Monday, December 29, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/22/14 - 12/27/14)

Magkakabaung (The Coffin Maker) (Jason Paul Laxamana) ***1/2 - A single father to a young girl who works as a coffin maker experiences tragedy when his daughter falls ill and dies. Filipino dramas (hell, mainstream dramas in general) tend to try to manipulate tears and emotion out of this. This one refreshingly takes an unsentimental, matter-of-fact approach to death, grief, loss, the realities of life and what life is like for the nation's poor. I kind of love the fact that the filmmaker deliberately made the main protagonist, a grieving father, supposedly a sympathetic figure as not very sympathetic sometimes (you sometimes get frustrated by his actions). It's an imperfect but very well made drama. Katzelmacher (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) **1/2 - I count myself as an admirer of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This is one of his first films but I'm not a big fan of this particular one. A group of people (couples, friends, neighbors, etc.) get their humdrum lives interrupted when a foreign worker arrives and rents a room from one of them. This film feels like the ancestor of the mumblecore movement, which I'm not very fond of. Basically, the film is structured like a series of disjointed talky scenes involving largely unpleasant and uninteresting people. It gets better as it goes along but not enough to completely win me over. It's still an interesting exercise and Fassbinder would come back to many of the same themes in far better films in the future. The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch) ***1/2 - This movie surprised me. I've been catching up on a lot of older films lately and I've been watching lots of Maurice Chevalier musical/romantic comedies. I was, like, "What? Another one?" But I ended up kind of loving this one. A charming, handsome captain of the guard is tasked by his country to woo a very rich widow so that their small country wouldn't go bankrupt. It manages to be very funny, even sweet. Add to that some truly eye-popping dance sequences. It's not my favorite but it's still a highly enjoyable film that still holds up to this day. The Other (Robert Mulligan) *** - This is a nifty little spooky horror film about twin boys, one good and one not-so-good (I could even go so far as saying he's evil) but things are not always what they seem at first. There are creepy moments in this film and the performances of the twin boy actors who play the lead are excellent (though oddly enough, never acted again) and to hold their own with Uta Hagen who gives one of her very few film acting performances is no small feat. But something is lacking in order to make this a true horror classic instead of just a solid little thriller. Extra points to Robert Surtees' cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's score. We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson) ***1/2 - This is a wonderful gem of a film. Granted lots of bad movies (usually coming from Hollywood) have been made in roughly the same genre but very few are as sweet, honest, funny and surprising as this film. It's about three young teenage girls from the early '80s who decide to form a punk band despite the fact that two of them don't know how to play instruments. This film probably does a better job of conveying the whole "be yourself" message in 100 minutes than Glee has in 100 episodes. The film seldom falls into the trap of genres such as this and doesn't get into any of the annoying habits that most other mainstream films of this ilk often commit. Even the ending isn't what you expect. Forget High School Musical, show your teenage daughters this film! Laputa, Castle in the Sky(Hayao Miyazaki) **** - Man, I've loved every single one of Hayao Miyazaki's films that I've seen and this one is again no exception. I may have to see ALL his films now. This is about a little girl who happens to be a descendant from the titular Atlantis-type kingdom located high in the sky. It manages to be exciting, action-packed, funny and has surprising sweetness and depth. Despite being over two hours long (long for an animated feature), it didn't feel that way at all. It's what a fun kids fantasy adventure movie SHOULD be. I'm definitely watching this one again (perhaps getting a better Blu-ray copy). Is it just me or did a lot of American animators got a lot of their inspiration from this film? I can see some traces of it here. Still Alice (Richard Glatzer/Wash Westmoreland) *** - The plot sounds like a made-for-Lifetime, disease-of-the-week tearjerker: A respected and successful Columbia University professor/psychologist and beloved mother and wife gets diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's. It's sad, tragic story and it could easily have been manipulative weepy. Though you may shed some tears here and there, the film is actually more honest and intelligent about it. It seldom tries to lay it on thick with the message and the sentiments and when it does, it tries to earn it. Julianne Moore is said to be the front-runner for the Oscar this year and with good reason: She's excellent in this. She's also supported well by Alec Baldwin, and surprisingly, Kristen Stewart who manages to not be a dull deadweight for once. House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller) ***1/2 - Samuel Fuller is one of my favorite filmmakers and I realize that it's been a while (IT'S BEEN A WHILE!) since I've explored his filmography. This time around, it's about an American military investigator infiltrate an organized crime syndicate operating in Japan recruiting GI's with criminal records. Basically, it's a pulpy American crime story set in Japan and it makes for a very interesting combo. Somehow the beautiful and exotic and gentle milieu (in eye-popping color) somehow compliments the dark, gritty genre of the American gangster picture. Robert Stack is terrific. This is definitely something to see. Mad Max (George Miller) *** - Believe it or not, this is one of my cinematic blind spots: The Mad Max series which put Mel Gibson (and director George Miller) on the map. With the fourth film (or reboot) about to be released next year and the trailer looking quite enticing, I thought it would be a great idea to finally cross this off my to-see list. The first film is a rather generic (well, as of now at least) revenge tale where the first two-thirds I thought were just okay, I guess (good action scenes but I wasn't getting what the big deal was). It's the last 30 minutes where I finally got why people love these movies so much. The film is good enough that I'd check out the rest of the series and I've been told the second film is so much better so I'm looking forward to that with much of the back story already out of the way. Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2 (Erik Matti) ***1/2 - This is the sequel to Erik Matti's own Tiktik and I have to say, it is a HELL of a lot better. Two years has passed since the events of the first film which, in a dark prologue, lead to the death of Macoy's wife. This time he's in Manila and he's fighting a different breed of aswangs. The film has builds on and expands the mythology of the first film and improves on it. The screenplay is a lot stronger. It also mostly succeeds in blending a genres. It goes from scary and serious, to an exciting eye-popping action movie, to rather broad, laugh out loud comedy without missing a beat or feeling like it's jarring. Lotlot de Leon, playing an aunt, is a real scene stealer. Her role could have easily been annoying but she manages not to be. It's almost feels like Edgar Wright directed a Raid movie with monsters. No joke! Judex (Georges Franju) ***1/2 - A mysterious vigilante is trying to right the wrong perpetrated by a ruthless banker. Eyes Without a Face is one of my favorite horror films of all time so I was really looking forward to seeing more of Georges Franju's work. This vigilante crime thriller (loosely inspired, as I suspected by Les Vampires, and the end title dedication confirmed it) goes into all sorts of crazy directions and plot twists, and it mostly works, surprisingly enough. A few subplots and plot points never get resolved or are half-baked and they keep introducing new characters, etc. Somehow these elements didn't bother me in this one since it was so much to watch. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt) **** - A couple of people have been recommending this to me. This is a relatively short (only about an hour) animated film about a guy named Bill and he has problems. This is my first taste (apart from his Simpsons couch gag) of the work of director Don Hertzfeldt and I will be seeing more just based on this. It is experimental, artsy and the animation is deliberately crude but those are absolute positives in this case. It is really funny, sad, surprising, dark, thought-provoking and even life-affirming ALL at the same time. Even in its short running time, you will be surprised by how dense it is. I've seen films twice this length that didn't give me this amount to chew on. It's a Terrence Malick film with laughs.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/14/14 - 12/20/14)

Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau) **1/2 - I actually read the book years ago in college for a class. I remember liking the book quite a bit. I've never gotten around to seeing the film adaptation...until now. You'd think that a film adaptation of a book whose screenplay was written by the author herself, Laura Esquivel and directed by her own husband would be the best way to do it because they will be faithful to the books. This proves that it isn't always the case. This family s about a young woman whose family tradition causes her to lose her one true love to her older sister. There was sadly lost in the cinematic translation. It only translated the text but not the spirit of the book so it often comes off as being a bit telenovela-esque at times. Plus the magical realism of the book doesn't really translate too well. However, it is beautifully shot (one of the cinematographers is Emmanuel Lubezki) and the very well-acted.

By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet) **1/2 - Two Russian sailors get shipwrecked and rescued and brought to a small coastal town where they get entangled in a love triangle as they try to win the affections of the most beautiful woman there. This is one Russian film of this particular era that isn't a blatant communist propaganda film but it doesn't necessarily make it a better movie. As a relatively early sound film, there are scenes here that do come off like a silent film. It is also somewhat of a tonal mess with some scenes coming off as broad comedy mixed with a few serious scenes that are a bit jarring. It's not a bad film but it's an absolute must-see masterpiece either.

 Jodorowsky's Dune (Frank Pavich) **** - Count me as one of the fans of director Alejandro Jodorowsky. His film El Topo is one of my most favorite films of all time. Apparently in the 70's, he was going to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune and it was to star David Carradine, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles. Yes, I wanted to buy a ticket too! I wanted to see that movie! But it was sadly never made. This documentary is probably the closest thing we'll ever have to see his vision. It is a bittersweet journey into the joy and pain of being an artist and the frustrations of not having your arts and dreams realized. It is an endlessly fascinating film especially since I wasn't familiar with the story myself and I'm a complete cinephile. This is gonna rank highly as one of my best of the year.

Living is Easy With Eyes Closed (David Trueba) **1/2 - Set during the 1960's Spain, an English teacher obsessed with John Lennon and the Beatles (he teaches English with Beatles lyrics) goes on a road trip to meet John Lennon as the latter is shooting a film. He's joined by a teenage runaway and out-of-wedlock pregnant young woman. It's a road picture combined with a quirky indie dramedy with a European flavor. It's pretty much what you expect when you read the synopsis. It's well-acted and pleasant enough but wholly unremarkable. It's the Spanish entry to the Foreign Language Film race. It's most likely not getting in.

The Goddess (Wu Yonggang) ***1/2 - This is a Chinese silent film from 1934. It's about a single mother of the young boy who works as a prostitute to support him and goes through the ringer in order to give him a better life whether it's through the judgmental eyes of her neighbors, the police or the gambler who sort of acts as her pimp. Today, it sounds kind of cliche and melodramatic but the film, despite occasionally being preachy, features raw, real performances especially by the lead actress who gives the film its heft and heart and it will really test the strength of your tear ducts. It did so without being too manipulative or over-the-top. This is kind of an obscure film (it was lost for a while and the print is damaged) but it deserves to be less so.

 Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty) **** - This film chronicles the lives of a group of people who live in Aran, a rock island in Ireland with very little soil, big waves and rough weather conditions. From the same director of Nanook of the North, this is the less famous Irish equivalent of it. Although in this one, they were more upfront with the fact that it is fictional narrative based on the real, everyday lives of these people rather than just a straight up documentary. There are moments in this film in which I was absolutely stunned at how unbelievably good it is. How did Flaherty manage to get all that footage? Even though you know, at the back of your head, that it is staged and edited, there's no way they can fake some of the moments you see which makes it all the more amazing. That basking shark hunt is as exciting as a lot of action scenes of today....and you know it's real! I might like this better than Nanook.

 The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones) *** - Tommy Lee Jones is a talented filmmaker as evidenced by one his previous directorial efforts, The Three Burial Melquiades Estrada. This is another Western, this time about a spinster who is tasked to transport three mentally-ill women to a place to better care for them with the help of a small-time crook. The film is well-acted. Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank shine. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is absolutely exquisite. It's worth seeing just for that. I was surprised by the third act twist but I'm not sure it completely worked which is, sadly, one of the film's flaws that prevent me from completely embracing it. It's a good film. It's a good effort but it falls short of greatness.

 Seconds (John Frankenheimer) **** - I can't believe I've never heard of this film before Criterion announced that it's releasing it. It stars Rock Hudson and is directed by John Frankenheimer. In a way, it feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It's about a middle-aged man, bored with his life, gets talked into faking his death, reconstructing his face and live a completely different life. This movie is wild. From its creepy opening credits to James Wong Howe's wild camera movements, the film really keeps you on your toes on what happens next. Add to that some black humor and it's also surprisingly thought-provoking. It tackled some very heady themes. Rock Hudson was terrific as well. More people should definitely see this one.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/7/14 - 12/13/14)

Cronos (Guillermo Del Toro) *** - I've seen practically all of Guillermo Del Toro's feature films except this one. Time to remedy that. An antique storeowner raising his granddaughter finds an odd contraption resembling a beetle that stings him and gives him eternal life. I've heard about this movie but what I didn't know was that this was sort-of, kind-of a vampire movie as well. Del Toro would go on to bigger, better things like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone but this was a very solid though far from perfect debut film with practically all of his signatures and fingerprints (insects, religious imagery, body horror, precocious kids, etc.) all over it. You can practically trace all of his work to this film. 

Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl) ***1/2 - A struggling widowed single mother of a little girl hires a black housekeeper and her light-skinned daughter. They go into business together selling the latter's delicious pancake recipe and eventually makes a fortune. Then more drama happens. This is pretty progressive for its time with its depiction of race relations. Mind you, it is not 100 percent politically correct by today's standards of course but I could only imagine how mainstream white audiences saw it. This film's one major flaw is that the entire soapy love "upstairs white" triangle between mother and teenage daughter was nowhere near as compelling as the drama between the "downstairs" black mother-light-skinned mulatto daughter. Douglas Sirk made his own version of this story and trust me it will be watched in the future! 

Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon) *** - I loved Paprika so I was looking forward to this one. I didn't like this one quite as much but it's still a film well worth watching. This anime is about a pop star who quits her popular J-Pop girl band to make the transition into acting then she starts to get these threats from a stalker. Then it becomes even weirder and crazier. I heard one of Darren Aronofsky's inspiration for Black Swan was this movie and I can see why. The film gets crazier and crazier. You think it's going one way then another twist happens. Perhaps a tad too many twists. The third act was just a tad too over-the-top for my taste. But it's still a fun ride.

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols) ***1/2 - Director Mike Nichols sadly passed away recently. I saw this as a belated tribute to him. Thankfully, it's a really good one. Two young college friends each share their respective sexual exploits and relationship troubles. Despite being set in the 1960's/1970's, the film surprisingly does not feel the least bit dated. It feels modern and relevant even to this day. The excellent cinematography courtesy of Giuseppe Rotunno makes this rather talky film cinematically vibrant. The performances of the four main actors (Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margaret - who's so fucking hot in this movie, by the way) are all terrific. 

Two Days, One Night (Jean Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne) ***1/2 - A married woman with children, recovering from a bout of depression, fights to keep her job after her co-workers vote to get her laid off rather than give up their bonuses. I love the Dardenne brothers. The films I've seen from them are pretty much brilliant pieces of work. They're humanist filmmakers in every sense of the world. Their works don't contain big dramatic fireworks but they still manage to thrill and move me. This is no different. Although this is not quite my favorite film from them (Le Fils and The Kid with a Bike both reign supreme), it's still a remarkable piece. Marion Cotillard gives a fantastic central performance as the woman fighting for her employment and in a way, her sanity as well. 

The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich) *** - This is a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical about a dancer who falls head over heels with a woman trying to get a divorce from her husband. Obviously this comes from a time when "gay" meant happy (though a few characters at the end there seem to imply they might be also going for the other meaning of the term "gay"). Of course, the musical numbers are fun to watch and really something to see. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are great together as always. The film unfortunately isn't quite as magnificent as Top Hat and Swing Time and the plot kind of slows the film down and seems to get in the way occasionally. But overall, a really good old-fashioned musical.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh) *** - I always dread seeing Oscar-bait biopics. They're either gonna be really good or really bad. Thankfully, this one is pretty good thanks largely to the two outstanding central performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. This one is about the marriage between Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane as well as his struggle with motor neuron disease. Redmayne is absolutely convincing as Hawking, I almost forget I was watching an actor and not the real Stephen Hawking. The film also manages to make a relationship that ended in divorce (spoiler alert) into something actually sweet and special. I've heard complaints about it not being enough about Hawking's scientific achievements, a criticism I kind of don't understand. The film DOES focus on his personal life, his relationship with his wife and how he copes with his disability but I think you really get enough science to know he's a brilliant man and his work is important. It's no masterpiece but it's nowhere near as offensive and mawkish as say A Beautiful Mind.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson) *** - I saw this on 3D HFR. It looked very nice albeit a bit dark. That aside, this concluding chapter of an overlong, bloated stretched out adaptation of The Hobbit is pretty much all climax. Practically 2/3rds of the 2.5 hour (relatively short in Lord of the Rings movies running time) is pretty much non-stop battles and action sequences. It's director Peter Jackson showing off. You can practically hear him saying: LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!!! ISN'T THAT BADASS?!?! LOOK AT THAT!!! THAT'S AWESOME!!! I tried to be the grouchy, high-brow critic but I must admit I often agree with him. It is very entertaining and few people can do great battle scenes like Peter Jackson. However, he has already done this all before. I feel like he's regressing or something. It's not quite George Lucas-bad but I hope he leaves the Tolkien world soon. I count myself as a fan of the original trilogy and though The Hobbit films are nowhere near as great, it is still splendid entertainment. I enjoyed myself immensely despite my misgivings. 

Le Grande Jeu (Jacques Feyder) ***1/2 - After he squanders a huge amount of money on his extravagant love, a young businessman is forced to leave the country and joins the French legion in North Africa where he meets a prostitute who remarkably looks like his love (Is she or isn't she?). I have to say that this film's protagonist is kind of unlikable and what he does in the conclusion of this film is frustrating. But despite that, the film still manages to get you to care for him and the ending is particularly haunting. It helps that the two women supporting him gives outstanding performances: Marie Bell who plays his love interest/s and Francoise Rosay who plays the wife of the owner of the hotel he stays in who's also an amateur fortune teller.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/30/14 - 12/6/14)

The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg) *** - Among all the Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg collaborations I've seen, this is probably my least favorite but it's still a very good film in its own right. The film is basically a somewhat fictionalized account of the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia. The film has stunning production design and beautiful cinematography but the story itself doesn't really become great until about the second half. Dietrich is, as usual, fantastic and she's ably supported by Louise Dresser and Sam Jaffe. 

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sydney Pollack) **** - Before reality TV, before The Hunger Games, you had They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. Probably because the director Sydney Pollack isn't particularly heralded among film buffs, this film tends to be overlooked (despite the fact that it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars with Gig Young winning a well-deserved one). Made in the '60s and set during the Great Depression, this film is still quite shockingly relevant today. It's about a group of people entering a marathon dance contest where they dance almost completely non-stop until one couple is left standing. It is thrilling, harrowing and occasionally even darkly funny. I think this may be Pollack's best film. 

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre) **1/2 - This is the so-called abortion romantic-comedy about a stand-up comedienne who was just dumped by her boyfriend and gets pregnant by a nice guy she just met. Jenny Slate is excellent in the lead role. I hope she gets more acting work. I've known her as a really funny performer but she gets to show her range here. There are funny parts and the abortion storyline was handled fairly well (although it will do absolutely nothing to convince adamant pro-lifers). All in all though, it's just all right. It's still a romantic comedy, better made than most but nothing particularly outstanding.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) ***1/2 - A novice nun from Poland about to take her vows discovers she is Jewish and goes on a journey discovering the dark history of her family. There have been tons of films about the Holocaust and World War II and a lot of them are classics. They've dealt with themes on every conceivable angle. I thought the well of potential great films and great stories from that era has been tapped. I was wrong. This is a beautiful film that tackles its weighty subjects with subtlety and grace. The stunning black & white cinematography ups the austere themes. I've heard people say this is "Bergman-esque" but I think it's closer to Robert Bresson's minimalist dramas. 

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke) *** - Thanks to my day job, I think I've actually seen a few episodes of the TV show. This is a whodunit with a husband, wife and a cute dog trying to figure out the mystery involving some money, a love triangle, a missing inventor, etc. William Powell and Myrna Loy are fun to watch as the crime-solving couple. There's quite a lot of surprisingly sharp, funny and clever comedy to go with the mystery. You'll find yourself laughing along with trying to figure it out yourself (provided you're spoiler-free, of course). It's no masterpiece but it's lots of fun.