Sunday, March 31, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

March 31, 2013

Honestly I do not remember at all if I had seen the first G.I. Joe film (Rise of the Cobra) at all back in 2009. I think I did but I was not sure, even as I lined up on opening day in theaters with my family today. Even my kids don't recall anything about the first film if we did watch it at all.

In this film, the story was exciting at the onset as the US President (Jonathan Pryce) was replaced by a lookalike who was technically-transformed Cobra operative Zartan (also Pryce, over Arnold Vosloo). This fake President wastes no time to come up with a trumped-up charge and to launch an air attack to decimate the entire GI Joe camp, surprisingly also killing a major Joe from the first movie, all that in the first 10 minutes!

Of course, three Joes, namely Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki) and Flint (DJ Cotrona), survive the sneak attack to save the day for the good guys. On the other side of the world in Tokyo, two more Joes (Snake Eyes and Jinx) join forces, bringing with them a "reformed" (?) Cobra seeking to avenge the death of his master. Together with the original GI Joe, General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), they fight against the Cobra Commander who seeks world domination (what else?)

As expected the action sequences were very well-executed. The most breathtaking would be a flying and swinging fight among ninjas on snowy rocky cliff sides. All the sword, gun and fist fights were all so well choreographed and shot. A remarkable Cobra minion is Firefly (Ray Stevenson) with this little mechanical flying bugs, which turn out to be highly explosive bombs. Getting the world leaders of countries with nuclear capability together to blackmail them into doing Cobra's will was a cool idea. However, even when London was seen to be totally destroyed, the reaction to that tragedy seemed to be so inexplicably understated. 

Overall it was a good fun way to spend two hours of a lazy Saturday afternoon with the family. However, by the time the next sequel comes along, I don't think I will remember much about this sequel at all, but that remains to be seen.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two Holy Week Classics Reviewed

March 30, 2013

The Ten Commandments

I think I have not seen this film since "The Ten Commandments" was the only movie being shown in theaters during Holy Week.  Despite the length of four hours, the only thing I really remember about it was the Red Sea scene, and maybe that is more because of the poster than the film.  This Maundy Thursday, I decided to revisit this grand classic film, the last film of renowned director Cecil B DeMille.

While I was watching, I recognized several scenes by bits and pieces only, especially in the first half before the intermission.  The scenes in the second half were more memorable.  This whole matter about the Egyptian princess Nefretiri (whom I am not really clear what the nature of her close relationship is to the Pharaoh Sethi was) played by a very campy Anne Baxter, I do not remember AT ALL.  Maybe I was still too young back then to understand the flowery-worded melodrama involving her double-dealing character, and how she affected the relationship of Moses (an outstanding Charlton Heston) and Rameses (a believable Yul Brynner).  I was touched by the sympathetic treatment the production had for Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his sister Bithiah (Nina Foch).  The scene of Moses meeting his mother Yochabel (Martha Scott) was very moving.  The overseers Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) and Baka (Vincent Price), were contemptible with their hammy villainy.

But you can really see why this biblical epic was an instant classic back then, and up to now.  The "cast of thousands" it boasts of in the poster is literally true (no computer-generated crowds back then.  The sets and costumes were incredibly grand and colorful.  The Oscar Award-winning visual effects (parting of the Red Sea, turning water into blood, etc...) were impressive considering that this was made back in 1956!  While I am sure these effects would have been done differently with the advanced technology now, the last plague which simply depicted the Angel of Death like a green mist creeping on the floor can still elicit fear in the audience.  OK, the burning bush scene could be done much better now, but the memory of seeing Moses' physical transformation when he came down from Mt. Sinai with that incredible brush-up hairstyle change could not be replicated.

Jesus Christ Superstar

I held off watching Jesus Christ Superstar for the longest time.  I could not understand how Jesus and the apostles could be portrayed as hippies, which I thought was disrespectful and irreverent.  I tried many times to start watching the film but found it difficult to get through those radical opening sequences featuring Judas.  However, when I finally did get through that first song number, I found myself quite engrossed in the way the story of Christ's Passion was told and enacted in rock songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  Yes, the sets and props were strangely anachronistic (like t-shirts, postcard racks and machine guns), but I guess those things symbolize the timelessness of the story's message.  Watched this again yesterday Good Friday, with my 13-year old daughter, who seemed to have appreciated the film and its music as well.

The song "Gethsemane" was so vital, it is just breathtaking to hear.  The lyrics got the conflict within Jesus at that contemplative moment in the Garden.  This song is Ted Neeley's high point in the whole film as Jesus Christ.  Another song that moves me is the LSS-inducing  "Could We Start Again Please?"  With a melody so simple and lyrics so bare, the emotional punch of this song is astounding.  It moved me to tears, honestly, when I hear Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) and Philip Toubus (Simon Peter) sing those earnest words which echo our own sentiments with our own faults:

"I've been living to see you
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this
This was unexpected, what do I do now?
Could we start again please?

I think you've made your point now
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home
Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt
So could we start again please?"

The Judas character plays a co-equal role in this interpretation and Carl Anderson so passionately portrays him.  We see and hear a lot from him that was why this play was controversial back in the day.  The words he sings vivify the conflicts within this disturbed man.  Magdalene's love song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" takes on a different meaning when Judas sang it before his climactic suicide song.  Talking about hanging, that scene was so chillingly and realistically shot.

Special mentions would be the odd but welcome comedy respite provided by Josh Mostel as King Herod, and the unusual contrast of the deep voice of Bob Bingham vis a vis the falsetto voice of Kurt Yagjihan, as the high priests Caiaphas and Annas.  The 39 Lashes scene with Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate was also very painfully memorable.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dead Man Down

March 15, 2013

I did not know what to expect when I went in to see this film. With the title, I initially thought it would just be some sort of generic action movie. However, far from that, "Dead Man Down" turned out to be a very good character drama. In fact, the dramatic scenes were better than the action scenes.  I should have expected this focus on character development especially with a European director making his Hollywood debut, Niels Arden Oplev, who megged the original Swedish "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

The story is about Victor (Colin Farrell), a member of a crime syndicate led by the dapper Alphonse (Terrence Howard).  The members of this gang are being killed one by one by an unknown rival. Meanwhile, Victor meets and hooks up with Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious French woman with a scarred face who lives in the apartment across his own. As the movie progresses, we will witness the unfolding of an intricate plot of ulterior motives, blackmail and secret plans of revenge that tie the characters together, drawing them to a violent climax.

The relationship between Victor and Beatrice is what gives this movie that unique edge over the usual crime drama. Colin Farrell really gave an intense portrayal of a basically good man forced into a life of crime, haunted by a violent recent past event that destroyed his life. He was very good, never seen him tackle a role so passionately as this in his recent films. Noomi Rapace has that distinctive face that immediately suggests a wounded psyche. As she did in her breakout role as Lisbeth Salander in Oplev's "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo," she was able to project the torments suffered by a fragile victim of a disfiguring incident. Together, the two of them were able to let the chemistry build between them so gradually and believably, making us want to root them on.

The supporting characters were also very good. Dominic Cooper plays Darcy, Victor's friend in the gang, who was hot on moving up the crime organization. F. Murray Abraham, wow! I have not seen him for such a long time, maybe since his Best Actor Oscar-winning portrayal in "Amadeus". He was notable as Gregor, Victor's adviser in his plans. And French actress Isabelle Huppert, perhaps too young to realistically play Noomi Rapace's mother Valentine, yet she was very touching in her portrayal of this gentle character.

The action sequences were not that bad, mind you, but there was nothing really that original or memorable, except maybe one that involved a hanging, and another that involved rats. The climactic final action sequence, for example, seemed to be coming straight out of "The Expendables" with its over-the-top fiery explosions and gunfire. However, I enjoyed this more as the dramatic film than as the action film. It is just too bad performances in action movies do not really get noticed, but the acting of the lead cast here was more than up a notch from most other action-oriented movies.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Film About Piaf vs. A Play About Piaf

March 14, 2013

Edith Piaf is an iconic chanteuse in France.  I have to confess that I do not know anything about her except for her similarly iconic song, "La Vie en Rose."  Last week I was fortunate to have been given the chance to witness an amazingly gritty stage play entitled "Piaf" by Atlantis Productions, which introduced me to the tormented musical genius behind the iconic persona and song.  You can read my full review of this must-see piece of serious theater HERE.  This 1978 play written by Pam Gems revealed a most dramatic and tragic character in Ms. Piaf.

Of course there is this 2007 biographical film about Ms. Piaf, entitled "La Mome".  This was later called "La Vie en Rose", perhaps to use the more popular song title to whet audiences' interest and familiarity.  I have long heard about this film, but have not seen yet for some reason.  Its main claim to fame was that it had won the Oscar Best Actress prize for then unknown lead actress Marion Cotillard for her total embodiment of the central character.  After seeing the play "Piaf", I now felt compelled to finally watch this movie "La Vie en Rose" and compare notes.

Aside from a short flashback style introductory scene, the play generally employed a straightforward telling of Piaf's life in chronological order.  Thankfully for that, when watching the movie I was able to get the flow of the whole story despite the distracting technique employed by the film director Olivier Dahan of telling her story non-linearly, in erratic flashbacks and fast forwards. Some of the flashbacks would inexplicably merge into main story which may confuse a lot of viewers who have no knowledge of Piaf's life story. If you knew how the story goes in the first place though, his story telling style choices may actually come across as artistic. 

Unlike the play, this movie tells a lot about Edith's sad and eventful childhood. This part of her life would include interesting stories about her being raised in a brothel, living in a circus, going blind and being miraculously healed by her patroness Therese of the Child Jesus. These details of course were perhaps beyond the scope of the play, but they were similarly interesting to know. The play though spent significant time to tell about Piaf's activities during World War II, as well as about her second and last husband, Theo Sarapo. On the other hand, the film totally skipped these two important episodes of Piaf's life.  The latter was only mentioned in passing by Piaf on her deathbed in the film

But both in the movie and play, the music of Piaf is front and center. In the film, the incandescent Ms. Marion Cotillard perfected the peculiar stance, facial expressions and hand gestures of Piaf. However, she only lip-synched to the original recordings or recordings done by a sound-alike. The stage Piaf (the glorious Ms. Pinky Amador) though had to sing LIVE with bravura with every performance. The final song "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" was a truly a spectacular showstopper in both film and play as sung in French. However the film fortunately had English subtitles to tell me what the song really meant, and I saw how much meaning the song had to Piaf's life as whole at that point.

The checkered life of Madame Edith Piaf is truly a dream role for any actress to tackle. With the film and the play, I witnessed both lead actresses transform into Piaf. Lucky for Cotillard that she just needed to do this once right to be printed on film, the actress in the play had the additional challenge and difficulty to do repeated performances of this very physically and vocally draining role. In any case, both this biopic and the play will have you interested to listen more to the music of Piaf. Fortunately for us in the age of Youtube, we can also check out video recordings of the real Piaf in action, and we will marvel more about how these talented actresses had portrayed her so convincingly.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

February 7, 2013

Confession: I have never seen a single real Cirque du Soleil show live. I have seen approximations of what it must be though, like the "Kaos" show at the Resorts World in Manila. While some stunts can be really breathtaking, I feel I cannot sit through an entire performance awake with its hypnotic instrumental soundtracks. I do not really like mimes and clowns as well because I find them and their facial make-up creepy.  

Anyway, I was curious to see what this movie was all about. Maybe because it carries the CdS name, yet it was a feature film. I thought there would be a real fleshed-out story interspersed with CdS numbers. Well, now that I have seen it, there was actually a skeleton of a love story between a girl and an Aerialist, with a collection of various best numbers from several CdS shows that the two encounter in the fantasy world under the circus ring, serving to move the movie along. This is basically a silent film, no dialogues nor narrations, just a rich musical soundtrack.

Frankly I only liked the main protagonists and their story, the girl and the Aerialist she is fascinated with. So when they were not on screen, I felt bored. Lucky there were several numbers from the Beatles "Love" show to keep me awake -- because of the Beatles songs though, mind you, not really the performances. The best number for me was the one at the end when the girl and her Aerialist reunite and perform their daring and graceful pas de deux in the air. That special beautiful moment alone was already worth the price of admission.

However, you can really see and appreciate the amount of acrobatic talent, bravery and production expense in each CdS show. This film is really for fans of CdS who want to watch all the currently running CdS shows but cannot. Aside from "Love", this film incorporates numbers from "O", "Ka", "Mysterie", "Zumanity" and others. For people who are curious about CdS but could not afford their expensive tickets, then this would be a good introduction.

"Worlds Away" is now showing exclusively in Megaworld Lifestyle Malls.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Way to Treat a Lady: Film vs. Stage Versions

March 6, 2013

I just saw the musical theater production of "No Way to Treat a Lady" last week staged by Repertory Philippines (which I reviewed HERE).  This musical version, with music, book and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen, debuted off-Broadway in 1987.  When I found out that there was actually a 1968 film of the same title that covered the same story, I wanted to see and compare the interpretations of both the film and theater versions. Both movie and play were based on a well-reviewed 1968 novel by William Goldman (who also wrote "The Princess Bride").

The story was basically the same, of course. There was a failed actor named Kit Gill who had an oppressive relationship with his Broadway diva mother. Upon her death, his twisted mind turned to killing senior women who reminded him of his mother, wearing various disguises to gain their trust before strangling them to death. Hot in pursuit was a NYC detective Morris Brummell, who was still tied to his overbearing mother's apron strings. There is a side plot of Morris meeting and falling in love with pretty art museum hostess. 

The theater version, being a musical, had a heftier amount of lighthearted comedy. I wonder what exactly inspired Douglas Cohen to write this musical version of an atypical subject matter for a musical.  This film was definitely a more serious telling, with its comedy so much darker in tone. I found it interesting that the play similarly echoed a lot of situations and lines from the film, especially those that involved the female characters. However, overall, I felt the play actually told the story much better. The ending of the movie felt very contrived, hurried and relied too much on coincidence, unlike the play when the resolution was a lot more logical.

Unlike the stage Kit Gill, Rod Steiger was very sinister as the killer. He was excellent in his various disguises, especially the plumber and wig-maker. Mr. Steiger is really old school hammy in his intense acting style, really over the top, which was actually good in this particular role.  The stage Kit Gill (portrayed by Audie Gemora) was more sadly tragic in the sense that his sick attachment to her mother's memory was highlighted from the beginning. You will still feel sympathetic to this character in the play.   In the movie, the influence of the dead mother was only revealed towards the end, almost only as an incidental mention.

George Segal does well as the mama's boy Jewish cop. He played it quite laid back, in sharp contrast with Steiger. On stage, Joel Trinidad also followed the same laid back approach to the character.  The stereotypical annoying Jewish mom was played with glee by Eileen Heckart.  There was basically similar interpretation by the stage Flora Brummell, Ms. Sheila Francisco, since this character is essentially a cliche.  Mo's love interest in the film was named Kate Palmer (played by 60s beauty Lee Remick), while in the play the name was Sarah Stone (played by Carla Guevara-Laforteza). The scene where mom and girlfriend meet was a delightful moment in both the film and the stage musical.

One excellent feature, a conceit really, of the musical version (but not the film) was that all the victims of the killer were all played by the one actress who also played Kit's mother (Pinky Marquez)! This of course brings to fore that these victims reminded Kit of his domineering mother, the central psychotic motive of the serial murders.  

Now I want to read the book! The reviews say it is better than the book (as usual).

By the way, as a bonus, this film version also features a young David Doyle (of the "Charlie's Angels" TV series) playing a cop! It was good to see him here.