Sunday, August 25, 2013

Weekly Round-Up (8/18/13 - 8/24/13)

Ekstra (The Bit Player) (Jeffrey Jeturian) ***1/2 - This is a film first screened in Cinemalaya that has been commercially released in theaters this week. It's a wonderful little slice-of-life dramedy about the life of a professional extra, background players who go from TV/film project to project. Vilma Santos, one of Philippine cinema's most well-known actresses, star as the title character so it's pretty ironic to see the most famous person in the cast playing someone who's supposed to be this anonymous background player. I find this project pretty daring for its kind and considering that it was co-financed/released by a mainstream studio who I know (from first-hand experience since I pitched a sort of similar idea to them) wouldn't want to poke some inside fun at their expense. Vilma Santos excels in her first foray in indie filmmaking.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang) **** - I've seen this film before and I don't usually re-review films that I've seen before but like with Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag, it's been a while since I've seen it plus I saw the COMPLETE Metropolis (or at least as complete as it has ever been with only really two key scenes missing). The film has added scenes that enhances an already classic picture (the climactic scene is now even MORE exciting). If you haven't already seen it, please do!

Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki) *** - Richard Gere gives probably one of his career-best performances in this thriller-of-sorts about an ethically challenged billionaire who tries to cover his tracks after his mistress dies in a car crash he caused. I hate to damn this with faint praise because it's overall a solid, entertaining, well-acted grown-up film with good intentions. It's a good film, not a GREAT one and great ones have been made with similar themes and subject matters. Still, Richard Gere is pretty fantastic. You know, studios used to do these types of pictures in the 70's. What the hell happened?

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen) **** - One is a story about a successful ophtalmologist trying to get his neurotic mistress killed. The other is a story about a filmmaker falling in love with another woman while filming a documentary on his pompous, more successful brother-in-law. The first one is kind of dark, dramatic, deep and thought-provoking and the other one is quite hilarious. I don't know how Woody Allen did it but he made the two fit together perfectly. It's not my most favorite Woody Allen films but it is one of his very, very best.

The Conjuring (James Wan) ***1/2 - This is probably one of the best horror films in recent years. It's actually kind of scary! This is based on a "true" story (The skeptic in me doubts the film is super-duper accurate but who knows?) of a married couple who are paranormal researchers who help a family being terrorized by a malevolent spirit. Whether or not you actually believe this is even remotely accurate is irrelevant, it is pretty darn scary. Director James Wan shows remarkable talent utilizing all the horror tropes, cliches and tricks, turning it up to 11 and making it all seem fresh again and it's very effective.

Winchester '73 (Anthony Mann) **** - My exploration of director Anthony Mann's filmography continues with this Western. I've been told time and again that this one is pretty fantastic.....and IT IS! The title character (of sorts) is a highly coveted rifle which was won by the character played by James Stewart and through a series of events, it gets passed around which gives the film its very unique structure, almost episodic in a way. Despite the short running time of less than 90 minutes, the film feels very deep, rich and epic filled with fascinating characters. It's beautifully photographed and has great action scenes. Anthony Mann is rising in my list of favorite directors.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels) *** - Over thirty years of the historical struggle for civil rights in the United States is seen through the eyes of the African-American White House butler, Cecil Gaines. Inspired by a real-life person, Lee Daniels' film hits many of the right and expected notes which personally I don't mind as long as it's done in earnest but unfortunately it's not enough to turn this into anything more than an above-average TV movie rather than a real piece of cinema. Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey were great. The supporting cast is uneven, particularly the presidents. I thought John Cusack was ridiculous and unbelievable as Nixon but James Marsden was outstanding as JFK. The best part of the film was his segment, IMO. The real standout in the supporting cast is David Oyelowo as Gaines' elder son. The film is admirable and well-made but nothing really outstanding.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Snowpiercer: Cut

People who have read this blog closely probably know that Bong Joon-ho is one of my favorite contemporary directors currently working today. Snowpiercer, his first English language feature film, is one of my most anticipated films of the year. Unfortunately for people who are anticipating this film in the U.S. and certain parts of the world, Harvey Weinstein, the distributor who will release the film in those markets, is demanding cuts from the film in order to appeal to "people from Oklahoma and Iowa". Apparently, he doesn't think a heady science fiction film from a Korean director will appeal to idiots. Gee, ya think? I live in the Philippines so I have no idea which version will be released here (or even if it will be released theatrically at all) but this is, for the most part, a very unfortunate move. It's insulting for American midwesterners who are probably not as dumb as Harvey Weinstein think they are (I'm pretty sure there are Bong Joon-ho/science-fiction fans who are eagerly awaiting this movie) and also for the rest of the markets that the Weinstein Company will be distributing this film. It's also kind of funny that Harvey is trying to appeal to idiots because sure, idiots like those exist, but most of them probably won't even bother to see this film. It doesn't have any big stars in it (Chris Evans is in it but he's not playing Captain America so they wouldn't care) nor is it based on any famous property (not a sequel, remake, adaptation of a famous book/comic book, etc.). It also looks grim which doesn't bode well for most people who are into that kind of stuff. This is not the first time Harvey has done this and certainly not the last.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Weekly Round-Up (8/11/13 - 8/17/13)

Leolo (Jean Claud Lauzon) *** - An imaginative, precocious 12 year old boy grows up in a highly dysfunctional, crazy family. He theorizes he must have been conceived by a tomato contaminated by sperm ejaculated by an Italian farmer. And that's just the beginning. This began a bit rough for me. The tone is all over the place. The scatological humor isn't very funny and the film's too broad and quirky to be taken seriously. But eventually it found its footing and won me over. It's a very nice, sweet film for people who will not be offended by scenes involving a sex with liver and cat rape.

The Earrings of Madame De... (Max Ophuls) **** - A wife of a count pawns her earrings in order to pay off some debts and this little incident sets off a series of events that culminates in a moving, heartbreaking love story. This is one of those films that really makes you think and stays with you always. On one end, it's a very sharp critique of the hypocrisy of the upper-class (very comparable to The Rules of the Game), it's got surprisingly funny moments and yet the last 20 or so minutes, it sucker punches you in a beautifully moving, tragic denouement. It's a masterpiece.

Metropolitan (Whit Stillman) *** - A lower class college student gets himself in the circle of some higher-class NYC debutantes. It's an interesting, fascinating film whose sophisticated dialogue though fun to listen to (and I bet was also fun to write) just comes off, to me anyway, as often artificial, unbelievable (do rich young New Yorkers in their 20's talk that way during the late '80s/early 90s? I don't know but I find it hard to believe that they do) and borderline pretentious. Of course, that could be just part of the joke but nevertheless I was never bored!

Eve's Bayou (Kasi Lemmons) ***1/2 - This one I've been meaning to see for a while since I've heard good things about it. But I was still surprised how much I liked it. It's about a little girl growing up in an affluent black neighborhood in Louisiana. Watching this film, it really feels like it's out of a Latin American novel by Isabelle Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez transplanted into an African-American milieu. And it works quite magically! Great acting too. Kasi Lemmons should direct more often.
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) **** - During the mid-1960's in Indonesia a group of government-supported paramilitary groups went around murdering "communists" i.e. groups of people they perceive to be threats. Over 2 million people were killed. I had no idea about this grim chapter in history probably largely because it's not seen as wrong by a majority of the population in Indonesia. These mass murderers are seen as heroes rather than criminals. The documentary actually lets them tell their story and chronicles what their lives are like today. However, they tell their story in a very unique way: They actually do their own re-enactment of the events in any way, shape or form they want to. So their dramatizations could take the form of a gangster movie, a musical, a Western or just plain straightforward re-enactments. The result is often disturbing, occasionally darkly humorous, fascinating and very thought-provoking and even moving and heartbreaking in a way. This film brings to light the capacity for human beings, and indeed they seem to be pretty nice, normal people, for doing evil monstrous things and of course, without giving away anything, the transformative power of film as an art form. It reminds me why I love film so much. It's an extraordinary piece of work, not just as a documentary film but as a film period.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Great Scenes # 56: Happiness (1998)

Directed by Todd Solondz

This is probably one of the most uncomfortable scenes featured in this blog series of mine. This is the final scene in the very darkly comedic film Happiness about a family of three sisters and the people surrounding them including a pedophile suburban dad and a sex-hating murderous woman. It is very dark yet also wickedly funny. People think the title is ironic but I disagree because of the last scene. This final scene is where someone actually experiences happiness: Albeit it's that of a young boy cumming for the first time. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Weekly Round-Up (8/4/13 - 8/10/13)

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett) ***1/2 - A black man works in a slaughterhouse to support his family and make ends meet. That's it. The most remarkable thing about this film is how unremarkable the lead character is. The film simply chronicles his life and the lives of his family and neighbors in a typical lower-middle-class (to put it very nicely) neighborhood during the '70s. It's a fascinating look into the lives of African-Americans during that time period but it still feels remarkably relevant and resonant to this day.

Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) (Lino Brocka) **** - I actually saw this film in college years ago. Enough time has passed that I feel that I have to actually review this film. This is of course one of the Philippines' most famous films (it's the only Filipino film in the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book) and widely regarded as one of the best Filipino films ever made. It's not QUITE my favorite but it's in my Top 10. The version I saw is a brand-new fully restored print (made possible in part by Martin Scorsese) and it was BEAUTIFUL to look at. So much better than the scratchy, somewhat blurry VHS we had to make do in my college class. For those of you who don't know the plot, it's about a young man from the rural areas who comes to capital city of Manila to look for and win back his childhood sweetheart. It's a tragic love story which brings to light the many struggles of the less fortunate in my country which sadly is still prevalent to this day. It's got great performances. It might be a little heavy-handed and preachy but that's to be expected but the filmmaking is still impeccable. It's a must-see for all Filipinos and for all lovers of cinema as well.

Valley of the Dolls (Mark Robson) **1/2 - This film wants to have its cake and eat it too. It's clearly a rather trashy, campy soap opera that's a bit naughty (for its time) but it also seems to want to be taken seriously as a drama. It's about three women struggling the ups and downs of show business: the sex, the booze, the drugs. It's pretty racy and shocking at the time but fairly tame now (It could get away with a PG-13, quite frankly). It's a tad overlong and the drama is kind of blah. There are fun, campy bits but they come and go. It's gorgeously shot and designed though. Entertaining and watchable but not a must-see.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cinemalaya Film Festival Round-Up

Last August 4, the Cinemalaya Film Festival, which for those of you who don't know, is sort of like the Philippines' version of Sundance, a film festival dedicated to Filipino independent films, has come to its conclusion with the films Sana Dati (Like Before) and Transit sweeping all the awards. This year has an interesting crop of films and here's a round up of the six films I was able to see arranged in the order that I've seen them:

Quick Change (Eduardo Roy Jr.) ***1/2 - I happen to know this director personally so you may think I'm biased but I have to say that this follow-up to his debut work, Bahay Bata, proves that he is a force to be reckoned with in Philippine cinema. This film is about a transgendered woman who, along with her nephew, goes around doing illegal plastic surgery for the lower-class gays/transgendered. It's a fascinating, gripping, very well-made film with touches of drama, thriller and even dark humor. Philippine cinema has made a lot of LGBT films and this one manages to find a new, fresh way to tackle the subject. I highly recommend it. (NOTE: This film won Best Screenplay and Best ACTOR for the transgendered woman who was a first-time non-professional movie actor).

Amor y Muerte (Cesar Evangelista) *** - Set in the rural area of the Philipppines during the 16th century when the Philippines was a Spanish colony, this is about a young Spaniard and his Filipina wife. I have to say I really genuinely admired the ambition of the filmmakers. Making a relatively low-budget period piece is a challenge. Also tackling many heady themes like colonialism, sexuality, religion, culture, etc. is refreshing in Filipino cinema. But the film's a bit flawed. I think casting a mestizo Filipino (Markki Stroem, who unfortunately is not the strongest actor either) rather than a Spanish actor is a mistake. I know enough Spanish that I can tell that it's CLEARLY not his language at all so that gets a bit distracting but it's a solid enough effort that I'm going to recommend it.

The Diplomat Hotel (Christopher Ad Castillo) **1/2 - A traumatized and disgraced TV journalist goes to a notoriously haunted hotel in hopes of making her comeback. There are some genuinely creepy and frightening moments in this film, no doubt shooting in the actual Diplomat Hotel (it's a real place and it also has a reputation for being haunted) helped immensely. Unfortunately the lead actress, Gretchen Barretto, is kind of weak for what is a rather complex role and hampers what could have been a pretty good horror flick. The last scene is particularly almost laughable. 

Rekorder (Mikhail Red) ***1/2 - A retired cinematographer with a mysterious past makes his living pirating movies with his analog model camera then his camera captures a crime. The director of this film, Mikhail Red, is VERY young. He's only 21 years old! And a second generation filmmaker to boot (his father is acclaimed independent Filipino filmmaker Raymond Red). Even at his young age, he has acquired a seriously scary confidence in filmmaking (the editing and cinematography are masterful). It's far from perfect but for a 21 year old making his first feature, it's VERY impressive and a sign of greater things to come.

Transit (Hannah Espia) **** - I saved the best Cinemalaya film (based on the six that I was able to see) for last. This film is about five Filipinos living and working in Israel: A housekeeper, her brother, her half-Israeli daughter, a relative who's a newcomer and her brother's young son who's threatened to be deported due to new Israeli laws that requires the deportation of children of foreign workers who are below 5 years old. Writer-director Hannah Espia tells her story in fragments and presents a sad but very humanist story which does not resort cheap melodrama and the stereotypical Filipino histrionics, the emotions feel authentic and honest. The acting is outstanding all around, and creatively edited and beautifully shot. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking. (NOTE: This swept the awards in the "New Breed" category, taking home Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Editing and Cinematography). 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Weekly Round-Up (7/28/13 - 8/3/13)

I Married a Witch (Rene Clair) ***1/2 - This predates Bewitched by a few decades. This is a rather funny fantasy-screwball comedy about a politician who falls in love with the resurrected witch who his Puritan descendant burned at the stake. I've only known Fredric March in dramatic roles before now. As it turns out, he's a great comic actor too and Veronica Lake, who would NOT fall in love with her? The film is still funny after all these years and the special effects are still pretty good too.

Gojira (Ishiro Honda) **** - Pacific Rim got me in the mood to finally catch up to this film. I've only seen the Raymond Burr Americanized version and of course the ridiculous Roland Emmerich one. This original Godzilla movie, despite the crude effects (yes, it does look like a guy in a suit stomping on cardboard miniatures) is somehow more compelling and gripping than most CGI behemoths being released in Hollywood today. One thing that surprised me, quite pleasantly I might add, is that this film has as much in common with Shohei Imamura's Black Rain as it does the original King Kong. It's a monster movie for sure but also a thought-provoking, poetic anti-nuclear drama as well.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr) ***1/2 - Bela Tarr is one of the handful of major filmmakers I still haven't seen a single film from...until now. I had no idea what to expect since I had very little idea of the plot. Basically, it's about a young man running around doing favors and errands and in his town a giant stuffed whale shows up as a freak show attraction and causes chaos in small Hungarian town. This film features some very elaborate long takes that's impressively directed and visually stunning. I don't know how much I'm missing in terms of the Hungarian history and culture and the many implications and subtexts of the story but what I saw was definitely something. It's not for all tastes, for sure but it's a fascinating piece of film.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Great Scenes # 55: The Bells of St. Mary's (1942)

Directed by Leo McCarey

 This is a vastly underrated classic. It's a sequel to the Best Picture Oscar winner Going My Way and is largely overlooked and dismissed as such. But personally, I think it's way better than Going My Way and the scene above illustrates that. In this film, the kindly priest played by Bing Crosby goes to a school ran by nuns led by Ingrid Bergman. A lot of people were surprised that Ingrid Bergman got her Best Actress nomination for this film and NOT for Casablanca but if you saw the film, you'd see that she deserves it for this as well. In this scene, upon the advise of Crosby's character, she takes it upon herself to teach a bullied young boy to box so he can defend himself. I have to say it's one of the most endearing scenes ever captured on film.