Monday, December 31, 2012

The Ten Best Films of 2012 That I Have Seen

December 31, 2012

According to my record, I had written 84 movie reviews this year.  This is a list of the best among the films of 2012 that I have seen and written about.  For this list, I will not include the 29 which had been released in 2011 or earlier, but I had only seen in 2012. These were mostly the Oscar winning films released in December 2011.  Too bad also that I will not be able to include here potential Oscar winning films of this year, which will only be shown in January 2013 locally, like "Les Miserables," "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Life of Pi," etc...

Here are the 10 Best Films of 2012 that I have seen and written about:


10. A Royal Affair (full review)


"A Royal Affair" is about exactly what its title tells us. Caroline is an English princess who was married off to the King of Denmark, in fulfillment of her childhood dreams. They meet for the first time when she went to Denmark, but she was distressed to discover that her husband Christian is not of completely sound mind.

After her first child was born, and wallowing in constant loneliness, Caroline begins the titular royal affair with Struensee, the court physician, who was also Christian's best friend and adviser. Caroline and Struensee not only share romantic love, but also a passion for political reform. Struensee uses his very influential position to institute radically progressive policies which eventually revolutionizes Denmark society.




9.  Rurouni Kenshin (full review)


In this story, Kenshin meets and helps a young lady named Kaoru, whose fencing school was vandalized. They then get entangled in the affairs of a notorious ruthless drug dealer Kanryu Tanaka when his drug chemist Megumi escapes and seeks shelter in Kaoru's school. On top of all this, there is a mad killer on the loose with mad sword skills calling himself the Battosai, a title bestowed on Kenshin in his murderous past which he would rather disown.

With all of these stories and more that the movie tries to tell, the running time is about two hours. However you will not feel the time at all as you get enthralled by the fantastic look of the movie and its spectacular fighting scenes. Either with sword, bare hands or firearms, the fights were choreographed with excitement. The cinematography, color palette and visual effects were impeccably executed. 



8.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (full review)


The first scene had Judi Dench playing Evelyn, a new widow desperately trying to talk to a call center agent about some investment her late husband made. Then one by one, we get introduced to six other senior British citizen, each with a personal problem of their own, played by other prominent senior British actors, like Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith.

All seven of these people all decide independently to seek some respite from their present predicaments by booking a stay at the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" in Jaipur, India, managed by a struggling young entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel) who is also experiencing his own problem with his domineering mother. Here at the hotel, which unfortunately did not look a least bit like its beautifully photo-shopped brochures, these seven seniors undergo life-renewing experiences.




7.  Men in Black III (full review)


In this film, a vicious alien villain known as Boris the Animal escapes from his prison on the moon, where he had been locked up since being arrested by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) back in 1969. One day, Agent K disappears from the present day. His partner Agent J (Will Smith) realizes that K had been assassinated by Boris forty years ago, which caused a major change of events, allowing Boris' alien race to overrun the Earth. J had to find a way to travel back in time to 1969 in order to save K and rectify the tragic consequences of his death. Can J save K and in turn save the Earth from the clutches of Boris?

The odd couple was just as they were before in the first films. Will Smith is still his old loudmouth Agent J as Tommy Lee Jones was his tight-lipped Agent K. As J goes back to the past, he will interact with the young 29-year old K, perfectly played by Josh Brolin. Brolin amazingly captures the laconic persona, and even the distinct voice, of Jones so well that they seemed to have been one and the same actor. It was also good to see Emma Thompson again in a major film as she portrayed Agent O, another senior agent with a soft spot for K. The younger Agent O was played by a cutie named Alice Eve, but she certainly did not convince us that she would look or act like Emma Thompson when she grows older.



6.  The Hunger Games (full review)


I have read all three books by Suzanne Collins several months before, so I know what will happen already. Despite this knowledge, I remained excited and riveted by how the details of the story had been translated on screen by writer-director Gary Ross.

The first hour was dedicated to the events preceding the games, as the last hour and a half depicted the games themselves. This movie was the story of a future world, in a country with 12 districts controlled a central Capitol. Every year, they would commemorate the revolution by staging a "Hunger Games", where two tributes from each district would fight to the death until only one remains the victor. On this the 74th Games, the tributes of outlying District 12 would be Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and the central heroine of the series, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).



5.  Sinister (full review)


Ellison (Ethan Hawke, in his first appearance in a horror film) is an author of true crime novels who is seeking to follow up his one hit book. He moves his family into the very home where a gruesome family massacre had previously taken place. When he discovers a box of film reels which turned out to be video footage documenting the deaths of several families, his research turns into a real life horror for him and his family.

The eerie and tense atmosphere is set up from the very first scene where we see four people hanging from a tree. It never let up from there up to the bloody end. OK, there are horror clichés here like the house in seemingly perpetual darkness, or the sudden scares that lead nowhere, creepy children drawing on walls, and so on, but in this movie, these things actually work well to work up the audience's heart rates and goosebumps. The music is pulsating as it is unsettling, very effective to work you up some more with every step that Ellison takes in the house.



4.  I Do Bidoo Bidoo (full review)


"I Do Bidoo Bidoo" (by writer-director Chris Martinez) does not deny that it was inspired by the success of "Mamma Mia".  However, instead of ABBA songs, this local counterpart uses the similarly diverse discography of the APO Hiking Society, a collection of Filipino pop classics accumulated for more than 30 years since they started to record in the early 1970s.

This is a story about two families.  The Polotan family is lower middle class, while the Fuentebella family is super rich. Rock Polotan (Sam Concepcion) falls in love with Tracy Fuentebella (Tippy dos Santos), leading to an unexpected teenage pregnancy.  Rock's parents are Pol (Ogie Alcasid), a one-hit wonder songwriter who gives guitar lessons to kids in the neighborhood, and Rosie (Eugene Domingo), a caterer to funerals.  Tracy's parents are Nick (Gary Valenciano), a career-centered businessman, and Elaine (Zsazsa Padilla), a lonely neglected housewife.  The obviously radical class difference of course led to a very disastrous "pamamanhikan."  This consequently led to all the characters rethinking about their own situations with their respective partners in love.  Will love prevail in the end?



3.  Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (full review)


The film opens with Abraham Lincoln on a voice-over talking about how History prefers legends to men, then flashes back to his childhood when young Abe witnesses his mother being killed by what seemed to be a vampire. The desire to seek vengeance on the ghoulish murderer would carry him over the next years as the child grew up. After a botched attempt, he meets a vampire-killer named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) who trains him in the killing craft using his weapon of choice, the axe. 

From there, this fantastic back story would then intertwine with more historically-familiar events we knew about Abe Lincoln, like his marriage to Mary Todd, his rise to the Presidency, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address and his fateful date at the theater. This is practically everything the layman knows about Abe Lincoln. Even viewers with only a passing knowledge of American history can readily relate. You simply have to watch to see how they dovetail the fantasy parts into the history parts.



2.  The Avengers (full review)


The anticipation for this film has been building up so many months since the showing of the solo movies about each of the heroes that comprise this superstar group -- Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and finally, Captain America. These individual films were all very good on their own, so very expectations are foisted on this special film that would unite all of them in one big adventure. Even though I am out of town now, that did not stop me from catching this film with some Marvel comics geeks. And for once, a film has come that fulfills it's advanced hype, and then some!

The film follows how these heroes were called together and assembled by Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. to retrieve a blue high-energy cube called the Tesseract stolen by the Asgard god Loki. It was fun how the film depicted the clash of their individual big egos of the heroes, and they did not really get along with each other right away, as would be expected. There is humor along with the high-intensity action. 



1.  The Dark Night Rises (full review)


"The Dark Knight Rises" is an EPIC superhero movie. This in fact could potentially be an unprecedented award-winning superhero movie. The two and a half hours that was needed to tell this huge story were wisely used. The film was absorbing and the details were all vital. The photography, the visual effects, the crowd scenes, the stunts, the Bat vehicles were all AWESOME to watch, and that was only on 2D. 

It is a practically an impossible task to compress the span of the complicated screenplay into a single paragraph. The story basically picks up eight years after revered former Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent was assumed to have been murdered by the Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) had been leading a hermit existence since then, and the Batman had been unheard of. The arrival of a revolutionary respirator-masked super-villain named Bane (a massive and unrecognizable Tom Hardy) that shattered peace in Gotham City knocks sense into Bruce Wayne/Batman to come out of his retirement. Question is, does he still have what it takes to defeat Bane and save Gotham?


Special Mentions:  Other Excellent Filipino Films of 2012

1.  Sta. Nina (full review)


"Sta. Nina" is set in lahar-ravaged Pampanga. A small coffin was unearthed in a quarrying operation. When Pol (Coco Martin) opens the box, the dead little girl encased inside was still intact with no sign of decay. Puzzled, he brings it home with him. His neighbors begin to experience unexplainable healings when they are in the presence of the uncorrupted corpse.

Meanwhile, Pol's personal life is also in shambles as he still has bitter years-old conflicts with his estranged wife Madel (Alessandra da Rossi) and her vindictive mother (Irma Adlawan). As Pol struggles to rid himself of the bad luck that hounded him all his life, could the miraculous corpse of little Marikit also prove to be his salvation?


2.  Posas (full review)


Watching this film is not easy. It is a harrowing experience as the director Lawrence Fajardo literally takes you through the entire experience of a young petty thief named Jestoni Biag (Nico Antonio) on one fateful day when he made the mistake of stealing the iPhone 4S of feisty and sexy call center agent Ms. Maria Grace Resuello (Bangs Garcia).

Without divulging any spoiling details, you as the audience will watch in pained disgust and horror as the policemen who arrest Jestoni, led by Police Officer Domingo (Best Supporting Actor winner Art Acuna), do MORE than simply shackle him in handcuffs. Paraphrasing the tagline, "The day they set him free, was the first day of his life sentence."


3.  Thy Womb (full review)


Its story can be told in one sentence. A middle-aged childless Moslem Badjao woman named Shaleha (Nora Aunor) living in Tawi-tawi finds a suitable second wife for her husband Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) to have a child of his own, unmindful of the consequences this decision might impose on her.

Director Mendoza intertwines very colorful scenes of daily Badjao life and culture to beef up the sparse story line, creating a brilliant visual spectacle that would educate us about how our Badjao countrymen live. We see how they live on their houses on stilts, weave mats, catch fish, dress wounds, do their marketing, and mainly, how they negotiate dowry and get married. I feel these scenes really brought me into their difficult and uncomfortable living conditions. I felt like I was actually there given the realism of execution.



Amour

December 31, 2012



What a film to watch on the last day of the year! I did not know beforehand that it was a Michael Haneke film, whose reputation for horrific emotionless movies like White Ribbon (which I did not like) would have stopped me from watching this today. However, its winning of the Cannes Palme D'Or and its multiple nominations in year-end lists including the Golden Globes and possibly the Oscar made me want to watch this.

Georges and Anne, an elderly couple whose serene life was turned upside down when Anne suffered consecutive strokes leaving her bedridden. You already know that you should get yourself ready for one depressing emotional ride for the next two hours.

Senior French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play their age here very naturally. Too good in fact, we feel they are actually our own parents going through this ordeal. We get carried away by the jumble of emotions that Georges must be feeling seeing his beloved Anne caught in such a helpless situation. In my line of work, I see couples in this same predicament, and they really try their best to carry one with dignity, without much sentimentality. I felt this was captured very well.

The film was shot with unmistakable skill. The photography and camera angles were so good, contributing much to the drama unfolding on the screen. Of course, there are those nebulous "symbolic" scenes with pigeons and paintings we see in art films.

As a film, technically this is clearly a winner. Ultimately though, the climax is what will make or break this film. Will it make you feel love or feel the total opposite? I did not see it coming, and I wish something else happened than what was shown on screen. Personally I think only European cinema can come up with something as frank as this. I would rather remember the whole film without that climactic (anti-climactic?) moment.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

December 31, 2012



The title is very corny and uninviting, that is a fact. However, the positive word of mouth about this film is so strong, I simply had to check it out when I saw that it was available on the plane I took going to Los Angeles last week. I have to say, I am very happy to have seen this true gem of a film.

I had no idea whatsoever what this was about when I started watching it. The first scene had Judi Dench playing Evelyn, a new widow desperately trying to talk to a call center agent about some investment her late husband made. Then one by one, we get introduced to six other senior British citizen, each with a personal problem of their own, played by other prominent senior British actors, like Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith.

All seven of these people all decide independently to seek some respite from their present predicaments by booking a stay at the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" in Jaipur, India, managed by a struggling young entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel) who is also experiencing his own problem with his domineering mother. Here at the hotel, which unfortunately did not look a least bit like its beautifully photo-shopped brochures, these seven seniors undergo life-renewing experiences.

It was quite a feat for director John Madden (best known for directing "Shakespeare in Love") to tell this story of seven lives with enough depth for the audience to care about their individual stories, not to mention, the story of Sonny who ran the hotel. The treatment was light and pleasant, despite the serious topics, with enough British dry wit and humor (especially from the ever-delightful Maggie Smith) to keep the audience fully entertained. Despite how the synopsis goes, his story about senior citizens surprisingly did not bore me at all. I wanted to see what happens to all of them at the end, and so will you. Do not miss this one. You will feel good afterward.

Thy Womb


December 30, 2012



This movie shows us that the plot need not be too complicated in order for it to be of artistic merit. "Thy Womb" continues Director Brillante Mendoza's successes in the international independent film circuit. It also brings the long-missed talents of Philippine Superstar Ms. Nora Aunor back on to the big screen. Despite being denied of any of the three Best Picture awards at stake at the Metro Manila Film Fest this year, I believe this film should be seen by all for its cultural value.

Its story can be told in one sentence. A middle-aged childless Moslem Badjao woman named Shaleha (Nora Aunor) living in Tawi-tawi finds a suitable second wife for her husband Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) to have a child of his own, unmindful of the consequences this decision might impose on her. 

Director Mendoza intertwines very colorful scenes of daily Badjao life and culture to beef up the sparse story line, creating a brilliant visual spectacle that would educate us about how our Badjao countrymen live. We see how they live on their houses on stilts, weave mats, catch fish, dress wounds, do their marketing, and mainly, how they negotiate dowry and get married. I feel these scenes really brought me into their difficult and uncomfortable living conditions. I felt like I was actually there given the realism of execution.

Ms. Nora Aunor has a face that can communicate a multitude of emotions with no words spoken. This is as true now as it was back then. Director Mendoza certainly gives us a lot of scenes which makes the faded superstar shine with megawatt luster. The things Ms. Nora did in the course of shooting this film are obviously arduous when we see the finished product. She really immersed herself in this tough environment and was as real as she could be. There she was, paddling a boat under the hot sun and even swimming in the open sea. Nora did not care how old, disheveled or haggard she looked, delivering a riveting performance as only she can. Nora's signature scenes of staring out into space with those expressive eyes brimming with tears still works wonders.

OK this film is not perfect by any means. There were scenes that seemed to lead nowhere. There were scenes of endless waiting. The ending sequences seemed rushed to meet a deadline, or something. In the climactic wedding scene, we only see a dance number, not even the bride and groom. I also do not see how a graphic scene of a baby coming out of a woman's vagina can be "gender sensitive" as this film had awarded. This is again Mr. Mendoza's shocking his audience, as he does in his other films.

However, aside from Ms. Aunor, the star of this film is really its cinematography. All the colors were absolutely brilliant. The composition of scenes was very aesthetically appealing. The sun, the sea, the whale sharks, the quarter moon were captured in their glorious beauty. In addition, the production design was also very admirably authentic. After watching, we feel we already knew Tawi-tawi and its people a whole lot more. 

OK, this is not really for everyone as most indie films are, but this could already be the most commercial of Mendoza's films. This special film lets us in to see and experience the unique way of life of this marginalized exotic tribe with the best possible imagery. For this aspect alone, "The Womb" comes very highly recommended.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holy Motors

December 23, 2012





This film was topping a lot of year-end critics lists. I was wondering how this could be with such a puzzling, even ugly, title. This of course piqued my interest to watch the film. Now, I honestly wish I didn't.

I cannot even describe any coherent "plot". I do not even think there is one. We see a guy Oscar (fearlessly played by lead actor Denis Lavant) who was taken around in a white stretch limousine by his lady- chauffeur Celine. He transforms himself with make-up, prosthetics and costumes into various strange characters as if trying to accomplish a Treasure Hunt game list of tasks to do.

Some of his characters seemed straightforward enough, like an old lady beggar ignored on the street or a sad father to a pre-teen daughter. Others are way out of the box, like playing a CG snake with a motion- capture outfit or a victim of a shoot-out. But to put it in a sentence, EVERYTHING in this film meant absolutely NOTHING to me.

The weirdest of which was the long and bizarre episode which notably featured Ms. Eva Mendez. This started with Oscar dressed like a demented madman eating flowers from a cemetery, who crashed a photo shoot and abducted the model (Mendez) then took her to a cave, dressed her in a burqa and then laid down on her lap naked and fully erect! 

Now, did that make any sense at all to you? Enough said about the rest of this pretentious nonsense.  I am not obviously not seeing what more learned critics are seeing about this film.  I am willing to learn more about what makes an abstract film as this one to be considered great among serious cineastes of the world.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Arbitrage

December 21, 2012




I have never heard of this film before the nominations for the Golden Globes were announced last week. "Arbitrage" received one notable nomination and that is for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for Richard Gere. I felt that this was good enough of a reason to watch this film because this was a rare occasion that veteran Richard Gere was recognized for dramatic acting. (Turns out his first major acting nomination for Drama was also from the Golden Globes back in 1983 for "An Officer and a Gentleman." He won the Globe for Comedy/Musical for "Chicago" in 2003.)

"Arbitrage" had an unusual word for its title. Looking it up, it is economics jargon for the "practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices." (Wikipedia). Accordingly, the film is set in the business world, where the protagonist strikes deals on both sides in order to preserve a balanced facade despite mounting financial and personal problems.

The film "Arbitrage" is about multi-billionaire business man Robert Miller (Richard Gere). When he turned 60, he surprised his family by selling his successful company off. But behind all the smiles we see in the opening birthday celebration scene, Miller was and will be embroiled in much deeper financial, and later personal, difficulties that push him to the limits of his business and legal wits.

Richard Gere really does a career best performance out of this role. For playing someone so unscrupulous and duplicitous, he can still get the audience to be on his side. The acting here is very subtle. There is no big breakdown scene or big booming speech to declare that this is "great" acting. 

Props also have to go to the supporting cast who also turn in superb performances. Susan Sarandon, I am not really a fan, but she did well here as Miller's socialite wife Ellen. Brit Marling played Miller's daughter Brooke who was the company's financial officer oblivious of her father's financial double-dealing. Her confrontation scene in the park was a highlight for her and Gere. Nate Parker played Jimmy Grant, a simple black guy from Harlem whose family was beholden to Miller, who was cluelessly dragged by Miller into the whole sticky mess. The chameleon-like actor Tim Roth plays Bryer, the detective who desperately wants to pin Miller down.

Many aspects you may have seen in many other family and financial dramas before. Some aspects like the matter with the detective and his evidence may have been too convenient and contrived. But overall, this one was put together quite well. The running time of 107 minutes may be too long for some people, but I feel that this was necessary to cover all the details of the complicated story line. I believe this movie is worth its time just to see whether the elegant Mr. Robert Miller gets out of the web he has spun himself into or not, with Richard Gere giving us his finest work as an actor doing so.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Starbuck

December 17, 2012




I saw this French Canadian film on a KLM flight I recently took. I have not heard of it, and the title was not catchy, however when I read in the information that there will be an American version to be done, I became curious so I went on to watch it. I did not regret it.

For a movie that began with the uncomfortable scene of a guy donating sperm in a sperm bank. From such an inauspicious beginning, what unfolds is actually a heartwarming story of David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), a middle-aged man whose life of non-commitment changes radically when he discovers that he had actually fathered more than 500 kids via his multiple sperm donations done when he was a young man under the code name of "Starbuck". When 143 of these kids file a class suit against their anonymous biological father "Starbuck," will David reveal his secret identity? If he does, how will he face all of these newly-arisen paternal responsibilities?

Of course, there are scenes which may look cheesy for some, but viewed with the proper attitude without cynicism, these scenes are actually quite nice and even touching. Since David's kids are all young adults already with individual personalities and problems, his approach to each one would have to be different based on the situation each kid is in. The public controversy and discussion that arose when the news of the "Starbuck" case hit the tabloids is also very thought-provoking.

This film was an unexpected delight. It was good to know afterward that this movie actually received multiple nominations and even won awards at the Genie and various film festivals. I am glad I caught it before the American version. It would be interesting to compare the treatment of the story.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

..December 17, 2012





Usually when it comes to the third film in a comedy franchise, the ideas are not really that original anymore. Mostly they would be tackling things that worked in the first two episodes and giving them a twist or two to distinguish it from the others.

However in this third film in the Wimpy Kid series, this third film called "Dog Days" actually proved to be the best one of the series so far. Of all the films, this one had the most heart.

This film mixed in stories from the third (my personal favorite) and fourth books of the series. It focused on the summer vacation of our hero Greg Heffley. Like before, Greg gets into a number of misadventures as he "worked" at the country club to impress his dad, as well as to get closer to his pretty crush Holly Hills. This was the most we have seen from Steve Zahn as Mr. Heffley in the series so far, and he actually delivers the goods as the bumbling but kind-hearted father. 

It also tells about a disastrous vacation with Rowley and his folks at the boardwalk, a disastrous camping trip with the Wilderness Explorers, as well as disastrous Sweet Sixteen party for Holly's snooty sister Heather, whom Greg's brother Rodrick has the hots for. These and the Heffley's acquisition of a new dog Sweetie, make this a most hilarious episode, yet still able to impart a number of moral lessons for the kids when it comes to relationships with their friends and with their fathers (which especially hit home for me).

Overall, I would recommend this as a very good family film for kids. Nothing here is particularly mean-spirited (unlike Book 2). Valuable lessons on responsibility were learned by the young characters as a result of the mischief they perpetrate. Those who like a good father-son story would enjoy this film. Yes, this might be shallow juvenile comedy on the surface. However, the moral values it imparts can run deep, yet all delivered in a truly entertaining, delightful, and unpatronizing package.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rurouni Kenshin

December 13, 2012



I have long heard of "Samurai X" but I have not really read the manga or seen any of anime about this character named Himura Kenshin. This live action movie had come with very high recommendations or else I may have just given this a pass. I am glad I made time for this movie.

Himura Kenshin is an assassin of the highest skill during that transition between the Imperial/Samurai Age and the New Age adapting Western practices. After a particular assignment plants in him a massive guilt-trip, he decided to "disappear" and become a wanderer, using his fighting skills to defend the helpless WITHOUT KILLING.

In this story, Kenshin meets and helps a young lady named Kaoru, whose fencing school was vandalized. They then get entangled in the affairs of a notorious ruthless drug dealer Kanryu Tanaka when his drug chemist Megumi escapes and seeks shelter in Kaoru's school. On top of all this, there is a mad killer on the loose with mad sword skills calling himself the Battosai, a title bestowed on Kenshin in his murderous past which he would rather disown.

With all of these stories and more that the movie tries to tell, the running time is about two hours. However you will not feel the time at all as you get enthralled by the fantastic look of the movie and its spectacular fighting scenes. Either with sword, bare hands or firearms, the fights were choreographed with excitement. The cinematography, color palette and visual effects were impeccably executed. 

I did not know how the anime drawings of each character before I watched, so I could not comment on that. It is sort of odd looking that with lead actor Takeru Sato, a highly skilled sword fighter looks so androgynous. Afterwards we see that he really does look like that in the anime series. So did the cute Emi Takei (as the feisty Kaoru), Munetaka Aoki (as the rash and brash street fighter Sanosuke) or even Yosuke Eguchi, the samurai turned police chief Hajime Saito.

As someone who had no prior knowledge about Samurai X, I was completely taken by this very good-looking film, enough that I may even seek out the animated TV series. This is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and Japanese culture. Catch it only in SM Cinemas, as this is being locally shown exclusively there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affære)

December 11, 2012





"A Royal Affair" is about exactly what its title tells us. Caroline is an English princess who was married off to the King of Denmark, in fulfillment of her childhood dreams. They meet for the first time when she went to Denmark, but she was distressed to discover that her husband Christian is not of completely sound mind.

After her first child was born, and wallowing in constant loneliness, Caroline begins the titular royal affair with Struensee, the court physician, who was also Christian's best friend and adviser. Caroline and Struensee not only share romantic love, but also a passion for political reform. Struensee uses his very influential position to institute radically progressive policies which eventually revolutionizes Denmark society.

Needless to say, this is the first time I have ever seen anything about Danish history, so I was enraptured -- not really about the affair, but more about the interesting stories of political machinations and social reformation told in this very fine film. The lavish costumes, elaborate set design and moody music were all perfectly attuned to the period depicted. The cinematography was very dramatic and well-polished.

The acting was top-notch from all three angles of the troika. Young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander was very classy and believable as Caroline. She reminded me of Emily Blunt's performance in "Young Victoria" the previous year. Famous Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays Dr. Johann Struensee with subtle passion. He does look a lot older than Caroline so the romantic chemistry seemed somehow strained, especially at the beginning. It does grow on you later though, as the more political aspect of their affair gains more screen time. As the cuckolded king Christian VII, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard delivers a finely nuanced performance as he struggled to balance his madness with some semblance of sanity.

I highly recommend this film for all film fans who love historical films. This is a rare look into a renaissance of sorts in Danish political history borne out of personal liaisons among the key characters in the reform movement. The story-telling style of director Nikolaj Arcel is tight and engaging. It will keep you interested up to the end, especially with the inspired performances of all his actors.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Argo

November 26, 2012



When I saw the trailer of "Argo," I already felt like the whole story was already shown. I did not feel like I wanted to watch it. The story of rescuing hostages in Iran by pretending they were shooting a movie is simply unbelievable. The star and director was one of my least favorite Hollywood actors, Ben Affleck. However, curiosity still got the better of me when nothing but stellar reviews came out when it was shown. There was even talk of Oscar nominations! This I had to see.

Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez who came up with this wild idea. He plays it smartly low key in the whole movie. But in that key scene where he announces his idea in the first place, I still feel that Ben was deficient as the lead actor. I would not have been sold the way he delivered the critical line about his suggestion to film a fake movie. It is great though that the rest of the supporting cast succeeded very well in their respective roles. Alan Arkin and John Goodman were very funny as the Hollywood people who help Ben hatch the fake absurd sci-fi project which they dubbed "Argo."

The story is still as unbelievable as I thought. The whole scheme felt so shallow and lame, something only a B-movie producer would greenlight. We are talking about rescuing Americans trapped in Iran in the 70s under the Ayatollah Khoemeini here, and all they can come with was something as ridiculous and far-fetched as this one. But I guess what they say is true, that truth is stranger than fiction. 

Fortunately, Ben Affleck the director was able to sell the whole movie to us in a very tight, tense and assured way. The climactic sequence of the escape proper was done in a rather clichéd Hollywood-y manner, but you can't help but hang on to the edge of your seats. The film editing, the very late 70s style cinematography, the realistic set and costume design all contribute to the success of story telling.

This is a very good suspense thriller yes, but to call it the next Oscar Best Picture I think is overreaching a bit. Like "The Town" before this, Ben Affleck has improved as a director, but the Oscar for Best Director for "Argo" may also be too much of an ambition. Nominations for both categories though are real possibilities, but are more certain in the Supporting Actor and the technical categories.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4

November 23, 2012



I do not know why I keep on watching this wretched franchise. I hated the first two. The third one is a little bit better. I guess I was hoping for further improvement in this fourth one.

Katie and Hunter from the previous film are back. This time, the possessed Katie torments a family living across her house.

This film follows basically the same formula as the others. Laptop cameras were set around the house to record "paranormal activity", until everything escalates into a ghastly ending for the family. There was a bit more action in this one, as we actually see things move or fall within the first few minutes, unlike the first ones where any significant event would only happen after the first hour. The problem is that nothing was being done despite all these videos that they are recording. Don't they review these videos at all? Why record in the first place?

What kind of parents are these Doug and Holly? They do not listen to their daughter's unnatural experiences, who seems to be a normal level- headed girl, not someone prone to wild imaginations. She cheated death twice already! (Incidentally, the pretty young actress Kathryn Newton who plays the daughter Alex is the best thing about this film.) The mom is particularly crazy In the course of this film, she ignored her husband who was nearly stabbed, gave her daughter sleeping pills and left a little child alone in the bathtub.

These severe lapses in logic make this film wallow in the same mire as the others in its franchise. That we are already seeing the fourth installment with all the same tricks makes this one already lacking originality and freshness of the first ones. How many false jump scares can the audience stand?! The use of laptop video cameras was new, but it was clunky and awkward to see Alex run all around and outside the house carrying her laptop.

At least at the very end, we actually see an additional dimension which was only hinted at in the third episode. Because of that, I would bet a fifth installment would follow and people will still go see it. I do hope they inject something fresh into that one or else it would really be curtains already for this series, as many predict.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sinister

November 19, 2012



I am usually disappointed when I see a film which came with very high expectations. However, I must make an exception to "Sinister." I had heard very good things about this film making it a must-see for a horror movie fan like me. However, I had to be out of the country during the days it was shown in the theaters locally last month, so I only got to watch it now. And I must say, these high expectations were fulfilled. "Sinister" is indeed a very good horror film. In fact, I will go on to say that it was one of the best American horror films ever made that I have seen.

Ellison (Ethan Hawke, in his first appearance in a horror film) is an author of true crime novels who is seeking to follow up his one hit book. He moves his family into the very home where a gruesome family massacre had previously taken place. When he discovers a box of film reels which turned out to be video footage documenting the deaths of several families, his research turns into a real life horror for him and his family.

The eerie and tense atmosphere is set up from the very first scene where we see four people hanging from a tree. It never let up from there up to the bloody end. OK, there are horror clichés here like the house in seemingly perpetual darkness, or the sudden scares that lead nowhere, creepy children drawing on walls, and so on, but in this movie, these things actually work well to work up the audience's heart rates and goosebumps. The music is pulsating as it is unsettling, very effective to work you up some more with every step that Ellison takes in the house. 

I liked the way that the gore was suggested instead of blatant. I liked the subtlety of many of its scare moments. I liked the way that Ethan Hawke realistically portrayed the tormented but desperate Ellison. A male protagonist is not always as easy to play in a horror film than a female one. I like the ending, how it may seem that you can figure out what is going to happen in the end, but the way it played out was pretty out-of-the-box disturbing and ultimately, shocking. I highly recommend horror film fans to watch "Sinister." It is as it is entitled.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

November 15, 2012



I have just come home from watching this last installment of the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part 2 with my wife. I don't know what is with these Twilight movies that we look forward to watching them, simply to see how bad they are. Haha! The poster showing the three main characters running did not hold much promise of a better film.

This film starts where the last film left off. Bella has just given birth to her daughter Renesmee. This supernatural birth brings Bella close to death, so Edward saves her by making her a vampire. Now, when the Volturri find out about Renesmee, they consider her a threat to their existence and hence seek to kill her. Will the Cullen family be able to protect Renesmee and themselves from ultimate destruction?

The beginning of this movie are filled with the same clunky scenes and corny dialog that we have all seen and cringed to in all the previous movies. The very long scene showing Bella's reaction to Jacob's imprinting is particularly hilarious. There was also the requisite Jacob striptease scene strictly for Team Jacob fanatics.

The climactic battle scenes between the Cullens and the Volturri were another matter though. Sure it was pure computer generated mayhem and violence. But for those who have not read the books and just followed the films, there was some imaginative storytelling at work here for a change. I am actually curious how this part of the story was written in the book. I will give this movie an extra point for this part.

In the closing scenes set in the familiar field of purple flowers we have seen before, the whole Twilight saga ends with an incredibly thick serving of cheese. I am not surprised. It ends as it started: cheesy. It never really aspired to be more, so let the Twi-hard fans enjoy this last film while it lasts. So now that it all ends, I'm pretty sure the rest of the world will also be missing Bella and her two other-worldly consorts. We won't have a next film to look forward to nitpick anymore.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skyfall

November 13, 2012


"Casino Royale" established a new kind of James Bond in Daniel Craig and his gruff and rough portrayal of the usually cool and suave Bond. "Skyfall" continues to mine this new James Bond persona, as we actually see a James Bond emotional enough to shed tears.  This was not really the James Bond we knew before.   I am getting ahead of myself.

The title "Skyfall" refers to the old Bond estate in the Scottish highlands where James' parents Andrew and Monique Bond were buried. This estate was the site where the climactic booby trap and shotgun battle between Bond and the bad guys took place.

The plot of this movie started from a stolen list of MI6 agents which devolved into a story of revenge of Silva (Javier Bardem in another crazy eccentric character reminiscent of his "No Country for Old Men" performance), also a former MI6 agent, who wants to kill M (Judi Dench) for betraying him in the past.  The ever loyal Bond, of course, does all he can to save his boss, despite being betrayed himself.

Despite the very basic plot, the good thing about this Bond movie is the breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins. All those imaginative camera angles and brilliant colors make all the scenes come alive right out of the screen.  I echo other critics in finding this probably the best shot of all the James Bond films. Having Oscar winning director Sam Mendes at the helm, the dramatic trajectory of the story is built up perfectly. As the 50th anniversary presentation of this spy franchise, various homages to Bond lore abound throughout the film, from the classic theme song to the classic Aston Martin.

I felt the simple revenge story line was stretched too long for comfort by maybe an hour. The entire Macau scenes, including the Komodo dragons and Bond girl Severine, could have been excised without really affecting the basic story. However, the amazing cinematography highlighting the best of the exotic locales, the editing of the fantastic action sequences involving trains and the evocative dramatic performances of Daniel Craig and Judi Dench make this still a compelling Bond movie overall.  But no, as I mentioned earlier in this article, Craig's Bond really is not the James Bond we knew before.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Give Up Tomorrow

October 9, 2012



Before watching this movie, I was actually apprehensive. It was an unusual feeling for someone who watches movies frequently. "Give Up Tomorrow" is not a film of fiction, you see. It is a documentary about a notorious convicted rapist and murderer, involved in a sensationally gruesome crime story. This film, produced by someone in this person's extended family, will try to convince us that this guy, Paco Larranaga, was actually an innocent man, and is now unjustly behind bars for the rest of his productive life.

What I know of this case was what I gathered while skimming the newspapers or what I hear on the news over the years. Paco's physical appearance, that of a hefty, brusque, seemingly arrogant rich young man, certainly did not help his image in the public. The case resurfaced recently when the Spanish government sought to intervene in the fate of this Spanish citizen. This perceived foreign interference in our justice system also did not sit very well with the Filipino people. The Larranaga family really had everything going against them.

Of course, before going in, I had already expected this film to try to convince its viewers that all of what the general public knows from the news headlines was NOT the whole story. Important conflicting evidences were presented from the first few minutes.. As expected too, the uneven police investigation, the questionable star witness and the irregular court behavior of the presiding judge were also shown. They also showed how the Spain government got involved in the case. All of these important information had been previously unheard of, as far as I, an uninvolved outsider, was concerned.

The most controversial points of this film were those that seemed to turn the tables on the parents of the victims themselves. Are Dionisio and Susan Chiong really the just the unfortunate, devastated parents of poor Jackie and Marijoy? This film seeks to shatter that commonly-held public perception. The film tells us about previously unknown connections to Malacanang and other shady dealings. How did the filmmakers get that ironic statement of Mrs. Chiong at the end on film? How the Chiongs were presented here was far from unbiased.

This is certainly an eye-opening film. Everyone suspects that the local justice system may be murky, but here was a story told from the inside by a family who seemed to have experienced the worse end of the stick. The argument as presented by the film is truly well-organized and convincing. Having respected multi-media journalist Solita Monsod there on their side lends further credence to their position.  But again, we have to keep in mind that we are again only hearing from one side. The producer discloses in the film's publicity and at the end of the film that he is related to the Larranagas. Whether the audience believes what this film is trying to say is still up to them. People who like to think and discuss after watching films should watch this one. Should we now think twice about all of these stories we hear in the news?



Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

October 2, 2012




"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" brings us back to the early 1990s, telling us the story of a smart but problematic high school freshman, Charlie (Logan Lerman). His spends his days simply avoiding everyone else, until he was accepted by seniors/half-siblings, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) into their circle of oddball friends.

With them, Charlie is drawn into the teen experience and actually gets to do things which up to then he had only been a viewer from the sidelines. With Sam, Charlie experiences his first love, but of course, as films like this go, it will not be as simple as that.

Logan Lerman does a redux of his role as Percy Jackson, a troubled teenager. However, this time he is a normal human being, not a son of Poseidon. This guy can really turn on the angst. He reminded me of a young John Cusack of the 80s or Paul Rudd of the 90s. In fact, since Paul Rudd plays Charlie's favorite teacher, their conversations looked like Paul talking to his younger self. Being some sort of a teenage wallflower myself back in the day, I can feel his pain. This is one very sensitive actor, and I look forward to more movies of this guy.

Emma Watson, we were all excited to see graduate from her days as Hermione Granger. And she certainly does here, playing a girl who had been taken advantage of by men and boys with she had relationships in the past and even the present. You can really feel why Charlie got attracted to her free spirit, yet unable to express how he really feels for her. Emma fulfills the promise she had as an actress who grew up in front of all of us. She will be a force to reckon with in awards seasons to come.

Watching this as an adult and a parent now, I wonder how the experience will be for my kids growing up into their own teen years. Watching Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh play Charlie's parents, not knowing why their precious son behaved that way he did. It gives us pause to know our own kids more, and hope that they do not keep major life-altering secrets from us. 

More than the scenes at school, I enjoyed the scenes about their togetherness as a family. I liked the scenes where siblings took time to talk and relate to each other, knowing when one needed help. There are many tiny lessons here and there in this film which viewers can get life lessons from. I can imagine so many people identify with this movie on various levels. The glorious 1980s soundtrack really helps the audience connect. Kudos to director and author Stephen Chbosky! I will definitely seek out and read the book as well.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bwakaw


September 18, 2012



I have known about this movie when it was one of the featured films in the recent Cinemalaya Film Fest. However aside from the terrible title, the synopsis describing a film an elderly gay man with his dog was so bleak, it did not interest me at all. Maybe because it won Eddie Garcia a Best Actor award, it was given a commercial run which was good, but I still did not have a plan to watch it. Well, that is until this morning when I found out that this film will be our country's entry to the Oscars Foreign Language Film category for this year. Honestly, that was the only reason why I felt I should give it a chance after all.

Unfortunately, this film turned out to be as bleak and as dry as its synopsis suggested. It was indeed about an elderly gay man named Rene (Eddie Garcia) and his dog Bwakaw (played by an "aspin"/"askal" named Princess). The drama played for an hour and a half or maybe more, as slow, as straightforward and as predictable as that. 

There were of course some people in his neighborhood he interacted with, like his nosy next-door neighbor Nitang (Beverly Salviejo), the gays at the beauty salon (Soxie Topacio and Joey Paras), his co-workers in the Post Office (Luz Valdez and Allan Paule), the priest who was always seen fanning himself (Gardo Versoza) and the tricycle driver the old curmudgeon decided to befriend (Rez Cortez). The elegant Ms. Armida Siguion-Reyna stood out in her featured role as Alicia, the girlfriend Rene kept hanging for 15 years, only not to marry. I see the name of Bibeth Orteza in the cast list, but I honestly do not remember seeing her in the film.

OK, there were some scenes that made me laugh. There was even a scene that made me tear up. There was a scene that I felt certain was bound to happen, it did, but I wish it did not. However, the main fault of this film is that there were no big surprises at all. There were no hidden symbolism or deeper meanings. It did not challenge me think at all. I felt I have seen this same story of growing old lonely told many times before in many a made-for-TV drama show. "Bwakaw" is not really that bad, but is this it? Is this really the BEST we have to show the world this year to compete for the Oscars?

Captive


September 6, 2012



This is the very first film by Cannes-winning Filipino director Brillante Mendoza that I saw in a movie theater. At the outset, I am going to confess that I do not think I can judge this film very objectively. Watching this film with all its unsteady camera work made me very dizzy starting from the 40th minute. From that point, I could not even look directly at the screen anymore. The shaky camera was relentless, be it a frenetic battle scene or a quiet personal one. It certainly did not help that this was a 2-hour long film. My head is still reeling as I write this review, four hours after the end credits rolled! This is only the second time a movie made me feel sick, the first one being "The Blair Witch Project."

The movie was based on the 2001 Abu Sayyaf kidnapping of tourists from the Dos Palmas Resort in the province of Palawan. Two of the kidnap victims then were Martin and Gracia Burnham. Gracia survived her ordeal and wrote a book about her harrowing experiences entitled "In The Presence of My Enemies." I thought that acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert will be playing her, but it turned out that Ms. Huppert's central character of social worker Therese is fictional. Another Caucasian couple played minor characters who seemed to be based on the Burnhams.

After the abduction scenes in the beginning and four long days of sea travel, the film became what seemed to be an endless series of hiking through the jungles of Basilan, commandeering civilian places like a hospital or school, getting attacked by the Armed Forces, forcing a ceasefire by asking a victim to appeal, and moving on to the next destination, where the cycle began again. It became very repetitious. In between, there would be interludes showing facets of Moslem culture or nature metaphors featuring wild animals. I felt like I already knew this story from news reports. I was looking for a more in-depth exploratory story from the side of the Islamic captors, but I don't think I saw that here.

Since I could not look at the screen the whole time because of my dizziness and nausea, I got confused what happened to various characters due to the episodic nature of the storytelling. How did the role of rebel leader played by Raymond Bagatsing become another one played by Sid Lucero? What was the point of having Coco Martin in a cameo? His look did not really fit into the film. I felt that was a little indulgent on the part of Mendoza. 

I fully appreciate the dedicated efforts of cast and crew in filming in such obviously difficult conditions. However, the final product felt unwieldy and overstuffed. It seemed like they did not want any shot to end up on the cutting floor. The subject matter is heavy enough, the senses need not have been assaulted any much more by the excessively shaky camera and the very loud explosions! I know Mendoza was most likely going for added realism for us to immerse into the hostage experience, but I feel these vertiginous visual and sound effects should have been reigned in in kinder consideration to the comfort of the viewing audience.