Sunday, January 26, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (1/19/14 - 1/25/14)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh) **1/2 - This is the first "official" 2014 film I've seen. It's a January release. As far as January releases go, it's actually not bad. This reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise doesn't exactly reinvent the spy genre nor does it do the formula so outstandingly well. It is however very well-crafted and quite entertaining with some good moments. Chris Pine shows a lot of potential as a successor to Harrison Ford. Does this mean a new franchise for him? Eh. I don't know. But who cares, really? It's inoffensive fun.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley) *** - This is an autobiographical documentary about the family life of Sarah Polley centering around her mother who died of cancer when she was very young. The film mixes interviews with her friends and family and archival footage and re-enactments. One of Sarah's siblings during a talking head interview remarked, "Who the fuck cares about our family?" and I admit for the first act or so of this film, I was feeling the same way but as the film goes and different layers of it was introduced, I was swept up on it. The film introduces some neat twists and turns here and there. But in the end, it's no more than that. I can see why it was snubbed for the Documentary Oscar nomination: It's neither "important" nor is it particularly inspiring. It's a well-crafted personal film essay. No more than that.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger) ***1/2 - The answer to the question, "What is the first ever animated feature film?" is actually NOT Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It's actually THIS film. This fantasy which utilizes silhouettes of paper-cut-outs and other stuff I don't know may seem crude at first but it won't take long for one to get swept up in the story and marvel at how inventive the animation is. The fantasy action scenes here are almost every bit as rousing as anything you can make in the computer. A beautiful little animated film which must be seen more.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) **1/2 - It's not a bad film. It's also far from a great film. Yes, I'm damning it with faint praise because that's what it is. Ben Stiller's latest directorial effort at first seems to wanna be a parody of quirky, life-affirming romantic dramedies with fantastical elements but it wants to have its cake and eat it too since it's also, at the same time, sincerely trying to be one. The result is something a half-baked mixture of both. The film has some nice moments and good performances. Supporting work from Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn and Patton Oswalt are first-rate. But all in all, this is probably Ben Stiller's weakest directorial effort since it, kind of not surprisingly, is almost free from the bite/edge of his previous works.

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ***1/2 - A Canadian woman goes to Vienna to visit her comatose cousin. While there, she visits the museum and strikes up a friendship with one of the guards. I'm actually surprised by how much I loved this film. In a way, it's almost like a travelogue (The film REALLY made me wanna visit Vienna) but it's far more complex than its simple premise suggests. I feel hesitant to recommend this to anyone who does not have any interest in the visual arts. But those that do will get a really immersive thought-provoking, yet oddly moving slice of life that juxtaposes the paintings in the museum. An excellent piece of work.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (1/12/14 - 1/18/14)

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) ***1/2 - I would not consider this one of Woody Allen's masterpieces. However, it does feature one of the best performances ever in a Woody Allen film. I am of course talking about Cate Blanchett who delivers an award-worthy performance as the title character, a mentally unstable spoiled wife whose husband was a Bernie Madoff-type crook. She's deservedly getting attention but I will also say that equally deserving of praise is Sally Hawkins whose role may not be as showy but she provides a pitch perfect foil for Blanchett's character as her "poor" but bit more together sister.

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) ***1/2 - Based on the tragic true story of Oscar Grant III, a young man who was shot during an altercation in a train station early New Year's Day 2009. The film mostly avoids sensationalism and preachiness which can often befall films like these. Instead, it concentrates on telling a story of a imperfect but decent human being going about what will be his final day. The film of course would not work nor have the same impact without the absolutely beautiful performances of Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer (whose work here is far superior to her Oscar-winning work in The Help). I first saw Michael B. Jordan as a standout in the first season of The Wire. It's wonderful to see him grow up to be a fine, fine young actor and one to look forward to seeing more of.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen) **** - The Coen Brothers, I noticed, have this really fascinating way of presenting the world regardless of genre or their subject matter. Even in their weakest film, there are always elements that I find interesting and funny. This film may not be my absolute favorite from them but it's certainly in the top-tier. The title character Llewyn Davis is a struggling, homeless folk singer who basically has a knack for alienating everyone around him. In other words, a chronic fuck-up. Oscar Isaac is quite excellent. He manages to make you want to go on his journey despite the fact he's a highly unlikeable character. Being, Coen brothers of course, the film is quite funny and features a colorful supporting cast of characters. Beautifully shot and also has a great soundtrack.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) **** - I frankly don't know why people think this film endorses the actions of its characters. I personally don't think it does. It doesn't judge them or try to condemn them in any way shape or form and allows the audience to judge them for themselves. After seeing it, I came away thinking it's a really hilarious very dark comedy featuring some very repulsive, greedy characters. It's like Goodfellas but with less guns, more tits and more laughs. This is probably Martin Scorsese's funniest film, funnier than even After Hours. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his career-best performance in this film. He oozes sleazy charm and gives one powerhouse motivational speech after another. I usually don't like Jonah Hill but he proves his worth here and Margot Robbie is a really wonderful (and sizzling hot!!!!!!) find. Overall, I think this is an excellent film. One of the best of the year and a crowning jewel in Martin Scorsese's ouvre.

Ernest & Celestine (Stephane Aubier/Vincent Patard/Benjamin Renner) ***1/2 - I saw this the same day as The Wolf of Wall Street and I thought this would make for a nice palette cleanser. And it is. It's really a very nice, sweet fable about a world where mice and bears live in seperate worlds where they fear and/or disgusted with each other and Ernest, a bear, and Celestine, a mouse, each outsiders of sorts in their own worlds meet and become friends causing all sorts of complications. In a world filled with CGI, it's nice that they're still making wonderful 2D animated films like these. The story is simple yet manages to be funny and poignant. A terrific film.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Top 10 Filipino Films of 2013

This post was supposed to have been posted earlier but oh, well, better late than never. Filipino cinema was booming last year, churning out lots of really good films. My official list of 2013 isn't finalized yet but my top 10 Filipino films are already finalized and here they are:

10. Quick Change (Eduardo Roy, Jr.)
9. Mga Anino ng Kahapon (The Shadows of the Past) (Alvin Yapan)

8. On The Job (Erik Matti)
7. How to Disappear Completely (Raya Martin)

6. Ekstra (The Bit Player) (Jeffrey Jeturian)
5. Boy Golden: Shoot to Kill, The Arturo Porcuna Story (Chito S. Roño)
4. Aparisyon (Vincent Sandoval)
3. Sana Dati (If Only) (Jerrold Tarog)
2. Transit (Hannah Espia)
1. Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (1/5/14 - 1/11/14)

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Verena Paravel) **** - I wish I saw this on the big screen but alas, my 32" HD flatscreen will do. This is an extraordinary film. I would best describe this as The Man with a Movie Camera meets The Deadliest Catch and that's a compliment. The film basically chronicles a North American fishing vessel. How they work, their day to day lives as well as the different sea life that surrounds them. Using special cameras mounted all over the boat and I don't know where else, they get these amazing shots which often assault your senses both visually and auditorily. It's beautiful, grotesque (there's a sequence where it feels like a horror film for fish) and oddly exciting. There is no real narrative to speak of or even a statement of any kind. It's an avant-garde experimental documentary that's an exercise is acrobatic shots. I don't know how a casual moviegoer would react to this but cinephiles will more likely be blown away by the sheer audaciousness of this cinematic undertaking.

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) ***1/2 - I've actually been to SeaWorld twice. Once when I was a young kid of 10 and I remember enjoying it and another when I was 16-17 and remembered being bored and disappointed with it and sensing something was not quite right with it. Well, this film just confirms it. This is a compelling documentary about how those stories of trainers being injured, attacked or killed by captive killer whales are far from isolated incidents or unfortunate accidents. It's quite an eye-opening expose though it falls a bit short of true greatness as a film since it doesn't go deeper than "treating orcas this way is bad!" Still, it's a very good film that must be seen. Boy, what greed and pride can do to people. Jeez.

Lone Survivor (Peter Berg) *** - Director Peter Berg very nicely bounces back from the disaster that was Battleship with this tight war drama. There is nothing here thematically that we haven't seen before but you still get swept up with the visceral, bone-crunching action. There's a sequence here where you can literally almost feel the pain. You'll know it when you see it. As a bleeding heart anti-war liberal, the film REALLY borders on the RAH RAH RAH 'MURICA! aspect of it which I found a bit problematic. The pre-credits sequence was particularly jarring. But still, it's very well made, very well-acted. It's worth checking out.

47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch) ** - It's not quite as godawful as its 10% Rotten Tomatoes score suggests. It's not as bad as I thought it would be. But it's pretty close. Now, I love samurai movies. I will say that I'm a fan of samurai movies. This is a samurai movie. But it's not for samurai movie fans. It's a samurai movie for people who have never seen a samurai movie. It's quite dumbed down. There's dialogue quite literally explaining the concept of seppuku that's absolutely laughable. If you've never seen a samurai movie in your life, I think it can be quite entertaining. But if you're like me and you've already seen Seven Samurai, Ran, The Sword of Doom, Samurai Rebellion, 13 Assassins, etc. or even the Japanese version of the 47 Ronin story (which has been filmed a lot in its native Japan), you will find yourself wanting to watch those movies again.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/29/13 - 1/4/14)

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine) ***1/2 - This film looks like as if it's a Girls Gone Wild video directed by Jean Luc Godard. And for me, that's not a bad thing at all. I was very wary to see this film because I've only seen Harmony Korine's script-only features, Kids and Ken Park (I'm mixed on the first one, not a fan at all of the second) but to my surprised, I really, really admired and liked this film. The shock novelty of seeing Disney Channel staples Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens doing drugs, drinking, partying and generally behaving very un-Disney-like lasts only for a moment then you're sucked in and mesmerized and shocked by the amorality of unbridled youthful hedonism. James Franco steals the film as the creepy and funny white rapper, Alien. The cinematography is also similarly top-notch.

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green) **1/2 - I had no idea why I wanted to catch up on this in the first place but what's done is done. There are a few good laughs here and there but all in all, I think it's a tonal mess. Mixing brutal, realistic violence with broad comedy is not really easy. David Gordon Green is kind of a bizarre pick for making this film since he's usually known for his thoughtful indie dramas (he has since made more of these comedies to varying degrees of success). Seth Rogen and James Franco make a good team but this is not their best work.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) **** - This film, I have to say, is a bit of a minor miracle. The title character could have easily have been the most annoying, irritating person on Earth: Immature, clingy, insecure. But thanks to a marvelous script and a wonderful performance by Greta Gerwig, Frances turns into a funny, oddly endearing character you find yourself rooting for despite all her flaws. The film's black & white cinematography makes this film feel like a modern day Manhattan and has the look and feel of a type of film that John Cassavetes or even Francois Truffaut would do if they were still making films to this day. It is one of the best films of the year.

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) **1/2 - I really wanted to love this film. But I couldn't! First off, I appreciated how different it is and what Shane Carruth is trying to do. I've seen his previous film, Primer (which up until now, I'm still trying to figure out). This is a film that leaves nothing for me to chew on apart from the obvious craft that goes into it. Is it about aliens? Mind control? Psychic connections? Alternate dimensions? Who knows? Now, I love surrealist films. I love non-narrative films. I'm certainly open to both. I've loved films that were surreal and/or non-narrative. This one, I simply couldn't get aboard beyond the appreciating the technical and experimental aspects of it.

The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai) **** - I saw the original 130 minute Hong Kong cut of this film. And I loved it. I haven't seen a good martial arts movie in a while. I love a good martial arts movie. I'm also a Wong Kar-Wai fan but I was a bit wary of this because the only Wong Kar-Wai film I've seen and disliked was a sort of martial arts film, Ashes of Time. I'm glad to say that this is not the case this time. The film is BEAUTIFULLY shot, designed and acted. Plus it has some really, really good martial arts scenes. I haven't seen any of the other Ip Man films (the man whose life story this film was based on) but this is a really, really good one. I have to say Zhang Ziyi gives one of her career-best performances in this one.

To The Wonder (Terrence Malick) ***1/2 - I don't understand how people who liked/loved The Tree of Life would turn around and bash this film. For me, this film expounds on the themes explored by the previous film by going into another type of love that has yet to be touched upon: the romantic, the passionate, the sexual, etc. The films are basically companion pieces that mirror one another. Whilst The Tree of Life was epic in scope, this one is far more intimate, as it should be because it delves into a far more inward spiritual and philosophical themes. As usual, it is beautifully shot and Terrence Malick again eschews more traditional structured narrative for something more visually poetic like only he can do. It's definitely not for everybody but I have to wonder why some critics are so dismissive of this one. It's not quite as great as The Tree of Life (few things are anyway) but it's still a Malick film and it's still far more interesting than most other people's films.

The Housemaid (Ki-young Kim) **** - Fatal Attraction? Pfffft. That's for sissies. This Korean film from 1960 (remade in 2010, I haven't seen that one) is about a music teacher who has a brief affair with his housemaid and then face dire consequences. The film starts out as like a domestic soap opera and spirals into a horror picture as the housemaid quickly plays mind games with the family. Lots of "oh shit" moments. Wow. Korean films are capable of being fucked up as far back as 1960. Definitely a film to watch.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman) **** - What a movie! It's at LEAST as good as Chinatown but with a bit more laughs. Elliot Gould is fantastic as Raymond Chandler's classic character Phillip Marlowe as he gets sucked into a web involving murder, suicide and adultery. It has all the twist and turns of a great film noir but with director Robert Altman's trademark humor and focus on character moments rather than a straightforward plot. I would probably rank this as among his very best. Such a supreme pleasure to watch. Perfect ending too.