Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ranking the Nominees for Oscar Best Animated Feature Film

January 29, 2013

The Oscar for Best Animated Feature was first given in the 74th Academy Awards in 2002.  The first winner was "Shrek" (Dreamworks, 2001).  There are five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year.  Of the three nominees that use Stop-Motion animation technique, two of them are in the horror genre.  I have ranked them as follows based on the initial impression I had right after watching the films.


1.  ParaNorman 9/10 (read my FULL REVIEW)

The stop-motion used in this film by Laika Entertainment is first class and finely detailed.  The story about Norman, a boy who can see and speak with spirits.  Circumstances turn this boy who was constantly bullied in school for his special gift into a hero who saves his town from destruction by a vengeful witch and her zombies.

Laika had already been nominated twice before.  "Corpse Bride" in cooperation with Tim Burton Animation in 2005, and then "Coraline" in 2009.  I believe that the top-notch animation technique used in this movie, together with its very good story and script, make "ParaNorman" worthy to be the winner this year in my book.


2.  Wreck-It Ralph 7/10 (read my FULL REVIEW)

This is very good old-fashioned animation (in 2D and 3D) by Walt Disney Animation Studios.  The story brings us into the world of arcade video games.  Wreck-It Ralph is the villain of one such game, but he is tired of being the bad guy.  We follow his adventures as he ventures out of his game and seeks the medal of honor that he seeks.

The Disney name is not a guarantee of a nomination nor a win.  This is one of very few films from Walt Disney Animation Studios per se (not in cooperation with Pixar) that had been nominated, after "Bolt" (2008) and "The Princess and the Frog" (2009).  Both did not win.  "Tangled" (2010) and "Winnie the Pooh" (2011) were not even nominated.



3.  Pirates!  Band of Misfits 7/10 (read my FULL REVIEW)

This is a more modern take on the clay-type stop motion employed in previous films by Aardman Animations like "Wallace and Gromit" and "Chicken Run." "Pirates!" brings us along on the quest of a washed-up Pirate Captain as he seeks to be the Pirate of the Year.  He encounters Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria as his misadventures find him mixed up with the scientific society in London.

"Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" won the big prize in 2005.  Can "Pirates!" repeat the feat this year?


4.  Brave 6/10 (read my FULL REVIEW)

Pixar's first "princess" movie is its entry into the Oscar race this year.  This is the story of the head-strong Princess Merida who would rather hunt with her bow and arrow than get married to her unworthy suitors.  Her imperious recklessness leads to an unfortunate fate of ursine proportions for someone very dear to her. 

Many of Pixar's previous works have won this category handily, including "Finding Nemo", "The Incredibles", "Ratatouille", "WALL-E", "Up" and "Toy Story 3".  I do not think "Brave" lived up to the standards set by those classics.


5.  Frankenweenie 5/10 (read my FULL REVIEW)

This is Tim Burton's macabre animated offering, after his live action "Dark Shadows" earlier in the year.  The animation of "Frankenweenie" is a throwback to the old-style stop animation with crude moving parts.  The story is a homage to the Frankenstein myth, as we follow the adventures of an introverted boy named Victor who uses a scientific set-up to raise his only friend, his pet dog Sparky, from the dead.  

Only one other grotesque animated work by Tim Burton had been nominated before, and that was "Corpse Bride" back in 2005.  This film "Frankenweenie" is actually receiving a lot of positive buzz to win this year, but nevertheless, it does not really appeal to me.   I am ranking this last in my opinion.




ParaNorman

January 29, 2013




I sought this film out because it was one of the nominees for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I am glad I did as this is an fun and funny family film using the stop-animation technique in a most fluid and advanced execution. My kids enjoyed it as much as I did. However, the story involves intense horror elements like witches, ghosts and zombies which may be too scary for younger kids.

The titular Norman of "ParaNorman" is a sensitive boy who has the so- called "third eye," which enables him to see and actually speak with spirits. This "gift" however makes poor Norman the target for harsh bullying in school. One day, before he died, his similarly gifted uncle, Mr. Penderghast, bequeathed to Norman the duty of placating the town ghost witch which threatens to terrorize their town of Blithe Hollow every year. When Norman fails to perform the ritual correctly, the zombies and the witch herself, wreak their havoc on the town. Can Norman and his friends reverse the curse, placate the spirits and save Blithe Hollow from a ghastly destruction?

The animation employed by Laika Productions for this film is reminiscent of their previous hit films, "Coraline" in 2009 and "Corpse Bride" in 2005. I was also reminded of another horror animated film called "Monster House." The grotesque misshapen faces and bodies of the ghosts and zombies were done very well, just the right amount of scary for their intended young audiences. The dramatic moments are written just right to discuss important issues of bullying, tolerance, and redemption, yet remain to be very entertaining for the kid and adults alike.

After viewing all the nominees for the Oscar for Best Animated Film this year, I find "ParaNorman" to be the top contender for the prize!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Frankenweenie

January 27, 2013




I am really NOT a fan of Tim Burton's dark and macabre stop-animated films. I have to admit I did not like his classics like "Corpse Bride" or "A Nightmare Before Christmas." I would not have watched "Frankenweenie" if it were not nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year.  Now that I have seen it, I'm afraid I would have to add "Frankenweenie" to that list.

"Frankenweenie" is about a boy Victor who just lost his beloved dog Sparky to a heart-breaking car accident. Inspired by his eccentric science teacher, Victor devised a machine to bring dear Sparky back to life. His friends try to copy his experiment set-up to revive other dead creatures with various disastrous effects, wreaking havoc on their town. The film is essentially a homage of sorts for the Frankenstein movies, with side tributes to other monsters seen in similar classic campy horror flicks of old.

First off, I believe this movie is not really for kids below 10 years old at all. The subject matter is way too mature, darkly intense and disturbing for their young sensibilities. The imagery of the dead coming back to life can be the subject of nightmares for many kids, especially those events that transpire in the second half of this film. 

Technically, the stop animation here is a throwback to old-style unsophisticated-looking animation, in contrast with the very polished-looking stop-animation employed in a similar kiddie horror film released also last year, "ParaNorman." And that one had the more family-friendly horror story to boot. While, "Frankenweenie" might be one of the favored to win the Oscar for Animated Feature this year, I would not give it my vote.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

January 24, 2013




I couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw the poster for "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" because it actually puts together my two favorite current movie stars, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton! I liked Gothic interpretations of fairy tales like "Snow White and the Huntsman". And I also liked the "supernaturalization" of historical figures like "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" a lot. This film seems to be a cross of those two types, and so is one film I made sure I would watch this once it opened.

Hansel and Gretel starts as we all know them from the fairy tale, children left by their parents in the woods. They were lured by a house made of candy, and was captured by the wicked witch who lived inside. We all know how the tale ends, when Hansel and Gretel push the witch into the oven. But that was just the beginning of the movie, for that was when this brother-sister team launch their career as mercenary witch hunters. When a mysterious series of missing children terrorizes a small town, its mayor hires Hansel and Gretel to look for the witches responsible and kill them.

That was one shallow story line I know, but I really enjoyed myself while watching this movie. Yes, the gore factor was really high, but everything appeared to be done with tongue strictly in cheek. The actors Renner and beautiful Arteron are unquestionable bad-ass in their leather outfits, their fighting skills and their powerful weaponry! They fit the titular roles very well. You will meet a new, more interesting "Edward" here. The CG and production design were quite good and imaginative. It was fun to spot traditional witch lore in the scenes, even as they took liberties to invent their own lore.

As I mentioned, the film does not shy from bloody violence, as the envelope is pushed to graphically show various mechanisms of death, from crushing to exploding - close-up! There was a brief scene of a nude village beauty Mina (Pihla Viitala) as she seduces Hansel. There were even unexpected modern-day swear words during the witch battles. With all of these scenes, I do not really know how it got a PG-13 rating in this country! Anyway, despite and maybe because of all these surprises, I found the whole film a lot of grown-up fun, a very entertaining one and half hours.

After the movie, I found out that the director was Tommy Wirkola, the same guy who directed the Norwegian Nazi zombies in the snow movie "Dead Snow." So that is why his strange Tarantino-esque sense of humor is all over this film. I am a fan! I will be awaiting his next project. However, for all the fun I had watching this film though, I think they should be happy with what they have now. I think a H&G sequel would already be pushing their luck.


The Impossible

January 24, 2013




"The Impossible" was a true-to-life family drama set during  the disastrous 2004 tsunami in Thailand. It was heart-pounding to see the gigantic devastating wave rise up so unexpectedly and heart-wrenching to see it completely destroy an entire unsuspecting town. The director did not spare us from the gory things that happen under the rampaging waters, where the humans (particularly, Naomi Watts) get seriously wounded with the various debris that hit them underwater.

We follow a family of five who miraculously survives the disaster. At first we only see the mom Maria (Naomi Watts), then her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland). As Maria was taken to the hospital to treat her serious leg injury and Lucas looks after her, we see that her husband Henry and two younger sons also survive with minor injuries. Following a suspenseful series of near misses in the hospital, the family, and the audience, were rewarded with a gloriously touching, inevitably tear-jerking reunion scene.

I do not really understand why Naomi Watts is getting the lions' share of the awards buzz, even getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In fact, young Tom Holland deserves it more with numerous difficult scenes he had to do when Naomi was already rendered bedridden by her severe injuries. Ewan McGregor was no slouch as well, but he had limited screen time compared to Naomi and Tom.

I thought that this film was too long, despite the fact that the tidal wave already struck within the first 10 minutes of the running time. We do not really know the central family that well. There were several scenes that seemed repetitive and just added on to prolong the basic story, or to heighten drama, like Naomi's slow-motion surfacing from the water scene. Apart from a few winning scenes, as a whole the film is, unfortunately, also water-logged.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

January 23, 2013




Even as a child I was never a fan of clay animation like Gumby and the like. I just found them not too attractive or interesting. Therefore even as I grew up to be an adult, even more recent clay motion type of animation still did not interest me. This includes all the previous productions of Aardman Animations, home of "Wallace and Grommit" and "Chicken Run." Now this year, Aardman's latest output "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" made it as a nominee for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, so I decided that this would be my initial taste of Aardman.

Truth to tell, "The Pirates!" did not really appeal to me at the start. The clay animation initially did not look too interesting and the dry British humor was not too easy to get. However, with some patience, when the story got to the part where this past-his-prime Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) was joining the "Pirate of the Year" contest, I got hooked into the groove of the funny story.  Since he could not cut it anymore as a real pirate, so, with the help of his odd but trusty crew, he had to resort to more, shall we say, "inventive" means to get the loot.   I could not say much more without spoiling the hilarious plot, but I had a great time with the rest of the movie.

I don't think this is really meant for kids at all. The humor was pretty mature and more for the kids-at-heart. I think a lot of the humorous lines may just fly over the heads of many young kids. I don't know if there had been any controversy with the unorthodox way Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) were portrayed in this film.  Their inclusion of these historical personalities added another layer of interest for me, though maybe not necessarily for non-British kids who don't know . There were also important lessons about loyalty, integrity and honor.  I personally enjoyed this film very much, and it piqued my interest to maybe check out other Aardman productions in the future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

January 22, 2013



I did not really plan to watch "Wreck It Ralph" at all because I do not really like the recent Disney output. I am unfamiliar with the characters and the title and poster did not look attractive to me. However, with consistently good word-of-mouth reviews, I felt I had to give it a shot. And yes, "Wreck It Ralph" deserves its good reputation, and I am glad I got to see it.

"Wreck It Ralph" is the brutish gorilla-of-a-man villain of a arcade video game called "Fix It Felix". After thirty years of being thrown off the side of the building, Ralph feels he wanted to be the hero for a change. So he ventures outside his game to neighboring combat game "Hero's Duty" to earn his very own medal (as he sees Felix get a medal after each game). 

When he does get his medal, Ralph accidentally triggers a virus which attacks him and brings him into the Technicolor world of the racing game "Sugar Rush". There he meets the cute little glitch Vanellope who earnestly wants to join and win a race, but is not allowed to because of her imperfections. Can Ralph help Vanellope achieve her dream, save his video arcade world from viral destruction and be a real hero?

While everything in "Wreck It Ralph" seemed new and original, I could not help but feel the spirit of "Monsters Inc." all throughout the film. It had the same basic story of a lonely but despised "bad" guy who does good and becomes a hero for a change. Even the interconnected world behind the video arcade (where all the characters had a life after the arcade closes for the night) is reminiscent of the labyrinthine world behind the closet doors in "Monsters Inc." 

Overall though, "Wreck It Ralph" remains to be fun and happy, with just the right dose of drama and action here and there to entertain viewers of all ages. The artwork of the characters and the settings is very colorful and visually arresting. This is definitely a contender for best animated feature film of the year.  Its Oscar nomination is certainly deserved.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I Rank This Year's Best Picture Nominees

January 19, 2013

Since I have already watched all nine nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture for the year 2012, I believe I can now rank them and predict which one will go home with that biggest prize.  I have ranked the nine nominees as follows ONLY based on the impression it had on me when I first watched and reviewed them.  This of course does not mean that the Academy will think the same way.

1.  LES MISERABLES 10/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

My being a theater geek catapulted this movie to Rank 1 in my list, despite the fact that this was the film I saw last.  However, this movie did everything it set out to do, which was to create a definitive film version of the musical theater version of Victor Hugo's classic novel of rebellion and redemption.  All those beloved songs were interpreted so beautifully on film.  I want this movie to win the Best Picture grand prize.  While its chances to win may be limited by the failure of Tom Hooper to get a nod for Best Director, I still trust the conservatives in the Academy will want to name this glorious musical as Best Picture.


2.  SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK 9/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

I do not really like romantic comedies as a genre.  But there was something about this one that made it click with me.  Maybe it is the great chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the troubled depressed couple.  Maybe it is the story of unlikely underdogs winning the big prize.  Whatever it is, the Academy seems to like this movie a lot too.  This is the first film since "Reds" to earn nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and all four Acting categories.  Of course, "Reds" did not win Best Picture that time, so the big prize is not at all a sure thing.


3.  LIFE OF PI 7/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

Ang Lee was able to interpret on film the deeply philosophical content of Yann Martel's best-selling novel about Pi, an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck, stranded a harrowing hundred days on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  While I felt the story-telling scenes in the beginning and end felt dry, the sequences in India and on that lifeboat out in the Pacific were bursting with color, life and inspiration.  Ang Lee had filmed the un-filmable.  





4.  ARGO 7/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

This was the first of the Best Picture nominees I watched.  It had an unbelievable plot about rescuing Americans held hostage in Iran during the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini by setting up a fake movie project where these hostages were supposedly the film crew.  Ben Affleck, not really a favorite actor of mine (even in this film), was able to pull it off and direct an exciting film out of that true story that was really stranger than fiction.  





5.  DJANGO UNCHAINED 7/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

Being a Quentin Tarantino film, it was really very different from the rest of the nominated films on this list.  It is offensively irreverent.  It is relentlessly violent.  It is so darkly funny.  This is really what fans of Tarantino want and expect from him.  He succeeds yet again by bringing the spaghetti Western genre to the deep South with bounty hunters and slaves.  I know the conservatives in the Academy will not reward a film like this the Best Picture award, for now at least. Not yet.




6.   LINCOLN 6/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

This is the type of historical movie that the Academy loves to reward with the Best Picture award, like "Gandhi," "Amadeus" or "The Last Emperor."  Which means, this would have been a shoo-in for Best Picture if this was the 1980s.  However, there had not really been a historical biography that had copped the big prize lately.  I believe the last one was "Braveheart" back in 1994.  Disappointingly, this film was not really about Lincoln the Man, as it was about how the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified.  Though very well made by director Steven Spielberg, this limited topic did not exactly make for an exciting film.


7.  AMOUR 6/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

This film about a wife made invalid by a serious stroke and her husband's devotion to her really had me getting very emotional as it went along.  However it had a climax which did not appeal to me, and turned me off to liking this film fully.  This was only the fifth film in history to have been nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film (along with "Z," "The Emigrants," "Life Is Beautiful" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").  While three of these went on to win Best Foreign Language Film (and lose Best Picture), "The Emigrants" (Sweden) did not win either nomination in 1971.  


8.  BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD 6/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

The film is a fable about an intrepid little girl named Hushpuppy, her dad and how they survive being the poorest of the poor in a Louisiana bayou.  When a terrible storm destroyed their community and her dad was stricken ill, little Hushpuppy dealt with these events with her fantasies of glaciers and aurochs.  This was too abstract for me to really like it that much. That does not mean it is a bad film though.  Remember, it has a newcomer director Behn Zeitlin who made it into the final Best Director list ousting favorites like Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck,



9.  ZERO DARK THIRTY 5/10  (Read my FULL REVIEW)

When I first watched this movie, I felt only the last thirty minutes, which contained the excellently filmed Navy Seal raid on the secret lair of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, seemed to matter.   Looking back on it, especially upon reflecting on that poignant, reflective, albeit very quiet, scene at the very end, everything in the excruciatingly slow first two hours suddenly made sense to me.  I would probably rank it higher than this now if I watch it again.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Les Misérables (2012)

January 17, 2013



The sweeping epic novel "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo was first published in 1862.  The story begins in 1815 when Jean Valjean was released from prison after a 19-year incarceration.  It then follows Valjean and the people around him until the 1832 Paris Rebellion.  In 1985, it became a musical  with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, French book by Alain Boublil and English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.  This highly-anticipated 2012  film version faithfully follows the story flow of this very successful, long-running musical. All of its many well-loved songs are all here, as envisioned for the big screen by Director Tom Hooper.  

Hooper, who just won the Oscar for Best Director (and Picture) last year for "The King's Speech," employed very striking close-up shots of most of these very dramatic, heart- rending musical performances. It is well-publicized that Hooper also required his stars to be actually singing live during the take, and this fact makes the performances all the more amazing. It was also very good that they had added certain details from the original novel  (like Fantine selling her teeth or Marius meeting his grandfather) to further enhance this latest version.

The trailer already endeared us to the haunting rendition of Anne Hathaway of Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream." But what we see in the actual film, is Anne, emaciated with roughly-cut hair, singing that song in stark close-up, in one long single take, with deep stark emotion, while tears were flowing down her cheeks. This was perfection! Her Golden Globe win, Oscar nomination and likely Oscar win is absolutely deserved.

Hugh Jackman had a larger than life screen presence as Jean Valjean. I cannot imagine any other Hollywood star who has the physical and vocal attributes appropriate for the demanding role of Valjean, an ex-convict who spends his lifetime trying to make up for the sins of his past. Hugh is already an Tony-award winning musical theater star so his singing credentials cannot be questioned.  We definitely could hear this voice his strong yet emotional renditions of "Soliloquy" and "Bring Me Home" in this film.  There may be vocal imperfections which may be due to voice fatigue due to the repeated takes of singing of these demanding songs live. However these "rough spots" nevertheless added to the drama of the songs.  He went all out to look scraggly, gaunt and old as his role required.  His Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for this film is also very well-deserved. I would even go out on a limb and say that Hugh's performance as Valjean is more emotionally-stirring than Daniel Day-Lewis' was in "Lincoln."  I want him to win that Oscar.

The third member of the cast that I was most impressed with was Eddie Redmayne who played Marius. After watching and hearing him perform the shows most romantic and stirring songs like "A Heart Full of Love", "A Little Fall of Rain" and most especially, "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables," I was really surprised that he did not receive any awards consideration at all. He was really very good as the young romantic lead. He had good chemistry with both the fair Cossette (Amanda Siefried) and the tragic Eponine (Samantha Barks).

Many critics have been hard on Russell Crowe and his singing. It was not really that bad though, though his versions of "Stars" and "Suicide" were not exactly what we expect from stage performances. It is of course not fair to judge it this way since performance styles would be different in stage and screen. I would say that Crowe's version of these songs are introspective, as opposed to the bombastic version of stage Javerts.  Similarly, Samantha Banks would have portrayed Eponine differently when she was on the Broadway stage as she did in the film, where she had to sing both "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain" drenched with actual rain, with a camera so close-up to capture every emotion on her face.

The vibrant cinematography, the production design, the accurate costumes all effectively capture the squalor and turmoil of Paris during that bleak period in French history.  These technical aspects of the film are all fully deserving of awards as well. OK, being a theater geek, and I may be biased. But now that I have seen ALL nine nominees, in all fairness I can declare that "Les Miserables" is the most deserving movie for that Oscar Best Picture grand prize!


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Django Unchained

January 16, 2013



I have learned to take Quentin Tarantino films with a sense of fun. They may have so many offensive things about them, especially the gratuitous bloody violence and the excessively foul language. But they, this is what people want out of a Quentin Tarantino film! It would not be a Quentin Tarantino film without these mercenary things! And indeed, "Django Unchained" is a trove of them, 2 hours and 45 minutes of it!

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave sometime before the Civil War broke out. He was rescued from his new owners by dentist/bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). As Schultz gives Django his freedom and makes him his partner, Django expressed his desire to find, rescue and reunite with his beautiful, German-speaking wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was now owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). All hell breaks loose in Candieland when Django unleashes all his suppressed anger to get his wife back!

People who are not used to Quentin Tarantino style (or maybe even those who are) would shirk their eyes away from the screen many times for every cracking whiplash across a slave's back, every explosive shotgun shot going through a body and every bloody punch in that graphic Mandingo fight. Eventually, in the final Grand Guignol scenes, maybe everyone in the audience will already be desensitized despite the interminable fountains of blood that will shoot out of countless bodies in what seemed to be thirty minutes of continuous gunfire. That is classic Tarantino for you!

The actors all attack their roles with outrageous glee. Well all, except probably the lead star Jamie Foxx, who plays it "cool" in stark contrast with the rest of the hyper cast. Christoph Waltz already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his role of Schultz, but honestly for me, this is practically the same type of acting I saw from him in both "Inglorious Basterds" and "Water for Elephants." Now, Leonardo DiCaprio, I think he was robbed of a nomination here. He was evil incarnate here, such a different Leo from what we are used to seeing him in. Special mention would have to go to Samuel L. Jackson, whom I did not immediately recognize as the conniving Stephen, the sinister head manservant of Candieland. Those piercing eyes of his baleful glare were something else!

It was a great idea to bring the spaghetti Western genre to the deep South. The music was so 70s with those jangly guitars, except for the occasional anachronistic incursion of rap music. The sense of dark humor was all over it, under all that bloodshed and gore. There was a scene with cameos of Jonah Hill, Don Johnson and their KKK masks which was outright hilarious. Funny but I realized that THIS is how Tarantino would tell a love story!

But if you ask me if this will win the Oscar for Best Picture, my answer would probably be NO. I do not see this type of film appeal to generally conservative Academy voters. But the fact that it even made it to the final 9 Best Picture nominees is already recognition enough for QT.



Monday, January 14, 2013

Lincoln

January 14. 2013



Ever since I saw the first poster of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln", with the intense Daniel Day-Lewis in excellent Lincoln make-up, I immediately knew this would already be seriously in the running during the Oscar Awards. And this was confirmed recently when this film garnered Oscar nominations in 12 categories. This is really a must-see film.

This film was only about the political (and some personal) travails Lincoln experienced as he was trying to pass the 13th Amendment or the Emancipation Proclamation through Congress. This is not a biographical film at all as I was expecting. There were no scenes of his birth, childhood, education, rise in politics, etc. I felt this movie was deceptively titled. 

The technical aspects of this film were excellent as the cinematography, production design, costumes and make-up (not nominated!) were flawless. The color palette was muted to give it an authentic historical feel. Spielberg's obsessive attention to details and sentimentality, known from all his former films, was in full display here.

The acting was so perfectly attuned to the time period the actors were set in. Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln! He was amazingly real, I did not see him as acting as much as he was being Lincoln. I initially felt Sally Field was miscast, but she eventually redeemed herself in her effective portrayal of troubled Mary Todd Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens had his big moment when he delivered a fiery speech against those opposing the amendment.

I think the main problem with this film was that it dealt with events which entailed showing people merely involved in a lot of long-winded conversations. The whole film was about 2 and a half hours long, and more than half of that time was just showing unknown politicians talking about their pro or con views about the proposed Amendment. Admittedly for non- Americans (and maybe some Americans too as I can read on some reviews here), these scenes will seem very dry, tedious and meaningless. 

I was disappointed that this was not exactly the biography of Abraham Lincoln that I thought it would be. So gone was the opportunity of comparing the real way Lincoln grew up from the version I learned from another Lincoln film released in 2012 where the good President was a Vampire Hunter. Ironic too that we also did not also see the assassination we all knew would happen. Spielberg decided to present that event in another way, which I'm sure disappointed many people, including me.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: Book vs. Film

January 13, 2013

The Book by MATTHEW QUICK:


I got interested to watch "The Silver Linings Playbook" only because of the upcoming film of the same title which was receiving a lot of awards buzz.  I thought it would be a good idea to read the book first before the film, starring the unlikely pair of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who were both nominated for Golden Globes acting awards for their work.

"The Silver Linings Playbook" was about a mentally-disturbed man named Pat Peoples.  He had just been brought home from the mental institution by his loving mom.  He spends his days exercising at home, running, and visiting his unorthodox therapist, Dr. Cliff Patel.  All of this he is doing in order to get ready to reunite with his wife Nikki, the silver lining he was yearning for. However, with time he realizes that what he knew was only part of a huge secret iceberg that his loved ones were staunchly keeping from him.  His odd friendship with Tiffany, a similarly mentally-disturbed lady in their neighborhood, leads Pat into a rude awakening about what really happened to him before being sent to the institution.  

The book was surprisingly easy to read.  The language was simple and straightforward.  For something that dealt with very serious topic of mental instability and divorce, the text had a very child-like perspective and narration.  I enjoyed reading the parts where Pat was analyzing classic novels like "The Great Gatsby," "The Bell Jar" or "Catcher in the Rye".  People who have not read these books need to be warned that there are spoilers though as to how these novels end.  There is also a recurring mention of Kenny G. which was particularly funny the way it was written.

The credits reveal that this was author Matthew Quick's first novel.  He thus set it in his hometown of Philadelphia and devoted a lot of pages about the fan rituals of the football team, the Eagles, Quick's favorite and well as the favorite of Pat's family and friends.  The overall result is a funny bittersweet drama that was frank as much as it was charming and quirky.  I can fully imagine Bradley Cooper as Pat, although in the book Pat describes himself as unattractive.  But Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, now that I have to see.




The Movie by DAVID O. RUSSELL:

I am not really one who likes to watch romantic comedies, but as this one had Oscar buzz, and as of now multiple Oscar nominations,so  I wanted to see what this was about.  I have recently read the book by Matthew Quick, admittedly in preparation for watching this movie. While the book had a decidedly child-like tone being told in Pat's mentally-disturbed point of view, this movie is a lot more dramatic and serious in tone. The romantic comedy is still in there, but this film is more mature than the book. 

From the onset, you already knew that this was not going to be an exact depiction of the book. A lot of changes were noted in the transition from book to film. For some reason, the surname of Pat's family was changed from Peoples to Solitano for some reason. Instead of "Songbird" by Kenny G, Pat hates "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder. All the football stories in the book were summarized into one tailgate party scene in the parking lot of the Philadelphia Eagles' stadium.

The story progression, plot development and even the climax were totally different from the book but decidedly more effective cinematically. These changes made were in no way insulting or disappointing to the fans of the book. It did lead to an ending we have seen so many times before in several a romantic comedy in a sequence of scenes which were also not even in the book. But for the sake of the immense  goodwill built up by the very effective chemistry of the two charismatic lead stars, audiences will love this new version of the ending and cheer.

It is truly remarkable that a romantic comedy could garner nominations in the top 5 Oscar categories and then some. Aside from Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (adapted), this film had the rare distinction of having a nominee in ALL 4 ACTING categories! The last time this nomination phenomenon occurred was way back 1981 with the film "Reds," where Wareen Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton all got nods.

While I read the book, I already knew who the lead stars were, so I had Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in my mind in their respective roles as Pat and Tiffany. While I can fully imagine Cooper as Pat, I simply cannot imagine Jennifer as Tiffany. However, while watching the film, Jennifer could not have been a more apt choice. She pulls off this very mature role convincingly with a ferocity and sexiness heretofore only hinted at in "X-Men First Class."  Jennifer embodies her Tiffany with a special charm which was not readily felt in the book description of this disturbed lady.

Bradley Cooper so far we remember only for his stupid "Hangover" movies. He gave us a glimpse of his acting versatility in "Limitless" in 2011. But this role as Pat seemed to have been written with him in mind. He had embodied this role of the troubled bipolar guy to a perfect T. He remains likable despite his unstable mental condition, as Pat was in the book. As portrayed by Cooper, audiences will root for this guy.  He was able to subdue his usual alpha male persona with a sensitive underdog performance.  

While the book had a more dominant role of Pat's Mom, actress Jacki Weaver had to take a backseat to Robert de Niro in the meatier role of Pat's Dad. Ms. Weaver can count herself lucky to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as her role had been considerably edited in the final screen version. Glad to see De Niro back in good comic form as Pat's supportive Dad. As originally written in the book, Pat's Dad hardly had any dialog nor much to do or even supportive of Pat at all. I guess this role was rewritten to deserve the talent of the actor they signed up for it. 

As for its quest to be the first contemporary romantic comedy since "Annie Hall" (1977) to win the Oscar best picture, I do not think that is completely impossible. However, win or no, this movie will be a favorite of many audiences, even for guys only forced by their significant others to watch with them. It will make you feel good and smile when you leave the theater, and that is what most of us all like in our movies.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

January 12, 2013





I expected a lot from "Zero Dark Thirty" because of all the awards buzz it is receiving lately, the latest being nominated for Oscar Best Picture. It was the next project of Kathryn Bigelow who impressed me with her direction of "The Hurt Locker." It was supposed to show us what really happened behind what it calls the "greatest manhunt in history"-- that of the mastermind terrorist, Osama Bin Laden (whom the movie called UBL).

We follow a character named Maya (Jessica Chastain) whom we know or learn nothing about, except that her whole career after college was devoted to the search for UBL. Too bad we never really knew anything more about her background for us to root for her obsession. She was not really the "cool" person we expect these CIA operatives to be. There were several scenes where Maya seemed very unprofessional in her behavior. Maya discussed confidential matters publicly in a restaurant. She screamed and threatened her superior in a corridor. She writes numbers on the glass pane of her boss' office to countdown the days of inaction. They may be good for cinematic drama, but these were very unrealistic for a film that was supposedly factual. 

Watching this film could be an ordeal as the story was told in a VERY slow burn. This is a 2 and a half hour film, mind you, for a story with an ending we already know. The first hour we see how CIA torture suspects from 911, and witness various suicide bombings. The second hour we see Maya act on a random tip about a courier who could be working for UBL. We then wait 130 days with her for the higher-ups to approve a raid on a compound in Pakistan where she was 100% sure UBL was located based on circumstantial evidence, with no direct visualization. 

It was only in the last 30 minutes that we finally see the raid on the UBL compound we had been waiting for. This was a riveting sequence of masterful film editing and night vision cinematography.  The very final scene was a very quiet reflective scene that somehow made the whole movie make so much sense. That scene was poignant beyond words. It was only these last 30 minutes that really mattered to me, and maybe also to you.

Friday, January 11, 2013

LIFE OF PI: The Book vs.The Movie

January 10, 2013

THE BOOK by Yann Martel


I always thought that "Life of Pi" was an inspirational book.  For that reason, I did not really intend to read it. This is the guy who took months to read "The Alchemist" and did NOT like it!  However, with the news of the new Ang Lee film which had been touted to be "The New Avatar," I wanted to read it before the movie came out.  They had called the book "unfilmable" and I wanted to see why so.  I read "Life of Pi" without really knowing what is was about.   

The first part of the book was about a young boy from Pondicherry in India, with an unwieldy name of Piscine Molitor Patel.  After being continually teased about it, he discovered later that it was way cooler to call himself "Pi."  His dad ran the local zoo. Chapters were spent describing the zoo, its animals and why zoos are good for animals.  

The narrative then turned to religions.  Chapters were spent to describe three major religions in India - Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  There was one spectacular chapter where the Patels meet a HIndu brahmin, a Christian priest and a Moslem imam, and the debates that ensued were fascinating to read..

Then there was a sudden turn in the story when the Patel patriarch decide to migrate his family to far-off Canada.  They closed the zoo, brought with them some of their animals on a Japanese cargo ship and set sail.  Upon leaving the port of Manila though, then the real story begins as their ship sinks and Pi was set adrift on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and an adult Bengal tiger (whom they have named Richard Parker).

From that point up to practically the end of the book, Martel describes how Pi was able to survive several months in the open sea, under the constant threat of the elements, of hunger and thirst, of sharks, and of a tiger on the boat with him waiting to eat him alive.  The battles Pi waged with nature were very graphically described.  There was a long chapter devoted to a strange island of algae and meerkats where the water turns  acidic at night.  For me, that part about the island was the most unusual of the book, it was almost too fantastic.

Pi finally reached dry land in Mexico.  Two Japanese investigators interview him about his ordeal.  At this point of the book, we get an idea of what really happened all those months at sea, or do we?

Mr. Martel is very good in the art of verbal description.  There were several chapters where you felt he was just padding the novel to make it longer.  Do we really need to know so much about the sloth for instance?  I must say that the zoo part was long, but we get to learn a lot about how to run it.  The part about the lifeboat survival, but we learn so much about sea survival technology or animal psychiatry.  The main story is the shipwreck and Pi's survival, and Martel was able to stretch this to 100 chapters.

So, this is not really an inspirational book, is it?   I believe this book is unfilmable the way it was written by Martel.  There have been films about shipwrecks and survivors before, but not described like this.  Now we get word that Ang Lee was actually able to create a film that was better than the book.  The film was described to be like "The Little Prince."  I thought this book was nothing like "The Little Prince" at all now. How Ang Lee did it, now THAT remains to be seen.



THE MOVIE by Ang Lee


I have just finished reading the book the other day, and today I got to watch the film version. With the book still so fresh in my head, I went into the cinema with very high expectations. This is specially so after reading and hearing reviews which call Ang Lee's cinematic masterpiece visually comparable to "Avatar" or philosophically comparable to "The Little Prince," as well as all of the awards buzz.

The book for me was a pleasant though slow read because of the lengthy wordy, even flowery, descriptions Yann Martel uses for his languid reflection on zoo life, his comparative study of Hindu, Christian and Moslem philosophy, and of course, his survival tale at sea by a teenager and a Bengal tiger sharing one lifeboat. It waxes philosophical in the beginning, then waxes fantastical in the middle, before settling for dry reality at the end. While a movie could probably improve on the imagery for each scene, there are several key parts of the novel that would entail a lot of narration. On the big screen, too much narration cannot be too good.

My first assumption turned out to be true. The cinematography and visual effects were expectedly first rate and excellent. Those camera angles were breathtaking. The colors were very vibrant. The special effects regarding animals were realistic for the most part, especially the land mammals, particularly Richard Parker. Though I have to say that the water creatures were too obviously computer-generated, not too good. A most triumphant sequence in the film for me were the scenes on the floating green island of algae and meerkats. I thought that was ideally visualized and executed, so much better than that chapter of the book.

My second assumptions also turned out true. A lot of the story needed to be narrated by an adult Pi Patel as he was being interviewed by a novelist researching for his next book. These bookending present day scenes were pretty dry for me. The whole last chapter of the book when Pi was interviewed by the Japanese shipping officials was all one long narration only without supporting imagery. All of this talky narration may be boring for some people. 

In order to make the film appeal to more people, Ang Lee spares us from gory details which the book was not averse to describing in graphic detail. In the film, the screen time of the zebra, orangutan and hyena was very short. For all the brutality that was supposed to have happened on board, Ang's lifeboat remains almost pristine white. I thought that was quite merciful of Ang. I wish I could also say the same for some sappy melodramatic scenes, like Richard Parker laying his head on Pi's lap, which were not in the book.

Overall, this film version of "Life of Pi" is very good, but it can be disappointing for people who have read the book. It was a loyal albeit sanitized version of the book, which is not really a bad thing. The book was not exactly inspirational to me, more educational actually. For this film, Ang Lee seemingly aspired to make this movie inspirational, and these obvious efforts may prove to backfire for some audiences.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hitchcock

January 10, 2013



I like a lot of Alfred Hitchcock movies like "Rebecca," "North by Northwest," "Vertigo" and of course, "Psycho.' That is why when I saw that a movie about this great director was coming out starring Anthony Hopkins, I was excited to see it. I wanted to know more about the man behind the famous silhouette.

"Hitchcock," this movie directed by Sacha Gervasi, was a two-fold story. As Hitchcock the professional, it was about the filming of "Psycho," how he fought for the making of a film Hollywood deemed as impossible. As Hitchcock the person, it recounted an episode of marital tension between Hitch and his wife of 30 years, film editor Alma Reville. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren do very well of course as Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock, as would be expected from them. But I do not Feel they completely disappeared into their roles, especially Ms. Mirren. I do like the biting British humor in many scenes though.

I personally liked the "Psycho" shooting scenes more than the household drama part. Seeing Scarlet Johannsen, Jessica Biel and James D'Arcy play the "Psycho" stars Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins respectively was delightful as the current stars try to emulate the mannerisms of the original stars. That scene in the movie theater where "Psycho" premiered was also classic, as Hitchcock eagerly awaited the audience reaction to his shocking shower scene, as only a master orchestra conductor can.

Overall, I found this film light and entertaining. It is not the serious comprehensive biography that I was expecting. Perhaps there are really a lot of facets in Hitchcock's life that deserve several films to tell.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

El Presidente

January 6, 2012



Being a history buff, I really made time to watch "El Presidente," an entry in the 2012 Metro Manila Film Fest about the President of the First Philippine Republic, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo. It is about time that that era in Philippine History was given a definitive movie rendition. I had high hopes about this film, since producer Laguna Gov. Jeorge "E.R." Ejercito (as Jeorge ER Estregan) gave us a very well-made biopic of gangster Asiong Salonga in last year's MMFF. It had not been easy to find time to watch since this epic film had a formidable running time of two hours and thirty minutes.

Because of a very slow line at the ticket counter, it was so annoying that I got a seat already 10 or so minutes into film. Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo (Estregan) and his generals were about to launch an attack to take over the town of Cavite Viejo. From there, it follows the life of Aguinaldo, from the events leading up to the declaration of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898, to his capture in Palanan by the Americans, up to his death at the age of 94 in the year 1964. The battle scenes were very well shot with a huge cast of real extras playing the soldiers of all nationalities. There were some impressive close-up stop-motion special effects during the fight scenes, as we saw in films like "300" or "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter".

The film did not shirk to tackle very controversial historical issues about Aguinaldo's role in the deaths of Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna. They did not hide the fact that all this was based on the memoirs of El Presidente himself, hence the probable bias in point of view. Now, what truly happened is still the bone of historical contentions. Bonifacio in particular was presented in a very negative light here. Montano's acting highlight as Bonifacio for me was his pained reaction to losing the vote for president at the Tejeros Assemby to his breakdown when someone protested his win as Secretary of the Interior. This scene alone was worth his Best Supporting Actor award. Too bad I did not get to watch the recent film biography of Andres Bonifacio entitled "Supremo" to see and compare its version of these same events. Antonio Luna was played by Christopher de Leon in his typical acting style. The script basically concentrated on his nasty temperament, not on his military prowess. But then again this was not a film about Gen. Luna anyway.

So, how was Estregan as Aguinaldo? Unfortunately, as with the problem of Estregan as Asiong Salonga the year before, he tends to be very melodramatic in his acting style. He indicates almost everything he says with some awkward gestures. There was a scene when Aguinaldo was exiled where Estregan silently pours out his emotions in unrealistically exaggerated bawling, accompanied by swelling dramatic music. If this was his attempt to add points to his quest to be best actor, someone should advise him that less is more when it comes to acting nowadays. It is also remarkable that every time the camera focuses on his face, he has skin so flawless that it radiates like a halo. That was some impressive special effect right there.

The huge name supporting cast was a veritable who's who of Filipino character actors. It was actually fun to try and identify all of them when they appear on screen playing all the revolutionary heroes we can think of and more. It can be amusing to see them in very fake- looking stiff hair and make-up though. There was everyone from the expected likes of Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero, Allan Paule, John Regala, Joko Diaz, John Arcilla and Yul Servo, to the unexpected likes of Epi Quizon, Ian de Leon, Dennis Padilla, Will Devaughn and Bayani Agbayani. Baron Geisler is really quite stereotyped as an antagonist, and he really delivers the goods as a smirking Spanish officer, despite the puny mustache they made him wear. He was quite good in sword fights too. The only realistic Spaniard in my opinion was Ian Veneracion who did not need to don fake facial hair. Emilio Garcia, Gary Estrada and Wendell Ramos could have been realistic Spaniards but instead they play Filipinos.

There were only two female supporting roles. The first wife Hilaria, played by Cristine Reyes, was practically a silent role where all she had to do was look pretty, and die later without aging despite after having four kids. Much ado had been made about Ms. Nora Aunor playing Maria, his second wife. Unfortunately, this was such a bad case of miscasting. She looked ill at ease from her first scene as a shy young (?!) lady to her last scene as she lay in bed with Estregan as senior citizens. This last scene was woefully shot in such an ugly angle for Aunor that she looked unrecognizably bad. Too bad as that was an important scene about Aguinaldo's joy upon Macapagal's transfer of Independence Day celebrations from July 4 back to June 12. Oh yes, Sunshine Cruz also had a cameo as Gregoria de Jesus, and you can imagine that it was unrealistic.

Overall though, despite all the imperfections, I still think this was a very earnest film made with the very best of intentions, and obviously produced with generosity of budget. I commend Gov. E.R. Ejercito for taking on this huge project, as this is a story that needed to be told. Students nowadays can use this film to gain interest with the history of the Philippine Revolution as this movie brings all those historical characters to life, from Apolinario Mabini to Gregorio del Pilar. It is up to their teachers to guide them in those contentious issues, especially the events involving the iconic revered hero, Andres Bonifacio. This is a movie that will serve its purpose when it is watched critically and discussed afterwards.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

January 5, 2013




This film is a critics favorite, making it into many yearend top 10 lists.  Of course, the positive reviews made me want to watch it.  However, from the first scene, you will already realize that this is not going to be an easy movie to watch. It is a story of a father and his precocious daughter caught in a tough life in Louisiana's poverty-stricken bayou area called "The Bathtub." When a big storm (Hurricane Katrina?) devastates their community, their already upside-down life goes into a further tumble.

The lead actors here are not really professional actors. The father Wink is Dwight Henry, a baker by trade. The daughter Hushpuppy is 5- year old Quvenzhane Wallis. There really seemed to be no acting in this film. Everything had gripping reality, as if they were actual proud residents of that miserable community. Ms. Wallis, now 8 years old, is high on the list of being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and I would not be surprised if she will be.

I cannot say I liked this film. I do not exactly find it uplifting or inspiring. It is just a reality check for everyone who forgets that people actually live in such abject conditions in America. This is the unknown America devoid of high-tech conveniences of life, and we see it here in the eyes of an impressionable, yet strangely jaded child. Hushpuppy's vivid visions of collapsing icecaps and rampaging aurochs, as how she visualizes the fury of the storm, may not exactly make viewing this film any easier, but her raw emotion is all out there for us to feel.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Strangers

January 4, 2012



As my usual custom, I was able to catch the "other" horror" movie offering in the 2012 Metro Manila Film Fest. The "other" meaning the one that is not "Shake Rattle and Roll," a single edition of which I honestly have not seen in its 15 incarnations over the years. This year this movie was entitled "The Strangers." It was one of the films that did not get any awards during the ceremony, but of course, it did not stop me since these are the same awards which snubbed the excellent "Thy Womb" from any of the Best Picture slots.

I only had a vague idea of what the movie was about. This apparently had something to do with the local mythological creature called the "aswang," which had just been tackled in another critical favorite recently released called "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles," which I had unfortunately missed. Too bad, it would have been interesting to compare how similarly or differently these two films reinterpret this character, which had been a staple of local horror films since back in the day.

"The Strangers" did not take time to reveal the enemy. The sequence before the opening credits already showed an aswang attack on a young barrio couple. By a voice-over narration, the husband (Enchong Dee) supposedly survived the attack and is now an aswang himself. Scene shifts to a road trip by a typical family going to a remote town called Murcia. The couple (played by Cherrie Pie Picache and Johnny Revilla) had two kids Max (Enrique Gil) and Pat (Julia Montes) who are celebrating their 18th birthday on this trip. They were traveling with their grandfather (Jaime Fabregas) and his caregiver (Janice de Belen).

Being a horror film, their trip takes a turn to the worse. First, their van hits a woman on the bridge, then later the engine breaks down in the middle of the jungle. Of course, you know what goes on from there when night eventually falls. Members of their party goes missing one by one, getting killed by booby traps set all over the jungle. A family who lived in that area (Art Acuna, Tanya Gomez and JM de Guzman) gives the strangers shelter for the night. Will these people ever see the light of the next day as the aswangs all go on a wild rampage that night?

This is not exactly an acting piece as everyone just goes for the usual screaming and shouting route of horror film victims. Only Janice de Belen really stands out as the delightful comic relief. Johnny Revilla is remarkably constipated as the harassed dad. The script does not really tell us the reason or the background of what we see transpire during the film. I do not mean that it should spoon-feed us all the details, but I think there should be significance in the events that occur in the set-up that can help us accept and appreciate the climax. I think it is not fair to make the audience jump to a totally out-of-the-blue climax where no clues, no matter how subtle, had been laid out previously.

Overall though, it was okay, quite entertaining. It had all the requisites:  the dark jungle setting, the violent aswangs on the attack, the gruesome booby traps, the gory corpses, the sudden jump music effects. You will feel the eerie atmosphere and get creeped out, well most of the time. Just do not get bothered too much with the gamut of continuity issues throughout the film (like, how did Enrique Gil join Art Acuna's posse, when he was supposed to be back at the house with his mother?). And try not to be amused by some make-up issues like Enchong Dee's beard or those incompletely-transformed aswangs. OK, their aswang make-up is not exactly realistic but they do try hard. It had the feeling that they were trying to recreate Rick Baker's work in "American Werewolf in London", but of course that film's Oscar -winning make-up was done way back 1981!