and they do occasionally get it right. Here are 10 films, based on what I've seen among the Best Picture winners, I feel are the Best Best Picture Oscar winners of all time in chronological order.

 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)

During the first Academy Awards, there were actually two Best Picture winners. Although Wings is often credited as the first Best Picture winner, this one is technically a co-winner because Wings is Best Production while this won as Best Artistic Achievement. It is indeed one of German director Murnau's masterpieces. It's a rather melodramatic story about the love story between a couple but so stunningly made, it really is an artistic achievement in cinema.

Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

One of the most retarded things the Academy has ever done is not give a Best Director Oscar to the Master himself, Alfred Hitchcock but one of his films did manage to win Best Picture and that's Rebecca. It may not be the best Alfred Hitchcock film but it's definitely in the Top 8, easily. Mrs. Danvers is probably one of the best Hitchcock villains of all time.

Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

Quite a few films that win Best Picture often become only remembered for doing just that: winning the Best Picture Oscar. But not this film. This film is still fondly remembered and widely regarded as it was when it was first released, perhaps even more so. Extremely quotable, superbly acted and frankly one of the most romantic movies ever made. It's a real classic.

The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

Speaking of romantic movies, this is another one of them. Billy Wilder has been known to create sardonic and often funny films. It's wonderful that a contemporary comedy like this would manage to win Best Picture, It's sharply written and wonderfully acted. It is one of those rare comedies that manage to win.

The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)

Yet another Best Picture winner that the Academy got right. Until now, it's still revered as a classic and it's one of my favorites. The sequel is about as good as also won Best Picture.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)

Like comedy, horror is another genre that's sorely underrepresented at the Oscars. So it's kind of amazing that this gruesome but absolutely gripping, superbly acted horror-thriller manage not only to win Best Picture but sweep the top awards: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It instantly made Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins one of the most iconic big-screen characters of all time.

Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
Only three Westerns have won Best Picture Oscar and this is the best among them (Cimarron and Dances with Wolves are the other two). Clint Eastwood has made a name for himself as one of the great American filmmakers and this film is one of his masterpieces. One of the more exemplary choices made by the Academy.

 Schindler's List (1993, Steven Spielberg)

The Academy was in a hot streak during the early '90s, no? After so many years, director Steven Spielberg finally earned respect and plaudits for turning a dead serious Holocaust drama. It may not be the best Holocaust movie ever made but it's certainly the one that opened my eyes to it. It's an incredible, mature piece of work and worthy of being called the best of the year.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson)

Fantasy is another genre that gets very little respect from the Oscars. But not this year. Peter Jackson's monumental achievement of filming J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece swept the Oscars that year and in my opinion, deservedly. 

No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)

Though I may slightly prefer There Will Be Blood that year, the Coen Brothers are among my favorite filmmakers and I have trouble deciding between this and Fargo as my favorite Coen Brothers film. I've seen this three times and it never ceases to amaze me. It's bleak and methodically paced but it's such a great film and will probably hold up for years to come.

Honorable mentions: All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean),  The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin), The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola), Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen),.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (1/8/12 - 1/14/12)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie) **1/2 - I wasn't a huge fan of the first movie though I did find it entertaining. I did like this one a bit better but not by much. It seems it has everything going for it. The cast is very good, there are some thrills and laughs along the way and Guy Ritchie does some cool things with the visuals and all but everything adds up to it being entertaining but ultimately disposable and forgettable.

Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst) ***1/2 - This is director G.W. Pabst's and Louise Brooks' second and last movie together (news to me too, I thought they worked together a lot!). It's about a young girl who descends into a tumultuous, troubled life. The film has tons of soapy and melodramatic elements to it but the direction and the acting keeps it quite compelling. Louise Brooks was incredible in this one. It's no Pandora's Box but it's respectably close.

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier) ***1/2 - Ah, Lars Von Trier. He's a filmmaker whose films contain things that I find fascinating and downright brilliant but at the same time, he has elements which bug and irritate me and this film is no exception. This is his rather unique take on sci-fi apocalyptic genre about depression and a huge planet that's about to incinerate the Earth, ending life as we know it. Yes, it's very much downer and rather bleak but beautifully so. Lots of hoopla have been made about Kirsten Dunst, though I do think she's strong here, I thought Charlotte Gainsbourg was a bit better.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami) **** - What a magnificent film! This is probably my favorite Abbas Kiarostami film so far (along with A Taste of Cherry, which is due for a rewatch). This is a film about a couple. That's about the only thing I can say without giving way too much away but the film's appeal is finding out the direction where it is headed as it does a rather strange but wonderful narrative shift midway which reflects the title of the film. The two lead performers are magical onscreen together. I'd love to see this again. One of my favorites of the year so far.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Great Scenes # 20: Eternity and a Day (1998)

Directed by Theo Angelopolous

This is probably the most obscure film featured in this series. It's a marvelous, hypnotic piece of work so it shouldn't be. This film is from renowned Greek director Theo Angelopolous and it's about a poet who finds out he is dying (played by Bruno Ganz) and he befriends a little boy who's an illegal immigrant from Albania trying to escape the atrocities of his country and avoid being deported. He ironically gets invigorated with life in this special bond he forms with the boy. This is an absolutely wonderful film since it manages to be moving and life-affirming without being the least bit sappy. It's slow for some but rewarding. This is the climactic scene in the film. In this scene, the poet and the little boy decide, out of a whim, to take a little round trip in a bus before the boy stows away in a ship and they encounter various eccentrics and peoples of different colors. It's so Felliniesque in a way (which is appropriate since one of the writers co-wrote 8 1/2, haha). This is a truly excellent film. So check it out.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (1/1/12 - 1/7/12)

 I'm late again. Oh, well.

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock) **** - This is a second viewing of one of Hitchcock's major films. For those of you who don't know, it's about a young girl (Teresa Wright) who starts to suspect her beloved uncle (Joseph Cotten) could be a wanted serial killer. It's said to be Hitchcock's favorite among his films and it's a thrilling, compelling piece of work.

Women in Love (Ken Russell) *** - Director Ken Russell passed away relatively recently and it occurred to me I have yet to see a film of his. This is the film I chose to lose my Ken Russell virginity to. It's an adaptation of a DH Lawrence novel about two sisters during the 1920's who have affairs with two upper-class men who are close friends with some complications of course. Overall, I thought it was a very good film. Ken Russell manages to make what's essentially a period romantic drama into something that feels quite contemporary and not stuffy at all. Glenda Jackson was very, very good in her Oscar-winning role but I find it a bit strange that she won while Oliver Reed, who for me had the most compelling, complicated role and was the standout of the piece, wasn't even nominated. Oh, well. I look forward to more films from Russell.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Great Scenes # 19: Jaws (1975)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

I'd like to think that it's this scene that made Steven Spielberg a household name and pretty sealed his place in film history as one of the greats (or one of the overrateds, depends on who you talk to). Mechanical problems with the robot shark turned out to be blessing in disguise for him since it allowed Spielberg to be more Hitchcockian with his approach, which makes it more horrifying. The editing, cinematography and John Williams' iconic score made the opening death to the first true summer blockbuster Jaws a memorable one. The actress in the scene was great but says that the rig they had her in was actually quite painful and violent that much of her screaming in pain and fear was not really acting.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Top 10 Films Seen in 2011

I've done this several times in the past already. A lot of critics at this time of year have been releasing their Top 10  lists. Since there are still tons of late-releasing major 2011 releases I still need to see, I can't do a conventional Top 10 of 2011 list yet so instead, I'm going to release a Top 10 films SEEN in 2011, regardless of release date. I've well over a hundred new films last year and I've liked, even loved, a huge chunk of them. Here's the 10 of the best of the best arranged according to the order I've seen them along with my initial review:

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The best way I can describe this film is "pretentious camp" but I personally don't mean it in a negative way at all. Quite the contrary. This absolutely thrilling and intriguing blending of highbrow (classical ballet) and lowbrow (psychosexual horror) and the beautiful and grotesque to depict a young ballerina's descent into madness. I can see how some people would hate this. The film blends many recognizable elements from filmmakers like Powell/Pressburger, Polanski and Dario Argento and throws them all onscreen in a way that will probably turn some people off. But as for me, I was on board with this from the first scene onwards. But then again, I'm a bit of an Aronofksy fan boy (I even liked The Fountain). This is best I've seen from Natalie Portman since The Professional.

Directed by Valerio Zurlini

I have not heard of this film until it was strongly recommended to me and I've only vaguely heard of the director. It's about a love affair between a draft-dodging son of a fascist and an older, recent widow of a respected navy officer. It at times feels like a Douglas Sirk film transplanted into an Italian World War II drama and that's a compliment. It features excellent performances between the two leads and contains some brilliantly directed scenes which made me wonder why director Valerio Zurlini isn't quite as well-known as other Italian directors Fellini, de Sica, Rossellini, etc.

Directed by George Cukor

I was totally blown away by this film. This is Judy Garland at her absolute very best. She sings, she dances, she acts, it's absolute showcase and it completely and totally works. What really puts this film over the top is that she is complemented by the great James Mason and the stunning direction of George Cukor (I daresay this is probably my favor Cukor film I've seen so far). Beautiful technicolor cinematography where the colors really pop and the subtle changes in the devastating last 20 or so minutes. The queer in me (which all film buffs have anyway) was crying and applauding. This definitely has a place on my all-time favorites and it's truly an enthralling cinematic experience.

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

I'm a huge fan of director Pedro Almodovar and that's why it's frustrating for me that it took THIS long to see one of the films that's considered his most major works. Better late than never, I say. This a great film that deftly combines broad farce with soap operatic melodrama, in other words, CLASSIC Almodovar. Add to that the fantastic cast led by Carmen Maura and the beautiful cinematography where every color just pops. It's one of those films that I'd love to see again and again. This was recently made into a Broadway musical but honestly, I can't imagine it being one.

WEEK END (1967)
Directed by Jean Luc Godard

This film will bore and infuriate some and thrill and fascinate others. This is a difficult film to describe. The plot (if you can call it that) concerns a couple driving cross-country to receive inheritance from a dying relative. From there, it's almost literally anything goes on the road, where people wax poetics on philosophy, politics, literature, music, pop culture and film, often breaking the fourth wall deconstructing film form in a series of vignettes (including an impressive tracking shot of a traffic jam). The film is quite unpredictable and absurdly hilarious at times. This is often cited as a very significant film in Godard's filmography because it bridges the distinctive phases in Godard's career. His films were never the same after this film. This is a film definitely not for everybody.

Directed by Terrence Malick

This film did to me what 99 out of 100 Masses and other religious ceremonies try but fail to do: Move me spiritually. It is not EXACTLY a religious film by any means but it does contain many religious themes and imagery. It is one of the major themes tackled in this film both very intimate and personal yet also wildly ambitious and epic, along with love and the nature of existence. Lots of heady themes as it places the intimate drama of what really is an average suburban family with a mother, father and three boys living in Texas in the context from the creation and the evolution of the universe and the planet to the present day. It contains beautiful, stunning visuals and cinematography and remarkable performances from the cast including Brad Pitt, giving his one of his career-best performances. The real star of this film is writer-director Terrence Malick who masterfully and poetically essays all these big, bold themes in ways that will take paragraphs to tackle, describe and dissect. This film move me and got me misty-eyed in some parts in a way I really can't begin to describe in this paragraph. It's not only the best film of 2011 so far, it's probably also the best film of this century so far, if I'm so bold to declare it. Be forewarned: It is not a film for everybody. I can see somebody hating it. But it is definitely NOT a film to be dismissed.

Directed by Wim Wenders

A man resurfaces after disappearing for four years in order to put things right with his estranged son and wife. This is a film whose concept could have easily have been played for either cheap laughs or cheap sentiment. But script by Sam Shepard and the direction by Wim Wenders gives us a film that's genuinely moving and even sweet at parts but never feeling the least bit manipulative or phony. Harry Dean Stanton and Natassja Kinski both deliver great performances especially at that climactic scene in the end. Extra points for Robby Muller's great cinematography.

Directed by Michael Wadleigh

I got this as a present for my dad because he loves classic rock music. Since I've only seen parts of it, I might as well catch up on my classic documentaries (one of the few genres of film which I'm dreadfully behind) and my music at the same time. This is an extraordinary documentary. The breathtaking editing and cinematography are matched only by the amazing musical performances captured forever, thankfully, on celluloid. The historic event has very much a "it's-as-if-you-were-there" feel to it.

KISAPMATA (In the Blink of An Eye) (1981)
Directed by Mike de Leon

When a young man and a young woman get married, the woman's super-overprotective father meddles in their relationship. But family secrets underneath are much more sinister than what it seems. Now, I know why it's considered a landmark in Filipino cinema. Vic Silayan is absolutely terrifying as the "overprotective" father. I love that he never plays him as a one-dimensional monster but a full human being which makes him even MORE frightening. The film is extremely well-shot and features some stunning direction which produces an aura of uncomfortable tension althroughout. It's definitely in the running in my Top 5 best Filipino films of all time.

Z (1969)
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Someone recommended that I blind-buy this during the Barnes & Noble Criterion DVD sale. I'm glad I did. It's an amazing film. It's intended to be a bold-faced indictment on the situation of the Greek government at that time but it's still very much relevant today. This film will thrill you, intrigue you and also has the power to get you mad, no matter what your politics are. Great performances by the cast, amazing editing and cinematography.

Runners-up: Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (2011) directed by Jade Castro; Django (1966) directed by Sergio Corbucci; F for Fake (1972) directed by Orson Welles; Young Frankenstein (1971) directed by Mel Brooks; They Were Expendable (1945) directed by John Ford. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (12/25/11 - 12/31/11)

First post of the year. Sorry for the delay.

Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen) ***1/2 - This is one of those films which I never seem to get around seeing due to the length (almost 3.5 hours). As it turns out, it's a remarkable piece of filmmaking, The film is epic in its scope but also very often claustrophobic. The intense action scenes is even made more intense by the fact that a lot of the men are allowed to become characters and we get to know them. The cinematography and film editing here are both wondrous. A bit overhyped sure but still a very solid, highly recommended film despite the length

Divorce American Style (Budd Yorkin) *** - This is a funny case. It's clearly dated. It's got a few good chuckles but never laugh out loud funny. It's kind of a shallow little trifle that tries to say something important but never really takes flight. Despite of that, I still liked it because this is the case where the actors really take flight with the material. Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds, Jason Robards, Jean Simmons, etc. give it their all and I really had fun watching them.

Army of Shadows (Jean Pierre Melville) ***1/2 - I've seen tons of World War II movies. This one focuses on the French Resistance and it's a pretty damn good one. The film's slow and methodical and violence is minimal (but startling when it happens onscreen) but filled with tension and suspense all throughout. The cast is great especially Simone Signoret. I think the film would've been totally outstanding if they had focused on her character a bit more. But as it is, it's still a pretty excellent film though La Samourai still remains my favorite Jean Pierre Melville film.

Playtime (Jacques Tati) **** - (see below)