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.

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