Sunday, November 30, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/23/14 - 11/29/14)

The Leopard (Luchino Visconti) ***1/2 - I'm kind of disappointed I couldn't give this the full perfect score. I've loved the works of Luchino Visconti as well as the works of the three principal actors: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. The film is exquisitely shot with beautifully and perfectly designed sets and costumes. This is another film that has my admiration rather than my unconditional love. It's about an Italian nobleman who arranges the marriage between his nephew and the daughter of a rich mayor during the time Italy is starting to change its governmental and societal structure. Despite my reservations, it's still quite a beautiful film which I may revisit someday. 

Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian) ***1/2 - My personal favorite Greta Garbo movie is Ninotchka but after seeing this film, it may have some competition. It tells the true story of Queen Christina of Sweden who abdicated her throne. It may sound like a stuffy period piece but it is not. It surprisingly has a sense of humor and it manages to blend in well with the moments of political intrigue and drama. Being Pre-code (I think), it manages to sneak in some racy elements (implied female bisexuality is one of them!). Greta Garbo is really something else. How she manages to be a strong steely eyed monarch in one scene and woman giddy in love on another is remarkable.

Penguins of Madagascar (Simon J. Smith/Eric Darnell) **1/2 - Okay. I've never seen any of the Madagascar films but I thought the trailer to this one actually looked funny and Dreamworks seemed to learned its lesson on laying off the celebrity voice cast-driven, pop-culture/snark-laded animated movies. So I gave this one a try because the penguins do seem to be funny based on the bits I've seen. The film is stronger when it's a joke/gag-driven comedy. There are a few good laughs in it. John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch steal the show with their funny voice acting. Making Werner Herzog narrate the beginning of the movie was a nice touch (though I doubt anyone else in the theater knew who the voice was and why it's funny). However, this film also tries to incorporate an arc for the penguins in order to give this film some semblance of genuine heart and character development but unfortunately the two things don't mix well here. It is entertaining though. 

Dogfight (Nancy Savoca) ***1/2 - I've heard about this film before but only vaguely. I'm glad I got to see it because it is a truly a wonderful little gem. After bringing a plain, shy young lady to a "dogfight" (a party where Marines bring the ugliest dates possible for prize money), an 18 year old Marine about to be shipped to Vietnam immediately regrets it and tries to make it up to her and it blossoms into a sweet, one-night romance. It kind of reminds me of a more dramatic, darker version of On the Town. The film could have descended into pure cliche melodrama but the screenplay is smart and honest and also benefits from wonderful performances from River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, playing the main couple. More people should see this movie. 

Viva la muerte (Fernando Arrabal) *** - From its opening credits featuring a bizarre, graphically violent piece of art work set to music that sounds like a children's nursery rhyme song (I'm not so fluent in Spanish), you know you're in for something weird. It's not quite Alejandro Jodorowsky-weird but there are imagery here that's definitely not for the squeamish. It's about a young boy who discovers that his mother turned in his Communist father during the Spanish Civil War. The film hits you over the head with its anti-Fascist sentiments in such a manner that will definitely turn some people off. I find it all fascinating though I feel some of it is kind of repetitive and over-the-top.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/16/14 - 11/22/14)

The Drop (Michael R. Roskam) *** - Mild-mannered bartender gets caught in the middle of a web involving his bar being used as a "drop bar" (bars used as cover for dirty money exchanges by the mob). Of course nothing is what it seems. Adapted by Dennis Lehane based on his own short story, this film is just a tad too talky (rule # 1 of screenwriting: show don't tell) but thankfully, the very strong cast sell everything and makes you hang on to every single word. This film is of course one of the final on-screen performances of James Gandolfini and he is as usual excellent here but the film belongs to Tom Hardy who continues to impress as one of contemporary's cinema's most gifted actors. The third act twist would have been a bit ridiculous had it not for his performance. Overall, yes, I've seen this type of stories before and done better but the cast is so much fun to watch, I didn't care. 

Kapag Langit ang Humatol (Laurice Guillien) ** - The title translates to "If Heaven Judges Me". This is a restored version of a film from 1990 screened at a film festival. It's about a housemaid who falls in love with the son of her mistress and the mistress disapproves of the affair and of course you can surmise everything from there. It's pure Filipino melodrama with practically every soap opera cliche you can think of: love, anger, betrayal, adultery, deception, cancer, switched babies, etc. It's all silly and over-the-top but not enough to be subversive and not enough to be deliciously campy though there are moments. I think they pretty much used this film as a template for a lot of the Filipino soap operas on TV. It's pretty much a two-hour version of that. I wasn't bored. It's not terrible for what it is but it's not my thing. 

Black Coal, Thin Ice(Yi'nan Diao) *** - This film comes from China. Police find the chopped up remains of a man in a coal processing plant. Then after seemingly hitting a dead end, five years later, body parts start to come up again and they seem to be connected to the widow of the first victim. This is something that I admired more than I liked. I can definitely see what the filmmaker is going for. A neo-noirish detective story set in the desolate industrial landscape of China. Deliberately paced and also eschews the expected trappings of the genre. There are inspired moments. But the film overall, left me a bit cold. It's gorgeously shot though. 

The Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) **** - A group of down-on-their-luck showgirls and their producer wants to put on a show during the Great Depression. But it's so much more than that though. Yes, this film features a bunch of dazzling musical numbers directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley that are impressive even by today's standards but one thing that surprised me is that the story that wraps around those numbers is very funny and very sharp and tremendously well-acted. Predictable, sure but the actors give it their all and it's as fun to watch as the musical numbers which are impressive on their own. I loved this movie.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) ***1/2 - This year's winner of the Palme D'Or and Turkey's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. I'm more of an admirer rather than lover of Ceylan's previous film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which I think is due for a revisit by me) so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. I liked this one quite a bit better. It's about an aging former actor who runs a mountaintop hotel in Anatolia with his divorced sister and much younger wife. Despite the fact that this film largely consists of lengthy conversations, it managed to hold my attention almost its entire over-three hour running time. The actors play a significant part but the gorgeous cinematography of the beautiful rural landscape made the film for me. It's not QUITE a masterpiece since it lacked that extra something for me that would put it over the top. But as it is, it is a solid, admirable piece of work that would test some people's patience. 

Violator (Dodo Dayao) ***1/2 - How to describe this film? Best way I can describe it is take Reservoir Dogs add in The Exorcist and have David Lynch direct it. You pretty much get this movie. But it's so much better than that and it's so much more than that. It's about a group of characters stuck in a police station during a huge storm with a teenaged boy in a cell who may or may not be possessed by an evil spirit. But don't expect the usual horror or even crime drama arcs from this film. It goes off in so many different tangents and manages to pull off most of them quite well. It's creepy, disturbing and in a weird way kind of fun. This is a Filipino film which won Best Picture at a local film festival and I think it's gonna win more awards. It's my favorite Filipino film AND horror film of 2014 so far.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Francis Lawrence) *** - I haven't read the books so I'm assessing this purely as a movie-goer who enjoys the films (though I'm not a super fan or anything). This one is not as good as Catching Fire but still very much enjoyable. The two hours just flew by. I still think the obvious profit-driven decision to expand the third book into two movies was a mistake in terms of making a narratively strong film but somehow they did a passable job. If you're neither a fan of the books nor the first two films, there's little here to recommend apart from checking out of the last performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman who actually elevates a lot of the material along with a surprisingly strong cast of supporting players. Jennifer Lawrence is great as usual. It's a solid film and I will be watching Part 2. 

Liebelei (Max Ophuls) *** - This is one of the earlier films of director Max Ophuls who would eventually make films like The Earrings of Madame De... and Letter from an Unknown Woman, two films I consider among the best ever made in the history of medium. This isn't quite that but it's still pretty darn good film. This is about a doomed love story between a singer and a young lieutenant. You can definitely see the different themes and motifs Ophuls would eventually expound and perfect in his subsequent films all throughout this early work. It's worth checking out just for that especially if you're already a fan of his masterpieces. 

Paprika (Satoshi Kon) ***1/2 - I have to admit I haven't seen a whole lot of non-Studio Ghibli anime features and among those that I've seen, I loved only one:Akira but this film has been praised highly enough that I thought I'd check out. What do you know? I kind of loved it. A piece of new technology used to visualize and monitor dreams is stolen and weird things start to happen. Yes, it sounds a bit like Inception but I have to say this movie has a bit more humor, color whimsy and sex appeal and yet somehow manages to be more "grown up" than the Nolan film while also having a bit more fun with the whole conceit of dreams coming to life. The animation is visually eye-popping. I still like the Nolan film but after this, I think I'm lowering the rating for that one a tad.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

I haven't posted a non-Weekly Round-Up post in a long while but this merits one. Director Mike Nichols passed away today of a heart attack. He was 83. He had a distinguished career in comedy, the stage, television and of course the movies. My personal favorites of his works are Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Birdcage, the HBO miniseries Angels in America and the film featured above, The Graduate. The final scene is probably one of the most iconic scenes ever on film. He will be missed.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/9/14 - 11/15/14)

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall/Chris Williams) **** - *insert smart-ass joke about not remembering seeing Big Hero 1-5* Okay, that's out of the way. This is a terrific film. Disney Animation is on a roll. A teenage robotics genius mourning the accidental death of his older brother discovers someone stole his microbot invention to be used for less-then-honorable reasons and so he "upgrades" his brother's health care robot Baymax. The movie has everything: It is actually very funny, lots of clever, great jokes in it. It's visually eye-popping, lovingly designed. It's got some great action sequences. It also has a big heart and dramatic heft to create a terrific piece of pop cinema. I have to say that this is the third film this year so far that tackled the subject of grief and loss through genre and did it very well. (The other two are The Babadook and John Wick. Someone should write an essay on that or something). 

Chushingura (Hiroshi Inagaki) *** - This is one of film versions of the famous story of the 47 ronin, a group of samurais who take vengeance against the lord who caused the death of their master. It is 3 and a half hours long, only slightly shorter than the 4-hour Kenji Mizoguchi version. It's been a while (IT'S BEEN A WHILE!) since I've seen that version so I can't really compare. This particular version has a great first hour and a great last half-hour (the final battle scene does not disappoint). It's the two hours in between that is sadly a mixed bag. For every good moment, there's a dull, repetitive and meandering moment that could really have used a trim. But it's beautifully designed, shot, directed and acted and it's worth sitting through everything for the great parts.

Relaks, It's Just Pag-Ibig (Antoinette Jadaone/Irma Navarro) *** - The title means, "Relax, It's Just Love" in full English. This is a Filipino teen romantic comedy about a quirky with a capital Q teenage girl (the Filipino equivalent of the dream pixie girl from American indie movies, complete with purple hair) who drags a teenage boy from an upper-class private school to go to a certain beach so they can witness true love under a blue moon. Normally, I run as far away as I can from most romantic comedies. Filipino romantic comedies are particularly insufferable. The fact that I didn't roll my eyes or wanted to kill myself in this is testament to the strength of this film. Co-written and co-directed by Antoinette Jadaone whose film Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is one film I absolutely loved infuses this film with enough intelligence, bite, depth and great filmmaking to keep me interested. It's still a romantic-comedy through and through but it is one of the better ones. 

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) ***1/2 - A sociopathic petty thief decides to become a "nightcrawler", or videographers who go around taking crime/accident footage for local morning news outlets. This sort of feels like a somewhat updated version of Network for our time where people's voyeuristic tendencies and thirst for sensationalism equals a network's ruthless chase for ratings but there's so much more there. It's also a biting social commentary for the contemporary economic conditions combined with the cold logic of a capitalistic society to be financially successful no matter what the cost. All this is wrapped in a supremely entertaining, darkly comedic crime thriller. It pulls it off quite brilliantly. It doesn't hit you over the head with the message but it's there. It's anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal's fantastic performance. His normally kind, puppy-dog eyes is transformed here into a menacing, calculating creep. This is a terrific film. 

Yoyo (Pierre Etaix) **** - I'm a huge cinephile but even I didn't hear of the name Pierre Etaix until relatively recently when his films have finally been released on DVD/Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection after years of languishing in the vaults due to some legal problems. Based on this film alone, I will have to say thank God his films are now more accessible because I absolutely loved this film. This film is about Yoyo, a clown who grew up in the circus and his quest to regain his father's fortune. This film is Buster Keaton meets Jacques Tati with plenty of clever, funny gags, jokes and sequences. It even shifts styles and sometimes tone but it all somehow worked. I think this movie will be watched repeatedly by me. Check this film out. This should not remain obscure.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/2/14 - 11/8/14)

I Killed My Mother (Xavier Dolan) ***1/2 - I guess it's finally time for me to see what all this fuss is about. Ever since this came out, people have been comparing this then 20-year-old enfant terrible to Orson Welles. Not quite Orson Welles but I will say, pretty damn close. It is an impressive first film. This is concerns a tempestuous love-hate-love-hate relationship between a gay teenager (played by the young director) and his single mother. I can't help but wonder how much of this is autobiographical. In any case, it's a terrific film. Somewhat self-consciously artsy since it's very art-directed with off-kilter framing but it's charming here instead of annoying. The performances of the two leads are impeccable. I'm looking forward to exploring Dolan's filmography. 

Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock) ***1/2 - A husband of a famous actress is murdered. A young aspiring actress takes it upon herself to try and prove the innocence of the main suspect, a man she loves, by, what else, acting. Hitchcock made a lot of masterpieces and this is not one of them but it's still a damn good film that will keep you guessing. The performances are fun too. Marlene Dietrich (damn, I've been watching a lot of her films lately) and Alistair Simm are so good as the "femme fatale"-ish, probably murderess and the father of the young actress respectively. The rest of the cast is great too including Sybil Thorndike who provides quite a bit of the film's laughs. 

On the Town (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen) **** - This is from the same team that made Singin' in the Rain. It is no Singin' in the Rain, but very few things are really. But it's close and that still counts as a win. Somewhat loosely adapted from the Broadway musical, this is about three sailors who go on a trip to New York on a 24 hour shore leave to see the sights and "meet some dames" (i.e. get laid). It's a wonderful musical filled with some genuine laughs and heart and you'd be surprised at how they got away with a little risqué humor as well. As expected, the musical numbers are fun and dazzling, as expected from Gene Kelly and company.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) *** - I wanted to see this film in 70 mm IMAX but the only IMAX theater showing it is kind of far away and a tricky (and headache-inducing) commute (and no, I don't drive). So I settled for a digital IMAX. I like Christopher Nolan films quite a bit. I like his vision and his ambition that he brings to blockbuster genre pictures. I've heard this film be compared to 2001 and Solaris. Nolan's a pretty good director but he's far from Kubrick and Tarkovsky. That said, a lot of things here remind me of those two films, only with a more delineated plot. So if your problem with those two movies is that you need a three-act structure practically free from any ambiguity and you find them too "artsy", well, Interstellar is the answer to this. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I admired and enjoyed this film quite a bit. Beautifully shot, excellent visuals, sound mixing, design, etc. The acting is splendid. I appreciate the fact that they ground this as much as possible in real, believable science. But ultimately, it's not the masterpiece that it hoped it would be.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev) ***1/2 - This is the Russian entry to this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. This one is about a man who is being forced to sell his house and land way below its cost by a corrupt mayor and other drama ensue. A slow burn for sure but the drama unfolds beautifully so. Despite the deliberate pace, there's always seems to be an aura sprinkled through out. The film is known to be quite critical of the Russian government and from what I can tell, a lot of it seems to be similar to the situation here in the Philippines though I'm not familiar with the minute details of it. But still, it's quite an absorbing drama, beautifully shot and well-acted by a fine ensemble. 

Mommy (Xavier Dolan) ***1/2 - I recently saw I Killed My Mother and it's safe to say between this and that film, writer-director Xavier Dolan must have a lot of mommy issues. Well, I guess we really have his mom to thank because she raised a very, very talented young filmmaker who created this remarkable piece of work. Anne Dorval once again plays a flawed mother, this time of a teenage boy with severe behavioral, emotional and mental problems. They are befriended by a neighbor who happens to be a teacher with a stuttering problem. The three actors playing the principal are all outstanding. Dolan manages to mine quite a bit of the same themes with that other mom-themed film without feeling like he's repeating himself. I wasn't so sure about the entire changing of aspect ratios but I warmed up to it. I'm astounded that he's only 25 and is already ratcheting up a respectable filmography.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (10/26/14 - 11/1/14)

The Changeling (Peter Medak) ***1/2 - I've often been told this is a rather scary haunted house horror film. Now, I finally saw it. It doesn't QUITE live up to the hype surrounding it but it's still a very well-crafted genuinely spooky ghost story about a musician (George C. Scott) whose wife and daughter is killed in a tragic roadside accident and moves into a house haunted by a ghost of little boy. There are genuinely chilling, creepy and disturbing moments in this one and is as usual superbly acted by George C. Scott. The mystery/plot keeps you on your toes and the pay-off is not disappointing. Highly recommended for Halloween.

Tarzan The Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke) *** - I've seen a lot of adaptations of the Tarzan story both in film and TV yet I don't think I've ever seen this one which launched Hollywood's long and on-going love affair with the Edgar Rice Burroughs character and Johnny Weissmuller's acting career. It's no masterpiece but there are enough set-pieces that actually holds up. Maureen O'Sullivan is also wonderful as Jane. Pre-code so it's kind of violent and a bit racy and it was made in the 1930's so it's also VERY politically incorrect but once you get over that, it's fun.

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson) *** - An aspiring musician joins an eccentric band featuring a lead vocalist who wears a big giant paper-mache head...all the time, without ever taking it off. Based on that premise, you can tell it's a very quirky film. It really tows the line between annoyingly quirky and endearingly quirky all throughout its running time. It's held together by the fantastic performances, particularly that of Michael Fassbender who has to act without his face throughout most of the film yet still manages to create a wholly convincing, compelling, funny, sad character with just his voice and body movements.

Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon) ***1/2 - This is my Halloween night movie. I have to say this movie is sick, disturbing, disgusting and absolutely fucked up.....and I enjoyed it! Adapted from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, this concerns two young med students experimenting with reanimating dead bodies. I'm guessing a lot of people will be turned off by some elements of it. One scene near the end in particular was so gross and disgusting, I had to laugh at how outrageous it is. One thing I have to point out is the score. It VERY obviously heavily borrows from Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho that I'm a bit taken aback that he wasn't credited for it. Oh, well. But still is a nice, fun, B-movie horror Halloween treat.

John Wick (Chad Strahelski) ***1/2 - There have been a lot of "revenge" movies lately, thanks to Liam Neeson, where assassins/secret agents "with a specific set of skills" usually played by an older actor is wronged then pretty much kicks ass. This is the BEST among them. This is Keanu Reeves' best work since, well, the first Matrix, I guess as a retired assassin who is wronged by the stupid-ass son of his former employer (played by Alfie Allen who is typecast here as a fuck-up). The action is fantastic and the story and the world is strong and believable with sprinklings of dark humor for good measure. It is one of pleasant surprises of 2014. Very refreshing since it's not based on any well-known property.

T'yanak (Peque Gallaga/Lore Reyes) ***1/2 - This is directors Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes' own remake/reboot of the 1988 Filipino horror film of the same title. I haven't seen it (though I do remember watching the trailers for it and being kind of scared) so I can't comment on how it compares. However, as it is, it's a pretty damn good horror movie. For those not in the know, a "tiyanak" is a ghoul-like creature that shape-shifts in the form of a baby. People hear its cries and when they pick it up, they pretty much eat you. There's quite an amazing balance of dramatic heft and self-aware camp that makes this quite a pleasure to watch. They use a surprising amount of practical effects in this one which is to its credit.

The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille) **1/2 - Don't let the title and the Christian theme fool you! This is a violent and racy Pre-code swords-and-sandals epic set during the time of the Roman persecution of Christians. This time it's about a Roman official who falls in love with a Christian woman. The film is lavishly designed and has a truly epic feel. But at two hours, it does feel a bit bloated and the pious elements doesn't seem to jive with the exploitative sexual and violent content (quite graphic for its time, and there are still a few scenes here that will raise the eyebrows of a super conservative Christian despite it being a 30's movie). Fredric March is great as always but the film doesn't quite work.