Sunday, April 29, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (4/22/12 - 4/28/12)

Two Cents Worth of Hope (Renato Castellani) *** - A young man and a young woman from a small Italian village fall in love but due to the fact of their respective social statuses and the fact that marrying for money is a common practice, circumstances always pull them apart. This film feels like an Italian neorealist film with a sense of humor. There are some really funny scenes here and I'm not sure but it seems to be parodying Italian neorealist films as well. It didn't blow me away but it's a really fun little slice-of-life, fluffy film.

The Avengers (Joss Whedon) ***1/2 - A million different things could have gone wrong with a film adaptation of The Avengers. It could have easily have been a ridiculous, bloated, silly train wreck of a film. Even after the news that Joss Whedon, a man whose works I have loved and admired in the past, is gonna be writing and directing it, I was at best cautiously optimistic. What he managed to do with this film is short of being truly miraculous. He took multiple larger-than-life characters and created a cohesive and compelling, near-perfect narrative while putting on a spectacular, exciting piece of popcorn entertainment where nearly every element works well. It's got great dramatic character moments but a the same time an organic sense of humor about it. It's the first Marvel film that I truly want to see again.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Great FILMS # 1: Stagecoach (1939)

You read that right. The great FILMS. As it turns out, a lot of complete films can be seen on Youtube for free. You now have little excuse to put off catching up with some great classic films. The first one is Stagecoach one of the classic Westerns by John Ford and starring John Wayne. It contains some really exciting action sequences ever filmed. It's even more exciting when you know that there's no fancy CGI involved. So do check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Listology # 14: Top 10 Films of 2002

10. Spider (David Cronenberg)
Director David Cronenberg began his rather fascinating streak of films during the 2000's with this twisty dramatic mystery about a mentally crippled man going back to his childhood place and we flashback to his troubled childhood revealing layers upon layers of mysteries underneath. Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson both give some of their best career performances in this film. It's also a film I have some sentimental attachment to because my review of this film was the article I've ever written that was published in a major circulation newspaper. 

9.  Y tu mama tambien... (Alfonso Cuaron)
Two horny older teenage boys go on a road trip with an older woman and along the way discover things about themselves and one another. It plays like a teen sex comedy but with much more depth and nuance than any of the American teen sex comedies. It's also moving and thought-provoking as well as being funny and erotic.

8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson's second chapter of his hugely ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy of films suffers only from the fact that it doesn't have a beginning and it doesn't have an end since it is after all the second part of a trilogy. What it does have is an extraordinary groundbreaking achievement in the form of Gollum, a CGI character who actually gives a big dramatic convincing performance with the help of Andy Serkis and the technical wizards at Weta.

7. Chicago (Rob Marshall)
I'm a huge fan of director-choreographer Bob Fosse. It breaks my heart that he passed away before he got the chance to do the film version of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. I would have loved to have seen his version but what we got here was pretty darn great. Rob Marshall does a great job of capturing the biting cynicism of the piece as well as splashing it with great song and dance numbers. Wow. It's been a while since a Best Picture Oscar winner has appeared on my Top 10 list. Haha.

6. Late Marriage (Dover Koshashvilli)
2002 is the year that My Big Fat Greek Wedding surprised and made a ton of money. The Israeli film Late Marriage is of a similar vein. It's also a comedy where the protagonist's very traditional family wants him to get married and he's in love with someone that's outside of what is tradition. That's where the similarities end. The film though often funny, is also quite dark and doesn't have a Hollywood ending. But don't make that stop you from seeing it. Oh, and it has a very explicit, very raw and very honest sex scene right in the middle of it.

5. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes)
This is writer-director Todd Haynes' loving tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk whose films though containing melodramatic and soap opera-ish elements are actually quite subversive for its time. Haynes takes the format, twists it around and turns it into something quite extraordinary. I happen to love the films of Douglas Sirk and seeing them eventually made me appreciate this film more. Julianne Moore gives perhaps my favorite performance from her as a woman infatuated with a black man while discovering her husband is gay. 

4. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
Director Roman Polanski, despite his tarnished reputation, has made quite an extraordinary cinematic oeuvre. He won an Oscar for this film. Yes, it's him tackling one of the Academy's favorite subject matters, the Holocaust and World War II, it's still a pretty great film worthy of its accolades. This tells the story of Polish Jewish pianist Wladislaw Szpilman who (spoiler alert) survived the Holocaust and this is the story from his perspective. Adrien Brody was fantastic in this.

3. Hero (Zhang Yimou)
Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I've been trying to see a whole bunch of martial arts/wu xia films whenever I can. Zhang Yimou's visually astounding martial arts epic Hero is probably my favorite. Combine eye-popping cinematography and the stunningly beautiful martial arts choreography and you have a film that's a winner through and through. 

2. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
Pedro Almodovar's streak of great films continue on with this unconventional love story. It's about two men who are both in love with comatose women. This is a film that could have easily have gone wrong or become way too distasteful and weird but what he did was create something that's actually quite touching yet also remaining to be somewhat wild and wacky in his own Almodovar-ian way.

1. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
This is a film that made me wanna stand up and cheer. I've seen it numerous times. It's the film that made me open my mind to anime (a subgenre I disliked at first) and I've since seen and liked a whole of bunch but this one remains my favorite anime (though Nauiscaa of the Valley of the Wind might be a strong challenger for that title). Animation genius Hayao Miyazaki creates this extraordinary Alice In Wonderland type tale of a young girl's adventures in the world of the spirits. It's filled with astonishing visuals and breathtaking and thrilling storytelling that's sure to make you wanna go back again and again and again.

Runners-Up: Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma); About a Boy (Chris Weitz/Paul Weitz); 8 Women (Francois Ozon); Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney); Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (4/15/12 - 4/21/12)

A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester) ***1/2 - This is another film under the heading WHY HAVEN'T I SEEN THIS ONE. I mean, I love The Beatles as much as pretty much everyone under 80. Is it a concert film? Not exactly. I thought it was too but it really isn't. It's a musical-comedy film structured around the Beatles with lots of bits and pieces and a sliver of a plot that only serves to highlight the music, the Beatles' personalities and Beatlemania. It's a must-see for any fan of music and film.

L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta) ***1/2 - This film reminds me of a Larry Clark film -- if Larry Clark was actually a GOOD filmmaker. Like Clark, this film tackles adolescent angst, sexuality and delinquency. However, the potentially sensationalistic and/or exploitative storyline that of a troubled young teenage boy coping with both the tragic death of his mother and his relationship with a local pederast is given a very tasteful treatment. The film is further boosted by the wonderful performances of Paul Dano and Brian Cox who give their characters numerous wonderful dimensions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Great Scenes # 29: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Directed by Billy Wilder

This is the final scene from the classic film noir/Hollywood satire Sunset Blvd. In this scene, faded silent film actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, delivering a brilliant performance) has been driven into madness after she murders her illicit lover/screenwriter played by William Holden (not exactly a spoiler since you know he gets killed right off in the start). Throughout the film, she yearns to make a big-screen comeback. In this final scene, it's almost as if she breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience. Then she utters the oft misquoted line, "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." As she approaches the camera for her close-up, in an almost cruel, ironic joke, director Billy Wilder dissolves the film and fades away, before she could get one. It's a brilliant ending to a brilliant film.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (4/9/12 - 4/14/12)

La Chienne (Jean Renoir) ***1/2 - The title means "The Bitch". A timid to a fault bank cashier with a shrill, tyrannical wife falls in love with a prostitute who in turn is conning him for her pimp, whom SHE is in love with. French actor Michel Simon is terrific as the cashier. Even though the film essentially focuses on three rather unlikeable characters, it still manages to keep them human and interesting and the story quite compelling: Sad, tragic, frustrating and even a darkly humorous. It's not my favorite Renoir but it's a solid film.

Battleship (Peter Berg) **1/2 - I had low expectations coming into this film. I would have to say that this is Michael Bay-lite. It's got most of the tropes of a Michael Bay movie with less sexism, homopobia, racism and obnoxious humor that often goes along with it. The film is highly predictable and the script is strictly of Screenwriting 101 variety with the expected script problems of a film of this magnitude has: cliche, groan inducing lines, ridiculous plot developments, etc. But still, with my low expectations, I found it to be entertaining with a couple of pretty good action set pieces. Taylor Kitsch further shows that he's got potential to be a great movie star (though this will not be the one) and Rihanna acquits herself well in her acting debut. Overall, inoffensive but unremarkable.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Listology # 13: Top 10 Films of 2001

10. Va Savoir (Jacques Rivette)
This is from French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, who frankly never lost much of his mojo since the heyday of the French New Wave of the 1960's. It's a comedic farce about the love lives of people involved in the making of a play: The actress, the director and their respective friends, ex-lovers, etc. It's actually quite fun to watch, believe it or not and it's wonderful, delightful film.

9. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff)
Based on comic book by Daniel Clowes, the film is about two quirky teenage girls newly graduated from high school who decides to play a prank on a lonely middle-aged man but things don't go quite as they expected. Teen comedies tend to bore me half the time but this one is exceptional. Steve Buscemi was robbed of an Oscar nomination, I must say.

8. No Man's Land (Danis Tanovic)
A Bosnian and a Serb are caught in the crossfire of the two warring factions. This is a unique film because despite the dead serious subject matter, it's also a wickedly funny black comedy and also contains a scene that will get you to the edge of your seats. This film upset Amelie at the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars and in this case, I agree with the decision. After a roller-coaster ride of laughs and heart-pounding thrills, the film leaves you with a lot to think about. It's a mark of a great film.

7. Gosford Park (Robert Altman)
This is another film little film. It's a murder mystery that doesn't really care about the murder mystery and you won't too because it's a sharp, witty comedy of manners about a group of rich socialites and their servants cooped up in a large stately mansion. A huge ensemble of mostly British actors bring to life Julian Fellowes' Oscar-winning screenplay under the direction of Robert Altman who uses his trademark maverick eye and gift for overlapping dialogue and storylines. 

6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell)
This film is based on an off-Broadway musical about a botched German transsexual stalking her now-famous rock star ex-boyfriend who stole the songs she wrote. I was pleasantly surprised by this film because the premise does not do the actual film justice since it's so much deeper than that. Also, it features fantastic songs which I often play a lot in my iPod even to this day. John Cameron Mitchell makes a remarkable debut both as a star and as the director. 

5. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
I'm very much a fan of director Wes Anderson (though I can't stand certain films and filmmakers who attempt to imitate his quirky style). The Royal Tenenbaums is about a man who after being estranged from his dysfunctional family, tries to make amends after he finds out he's dying. The film of course does not take the sentimental, predictable route. It allows its characters to be unlikeable and mixes laughs with dark moments. One of the best films of the year which more than earned its spot here.

4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
"Predictable" is not an adjective used to describe the works of David Lynch. Especially, not his one. I've seen this film two or three times and every time I see something new. It's a truly bizarre piece of work about an aspiring actress who dreams of Hollywood stardom but finds murder instead, at least that's what the first half of the film is about. Then the story takes a bizarre turn that has to be seen to be believed. A word of warning: Don't read David Lynch's clues on how to unlock it. It will just confuse you more.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
Even after all these years, Peter Jackson's filming of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic literary masterpiece The Lord of the Rings is still quite a monumental achievement. The first chapter of the trilogy kicks off what would be thrilling fantastic ride through Middle-Earth. I don't need to tell you that.

2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
This is probably one of the most romantic (even erotic) films ever made yet the two main characters don't even so much as kiss. That's the beauty and power of this film. It's about a man and a woman who are neighbors and find out that their respective spouses are cheating on them with each other. They develop a friendship which blossoms into love yet refuse to stoop to their level. The film is a pitch-perfect symphony of beautiful acting, cinematography, music and direction.

1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)
 Among all the films in Steven Spielberg's oeuvre, this is probably one of if not the most controversial. Spielberg inherited this project from director Stanley Kubrick who initially wanted him to direct it. After he died, his widow gave him her blessing to continue this dream project of Kubrick's. It resulted in one of the most talked about films of 2001. Some people hated it. Some people loved it. It's a bizarre, endlessly fascinating amalgamation of the themes and styles of the two auteurs. It's modern-day Pinocchio tale about a robot boy who yearns for his mother's love. Between Haley Joel Osment's astonishing performance and a lot of the deeply emotional yet also thought-provoking and troubling themes embedded into the film, this is one of Spielberg's best films and one of his masterpieces. 

Runners-Up: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker); Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk); The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke); Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter); Memento (Christopher Nolan).

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (4/1/12 - 4/7/12)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee) ***1/2 - It's been a long while since I've seen this film. It looks awesome on Blu-Ray, must say.

It's the Holy Week so what better time to share in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ than to torture myself with dismally bad movies:

Date Movie (Aaron Seltzer) * - This is said to be the best of their work. That's like saying it's the best type of hepatitis you can get. This one is redeemed somewhat by Jennifer Coolidge who provides the only actual laugh in the entire film with her Barbra Streisand-character impression. It's otherwise unfunny and painful.

Epic Movie (Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer) 1/2 - Even more painful than Date Movie. It's almost totally free of any redeeming value whatsoever although Crispin Glover as Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka was on the precipice of actual-funny-dom.

Meet the Spartans (Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer) 1/2 - Only a couple of borderline clever gags provide relief in the sea of insulting, boring, mind-numbing awfulness. 

The Room (Tommy Wiseau) ** - This is the infamous so-bad-it's-good cult movie. I have to say that it's earned its reputation. The film is incompetently made from the hilariously bad acting to the weird, unusual, downright laughable directions that the story and characters take. I couldn't decide how I was gonna rate this so I decided to split the difference: as a comedy it is 3-stars but as a dramatic film, which it was trying to be, it's 1/2 star (generous) film. It would be fun to see this with an audience, I must say.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Great Scenes # 28: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Gollum/Smeagol Monologue
Directed by Peter Jackson

The Lord of the Rings trilogy contains a lot of spectacular battle scenes but I think one of my favorite scenes in the trilogy is a dialogue-driven scene involving the character of Gollum/Smeagol. It is a tour-de-force in both acting and CGI effects. Few CGI characters in live-action films have required and achieved the depth and characterization that Andy Serkis and the team at WETA digital have done with the character of Gollum. The first time I saw this, I completely forgot that it was a CGI creation. Andy Serkis was buzzed as a possible Best Supporting Actor contender for this.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Listology # 12: Top 10 Films of 2000

10. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies)
This is a compelling adaptation of Edith Wharton's classic novel about a socialite torn between love and a life of luxury. Don't let the fact that it's a costume drama turn you off. The film is well worth watching for the performances alone especially that of Gillian Anderson whom I only know as Dana Scully from The X-Files at that point. I knew she was a good actress but I didn't know she was THAT good. It's an excellent, sublime little film.

9. Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier)
This is probably the bleakest, most depressing musical you will ever see. An immigrant single mother is going blind and she's scraping and saving every penny in order to afford the surgery to save her son from the same fate then she gets arrested and convicted of murdering a police officer. This being a Lars Von Trier film, this is surely going to enrage some and captivate others. Icelandic recording artist Bjork gives an impressive performance in her first and so far only film role (she has said she would never make another film again because this one was so emotionally difficult for her). She also wrote some great original songs for the film.

8. Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry)
Before director Stephen Daldry plagued us with tiresome, mediocre Oscar baits like The Hours and The Reader, he gave us a really wonderful little dramedy about a young boy in a mining community who realizes his talent and dream of dancing ballet. Jamie Bell gives a spectacular breakout performance that kicked off his acting career and the film spawned a successful Broadway musical.

7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee)
This isn't my favorite martial arts or wu xia film but this is the one that made me look closer into the martial arts genre, a gateway movie, if you will. But as it is, it's an exquisitely filmed romantic action film and a perfectly fine introduction to the exciting world of Chinese martial arts cinema especially if you're coming from it from a Western perspective. 

6. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe)
This is writer-director Cameron Crowe's last great movie. It is semi-autobiographical account of a teenage music journalist who tours around with a band. It's a great ensemble film that's a loving tribute to the music of that era and features a wonderful ensemble cast especially Kate Hudson (who sadly hardly ever fulfilled the promise of this role), Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand.

5. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh's sprawling epic film about the drug war from multiple perspectives from the politicians to the law enforcement agents to the drug lords and drug addicts themselves. It features an impressive ensemble of actors including Benicio Del Toro who deservedly won an Oscar as a conflicted Mexican cop. It's thrilling, shocking and thought-provoking. It's a definite must-see film. 

4. The Circle (Jafar Panahi)
What is this? Another Iranian film. This is from director Jafar Panahi who, as of this writing, is currently banned from making films by the oppressive Iranian government which is not surprising since he frequently makes films like this. This film is an eye-opening look on what it is like to be a woman in Iran featuring stories from the perspectives of different women characters. 

3. Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero) (Mike de Leon)
I would love to recommend this to more people but I think you have to be Filipino or familiar with Philippine history in order to fully get this film. It's a film by one of Philippine giants, Mike de Leon and it's about Jose Rizal, our national hero. But it's not a biopic nor even a documentary but it's almost like an anti-biopic as it deconstructs the mythology and all the different aspects of the man as two filmmakers struggle to CREATE a biopic about him. That's not to say that if you're totally unfamiliar, there's nothing here you can't appreciate. It's an extremely impeccably made film and it goes to all sorts of wild, unexpected directions. 

2. Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (Edward Yang) 
I've already used the word "epic" on this list. I'll be using it again to describe this wonderful film from Taiwan. This is also an epic film in its own right but as much as it is epic (nearly three hours long with multiple storylines), it is also intimate. It's quite simply a story about three generations a typical middle-class Taiwanese family. Their joys, their heartbreaks, their tragedies and triumphs. Despite them being Taiwanese, it's easy to relate to the many themes and stories presented and despite its running time, it's never boring. It's a very unforgettable, amazing little big film. 

1. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
Yes, it's a cliched pick but hey, it's fantastic. Darren Aronofsky's compelling drama about the self-destructive nature of addiction. Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and even Marlon Wayans all give stunning performances as characters whose lives are forever changed as they get hooked on various substances. It's bleak and disturbing yet also beautiful and compelling. Despite its very showy style of filmmaking with tons of fancy cuts and flashy cinematography, the film never loses its heart, soul and substance over its style. Extra added points for the unforgettable Clint Mansell score. 

Runners-Up: Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute); Gladiator (Ridley Scott); Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu); High Fidelity (Stephen Frears); The Emperor's New Groove (Mark Dindal).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (3/25/12 - 3/31/12)

Senso (Luchino Visconti) ***1/2 - A married Italian countess falls hopelessly in love and has an affair with an Austrian officer during the Italian-Austrian war of unification. It starts out kind of a little too melodramatic but it gets better as the story unfolds. This is thanks to the great performances of Alida Valli and Farley Granger. The different twists, ambiguities and tragedies were beautifully paid off in the end. Not my favorite Visconti but it's still a pretty great, beautifully photographed entry.

Hahaha (Hong Sang-Soo) ** - I've been exploring Korean cinema as of late so I was really looking forward to this one. Two friends meet for drinks and catch up on their love lives. It's well-made and well-acted and there are a few amusing, really good moments but all in all, it's mediocre. The rather unusual structure of the film makes it a bit more interesting but I found the characters alternately irritating and dull so it was a bit of a chore to sit through. It reminds me of those subgenre of American indie dramedy films I already find annoying.