Ivan6655321's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Macbeth
Macbeth(1971)
½

Shakespeare's dialogues may not be that accessible in these days, but Roman Polanski's rendition of his play about ambition wrapped within madness and paranoia is quite simply a great piece of cinema to behold. It's great to hear the deep, flowery Shakesperean words, but what makes this film much more than a screen adaptation of one of his works is how Polanski has made it: Full of imagery bordering insanity and nightmare, performances teetering between stagy rhetorics and tragedy personified, the pure green fields of Wales as the stage for the depressing sight of the lonesome Cawdor castle, and the painful, furious emotions seemingly incorporated by Polanski himself(wife Sharon Tate being murdered just years prior to the filming of this picture). Now, back to being "accessible", if I'm going to recommend a Shakespeare adaptation that can tell the story easily without the laborious chore of comprehending the playwright's complex language, then I'm going to say "Throne of Blood" by Akira Kurosawa, albeit it being set in feudal Japan. But if one wants to see the pure power of the play, heightened by a master filmmaker's great vision of Macbeth's slide into ruthless lunacy, then "thou shalt not look further". I do not know whether that came out sounding like one of the ten commandments, but there you go.

Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero)
½

"Bayaning 3rd World", in a nutshell, tackles the grave dissonance that besets two filmmakers about whether or not a Jose Rizal movie is really worth making. Is Rizal really national hero-worthy, or is the much-talked about 'retraction' letter that he has supposedly written and signed before his execution enough to dethrone him of the honor? Eclectic Filipino filmmaker Mike De Leon, whose works range from the disturbing family drama "Kisapmata" to the outrageous "Kakakabakaba Ka Ba?" is the only one audacious enough to examine the Rizal myth with a sort of satirical glee. Originally, he is slated to direct a Rizal film starring Aga Muhlach, but when the project fell through, perhaps it dawned on him that a romanticized Rizal film is not what the country needs. Perhaps that episode of contemplation may have resulted to this. As what George R.R. Martin has once written (another instance when I'm quoting a famous literary figure just to sound smart): "Life is not a song, sweetling."

Reminiscent of how Orson Welles has, step-by-step, investigated the reason behind Charles Foster Kane's utterance of 'Rosebud' in "Citizen Kane", "Bayaning 3rd World" pushes aside all the nationalistic clichés that ornament Rizal's life to arrive at the very root of its own inquisition: Does Jose Rizal really deserve the endless veneration and, to a lesser extent, the immortalization of his mug in all those one-peso coins? Ricky Davao and Cris Villanueva, portraying the two filmmakers hungry for truth, further investigate, and the result is the kind that opens eyes.

Styled in a way that's very self-referential and postmodernistic, "Bayaning 3rd World" is equal parts emotional and comedic. From Rizal's mild-mannered brother Paciano (Joonee Gamboa) to the controversial Josephine Bracken herself (Lara Fabregas), every character in Rizal's briefer than brief life had their say, in a series of loose faux interviews, about the national hero's ambiguous psychology and also about the controversial retraction letter, and whether there is indeed a possibility that Rizal has written and signed it himself, and sincerely at that, without the nefarious goading of several friars.

The script (co-written by De Leon and Doy Del Mundo), on the other hand, is deliciously balanced both as a fairly radical comedy and as an involving period piece, which prevents the film from being overly ridiculous in its humor or being overly stern in its drama. While the accompanying performance by Joel Torre, who plays the said national hero in the film, exudes the needed vibrancy, insecurity and emotional torment to successfully pull off a memorable Rizal performance. Jose Rizal, after all, is a very flawed hero, but is that such a bad thing?

In a way, as much as the film is a deeply investigative albeit playful exploration of Rizal's heroism, it also digs deep on our very own nationalistic consciousness, or on whatever's left of it, and makes us confront Jose Rizal in the same way how we may look at our own selves in the mirror to see all the grimy imperfections. I doubt that we can do the same after watching Marilou Diaz-Abaya's very polished but ultimately too safe "Jose Rizal" or Tikoy Aguiluz's too detached "Rizal sa Dapitan".

With "Bayaning 3rd World's" unexpectedly incisive attempt at honesty, I doubt that the people who have seen the film may look at Jose Rizal the same way again; that is, as a perfect Malayan who has done nothing worthy of reproach. The film may not be as big and sprawling as "Jose Rizal" or as picturesque and romantic as "Rizal sa Dapitan", but its uncommon stylistic approach and fascinating dissection of history are what make it very special. It's a film that's brave enough to question Rizal's heroism but is also assured enough to let us, the Filipino viewers who have forever lived in the shadows of his martyrdom, ultimately decide for ourselves on how we may see him. The film is, quite simply, a strange love letter to the life, love and heroism of Jose Rizal, but with a postscript that asks a pointed question or two.

Foster Child
Foster Child(2007)
½

By mastering a certain visual style that seems to have little to no regard on proper framing and composition and also distilling his films through perennially impoverished eyes, Brillante Mendoza has navigated through the local and international film scene alike (while nabbing some prestigious awards in the process) as some kind of master of derelict cinema. From the sex and filth of modern Filipino urbanites to the incidental violence that occurs in the far south, he has debunked the so-called mystique of social change by presenting unto us films that deal with seemingly insoluble societal problems. And by depriving his films of any melodramatic garbs (except maybe "Kaleldo"), he gives us new albeit pungent insights into the strains of modern Filipino existence. But here in "Foster Child", penned by regular collaborator Armando Lao, his concern is not much geared towards something broad and socially pervasive as in his later films but specifically on the beauty of 'foster care' and how it functions as a seemingly odd vocation.

Its story, quite simple enough, is about a mother of two named Thelma (the underrated Cherry Pie Picache in a most emotionally involving performance) and her government-sanctioned job as a foster parent. Taking care of a supposed Filipino-American kid named 'John-John', the film explores her everyday life as a surrogate mother to this poor, parentless little sap. Even her close acquaintances, namely a gay man and her very own employer (Eugene Domingo) are, in a way, parents in the most unnatural of circumstances. The first, being a homosexual, takes care of his lover's daughter from a previous marriage, while Thelma's employer, presumably a 24/7 kind of worker, is determined to be the best mother and wife that she can be despite a most passive husband.

Although it's not overtly suggested, "Foster Child", a most emotionally sound film, hints at the fact that the lives of foster parents are, in many ways, enclosed in a painful cycle of loving and letting go. I know it by fact because our family has once taken care of a parentless baby for about 2 months, and the pain of finally giving the baby to its legal adopters is just quite hard to bear. Now, think of repeating this emotional rollercoaster again and again. This, for me, is at the heart of what "Foster Child" is trying to empathize with, and Brillante Mendoza succeeds in immersing us into this bittersweet world with little to no emotional artificialities. Best scene? The part where the camera lingers on a premature baby inside an incubator, and how it slowly tilts up to reveal Thelma's priceless body language and facial expression; she knows that only the likes of her can give meaning to this little boy's life, and as hard as it is to bear, hers is a motherly love that's on retail.

The film, typical of Mendoza, has no concrete script. Instead, the film is comprised of scenes that are merely brought to life by clever improvisations and reactionary acting. Even the plot, as free-flowing as it is, seems to work purely by intuition. The cinematography, as shaky and as non-intrusively observant as it is, just goes to show how Brillante Mendoza has mastered the art of cul-de-sac filmmaking: that is, the style of shakily shooting films through narrow passes, concrete dead ends and shanty-jammed mazes. And by combining it with improvisational acting, "Foster Child" was able to achieve a purer and infinitely more spontaneous form of filmmaking not seen since the heydays of Brocka and Bernal.

"Foster Child", aside from its individual merits as a film, is also a sign of things to come for Brillante the auteur. It's a film that's so painfully unseen by most people that many quickly dismiss Mendoza's body of work, often immediately after seeing his darker films like "Serbis" and "Kinatay" and nothing else, as socially exploitative hogwash. On the contrary, I think Brillante Mendoza may perhaps even be the most emotionally articulate director working today without even trying hard to do so, and it is in his more tender films like "Foster Child" where it truly and glowingly shows.

To The Wonder

Infamously known for taking an awful lot of time between projects, Terrence Malick has uncharacteristically weaved a quick follow-up (a little more than a year) to his critical hit "The Tree of Life" in the form of "To the Wonder", a solemn rumination on how love affects the lives of those who search for it. Faster than a bullet train, many have immediately predicted the film's unanimous critical triumph. But sadly, what happened was quite the opposite, as "To the Wonder" finally proved that Terrence Malick, one of the more beloved art film directors today, can also truly divide.

Met with mixed amounts of laughter, applause and boos during its Venice Film Festival premiere, saying that "To the Wonder" is polarizing is quite an understatement. Perhaps some have grown tired of Malick's loose-structured style, while some may have seen through the grave pretense of his themes. As for me, "To the Wonder" proved to be quite a transcendent experience.

To state the fact, it's not, in any way, a 'movie' in the most intrinsic sense of the word. Dominantly, "To the Wonder" is more of a feature-length mood piece. And like a sweeter Alain Resnais, Terrence Malick, through the use of deeply pleading narrations and breathtaking yet fragmented imagery, explores love at its most trying and at its most pure. From a Parisian woman's (Olga Kurylenko) search for the meaning of her romance with an American man, played by Ben Affleck with a sort of detached silence, to a Spanish priest's (Javier Bardem) quest to make one with his spirituality, the film approaches the many forms of love with articulate questions and wandering thoughts that it has delivered through the profound nuances of the French and Spanish language.

By doing so, the film takes on a more personal level. As the film continues on with its various reflections, the film becomes less and less about love in general and more and more like a silently thankful prayer. And just like "The Tree of Life", "To the Wonder" is a highly personal project for Terrence Malick, as he himself, from what I've read, is basically the Ben Affleck character in the film. So in many respects, "To the Wonder's" creation is basically a form of unhindered personal expression. For an artist like him, expressing whatever he feels through written words is certainly not enough.

Like a well-wrought diary entry, "To the Wonder" is Malick's remedy to his various emotional ellipses. And although the film is as ambiguous and baffling as the next artsy fartsy film, its emotional content, as far as I'm concerned, is as coherent as it can be. The film may be branded as an utter piece of pretentious art, but what it cannot be accused of is deluding the audience's emotions. Like a beautiful romantic symphony, "To the Wonder" is a film that you just can't help but stop and hum along with.

Terrence Malick, unlike any directors of any kind out there, treats cinema as his personal poetry book, and I couldn't be more thankful about it. Ultimately, 'thankful' is the key word here. Lyrical, elegiac and also quite life-affirming even despite its perceived ambiguity, "To the Wonder" is a film that speaks more truth about love than some 30 romantic films combined. "To the love that loves us, thank you."

Ted
Ted(2012)
½

"Ted", with its cute stuffed toy lead, looks just like one of those films that can easily be mistaken as a highly disposable children's movie. After all, the film stars a middle-aged man and a fluffy Teddy bear. On paper, "Ted" seems to have 'family' and 'General Patronage' written all over it. It's a film that kind of looks like a thing that's reason enough for families to celebrate, for a movie date during the weekends will surely be set. But wait, did I forget that Seth MacFarlane is the director? Yes, cue in the obligatory 'vinyl scratch' sound. Damn that "Family Guy" guy.

With an initially misleading opening narration reminiscent of all those Christmas movies, "Ted" opens up telling us about the story of a lonely boy who literally wished upon a star for his teddy bear to come to life and be his best friend forever. For the first 30 minutes, the film is surprisingly wholesome and, I can't believe I'm writing this about a Seth MacFarlane film, innocently magical. From talking snowmen to a kid suddenly inheriting an entire chocolate factory, many magical, film-bound stories have led us to believe that people, especially those with the purest of hearts, can indeed live happily ever after. "Ted", in its essence, is a postmodern reflection on all those children's movies but with all the realistic repercussions intact. What if Charlie Bucket was asked to appear on Larry King live and be forced to explain how his employment of Oompa-Loompas is, by no means, illegal? What if Matilda's parents were suddenly asked to appear on the Jerry Springer show? "Ted", in all its irreverence, tries to explore the notion of whether or not the "...And they lived happily ever after" part in children's stories has a follow-up sentence or two.

Turns out, John's teddy bear became quite a television sensation. Appearing in countless talk shows and whatnot, he gradually became kind of like the post-fame Macaulay Culkin (already a fact) and Justin Bieber (just wait): cocky, pot-headed and hopeless. And now, even John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), the kind-hearted young boy who just wanted to have a friend, is now also a Ganja-smoking slacker. Talk about 'happily ever after'.

Ripe with crude humor and littered with jokes that range from the offensively sexual and racial to the downright scatological, "Ted" is surely not the film to bring a conservative girl to on a first date. But on the other hand, it sure is the perfect film to watch baked. But aside from that, coming from a viewer who has seen the film sober and all, "Ted" is, sadly, quite forgettable and, at times, even boring. Though it boasts of competent lead performances by Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and MacFarlane himself (he voiced the titular character), the film quite suffers from its predictable, run-of-the-mill plot and some one-bit gags that seem to have been directly recycled from "Family Guy". Giovanni Ribisi though, on the other hand, was quite gratifying to watch in a very far-out role.

But despite that, the chemistry between the titular CGI bear and Mark Wahlberg is hard to deny. Though Wahlberg, post-"Boogie Nights", is more commonly known as a 'go-to' movie tough guy, he exudes a kind of careless boyishness in this film that complements the film's reckless comedic tone. While Seth MacFarlane, voicing the titular character, is perfect foil to the film's every pseudo-attempt at showing order. In a way, he's like a conflation of a non-murderous version of Chucky and a fuzzier Borat. Yeah, that's basically Ted.

With an abundance of intensely subversive jokes and parodying cameos, "Ted" succeeds as a sort of comedy movie of the week. But aside from that, what with its uninspired plot and repetitive humor, the film lacks that certain punch to propel it to something higher. I've seen funnier fragments of "Family Guy".

The Grandmaster
½

Yip Man, whose life is a common favorite among filmmakers to interpret and is also perhaps the Asian cinematic equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, headlines yet another film about his chain-punching exploits. But this time, we've got a cinematic heavyweight at the helm in the form of Wong Kar-wai. Plus, we've got the Asian king of cool Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Yip Man himself. Despite the question of "The Grandmaster's" true necessity as a biopic (the 2008 Donnie Yen-starrer "Ip Man" may have already sufficed), the film has nonetheless sparked immediate interest among cinephiles because, why wouldn't it? It has Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung Chiu Wai in it, not to mention that Zhang Ziyi (Zhang Ziyi!) is also part of it. It also has an amazing cinematography and an obvious promise for some solid, kick-ass martial arts action. Now who would not figuratively jizz all over such a project?

Set in Foshan a few years before the Japanese occupation (but then again, so was the Donnie Yen film), "The Grandmaster" chronicles, through Wong Kar-wai's trademark, quasi-poetic visual style, Ip Man's well-deserved rise to high esteem as a martial arts master and sudden fall as a wartime-stricken citizen. The film also fascinates by highlighting the fact that a brothel, named the "Golden Pavilion", has been the favorite haven among martial artists (and also the most preferred venue for their fisticuffs) during the time. Well, let's just say that it's kind of like the early 20th century equivalent of those modern, organic coffee shops and the masters themselves as the hipsters that inhabit them. Things indeed just recur.

In a nutshell, well, the film is basically about this bunch of high-flying, philosophy-uttering bohemians who fight for some obsolete sense of pride, respect and discipline, even amidst a time of guns, bombs and widespread hunger. Surely, it was a fascinating thing to tackle, especially since the earlier "Ip Man" film is so much more focused on a bombastically illusory narrative (its title should have been "Ip Man vs. Japan") more than Yip Man's intensely spiritual personality. But still, "The Grandmaster" is, after all, supposed to be a martial arts film, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, basically, is supposed to kick some ass. Heavy philosophizing, for me, should belong in other films. Hell, even his eventual student Bruce Lee, who also had his share of martial arts movies, would certainly agree. You don't mix forced dramatics, contrived verbal symbolism and uncalled-for romance with some good ol' bone-cracking action because, sooner or later, it would definitely overwhelm what the film is really destined to be. And alas, that's exactly what happened with "The Grandmaster".

In some sense, the film has even lost itself halfway by not being about Yip Man anymore. Instead, it has problematically focused on what is an otherwise very sub-par revenge narrative instigated by what is otherwise a very forgettable character in the form of Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er. Now, that's two aspects right there that "The Grandmaster" has missed its mark on: first on being a true martial arts film, and second on being a memorable biopic.

As for the imagery, well, you really wouldn't expect anything short of brilliant from Wong Kar-wai. Dream-like in its execution and peppered with Wong's fevered slow-motion shots, the film's visuals flow like an achingly beautiful lullaby. Suddenly, shades of Zhang Yimou's more reflective martial arts films come to mind. But then again, "The Grandmaster" is too weak and indecisive regarding what its narrative really wants to cover and whether its fight scenes were there to really matter that the film ultimately achieved only a third of its potential greatness. Sadly, the film is an 'almost' masterpiece. And with 'almost', I mean stuck in a gas station two miles away from its supposed destination. It really could have been so much more.

Hitchcock
Hitchcock(2012)
½

Alright, before anything else, I just want to express my utter disappointment on this film for not even hinting at Hitch's Ovophobia (fear of eggs). There I said it. Moving on...

Biography films are not given enough credit for being trickier to execute than how it looks. For them to be successful, they must highlight the life of the man/woman they're focusing on with sheer definitiveness and completeness that people would not look for any further films. This has been the very problem that has plagued seemingly incomplete biopics such as "Ali", the Will Smith-starrer which has chronicled the boxer's life only until his fight in Zaire with George Foreman; hardly the best way to end a story about one of the great icons of modern sports history. And hell, even "Capote", a great Oscar attention-grabber during its time, was deemed not perfect enough that a second-tier film about the exact same subject, entitled "Infamous", was conceived. What I mean is that for a biopic to be effective, one must begin and end it at a certain highlight of the person's life which we can all deem as his greatest (or worst) moment. I think you will all agree with me: "Ali" should have ended somewhere in Manila. Even if your knowledge of boxing history is at the slightest, you know what certain pay-per-view I'm talking about. To this day, I'm still slightly disappointed as to how Michael Mann never saw the emotional potential of ending the said film at that particular segment of Ali's life.

But on a more positive note, that biopic lesson, which was often ignored by some films of the genre, was finely heeded by "Hitchcock", a highly-polished biography of perhaps the most influential filmmaker in history.

Yes I know, perhaps everyone's quite infuriated about the fact that the film was entitled "Hitchcock" simply because it is not, in any way, a proper chronicling of the man's life. But before we go all ruckus-minded about the matter, please be reminded that the original title is supposed to be "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"; sounds more like a routine special feature from a newly-remastered DVD rather than an actual film, doesn't it? Well, we should at least thank the makers for at least doing that last-minute title change.

For a supposed biopic of arguably the greatest icon of modern cinema, "Hitchcock" runs for a mere 98 minutes, which is really quite puzzling because Alfred Hitchcock is such a complex and interesting character to explore. Even his well-known 'blonde' obsession, which is a fine thing to focus upon on its own, was merely hinted at but was not given much attention. But then again, the film, based on what I have seen, merely guns for something that is playfully Hitchcockian in style (the Ed Gein scenes, the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents-esque" opening) but is also very light and, sadly, quite disposable a fare.

Anthony Hopkins, the only actor that I believe can convincingly pull of Hitch, shines as the titular filmmaker. Although scenes of a superfluously dark-humored Hitchcock overshadow those of a more psychologically tortured one, his interpretation of the 'Master of Suspense' is, for a lack of a better term, masterful. While Helen Mirren, who's as scene-stealing as Hopkins, is effortless as Hitch's wife, Alma Reville. Because of this film, I therefore conclude that without Ms. Reville, Hitchcock could not have pulled off the horror mammoth that is "Psycho" and a whole bunch of his other masterpieces too. This then brings me again to this very tired but truthful adage: "Behind every great man is a woman". In Hitchcock's case, it sure is an icy blonde. Or that's what he has been hoping for all his life, at least.

In terms of execution, "Hitchcock" is, by and large, very conventional and ordinary. Even the insights into Hitchcock's character and the certain happenings on the set of "Psycho" I have already read on the Internet. But what makes this film quite special is its substantial inclusion of Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who has inspired the source novel by Robert Bloch; a sort of creative liberty that has proved to be a very nice touch. Although I would have preferred it if it was Norman Bates himself (because I want to see more of James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates) and not Ed Gein who Hitchcock tries to find and identify himself to in the film's certain, dream-like scenes, it is still a flavorful extra garnish to an otherwise standard biopic. And Scarlett Johansson, despite some eager protests from fans prior to the film's release, nails Janet Leigh convincingly in a way that is sweet, safe and non-controversial.

"Hitchcock", if I am to treat the 'biopic' rules that I have mentioned above as canon, is quite a success and a failure. A success because the film was able to start and begin at perhaps Hitchcock's greatest moment (the creation of "Psycho"); a failure because some of the characters were reduced to mere caricatures. The film nailed the dark humor, the unrelenting obsession and the murderous vibe that comprise a Hitchcock film, but it lacks a more thorough psychological dimension that most biopics often tread. Ultimately, "Hitchcock" lacks the extra courage to dig through Hitch's tailored suit to look right at his heart; we were promised a quite incisive treatment of Hitchcock's persona, and we were left hanging. What we chanced upon is a film that shows us things that we've all heard, seen and read about before, and there seems to have been no effort to pick up from that and go further. Alas, there were no corpses to discover.

Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3(2013)

At last, I was able to squeeze in "Iron Man 3" into my otherwise busy schedule partly because I cannot take the attention-whoring spoilers on social media anymore and also because, well, who wouldn't? Iron Man is, after all, our most beloved Avenger. He is the coolest billionaire on film outside Bruce Wayne. Hell, the film's about an egotistically charismatic guy in a robot suit. Who wouldn't find time for that?

Unlike "Iron Man 2" which is quite unsure if whether it really wants to be an action-packed comedy or a brooding drama, "Iron Man 3", directed by Shane "I am Hawkins from Predator" Black, is a whole new monster. For me, this marks the first time that an Iron Man installment really feels more like a Tony Stark movie, and for good reason.

The plot, although the usual science fiction/quasi-political mix, feels more fun than it has any right to be simply because the film is effective in being half-serious and half-camp. In this regard, we must give proper credit to Mr. Black, whose experience in character and chemistry-driven action movies (the "Lethal Weapon" franchise) has benefitted the film a hundredfold, not to mention that he has already directed Downey Jr. in the brilliant crime-comedy "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" alongside Val Kilmer. In short, "Iron Man 3", despite its unsurprising abundance of visual effects, feels a whole lot more grounded because we see a lot more of Tony Stark outside that pesky armor. This time, we don't see Stark as a mere alter-ego but as a believable action hero who just happens to own a robot suit or two. For all I care, the film could have easily been entitled "Tony Stark" and it will still appeal to the audience. This aspect is what makes "Iron Man 3" quite an innovation, execution-wise. We see Tony run around a lot like a bearded Sam Witwicky, wield service pistols and neutralize enemies with make-shift weapons, and it entertains because his trademark, all too human wit is admittedly at a better high when he's not suited up.

For some, seeing Stark more often without the armor suit lessens the essence of what the film promises to be, but for me, it has even made the film a whole lot better. Well, of course, there's that big 'Iron Men' scene at the film's climax, but aside from that, there really isn't much time to bask on Iron Man's individual awesomeness. After all, this is a pained Tony Stark we're dealing with here both emotionally and physically, so seeing him all rusty and desperate, without much time to go all CGI Fonzie inside the suit, just fits the film's overall tone.

The performances, on the other hand, are quite great by superhero movie standards. Robert Downey Jr., after being the evident scene-stealer in "The Avengers", has once again proved that, well, he is currently the 'King of Cool' by giving what might be his best Tony Stark performance to date. Guy Pearce was also quite outstanding in his role as the villainous Aldrich Killian, whose performance mirrors that of Kevin Bacon's in "X-Men: First Class". But the real spark plug of a revelation here is Ben Kingsley, who's just, well, 'deceptive' in his portrayal of the Mandarin. Take my word for it: I think he's perhaps the biggest surprise of the year so far, and that's both a compliment and a slight dig.

Admittedly, "Iron Man 3's" trailers are really the most misleading things to come out for quite a while. At the time of the teaser materials' release, some have even speculated that Marvel, perhaps after seeing the success of "The Dark Knight" trilogy, has also finally decided to go all 'Nolan' on this installment. Instead, what the film has done was take just the right amount of insightful character psychology, throw it in with the staple explosiveness and fun that make Marvel films such a joy to watch, and mix well. The crucial part, naturally, is on the mixing. Unlike blockbuster filmmakers like Michael Bay and whoever made the G.I. Joe films, Shane Black has this certain, '80s 'buddy cop' feel in his directorial style which lifts "Iron Man 3" on a league of its own. I also loved how he used some narration (by Tony Stark) to tell the story on a more personal level, as opposed to the passive narrative technique of the previous two films. "Iron Man 3", despite its flaws and slight unevenness, has nonetheless hit the right notes. Off to a great start, Marvel's Phase 2 seems to be.

Solaris
Solaris(1976)

Considered by Andrei Tarkovsky to be the least favorite film that he has ever directed and is also lowly regarded by the source novel's author (Stanislaw Lem), "Solaris" is not quite the cinematic darling before than it was today. And if that is quite the case, that even the director himself is not that keen on singing praises about his own work, then who are we to like it more than the one who created it? But then I suddenly remember that I liked "The Virgin Spring" immensely: the film that Ingmar Bergman himself has also considered to be one of his weakest works. And damn, we all love "The Seventh Seal", a film that Bergman has labeled as nothing more than a 'lousy imitation' of Akira Kurosawa. Perhaps to really be a great artist, one must have an adequate dose of insecurity, because if one does not have any, then how can that artist properly discourse on the weakness of man (a most favorite topic to tackle among great filmmakers)?

In this film's case, Tarkovsky himself, knowing that "Solaris" has not been powerful enough to transcend the science fiction genre, reflects what the film itself is all about: that man can never reach an ambiguous goal because it is something that he 'fears and doesn't want'; that man, whatever knowledge he may have, is but a minuscule detail in the whole thick of the universe, and that man, as he seeks intelligence, creates more confusion in the process.

There has always been this preconceived notion that the vastness of space is indeed something that 'we can't fully understand'. But what if it's the one that wants to understand us? And what if it's just us who can't really comprehend ourselves? These are such questions raised by "Solaris", a masterful interstellar drama that tries to expound on the mysteries of the great beyond and, subsequently, of our very soul. What results is, bar none, one of the most emotionally articulate science fiction films ever conceived and also one of the most inquisitive.

The film's plot, perhaps the most linear and derivative of all Tarkovsky films, concerns a psychologist, named Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), and his mission to find out what's really going on in a space station orbiting a mysterious oceanic planet. When he arrived, he found the crew emotionally disheveled, extremely worrisome and jumpy beyond belief. And to add to that, his already dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), has suddenly materialized back into life. What's really going on?

Tarkovsky, a filmmaker who we all know is careful not to be limited by the mechanics of a specific genre, makes it sure that expository dialogue and special effects are kept at a minimum. In addition, his pacing is as deliberate as it can be. After all, he never went to space to visually showboat, to tell a lightning-fast story or to discuss mere technology; he's there to philosophize about humanity.

Just like his later, very companion-y "Stalker", "Solaris" also operates under its own set of cerebral, emotional and physical rules. It's also less concerned on explaining things just like how a magician is never inclined on revealing the secrets of his trade. Mysterious plot devices, such as the 'Annihilator', are mentioned but not fully expounded upon. Characters' inner landscapes are further explored but never explained why. There's also a recurring sense of futility in the characters' numerous philosophical clashes. In the end, something may have been ostensibly resolved, but surely at a bitter cost.

Andrei Tarkovsky, however challenging his works may be, is in fact a subtly didactic and optimistic filmmaker. Deeply submerged in existential despair his films may sometimes be, Tarkovsky never forgets to insert the idea that man can be better off if only he can know his limitations; if only he can be less grandiose in his ambitions; if only he can be aware of the fact that man only needs man.

"Solaris", aside from being a meditative psychological drama, is also a timeless parable on humility. We've always been deluded by the idea that we're not alone in this universe and that, ultimately, we can make first contact with whoever they are or whatever it is. But as what this film suggests, such intention to see and know too much negates the very essence of existence itself.

Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap)

Originally aired on television as a six-part miniseries, Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" is an epic chronicle of the on and off marriage between Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), two middle-aged professionals, and how their relationship, throughout the years, has transitioned from the superficial to the heavily conditional to the beautifully transcendental.

The film, which is Ingmar Bergman's highly intelligent and realistic examination of the complexity of modern marriage, is, so far, the most honest and thorough 'marriage' film that I've ever seen. And thanks to the neutral emotional reality that the film has presented, I was able to watch the film objectively and without any gender-related predilections. The film, after all, is never about some sort of war between sexes. What "Scenes from a Marriage" is in fact all about is the idea that giving up on a marriage doesn't necessarily mean that you're also giving up on love.

Sometimes, as what the film ironically and controversially suggests, to remove oneself from the conventions of a superficial marriage may result on love in a deeper context. Johan and Marianne, two romantic souls who initially thought that they have grown tired and contemptuous of each other and that they can be happy again in the arms of other people, have discovered, in a very hard way, that it's not each other that they are tired of but the mere shackles of their humdrum of a marriage; and that in the end, even though it's some other people they want, it's only each other that they truly need.

Highly unusual for Ingmar Bergman, "Scenes from a Marriage" never delves into visual and thematic profundity perhaps because its ideas are expressed not through stunning images and moods but through spoken words. Even Sven Nykvist, known for his masterful, almost dream-like approach to cinematography, takes on a more urgent and simple style for this one. After all, with this project, it was Bergman's utilitarian intent to reach a wider audience, and indeed, he has succeeded; so much that he was ultimately forced to change his telephone number so as to avoid countless random calls from couples seeking marriage advice.

As for the performances, it's but given for both Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson (both Bergman regulars) to deliver multifaceted performances that are as incendiary as they are tender. And although by no means am I saying that both Ms. Ullmann and Mr. Josephson are unattractive (Ullmann is in fact one of the most luminous faces in all of cinema), they have both embodied the personalities of the married couple in a way that they wouldn't care less on how they would look in a dingy pajama or in a business attire. Unlike other 'marriage' films nowadays where actors are chosen based on their looks and how their face values would help in endearing the story to the audience, which almost always results in disastrous alienation, "Scenes from a Marriage" begs to differ. By presenting Johan and Marianne in a very non-special way, both physically and emotionally (they were even branded as 'emotional illiterates'), the audience, with its television success as withstanding proof, were able to connect easily with the couple in all their vulnerabilities and imperfections.

"Scenes from a Marriage", with its almost 3 hours running time, may prove to be quite infuriating to watch for some, especially because of the fact that it's a dialogue-driven, often visually static film. But do watch it for the performances, the energy and the insights. Believe me, it will be one of the most realistically introspective films you'll ever see about relationships and, ultimately, about love after marriage. This is Bergman channeling his inner marital therapist, and he does not disappoint.

The Mirror
The Mirror(1975)
½

Coming into Andrei Tarkovsky's "Zerkalo" with only "Stalker" in my 'already watched' list, I was caught by its stream-of-consciousness style with my tattered pants down. Well, I should have known, it is a Tarkovsky film after all. Indeed, "Zerkalo" is the kind of film that won't comfort you with its immediate meanings. Instead, what it will do is befuddle you with its visuals, floor you with its powerful, wisdom-infused poetry and, ultimately, help you reach your own personal epiphany.

Although it is commonly viewed as one of Tarkovsky's most inaccessible films, I think I must beg to differ. Sure, it is a non-chronological, dream-like film, but it's not that hard to absorb. Sure, to comprehend it fully and come up with your own meaning, shot-per-shot, truly is a heavily analytical chore, but its essence, that of the lucid story of a man named Aleksei (a cinematic avatar of Andrei Tarkovsky himself) and his last-minute retreat to his fragmented memories, is not that hard to digest. In fact, with it being a most personal film by Tarkovsky, who are we to intervene with what he really means? Perhaps, "Zerkalo" has but a single, unifying definition, and perhaps it is only Tarkovsky who knows it deep inside, but the film, in all its lush visual glory, is very easy to associate with one's own experiences and with one's own life; if you had ever reflected upon your own existence, that is.

In all fairness, "Zerkalo" can easily be accused of pretense, and maybe it is fair to say that it truly defies or even negates comprehension, and that, on a more esoteric note, we must first read about Russian history to really be at ease with the film. But, really, do you need textbook lessons when what's unraveling in front of you instantly connects on a personal level? I think not. Watch the film solely to decipher its meaning, and you may utterly be frustrated. But watch the film to purely reflect on its life-affirming visual poetry, and you will be rewarded a hundredfold.

After watching the film, there was a subtle lump in my throat, and my eyes seem to be on the verge of something. But was it tears? I do not know, and neither the sensation that I've felt at that very moment. Indeed, "Zerkalo" is unlike any film I've ever watched or experienced; it's also a film that can easily disprove certain things you thought you know about life.

For starters, it's a film that's more than worthy of fervent celebration, and that Tarkovsky is worthy of praise not just as a filmmaker but also as a plaintive man who was able to look between the lines and present what may be the most honest reflection on war, the transience of time, and the briefness of life ever filmed, that of which can only be rivaled by Dalton Trumbo's earlier film "Johnny Got His Gun". Indeed, I was touched and I was affected, and the next thing I know, I was watching the film the second time in one night, and after wrapping up my second viewing, I was once again blown away, and I was also able to come up with my own sad interpretation of the whole film: That more than it is a film about a dying man's cerebral swan song, it is also about him coming to terms with a painful truth that has haunted him all his life: that he was, for a lack of a better term, an 'unwanted' child.

The key scene to support my idea is the moment when Aleksei's mother (Margarita Terekhova) queasily walks away after seeing a sleeping little boy and then subsequently hearing the fact that the said boy's father and mother wants a little girl after all ("He put us up to a lot of trouble, little rascal," said the mother). In my view, she has walked away not just because she can't take in such an honest truth but also because she identifies herself with the same parental sentiment. Pay attention then at the final, heart-breaking scene (presumably a distant flashback) where she was asked by her husband if whether she likes a boy or a girl for a child. Unsure, anxious and on the verge of tears, she merely answered with an apprehensive smile. And then, we see her next as an old lady, walking through some dingy shrubberies with two children in tow, a boy (presumably Aleksei) and a girl. We see her walk hand-in-hand with the little girl, but we also see how obviously indifferent she is towards the boy, who merely trails behind. And as the camera pans slowly to the left (while zooming out) to show the path being tread by the old lady and the two children, we then see a mysterious man standing in the distance, staring intently at the three of them.

Who is he supposed to be? In my perspective, it's the adult Aleksei, who can finally look at this particular scene of 'truth' (that his mother, after all, is apathetic towards his existence) without much hurt or hesitation anymore. The film, ultimately, is about a sort of emotional pain that can only be healed by confronting one's own memories, and by doing so, Aleksei has emotionally liberated himself. After all, the mirror that the film is pertaining to is in fact our most distant dreams and memories: two artifacts of the soul that we can stand in front of and look closely to so that we can examine what's wrong with ourselves, and the lives we have lived.

"My purpose is to make films that will help people to live, even if they sometimes cause unhappiness," says Tarkovsky, who, in this film, has helped not just his audience but also himself. "Zerkalo" is heavy cinema, but just like any Tarkovsky films, the perceived heaviness of his films is most certainly followed by an unexpected episode of euphoria. I know, because I've felt it.

Cries and Whispers

"Cries and Whispers", released in 1972 and is certainly one of Ingmar Bergman's more accessible films, is an emotionally moody and atmospheric work so raw and scarring that it's the closest a human drama can get to terrifying. And its story, my friends, isn't your typical Jane Austen.

In simple terms, the film is an emotional horror story between three sisters, one dying (named Agnes) and two (named Maria and Karin) in utter disconnect, and how they all try, as reluctant as they may be in doing so, to mend their fractured relationships. Oh, and there's also the maid named Anna (Kari Sylwan in a sublimely affecting performance), the person who has been the most caring towards Agnes yet isn't really being given much importance or attention by the sisters simply because she is just, well, a housekeeper. But is she, in the eyes of the terminally ill Agnes, really just that?

"Cries and Whispers", for me, is easily the most frightening of Bergman's works simply because it has eerily established, with its masterful use of dream-like flashbacks and painfully ingraining dialogue ("it's all a tissue of lies"), the wounded core of an ostensibly functional family. Evidently, familial dysfunction is one of Bergman's most favorite issues to explore in most of his films, and here in "Cries and Whispers", I do think that it has reached its most destructive zenith.

In a way, the film can easily be compared to his later, equally masterful "Fanny and Alexander" simply because they have both examined the hidden perversions and emotional hollowness of an otherwise happy and affluent family in a way that's both realistic and stunningly metaphysical. But for me, "Cries and Whispers" is much closer, both in style and in intent, to Bergman's earlier "The Silence", likewise an ambiguous tale of two emotionally strained sisters and their effort (or the lack thereof) to try and connect with each other in sexually abstract ways that only Bergman (and his legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist) can capably and eloquently capture on-camera with so much dramatic force. And just like the said 1963 film, "Cries and Whispers" is also extremely claustrophobic, be it in its literal 'mansion' location comprised mainly of narrow hallways and red-draped rooms or in Sven Nykvists's dramatically suffocating camera work.

The film, in its immediate essence, is a darkly consummate chamber drama, but typical of Bergman, such simplicity is but a veneer. In ways more than one, I do think that this film is a definitive representation of who he really is as a filmmaker in respect to what he can present visually and thematically. For the former, this film, as usual, is an exquisite costume drama, and for the latter, it is a flinching account of how memories can forever scar the deepest recesses of the 'soul'; an aspect of existence which Bergman himself has imagined as a "damp membrane in varying shades of red" (the reason for the film's crimson visual motif). Even in the casting, headed by regulars Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson and Ingrid Thulin (three of the most stunning actresses the cinema has ever seen), the film is typical Bergman.

Often framed in stark close-up shots, the three actresses effectively convey, through the most anguishing of facial expressions, the very shadowy extent of the soul. And in one of the film's most enigmatic sequences, we see the younger Maria (Liv Ullmann) circling around and caressing the older Karin (Ingrid Thulin) as if she's trying to convince her to give in, but to what? It is here then where the ambiguous questions of 'homoeroticism' and 'incest' come to play. But on the other hand, to accept such a perspective, as what others are claiming, is but a betraying over-simplification of what the film is really all about.

"Cries and Whispers", essentially, is an ambiguous film about love regardless of context, and whether or not you see the relationships between the characters as homosexual or not is quite irrelevant because although the film is littered with potentially sexual images, love is really the film's central focus, and Bergman is quite comfortable in not letting his audience know where that 'love' is coming from, how it came to be, or why is it such a mysterious and elusive force in the first place.

But aside from that, the film is also about trying to build a bridge between two cold souls (Maria and Karin) and the inability of such a bridge, built in the most hastened of ways, to instantly translate into a pure form of affection. Here then is where Bergman's often used concept of the 'Silent God' enters the scene; that even though we can call to Him all we want, there will always be this underlying current of futility in doing so because, well, humans, and the relationships they create, are just either too fragile or already damaged from the get-go to be mended in an instant, even by an all-knowing God.

In conclusion, although I would highly recommend "Cries and Whispers" to every single cinephile out there, I wouldn't go my way as to immediately force it down the throat of a Bergman tenderfoot. Exploring his oeuvre, in my view, should be treated as a journey, and honestly speaking, "Cries and Whispers" is never the preferable starting point. But still, if you're looking for a peculiarly intense yet visually elegant drama, then look further, you must not.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Considered by cinephiles as one of the greatest films of all time, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is Robert Bresson's lyrical meditation on spirituality, martyrdom and human cruelty, and after so many years, it still stands the test of time as one of the most truly reflective Christian films without overtly highlighting the fact that it is indeed one. Bresson, known for his minimalist approach to filmmaking, is never too easy to resort to cheap emotions and utter sentimentalism. Instead of examining the inhumanity of man through the eyes of the human characters, he has filtered everything through the primitive perspective of a work-burdened donkey named Balthazar, a symbolic manifestation of sainthood, and is also the silent absorber of all of the characters' worldly sins. The donkey, indeed with all his hardships and misfortunes as he gets passed on from one owner to another, is on the receiving end of a film that is really human nature itself, in all its ugly glory, in a nutshell. As what Jean-Luc Godard has once said about "Au Hasard Balthazar": "...this film is really the world in an hour and a half". Well, I do not know if he has just said that to impress Anne Wiazemsky (the film's lead, which Godard would marry a year later), but nonetheless, his comment on the film really is as truthful as you can get.

The film, for all the critical accolades that it has received, should not be looked upon as a fine piece of narrative filmmaking. On the contrary, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is unusually clunky in its exposition, characterization and camera work. Sometimes, it even suffers from unwarranted scene jumps that are quite frustrating to sit through, especially when the film itself really calls for a more 'observant' approach to cinematography. While the characters, although it is given that majority of them are representative of man's cruelty to things and creations that they consider to be comparably inferior to them, are quite caricature-like. A specific example is the Gerard character (played by François Lafarge), a typical delinquent who seems to go through every waking moments of his life with a penchant to hurt those around him, including the girl Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), Balthazar's original owner, and the only person he seems to be interested in.

Also, the whole 'legal' angle that Marie's farmer of a father was deeply involved in wasn't given enough emphasis, which, along the way, has resulted in some uncalled-for unevenness in the plot and some blurry character motivations.

But in all fairness, all those shortcomings do not really distract from the uncannily spiritual experience that "Au Hasard Balthazar" has to offer. After all, the film is an emotional event and not a narrative one, and is more a visual reflection on the quiet beauty of Christian faith rather than being a story about it. For starters, I do think that I will remember this film not because of its story but because of its inspired, poetic and almost fable-like visual realization of faith and kindness within a subtle theological context.

As a Christian, when I think of the words 'passion' and 'martyrdom', an image of a sweltering and exhausted donkey would have been the last thing to materialize in my mind. But after watching "Au Hasard Balthazar", as much as it is quite awkward to analogize a donkey's everyday plight to the soul-saving hardships that Jesus Christ himself has went through, I thought, well, why not? After all, the world, in all its evils, can indeed crucify a hapless soul in ways more than one, and who can better endure such an infliction by people 'who do not know what they're doing' than a pure, wordless donkey who neither does. As what the Blessed Mother Teresa has said, "God is the friend of silence".

In my honest opinion, I do think that no other film in existence has tackled Christian faith in such a non-preaching light, and Bresson, for whatever deficiencies he seems to have had in the film in terms of storytelling, has created a cinematic piece of such innocent glow. Indeed, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is a film that has successfully tackled the essence of Christian faith without even looking like a religious film. And without an overtly Christian aspect to spice it up, the film has managed to overcome religious boundaries to tell a simplistic tale of purity and saintliness in a manner that is powerful yet very humbling. It may not turn you into a man of religion overnight, but it will certainly convince you to reflect on your way of life and on your beliefs, and to ask yourself the question of "Have I been good enough?" Such is the power of "Au Hasard Balthazar".

Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant)

My second Fassbinder film, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" has caught me off-guard on how insightful its screenplay really is in terms of examining the painful nuances of love. Mounted by Fassbinder as something akin to a theatrical play (it was, after all, made to be one), the film chronicles, in an almost real-time fashion, the emotional complexities of a certain Petra von Kant (played by Margit Carstensen with an otherworldly sense of controlled lunacy), a renowned yet romantically jaded fashion designer who, after an unsuccessful marriage with a certain Frank, has decided to lead a loveless life. That is, until she meets an aspiring fashion model named Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a young woman who will simultaneously prove to be the best and worst thing to ever come to her life.

Although Karin states that she indeed likes Petra, she can never say that she loves her with a straight face and with a full, unhindered conviction. Is she only drawn to Petra because of her fame and because of her money? Is she just fascinated by Petra's manipulative character? Or is it something more humanly unexplainable? Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a most emotionally articulate auteur in the tradition of John Cassavetes, seems unsure himself, but so are the characters. After all, the film's focus is not on the spark that has ignited such a romance but on the tearful aftermath of such a heavily conditional affair.

Set entirely in a small but evidently lush apartment space, the film then explores, using long shots, deep focus and slow tracking shots, Petra's metamorphosis from a relatively sane yet possessive woman to a terribly lovesick sap who's just inches away from utter romantic lunacy. Fassbinder, through his powerfully amoral and emotionally insular screenplay (which he has written while he's on a 12-hour flight from Berlin to Los Angeles), has created an aura of detachment between the characters that populate the film and the audience, which makes for a more compelling viewing as we ourselves question the very reason as to why we stay on to watch such a cold, manipulative woman cry her hearts out for 2 hours. The answer for that, ironically enough, resides in the film's most crucial character bar Petra von Kant herself: Marlene (Irm Hermann), Petra's secretary and co-designer who sees in Petra an untamed dominatrix who she is more than willing to masochistically submit to.

In a way, because of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's deceptively simple scenario and intelligent but admittedly self-destructive ruminations on love, we, the audience, were able to channel Marlene's unconditional subservience to Petra, and we are fascinated by it. But at the same time, we (or I am, at least) are also equally fascinated by our inclination to watch the Petra character unravel in front of our very eyes.

Sure, we are abhorred by Petra's whiskey-a-minute behavior, telephone-centric existence and her constant bossiness towards Marlene the silent slave, but we just can't look away. Thanks to Fassbinder's subtle yet incisive portrayal of a lovesick woman who, at the same time, is also quite sick of love, our inclination and affinity to witness the film's developments and emotional devolution transcends that of a typical film viewer. Instead, we are drawn into Fassbinder's simplistic approach that's as melancholic as it is full of sound and fury simply because it speaks some truth.

For a film that is composed mainly of painfully long shots and is set entirely in one location, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" may prove to be a very challenging piece of work to sit through. But honestly speaking, I never felt the 2-hour running time simply because I was very engrossed on anticipating how Petra may ultimately turn out to be. Sure, she is such an alienating character in the fashion of all those 'rich and ruthless' film characters out there, but deep inside, her emotionally devastated heart is a core that we can all identify with. Love is a real bitch, you know, and Fassbinder (and each and every one of us) knows that. A quote from him: "Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other."

There was a theory on a great IMDb discussion thread that I have read which states that Petra and Marlene, figuratively and essentially, are one and the same, and that (SPOILERS) Marlene leaving Petra in the end is the symbol of their emotional deliverance, and is therefore adhered to the 'Stoicist' philosophical school of thought ("to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy"); an existential framework which is also specifically applicable in the context of the interpersonal relationship between Petra the master and Marlene the mastered (to accept even slaves and those that are considered inferior as "equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature"). Although a film that is admittedly not everyone's cup of tea, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" is a very rewarding piece of cinema. It may not give out the most concise feelings and the most reassuring of answers, but hell, isn't that what great films are all about?

The Kid
The Kid(1921)

Charles Chaplin is the first to combine comedy with poignancy, and a little touch of neo-realism, and did it perfectly. The opening title card said it all about this silent masterpiece: "A Picture with a Smile- and perhaps a tear." The dream sequence was a surprise though...

Drowning by Numbers
½

If Kubrick's attention to visual composition as a photographer shows in his masterful films, then I can say just the same for Peter Greenaway, whose artistic sensibilities as a painter bleed through the constructions of his films' imagery. Take for example the scene here in "Drowning by Numbers" where a man, after drowning, lies peacefully in the pavement, with the camera looking at him from his feet. The scene, a moment of surprising serenity in a film that's filled with sexual and psychological oddities, religiously echoes its source inspiration, which is Andrea Mantegna's "The Lamentation over the Dead Christ".

Such moments, for me, are what make Peter Greenaway's films more endearing to the audience, despite the fact they are often times filled with macabre violence and are adamant in its departure from conventional storytelling. But as what Greenaway has once said, he is drawn towards a form of cinema that is truly non-narrative, and here in "Drowning by Numbers", a truly challenging film that plays a macabre numbers game on sex and death, it is very much evident.

Suggestive of the film's title, it is indeed, on surface level, about numbers and about drowning. But with Peter Greenaway, a filmmaker who, a year later, was able to create a cannibalistic parable in the form of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and subtly analogize it with the evils of Thatcherism, the thematic assumptions that's represented by the film's "Drowning by Numbers" title is just too deceptively simple and misleading.

But of course, the film sure has a semblance of a plot: A harmless-looking mother (Joan Plowright) and her two daughters (Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson), all of which are named Cissie, have this strange, almost fetishistic inclination of drowning their respective husbands and lovers. Along then comes Madgett (Bernard Hill), the local coroner who, because of his belief that the women will repay him with rich sexual favors, decides to help them in covering up their murderous deeds via falsely declared causes of deaths (heart attack and death by misadventure seem to be his favorites).

Again, the story seems so deceptively light and, in true noir tradition, formulaic. But let's again be reminded that Peter Greenaway is on the helm, so expect him to play cinema, a form that he has long believed to have died many years ago, into his utmost advantage and in complete conformity to his one-of-a-kind vision. With numbers 1 to 100 appearing randomly (but chronologically) all throughout the film, be it in the shirts of quirky joggers or tattooed into the skins of forlorn cows, Greenaway is, in a way, making his audience aware of the uncomfortable fact that death is always around the corner and that it is not a scythe-holding, black-hooded man that may bring it to us but mere numerals. This, from where I look at it, stays true to Greenaway's fear that "The pretence that numbers are not the humble creation of man, but are the exacting language of the Universe and therefore possess the secret of all things, is comforting, terrifying and mesmeric."

With his visual and thematic approach for this film, his apprehensive look at numbers surely and clearly shows, all while some calmly fatal horseplay of sex and murder proceeds in the foreground, not to mention some consistent feminist undertones that are reminiscent of femme fatale films of years past.

Interesting enough, what makes "Drowning by Numbers" such a resonant art film is not its utter thematic seriousness but its morbid playfulness that can be aptly mistaken as a form of harsh humor. Specifically, I'm talking about the film's unique integration of bizarre games (invented specifically for the film), all of which are explained in aching detail (by Madgett's son Smut, played by Jason Edwards), into the story. Granted, it may or may not be truly integral to the whole film, but then again, that's one of those artistic liberties that separate a true visionary like Greenaway from all the others. Adamant of not taking the easy way out, he was able to punctuate the film's claim that 'death' can be liken to a game in a very exciting and fresh manner (partnered with Michael Nyman's classical scoring).

Also, "Drowning by Numbers'" use of enforced repetition, which, for some, is quite discomforting in the context of storytelling, is fitting for the film's wholly playful nature. Some even argue that the film's story could have been easily told in 1 hour, but keep in mind that Peter Greenaway, essentially, is not a narrative filmmaker so the joke's on whoever said that. After all, Greenaway clings on to the belief that every medium has to undergo a kind of redevelopment and evolution. "Drowning by Numbers", by deconstructing the traditional means of telling a story, is a textbook example of such.

As a parting quote, Peter Greenaway has once stated that "We do have some ability to manipulate sex nowadays. We have no ability, and never will have, to manipulate death." Surely, that may be the case for our final hurrahs, but such is not the same case for film as an art form because it is independently powerful in its own right, and some form of manipulation, so as to attain a higher form of message transmission, emotional evocation and expression, wouldn't really hurt. Greenaway is quite aware of that fact.

Chungking Express
½

In the same year that Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" has unexpectedly revolutionized an entire film culture, a film entitled "Chungking Express", directed by one of Tarantino's film heroes, Wong Kar-wai, came forth with a similarly unique visual flair but on a wholly different emotional scale, and the rest, folks, is cinema history. With an imagery that resembles that of paintings created by the most turbulent-minded of artists and with an emotional center that seems so innocent yet so knowing, the film is a stimulating reminder of how nice it is to live and, more importantly, to love. Well, and also maybe some hints of how lovely it really is to eat (the film, after all, is filled with endless shots of food).

Shot mostly within the confines of a cheap but suggestively lucrative lunch shack named "Midnight Express", the film chronicles, in achingly beautiful sounds and colors, the story of two lovelorn police officers, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and how they painfully (and humorously) cope up with their romantic grief via their own personal idiosyncrasies. The first, a mid-twenties officer, is so pained by the estrangement of a certain girlfriend named May that he decides to buy a can of pineapple every single night until it piles up to 30. But the catch is that he only buys the ones that have an expiry date of May 1 (his birthday) so that when the said date finally comes and 'May' is still not back in his arms, it's only then that he can arrive at the conclusion that she really doesn't want him anymore, and that those fast-expiring pineapples need some desperate eating.

The second one, an officer literally living beside the airport, is silently devastated when her stewardess of a girlfriend has suddenly left him alone, needy and slightly schizophrenic, as he begins to talk to his stuff toys, console his towels and scold his soaps, among others.

But with utter disconnect, naturally, also comes a chance to connect anew. First, there's the mysterious, blond-wigged woman (Brigitte Lin), possibly a high-class low-life who has caught 223's love-hungry eyes. And then there's the infinitely quirkier Faye (Faye Wong), a short-haired young woman who's got this idiosyncratic affinity with the song "California Dreamin'". By emotionally patching these characters together to cope up with an increasingly apathetic Metropolitan existence with all their personal frustrations, vulnerabilities and imperfections intact, Wong Kar-wai has cleverly toned down "Chungking Express'" potentially overbearing angle on love to the point that the film itself is not anymore a dual tale of love but simply, in itself, a mere cinematic slice of life.

Well, granted, a more stylized version of life, that is, but still, with Wong Kar-wai's wisely organic yet weirdly fascinating approach on characterization and his purely artistic sensibility of merging his sometimes frantic but often times observant imagery with stirring music to create an audiovisual kaleidoscope, "Chungking Express" has attained a cinematic form that is wholly its own. Is the film a romantic fare? Sure, but it has something more to say than that. Is the film, then, an existential feature? Perhaps, but the film evokes so much joy and naïve wonder that problems of existence just cannot seem to feign its enthusiasm and vigor for life (and love) at all.

With those certain indecisions about the film's real categorization, I think it's more than safe to assume that "Chungking Express", in the process, has created a new, specific type of cinematic language, specifically on how it has meandered and reflected on the qualms of love and life yet preserves its pristine affinity to just breathe, hope and desire. If "Chungking Express'" main intent is to shake me out of my apathy and convince me into wandering the streets of wherever to search for a person who may or may not repay the love that I may offer, then the film has failed. The film, after all, is never an operational 'how to' guide on finding a lost soul to connect to. Instead, it is, more significantly, a film that shows the leaps and bounds of how a certain love is lost and once again found; of a life merely wasted and a life well-lived. "Chungking Express" is just a reminder of how beautiful and reassuring it is to know that in every stream of people you may come across, there's always that one person who may just return your smile with an even bigger, more luminescent one. And better yet, there may also be that someone who may just go their way to draw you a crude boarding pass that may bring you somewhere worthwhile.

"Chungking Express", with its one-of-a-kind cinematic approach, is more concerned, in the context of love and existence, on how to say things rather than what to say, how to feel than what to feel, and how to properly enunciate emotions rather than how to choose the right words for it. And for that, I fully commend it. Only few films can make you feel so alive, and only few films, simply put, can make you feel very fortunate of having seen them. This counts as one, and I hope that its ability to make people feel may last more than 223's pineapples.

Viridiana
Viridiana(1961)

My dear readers, I am back (Well, let's just pretend that I do have some deeply-devoted few) and kicking again after some months of art film deprivation. Nevertheless, with my personal cinematic drive seemingly back in its groove (hopefully), I am then here to review and share my thoughts about "Viridiana", a film that marks my return, after the slightly numbing Academy Awards season and the draining toll inflicted by the academe, to the ever-loving cradle of what I really care about the most: world cinema. And to add a certain side idea, it's in fact the Lenten season, so my viewing of "Viridiana" is not at all random but is, in fact, of certain religious relevance, albeit a slightly irreverent one (I'm planning to rewatch "Life of Brian" within this week, by the way).

Like majority of Luis Buñuel's creations, "Viridiana" is a comedic attack on Christianity and the bourgeoisie, but unlike his later, entirely elitist-lampooning satires like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "The Phantom of Liberty", "Viridiana" was also able to have enough time to examine the utterly savage tendencies of the unfortunate ones (in simple yet sad terms, 'paupers') when given enough wings to flap away from their plights. And although they were shown in the film as a genuinely sympathetic lot, Buñuel has also characterized them with a sort of fragile loyalty towards the proverbial hands that feed them, which makes the whole 'pity' thing towards them more weirdly elevated yet at the same time increasingly discomforting.

Honestly speaking, although Buñuel, for me, is certainly one of the boldest filmmakers there ever was, I always thought that the satirical nature of his films are always steeped in utter partiality (sans "Los Olvidados, of course); that is to say that he always solely attacks the populace of high society, and we love him for it. But surprisingly, "Viridiana" is a deeply refreshing exception.

Although the film itself is a dominantly psychosexual meditation on emotional repression that's centered mainly on the characters of Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), the melancholic widower, and Viridiana (the luminous Silvia Pinal), the soon-to-be consecrated nun, it was still able to successfully pass as a deliciously unnerving social satire that's centered upon the utterly self-destructive nature of altruism. In this regard, I am of course talking about Viridiana's unconditional assistance of the beggars (she has brought them to his Uncle Jaime's house after an unexpected tragedy), which has, sadly, backfired for the worse. Buñuel, in this film, is not much a surrealist but more of a highly-fevered and imagery-conscious social commentator who knows who to poke with his patented 'dig' (tickling but painful) in the ribs. The perennially humorless Catholic Church, which has officially denounced the film, has proven to be such an easy target. But ultimately, what is "Viridiana" really all about?

In a way, like Buñuel's later, more fetishistic "Belle de Jour", it is about the pains of sexual repression. But what makes "Viridiana" different is how it has tackled such an issue in a way that subtly pinpoints religious hypocrisy as the culprit as to why it pervades existence. Yet in the end, the film still has enough discoursing power left to highlight the fact that an attempt at carnality still isn't the answer. And in an ending that is both dark and innuendo-laden, it is slightly suggested that sex, in such a context, is nothing but a savage trap; a superficial card game; a painful punch line. Such is the sad, sad comedy of existence, as seen through the camera lens of the very bold Luis Buñuel.

Lincoln
Lincoln(2012)

Honest Abe, the Liberator, the Great Emancipator. Throughout the course of human history, or to be more exact, the human understanding of history, Abraham Lincoln has always been highly considered as a pinnacle icon of human nobility, and numerous films have been made about him. From John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" (starring Henry Fonda) to the insanely random "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", Honest Abe has always been ubiquitous in the annals of cinema. But do you know what's the only thing lacking? Yes, you've guessed right, a proper biopic that would cater to a modern audience. And that, my friends, is just what director Steven Spielberg has given us: a version of Abraham Lincoln that wouldn't kill vampires for pleasure or would just serve as a supporting snippet for a Nostradamus documentary (D.W. Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln") but one that would really make us feel how it is to be a pressured leader whose sole purpose is to deliver his country from prejudice and bondage.

It of course stars one of the greatest actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, as the eponymous American president, a role that has deservedly given him his third Academy Award (although my heart still have a soft spot for Joaquin Phoenix's performance in "The Master"). Even from this film's early stages of pre-production, I was keen enough to follow the latest developments, specifically when Liam Neeson has surprisingly decided to vacate the lead role. In a way, when Neeson left the cast, I thought the film will certainly be shelved. But then, the great news has struck me: according to reports, Daniel Day-Lewis has agreed to replace Neeson as Lincoln. And then just like that, the film's first production picture, that of DDL sitting with a humble grin, came out; Day-Lewis, even in his casual, non-19th century garb, looks spot-on as the much-venerated president. From that moment on, with him looking more Abraham Lincoln than Abraham Lincoln himself, I just knew it: Daniel Day-Lewis will make history as the first actor to nab 3 Best Actor Oscars. And bless the Oracle of Delphi, made he did.

Although "Lincoln", as a period biopic, sometimes lacks the particular liveliness that characterizes the genre, Day-Lewis' performance and Steve Kushner's exquisitely written screenplay was able to work hand-in-hand to carry the whole film through. And for Spielberg, who, for this film, is surprisingly subtle in his sentimentalism, his choice of where to approach Lincoln's humanity was perfect, and that is through Abe's humbling skill as a storyteller. Instead of utilizing some emotionally swaying speeches (hell, the Gettysburg address has not even seen the light of day), Spielberg has filtered Lincoln's influential personality through his witty retelling of various anecdotes and whatnot, which makes him all the more endearing and instantly reachable not just for the characters that surround him but also for us viewers. In this case, myth-making works the other way around: this time, a veneer of enigma won't certainly do Abe Lincoln's personality justice. What's needed is a dose of humble humanity and some hints of vulnerability, which this film has taken on with class.

Consider the brief scene when Abe's son is sleeping on the floor. Instead of immediately bringing him to his bed, Abe, uncharacteristic of a larger-than-life leader, slowly hunched his posture and lied down on the floor with his son. Despite the film's abundance of memorable images, this is the scene that has stayed with me the most. Perhaps the film is suggesting that more than being a father of an entire nation, Lincoln is also the patriarch of a simple family, and in many cases, it's as important to be good as the latter as it is to be great as the former.

Again, Spielberg was able to display his exceptional range as a director in this film; that he can be subtle as he can be emotionally preachy and that he can direct sequences of massive proportions the same way he can execute smaller scenes of emotional resonance. If ever this film has proven anything, aside of course from Daniel Day-Lewis' flawless acting prowess (not to mention the film's great supporting cast that is headlined by the great Sally Field and the grumpy-looking yet very witty Tommy Lee Jones) which has given life and character to a man whom we have never even seen in actual footage or even heard deliver speeches, then it is Spielberg's utter completeness as a filmmaker.

But then again, after all is said and done, this film is solely Abraham Lincoln's: A man who has shaken the status quo for the sake of a higher purpose, a man who has delivered America from the ruthless hands of slavery, and a man who, simply put, has forever changed the face of human history.

The Master
The Master(2012)

Many have been said regarding "The Master's" conspicuous allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and his church of Scientology, especially in how 'The Cause', the fictional religious group in the film, uncannily mirrors the said religion's intricate (but ultimately questionable) teachings. But after my first viewing of the film, I can really say that "The Master" is so much more than a quasi-satirical take on a controversial religion. More importantly, it is notable to mention that the film, amid its weird psychoanalytic vibe, is a piece brewing with enthralling character dynamics that are as involving as they are alienating, realized to utmost perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in what may be the best acting ensemble of 2012.

Fresh from his mock acting piece (chronicled in the Casey Affleck-directed film "I'm Still Here") which involves a Zach Galifianakis-like beard and some hip-hop music, Joaquin Phoenix, in one of 2012's best performances bar no role specifications, returns with a vengeance as the disturbed naval veteran Freddie Quell. A quintessential image of a wasted wanderer, Freddie does not know what to do or where to go next after a suggestively traumatic experience during the Second World War. But unexpectedly, one night after randomly boarding a yacht, he meets Lancaster Dodd, the multi-faceted leader of 'The Cause', who has developed an instant liking to Freddie's personality and, more specifically, to his paint thinner-infused booze. Slowly, they develop an erratic and openly psychoanalytic relationship that has also made an instant believer out of Freddie, even when Lancaster, as even what his own son has hypothesized, is merely making up the numerous doctrines of his religion as he goes along.

By fully imposing this complexly well-weaved relationship all throughout the film, Paul Thomas Anderson was able to make up for "The Master's" lack of narrative drive, and in that aspect, he has succeeded. But truth be told, "The Master" is no "There Will Be Blood", or does it even come close to being something akin to it. With quite a lack of thematic cohesion and a sense of narrative direction, "The Master", after a promising first half, falters both in power and energy in the second half, which leaves me very disappointed to say the least, especially considering the fact that this is my most anticipated film of 2012. Just like Joaquin Phoenix's character in the film, Paul Thomas Anderson appears to be quite lost, and it reflects in the film as it goes along, with both positive and negative repercussions.

In a way, being thematically directionless as a filmmaker adds to the overall mood and visual language of a film, and with "The Master", PTA's seemingly aimless psychological and science fiction-like philosophical jabbering is a great plus. But on the other hand, it's also the very same aspect that has squeezed out the film's strengths dry, until it reaches a conclusion that's characterized with a sort of hastened optimism.

For the record, he has never been this abstract since "Punch-Drunk Love", but also for the record, he has never been this optimistic, character development-wise, since, well, "Boogie Nights". But thanks to the film's stoic and sometimes emotionless imagery and its mercurial musical scoring that range from the relaxing to the downright unsettling, "The Master" was able to achieve a thoroughly frightening psychological undercurrent despite the fact that the film, after all, is heading towards a quite reassuring finale. Ultimately, the film, at least from where I see it, is all about the mystifying but deeply harmonizing relationship between man and religion. Unexpectedly, "The Master" has turned out to be more than just a brooding character study of a man lost between the harshness of his own reality and the emotional retreat that the so-called 'opiate of the masses' can offer; it is, after all, a quite comforting film that confronts religious cynicism and looks at it straight in the eye with the confidence of a newly reformed man.

In a way, "The Master" is a subtle criticism to those who criticize the truth to a particular religion, and for a seemingly cynical filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson, it is a truly welcoming sight. Now, I may sound stupid, but "The Master", with its insightful look at the interconnectedness of religion, psychology and sexuality, seems to remind me of a specific, Mormon-centric "South Park" episode entitled, well, "All About Mormons". In it, a kind-hearted Mormon boy named Gary, after hearing so much crap from Stan and his inquisitive statements regarding the veracity of Mormonism, suddenly manned up and delivered a most profound litany that is both a response to Stan and an address to us all: "Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that."

That quote, for me, is the essence of "The Master", specifically in the context of Freddie's emotional and psychological development. Yes, perhaps, my analysis of the film may be a tad too optimistic for some, but that's how I have made out the film. After sifting through much of my thoughts while writing this review, I still do think that I have arrived at a very justifiable conclusion. "The Master", in many ways, is a celebratory probe into the ever-changing nature of the human person. The only catch is that it doesn't look and feel like one.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
½

For some reasons unclear to me, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has never really piqued my interest before. Despite the fact that the visually innovative Tom Tykwer is at the directorial helm, my inclination to watch this film is quite lukewarm at best mainly because, well, I just don't know why. But seeing the film in all its glorious bizarreness and vivid peculiarity after all of those apathetic years, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has turned out to be quite an exhilarating cinematic surprise.

Later, I then found out that the novel on which the film was adapted from is a personal favorite of Kurt Cobain (because he was able to identify with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's outsider mentality), which naturally leaves me even more intrigued to read it. After all, nothing beats a dose of literary alienation every now and then.

Starring Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born in a most conducive environment of rotten fishes and market filth who has since mastered an almost superhuman attention to scent, the film starts out in a fashion reminiscent of Danny DeVito's underrated film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Matilda." Although on the opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of tone, atmosphere and character development, both films have captured the elusive beauty of introductory storytelling with a sort of effortless vibe, enhanced, of course, by two great narrative voices: the former being Danny DeVito's very own, and the latter being John Hurt's monastic yet commanding tenor. But before I get carried away by my comparison of a grotesquely obsessive tale to a heart-warming children's story, I'll just stop right there.

At the time (2006) considered as the most expensive German film ever made, that fact is very evident in how the film was visually conveyed. By maintaining the architectural grace of 18th century Paris yet at the same time ornamenting it with the mud, dirt and decay caused by sheer overpopulation, Tom Tykwer, known for his audacious visuals (Remember "Run Lola Run?"), has convincingly turned Paris into the sort of city Charles Dickens' characters could have easily lived their respective plights on. But for Grenouille the aspiring master perfumer and scent savant, played with starry-eyed perfection by Ben Whishaw, Paris, abundantly stinky and all, is nothing but olfactory practice.

Despite his less than trivial birth, Grenouille knows that he is bound for something more transcendentally important, so with his grandiose ambitions intact, he then sets his eyes, err, nose, for something infinitely bigger than just merely creating a pedestrian perfume: and that is to create a scent made entirely out of natural, human fragrance. And how can he do that, you may ask? Well, watching this great film on your own to find out definitely won't hurt.

With great veteran talents (Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman) leading the way, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" turns out to be more than just a visual feast. Although Hoffman and Rickman's performances may slightly be criticized mainly because of the fact that they haven't tried hard enough to completely disappear into their roles (Hoffman quite labors on the Italian accent; Alan Rickman is just too Judge Turpin), the story's twisted yet serene soul more than makes up for the convincing yet fleeting performances, especially when Grenouille, the emotionally lost perfumer himself, slowly tunes up the band for the shocking final crescendo that will surely part the viewers like the Red Sea.

Suffice it to say, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has never quite reached the relative popularity of the Patrick Süskind novel, but still, for someone who believes that film adaptations should be judged separately from their source materials, I think that this one should have received an infinitely more favorable reception. But for the sake of discourse, aren't you curious of what Kubrick may have done with this one? Or what Polanski may have added to it? Or what Scorsese may have changed? But then again, despite of those mammoth cinematic names that were, at one point or another, either attached or has shown interest to direct this film (add Ridley Scott and Milos Forman there), I still believe that this Tykwer version is enough. Like Grenouille's 'human' perfume itself, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a hypnotic creation that exudes a kind of flawed beauty so haunting and unique that you have no other choice but be willingly spellbound by it.

Let the Right One In

Hindered by an unrelenting flow of school works and an unexpected visit of a debilitating headache, my film viewing momentum, as compared to last month, was relatively slowed down, to say the least. But nonetheless, I was still able to muster enough strength to watch two films, and this one counts as the first. Of course, with "Let the Right One In" being about a gothic love story between a bullied pre-adolescent boy and an isolated vampire girl, jokes about how this film is 'a much better love story than "Twilight"' will surely enter the discourse, which is, by the way, increasingly becoming very irritating.

In more ways than one, "Let the Right One In", a film that merely runs for no longer than two hours, has perhaps captured the essence of a bloodthirsty romance without much narrative stretching (recall the "Twilight" 'saga') and unneeded sparkles. Starring two completely unknown actors, the film, set in the frozen landscapes of Blackeberg (in Stockholm), is about a deeply unsettling yet strangely charming romance between two youngsters, the introvert Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and the enigmatic Eli (Lina Leandersson), and how it affects, in unpredictable and horrific ways, the seemingly sterile existence of those around them.

With Tomas Alfredson being a filmmaker that prioritizes unnerving silence, motionlessness and deliberate yet tense pacing (which is also evident in his later film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy") more than uncalled-for thrills and cheap cinematic trickeries, "Let the Right One In" was able to channel the story's highly supernatural premise with an infinitely more organic feel. With Alfredson being quite open about his nonchalant perspective towards the vampire mythos, he has completely removed the devilishly mythological aura that encapsulates the iconic vampire persona (only retaining the most basic ones, such as how the creature is easily burnt by sunlight, how they are quite immortal etc.) and instead overpowers it only with the very core essence of what motivates vampires to kill: their unquenchable thirst for blood.

With only these vampiric elements intact, Tomas Alfredson, although still conscious of the legendary stature of the creature he is tackling, has unexpectedly created something "John Hughes-esque" in the process, which easily connects with the audience on an emotional and personal level despite the fact that the film is centered on the blood trails of a young vampire. Alas, "Let the Right One In", a film that balances out the drama, comedy and uneasy love found deep within the heart of pre-adolescent existence, is indeed a very affectionate coming-of-age drama. And amid the film's shocking displays of blood-drenched violence, the film's themes were still compelling enough to power through the film's surface horrors and tell what might be, in a relatively long while, the most weirdly endearing tale of young love there is and also realize one of the most visually and thematically provocative explorations of a perfect yet seemingly improbable romantic connection found at the unlikeliest of situations (the film, after all, is based on a novel).

But if there ever was an aspect that I admire most about "Let the Right One In", then it is how it has managed to make a vampire as formidably scary as possible yet was also able to tread the possibility that, after all, those vampiric hearts that vampire hunters keep on stabbing may just be beating cold meats waiting to let the right warmth in. Regardless of their highly distorted outlook on man-woman relationships, perhaps the likes of Count Orlok can truly attest to that, and so can Eli, a blood-thirsty (not to mention immortal) young girl who may have just ironically found her salvation, purpose and emotional growth in a most mortal love.

Amour
Amour(2012)

Love stories on films are meant to make us feel a sense of sweetness within. Be it through chance encounters, tender reconciliations or mutual affections that extend through time, romance films are those extra sugar cubes that sweeten the occasional bitterness in our lives. But what if a film suddenly enters our collective consciousness, dare proclaiming that love, after all, is not really all about flowers and chocolates but, in its very essence, all about pain? "Amour", a most devastating film by Michael Haneke, may just be that very film, and trust me, if this won't add a much-needed depth to your outlook on love, then I believe nothing will.

Although I sure do think, without a single doubt in my mind, that "Amour" is one of the absolute best films of the year (if not the very best), the film's style and execution, especially in its lack of musical scoring and often stagnant shots, may surely off-put some viewers. But for some who consider silence and subtlety as two of the most powerful tools in conveying emotions and whatnot, then "Amour" will surely impress.

With two French screen legends in the form of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (with Isabelle Huppert on the side) joining emotional forces to tell us a tale that may very well be the most truthful love story there is, "Amour" has managed to be unforgettably tender and powerfully disquieting at the same time. With no formal narrative to guide the film save for the elderly couple's (played by Trintignant and Riva) confined everyday lives, "Amour" is that rare kind of film that gets its strength not from the plot basics but from the very essence of the characters that inhabit it, and we only have the aforementioned screen legends to thank for it.

Trintignant, who I have first set my eyes upon (and loved) in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist", is honest, understated and very romantically proud as Georges, a retired music teacher who is suddenly faced with the biggest challenge of love when Anne (Riva), her wife, was suddenly rendered half-paralyzed by a surgery gone wrong.

As naturally effortless as he is overwhelmingly moving, Trintignant's Georges goes through the debilitating burden of taking care of his ill-stricken spouse with a mountainous sense of dignity and individualism. Although Haneke has molded the character with an inscrutable sense of pride, we are nevertheless drawn to painfully empathize with his situation because it's all too real and also because, at one point or another, we'll just be like him. I, for one, slightly know how he feels. My great grandmother, in her dying days, was exactly just like Anne, and I had the privilege to take care of her through two sleepless nights.

This therefore brings me to Emmanuelle Riva's unbelievably realistic performance as Georges' better half. Yes, Emmanuelle Riva, the very same, conflicted woman in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" whose beauty contrasts the said film's tumultuous romantic themes, now bedridden and merely speaking in tongues. As much as "Amour" is an honest evocation of the final frontiers of love, it's also a film that's knee-deep in demythologization, specifically in how Michael Haneke has reduced an immortal screen beauty like Emmanuelle Riva into nothing more than an old, dying woman pitifully confined within the four corners of a reclining bed. Riva's portrayal of Anne, for me, is not really a performance per se but more a bitter confrontation of both reality and mortality, and it's just quite stunning to behold.

"Amour", Michael Haneke's most personal film (the events in "Amour" is based on his first-hand experiences of dealing with his disease-stricken aunt) and may also be the most truthful one in relation to who he really is as a filmmaker, is a clear-cut masterpiece. Once known for his violently polarizing films, Haneke has now made a film so romantically powerful that it makes you forget that the film, after all, stars two elderly people.

Admittedly, there will come a point in our lives where we'll go all apprehensive about growing old and whether or not the hands we're holding on right now, as the best years of our lives slowly fade away, will still hold on tight. "Amour", a film that proves unto me that there will always be beauty in subtlety, reassures me that, yes, they definitely will. Faith in love: quite restored.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
½

As far as back as I can remember, there's always that one 'Sundance' film that gets a token Oscar nod for 'Best Picture' every year. But naturally, it usually does not have any chance of winning despite the fact that it is often far superior to half of its competition. For me, that's the Oscars subtly telling the independent film scene that "that's as far as you can go". Such is the case for "Beasts of the Southern Wild", a quasi-fantasy, coming-of-age film that really isn't (based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar).

With some sheds of "Pan's Labyrinth" in how it has seamlessly enjoined both fantasy and reality in a single continuum, the film is certainly quite refreshing and original. Being a film that's really quite hard to describe, just imagine this: What if a less cynical Werner Herzog and a less abstract Terrence Malick decide to team up and co-direct a children's film? Can you picture it? It's with a kind of profound narration and transcendental music, right? Yeah, that's pretty much how "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks and feels like.

For a film whose visuals rely heavily on images of poverty and semi-submerged squalor, "Beasts of the Southern Wilds" surprisingly lacks any embedded social messages. Instead, what the film has done is substitute a potentially pedestrian tackling of poverty with a completely unique exploration of innocence and pride that's finely fitted within an engrossing, quasi-magical atmosphere.

Throughout the film, there's a relatively fascinating establishment of the return of the aurochs, an ancient group of giant wild boars that has lived millions of years ago, presumably for a kind of reckoning. But to first set the record straight, aurochs are actually direct ancestors of the modern cattle and not of wild boars, which is quite puzzling to me as to why the makers of the film did not fully rename the creature instead. But at this point, we do not care anymore because one, the film is utterly justified in this aspect because it is structured within a reality of its own, and two, because the film has a far more important angle to cover, and that is the roller coaster relationship between Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and his hot-headed father Wink (Dwight Henry).

Together, both characters, thanks to Benh Zietlin's involving direction and both actors' heart-aching performances (Dwight Henry should have received an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Am I asking for too much?), dance in the rhythm of great dramatic chemistry without really trying hard to do so, all while the film's more fantastical nature unravels quite masterfully on the side. But then again, the very same 'fantasy elements' that have been laid down piece by piece with such care is the very same aspect that has quite disappointed me. For a person who has expected an equal distribution of both fantasy and reality, I ended up asking for more from the former. But if you come to think of it, the presence of the aurochs in the film is never intended to be quite literal just like how Aslan in the "Chronicles of Narnia" is. What it actually is, at least in my view, is a mountainously symbolic representation of Hushpuppy's ultimate 'test' before she can actually, as what the plot summary states, 'learn the way of courage and love', and it's quite effective because it gives the film a heightened sense of mythological resonance.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild", an uncommon film of visual and thematic grace, is forged out of a unique cinematic spirit and genuine human warmth. The people of Baththub (that's what the film's water-surrounded town is called), although burdened by their difficult and relatively uncivilized way of life and are constantly being antagonized by welfare workers trying to get them out of there, is certainly a proud lot, and Hushpuppy, a girl that knows and feels more than the average kid, is slowly learning that pride, after all, is not that of a bad thing. While Wink, his father, has learned that crying is not a sign of emasculation but a vital proof of life. Indeed, the characters have learned something throughout the course of the film, and so have I.

Les Misérables

Certainly the most visually stunning film of the year, "Les Misérables" is no doubt a musical picture of epic proportions that's passionately held together by numerous powerful performances. Running close to 3 hours, the film is indeed a cinematic dream come true for musical fans, but may also prove to be quite an extensive chore to watch for non-musical lovers. In a way, the song numbers may often tend to delay the film's otherwise smooth narrative progression, which is truly a proof of how musicals are more focused on prioritizing moods, emotions and internal turbulence rather than the stories themselves. As a song number ends and another one begins, I can't help but notice the audience's numerous laughs of disbelief as they uncomfortably twitch and readjust in their seats. "Les Misérables", despite its all-star cast and visual spectacle, is indeed not for everyone. But nonetheless, it's still powerful stuff, with Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman leading the way.

Peter Greenaway, a visionary independent filmmaker, has once suggested that film adaptations (specifically Jane Austen's) are nothing but wastes of time. This statement may prove to be quite apt to this recent cinematic incarnation of "Les Misérables", but there's something in this Tom Hooper-directed version that is just quite transcendent to behold. One of them, quite naturally, is the performances, which were all elevated by a sense of both larger-than-life romanticism and subtle humanity. But the one who has really moved me close to tears is Anne Hathaway's performance as Fantine. Enhanced by the film's stylistic preference of capturing the song numbers in stark close-up shots (quite reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc") rather than in flowing camera movements, Ms. Hathaway has delivered what may be the best performance of the year and the greatest of her career so far. Honestly, her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is just so emotionally perfect and devastatingly heart-breaking that even at this very moment while writing this review, I'm still having some goose bumps. With echoes of Maria Falconetti in her performance, Anne Hathaway, despite her short screen time, has proven that although Jean Valjean's (Hugh Jackman) path to redemption is the real focus of "Les Misérables", it was her Fantine that is the anchoring soul of the film. I'm not exaggerating here or anything, but I do think that Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" scene is already worth the price of admission alone.

But as expected, Hugh Jackman, whose resume boasts of a Tony award, is also pitch perfect in the role of Jean Valjean, who's just effortless in his embodiment of the character's rapid emotional transitions, usually from emotional fury to silent gentility and then back again. But let's not also forget Russell Crowe in the very complex role of Javert, who is very believable in his portrayal of the said character's adherence to both blind justice and pure conviction. Although his voice, as what other people complain about, quite lacks the power and range needed for such a crucial character, his facial expressions and imposing presence more than makes up for it. There's also the film's sleeper performance in the form of Samantha Barks' Eponine, who just shined in the role, especially in her "On My Own" number. On the other hand, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, although in their usual element, never quite did it for me because, well, they're just too humorously ho-hum in their roles.

Admittedly, "Les Misérables" is a film that's quite dated in its themes and very derivative in its revolutionary spirit. But nonetheless, it was still able to connect with me on a very nationalistic level specifically because of its numerous parallels with Jose Rizal's (Philippines' National Hero) "Noli Me Tangere" and "El Filibusterismo". As the film reaches its final crescendo and as the screen goes to black, it's as if I've watched an actual West End production, but this time with all of "Les Misérables'" 'sound and fury' magnified a hundredfold. "Les Misérables", an emotionally overwhelming musical film, is a textbook example of how stunning the marriage of stage and film can be when done right.

Argo
Argo(2012)

First, he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. And then, he went on to direct a fine adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, which was then followed by a tense, Boston-set crime thriller. But despite all those, many are still quite unsure as to whether or not Ben Affleck is really more than just a pretty face and if he really is a capable filmmaker and screenwriter. This perception of him, of course, can mainly be attributed to cinematic abominations such as "Gigli" and "Pearl Harbor", both of which he had unfortunately starred in. Here then enters "Argo", a gripping thriller that may surely turn even the most extreme Affleck skeptics into instant believers. Well, although I won't completely go out of my way as to call Affleck a bad filmmaker, I'm honestly not that deeply awed of his directorial body of work prior to this film. Intrigued by what he can do, maybe, but not that much. But this time around, count me in as one of them converts; "Argo" is indeed an insanely great film.

Being a regular inhabitant at Cracked (a very intelligent comedy website), I was able to constantly scan through numerous well-written humor articles that tackle relatively obscure historical/political facts and stories. One of them, obviously, is the very story of "Argo" itself, which has fascinated me (and made me laugh at some point, naturally) to high heavens when I first read it. Yet weird enough, when "Argo" was released, I haven't the slightest idea that it is indeed about the said 'Cracked' article. Instead, what I thought the film will be is something akin to a mere stylistic copy of Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer". But boy was I wrong.

Packed with just the right amount of endearing characterization, tense sequences and moments of genuine humor, "Argo" is easily one of the best films of the year specifically because of how it has managed to be both politically compelling and entertaining at the same time, with great supporting performances by Alan Arkin and John Goodman (as the legendary Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers) to boot. As for Affleck's performance itself, it is, in no way, very memorable, especially when he's in scenes alongside Walter White, er, Bryan Cranston, who's just perfect in that bureaucratic CIA role. But even though Affleck's acting is not much of a revelation (his first choice for the role was not himself but Brad Pitt), the real star in this film is his inspired directorial effort; that and the beauty of 'science fiction' itself, which the film was able to subtly highlight.

Of course, with "Argo" being a politically-charged film, its closeness to the truth is surely a great question, especially in its depiction of the Iranian populace and the real role of Canada in the accomplishment of the rescue mission. But for me, "Argo" is really not much about politics. Instead, what I think the film is actually all about is how seemingly contradictory forces (the Hollywood and the Government; Canada and the USA) can do an almost miraculous difference, all with the help of a make-believe planet and some storyboard aliens.

Like 2011's "Hugo", "Argo", although very sublimely at that, is a tribute to the power of movies, and how it's not just a medium where we're able to discover the intricacies of life, but one which can also save some. And who would have thought that it will be some cheaply-imagined science fiction tale that can do such? "Argo", despite its heavily political nature, is an understated celebration of the imagination.

For the longest time, the science fiction genre has been widely considered as the ultimate form of 'escape'. Indeed, in many cases, it actually is, what with its abundance of colorful interplanetary creatures, silver-clad heroes and interstellar adventures. But let's not forget that, for once, it was also instrumental for actually pulling off quite a literal one. "Argo", a stunningly inspired sleeper of a film, will forever remind us of that fact.

Zero Dark Thirty

It is official. Kathryn Bigelow has done the meagerly impossible, and that is to top his Best Picture winner that is "The Hurt Locker". Far more ambitious, dense and a tad more entertaining, "Zero Dark Thirty" is the 'War on Terror' film to end all 'War on Terror' films; quite funny, really, because the film does not even feature any scenes of actual warfare at all. And quite funnier, still, is the fact that the film was initially offered to Kathryn Bigelow's ex-flame James Cameron, who then declined the offer stating that he'd rather stick with his blue Pandora natives. Suddenly, I can imagine Bigelow, like Tura Satana in a Russ Meyer film, standing tall, stating "Look who's laughing yet again!?"

"Zero Dark Thirty", in simple description, is an intense reenactment of what might be the most important 'cat-and-mouse' chase of the 21st century, and perhaps also the most controversial and polarizing, all thanks to one man (Osama bin Laden) and his merry band of terrorists (the whole of Al-Qaeda). Alright, granted, there was that little Saddam Hussein sideshow which has populated news media while this bin Laden search is commencing. But what separates Osama Bin Laden's case from that of Saddam's, although very similar in nature, is the former's almost mythical quality. Is bin Laden a real person? Is he still alive? Where in the world is he hiding? (Morgan Spurlock comes to mind) These are the questions which have constantly boggled our minds for years as we go on with our everyday lives. At one time, I have even seen a news item on TV (Or have I read it somewhere? My memory regarding the matter is much too hazy) stating that Osama bin Laden, the most notoriously feared person this side of the world, has finally died of Tuberculosis. Damn, I thought, that would have been very anticlimactic for a man who has lived a life of constant danger and, for a lack of a better term, adventure. But alas, the news item, as it turns out, is not true. Indeed, Osama bin Laden is that little Boogeyman in our sleep that not even our brave teddy bears can fend off.

For years, we have lived in both fear and fantasy. All of us, in one way or another, have dreamt of scenarios which involve us, bin Laden himself, and some apt armaments. If my memory serves me well, there's a viral computer game way back that's mainly focused on realizing just that. In the game, you are a terrorist hunter (If I'm not mistaken!) trying to take down bin Laden with a pistol, who was revealed to be hiding inside a liquor store located in the very heart of mainland America (!). Oh and there's also that 'Miniclip' game which finds George W. Bush himself under attack by terrorist forces inside none other than the White House itself! As expected, we play as the M-16-armed Bush as he goes all "Harrison Ford" against the, presumably, Al-Qaeda terrorists.

Indeed, we have lived this life of utter, teeth-gnashing fantasy of finally putting an end to the path of carnage and destruction that these terror bringers are leaving. Hell, even "South Park" had such a wet dream (See "Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants" episode). And now, finally seeing "Zero Dark Thirty", I personally have arrived to a satisfying denouement. No more flash games and no more South Park parodies. We have finally come to a conclusion, and this time, it's very real. The absence of the cadaver's picture irks the little 'Conspiracy Keanu' in me, but still, it's quite a sigh of relief that the Time Magazine's 'Man of the Decade' (in a twisted alternative universe) has finally met his demise.

For a film with a running time of close to 3 hours, "Zero Dark Thirty" has steadily maintained both the abundance of tension and interest in the narrative mainly because of the film's visual realism, heart-thumping suspense and a central character that we actually quite care about. For the latter aspect, I have to thank Jessica Chastain for giving a commanding yet ultimately affecting performance as Maya, a young CIA agent who may have just arrived at a lead that may bring them to bin Laden himself. And better yet, with his pants down. By way of Chastain's character, Bigelow has just proven that she has indeed mastered the essence of politically-charged thrillers, which is the combination of tension and humanity. In my opinion, she is in no way an action movie director. Instead, she merely filters the action through the eyes of her central characters, and how it unfolds in a way that affects their very beings. For that matter, I think that Kathryn Bigelow is more apt to be labeled as an 'action dramatist'.

No opening credits and not even a proper title card, the film, like a politician who immediately cuts to the chase by stating "Just vote for me, you sons of bitches," brings us immediately into the heart of the action, which involves the brutally persuasive art of interrogation. These scenes, as we all know, have left some people in utter outrage and adamant defense.

"Those (the interrogation techniques used in the film) are highly inaccurate and are nothing but pure movie-making mash," says the CIA. "This film advocates torture and should be boycotted," says one A.M.P.A.S. member. As for me, the interrogation details are highly irrelevant to "Zero Dark Thirty's" quality as a film; in the context of a purely accurate film maybe, but not as a riveting thriller, because it has lots to boast of in terms of that. Maybe those commenting against the film should watch a different one altogether; maybe they'll fancy "Taxi to the Dark Side" more, which is a powerful documentary, by the way, that will, in many ways, nicely complement "Zero Dark Thirty".

It's just some mere hours ago since I've watched the film, and believe me, there's a distinct kind of lasting sensation that goes home with you way after the film is over. Was it satisfaction? Perhaps it is. But I need a better term. Oh, 'catharsis' maybe, about the idea that finally, our world is one evil, bearded man less. But that's also where I'm a bit apprehensive. That after all, Osama bin Laden is just one man; just a thin metal piece in the whole industrial-sized umbrella. Suddenly, I'm a terrorist hunter in a liquor store again.

Nanook of the North
½

While watching "Nanook of the North", I sure can sense the fact that some of the scenes were staged. But after finding out that the film was indeed not a hundred percent spontaneous and unscripted, "Nanook of the North", for me, has still lost none of its power. So what if the film isn't particularly authentic through and through? Let's take Werner Herzog's documentaries as great cases in point. Like "Lessons of Darkness" and the even more experimental "The Wild Blue Yonder", Herzog's documentaries were filled with actual footage only made metaphysically adventurous by half-cryptic, half-poetic narrations, which forge otherworldly narratives in the process. In Robert J. Flaherty's case, his main intent has none of Herzog's maddening grandiosity. Instead, his only goal is to plainly highlight, with honest anthropological eyes, the plight and bittersweet adventures of the Eskimos in the northernmost part of America, but with an anchoring main character to cohesively hold the film together.

For me, the issue of non-authenticity in "Nanook of the North" is unimportant because as long as a story compels and drags you in a world previously unseen, then that, I think, is more than enough. And what about the hardships endured by Flaherty's crew themselves during the film's extraneous shoot? Isn't that an amazing feat in its own right? I do think so. "Nanook of the North", even for that reason alone, is worthy of all the recognition that it has gotten across time. But aside from that, I do think that the film itself is also a great example of cinematic determination at its infancy, but that does not make it any smaller compared to the hardships of today's industry. Let's just say that Robert J. Flaherty, even before Werner 'The Mad German Genius' Herzog was born, was already going all "Fitzcarraldo" in the deep arctic way before it was cool (pun not intended, by the way).

The film, about the titular Eskimo and their everyday Exodus towards one simple goal (food), is a bittersweet documentation of what goes on in a place where technology and civilization is all but absent and where Walrus meat are one of the very few luxuries. Nanook (Allakariallak), the patriarch, is an experienced hunter who literally goes through thick and thin just to provide food and shelter for his family, complete with an almost irremovable smile on his face. For a film that is fully bent on visually tackling the turbulent topography of the arctic, "Nanook of the North" is also filled with countless scenes of tear-inducing poignancy, candidness, and awe-inspiring naivety, some of them being scenes involving Nanook and his son.

In one scene, we even see Nanook, after trading goods with the so-called 'white man' trader in exchange for meager articles (money, after all, is immaterial to them), listens, with profound wonderment, to the quasi-magical sound coming from a phonograph. After doing so, Nanook, after being handed a vinyl record by the white man, first puts it near his ear, and then his mouth. The next thing we know, he is biting on it just like how we see 'Tarzan-like' characters do so in many movies.

As a viewer, one can't help but to laugh at his utter ignorance. But in a way, one can also feel how enviable people like Nanook really are, especially when their tender innocence and their advantage of not knowing much evokes a sense of pure joy commonly unseen among highly civilized and decorum-following folks. As the old adage goes, sometimes, "ignorance is bliss."

But apart from "Nanook of the North's" heart-thumping poignancy, the film is also chock-full of scenes which showcase Nanook and company's excellent craftsmanship, despite of the fact that they are miles removed from actual civilization. There's a moment in the film where Nanook, after building an igloo along with his family, picks up a glassy block of ice which he then proceeds to incorporate into their make-shift shelter. As it turns out, Nanook has turned it into a glass window perfect for their igloo. After that, Nanook then puts an additional block of ice beside it; this, as it appears to be, will serve as a sunlight reflector so that the interior of their igloo will be sufficiently lighted.

So with that, we will go back to the initial inquiry as to whether or not scenes like the ones mentioned above were indeed authentic or merely staged. For me, the question of whether the film really deserves to be labeled as the first documentary film in cinematographic history is highly insignificant because "Nanook of the North", scripted or not, improvisational or otherwise, is nevertheless a film that intensely channels both the spirit of adventure and the resilience of the human body amid the constant prospect of an icy death. Flaherty, in this film, may not be a documentarian in the purest sense of the word, but he has sure attained a level of cinematic humanism still untouched at the time.

Personally, Flaherty's constant capturing of Nanook's smile, which automatically spreads across his face almost immediately after his close brushes with certain death, just reminds me of the fact that both happiness and contentment have no geographical limits or ends. Ironically, I never expected that it is in the chilling coldness of the deep arctic that I shall find and relish what may be the most flawless documentation of human warmth there is. Until now, I can't remove Nanook's smile off my mind; so pure, so human and so true.

Zabriskie Point

At the height of the American counterculture scene, a certain auteur named Michelangelo Antonioni, because of contractual obligations with producer Carlo Ponti and MGM, has set out to create "Zabriskie Point", an anti-consumerist film about the tattered fabrics of late '60s Americana. As we all know, the film, after being a critical and commercial disaster upon its initial release, has since amassed, among viewers, a silent cult following.

For a film about counterculture (or, to a certain extent, even entirely counter-American), such 360-degree turn in terms of audience perception is just rebelliously perfect. In a way, it's as if the film, after being initially misunderstood, has emerged victorious against an improbable adversary. Antonioni, an artistic outsider merely dipping his fingers in a culture he does not fully understand, is an image of elegant audacity. But because of his perennially indifferent approach to emotions and a tad too reserved an execution, "Zabriskie Point" does not quite reach the utmost potential it most certainly has.

Nevertheless, the film, for what it is worth both in the context of American culture and in the context of Antonioni's pulse as a filmmaker, is still quite a unique triumph. In a tumultuous time when demonstrations and cries of protests were brash and recklessly loud, "Zabriskie Point" is a film of quiet anger. And in the pages of Antonioni's cinematic play book, this is a most definitive approach.

Depending highly on symbolic visual manifestations (the imagined mass orgy representing sexual liberation; the film's destruction of consumerist products captured in slow-motion) rather than on obvious imagery and contrived scenarios, the film feels fresh and, typical to Antonioni, alien.

For the record, "Zabriskie Point" is never the definitive, all-American counterculture film. Instead, what the film actually represents, on Antonioni's part, is something personal and culturally detached. This is, after all, Antonioni's sarcastic love poem to America. By often framing his characters in front of commercial billboards displaying sandwich spread products and corporation names, Michaelangelo Antonioni was able to enforce his critique of the American 'way' without looking forced and too satirical. So "Zabriskie Point", in a way, is less a film than it is a state of mind.

Typical to Antonioni's thematic style, the film wallows less on the nuances of humanity but more on why people are slowly losing it. In this film's case, 'capitalism' and 'mass consumerism' are the main culprits. But before everything goes too far, I do not think that the film is entirely political or even completely radical. If anything else, "Zabriskie Point" purely wallows on the futility of activism. That after all, making an anti-establishment film is just like writing an anti-glacier book (kudos to Kurt Vonnegut). Alas, Antonioni's indifferent brand of cinema, which has earned him both fans and detractors alike throughout the years, has worked yet again, and quite fascinating at that. Through the use of on-screen movements rather than words and dialogues, he was able to convincingly capture the essence of 'free love' during the time.

The great example for this is the scene when our two protagonists, one a beautiful anthropology student (riding a car) and the other a rebellious young man (riding a small plane), show their subtle endearment to each other by way of "North by Northwest-esque" aerial communication. As touching as it is strange, Antonioni has made use of two very American manufactured products (the car and the plane) and turned them into objects that bridge human connection. And then of course, there's that famous orgy scene, performed with dream-like abandon by the Open Theatre and beautified by Pink Floyd's transcendental music. Moreover, the film, by highlighting both the barren landscapes of the empty, titular part of Death Valley and the hustle and bustle life within the product-emblazoned corners of mainstream America, is also a textbook exercise in great visual contrast.

Generally speaking, "Zabriskie Point's" reputation was indeed highly damaged by the notoriety of its initial reception. For the film's producer and distributor, such failure spiels apocalyptic repercussions. But for a director like Antonioni, a man who is never new to countless boos and walk-outs (the Cannes screening of "L'avventura" comes to mind), such reaction is not a blemish to his ego nor his career but a mere solidification of his utterly divisive and infuriating power as a filmmaker.

For some directors, a picture of "Zabriskie Point's" quality can already be considered as a pinnacle. But for Antonioni, it's a mere frolic within the western movie system that he despises the most, and the joke's on them.

The Golden Age (L'Âge d'Or)

A year after their aesthetically shocking "An Andalusian Dog", Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, two of the most subversive minds in all of modern art, return to form with something that's infinitely more scandalous, blasphemous and, to the eyes of many during the time, even close to pornographic. In a way, "An Andalusian Dog", a boldly offensive film in its own right, is their comparatively tamer (and saner, even) dress rehearsal for this little bad boy, an epic (yes, I think so) 60-minute dissection of societal putrescence.

Although the film is comprised of surrealistic images that may or may not ultimately add up to one coherent message, the individual intrigue that the images were able to evoke are truly unnerving. In my personal view, the film's visuals, in all its take-no-prisoners lunacy, is one of the most spot-on recapturing of the social, psychological and romantic insanities of our times. So yes, despite of the film's highly blasphemous thematic texture, "L'Age d'Or" can be ironically considered as a 'miraculous' achievement in modern cinema, especially considering the fact that both Buñuel and Dali, at the time, were not that acquainted to the rigors of filmmaking.

In simple description, the film, at least on surface level, is the story of how two lovers, because of numerous hindrances and disruptions, can't seem to consummate their sexual and romantic longings just like how the bourgeoisie people in "The Exterminating Angel" can't seem to get out of the room they're in or how they can't even seem to eat their meals in "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". Ultimately, it is in the middle of this kind of futility (specifically this film's two main characters and their misfiring attempts to be with one another) that both Buñuel and Dali were able to paint the landscapes of their film's masterful social probe. By penetrating the rotting core of what founds the pillars of religion, modern society and love itself, these two surrealistic bad boys were able to unearth, with unapologetic humor and shocking images, the intense perversity of human nature and its devastating consequences.

Often merely described as a surrealistic satire, I think that "L'Age d'Or" should be more aptly labeled as an anti-religious social nightmare that will make even the most apathetic member of the social populace cringe. Hell, more than 80 years have passed and I still think that this film is not for the faint of heart. After all, what do you expect if you merge the minds of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, an elegant costume drama? This film, just like the scorpions in its opening scene, may be too small in stature and short in length, but it sure profoundly stings.

Scorpio Rising

Being one of the more truly divisive films that have since become cult classics, "Scorpio Rising" has always been a curiosity for me, despite of its slightly icky homosexual theme. Indeed, after watching the film in its 28-minute entirety, I can definitely see where numerous film enthusiasts are coming from when they hail the film as an influential piece of underground cinema. Sure, with its psychedelic amalgamation of religious iconography, Nazism and the rising 'rebel' culture of the '60s, "Scorpio Rising" is quite effective in terms of pushing forth a distorted state of mind. But for me, the film lacks the ultimate gut-punch, which Kenneth Anger, its director, could have easily pulled off, especially with the often understated power of terseness on his side.

As an experimental film, the film surely has some intriguing moments (the church scene is one of those), but ultimately, I was left quite unsure about the film's focus and where it truly resides. Yes, it is a given that Kenneth Anger is seemingly trying to assert the fact that riders consider their hobby as nothing short of a religion just like how Christians herald Christianity and Nazis highly regard Nazism. But hell, I haven't felt the sense of cohesion needed for such a potentially compelling commentary on hobbyist obsession. And why add the fictitious aspect of homosexuality in the film? For me, whatever the context of this aspect may be, I think it was just injected so that, you know, the film can take on a new layer of pseudo-complexity.

Constructively speaking, instead of making the film a befuddling experimental/mood piece just like what it is, Anger could have potentially made "Scorpio Rising" a full-fledged anthropological film about the motorists' alternative lifestyle and whether or not they can bode well with the fabric of mainstream Americana. With that, I think the film could have easily expressed what "Easy Rider" has powerfully done so just 5 years after it. I did enjoy the soundtrack, though. Honestly, I could listen to the songs at any given time.

At the end of the day, it's quite easy to see the film's encompassing visual influence on other filmmakers, notably Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. But what is quite difficult now to make sense of is why the film is considered 'great'. If you remove the stock footage from "The Living Bible: Last Journey to Jerusalem" short and half of the film's music, what we're merely left with is a plodding little film that has its sights on nothing but tires and leather boots and its destination to nowhere but the directionless path to pretense.

Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot Goes Wild) (Crazy Pete)
½

With the last Jean-Luc Godard film that I have watched (which is "Weekend") tracing back about 3 years ago, that of which I also vividly remember of not liking that much, it's genuinely reinvigorating to watch some of his earlier, more beloved works that are, undoubtedly, the patented heart and soul of the French New Wave. In this instance, it is "Pierrot le Fou", a masterful adventure film about love, self-discovery and, ultimately, self-destruction. But with Godard on the helm, nothing is particularly absolute.

Starring the charismatic yet mischievous-looking Jean-Paul Belmondo and the enticingly energetic Anna Karina, the film, about two star-crossed, perennially on-the-run lovers, is packed with immense intellectual energy and colorful playfulness characteristic of the aforementioned film movement.

Although the film sure has a conventional story that's quite easy to follow, it's never the main priority. Instead, "Pierrot le Fou" is a film that follows the impulse not of its surface narrative but of the transgressive potentials the film medium has. In short, "Pierrot le Fou" is a half-comic, half-poetic intimation of cinema itself, and there's never a more perfect filmmaker to handle it than Godard himself.

Personally, the key to enjoy "Pierrot le Fou" more is not to be too conscious and reliant of the plot because if you'll be, the film has numerous elements that can surely and gravely deviate from its focus. One of them, of course, is the seemingly disjointed, pseudo-romantic yet nonetheless poetic utterances by Belmondo's titular character. Another is the film's inclusion of random, millisecond appearances of numerous neon signs, some of which read the words 'cinema' and 'life'.

These minute details, obviously, are nothing but sheer experimental frolic on Godard's part, which, admittedly, has nonetheless added an additional spark of uniqueness to the film's entirety.

"Film is like a battleground. There's love, hate, action, violence, death... in one word: emotions," said Samuel Fuller, who appeared in "Pierrot le Fou" as himself. In a way, this cameo by the said filmmaker is a deliberate embrace of irony on Godard's part, who, from what I think, believes that cinema is so much more than emotions. Sure, they (the emotions) may slightly further a storyline, motivate some characters and justify some scenes, but ultimately, what Godard is more concerned about is his audience's intellectual and subtly didactic journey through the heart and pulse of cinema itself. Or, to be more exact, 'his' own vision of cinema: a vision where anything goes, where obscure music and high-brow literature fit nicely in mundanely immature conversations and situations, and where blood and violence seem highly inconsequential. Hell, even highway accidents have never looked more picturesque and unearthly than in "Pierrot le Fou" (but then again, there's that epic tracking shot in "Weekend").

"It's not really a film, it's an attempt at cinema," Godard once said about "Pierrot le Fou". Well, if "Pierrot le Fou" is not, in its basic essence, a film, then perhaps Belmondo's Pierrot (oh sorry, his name is Ferdinand) and Karina's Marianne are not much characters themselves than they are mere devices for Godard to kick-start a necessary road trip and to make his ultimate goal, which is to explore the then-unchartered frontiers of postmodern cinema, as humanly and tangibly flawed as possible. And alas, he has pulled it off.

Indeed, "Pierrot le Fou" is a film that's worthy of many future revisits. For me, the film has definitely achieved what many art films haven't, and that is to be thematically dense and genuinely enjoyable at the same breath. Plus, amidst its pop-intellectual discourse about nothing and everything, it has also raised quite a compelling outlook on existence; that after all is said and done', 'we are just dead men on parole.'

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Even before I became a full-fledged cinephile, I was already more than aware of the "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover's" notoriety as a taboo-breaking motion picture that navigates around the question of whether or not films with such abhorring themes can really pass as adequate art. For films like this, audience polarization is all but given. But with the history of cinema itself to finely attest and creations like "Pink Flamingos" and "Last Tango in Paris" as lasting proofs, only time can really tell if whether or not thematically questionable films may dwindle into obscurity or shine ever brighter. In "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover's" case and the two other aforementioned films, it's definitely the latter. Personally, only a few films have simultaneously left me in both revolting disgust and stunning awe; count this great, great film as one of the handfuls.

Directed by the subversive British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" is a poetic shock tale about infidelity, ruthlessness and revenge with a gourmet twist. Anchored by Michael Gambon's intensely frightening (yet also comedic) performance as the gangster cum restaurant owner Albert Spica and Helen Mirren's understated turn as his wife Georgina, the film often takes on a very stagy quality fitting of its highly surrealistic tone. Together, they have both showcased what I think are the best performances that I've seen in quite a while.

Right now, fresh from seeing Michael Gambon's wicked portrayal as Mr. Spica, it's really just quite hard to imagine that the very same actor has also more than convincingly played the post-Richard Harris Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series. The same goes for Helen Mirren, who has just disappeared into the role of the very sensual Georgina that it's quite a tricky mind exercise to muster the fact that she still has enough acting skills (and insane at that) left to pull off the Queen of England herself in an Oscar-winning turn many years later.

But aside from the performances, that which also includes Alan Howard's realistic portrayal of Georgina's mild-mannered lover and Richard Bohringer's symbolic embodiment of the defiant chef, much is to be lovingly observed and deliciously absorbed in this film. One of them, although some may see it as a mere production foot note, is the exquisitely transitional costume design (done by Jean Paul Gaultier, whom, weird enough, I have first heard about in "American Psycho"), whose color-coded elegance contrasts with the film's visual and thematic depiction of decay. Oh and there's also the set design, which greatly detaches the film from the organic nature of reality, and the cinematography, an aspect that exceptionally characterizes the film with an ironic degree of formalism albeit its relentless display of grotesqueries.

In a nutshell, I think "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" can be simply sufficed as an operatic comedy of bizarre proportions. Yet on one hand, I think it can also be labeled as a humorously dramatic disembowelment of the superficiality of modern manners. But then, there's also, as what many has claimed, the film's supposedly metaphorical attack on Margaret Thatcher's politics. Though I am sadly quite ignorant of Thatcherism (but I do know of its strict adherence towards privatization among others), it is really not that hard to look beyond the surface of the film and unearth its underlying sociopolitical layer, what with its disturbingly symbolic depiction of the 'ruler' (Albert) and the 'ruled' (Georgina, the chef and all the other characters).

"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", despite of its satirical attack on Britain's political milieu at the time of its release, is still a timeless achievement in niche filmmaking, especially in how it has made the bizarre look tasteful and vice versa. Also, this is the first time that I have seen a film where infidelity was depicted as if justified, and its perpetrators not as advantageous offenders but as romantic heroes. Now, if only I can see this on the big-screen...

The Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri)

Widely heralded as one of the most historically significant films of all time, watching "The Battle of Algiers" is like watching a riveting, 2-hour newsreel footage, complete with all those 'blink and you'll miss it' moments of candid power. But more importantly, what makes "The Battle of Algiers" a fine film is its incredibly unbiased and objective depiction of the Algerian revolution; a quite tricky feat perhaps, considering the fact that for films like this, it's quite difficult not to choose sides. But by choosing not to be emotionally partisan, "The Battle of Algiers" was able to realistically reconstruct the events and make them flow in an intensely natural way.

On one side, there's the radical group called the National Liberation Front (FLN), whose tactics border on outright terrorism. While on the other, there are the French paratroopers, whose interrogation methods and counter military acts border on the atrociously inhumane. Gillo Pontecorvo, the film's director, is quite adamant in highlighting the fact that in the bigger picture, none of them (the FLN and the French military) are completely righteous nor utterly justified in what they do and that the film's real protagonist is not the French's Colonel Matthieu (played by Jean Martin) or the FLN's Ali La Pointe (played by Brahim Hadjadj) but the Algerian people themselves. Ultimately, "The Battle of Algiers" succeeds as a film that deals with the universal language of revolution and as a stunning portrayal of an otherwise obscure fragment of history.

Speaking as a citizen who is born and raised in a country (the Philippines) that had its fair share of political uprisings, I can easily connect with the Algerian revolutionaries' fevered sentiment towards freedom and colonial deliverance. But what I cannot particularly embrace in the Algerian Revolution is the unnecessary bloodshed, which was starkly captured by the film's black and white photography (by Marcello Gatti) and was intensified by Ennio Morricone's iconic musical score.

Personally, I did not enjoy "The Battle of Algiers" that much because, after all, there's no way that the film is an entertaining one to watch. It's never a film that wholly glorifies the Algerian Revolution and carelessly trivializes the violence involved in it. Instead, the film shows the titular conflict merely as one thing: a bloody footnote in human history. And for this, I praise the Algerian government, which has commissioned the film's creation, for not peppering it with spirited propaganda. With a faceless crowd as the protagonist and with no sides taken, "The Battle of Algiers" is a clear-cut proof of how neutrality can make a cinematic difference.

(Note: In 2003, the film was screened in the Pentagon to highlight the pressing problems faced by the United States in its invasion of Iraq. Quite ironic, isn't it?)

L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)

"Last Year at Marienbad", certainly one of the most enigmatic motion pictures in all of cinema history, is an exhilarating piece of art whose main intent is not to tell a coherent story but to evoke a multitude of moods, feelings and states of mind. Its director, Alain Resnais, is not much concerned with narratives of any kind but on the utmost potential of film as an art form when there's little to none. His earlier film, "Hiroshima Mon Amour", has a slight semblance of a story but instead capitalizes on the emotional landscapes of the characters. This one on the other hand, a pure masterpiece of modern cinema, is a journey of shifting moods and of the ever-changing nature of memory wrapped in the poetic repetitiveness of a love story that may or may not have been.

Set within the confines of a lavish chateau populated by high society people luxuriating in certain stagnant joys (card games and endless drinks), "Last Year at Marienbad" is about two people, a man ('X') and a woman ('A'), and their struggle to remember a romantic affair that they, according to the man, might have had 'last year at Marienbad'. Oh, and there's also another character ('M'), the man that may or may not be the woman's husband/lover. Mysteriously code-named like parts of a mathematical equation, these three characters are involved in an emotionally treacherous attempt to make sense of events that are eye-deep in abstraction. Can they even arrive at something akin to certainty?

Through the use of exquisite editing, "Last Year at Marienbad" was able to channel a hauntingly cerebral texture, which makes the film even more mysterious than it already is. And by merging flashbacks (or are they?) with the inferred reality of the film (or is it?), the film was able to take on a very dream-like feel which ultimately speaks of the utter unreliability of memory and the consequences of not having remembered much.

As with all avant-garde films, "Last Year at Marienbad" is a highly divisive picture that may either be branded as a stunning masterpiece or merely as a highly-ornamented piece of pretentious gunk. For one, it is clearly understandable for some viewers to categorize the film in the latter, with the film's lack of narrative being one of the primary culprits why it can easily be labeled as nothing but a pseudo-profound waste of time. But still, no one can deny the film's powerful simulation of what goes on inside a person's mind when love (especially a forbidden one) is painfully involved.

But then again, "Last Year at Marienbad" may really not be about love just like how "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is not simply about a happenstance romance. At least for me, the film's lasting effect is not really about how memories twist reality but about how love twists life itself. And in this elliptical masterpiece that is "Last Year at Marienbad", the ultimate victim is the mind.

Alain Resnais, one of the seminal movers of the French New Wave (although indirectly at that), has created his ultimate masterpiece in the form of this film, a hauntingly nightmarish depiction of the fragility of memory, of a love affair that really wasn't, and of a reality that betrays. "Last Year at Marienbad" is, at least for me, a profoundly anomalous take on how the phrase 'last year' could have easily been 'last month', 'last week' or even 'last hour or so'; it plays a bitter puzzle game on its three main characters and, ultimately, on us, the viewers. How did we come to participate on it? I have the slightest bit of clue. Perhaps the game just ceased to be.

Ikiru
Ikiru(1956)
½

"This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story," says a narrator, who's pertaining to an x-ray image of a stomach obviously ripe with cancerous complications. And so begins "Ikiru", a meditative film of quiet power that tackles mortality and life's purpose yet also dips its fingers on issues concerning the cons of bureaucracy. The film's protagonist is Kanji Watanabe, an old man who seems to be no more alive than a dysfunctional machine.

In many ways, films like "Scent of a Woman" and "About Schmidt" derive from "Ikiru's" main emotional drive, which is as timeless as it is life-affirming. As what the film suggests, maybe it is only in the face of death and mortal desperation will we muster change and find true significance; indeed, life is brief. In the words of the narrator in "Fight Club": "This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time".

Takashi Shimura, who has previously played the woodcutter in "Rashomon" and who will later play, after this film, the noble Kambei in "Seven Samurai", plays Watanabe, a bureaucrat who, for the longest time, has led an uneventful life drained of all meaning or worth. Making his living by stamping insignificant papers for approval, he is as mechanized and emotionless as he can be. But in one ill-fated day, he is diagnosed with stomach cancer. According to the doctor, he has around six months to live.

Devastated, Watanabe has never felt more strangely detached from the land of the living. His already hunched posture even becoming more contorted and his already fragmented articulation of words becoming even more so, Watanabe, as maybe what Kurosawa has intended, is the defining image of a modern man who has nothing to say about his life other than the painful fact that he has merely 'lived'.

Going home, Watanabe then pitifully tries to tell his son about his terminal illness but is discouraged by the latter's coldness. Finding no sense of belongingness either in his own home (with his son being mainly concerned not with his father's well-being but with his pension) or in his work, he suddenly had this craving to just lash out. Guided by a struggling novelist, Watanabe then tries to navigate the busy, booze-laden nightlife of '50s Japan to find out whether or not it can make up for his final days. As it turns out, it does not.

After his bar-hopping misfire, he then gets closer to a young woman named Toyo, an office subordinate of his who has recently tendered her resignation in Watanabe's office in favor of working in a toy factory, and whose exuberant and pure love for life leaves Watanabe in utter awe and in disgruntled fascination.

Miki Odagiri, who plays Toyo, has this distinct kind of energy that finely balances out Takashi Shimura's seemingly stagnant and doomed presence. By often framing Shimura's Watanabe, hunched, blank-eyed and ever-brooding, in the foreground and Odagiri's Toyo in the not-so-distant background, Kurosawa was constantly able to highlight the two characters' contrasting traits, behaviors and overall existence within the spatial landscapes of the film.

"...In other words, why are you so incredibly alive?" Watanabe blurts out to Toyo, who innocently mistakes his desperate need to understand his own existence as romantic advances. Toyo answered him that all she does is work and eat. She then gets a toy rabbit from her bag, one of the many products being made in the toy factory where she's employed; "Making them (the toy rabbits), I feel like I'm playing with every baby in Japan," Kimura then said.

Seemingly refreshed from Toyo's all-too-naïve yet honest response, Watanabe then sets out to do something that may hopefully make him matter. In a stunning turn of events, Watanabe transforms from an old nobody to a defiant spirit reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith determined to will through the lethargic incompetency of the city hall officials so that he can convince them to turn a mosquito-laden cesspool into a children's park.

Much like "Rashomon", we then get to see another epistemological discourse on Kurosawa's part, this time not about the truth (or the lack thereof) behind a mysterious murder but about the legacy of a man who everybody never expected to have left one. And by piecing together some fragmentary moments in Watanabe's life as witnessed by his co-workers, from his brave persistence to stand up for the children's park to his starry-eyed admiration of the sunset, we then finally arrive at what Watanabe is looking for all his life: meaning and self-worth.

"Ikiru", which literally means "To Live", is an affecting film that explores man's search for existential meaning not through philosophically sophisticated means that may alienate viewers but realistically through an old man's eyes who just want to be at peace with those around him and, more importantly, with himself. Despite of "Ikiru's" apparent and sometimes much too overwhelming commentary on political bureaucracy, I'd rather remember it as an honest and reflective film about mortality and the often undermined beauty of life; simple as that. This then reminds me of a quote by Monty Python's Michael Palin: "Don't talk about living, just live".

Fanny & Alexander

Christopher Moore, a contemporary author of fantasy fiction, has once said that "children see magic because they look for it". This, for me, is the foundation and the root of all questions raised in "Fanny and Alexander", a complexly-themed masterpiece that is, sadly, also Ingmar Bergman's very last feature film. In hindsight, it may look as if "Fanny and Alexander" is merely about children's innocence and the power of imagination; two themes that are otherwise quite alien to Bergman himself. But seeing the film unfold in its three glorious hours, "Fanny and Alexander" came out to be so much more than that. In many ways, the film is also a complex extension of Bergman's provocative meditation on the non-intervening nature of God (see "Silence of God" trilogy) and his passive role in human existence. Personally, watching "Fanny and Alexander" is like finally putting the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in place.

But Ingmar Bergman, ever the abstract filmmaker, is indeed not the kind that will bail you out with some clear-cut answers. For the record, "Fanny and Alexander" is littered with magic and the supernatural; two aspects of the film that can be taken either as truly literal or completely symbolic. Nonetheless, the film, on surface level a period family drama, wonderfully takes on a new texture and thematic dimension by utilizing some elements that defy physics or explanation. In addition, the film even flirts with the idea that magic may perhaps be the one and only substitute for the complete absence of God; an absurdist approach on Bergman's part but is also very compelling in how it slightly satirizes the extent of our adherence to the unexplainable.

With no real story or narrative, "Fanny and Alexander's" first half is all about the everyday trivialities in the life of the Ekdahls, a well-to-do family of stage actors which, after a relatively happy Christmas eve, was struck by an unexpected tragedy, which suddenly finds Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and her older brother Alexander (Bertil Guve) emotionally astray and fatherless.

By way of Sven Nykvist's dreamy cinematography which has won him a well-deserved Oscar, the film was able to subtly depict both the difficulty of losing a father in the formative years of one's life and the silently mercurial nature of familial existence at the time (early 20th century Sweden) through its use of empty spaces, distant shots and anguished faces.

After the burial of the titular characters' father, a bishop named Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö) then enters the scene. Extremely authoritative and ruthless, the bishop is Fanny and Alexander's, both of which were raised in a tender and carefree environment, worst nightmare realized. But just when they thought that things won't get any worse after the death of their father, Fanny and Alexander then find themselves under the wing of the bishop himself, who has decided to marry their newly-widowed mother (Ewa Fröling).

From this point on, after much foreboding early on (with those moving statues and the apparitions of Alexander's father), the film slowly but surely abandons the first half's relatively realistic and lively portrayal of the Ekdahls in favor of a more metaphysical, abstract and gloomy second part. From the approach to the characterizations, it's quite easy to see the definite influence of "Fanny and Alexander" in all those stepmother/stepfather films that it has since predated, specifically Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth", what with its stepfather subplot and whole 'magical realm' aspect.

But then, "Fanny and Alexander" is never a film that can easily be defined by classifications. It is, in fact, a challenge to our own grasp of cinematic reality. If an emotionally-focused drama like "Fanny and Alexander" suddenly goes all supernatural (which it did), what then can be our potential response as viewers? Well, it's much preferred to just keep mum and simply relish it; after all, this may just be magical realism's finest moment in cinema.

But aside from being a stunning amalgamation of both fantasy and reality, "Fanny and Alexander" is also a conscious allegory about the importance of cinema in relation to our lives ("Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better") and is also a film that challenges our perception of the unknown, of the things we can't define and of certain life phenomena that we can't explain and articulate about. But more importantly, "Fanny and Alexander" beautifully pushes the limits of cinema unlike anything I've ever seen before.

As what the Ekdahls' matriarch (played by Gunn Wållgren) has said at the end of the film, "Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns." From where I look at it, this is the subtle justification of the film's surprisingly magical nature; a justification that is quite directed to us, the viewers, who are neither children nor naïve and who never expected or anticipated magic but stumbles upon it anyway because of this film. How sad that Ingmar Bergman's great swan song has come too early. But nonetheless, we should still be thankful that a film like "Fanny and Alexander" has come at all. Now I'm more than eager to watch the five-hour version.

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

4 years after "Life of Brian", the Monty Python troupe, composed of John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, is back and as insightful and profound as ever in "The Meaning of Life", a surrealistic comic masterpiece that is quite possibly their most ambitious film ever. Hell, I wouldn't even bother to label it as their best.

Unlike the previous two Python features, namely "Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian", both of which have modicums of a narrative, "The Meaning of Life" is infinitely more lose, non-cohesive and random. It is, for me, their most 'stream of consciousness' creation of the three. Opening with an awe-inspiring short involving geriatric employees and their very pirate-like attempt to take over the world's whole economic landscape, it is quite easy to see how bigger in scope "The Meaning of Life" is compared to the comic troupe's previous creations. And as the film progresses, it's also quite wondrous to sense and feel that Monty Python has since fully grown not just as an assemblage of comic geniuses but also as a thought-provoking lot.

Ranging from sex to the very idea of heaven, hell and death, "The Meaning of Life" tackles almost everything under the sun (alas, even the very creation of sun itself and its brotherly stars), over the war-time trenches and inside the uterus. Split into various chapters, "The Meaning of Life" is comprised of sketches that are overwhelmingly funny yet also poignant with the truths that each of them speaks. And although the film's main intent is to leave you in stitches, it will also make you laughingly question yourself as to how relevant your minuscule place in this universe really is. But do not worry; Eric Idle will treat you with an affirming song of how miraculous your birth really is. And no, there's not a hint of sarcasm both in the tune and the lyrics. Despite of the film's bizarrely mocking tone, the film is embedded with an indelible humanity that actually means what it wants to say. Suddenly, here is Monty Python, the most humanly offensive and irreverent comic group that has ever graced the screens both small and big, traversing their most vulnerably human side.

For me, what eagerly exemplifies this side is the scene when Eric Idle's French waiter character leads the camera (presumably representing us, the viewers) in a relatively long walk towards his humble home. He then explains, in a very non-philosophical, layman's manner, the meaning, for him, of life. "You see that house? That is where I was born. My mother said to me, "Garcon. The world is a beautiful place, and you must spread joy and contentment everywhere you go."" That was what Idle's waiter character has stated. Although it's a random, seemingly out of left field scene that's truly in contrast with the rest of the film's tone, it nonetheless strikes me as very life-affirming and, to a certain extent, even worthy of tears.

Yes, "Life of Brian" is arguably their greatest work, but I will always reserve a special place both in my heart and mind for "The Meaning of Life". Not only is it a proof of how Monty Python is and will always be the best in terms of avant-garde comedy, it has also solidified the fact that the Python troupe indeed never lacks the silent sensitivity needed to tackle the very nuance of human existence itself. They have just made God quite irate, is all.

Personally, I find "The Meaning of Life" to be more than just a comedy. Fittingly, I have watched it at around three o'clock in the morning. Waking up, I felt as if I haven't had a dream. Well, maybe the Sandman have had quite a hard time replicating or even surpassing the things I have just seen. The Pythons may have given the Dreamer a run for his money.

Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis)

The great Francois Truffaut has once stated that he would indeed give up all of his films to have directed "Children of Paradise" himself. If that's not a testament of the film's more than impressive whole, with its ability to impress and stir up healthy jealousy among other equally heralded filmmakers, then I don't know what else will be. The film, shot during the turbulent times of Nazi occupation in France (French Resistance members at the time even secretly worked in the film's production), is a miraculous achievement not just of cinema but of the entire realm of art. By merging the symphonic beauty of two of the greatest art forms the world has ever seen (theater and film), Marcel Carné, the film's director, has created an unforgettable screen masterpiece that is both aesthetically moving and emotionally evocative.

Although it was cleverly marketed in America as France's cinematic answer to Victor Fleming's "Gone with the Wind", "Children of Paradise" is so much more than just a foreign substitute to an epic Hollywood picture. It is, by its own right, a stand-alone film that ambitiously treads the territories of both love and artistry, not to mention that it is also a visually stunning rendition of 19th century France. Populated by characters that seem to be molded after Charles Dickens' creations, "Children of Paradise", in a way, moves and unfolds like great literature (the film was even split into two distinct, very novel-like chapters). But unlike the lively pageantry of "Gone with the Wind", "Children of Paradise", even at the film's early moments, is already burdened by a running sense of melancholy, specifically when the camera first focuses its lens on the face of Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a great pantomime who will find himself slowly falling under the spell (and pain) of love. The object of his affection is Garance (Arletty), a stunning woman who sees love merely as a simple phenomenon and who, at first sight, was immediately magnetized by Baptiste's romantic peculiarities.

But then, it's not only Baptiste who's smitten by Garance; on one side, there's Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), a flamboyant theater actor whose acts atop the stage bleed through life itself. On the other, there's also Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a part-time poet and full-time criminal whose great contempt of life can only be matched by his enormous pride. And finally, there's Count Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), a rich man who baits Garance with his unequaled fortune so that she will not love any other man ever again.

Together, these four characters engage in a slow dance of doom that finally justifies the melancholic undercurrent that runs through the film. But even though "Children of Paradise" plays like a tragedy, the film, for plenty of reasons, will surely put a smile in every cinephile's face mainly because of its visual and thematic perfection. And even though the film runs close to 3 hours, I honestly would have wanted 3 more. Hell, the film, with its highly eloquent and intuitive screenplay (by Jacques Prévert), could have been an audio book. But then again, it could have also been an enjoyable silent film, what with its pantomime fluidity and swift physical timing.

Considered by many as one of the greatest films of all time, "Children of Paradise", again despite of it being a romantic tragedy, is a celebratory film that embraces and makes one with art even in the midst of a violent global conflict. "Children of Paradise", a flawless masterpiece of French cinema, will always stand the test of time not just as great art but also as a proof that cinema can never be crippled by war-time destruction, be forced underground by bombs and be shackled by fear. "Children of Paradise" powerfully persists.

Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria)

Aside from being a masterful surrealist, it is also very notable to state that Federico Fellini is also a morally powerful and spiritually transcendent filmmaker. This is, of course, very much evident here in "Nights of Cabiria", an unforgettable cinematic masterpiece that traverses the widely unseen and unheard (at the time) world of prostitution and the soulful humanity that bleeds through and through albeit the blind sexuality contained within it.

Although it is much expected that the film shall highlight the more obscene aspect of what many consider as the 'oldest profession in the world' just like, say, Luis Bunuel's later film "Belle de Jour", "Nights of Cabiria" is surprisingly very mellow with the jobs' details and instead delves not on the inner workings of the affordable sex that they offer or on what motivates prostitutes to continue on doing what they're doing but on the reasons why they should not anymore. At the center of it all is the energetic yet at times very temperamental Cabiria (played by Giulietta Masina), a prostitute who can be the most romantically jaded one minute yet can also be the most hopelessly romantic in the next. With a face that still echoes her heartbreaking turn in Fellini's earlier film "La Strada", Giulietta Masina, with her sometimes tomboyish facial expressions and mime-like gestures reminiscent of silent film stars, is a beautiful embodiment of both melancholy and hope.

With her consistently comical body language and a face that fluctuates between naughtiness and confusion, Cabiria is evidently a most complex character to pull off. But despite of that, Masina has done it as if without much effort. Yes, perhaps there are no scenes that show her participating in any simulated sexual congress. And yes, perhaps Giulietta Masina does not, in any way, physically resemble an actual prostitute, what with her small stature and relatively frail body frame. But with the help of her masterful evocation of Cabiria's romantic naivety and pure humanity, she has been most believable as one in much the same way Philip Seymour Hoffman is never a dead ringer for Truman Capote (Toby Jones relatively gets that distinction) yet he has made us believe that he actually is the "In Cold Blood" writer for close to 2 hours mainly because of how inspired his performance was.

But then of course, Giulietta Masina's powerful performance wouldn't really be as penetrating if not for Nino Rota's stirring musical score, the film's often dream-like photography and Fellini's patient direction which has perfectly built-up the film until its heart-breaking yet hopeful finale.

Just like Fellini's masterpiece "La Dolce Vita", "Nights of Cabiria" is a film that's highly dependent not on how or where the so-called 'carnival of life' will bring the main characters to but how he/she may figure in the playfulness and hysteria of it all. In one of the film's most resonant sequences, Cabiria, along with her co-workers, joined a small pilgrimage heading towards the Santuario della Madonna so that they can ask her for forgiveness and guide. Albeit her countless pleads for mercy and various promises to change her way of life, Cabiria never felt any better or different, and so do her co-workers. Although a filmmaker that largely incorporates religious symbolism into his films, Fellini seems always aware that religion will always be a mere spiritual opiate and nothing more; that fate solely depends on whatever life a person leads and not on some higher power; that some music and a smile, not some wooden idols and a haplessly fevered devotion to the great unknown, can make the world of difference. With "Nights of Cabiria", Federico Fellini has made us all believe that despair can merely be shrugged off by a more than hopeful countenance.

For the longest time, cinema has often made us feel the utter fruitlessness of existence and how it is almost impossible to graduate from life pristine and unscathed. "Nights of Cabiria", perhaps the best film ever made that deals with the emotional and moral conflict buried deep within the heart of prostitution, is a precious piece of art that genuinely captures the elusive essence of hope amidst anguish rarely seen in today's cinema.

Jules and Jim

If one would want to witness the sheer complexity of love without the utter abundance of unnecessary despair, then I believe that one should not look any further than this film. Although a visually joyful film, "Jules and Jim", based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, is ironically all about the slow decay of a freewheeling love affair. The film's central focus, of course as suggested by the title, revolves around a friendship between two men and how time (or war) can never undo such a strong knot. But then again, the film is also about how a friendship can easily fall prey to the idiocy of romance, the bipolarity of love and the captivating beauty of a woman before they can even know what has hit them.

Effortlessly becoming the best of friends immediately after their first meeting, Jules and Jim's friendship is suddenly drawn into a moody yet, to a certain extent, wonderful ride of both love and life via an adventurously unpredictable woman named Catherine (perhaps a prelude to the character trope we now know as 'The Manic Pixie Dream Girl').

Francois Truffaut, a most visually playful auteur, is dead set on exploring love with a sure grasp of irony and relentless energy. "Jules and Jim", with its constant visual frolics and overall feel, is really hard to categorize within a single genre. Part-comedy, part-drama and part-romance (with some hints of war-time dramatics), the film is everything a cinephile can ask for. For the entirety of the film's almost 2 hours of running time, I was just engrossed with what I'm seeing, and it's not just about the film's pioneering visuals. Even when the three central characters are just talking, exchanging reflective remarks and laughing, one can still sense the same tight energy that was fully evident in the film's fast-lipped narration, silent film-like music and playful cinematography. This is definitely because of how well-realized and inspired the performances in the film really are, specifically by the centerpiece threesome comprised of Oskar Werner (Jules), Henri Serre (Jim) and Jeanne Moreau (Catherine).

Despite the film tackling a relatively heavy-handed tale about romantic deceit, Truffaut was able to inject a sense of childish gayness in it all. And it is in this childishness that the film was able to separate itself from other films of its kind.

For me, what makes "Jules and Jim" stand out and be rightfully heralded as one of the best films of all time is how it has took on infidelity and romantic apprehension with such carefree warmth and transcendental tenderness. Truffaut, one of the ultimate film intellectuals in cinema history, has relied solely on one concept and it has repaid him and "Jules and Jim" a hundredfold: Optimism.

Even in the face of tragedy and melancholy, Truffaut was hopeful enough to make us feel that the pursuit of love, no matter the context, the situation and even the consequences, is something that is just truly wonderful to be denied an entry into our hearts. But in the end, he was also able to highlight the fact that obsession, even in the context of love, is an entirely different matter. "Is it the pursuit of an elusive, on and off love or the subtle pains of moving on?" That, for me, is the film's ultimate question. "Jules and Jim" is about how something's got to give.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Watching "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", for me, is like being reunited with a good old friend who has since become all rich and famous but still hasn't changed a single thing either with his/her looks or behavior. It is, at least, a very emotional experience for me. For someone who has grown up during the times when "The Lord of the Rings" franchise's popularity is in full phenomenal swing and its influence to its fans reaching Star Trek-like proportions, witnessing a spin-off like "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", with pretty much everything that has made the original saga so endearing to almost every single living being fully intact while also maintaining a sense of humility in its story, is truly extraordinary. Let's just say that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the best adventure film that I have seen for quite a while since, you've guessed right, "The Fellowship of the Ring". Well, you just can't go wrong with Peter Jackson and a handful of halflings.

Although officially a prequel, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is, all together, an entirely different cinematic experience in its own right, and that's what's truly admirable about the film. If you'll look at it, it's easy to see how it is more advantageous for the film to relish and indulge on the already established mythology of the three legendary films before it. But instead, it took some nice creative liberties with the overall narrative, characters (except of course for the likes of Gandalf and other character reappearances) and atmosphere, which resulted in an experience that's as familiar as it is fresh.

Aside from that, there's also the evident ambition in the film. Then again, let's not kid ourselves because, hey, the word 'ambition' is always attached to any Middle Earth-related creations. But still, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a sure-fire testament of how Peter Jackson, though already 10 years removed from the year the first part of his colossal 'Ring' trilogy was released, is still keen on constantly topping himself, visual-wise at least. With this film, he has thrown everything in, from trolls and dwarves to dragons and griffins (and even some rock giants who have a penchant for some earth-shaking fisticuffs), but the Shire's kitchen sink, and I couldn't be happier. Hell, even the performances were top-notch, especially Ian McKellen as the beloved Gandalf and Martin Freeman as the awkward but courageous Bilbo Baggins. While appearances by Christopher Lee (as Saruman), Hugo Weaving (as Elrond) and Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel) among others, are nice extra treats that make the experience even more fulfilling and, to a certain extent, almost tear-jerking. Oh and there's also that little 'riddle game' scene with that obscure character named Gollum. That, my dear reader, is worth the price of admission alone.

5 years ago, I would have never even imagined that I will be able to witness the mercurial beauty of Middle Earth and the wonders of its adventures on the big screen (fact: I have never seen a single "Lord of the Rings" film on the multiplex). Suddenly, here comes "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", a cinematic creation of two of the greatest minds working in the fantasy genre today (Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro), with arms wide open and ready to embrace me as if I'm an old friend. Hell, even with just the first notes of that beautiful Shire music, I'm sold. All I need is a pony and some damn 'burglar' contract. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"; I never expected it to be this good and the journey to be this big. Ladies and gentlemen, we're officially in for an epic three-part saga once again.

Skyfall
Skyfall(2012)

After the dud that was "The Bourne Legacy", we finally got the espionage film of the year that we all deserve in the form of "Skyfall", the 23rd entry in the Bond film franchise which also serves as an apt commemoration of 007's 50 years of cinematic existence.

Compared to the masterful "Casino Royale" and the mediocre "Quantum of Solace", "Skyfall" is far less complicated in its narrative but heavier in terms of what is at stake. Our beloved 'M' (played by the great Dame Judi Dench), Bond's stern superior who has always been one step behind our equally beloved master spy, is at her most involved in this film, not to mention the fact that she's also the one who's gravely in peril this time. On the other hand, there's also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a man whose firm principles often clash with his bureaucratic job.

If one would notice, "Skyfall" is a bit less in its action compared to Daniel Craig's first two Bond outings. With the film's biggest action set piece audaciously positioned even before the lush opening credits (with that beautiful song by Adele), director Sam Mendes has taken the ultimate gamble. If the film's best action sequence was immediately presented at the beginning, what, then, is left for "Skyfall"? Well, quite plentiful, really.

Aside from the film's simplistic yet infinitely more compelling plot, the film is also rich in great performances, specifically by Judi Dench and Javier Bardem, whose portrayal of the villain Raoul Silva is as vengefully realistic as it is larger-than-life. Though he is not, in any way, a random anarchist like the Joker, Silva still mirrors the 'Clown Prince of Crime' especially in how he is concerned with flamboyant theatrics and metaphorical speeches.

But then despite of Bardem's potentially scene-stealing role, I believe no one can easily overshadow Daniel Craig's power and screen presence as James Bond himself. If "Quantum of Solace" has served as a fairly muddled, speed bump-like transition film for him as 007, then I think "Skyfall" is the testament of how much he has really grown in the role. Right now, I can't help but think that he is indeed the most ideal Bond of all time, with apologies to Sean Connery and company of course.

By possessing a more-than-convincing physique apt for a chick magnet, the physical abilities perfect for a globe-trotting, train roof-jumping secret agent and also the subtle wit that finely contrasts his intimidating exterior, Craig has all the elements of the quintessential Bond. No offense to both Sean Connery and Roger Moore, but can you really imagine either of them instigating a convincing fisticuff with anyone whom Daniel Craig has encountered all throughout his three Bond films? I doubt it. Granted, Sean did have that masterfully intense and claustrophobic train compartment fight with Robert Shaw in "From Russia with Love", but aside from that, there's next to nothing. What "Skyfall" has revived in the Bond tradition, at least in my view, is pure action grit. Never has Bond been more hard-hitting and convincing in action since Timothy Dalton and his brief 007 tenure.

By relying less on the typical Bond ingredients (the girls, the gadgets and the usual dose of megalomaniacs) and more on how to put the words 'grit', 'emotion' and the name 'Bond' in the same sentence, "Skyfall" was able to elevate itself into something more than an action-packed spy feature the same way, eherm, here it goes, "The Dark Knight" trilogy has transcended the superhero genre (But then, I found out that "Skyfall" was indeed influenced by Nolan's powerful interpretation of the Batman legend).

In a way, "Skyfall" is a film that's both ambitious in scope yet steadily humble in execution. It has the needed sense of modern-day sophistication and geographic vastness yet it also has this kick of old school flair, especially when that classic James Bond theme finally seeps in at almost exactly the same time the Aston Martin DB5 makes its on-screen return. Oh, and there's also the reinvention of both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris); a bold move on Sam Mendes and company's part that has helped the film attain a fresh, more contemporary look while also maintaining a running sense of nostalgia.

In the end, "Skyfall" may not be the most action-packed Bond film of all time, but it surely is the most emotionally demanding since, say, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Although "Casino Royale" certainly had its fair share of adequate dramatics that were seemingly amiss from previous Bond features (especially the Roger Moore vehicles), "Skyfall" still marks the franchise's highest emotional point. Why? Well, it's for me and all the other film fans that have enjoyed "Skyfall" to know and for you to find out. This is a roller coaster ride of a film, and that's not just pertaining to the action. Bond, amid the jumping, the fighting and lots of running, just proved in this film that he can also carry some serious dramatic weight. I think we're officially in for a new Bond Renaissance.

L'Eclisse
L'Eclisse(1962)

Deemed by Martin Scorsese as the 'boldest' film in Michelangelo Antonioni's trilogy of emotional isolation (the other two films being "L'Avventura" and "La Notte"), "L'Eclisse", especially in its final moments, has displayed just that and has also solidified, at least in my eyes, Antonioni's status as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Enhanced by Monica Vitti's powerfully disillusioning and mercurial performance as Vittoria and Alain Delon's animated turn as her overly passionate (but I doubt that this is the right term for his character) stockbroker of a lover named Piero, "L'Eclisse" is an exemplary depiction of the qualms of leading an ennui-ridden life in a materialistic world. As highlighted by the film's almost nauseating visualization of the stock market, Antonioni is eager in exposing the chaotic repercussions of money. But more importantly, I think that, more or less, the film is truly an ambitious meditation on loneliness.

Throughout the film, we see Vittoria do all sorts of recreational things to alleviate her angst-ridden state of mind. From riding a plane, dancing in the tune of a native African music to chasing dogs, she has done it all. But still, empty she was. Along then came Piero, an aggressive, over-materialistic lad whose advances to Vittoria was first received with coldness, and then with passionate abandon. Both slightly cautious at first, they then began to have a series of brief romantic encounters that has neither meaning nor worth.

In many ways, "L'Eclisse" is a thoroughly pessimistic view on modern romance and how it's just impossible to maintain one in a money-driven world. In its majority, the film is exclusive in its observation of Vittoria's alienation. But by the end of the film, by way of a conclusive montage that has a certain power only a few scenes from a select number of films can muster, Antonioni suddenly transfers the alienation from Vittoria to us, the viewers.

By focusing mainly on a mundane street corner, its various trivialities and several 'alien' faces while completely removing Vittoria and even Piero from the whole picture, we ourselves are lost. 'Where have the characters gone?' 'Who are these people?' 'Where am I?' These are the questions that Antonioni has sparked within me as the montage kicks in. Through this striking sequence, Antonioni lets us feel that particular feeling of isolation and fear of not being able to perceive and interpret the things we're seeing. The resulting feeling, at least for me, is truly transcendent and somehow spine-chilling.

As those final minutes play out, I was literally lost for words; I can't decipher the holistic meaning of the images because the scene, I believe, is really meant to be 'incommunicable'. Bar none, "L'Eclisse" is certainly one of the most emotionally and perceptively unique cinematic experiences of my life. 50 years after its creation, its themes are still supremely relevant. At the end of the day, I think it's either "L'Eclisse" is truly a timeless masterwork or our everyday living hasn't really changed that much after all. For me, I think it's a great combination of both. Despite of "L'Eclisse's" esoteric quality, it has an emotional and reflective appeal that transcends cinematic barriers. This is auteurism at its best.

Elephant
Elephant(2003)
½

With a mere running time of 81 minutes, "Elephant" is a relatively short film by today's standards. But still, its succinct study of teen angst is cinematic power at its rawest form. By using unknown actors (except for Timothy Bottoms), devious long takes and painful irony, director Gus Van Sant was able to weave a film that's subtle in its societal commentary but fully incisive in its spontaneity. Though its appeal may ostensibly look as if it's a film that merely caters to hipsters and niche teenagers, "Elephant" is really much more than that.

On one side, it is a stirring indictment of homophobia and school bullying. On the other, it's a well-realized portrait of high school life. But unlike films like "The Breakfast Club" or any other teen-oriented ones that rely on stereotypes, "Elephant" depicts its teen-aged characters not as categorized social beings but as emotionally distant and ennui-laden youngsters that are in for the whole pointlessness of it all because, hell, they don't have any choice. To channel the realistically free-flowing randomness of high school life, Gus Van Sant shot the film entirely in a series of long takes and multiple points of view to create a "Rashomon-like" perspective on things and also to give the seemingly stagnant Watt High School (fictitious) some sort of dimension.

In addition, Van Sant has also decided to shoot the majority of his characters from behind (which sometimes renders them faceless) so that, in a way, we wouldn't care for them that much when they become nothing but casualties. For me, this is particularly cruel on Gus Van Sant's part, but in some respect, it's also the rightful thing to do. He has purposefully deprived us of any of the characters' faces and back stories so that we wouldn't be attached to them that much when things go out of hand.

In the end, Van Sant has shown how fervently humanistic he is. He cares for his characters and he cares for us too. He knows that pain is just around the corner, so in an act of goodwill, he makes us see their backs, shoulders but never much their faces so that the pain of seeing them 'go' will not be too hurtful. Instead, he has focused his camera lenses precisely on the two characters whose irrational gun assault to the aforementioned high school students echoes the tragedy that is the Columbine shooting. But still, Van Sant has also depicted them in a way that's also worthy of empathy.

Indeed, there's no denying the fact that these two students have gone out of hand in their line of thinking. In one scene, as they map out their plan for their school rampage, they have even reminded each other to 'have fun'. But looking at it, they are also victims here. So if it's not really them, who are the real culprits then? Was it their parents that are at fault here? Perhaps, but the real suspect here, aside from these two students, is mass media and the brutal extent of our homophobic society. Mass media because it is the one that has welcomed these two to the fact that shooting people is just as easy as breathing (mainly through video games), and society because it is the one that has created this notion that people who may try to come out of the closet will be utterly crucified and laughed at. That, aside from the very sight of the shooting, is what's most disturbing in the film.

"Elephant", one of the most deeply unsettling and harrowing films in recent memory, is also a very sensible, understanding and gently elegiac film that has brought these putrid social truths into the forefronts of cinematic discourse. Yes, "Elephant" is outright troubling, but it's also quite enlightening.

L'Avventura
L'Avventura(1960)

Before anything else, let me first, for the record, state that I love Michelangelo Antonioni's films. Be it the psychological enigma that is "Blowup", the mysterious identity thriller that is "The Passenger" or the marital woe-laden "La Notte", he has always been a hit to me. Without exaggeration, I consider him as one of the greatest auteurs of all time, and I'm not even halfway through his sterling filmography yet. So with that in mind, I went on to watch "L'Avventura", the first film in his informal 'Incommunicability Trilogy', with an expectation of being blown away once more. But alas, it has not happened.

Hailed as a cinematic work that has completely revolutionized the way films are structured and executed, "L'Avventura" is quite a disappointment for me as far as Michelangelo Antonioni and his films are concerned. But then again, maybe that is the film's point. After all, the film is a prolonged observation of emotional detachment, which is the same thing that I have felt while watching the film.

Though I understand where the characters are coming from, the film has still alienated me to high heavens. If perhaps that is Mr. Antonioni's ultimate intent, then I am impressed once more. If it's not, then maybe I deserve to be sentenced to an eternal cinematic damnation for not liking a film that everyone seems to love. But kidding aside, I think that "L'Avventura" is really that kind of film that is quite difficult to like but is easy to admire.

Antonioni, being the existentialist filmmaker that he is, is more concerned not with the film's literal mystery (the sudden disappearance of one of the characters) but with the emotional enigma that pervades throughout. The primary premise is simple enough: After the shocking disappearance of her friend Anna (Lea Massari) during a yacht trip, Claudia (Monica Vitt) suddenly finds herself trying to resist the urge of falling in love with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), the man that's no less than Anna's current lover. But still, fell she did.

All throughout the film, Michelangelo Antonioni finely questions the validity of the romance between Claudia and Sandro and invites us to witness the subtle awkwardness of it all. We see them kiss and hug in hotel rooms and on discreet street corners. We can sense that, somehow, they look fine together, but what about Anna?

As the film progresses, Antonioni lays down the question of whether or not we should take Anna's disappearance literally or symbolically. Whatever our personal answers regarding it may be, it is quite evident that Antonioni has used Anna's sudden absence as a device to further explore the emotional uncertainties of the kind of love that mushrooms from such situation rather than as a shallow means to compel and excite.

Despite of its slow pacing, bloated running time and alienating characters, "L'Avventura" is still a seminal film that is worthy of great veneration mainly because of how it has changed the way how cinema can communicate such things as love, existence and the feeling of being lost. I may not have liked the film that much compared to Michelangelo Antonioni's other works, but I sure do respect it for what it has contributed to the artistic progression of cinema as a whole. By creating this film, Antonioni has proven that cinema has no limitations, that it is not necessarily all about the plot and the payoff, and that cinema can exist outside the four corners of a tightly-structured narrative; the shackles are no more.

John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.
½

After rescuing Blofeld, oh, I mean the U.S. President and escaping from the madhouse that is New York city in the first film, Snake Plissken (reprised by Kurt Russell), in a logic applicable only to action movie sequels, gets drawn back yet again to this little parlor game of rescue and escape. This time, the place of choice is the city of angels.

Although this film is not that successful in recreating the unique atmosphere of "Escape from New York" and may also be accused of having one action scene too many, this is still one hell of a ride. Plus, it has also solidified Snake Plissken's status as perhaps one of the greatest cult anti-heroes ever.

With this film being almost identical to its predecessor's story and premise, "Escape from L.A." has also re-introduced us to Snake in very much the same manner as in "Escape from New York": In cuffs, escorted by armored guards and wearing that perennial frown.

As usual, before he was even officially incarcerated, he was greeted yet again with another potential pardon riding on the shoulders of another dangerous mission. Oh, the bars were raised a bit high this time too; if Snake was given a full 24 hours to save the President in "Escape from New York", here in "Escape from L.A.", he's only given nine hours to successfully recapture a doomsday device brought into the Los Angeles wastelands by none other than the President's daughter. And to up the ante and heighten Snake's sense of urgency even more, a toxic substance was once again put into his system. These bureaucratic people know that Snake is a dangerous man yet they are also aware that he always gets the job done. But what they are not aware of is that Plissken is not named after a predatory creature for nothing. In the end, you'll laugh at the world and smile with Snake.

Tone-wise, "Escape from L.A." is very, very different from the first film mainly because of the generational gap between the two. Made during an era (the mid-'90s) when the MTV culture is the 'thing', John Carpenter has dropped the visual aspects that have made "Escape from New York" so fascinatingly atmospheric (the slow pacing, the dark renditions of graffiti-laden street corners and whatnot) and has instead chosen to conform with what is in-demand at the time (abundant action scenes and some heavy doses of rock music); the result was definitely a hit and miss.

It's a 'hit' because we are given the fun chance to see Snake play some life-threatening hoops, surf his way through a tidal wave alongside Peter Fonda and hang glide with a male-voiced Pam Grier amid the ironic ruins of an apocalyptic Los Angeles. But then again, it's also a 'miss' because we're not given enough time to absorb Carpenter's visualization of a Los Angeles gone mad quite enough because the film itself is much more concerned with the progression of the film's MacGuffin-furthered plot and how action scenes may fit into it more than anything else. But despite of that, I have still enjoyed the film well enough, particularly its overall campy tone and clever ending (written entirely by Kurt Russell himself). This is pure escapist fun right here.

Escape from New York

With "Escape from New York", director John Carpenter (alongside co-writer Nick Castle) offers us a frighteningly war-torn vision of 1998 where the eponymous city is nothing but a maximum security prison and the hope of mankind solely resting on the shoulders of an eye-patched criminal named Snake. Oh how screwed Carpenter's world is.

As a seminal action film, the picture's visuals and simple yet compelling premise (adhering to the 'lone man on a mission' film archetype) is very, very potent even to this day. Although there were moments that seem to call for some swifter editing and some scenes that suggest that the film has not aged that well, the whole experience is still quite unique. Kudos to Kurt Russell (in his great coming-out party as a cinematic badass), who has played the anti-heroic Snake Plissken in a manner that oozes dark charisma and irrevocable screen presence. The supporting cast, comprised mainly of seasoned veterans like Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine, is also quite great despite of the one-dimensionality of their characters.

As a filmmaker, John Carpenter is very admirable in how he was always able to project flinching social commentaries while still being able to retain the integrity of various genre trappings. "Escape from New York", a truly gripping action picture, is one of the earliest examples of how action films can go all-out on the thrills but can still be articulate enough to say a thing or two. With the demoralizing trails left by the Watergate scandal and the Cold War paranoia raging at the time of the film's release, John Carpenter was able to share a piece of his mind regarding these sociopolitical issues by letting the film's visuals and exposition speak on his behalf. The commentary may be a tad too cynical, but hey, aren't they all? "Escape from New York" may just be the American answer to "Mad Max".

The Dictator
The Dictator(2012)

After 3 years, Sacha Baron Cohen is back yet again with his comic shenanigans, but this time, it is on a bigger political scale. "The Dictator", a film that marks Cohen's third collaboration with director Larry Charles, is a gross-out satire of, obviously, everything dictatorial and politically unethical. But unlike "Borat" and "Bruno", "The Dictator" is visually more polished (mainly because of its bigger budget) and a tad more ambitious in scope.

But then again, compared to the two earlier films, "The Dictator" is also quite forgettable. Sure, the trademark Sacha Baron Cohen comedy is still there, but the ingenuity and effortless wit seem amiss this time around. The politically incorrect jokes are spot-on yet there's something off in their deliveries. As one racial joke bombards the screen after another, I sure have let out some laughs, but they are ones that are hollow and abrupt.

Although I wouldn't go to great lengths by describing the Cohen-Charles combo as a 'train finally running out of steam', I think that there's just a lack of general inspiration and twist in how the film was realized. It has sure made me laugh numerous times, but the jokes (especially the racial ones) are often generic and sometimes just plain bland. As far as I'm concerned, this is their weakest film yet in terms of comedy, but as a potent political satire, "The Dictator" is a bit of a success. The Cohen-Charles team seems to be humorously degenerating yet satirically improving with every film. Perhaps that's quite a consolation.

With majority of current world news circling around controversial dictators from parts unknown and the quasi-humorous manias they so nonchalantly flaunt, it is inevitable for a comic provocateur like Sacha Baron Cohen to take on such a persona. Sporting an overly thick beard, a mock Middle Eastern accent and a complete lack of common human decency, he has transformed into Admiral General Aladeen: a monster of a dictator (of the fictional Republic of Wadiya) who orders murders at will and has a penchant for nuclear supremacy. By combining Borat's political tactlessness and social ineptitude with Bruno's vulgarity and sexual promiscuity, Sacha Baron Cohen was able to form the foundations of his Aladeen character, with some additional touches of 'control freak' wickedness.

While this may not be Sacha Baron Cohen's best character (that would still go to Borat), his turn as Aladeen is still quite memorable because of the way he has displayed the humorous extent of how a man raised in an isolated manger of violent political power deals with the reality outside his own. The result may not have been the freshest in terms of execution, but nonetheless, there were flashes of comic brilliance all throughout the film that were relatively able to carry "The Dictator's" satirical weight.

Compared to "Borat" and "Bruno", "The Dictator" is the closest that both Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles can get to a narrative. But the way I see it, perhaps the film's adherence to a standardized plot is quite a disadvantage because Aladeen was utilized not as a freewheeling character much like Borat Sagidyev is but as a parody of a character who merely operates within the confines of a predictable narrative (notice how the film, as it progresses, slowly takes on a tone akin to a rom-com?). Although Aladeen as a character was in no way wasted, I think it's fair to say that his utmost potential as a riotously funny character was mostly left untouched.

On the other hand, I have to give the rest of the cast lots of credits, especially Anna Faris and Jason Mantzoukas (with bits of Ben Kingsley) in how they have complemented Sacha Baron Cohen's often times overbearing presence.

As a comedy film, "The Dictator" is too heavily flawed to be ranked shoulder-to-shoulder with the very masterful "Borat" (still Sacha Baron Cohen's best film). But as a no-holds-barred political satire, the film is very, very effective. I especially loved the scene where Aladeen and his nuclear scientist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), are talking about innocuous things in their native language aboard a tourist helicopter when, suddenly, two tourists riding along with them mistake their conversation as an insidious plan to go 9/11 on the Empire State Building's ass. It is moments like this that makes "The Dictator" more special than it has any right to be. Oh, and also maybe Edward Norton's cameo.

Looper
Looper(2012)

Considered as one of the most highly original science fiction films in recent memory, I personally think that "Looper" is more of a great example of a cinematic pastiche done right. Think of a hundred times more vulnerable T-800 randomly meeting up with a more dead serious Doc Brown inside a dilapidated Xavier Institute and you have "Lopper".

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and frequent time-traveler "Bruce Willis" (remember "12 Monkeys"?), "Looper" is a relatively bleak film with a beating heart. In a haze of modern sci-fi films that are more concerned with the extravagance of CGI rather than the beauty of human emotions, "Looper" is a commendable exception because it stimulates both the heart and the mind at the same breath.

Set in the year 2044 where hitmen (called 'loopers') are paid to kill for the gangsters of the future (the invention of time travel in 2074 has made it possible to zap people back in time), the film is about a looper named Joe and his surprising encounter with his older self.

Though not as action-oriented as "Inception" or "The Matrix", "Looper" has this visual appeal that makes me want to hug director Rian Johnson in great appreciation. Instead of relying to the wonders that computer-generated effects can do to action sequences, Rian Johnson's treatment of the film's scenes of action and violence is sort of a throwback to the olden (and maybe also golden) age of action films reigned by the likes of Paul Verhoeven and John McTiernan. This is "RoboCop" violence right here.

Given the fact that everything in the film seems to be borrowed from other pre-existing creations, director Rian Johnson has handled it all very well. As what French New Wave champion Jean-Luc Godard has said: "It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to."

Though not necessarily a great film, "Looper" is still a fresh science fiction creation worthy of praise. But of course, it is not without its share of flaws. One of my main issues with the film is how the younger and older versions of Joe (the former being Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the latter being Bruce Willis) were not given enough time to truly interact. Perhaps the urgency of their situation calls for them not to, but their friction as two extreme states of mind, despite of them being one and the same, was not properly explored either. In that aspect, I was short-changed.

I also was not overly impressed by the whole 'Rainmaker' concept. In case you still haven't watched the film, 'The Rainmaker' is a futuristic and telekinetic Hitler, plain and simple. Because of his unmatched power, he has single-handedly taken over the future and is now closing all the loops. By the way, to close a loop means that a looper's future self is to be sent back in time so that it can be killed by none other than his younger self.

For me, just the very idea of a present and future self freely interacting with each other and the dangers of doing so is enough to form one thematically weighty film. But wait, the film's creators thought that that would not properly suffice so they have integrated the overly ambitious idea of a Book of Revelations-esque figure like 'The 'Rainmaker' to complexify (yeah, give me that red underline, MS Word) things even more. I sure do love cinematic complexity when I sense one, but what I do not want is thematic overload, which this film is a great example of.

But on the other hand, I did enjoy the performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quietly intense as the younger Joe. Though his narrations may be quite spoon-feeding at times, his on-screen performance is comparably lesser (yet effective) in exposition. His face may display the same constipated look throughout the course of the film but you can constantly sense the escalating conflict brewing within him. Here in "Looper", Joseph Gordon-Levitt has just proved that the less showy characters are always the hardest ones to portray because it's a make or break kind of thing. As an actor taking on such a role, it's either you'll be accused of lazy acting or praised for your powerful subtlety. In his performance's case, it's definitely the latter.

Now perhaps I'm quite biased on this one because I have always been a big fan of his, but I really think that it was Bruce Willis who has exuded the better presence in the film. In his portrayal of the older Joe, there's this certain air of 'nothing to lose' desperation and melancholy that really makes his character so sympathetic yet frightening; echoes of his performance in "12 Monkeys" persists.

As for the rest of the cast, I think that two other actors have really stood out. The first one is the beautiful Emily Blunt, whose turn as a desensitized, no-nonsense Southern woman named Sara is very convincing. The second one is Pierce Gagnon, whose terrific juvenile performance as Sara's mysterious son has elevated the film to a whole new level. Now this might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not since Catinca Untaru in Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" have I seen a better child performance.

All in all, I was very impressed by "Looper", especially in how it has preferred silence and dialogue over cheap plot twists and slam-bang action. But from where I can see it, I think that the film is ultimately a victim of its own ideas. Torn between time travel, telekinesis and dystopia, what resulted is a finely-executed yet fairly confused film. Perhaps some thematic trimming is what the film needs.

In the Mood for Love
½

It is quite well-known that Wong Kar-wai's filmography is one of great cinematic essence, so as a long-time film fan, I am quite ashamed to say that this is the first film of his that I have ever seen. But what I have felt right at the very moment the film has started is one of immediate admiration. "In the Mood for Love", a film of quiet romantic power, is really not about love at its most denotative sense. Instead, like the later "Lost in Translation", it is a film of how romance transforms into something more than the usual hugs and kisses. Sometimes, it is not strictly eternal love that people look for but simple human connection, and in this film, it was displayed in a way that fully evokes the particular emptiness that asks for it and the gentle emotional force that attempts to fill it up.

The film's premise, about two lost souls and their sudden romantic spark after finding out that their respective better halves are cheating on them, is a subtle observation about the pain of extramarital affairs. And with Wong Kar-wai's choice of not showing the two characters' cheating husband and wife's faces, the film takes on a more absolute form. They know that they wouldn't be together for a long time, but they are aware of the feelings that will permeate across time years after they part ways. And in this brief time that they share together, how comforting it is to feel that all of it shall last forever.

But wait, how about their marriages? Isn't this a form of cheating as well? Well, maybe that is the case, but Wong Kar-wai highlights the fact (through precise cinematographic compositions and haunting musical score) that their romance is in no way a form of transgression; hell, it's not even romantic revenge per se. Instead, it is quite simply because of human impulse, of our tendencies to look for a hand to hold on to in our perennial struggle to find answers to our questions, and of our adherence to the concept of love no matter the emotional price we may subsequently pay. We are born to love, but hell, we are also born to be hurt; "In the Mood for Love" dwells somewhere in the middle.

Stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (playing Mr. Chow) and Maggie Cheung (playing Mrs. Chan) are evidently perfect in their roles. In the film's earlier moments, their body language perfectly conveys their utter indifference to one another. But as the film progresses, especially at the moment when they both realize that the love they have found is something that cannot be cherished for a longer time (their husband and wife are merely on a business trip in Japan, presumably consummating their own secret love), their faces show something that suggests contemplative sadness. They hate to see each other go but they nonetheless accept it. They both hate to cut their romance short but they know that it is wrong to prolong it even more. They both know that they need each other but they just can't continue on doing so. And in one of the film's most powerful scenes, we see how they rehearse their final farewells and the subsequent pain that comes along with it. Saying goodbye is indeed a hard thing to do especially if the one you're uttering it to is the final person you'll ever wish to be on its receiving end.

It is from this complex set-up that I was able to see through Wong Kar-wai's emotional maturity as a filmmaker. He is quite aware of the fact that human connection always arises from the most unexpected of situations and that love is a mercurial aspect of life that's easy to feel yet slides so easily from the palm of the hands. He is also quite articulate about the sheer transience of time and its role in reminding us that moments may fade but feelings just wouldn't. "In the Mood for Love", an artful amalgamation of style and substance, is a symphonic film about the unpredictability of love, the persistence of memory, and the gentle, bittersweet pain of harboring a beautiful secret. Welcome to my film-watching consciousness, Mr. Wong Kar-wai.

Moonrise Kingdom

I have always been fond of Wes Anderson's works but, strangely, was never entirely awed by any of them. Personally, I find his works more to be testaments in great character handling rather than pieces that truly exemplify great storytelling. Perhaps it's just a matter of taste.

I commenced watching "Moonrise Kingdom" with zero expectations. Yes, although many reviewers are already branding it (and maybe quite prematurely at that) as one of the true best films of the year, I have veered myself away from that perspective simply because I do not want to be disappointed. But hell, them reviewers were right; "Moonrise Kingdom" is indeed something really, really special and, to some extent, even quite spectacular. I have never really thought that I would ever describe a Wes Anderson as something that oozes 'spectacle' but there you go. Wes, the truest hipster filmmaker out there, has just upped his ante, and it's something that's worthy of some genuine celebration.

On one side, there's Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Bill Murray (as always). On the other, there's Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and some surprising bits of Harvey Keitel. Though Wes Anderson is really not known for casting unknown actors to play his ever-quirky characters, "Moonrise Kingdom's" ensemble cast is just awe-inspiring.

The story concerns the emotional misadventures of two troubled pre-adolescents (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), their budding romance, and their subsequent decision to run away from their parents in the name of whatever their concept of love is. For a film that's focused mainly on two young, peculiar lovers' awkward elopement, the film's cast is amazingly heavyweight. But "Moonrise Kingdom's" screenplay (penned by Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson himself), although not as articulately weird as some of Anderson's previous efforts, is very strong and emotionally direct that it has rendered the supporting adult characters to be as essential (sometimes even more so) as the two young ones. In hindsight, with the film's patented tableau-like sequences and a musical score that sarcastically serenades the abundance of dry wit and dark humor in it, "Moonrise Kingdom" seems to be treading the usual path towards a very typical Wes Anderson film, which may also result on a slight frustration on my part as a viewer.

But with every film, Wes Anderson seems to be bent on constantly topping himself by taking on a more ambitious, visionary and expansive palette than the last. From India ("The Darjeeling Limited") to the woods ("The Fantastic Mr. Fox"), he is capable enough to create his creatively personal and quasi-fantastical versions of these environments. In "Moonrise Kingdom's case, he has successfully outdone himself even more. Aside from the fact that he has conjured up the fictional island of New Penzance out of thin air, he has also creatively integrated a detailed description of its terrains by way of the narrator (played by Bob Balaban), a short, gray-bearded man who enters and exits scenes for no apparent pattern and reason.

Serving as the arena for the two young lovers' mutual, albeit strange affection, New Penzance, as the story progresses, also seems to take on a character of its own. Aside from the populating characters whose offbeat demeanors paint the whole island with faded hues, the island has its own air of life that's quite reminiscent of some far away fairy tale lands. This is the kind of place where fantasy and reality has once figuratively met, made love and subsequently separated in bitter, contemptuous tears. New Penzance, despite of its visual serenity, is a place of colorful anomaly. It is an island of bittersweet desperation and tender angst. It is a haven of regret and love both at its faintest whisper and most thunderous cry.

Without much pretense in dialogue and eccentricity in characters (the characters in this film are, by far, the most conventional of all Wes Anderson films), Wes Anderson was finally able to subtly connect with me by just letting his visuals and his sweet tale of naïve love utter the things that are otherwise unspeakable by the tongue. To some extent, "Moonrise Kingdom" has even reawakened the quiet poet and the adventurous camper within me. Finally, I have found the Wes Anderson film that I am looking for. On second thought, maybe it's the one that has found me.

Los Olvidados
½

Years before his satirical digs towards the bourgeoisie crowd with masterful films like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "The Phantom of Liberty", Luis Buñuel was already out there stressing a significant point or two. And in "Los Olvidados'" case, it is the tragedy of children forced into the life of crime not because they want to but because there really is no other option; that and maybe some lack of guidance and parental warmth. Can you really blame a petty crime solely on the small hands that have done it?

With a visual preference that is geared more towards neorealism, this film specifically highlights Luis Buñuel's humbler days as a filmmaker both in imagery and themes. But being the audacious auteur that he always was, he has successfully combined the grittiness of social realism with the visual profundity of surrealism. What resulted was a brave, candid and ultimately gut-churning film that emphasizes the sheer decay of youth life in post-war Mexico that's as potent to this day as it was when it was released more than 60 years ago.

Youth angst, as we all know, is a favorite topic amongst filmmakers. Be it in the context of formal education, societal disconnection or simple case of immature alienation, directors have wallowed in them, sometimes to pretentious extent. But only a few films have really embraced the topic of adolescence with an intention to expose something alarmingly rancid and truthful. One of them is "Los Olvidados".

Years before "City of God" has rocked the film world with its fearless portrait of youth criminality in the titular Rio de Janeiro neighborhood, "Los Olvidados" has already left a mark in the world of cinema with its intense depiction of spontaneous criminality committed by the most fragile of bodies and the youngest of minds. In every country's underbelly, there are criminals who will steal and kill for money. Luis Buñuel has highlighted the sad fact that among those low-lives are young ones who doesn't even know what's left from right, right from wrong. The truth hurts indeed.

Generally about the reality of youth criminality, "Los Olvidados" is focused on three facets, represented by three unforgettable characters: El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo) the full-fledged criminal, young Pedro (Alfonso Mejia) the conflicted one, and Ojitos (Mario Ramirez), the kindred boy who got dragged in the middle of it all. With these characters, Buñuel was able to explore the extent of their reality by mixing both hope and despair. Hope that one of them may ultimately choose to escape and lead a better life, and despair that maybe all of them are, after all, futilely treading a path towards a moral cul-de-sac. And between those, there were Buñuel's chickens.

All throughout the film and even in one of the characters' dream, chickens were ever-present. How do these feathery animals really figure in on the film's whole thematic plateau? "Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity," the great Werner Herzog has stated. Though that is too derogatory a remark, I think that it speaks well for what Buñuel's chickens may ultimately signify in this film. With that blunt statement about chickens, maybe what Herzog mistakes as idiocy, Buñuel sees as naivety. Perhaps it's not stupidity that they represent but innocence. And in every chickens smashed into smithereens (as in the film), it is innocence lost. Maybe that also applies quite well with the notorious chicken sex scene in "Pink Flamingos".

Back in 1950 when the Mexican government was eager for its citizens to see, feel and sense progress even when it means suppressing truth itself, "Los Olvidados" is incredibly audacious, what with its decrepit portrayal of urban squalor and looming sense of hopelessness. But this, I think, is also an urgent film of terrible necessity because it shows something painfully real. "Los Olvidados", with its timeless statement about impoverished youth life, is one of those truly powerful cinematic creations that constantly remind us that not all children are for the good old sing and dance.

Pink Flamingos
½

I knew it. I just knew it. Those two times when I just can't continue on watching the film is a foreboding all on its own. Sure, films like "Salo" and "Cannibal Holocaust" have disturbed me to the fullest, but it's only during "Pink Flamingos" that I have looked away from the screen several times simply because I just can't take what the film is showing me anymore. This, I believe, is trash American cinema at its most deprived, disturbed and relentlessly absurd. Damn New York Magazine for nonsensically comparing this to Luis Buñuel's "An Andalusian Dog". Buñuel's short classic is pure silent art; "Pink Flamingos" is a radical piece of noisy trash. But hell, there's such a thing we call 'junk art'. Perhaps "Pink Flamingos" belongs to that category.

A film about the filthiest person alive (played by late drag legend Divine), one can't really expect a film with such subject matter to be an exercise in elegance and good taste. In fact, John Waters seemed to have seen that 'filthy' little branding as a challenge to visually top himself in every sequence, shock factor-wise. From cannibalism to castration, Waters has thrown everything into the film but the kitchen sink, and the result may just be the most appalling piece of trash ever made. That is a compliment, by the way.

But the film, as crazy as it may be, is still a story rooted in familial bond. Divine, although an extremely disturbed person, is still family-oriented. And beneath her heavily made-up, genuinely intimidating exterior is a truly caring daughter to a mentally ill, egg-loving mother (Edith Massey) and a consistently encouraging mother to a mentally unstable son (Danny Mills).

But still, do not be misled by the ostensibly tender characterization. Personally, I still think that Divine is, without a doubt, one of the most frightening characters in all of movie history. The only difference is unlike most movie killers who prefer to murder alone, Divine prefers company and an audience, but she only does so when there's enough justification. And in her case, the word 'justification' means fending off some hacks who want to seize from her the title of 'the filthiest person alive'. Referencing a clichéd action film tagline, "God help those who come his/her way".

But in the end, no matter how deprived and murderous Divine may be, she may just ultimately prefer to cook her dear mother some eggs all day (and maybe eat some excremental droppings from dogs on the way) rather than to murder for fun. But then again, you may never know. This Divine is one unpredictable fella to deal with. But so is John Waters, the same man who has declared "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" as the best film ever made.

As an auteur, Waters is commendable for making the film look as cheap as possible while also feeding it with enough acts of deprivations and cruelty to make it even more shockingly antithetic to what makes a film acceptable at the least. But ultimately, what Waters has achieved is something stylistically noteworthy. By integrating songs into scenes while rendering the dialogue mute, he was able to consistently create an ironically fun-loving atmosphere.

Take the scene where Raymond (David Lochary) and Connie Marble (Mink Stole), the scheming couple who wants to dethrone Divine from her filthy throne, is about to deliver a birthday gift to Divine as an example. We know that the content of the gift is something unspeakably dubious to say the least (okay, a fecal matter's what's inside the gift box), but Waters, despite of the disgusting nature of the gift, has chosen to insert the very pristine "Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby" song by 'The Tune Weavers' to accentuate the mockery that accompanies the sequence. Amid all the nonsense, John Waters has indeed forged his own style. He has ensured that "Pink Flamingos" will be a tough act to follow. Until now, I believe it still is. This film persists.

'An Exercise in Poor Taste," the tagline says. Yes, it sure is, but one can't also deny the fact that "Pink Flamingos" is a trash film worthy to be deemed as truly influential. We can at least safely say that if there's no "Pink Flamingos", there will be no such films as Harmony Korine's "Gummo" or even Rob Zombie's more recent "The Devil's Rejects". And also maybe without "Pink Flamingos", exploitation cinema would have been a lot tamer.

Honestly, no other films have disturbed me as much. For me, films like this are stuff nightmares are made of. To admire this film's true aesthetic value is quite hard but it is not really impossible. But to find enough motivation to rewatch the film will surely be an intense scatological dig. Well, at least for me.

The Silence
The Silence(1963)

Not fortunate enough to have a copy of Bergman's "Winter Light", I immediately jumped into this aptly-titled film of his that's also the final film in his "Silence of God" trilogy. If "Through a Glass Darkly" is a religiously probing yet spiritually reassuring film, "The Silence", in a way, is its brooding half-brother. Expecting something reflectively eloquent, "The Silence" has instead caught me off-guard with its coldness. With minimal dialogue and the recurring sound of a ticking clock, this film may just be Ingmar Bergman's most emotionally distant and alienating film.

With a plot that's very elliptical in nature and with characters that seem to act in vague, incomprehensible ways, it's a film that's quite difficult to grasp and be emotionally involved in. Yet strangely, its dark sexual spell, devastating performances (specifically by Ingrid Thulin) and Bergman's maestro-like handling of the profound landscapes of the human face makes "The Silence" a masterful mood piece that's definitely hard not to admire.

The story, forged in simplicity, is about two sisters, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin), and their complex relationship that teeters between affection and downright contempt. In the middle is Anna's son Johan (Jörgen Lindström), whose naivety makes him the perfect observer in the film.

Compared to "Through a Glass Darkly", "The Silence's" spiritual and religious allusions are more inconspicuous, which makes it even harder to absorb and analyze on the basis of the trilogy's theme that is God's silence.

With Bergman being a filmmaker that's more artistically inclined in capturing his actors' performances on silent, relatively empty locations, "The Silence" is a genuine challenge for him and cinematographer Sven Nykvist because they are compelled to shoot numerous scenes in busy street corners. But as expected, the film still came out to be visually stunning.

Setting-wise, "The Silence" is primarily split into three locations: the hotel room where the three characters are currently staying at, the finely-carpeted hotel corridors and the streets. Tricky as it may seem to be, Bergman was able to convey the personalities of Anna, Ester and Johan by placing them in specific locations that reflect them as characters.

Anna, the confused younger sister, is placed mainly on the busy streets to highlight her passively carefree attitude. Ester, the ill, emotionally tormented older sister, is perennially situated within the hotel room to emphasize her physical and emotional limitations. Johan, on the other hand, is constantly placed on the corridors to underline the fact that he is in the 'middle' of it all. Notice how he was never shown roaming the streets along with her mother. Look at how every time Anna is inside the hotel room with Ester and Johan, tension ensues. Despite of their familial ties, Bergman may have been suggesting that God seems to have given the three of them their respective planes of existence (the hotel room, the corridors and the streets) so that balance can be observed. But by integrating the concept of 'God is love' that's also present in "Through a Glass Darkly", Bergman complicates things again.

In one key scene, he has suggestively shown that Ester is 'romantically' invested to her sister Anna. Clearly, her love for her younger sister transcends sibling affection. This therefore distorts things even more and again, the question of whether or not god and love being one and the same is truly a positive thing enters the scene.

If God is love and love is what Ester is feeling towards Anna, then why is the former still under pain and suffering? If God embodies love, then why is it that the relationship between Ester and Anna angst-ridden, ambiguous and confused? Where is the guiding light?

Amid all of these questions, Bergman's thematic God merely looks at the ultimate unraveling in deep silence. Perhaps Ester's love is invalid and wrong. Well, if that is the case, then God, as far as "The Silence" is concerned, is not really love in every sense of the word. The film seems to suggest that, to be more exact, it should not be 'God is love' but 'God is love...with some exceptions'.

Arguably, Bergman is at his most emotionally nihilistic in this film. He took the concept of 'God is love' and smashed it right in front of us like some useless ornamental vase. "The Silence" is that shard in the shattered mess that cuts so deep it leaves quite a beautiful scar.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
½

Call it dated, silly and extremely campy but still, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" is classic exploitation fun that brings us back in a time where the deadly combination of femme fatales and some high-octane machinery equals to titillation. This, I think, is one of those films that have definitely made men salivate back then. Cars, violence and sexy women, what more can you ask for? Yet despite of its superficial display of violence, sexual innuendos and car chases, there's no doubt that this film, directed by Russ Meyer (who has also produced and co-written it), still has something much to say than meets the eye.

Is it a film about women empowerment? Well, definitely a big no. In fact, this is the kind of film that will definitely make feminists shake their head in disgust and disappointment. This was never how they envision women to be. It portrays women as unpredictably murderous low-lives and nothing more. To make it even worse, the heroines of the film (if you can call them that) are a bunch of go-go dancers, which is not exactly the most ideal job for the female populace. So, if it's not a film that empowers women, then what is it all about?

Personally, I think that it's merely a film about power. Director Russ Meyer, with an intention to exploit and entertain, was successful in putting into the screen the things (sexy women, cars and violence) that sway men into complete submission and reduce them into libidinous losers. In a way, it's not the female characters' sexual force that dominates the film but Russ Meyer's power as a director. In a way, he reflects, by way of this film, the ultimate male fetishes of the time while also relishing in it himself. Now, imagine what kind of film would be made of today's male fixations? What kind of 'pussycat' will we see at this point in time? Oh, well, enough of that before it gets all too... sleazy.

Back to the subject at hand, this is a film that's undeniably sexy and spell-binding. It is a fun little film that has since been one of the genre's cornerstones. Yet at the end of the day, it's also considered as trash. Yes, the kind of trash that has inspired Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to create "Grindhouse" in sarcastic ode to its peculiar art. Then why, despite of the fact that the film was made specifically for its own era (the 1960s) and nothing further, has it become timeless? Well, I think the answer lies in the very execution itself. Buried somewhere in the middle of the curvy presences of Varla (Tura Satana), Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams) is a quick-witted script and a fast-paced plot.

The story is simple enough: three go-go dancers, after a day's work, found themselves in a contagious mood for reckless fun. Enter a young, harmless couple who have obliviously joined the unpredictable triumvirate in a picnic of sorts. A little trouble occurs and the male half of the couple was killed by one of them crazy ladies. This is where the carnage starts. From here, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" picks up the steam like there's no tomorrow. With the female heroines increasingly becoming more and more dangerous, so do the male characters in the film, particularly the crippled whacko (Stuart Lancaster) and his 'all brawns no brain' son (Dennis Busch). There's also the other son named Kirk (Paul Trinka), who may or may not be your usual decent Southerner.

In a way, I occasionally found the script, with all those wonderfully-placed puns and whatnot, to be even more fascinating than the narrative itself. I also found the performances to be even more engaging than the characters themselves. Although I can see where the logic of the characters are coming from and what motivates them to do what, I still can't help but be more smitten by how these actors and actresses have gotten themselves in the spirit of camp even though there's this brooding sense of futility in what they are doing. They are, after all, merely acting in a cheap exploitation film. Why should they give their all, right? Well, energy and passion indeed perform mysterious wonders to people.

What the actors and actresses lack in talent, they make up for intensity. Acting more like cartoon characters than actual people, there's this comedic feeling that, inevitably, there will be an Acme box that will fall from the sky and hit one of them in the head, resulting in an explosion of unearthly proportions and a bump of mountainous heights. It's a laughable thought, really, but this is also the very reason why the film is so much fun. You just can't help but picture the surprise appearance of a carrot-eating, wise-cracking bunny in there somewhere, or perhaps an arrogant, constantly salivating duck suddenly coming out from one of them desert shrubs.

Ultimately, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!", unlike the curvaceous wholeness of the three lady characters in the film, proved to be less than the sum of its parts. But still, that does not take anything away from the film's wildly alternative vision of America; a vision where liberated women are given free reins to do whatever they want in the middle of the desert, with men ironically at their mercy and the revving of car engines as their symbol of authority. Ladies and gentlemen, what we've got here is a new wild west.

Såsom i en Spegel (Through A Glass Darkly)
½

Ingmar Bergman, bar none one of the best filmmakers who have ever lived, has just proved here in "Through a Glass Darkly" that one does not need a complex set-up to convey something powerfully meditative. Merely utilizing the sterile landscapes of the island of Faro in Sweden, he, with the aid of the more than able hands of legendary cinematographer and frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist, has made a film that deeply questions religion yet also explores the painful beauty (yes, you read that right) of insanity.

If John Cassavetes' 1974 film "A Woman Under the Influence" has presented insanity as something akin to a suburban necessity by showing how it can keep a family together in the most trying of times, "Through a Glass Darkly" depicts it as something that seems to border on the artistic. Bergman, by equal amounts probing and observant in his approach, portrays insanity not as a terrible mental disease but as a symphonic descent into the unknown. This, I think, is the only film that I have seen concerning mental illness in which I do not really pity the character's psychological condition but instead, in a strangely perverse way, envies it. What is she seeing that we don't?

The film, a true landmark in simple yet reflective storytelling, is about a small family living on a quiet island and how their lives and own states of mind are being drastically affected by the only woman in the family's troubling mental health. Her name is Karin (Harriet Andersson), daughter to Martin (Gunnar Björnstrand), sister to Minus (Lars Passgård) and wife to Martin (Max Von Sydow). At times a seemingly naïve lass but more often a behaviorally mercurial woman who, as if summoned by a mysterious voice, waits so eagerly for the arrival of what he thinks is 'God' himself, her unpredictability causes general alarm to the family members. What is it that she is waiting for that they are all oblivious about?

Through this simple dichotomy of insanity and the otherwise, Bergman is able to construct, in true auteur fashion, a philosophical statement about both the futility of religion and the intrinsic role of love in human existence.

"Through a Glass Darkly", though not necessarily a film that's conspicuous in its optimism, still offers a subtly positive outlook. Despite of the film's increasingly despairing situation as Karin careens into psychological oblivion and as she finally finds out the true, beastly nature of the 'God' whose arrival she so patiently awaits, "Through a Glass Darkly" was still able to find light by utilizing some logical fallacies that solidifies Bergman's faith in human faith itself.

There's this scene in the end where Minus and his father David, while contemplating Karin's fate, unexpectedly swerves into a melancholic conversation about the true connection between 'God' and 'love'. David, the classic image of a jaded yet hopeful human being, blurts out his belief that God and love is the same thing, and being equipped with that comforting idea makes him feel less empty inside.

But with that, Minus, on the other hand the classic image of a naïvely confused young man, asks his father back that if God is love, then Karin, his mentally unstable sister, is surrounded by God because they all love her so much. With that thought, Minus then asks his father: "Can that help her?" (pertaining to Karin's condition)

Bergman, at that moment the classic representation of an artist questioning the extent of God's power, initially may have intended to leave some of the film's doors relatively open. It could have ended right at that very moment but Bergman, immediately shifting gears from skepticism to enlightened assurance, made the father answer his son with the line "I believe so".

With that dialogue, Bergman seems to put his own way of religious thinking in perspective. Not that sure, not that certain, but definitely adhering to some kind of light and hope, that line highlights what "Through a Glass Darkly", at least for me, is all about. Despite of Karin's description of the 'God' that she has seen as something akin to a monstrous spider, David, with his final answer to Minus' inquiry about the whole 'God is love' thing, is a testament of faith, however futile, amid weighing questions. "Through a Glass Darkly", religious-wise, is a film that raises doubts yet also enlightens. Only a few filmmakers can do that. Well, maybe only Ingmar Bergman can.

The Mistress
The Mistress(2012)

Keeping up with Star Cinema's seemingly non-exhaustive obsession with infidelity and anything extramarital, "The Mistress" is the said film production company's latest offering which revolves around some mature issues (yet again) about love. For romantic tandem John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo, this is their much-awaited jump towards true dramatic maturity, and for Olivia M. Lamasan, this is a great chance for her to prove that Star Cinema has something more to offer other than some frequently rehashed plots and cheap sentimentality.

Although I found the film's screenplay (by Vanessa R. Valdez) to be quite strong, I thought that the way the film itself was executed, especially in how the film's ending was decided, is very, very frustrating to the point that I really have given up all my hopes that Star Cinema may one day give us a film that's purely worthy of the commercial successes ("Praybeyt Benjamin", anyone?) that the company itself often undeservedly enjoy.

But with that statement, I don't mean to say that "The Mistress" is a bad film. It is, as far as I'm concerned, one of Star Cinema's better offerings, but that is mainly because of the performances. The ever-luminescent Hilda Koronel, after being absent in the local film scene for about 6 years or so, is very good in her comeback role as Ronaldo Valdez's wife. While both Bea Alonzo and John Lloyd Cruz, arguably the only romantic tandem in the country right now that is able to surpass that shallow 'love team' branding by constantly improving their respective dramatic range throughout all these years, have finely highlighted their characters' emotionally incendiary arcs by delivering what may be the most mature performances of their careers.

On the other hand, the film's story, about the emotional struggles of a mistress as she criss-crosses between necessary romance (with Ronaldo Valdez's 'benefactor' character) and true love (with John Lloyd Cruz's), is sort of a non-event. Although the film is held together by its own dramatic sophistication mainly because of the cast, the plot suffers because of its predictable familiarity. How many times have we seen that sequence where the mistress, together with her benefactor, gets caught in a restaurant by none other than the benefactor's emotionally on-the-edge wife? How many times have we seen a relatively old character succumbing to a heart attack after a crucial argument? How many times have we seen that awkward confrontation between the mistress and the legitimate wife with a killer dialogue on the side ("Layuan mo ang asawa ko. Tagalog 'yan para maintindihan mo.")? At the end of the day, the real, more generalizing question is this: How often have we seen films like this? Well, the answer is 'all the freaking time'.

"The Mistress", a film that's heavily sappy in nature, is surprisingly crisp and articulate about its statements about the nuances of love. It's also an entirely flawed commercial work made fine by the cast's dramatic consistency. Its cinematography is also commendable especially on how it evokes the visuals of an old-fashioned melodrama. Just do not get me started with that opening and final scene.

Yes, if you've already seen the film, I'm talking about the opening 'rain' sequence set within the vicinity of a National Book Store branch. But what's even more saddening is the fact that the film must resort to that illusory 'wedding' sequence in its final scene just to make its audience feel better. So what if the characters don't end up together? Get over it and just move on. No need for that unnecessary 'what could have been' scenario.

On a final note, if both John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo have indeed taken a big step towards 'maturity' (as actors) by way of this film, then I think Star Cinema (as a movie studio), in its complete lack of faith on how its audience may react to a less comforting ending by adding that sparkly wedding fantasy, still has a long way to go.

This Is Not a Film
½

What do you think will happen when you put a prolific filmmaker under house arrest? "This Is Not a Film", a sad portrait of how freedom of expression can sometimes be looked upon as nothing short of a political transgression, answers that question with both simplicity and ingenuity courtesy of director Jafar Panahi, whose socially realistic films have brought him a tad too close to the fire.

Shot entirely inside his apartment using only one professional camera (and Panahi's camera phone), the film chronicles his house imprisonment and how boredom and frustration slowly plague his every waking day. For filmmakers and even aspiring ones like me, it's a truly depressing thing to behold because it shows someone like Panahi, a director at the peak of expressive strengths, suddenly pulled down to a creative standstill.

With one of his restrictions being to carry a video camera and record things with it, Panahi's body is literally trapped and his mind figuratively shackled. For a filmmaker, nothing is more painful than that yet Jafar Panahi, with a demeanor that is surprisingly exuberant and pure even amid his situation, has thought of something: If it's illegal for him to tell a story through film, then maybe he can tell a story by way of spoken words, a hanging screenplay, and some masking tape.

Acting and moving as if always out of breath, Panahi, in relative detail and great imagination, was able to make us and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (the man holding the camera) visualize the set (by putting tapes on the floor to serve as the various settings' walls and dimensions), the preferred shots (by description) and the emotional context of each and every scene that comprise the aforementioned screenplay that he is supposed to direct into a feature film.

In these moments, one can really feel and see how Panahi suddenly transforms from a silently frustrated political prisoner into a spirited man of both grace and energy. To see him very eager to tell a story, even in the most limiting of conditions, is truly encouraging yet at the same time also saddening. Why must a country like Iran reach a point where its filmmakers, who all got something to say that's worth listening to, are prevented to do what they do best? And does a video camera impose the same kind of risk to Iranian authorities in much the same way a high-powered gun does? Or is it just the fact that their government is afraid of it the same way an authoritarian state is wary of rightful revolutionaries?

"This Is Not a Film", although a piece of work that's solely focused on Panahi's predicament, is also a subtly incising political commentary about the crumbling state of Iranian cinema. With a title that seems to inform both the audience and authorities in advance, as if in cautious defense, that 'this is not a film', ironically, it's still a thoroughly radical work. Smuggled out of Iran inside a cake so that it may reach a wider audience, "This Is Not a Film", both in content and context, is a work not just of political defiance but also of cinematic resilience.

La Jetée (The Pier)
½

If pictures can paint a thousand words, then "La Jetée", directed by the late Chris Marker, has solidly proven that putting them in succession can also tell a story that's way ahead of time and can also impart a futuristic idea that's both thematically transcendent and deeply human. Let Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" serve as the main testament of the film's far-reaching influence.

Composed only of black and white stills and a moody narration (by Jean Négroni), "La Jetée" is a surprising proof of the power of cinematic narrative even when there are no literal movements on screen. It's also a film that treads the territories of hard science fiction, the elliptical tendencies of time and some probing existentialism. Although the narration was structured like that of a poem, it has not fallen in the clutches of vagueness.

The use of the photographs has also fascinated me because it has given the film an otherworldly feel, a sense of ironic calm (even amid its apocalyptic premise) and its own distinct identity as an art piece. Even with the utter simplicity of its execution, the film was still very successful in telling a complex story of humanity trapped within the cycle of life and death, memories and time. Well, maybe we will never see a film quite like "La Jetée" again.

The Cabin in the Woods
½

Now this is a big surprise. "The Cabin in the Woods", a film with zero hype, has unexpectedly turned out to be the best horror film that I have seen in a relatively long time because of the fact that it was not afraid to satirically articulate the numerous shortcomings of the horror genre while still being damn disturbing at the same time. I was highly impressed.

The film, directed by Drew Goddard and written by Joss Whedon, is a true breath of fresh air in terms of vision and is also a tongue-in-cheek descent into the inner workings of the horror genre. Though some may be frustrated by the film's unconventionality, utter preposterousness and satirical intent, "The Cabin in the Woods", no matter where you may look at it, is pure horror entertainment. It's a half-serious genre pastiche directed towards the cliché-infested, 'more miss than hit' genre, but no one can deny the fact that it's also a glimmering tribute to its bloody wonders. Right now, I think it's fair for me to say that my faith in modern horror films, as of the moment, is once again restored.

On top the film's cast of relative unknowns is actor Chris Hemsworth of "Thor" fame, whose character in the film, as far as horror movies are concerned, is that of the quintessential sports jock. To complete the line-up, we also have the dumb blonde (Anna Hutchison), the well-intentioned scholar (Jesse Williams), the comic stoner (Fran Kranz) and finally, the virginal heroine (Kristen Connolly). There's also Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, whose roles as the fun-loving and highly desensitized technicians of the so-called 'system' are particularly memorable and also humorously potent.

By making these five (the jock, the blonde, the scholar, the stoner and the virgin) act in a way that's irritatingly and irrationally familiar (their questionable preference to have sex deep within the woods in the middle of the night, for example), Goddard and Whedon were able to poke fun at the stereotypical character blueprints of a usual horror film (specifically the 'slashers') and were also able to express their take as to why it's always the jocks and the blondes et al. who are always on the receiving end of anything sharp and fatal. You'll definitely be surprised.

Disguised as something disgustingly clichéd almost until the halfway mark, "The Cabin in the Woods" then suddenly lambasts you (and unapologetic at that) with the true nature of its narrative and, in the end, the beauty of its entertainingly theoretical take on why horror films seem to have a recurring blueprint. This is imagination at the height of bizarre audacity and vision at its wildest. You just have to see it for yourself.

But aside from that, "The Cabin in the Woods", with its ambition and exaggerated vision, is also a testament of ingenious writing. Initially, I thought that nothing would ever come out of the horror genre ever again that hasn't been done before. I also thought that however original a horror film may strive to be, it will still come back to its formulaic roots one way or another. Well, I guess I was wrong.

Writer Joss Whedon, although he has already proven his worth by directing that little film called "The Avengers", has shown here in "The Cabin in the Woods" that his capabilities both as a writer and director extend far beyond the trappings of costumed superheroes and whatnot. By way of this film, he has solidified himself as a pure creative force comparable to the earlier, more mischievous days of both Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson.

"The Cabin in the Woods", a true sleeper hit, is one of the best and most entertaining horror films to come out for quite a while. It's a self-conscious horror masterwork in the same fashion as that of Wes Craven's "New Nightmare" and as gut-churning as Vincenzo Natali's "Cube". Who would have thought that a film mainly about a cabin, some Latin spells and a bunch of disposable lads and lasses would be able to encompass the horror genre's whole thematic plateau in such a way that's both thought-provoking and fun? The creators of "The Cabin in the Woods" have, and the result is an ingenious horror film that's surely destined to be a cult classic.

Stalker
Stalker(1979)
½

For the record, this is the first time that I have watched an Andrei Tarkovsky film and I must say that it was quite a spellbinding first encounter. Both confusing and enthralling at the same time, "Stalker" is a timeless meditation on beliefs that contradict what's empirically perceived and is also a deep exploration of intellectual apprehension. Part-fantasy, part-science fiction and, in some ways, a quasi-religious discourse, this film is unique not just because of the otherworldly concepts that has established the film's visual texture but also because of the density of what it speaks of.

Although painfully slow in its pacing, "Stalker" is never boring because of the quite stunning ideas that it presents. The film, about two tormented intellectuals and how they are guided by the titular character towards the 'Zone' (a place that is said to have the ability to grant wishes), is an adventure of immense consequences. It is a soul-searching trek towards a proverbial 'end of a rainbow' yet it is also a melancholic journey made infinitely more compelling by the characters' constant polemics.

At times, I even found the conversations and arguments between the three characters to be even more fascinating than what their mission awaits them. This, I think, is the thing that makes auteurs like Tarkovsky very, very exceptional. Aside from their command of the visuals, they are also in control of which language their films would speak. And in "Stalker's" case, Tarkovsky mainly chose the language of metaphysics to further the film's profound abstraction.

With the film mainly concerned about the unanswerable inquiries about the meaning of life and the anxiety of both knowing and feeling too much (represented by the two intellectuals, one a writer and the other a physicist), it was quite obvious at certain times that the characters' utterances are personal musings coming from Tarkovsky himself. At one point, the film has even discoursed about the unselfishness of art and the shallowness of technology (the writer character claimed that technology is nothing but an 'artificial limb' which makes people work less and eat more); with Tarkovsky the auteur at the helm, that particular statement is obviously all too personal that it seem out of place in a film that deals with monolithic ideas about life in the context of despair. But nonetheless, it's also all too refreshing. This is why true auteurs and no one else can best capture intimate artistry both at its most divine and at its most turbulent; they just know it all too well.

Now if there's a term that would best describe the feat of creating this film, then I think it would be 'miraculous'. A convergence of imagery and content, "Stalker" is masterful not just because of the technical craftsmanship that comes with it or the weight of its ideas but because of the equal distribution of both and the patience of how they were balanced. And then there are also the locations that have made the film even more special. With the 'Zone' seemingly taking on a life and character of its own as the film progresses, the way the place was visually presented is quite impressive because of how three-dimensional it was. With a naturally pervading sense of unpredictability, acute danger and, ultimately, of spiritual transcendence, the 'Zone' has been the strong backbone of the film.

Shooting in ruins, dank tunnels and dark sewers, Tarkovsky and company has molded the reality (or unreality) of the 'Zone' in a way that's mystical yet also consistently dystopian. Also, there were some great performances in it too, particularly that of Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy as the 'stalker' himself.

In some ways, the film's final minutes, at least for me, seems to be a subtle commentary regarding the irrationality of religion (with that enduring image of one of the characters wearing a crown of thorns on his head as if emulating Christ) and the outlandish belief towards both the unknown and the unseen. But despite of the film's flowing cynicism, "Stalker" still echoes hope even at its subtlest. Amid the film's overwhelming sense of intellectualism, it has at least succeeded to be emotionally eloquent. Though the film has left many questions in its wake, it offers closure on an emotional level. That, for me, is what's more important.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Bleak, moody and scarred, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is a film of uncommon power that treads both the emotional trauma of love and the ravages of war. Amid post-war Hiroshima, the film has maintained a deeply soulful dialogue between two lost people desperately trying to feel, to fall in love overnight, and to understand. But this isn't "Before Sunrise" here.

"Hiroshima Mon Amour" is just one of those legendary films whose allure can never be easily diminished. Yes, it is a truly impressive exercise in innovative filmmaking technique (it is the film that has deeply influenced the French New Wave), but buried deep within all its picturesque framings and compositions is a beating heart and a crying soul.

With a quietly affectionate screenplay written by Marguerite Duras that contains stream of consciousness dialogues that's as romantically longing as they are emotionally detached, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" conveys its power through its two main characters' internal articulacy. They speak in a manner that transcends the limitations of the tongue. They speak as if their feelings overlap with their vocabularies. They converse as if they see through each other's hearts. A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), the two of them represent the confusion we call love and the despairing post-romantic reality we call pain. They both know that they want each other but they just can't do it.

In the film's early scenes, we see how happy the French actress is when she's with the architect (shot in effective close-ups). But slowly and effectively, director Alain Resnais was able to construct her ironically fractured past by way of fragmentary flashbacks in Nevers, France that's as dream-like as the cityscapes of post-war Hiroshima. Sporting a haircut like that of Maria Falconetti in "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in the past, the French actress, just like the aforementioned saint, is a martyr, but not in the context of religion but of love.

Resnais has highlighted the fact that, like all women, the French actress just wants to feel love more than anything else but is deeply scarred to try yet again. She consummates the meager sexual pleasures with the architect but she's too afraid to go beyond that. She wants to feel once more. She wants to erase the past, forget and fall in love again but just can't because she knows that she won't be ready yet.

There's this powerful scene in the film where the actress is telling the architect the story of how she once loved a German soldier back in Nevers, France when suddenly, the architect seems to take on the identity of the deceased German lover as he identifies more and more with the story. The actress, on the other hand, lost in her own romantic recollection, unconsciously talks back to the architect as if she's talking to the German himself. Despite of her new-found connection with the Japanese gentleman, she still struggles to see herself together with other men other than her tragic lover. She's a captive of her own painful memories.

With a slightly upbeat musical score that seems to mock the utter desperation in the French actress and the Japanese architect's happenstance romance, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is a film that does not scoff at the idea of love outside marriage but instead seems to mourn the idea as to why should this limitation exist. Although that's just a mere observation from yours truly, I just can't help but feel that aside from the French actress' inescapably scarred past, what may also be holding them back is the simple fact that they are both married.

There's this scene in the film where both of them, standing quietly across each other in a living room, straightforwardly expressed their utmost admirations to their respective husband and wife. Sure, for some reasons explainable only by the heart, they want to be with each other, but they are also aware of the fact that their marriages are too good to be on the losing end of their intended romantic transgression.

In another key scene, notice how the architect is chasing the actress through the streets of Hiroshima yet the latter keeps on moving and the former, uncharacteristic for a person who wants to catch up with someone, merely preferred to trail her. They want to hold each other yet they also want distance and space. "You're destroying me. You're good for me", the actress told the architect while they are presumably making love in the earlier moments of the film. There's the paradox of their romance right there.

"Hiroshima Mon Amour", aside from being a landmark film that has launched an entire cinematic movement, is an unforgettable love story not of two people but of two longing souls who, because of circumstances, just can't be together. "You saw nothing in Hiroshima", the Japanese architect said to the actress in the film's early scenes. Maybe that's what they need to believe in to properly move on.

Red Dragon
Red Dragon(2002)

For some utterly unknown reasons, I have never really been that eager to watch this film despite of the fact that it has Hannibal Lecter in it (and we all know how magnetic the murderous bastard is). With Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" merely teetering between mediocrity and good in terms of quality, seeing "Red Dragon" has never been a recurring priority for yours truly mainly because I have locked myself up with the fact that "The Silence of the Lambs" is more than enough for me. But now that I have seen "Red Dragon" in its entirety (I've tried to see it once before; the damn DVD copy stopped halfway through the beginning), I can now safely say that I was very, very wrong by not seeing it any sooner.

Not only has it recaptured the psychological complexity of "The Silence of the Lambs", it has also channeled the darkly rhythmic feel of a well-made '80s thriller. Oh, and did I mention that "Red Dragon" has a heavyweight cast? With prime actors Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and Anthony Hopkins leading the way (with Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson on the side), do you really expect this film to fail? Well, if the script is weak, it surely will, but screenwriter Ted Tally has adapted Thomas Harris' novel of the same name with narrative patience and an otherworldly sense of dread (aided by Danny Elfman's escalating musical score) that it has made the film both frightening and mesmerizing. But surprisingly, the spine-tingling sensation that I have felt while watching the film is not because of Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter but because of Ralph Fiennes' part-sympathetic, part-monstrous turn as the 'Tooth Fairy' killer.

It has always been argued that although Hannibal Lecter is the spine of the franchise and is, bar none, one of the most nightmarishly intimidating characters in film history, the plot-demanded 'other' killers are the ones that often steal the show. And by 'other' killers, I mean "The Silence of the Lambs'" Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine), "Hannibal's" Mason Verger (played by Gary Oldman) and now, "Red Dragon's" 'Tooth Fairy' killer.

Of course, this perspective about the whole franchise has always been 'relative' and 'arguable', but in this film, I personally think that Ralph Fiennes has truly outshined Mr. Hopkins partly due to the fact that, at this point, we just know Hannibal Lecter too well. Though he is unpredictable, the danger that Lecter imposes to the audience is now, for a lack of a better term, all too cinematic. On the other hand, the way Fiennes' 'Tooth Fairy' unfolds and takes command of the screen is way more psychologically unsettling because it is insanity at its rawest and lowest form; personally, I find him to be more fascinating and disturbing because he can be as real as the next fellow. The likes of John Wayne Gacy can attest to that.

I also liked the fact that 'Tooth Fairy's' M.O. is kept as ambiguous as possible and was made even more bizarre by some far-fetched mythological hints (the killer's symbolic association with a 'dragon' based on a William Blake painting) that further his preposterous delusions. This madness is, of course, carried out very well by Fiennes through his limiting facial expressions that suggest internal suppression. Here is a killer who knows the consequences of his murderous deeds yet cannot stop from doing them because of some misplaced sense of grandiosity (with him thinking that he is a 'dragon' incarnate) and superficial self-importance.

On the other side of the spectrum, there's Will Graham (Edward Norton), a retired FBI agent who has been called back to duty (Aren't they all?) because of the 'Tooth Fairy' killings. He is also the one responsible for capturing Hannibal Lecter years before. A gifted forensic man, Graham sees projections not commonly seen by the ordinary eye yet repels the idea that he is special, which makes him the perfect counterpoint to Lecter's intellectual vanity. Unlike the complex relationship between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs", Julianne Moore in "Hannibal") in the previous films, Will Graham's affiliation with Dr. Lecter is more simplified to the point that their relationship seems to be dictated by the plot and not by their characters' respective personalities.

All in all, I have to commend Brett Ratner in how he has surprised yours truly (and maybe everyone else) by successfully pulling off a complex psychological thriller. From a man whose most famous films include the "Rush Hour" trilogy and "X-Men: The Last Stand", Ratner has achieved to surprise us with the relative intricacy of "Red Dragon". Although it is not necessarily a great film, it is a highly enjoyable and intriguing one. And realizing that this is a prequel to one of the only three films that have won every major Academy Award back in 1991, this was a tall task that was took on with enough focus, style and unflinching psychological mystery. Let's have some Chianti, shall we?

A Separation
A Separation(2011)

Again, after a long hiatus in film reviewing mainly due to countless school works and some love sickness, yours truly is back with a take on "A Separation" on his sleeves. Bar none, this film is indeed one of the best of the year on different levels. It's not just a film made good because of a couple of excellent performances or a film made exceptional by a good story. "A Separation", an Iranian film that has won a record of three bears in the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, is a socio-religious morality play that combines a compelling narrative with stirring performances. And in this mixture, one can easily see the flawlessness of it all. Its Academy Award is more than deserved.

Directed by Asghar Farhadi, what also makes "A Separation" a notch more special is how it has seemingly made all the complex issues within it flow quite effortlessly. On one side, the film is about the utter devotion to Islamic faith and how doubt can shake things up for the worst. On the other, it's also a penetrating study of class conflict and the fragility of truth. Watching "A Separation", I can't help but be reminded of both "12 Angry Men" and "Rashomon" in terms of how it has also finely explored the subjectivity of truth based on perception and biases and also of a local independent film here in the Philippines entitled "Last Supper No. 3" in terms of the film's realistic portrayal of the legal system.

But then again, "A Separation" has too much going on with it that it can't just be merely branded as a meditation on truth. It is, after all, a film about a couple's (played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) separation and how this can cause a definite ripple effect to other people, specifically a pregnant helper named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and her husband (Shahab Hosseini).

Partly seen through the eyes of the pre-adolescent daughter named Termeh (played by Sarina Farhadi), the film is an observation not of a crumbling marriage but of the domino principle that comes with it and how it affects those around them. There were even no questions raised regarding whose side (husband or wife) are you on. Instead, the deeply moral questions are raised not mainly to us but to the daughter herself, which leads to one of the most quietly powerful endings in recent memory.

As the film patiently unfolds, one can easily see how "A Separation" could have also worked quite beautifully on stage. It has the right amount of intensity, complexity and spontaneity; ingredients of an effectively modern theater play. It's also populated with characters that are both realistic and fascinating thanks to the natural performances of the actors involved, which makes me to think that this may also be the most powerfully-acted film of the year.

For me, what makes a film powerful, aside from the weight of the things that it wants to say and how they are said, is not being conscious of its strengths. This is the case for "A Separation". It definitely knows what it wants to say but does not preach it. It has a very beautiful material but does not flaunt it. Its drama is powerful enough to explore far-reaching themes of immense societal relevance but does not impose it. Instead, the film just went its way to use the universal language of marriage, separation and religion within the confines of the equally universal language of cinema and tell what needs to be told.

What resulted is a film of disquieting power and truth that echoes far beyond its country of origin. Although I would occasionally fawn over an incoherent art film or two, I believe that films like "A Separation" are the ones that we really need today. In a contemporary world where failure of communication is a widespread occurrence, the role of cinema has never been more important. "A Separation" has just exercised the core reason of the medium's very existence.

My Best Fiend (Mein liebster Feind - Klaus Kinski)

"My Best Fiend" is Werner Herzog's love letter of a documentary film to his frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski. It also chronicles their turbulent relationship through strange anecdotes and firsthand stories on set. But aside from this notion of reliving Kinski's eccentricity and enigma in a very reflective fashion, this documentary film also serves as a chance for Herzog to analyze and interpret what has been going on inside Kinski's mind all throughout their troubled film collaborations that were often marred by the latter's lengthy diatribes and temperamental unpredictability.

Armed with an eloquence that's both strangely moving and profound, Herzog probes deep into his professional and personal relationship with Klaus Kinski not just to feed our minds with how things have occurred between them but also as a form of myth-making on his part. In the end, he just wants to eternalize Herzog not as a restless madman but as a serene friend; not as a difficult eccentric but someone that could have easily been him in a parallel lifetime. "That makes two of us!" Herzog blurted out when Kinski accused him of being a megalomaniac. This is not your ordinary actor-director relationship. This is mania matched with mania. This is artistic narcissism matched with mad ambition. This is a bomb waiting to explode. This is friendship at its most reluctant. This is their uneasy story.

Returning to the locations of their two most heralded collaborations, "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo", and even a brief visit to the location where "Woyzeck'" was shot (with a reflective interview with star Eva Mattes), Herzog retraces the path of their insane acts of mutual artistry that's both appalling and fascinatingly magnetic. We are even granted a peek into some rare footages that shows Kinski both at his unstoppably worst (as he verbally assaults a production manager) and at his subtly caring best (as he tends to a wounded cameraman). We also see one of the extras in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" whose head still bears the scar where Kinski has once hit him with a sword. He also shared a little anecdote involving Kinski, some 45 movie extras and a Winchester Rifle. Judging from Kinski's demeanor, you already have a clue of what has transpired.

But despite of these shenanigans, Werner Herzog, with his all too personal analysis of Kinski's psyche in relation to his own, is subtly elegiac about the whole thing. He is fully guilty of the fact that he once threatened Kinski with a gun just to prevent him from leaving the still unfinished production of "Fitzcarraldo". He's also quite repentant that, at one time, he once meditated in 'firebombing' Kinski's house.

With these admissions, Herzog knows that even though he claims that he is 'clinically sane' so to speak, Kinski is the only man that can bring out the madman in him. But at the same time, it's not only madness that they have extracted from each other; they have also brought out the best within the both of them. Their monolithic collaborative films can speak for themselves, and "My Best Fiend" may serve as the quiet immortalization of their friendship and film partnership that has made these pictures possible.

It's a shame that Kinski died too soon. It's quite interesting to hear his part of the story. But seeing him in the film, tranquil and all, with a pretty little butterfly flying around him is quite enough. In that footage, there's calm in his eyes and certain quietness to his soul; the ideal image that Herzog wants to remember Kinski with. Perhaps Herzog appreciates great irony.

The Bourne Legacy

When initial news came out that a fourth 'Bourne' film is in the works, my reaction was that of apathy and surprise. Why squeeze out something from a franchise that's already been concluded. Oh, and then there's also another infuriating fact: It will be called "The Bourne Legacy" but without Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. What the hell was that all about? It's like producing a seventh Rocky film (which I wouldn't completely say as completely far-fetched) without Rocky Balboa or making a James Bond film without 007 himself. But then something came up: it was revealed that part of the film will be shot here in the Philippines.

From surprised apathy, my feeling towards the film first became one of curiosity and then of grave anticipation. Add up the fact that rising star Jeremy Renner will replace the shoes worn by Damon and he will be supported by acting stalwarts Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz; now we have here a film of genuine potential.

Forget the fact that either Damon or Paul Greengrass won't be returning, "The Bourne Legacy", with "Michael Clayton" director Tony Gilroy taking on the directorial helm (he has also written the screenplays for the three previous 'Bourne' films), is armed with all the right pieces for commercial and critical success. Hell, I even thought that it will be the sleeper hit of the year. Well, I guess my hunch missed the mark this time.

Not only is "The Bourne Legacy" an unnecessary little sequel, it's also a film of questionable significance to the whole 'Bourne' mythology. In slight boxing terminologies, the film felt like an overlong 'undercard' bout taking place at the same instance as that of the big main event. It's quite interesting, yes, but you just can't help but wonder why they would bother for a sequel that wouldn't even further the ideas presented by the three previous installments.

The film's timeline, for the sake of everyone's enlightenment, occurs while the whole 'Bourne' situation is nearing its shattering climax (see "The Bourne Ultimatum"). "The Bourne Legacy", as it turns out, is the unseen sideshow feebly playing in the shadows of Jason Bourne's action-packed, larger-than-life search for his identity. Indeed it is truly intriguing to know that, as per the tagline, 'there was never just one'. That Jason Bourne was never alone, that there was also one Aaron Cross (Renner), and that there's also a whole lot of other fistfights and revelations this side of the whole story. But instead of taking advantage of the fact that it can render the Bourne series' universe fresh once again, "The Bourne Legacy" has sadly settled for less. Instead of conjuring up bigger ideas, the film has lethargically decided to merely ride the series' recurring gimmicks of dizzying cinematography and globe-trotting tendencies.

With the shaky-cam style very much withstanding, the film swerved to the wrong direction of just following the previous installments' blueprint when, in actuality, it could have easily headed to the right one. The characters, although performed well by the principal players, are merely functioning within the limitations of the plot. Norton's character, being the heartless bureaucrat that he is, shouts orders and that's that. Rachel Weisz, the reluctant heroine, evades continuous assassination attempts and certain death and that's it. Renner's Aaron Cross jumps shanties and constantly saves the often distressed Weisz and it's a dead end after that. The way they were written is just so frustratingly suppressed that the performances given by the three do not deserve the characters to which they were designated. Even the narrative itself is very much a rehash of the previous three, only this time it was more simplified and with a more science fiction feel with all those talks about performance-enhancing super drugs.

Oh, and then there's the chase scene in the outskirts of Manila. Another famed running gimmick all throughout the whole franchise, it has always been imperative for each 'Bourne' film to include vehicular chase scenes to serve as nerve-wracking exclamation points to the whole shebang. "The Bourne Legacy" is, of course, not exempted from it.

Granted, the chase scene in this film was, in a miraculous harmony of technical execution and scheduling, pulled off rather excellently, what with all the constant traffic jams in Manila and the perennial 'rush hour' mentality prevalent among Filipino drivers. The flaw of the film's climactic chase scene, however, is not technical but very much contextual. The whole set piece felt very much forced to the point that the entire chase scene played out merely as a showcase of stunt choreography and nothing more.

Now despite of all its flaws, "The Bourne Legacy" is still adequately enjoyable. But based on the three previous films' great reputation, this fourth installment felt short on every level both as a 'Bourne' film and as a potent action movie. It lacks narrative urgency and also of inspiration. It seems like the people who have said that this film won't work were quite right. They could have easily forewarned the creators, Jack Nicholson-style.

La Double Vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Veronique)

Fresh from a blockbuster overload after watching "The Dark Knight Rises" a couple of times, it's a bit off for me to immediately jump back to my more esoteric inclinations. Now, here's Krzysztof Kieslowski's enigmatic "The Double Life of Veronique", a film that, like the movements of the marionettes shown in the film, unveils its story with a certain hypnotic vibe. Honestly, I'm not quite sure if what I have seen is really something deeply meditative or merely a pretentious piece, but it is nonetheless an artful ride.

Just like a typical Kieslowski film, "The Double Life of Veronique" appears as if little to nothing is going to happen and as if the main characters' feelings are operating within the confines of an emotional plane alien to ordinary viewers like us. But with the Kieslowki's usual sleight-of-hand at play here, and with that I mean his penchant for integrating deeply affecting concepts about love and identity within the visual limitations of a subtle drama film, "The Double Life of Veronique" is quite successful in a handful of levels.

First, it is a well-crafted cinematic amalgamation of music and imagery (thanks to Kieslowski's frequent collaborators Zbigniew Preisner and Slawomir Idziak). Second, it is a film particularly memorable because of Irene Jacob's natural, iridescent charm and quietly devastating performance. And third, well, this is where the more ambiguous things come in. As an abstract film both in emotions and meaning, it is meritorious in just letting its own visual and auditory mood take over the reins of telling the film's story (or the reins of justifying the lack thereof). But unlike your usually plotless art film, "The Double Life of Veronique" has an involving narrative working to its own advantage.

Well, the story is quite simplistic. It concerns two women who look very much alike: Weronika, who lives in Poland, and Veronique, who lives in Paris. Both characters are played by Irene Jacob. From the hair to their dressing preference, they are the spitting images of one another. Hell, they're not even related.

Not aware of each other's existence, the film's metaphysical powers are slowly creating a bridge; slowly, we are seeing the connection between them. But Kieslowski, arguably at his subtlest, won't let his film be tarnished by some clichéd chance encounters or life-affirming vis a vis between the two. Instead, Kieslowski has spatially set both characters apart from each other to first let their independent stories be told. Weronika, a considerably free-spirited young woman, is just inches away from attaining success in the world of opera singing. Veronique, on the other hand, is a music teacher in search of a meaningful love. From these simple stories of existence, the film is quite surprising in how it slowly widens its conceptual plane as it progresses. From simply being a drama film about two look-alikes, "The Double Life of Veronique" slowly turns into a meditation about distant duality and the spiritual and emotional connection between two people created in the same physical mould.

So, maybe this is where God enters this little humanist circus. Does Kieslowski perceive God as a playful master creator? An omniscient being that brings dead ringers into existence, intentionally integrates them into the stream of life and then watch the sparks fly? Is there some sort of energy that these two share that when one of them dies, the other gets weaker and emptier inside? Kieslowski's vision for this picture is just too far-reaching and, at the same time, so wonderfully ambiguous that its idea just won't end where this film already has. Take "Another Earth" as an ideal example. I believe that the said film is "The Double Life of Veronique" all over again.

Adding a sci-fi element by incorporating a 'mirror' earth that is said to be inhabited by parallel versions of ourselves, "Another Earth" just took this film's whole concept and made it a notch more complicated but a notch less fascinating. But do not get me wrong, I think that "Another Earth", as a film, has its own merits. But at the end of the day, I very much prefer Kieslowski's masterly stroke of using nothing as his ultimate explanation to everything. Though this might be considered as a pretentious cop-out on his part, leaving everything unanswered has made the film even more compelling and reflective than it should have been. Although we all have different takes on it, we do not hold the key to what it's really all about. Perhaps life itself does, and we just aren't looking closely.

The Dark Knight Rises

Being one of the most hyped films of the year, "The Dark Knight Rises" is one of those motion pictures that are very easy to venerate yet just as easy to bash. It's prone to criticism and fevered hate because, well, it's an easy target. There's also that little "The Avengers" vs. "The Dark Knight Rises" thing going on in the internet so the pressure for this film to deliver is quite great especially compared to the former's unexpected critical success.

But after watching "The Dark Knight Rises" after more than a year of utter anticipation, it's very fair to say that this film has immensely delivered both in scope and emotional magnitude. It has also solidified Nolan as the best blockbuster filmmaker and his vision of Batman as the most definitive ever. Oh, and did I mention that this film completely blows "The Avengers" into the deep waters? Oh, well, enough with the comparison.

Like the previous installments, "The Dark Knight Rises" is successful not just as a superhero film but as a drama of human flaws and as a deeply penetrating tragedy of lies and loss. But this time, it's even more than just a Batman film. It's not even just a story of Batman's heroics. Instead, it's the story of Bruce Wayne and his ultimate struggle against fear and his ever-consuming savior complex. Judging from his performance, it's quite easy to see that Christian Bale is back in his groove as the narrative center (he took the backseat for Ledger's scene-stealing presence in "The Dark Knight"), and after this film and the trilogy in general, it's really quite hard to see any other Bruce Wayne other than him.

Now, reckon how many people consider "The Dark Knight" as a Joker film and not as a Batman tale? I think "The Dark Knight Rises" is the answer. Never has Wayne's unconditional martyrdom as a crime-fighting man in a cape and cowl better highlighted and explored than in this film. If "The Dark Knight" is all about the rise and fall of the alliance between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Batman (Christian Bale), "The Dark Knight Rises" is all about the inevitable rise of Batman long after his chosen path of self-incrimination (of Dent's murder). But with the brooding atmosphere that was frenetically sustained all throughout the film, we're not sure anymore if that rise will be all the way or will it entail a most fatal fall. And with Bane (Tom Hardy) in the villainous seat, the man we all know as the one who broke Batman's back in "Knightfall", it strongly suggests an inescapable destiny for the caped crusader. Can he save Gotham City from the terrorist clutches of Bane? Can he match Bane's brains and brawns? Or to be more exact, can he even survive it at all?

These are the questions that Nolan (with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer) is more than happy to tease us with for the past year or so, and his answers embedded within this film are really more than satisfying. This is not just a superhero film anymore. It's something that walks the thin line between action and gut-wrenching drama and the result is just astounding. And although the film's first half or so is something that can be repaired a bit by better pacing and less clunky action, the film's second half has more than supplied the power that has seemingly been amiss in the early half.

As with the performances, I believe that this is the best-acted film in the series. And although "The Dark Knight" is particularly special because of Ledger's performance (easily the best in the series), "The Dark Knight Rises" is the most emotionally draining of the three. Michael Caine's Alfred, for instance, with his controlled demeanor in the two previous installments, is a complete revelation in this film. He has both been Bruce's butler, friend and father; we saw how he has always been the calm spirit that constantly guides Bruce through confusion and psychological torment, and we saw how well-cultivated his relationship with Wayne really was in the previous films. But we have never seen their relationship as being on the line as in this one and we have never seen Alfred so emotionally fragile and elegiac ("I've buried enough members of the Wayne family"). Michael Caine certainly saved his best performance for last.

Same goes for Gary Oldman's Gordon (my favorite character in the whole series) who, after hiding everything Dent has done and letting Batman take all the blame for the former's murderous deeds, is seemingly struck with guilt and an impulse to tell the whole truth to the city of Gotham. Even Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox, the easygoing, technologically savvy CEO of Wayne Enterprises, is having a hard time wearing a smile here. But then again, with arguably the most iconic superhero to ever grace the screen finally reaching a cinematic conclusion of eschatological proportions, it really is hard to wear one.

But aside from the regulars, there are also some new characters introduced: John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an idealistic cop whose utter devotion to his work is quite reminiscent of a younger Jim Gordon, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the cunning burglar who we also know as the pun-filled Catwoman, and the mysterious Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a woman who's more than interested to invest in Wayne Enterprises. And finally, there's Tom Hardy's Bane.

We all know the burden of pressure and expectations of being a Batman villain ever since Heath Ledger took the bar sky high. But nonetheless, Hardy has still pulled off a Bane rendition that he can wholly call his own (with that peculiarly menacing accent) and can stand alone not in the shadows of Ledger's Joker but somewhere that is just as potent and convincing.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is the final, tearful salvo of Christopher Nolan's Batman legend. And evident of the film's massively chaotic scale which, if I may say, has rendered the happenings in "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" quite small in comparison, Nolan's trilogy wouldn't just go quietly into the night. It went with flying colors and with a bang. The whimper part is for us to handle.

And with that, this trilogy is really something more. If a costumed superhero like Batman can make you shed a tear, then there's something really, really special going on. That, I think, is the case with "The Dark Knight Rises". The drama is just so multi-layered and so affecting that I couldn't care less about the special effects. This is not just a superhero film at its best. This is blockbuster filmmaking at the height of its promised power. Cheers to that.

The Dark Knight

Hell, if I can only turn back time just to experience this once again in a movie theater. "The Dark Knight", as much as I admire its greatness, is one of those rare films that I have never enjoyed that much inside the Cineplex but grew to love with each rewatch on DVD. This, I believe, is a mark of an 'epic' film in every sense. Wherever you may put it, whether it's on television, DVD, or the theaters, its greatness still and always will shine forth. This is also the great strength of "The Dark Knight" that's completely absent in other superhero films. Take out all its eye-popping visuals and you still have enough narrative, emotional weight, and pure characterizations to carry you through. Plus, unlike other side characters in other films of the same kind, "The Dark Knight" has characters that you would really care for.

Jim Gordon, Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent. The triumvirate that stands up for everything that's right. These are the characters that have risen and fallen in the epic graphic novel "The Long Halloween", and here in "The Dark Knight", their dynamics as complex allies have never been displayed more effectively, affectingly, and with appropriate justice. Gary Oldman, in his portrayal of Jim Gordon, blows his earlier "Batman Begins" performance in the water with his reprisal here. Christian Bale is also great by balancing torment and transcendence in his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman.

With "The Dark Knight", Batman isn't just your 5 cent superhero anymore. Here is a superhero that does not merely thrive on apprehending killers and petty criminals anymore. This is also a man who refuses to lead a better life as a billionaire for the sake of protecting the one thing he believes he is destined to fight for: Gotham City. But he also knows that it is never easy.

Fresh from thwarting Ra's Al Ghul's destructive plan against Gotham in "Batman Begins", he is now confronted here in "The Dark Knight" by a murderous agent of chaos known only as "The Joker" (played by the late Heath Ledger).

Now, this review is not for the sake of describing, commending and fully admiring Ledger's miracle of a performance as Batman's greatest foe. Words, as what has always been said, are not enough. There is indeed something in Ledger's legendary turn that doesn't just appeal to the mere aesthetics but somewhere deeper that's raw, ferocious, and animal. His 'Joker' provokes some sort of primal fear within us all; of some hidden anarchic inclination hidden deep inside all of us.

For me, this is the ideal portrayal not just of the Joker but of human vileness pushed to the extremes. Unlike Jack Nicholson's earlier yet also iconic portrayal of the clown prince of crime which has relatively told a clear and very human back story for the Joker (He even had a pre-Joker name: Jack Napier), Ledger's is, as how Nolan has interpreted the character, a complete absolute.

From his custom-tailored suit to his ever-changing origin stories regarding the scars on his face, this is a nameless entity forged out of the depths of utter abomination and nowhere else. This is one of those men, as what Alfred (Michael Caine) has unforgettably stated, who just want to watch the world topple and burn, and laugh with it.

Now, with all that being said, we all know how great Ledger's performance really is, and it will truly stand the test of time as one of the best villainous roles ever performed. But aside from him, there's also one actor who stood out among the rest; and yes, he even outperformed Christian Bale, and it's none other than Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face.

Being one of the most tragic antagonists in the history of comic books, Eckhart has captured the so-called 'white knight's' gung-ho ferocity as a brave district attorney yet has also gathered enough dramatic range to also be an empathetic character and a frighteningly vengeful soul. His Harvey Dent is someone you would perceive as someone who's heroic but also someone who's humanly flawed. He is for justice and for lawfulness, yes, but his Dent is also brash and subtly arrogant. Maybe what makes his character's sad transformation from being a clean-cut DA to a monstrous incarnation of confused duality even more gripping is how Dent was portrayed as an ordinarily mild-mannered man who just happens to have a healthy dose of human decency.

Unlike Batman, he is a man driven towards the path of heroism and justice not because of some tragic undercurrents but because he is born and raised to be one. And what makes his metamorphosis even more tragic is the fact that it could and should have been prevented and also because he was never destined to be the very thing he swore to fight against.

Destiny, duality and identity; these are the themes that Nolan's "Batman Begins" has focused on but were also re-used here in "The Dark Knight". But this time, its collective emotional effect is heightened even more that "The Dark Knight" came out not just a superhero film or merely as your typical 'Batman' film but as a massive drama about the clashing beliefs and ideological extremes that form Gotham's crumbling soul. And in the middle of it all are some spectacular action sequences that are quite reminiscent of Michael Mann's "Heat".

In truth, "The Dark Knight" is so emotionally rich that the action seems secondary. Before Nolan, "Batman" films have always been on a crossroad of whether or not to prefer camp over seriousness and vice-versa. "Batman Begins" came and surprised us with its depth; now, "The Dark Knight" enters forth and blows us away with its emotional magnitude. From this point on, I believe that the cinematic "Batman" has already chosen a path: a path that was not chosen and never was an option before by either Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. This is the film that the caped crusader is unconsciously asking for, and for that, he got what he wishes for, and so do we.

Batman Begins

And so it has begun 7 years ago. With Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" leaving a bad, almost insulting taste in our mouths, a reboot is definitely due. And what we got here in "Batman Begins" is something much more than a revisionist superhero film. Instead, it has also become the perfect blueprint for succeeding superhero films dealing with origin stories.

It stars Christian Bale in what may be the most canonical portrayal of Bruce Wayne on film and also explores the literal beginnings of arguably the most iconic superhero of all time. But of course, what separates this film from all the other "Batman" movies of the past is its distinct visual and thematic tone. Thanks to director Christopher Nolan's patented inclination towards realism, "Batman Begins" is quite effective in keeping its feet on the ground in terms of its borderline science fiction technologies and its action set pieces yet soaring with an almost philosophical take on justice, identity and destiny.

With Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" serving as one of the prime bases for this film, it's almost a given that this one will indeed be a quality superhero venture. But no one has really anticipated "Batman Begins'" transcendental quality as an origin tale.

And then of course, what makes "Batman Begins" even better and more easily involving is the presence of three (4 if you'll count Rutger Hauer) legendary actors in the form of Liam Neeson, Michael Caine and the irresistible Morgan Freeman. Looking at it, although their performances are based on pre-existing characters from Batman's established comic book universe, they are still able enough to give the parts that they're portraying the distinct trademarks of their own established personas.

Oh, and then there is Gary Oldman, an actor that has always been on a league of his own. To be honest, I was quite excited to watch the film back then because I was intrigued when I saw Gary Oldman in the trailers. Being my typical ignorant self with little to no knowledge of Mr. Oldman's acting range outside typical villainous roles at the time, I immediately marked him to be the primary antagonist in the film.

With Pat Hingle's Gordon still quite untouchable in my mind, it never even crossed my mind that Oldman is even remotely okay for the part. Yes, at first, I was skeptic if whether or not he's believable enough to pull off a mild-mannered and quite heroic role when he is in fact more at ease with over-the-top characters. As it turns out, it's his performance and embodiment of James Gordon that I have loved the most in the whole film. There's really something in his portrayal that evokes empathy yet also displays an unbounded sense of derring-do. This is the portrayal that Gordon deserves. This is the Gordon that we need.

As for the film's villains, well, for non-comic book readers, it will be quite difficult to grasp Ra's Al Ghul's (Ken Watanabe and someone else that I would not mention) and Scarecrow's (Cillian Murphy in an evidently insane yet subdued performance) villainous capabilities and backstories because they are not as well-known as the Joker or even The Penguin in terms of overall fictional popularity. But still, both antagonists were fleshed out quite well by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer that they came out overwhelmingly menacing even when they're not that familiar to many non-comic book readers that may watch the film.

When put shoulder to shoulder with "The Dark Knight", "Batman Begins", in truth, pales in comparison in some areas. The 2008 follow-up, for once, has a much bigger scope and also contains heavier elements of both tragedy and the strains of duality. But despite of that, "Batman Begins" will always be that one film that has forever changed the landscapes of the superhero genre and has also set the bar quite high for superhero origin stories that may follow after it. It has also paved way for the said genre to loosen its limits in terms of characterization and to embrace a sense of grit and some brooding here and there. This is the superhero origin tale to end all superhero origin tales. Hans Zimmer's masterful musical score is still playing in my head.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Finally, it has now been released. Ever since the film's very first promotional picture showing Andrew Garfield, ragged as hell, in a new Spidey costume has found its way in the loving hands of the internet, many have been befuddled. Why reboot the "Spider-Man" franchise if there's really no need to? Granted, the third film has swallowed more than it can chew, but the franchise, in its majority, is still a collective of truly entertaining superhero films that has also amassed great box-office returns.

Now enter "The Amazing Spider-Man", a film that has been an object of divisiveness well at least before the trailers were released. And now that it has unveiled itself to a very critical audience consisting of skeptical fans of the previous "Spider-Man" franchise and purist fans of the comic books alike, I think it's fair to say that, at last, the speculations, arguments and general polarization is now over. Skeptics can now merely fade into the darkness and some may now declare themselves as instant believers. This reboot, for the lack of a better descriptive word, is indeed amazing.

Director Marc Webb, who became an instant indie darling after making "500 Days of Summer", has molded Peter Parker and the other characters away from the clutches of cinematic stereotypes, and has also finely weighed even both the romance and the action. Now, I have nothing against Sam Raimi's first "Spider-Man" film, but I believe it has executed its characters in a way that's very limited and shallow.

Raimi's characters, including Parker himself, merely exist within the parameters that their character arcs have restricted them to be. For example, there's Mary Jane the girl next door, J. Jonah Jameson the bullish newspaper boss and Peter himself as the geeky hopeless romantic; all stereotypes. Their function is to work well within those character boundaries and nothing more, and what resulted is a film that's well-executed enough but with characters that aren't really that flexible in terms of development.

This reboot, on the other hand, has handled Peter Parker in a way that's very atypical yet at the same time very relatable. There's Andrew Garfield to thank for that. In playing Peter Parker, he has combined your typical comic book charm with a sort of "Generation Y" appeal that's as convenient to identify with as the next fellow. Here is a crime-fighting superhero that can regularly knock out petty criminals and thugs alike but won't bother to accept grocery errands from his aunt. Here's also a costume-wearing altruist who has the tendency of playing cell phone games while on superhero rounds. Not since "Kick-Ass" can we identify ourselves with a superhero more.

Even the Uncle Ben and Aunt May characters, this time played by Martin Sheen and Sally Fields, are now more emotionally realistic.

While Emma Stone, playing the crucial part of Gwen Stacy, was successful in channeling her effortless charm in the screen while also being very convincing in conjuring a great chemistry with Garfield. Although this relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy was proven to be very effective on film, we've yet to see the rest of it so I have to give the chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst the softer spot in my heart. And let's just pretend that the interaction between Maguire's Peter Parker and Bryce Dallas Howard's Gwen Stacy in "Spider-Man 3" has never happened.

And then there's the antagonistic role played by Rhys Ifans. Always the superhero with the most sympathetic of villains, movie-wise, Spider-man is now pitted against genetics expert Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Enslaved by his own inclinations to create genetically-modified human reptiles without weakness and also to simply grow back his amputated arm, Connors is our usual villain preyed upon by his own decisional miscalculations. But aside from sympathy, Ifans, with his melancholic performance, was also able to provoke empathy from us viewers. What if we were the ones who are missing an arm? How far will this disability push us psychologically? And, more importantly, what if there's a remedy, however extreme, that's presented right in front of our very eyes?

Though some may find Connors' transformation from a mild-mannered scientist to a monstrously cold-blooded (literally) super villain to be too much like Norman Osborn's Green Goblin transformation in Raimi's "Spider-Man", the dimensions of Connors' character is what makes him different. Unlike Osborn, Connors is a sane man driven to the edge by his own physical situation. He is very much aware of his own distortions. He knows deep inside that he is on the wrong side.

"The Amazing Spider-Man", despite of initial skepticisms, came out to be a great origin story that has been made even more excellent by the performances, the standard yet affecting screenplay and the special effects that has elevated this film from meagerly amazing to something that's genuinely spectacular. We also get to see the strongest incarnation of our beloved web-slinging superhero yet.

Sure, Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy is something that can be cherished for as long as there are fans of both comic books and superhero films, but I believe that "The Amazing Spider-Man" is the true Spider-Man film we all deserve.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", the reality of Cold War espionage has never been as coldly depicted. It's a film that's really intended to be emotionally distant from its viewers so that it can properly highlight the alienating undertakings that Cold War master spies have undergone themselves for a great 30 years or so for the sake of information supremacy.

One of them is George Smiley, played by the ever-chameleon-like Gary Oldman in one of his most uncanny performances in a non-villain role, a master spy who is forced out of retirement to seek out a mole buried deep within the Circus' (the jargon for British Intelligence) ranks. What follows is a tensely complex story of half-baked allegiances, harsh inner rank politics and, looking at the bigger historical picture, the futility of it all.

Oldman, a great actor known for his nerve-racking energy on-screen, is successfully sublime and grounded with his portrayal of Smiley. Despite of the lack of human warmth in the whole film, Oldman is able enough to capture the essence of Smiley's anxious humanity without being either too brooding or self-reflective. Here is a character and a man who is motivated not by his family and forced to act not by the pressures of those around him in the service but by a seemingly obsolete code of samurai-like proportions. He is compelled to do so because he believes there's still an enormously unfinished chess puzzle of fates between him and Karla, the mysterious Soviet spymaster that is both deceptive and brutal. In a tense world whose morality and loyalty is turning ever grayer by the minute, Smiley still believes in a black and white.

But then, finding the mole is a very tricky mission. He needs to go through a lot of red tape to arrive at something. Among the ones that Smiley must monitor (as potential leakers) are Alleline (the underrated Toby Jones), the Circus chief, and Haydon (Colin Firth), a superior intelligence officer that's having an illicit affair with Smiley's wife.

With such great actors effortlessly horsing around with their respective characters, one can easily see the success of this film as a great acting ensemble. Add up talented young actors Mark Strong and Tom Hardy in the mix as the Circus' globe-trotting pawns and we've got ourselves a hell of a film. Oh, and did I mention that John Hurt is also in it?

But then again, with the film capitalizing on natural overall silence as if to truly simulate the quiet intrigue of genuine espionage, "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy" gets its sustaining power not just from the actors but from the very material itself. Adapted from John le Carre's novel, which I'm more than tempted in buying from our local bookstore so that I can read it first before watching this (but never did), the film has captured the nervous essence, with its pale-colored cinematography that heightens the disillusioning effect, of the reality of spying without much glitter but full of quiet power.

To be exact, I have never witnessed such an intriguing 'backstage pass' of a film ever since, well, maybe Scorsese's "Casino". "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a rare film that does not indulge on cheap thrills just so it can maintain some sort of energetic flair in its narrative. Instead, it is a film with a great fly on the wall perspective that is as compelling and as frightening as the characters that populate it and the locations that make it whole. Director Tomas Alfredson is very commendable for not going overboard on some of the characters or faltering in the story department.

Now, if some may want to argue that "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is as cold as a walk-in freezer and that it will make you want to leave the second you enter it, then the film has succeeded. Its goal is not to sensationalize or commodify the reality of Cold War espionage for the general public but to render it as a cinematic mood, and it's your choice to either accept it as it is or not. But judging from its box-office returns, it's quite obvious that the film has compelled rather than disgust, and for that, the film is utterly effective and, in some ways, vindicated.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" may just be fiction, but in the end, it's a story worthy of being told. It makes me want to grab that gargantuan "Smiley Versus Karla" compilation in our nearby bookstore, and fast. James Bond's great antithesis has finally arrived.

Kill Bill: Volume 2
½

At last, we've reached the epic conclusion of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" saga (Okay, let's just pretend that this is the first time that I have seen it), and unlike what many have expected it to be, "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" is surprisingly more patient, mature and emotionally articulate compared to its predecessor.

If "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" is, as what Roger Ebert has stated in his review of the film, "all about storytelling and no story", this film, in comparison, is a perfect amalgamation of style and substance, which Quentin Tarantino has perfected in blending over the years.

This time, we don't have any gargantuan swordfights between Uma Thurman's "The Bride" and 80 other men, but what we surely have in this picture is genuine drama and a hint of heart. But that does not necessarily mean that "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" does not have any time left for some genuinely pleasurable ass-kicking courtesy of our vengeful bride. It sure does, of course. It's only that the fight sequences and moments of cruelty are far more compelling and emotionally involving this time around.

As much as I love the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves between the bride and O-Ren Ishii's (played by Lucy Liu in "Kill Bill: Vol. 1") "Crazy 88" in "Kill Bill: Vol.1", there's honestly little to no emotional connection between me and the very essence of the blood-drenched sword ballet whatsoever. But here in this film, we are now more drawn and more empathetic towards the bride's self-imposed task of exacting revenge against those who literally gunned her down. Damn, we know that she can survive the House of Blue Leaves showdown in the first volume. But now, with "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" taking on a more grounded approach, can she still handle it all?

In the first film, we are quite affectionate towards the bride's revenge but we are just too awed with the visual stylishness on display that we take her path of destructive revenge in the first film merely as a showcase of Tarantino's auteur flamboyance. But with "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" now preferring a slower pace, evidently shown in the film's opening scene of the bride's serene wedding dress rehearsal minutes before Bill and company blow her and her loved ones away, we are now more acquainted with the bride not just as a character that simply represents Tarantino's patented cinematic style but as a living, breathing character with a highly justifiable motive behind her every slicing of limbs and poking out of eyeballs.

We are also introduced more to Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), the eye-patched femme fatale who's the most painful thorn within the bride's throat next to Bill himself, and Bud (Michael Madsen), Bill's slacker of a brother who also had a hand in the infamous pre-wedding massacre. Oh and then there's also Pai Mei, played by Gordon Liu (who has already played the "Crazy 88" leader in "Kill Bill: Vol. 1"), a kung-fu master that's obviously Quentin Tarantino's great ode to the stereotypical 'martial arts master' character in countless genre films of the past with his overlong white mustache and exaggeratedly thick and contoured white eyebrows.

And finally, there's Bill, played by David Carradine in what may be his most memorable character next only to Caine in "Kung Fu". Possessing the looks of a murderously ragged old man yet armed with the gentle demeanor of an old-fashioned lover, Carradine has perfectly captured the essence of Bill. For the record, I believe that Bill is not a villain as per what the word's typical meaning denotes. For that, Tarantino is truly commendable in how he has handled this particular character perfectly.

There's a moment in the film where Bill, now face to face with the bride herself, explains himself as to why he has done the murderous deed. As if stating that his violent nature is imprinted deep within his soul and cannot be erased, he simply stated that he's a downright murderous bastard and he just acted based on his immediate compulsions when he found out that the bride, his former flame, is now about to be married to someone else. Though it cannot be denied that Bill is the monstrous incarnation of aggressive masculinity (he can't take romantic defeat), Quentin Tarantino is emotionally aware enough to depict Bill as a villain that's capable of explaining himself.

For some, "Kill Bill: Vol. 2's" climax is highly anti-climactic because it has not exceeded the bar that the first film has set in terms of confrontational swordfights and bone-crashing fisticuffs. But seeing the dramatic potential of such a tale of revenge, Tarantino chose to be more calmly elegiac with it rather than being shallowly aggressive. It may not have ended with both barrels blazing (or 'both katanas shining' if you want to remain consistent with the martial arts analogy) in terms of action-packed physicality, but the film is still highly satisfying not because of its physical pay-off but because of its ultimate emotional confrontation between the vengeful woman and the man who has made this feeling possible within her.

"Revenge is a dish best served cold" is the film's opening quote. For the bride, she served it straight from the freezer, but still, tears were shed. Revenge is a sad venture, and the film is fully aware of that fact.

Kill Bill: Volume 1
½

Always the master of cinematic homages, Quentin Tarantino now offers us a martial arts genre-inspired, revenge-themed film that's best served cold. It's a film that highlights, in bright crimson red, the stupendously over-the-top craziness of martial arts films and how it has captured the imagination of many people who were lucky enough to have seen such pictures. But aside from being an ode to the martial arts genre, "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" is also a fiery introduction to what may be one of the most resonant revenge tales of recent memory.

In a world inhabited by code-bound katana makers (like Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo here) and evil martial arts masters, it would have been out of place to put a frail blonde woman in the middle of it all. But Tarantino, now a filmmaker that has already reached his utmost potential for gender maturity, just did, and the result is truly rewarding. Quite ironic, really, for a director whose first film, the neo-gangster classic "Reservoir Dogs" doesn't even contain a single female character.

And with that, "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" has succeeded in showcasing Tarantino's directorial flair and sheer passion for, this time, everything martial arts. It simulates, as it renders a bygone era of martial arts films in a reinvigorated light, what it's like to be witnessing an old-fashioned film glazed with the language of the fist and the code of the sword once again.

Heightened by Uma Thurman's great performance as the vengeful bride on an unmercifully violent path of revenge who will stop at nothing until, well, he can finally kill the titular Bill, the film's effectiveness is not much because of the plot but because of how this seemingly tired story of blood-soaked revenge has trickily found its way into the screen looking completely different and strangely beautiful once again.

Some playfulness with non-linear narrative on one side, some animation here (one of the most striking features of the film) and a subtly powerful use of 'chapters' there; the clever amalgamation of these aspects has not just made the film something that's truly riveting to watch at surface level but also an intensely unforgettable portrait of what wonders a truly passionate cinephile of a filmmaker like Tarantino can do for a genre that's seemingly buried by time.

Going back to the very narrative, we can simply say that it's a story of a woman's revenge against a former flame that has attempted to kill her, but didn't. So what? What then? What's new? We are repeatedly being fed with films drenched in fearlessly bloodletting vendettas such as this one, with one being crueler yet less fascinating than the previous one. So, again, what's with all the fuss?

Well, the answers for all of those lie within the very film itself. The film, for a lack of a better persuasion coming from yours truly, needs to be seen to be believed. To be seen as a highly stylish action film. To be believed as a truly unique cinematic experience.

"Kill Bill: Vol. 1" may not possess the complexity or depth of "Pulp Fiction", but at the end of the day, its distinction as a great Tarantino film by its own right lies not within the plot or the characters themselves but within the courage of pulling off such a film and how it was done in the most brilliant of ways and the most outlandishly exceptional of styles.

In a time where movies wallow on old ideas that pretend to be something new, it's invigorating to watch a film that's humble enough to embrace old ideas but ingenious enough to render it familiar yet fresh all at the same breath. This film may not necessarily be the 'one' that will immortalize the martial arts genre, but it sure has put the seemingly forgotten genre into prominence once more, and dare declared the greatness of its peculiar aesthetics.

RoboCop
RoboCop(1987)
½

Films like "RoboCop" are the prime reasons why the action scene of the '80s is truly the best there is. In a time where highly-paid action stars are being manufactured for the sake of non-stop, shallow-minded feast of blood, guns and guts, "RoboCop" stands tall as that rare work that mixes delicious satire, brutality and inspired originality in one action-packed entirety.

It stars Peter Weller as Alex Murphy, an honest, hard-working Detroit police officer that was violently murdered in action by a ruthless gang led by the notorious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). But because of revolutionary technology, he was resurrected back to the land of the living hardly as a man anymore but as a law-upholding, well, as what the title suggests, robot.

But wait, there's a catch right there: his memory box is not fully wiped out. So guess what? He wants revenge. Motown is in for a ride.

Paul Verhoeven, a truly visionary action and science fiction filmmaker, is arguably at his definitive best here. Possessing a unique vision for action that certainly can't be surpassed even by today's standards, Verhoeven paints every action scene with an attention for the explosive and the absurd. His action sequences are those that are inclined to shock, to excite and even to put a sardonic smile in a viewer's face all in one stride. For instance, if some action films utilize blood squibs for the sake of enhancing the effect of a gunshot wound, "RoboCop" uses it in a more ironic fashion. The said prop has instead been used to enforce a more cartoonish depiction of violence, which is greatly significant for the film's prevailing satirical tone and its distinct comic book feel.

So with that being said, what is it that "RoboCop" is satirizing then? Very much like Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns", "RoboCop", finely written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, ingeniously pokes fun at what news programs may look like in an unstable future: A short running time, a couple of all-smiling anchors and an overly feel-good atmosphere ironic to the news at hand. Oh, and did I mention that this film is also a slight attack towards capitalism and consumerism?

As seen in the film's numerous faux TV commercials, there's this unforgettable TV ad in "RoboCop" that shows the fictitious 6000 SUX (a new car model) immensely dwarfing a dinosaur (which, I don't know, may symbolize the olden, more innocent times of simpleton living). Such image proves that "RoboCop" isn't just an action vehicle that caters to audiences' need for some adrenaline rush but also a timely commentary to our declining discernment between need and want.

In a few years' time, we may just as well buy everything that the television tells us to. The film capitalizes in this sort of pessimistic view of capitalism and misuse of the media and made quite an unforgettably satirical impression out of it.

But aside from conceptual originality and an iconic RoboCop design (by Rob Bottin), which are the primary reasons why this film is highly successful and was even able to attain a cult following, another potent reason as to why "RoboCop" is truly special is because of the performances.

Led by Peter Weller's restrained approach to the Alex Murphy character, the cast is simply terrific. Although the performances were in no way deep or complex, they were uncannily energetic enough for the film to maintain its entertainment level even without the high-powered action sequences.

Take Miguel Ferrer as a great example. He plays the ambitious and bureaucratic Bob Morton who, despite of being a cold-blooded douche, made Murphy's transformation as RoboCop possible. Ferrer, in all of the scenes in which he is in, is armed with a great sense of timing and articulate unorthodoxy that it's entertainingly exhausting to watch him perform.

Same goes for Kurtwood Smith as the villainous Clarence Boddicker, who is so good in playing a major villain here in "RoboCop" that he was offered an equally despicable role again in "Total Recall" (also directed by Verhoeven), only to turn it down. While Ronny Cox, playing Richard 'Dick' Jones, the vice president of the film's fictitious corporation named Omni Consumer Products (OCP), is the stereotypical image of a purely manipulative corporate villain. Although contained within the limitations of a generic character, Cox was able to squeeze out something special and distinctive from the role. As for Nancy Allen, she plays Murphy's partner on duty with pristine calm. She is the image of sanity in the film.

For jaded viewers, it's difficult to distinguish the gold from the dung in a genre (in this case, action) that is more inhabited by the latter. For me, watching "RoboCop" renders this viewing cynicism as untrue. Even from afar, it's easy to see this film's golden makings as a true action masterpiece even if you put it in a damn septic tank. And despite of the occasional garbage that may surround it, its greatness shines forth through the heap.

"RoboCop" is one of the best action films of all time, and unlike other action pictures of the same kind that were made solely for the specific era to which they belong, this film transcends time. It has aged supremely well, and its entertainment and shock factor are just as potent as they were almost 30 years ago. This is one for the books.

Mad Max
Mad Max(1979)

It has been widely believed that ever since "Mad Max" was released, action films have never been the same again. It has introduced a more frenetically-paced action style and also a purer form of utter machismo and brutality that has since been the staple themes of almost all of the action pictures that have followed after it. In a way, the whole '80s to mid '90s action film scene is highly indebted to "Mad Max" because without it, there wouldn't be a need for such red-blooded films. And also, without this seminal George Miller classic, the world of bullet-spraying, revenge-driven heroes inhabited by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone would be devoid of another equally important action icon: Mel Gibson.

But then more importantly, this film has significantly done something that can be compared to what "Jaws" has done to the beaches or what "A Nightmare on Elm Street" has done to dreams: "Mad Max" has made us fear the open highways.

Judging from its narrative, "Mad Max" has nothing remotely surprising going on. It also does not help that the film has some irritating side characters and a lazy dubbing. With that, "Mad Max" is nothing more than a B-grade little film that, despite of its overly rough edges, has managed to unconsciously revolutionize a whole genre.

Made in 1979, the film has aged quite badly both in editing, sounds and script. Even the performances are quite cheesy and cartoonish. The plot, for the lack of a better word, is almost non-existent. The car chases are quite new at the time but are nowhere near of being unique and truly fresh.

But then, after all of these overbearing cons, there's "Mad Max's" universe. Making it appear as if the empty expanse of the speedways are the final frontiers of an apocalyptic Australia, the film's imaginative vision of a world gone way, way awry is a thing of peculiar beauty and originality.

Oh, and there's an attempt of being prophetic too. Labeling "Mad Max's" time frame as 'few years from now', the film is also quite successful in creating an illusion of plausibility that I can surmise is quite alarming and frightening at the time of its release.

With an intention to create an insane, 'anything goes' world devoid of swift justice, George Miller and company have created a surrealistic neo-western world with an atmosphere reminiscent of "High Noon". Only this time, Frank Miller and company are now mentally unstable bikers and Gary Cooper's Will Kane is now in the guise of a gutsy highway patrol officer named Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson).

"Mad Max", amid the immensity of its negative aspects, is a finely realized hybrid of a film that's armed with whatever's left of the cinematic sensibilities of the western genre yet heightened by a newer, more energetic style of action.

Watching "Mad Max", after all these years of seeing action films with the same revenge-driven story, is like watching something new set in a more than familiar narrative landscape. Rooted in the film's use of clichéd storytelling, an aspect that has been one of the main reasons why action movie-goers has since been transformed into jaded ones, the film seem to render the plot secondary and the visuals as the main priority. And with that, I believe the film has succeeded not as a truly compelling action film but as a highly kinetic action fare fueled mainly by the spectacle and not the story.

What resulted is an action-packed tale of revenge and justice that has given birth to a new breed of action films, and also to edgier protagonists bent not just on setting things right but also on pure, red-blooded retribution.

Watching "Mad Max" today, I can confidently say that I've seen better action films. "Mad Max" is the Wright Brothers' prototype plane to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis' Boeing 747. The films by the latter action stars may be bigger in terms of scope, budget and larger than life characters, but nothing beats classic novelty. An interesting look back to where it all started.

Under the Hood

Now, on with Hollis Mason's tell-all interview, along with many other recognizable characters, here in "Under the Hood".

A short film that evokes the magazine-like news features of the '80s, "Under the Hood" is an effective secondary sweetener that gives your viewing experience of "Watchmen" a more intimate feel. Headlined by an aging Hollis Mason aka Nite-Owl in a sobering interview that tackles the story of his life, from his childhood years up to his days with the "Minutemen" and his subsequent retirement from masked vigilantism, "Under the Hood" is truly insightful both as a pseudo-documentary and as a precursor to much grander things in a parallel world teetering on the edge of chaos and oblivion.

Of course, for some who have already read the graphic novel, this supplemental short film is nothing new. But as one of those who were slightly disappointed by Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" adaptation, it's still quite refreshing and commendable for Snyder and company to have conceived "Under the Hood" for the sake of enriching and extending their cinematic translation of "Watchmen" while also exemplifying an almost unsurpassed dedication to the source material.

Now, what I liked most about "Under the Hood", aside from the sincere performances by Stephen McHattie (as Hollis Mason) and company, is the very genuine '80s feel of the whole short film that seemingly suggests media tranquility days or weeks before the world of "Watchmen" ironically heads into an imminent nuclear destruction. The fun little commercials also helped in heightening this sense of calm as products such as the very resonant 'Nostalgia' perfume populate the screen with a laid-back and feel-good advertising atmosphere.

But this calm exterior slowly subsides, though almost unrecognizably, once the characters' opinionated insights come to play. Like a quiet bomb awaiting its own implosion, words uttered by the likes of Hollis Mason, Sally Jupiter aka Silk Spectre I (Carla Gugino is also great in this one) and even a very Woody Allen-like Wally Weaver have underlined the anxious fate that awaits both the remaining members of the Watchmen and the world itself.

"We've been replaced". Hollis Mason sadly stated as he pertains to Dr. Manhattan's god-like status that, for him, replaces not just the costumed heroes of a bygone era like him but also humanity as a whole. But on the other hand, when asked about Dr. Manhattan, a street smart news vendor named Bernard (that's also one of the more significant bit characters in the graphic novel) highlighted Dr. Manhattan's great contribution by answering that America would not have won in Vietnam without him (of course, in "Watchmen's parallel universe, U.S. did won). Different people with different opinions that has since shaped the world of "Watchmen"; it surely is a joy both to hear and to watch.

Once started as an autobiographical interview cum advertising ploy for Hollis Mason's book "Under the Hood", the short slowly turns into a full-formed mosaic of opinions (by way of separate interviews) regarding issues prevalent in the "Watchmen" universe as given by different individuals ranging from flawed masked crime fighters of the past to ordinary bar owners and psychoanalysts.

"Under the Hood", unlike "The Tales of the Black Freighter", is a film that cannot stand alone. Snyder's "Watchmen" must still be watched first (or the other way around). Speaking in terms of "World of Warcraft", "Under the Hood" is the "Frozen Throne" to "Watchmen's" "Reign of Chaos". A potent companion piece, "Under the Hood" is an effective "Watchmen" short that boldly underscores the world of "Watchmen's" proverbial calm before the storm.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood

(This is a review of "Tales of the Black Freighter" only)

"Tales of the Black Freighter" is a wonderful adaptation of the pirate story of the same title embedded within the already complex narrative of "Watchmen" and is also a great reminder of how powerful this parallel story really is wherever you may look at it and whatever medium one may use to tell it. The hellish tale, about the captain/lone survivor of a destroyed sea vessel and his nightmarish odyssey to return back home, can be merely seen as a side story that may or may not add to the overall effect of "Watchmen's" story. But thanks to Zack Snyder's utter dedication of giving just cinematic life to the "Watchmen" universe through his great attention to detail (which resulted in this animated feature and the "Under the Hood" short),"The Tales of the Black Freighter's" sustaining power as a stand-alone narrative that seemingly evokes Joseph Conrad's like-minded take on madness and futility (see "Heart of Darkness") was shown in all its power and doomed glory.

Inserting the DVD into my player to view it in a very 'watch it just for the sake of completion and a hint of curiosity' kind of way, I was immensely surprised as to how well "The Tales of the Black Freighter's" story has flowed while also retaining Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's surreal combination of doomed yet poetic narrative and otherworldly illustrations.

On the other hand, some technical deficiencies include the slight out of synch between the dubbing and how the characters on-screen open their mouths and maybe some subtlety missing in Gerard Butler's voice performance (just a little bit). But all in all, those meager cons are still overshadowed by the immense vision that was contained and perfectly captured within this fine animation short.

At the end of the day, I'm still quite critical about Zack Snyder and company's choice of changing the plot twist in the film adaptation of "Watchmen", which, in my opinion, pales in comparison to the one that was shockingly revealed in the source graphic novel. But still, though I must say that Alan Moore has a completely valid and understandable point on preferring complete high-brow apathy towards Snyder's "Watchmen" or any other cinematic adaptations of his works for that matter, I think he needs to check out "The Tales of the Black Freighter" for the simple artistic reason that it did channel his hypnotic and nightmarish vision of tragedy, despair and, ultimately, fatalistic madness, with great conviction and considerable justice.

Alien
Alien(1979)
½

Not that I was truly compelled to rewatch "Alien" solely because of "Prometheus'" release, as viewing the former once more was already in the back of my mind even before the latter was even green lit. And watching it after more than 5 years, it was as if I'm seeing something new altogether.

Perhaps my slight cluelessness brought about by the years of not watching this film is, in a way, a thing of envy for die-hard "Alien" fans and even a fantasy realized for most movie watchers. As a long-time film lover, I know that there's this ever-recurring yet far-fetched idea among compulsive cinephiles of being able to wipe their memories clean so that they can enjoy all of their favorite films once more without knowing what's going to happen next.

I, for one, would love to watch "Predator" again without any 'action hero' bias towards Arnold Schwarzenegger so it will once again be a genuinely thrilling experience. 'Who will die next?' A simple question that is indeed one of the guilty pleasures in all of cinema and one of the meager delights of an avid suspense fan. Perhaps that's what I have felt while watching "Alien" once more, and it was indeed a wonderful high.

Of course, one can't deny how well-made this film really is and how its simple premise has brought it to its legendary status that we all know of today, but I have never remembered it, more than half a decade ago, to have contained such exceptional performances. Sigourney Weaver's performance for instance, after watching it again, has been enhanced to a certain extent and was even more believable than I last remember it to be.

Her transformation as Ellen Ripley, from a dead serious female crew of the Nostromo to a brave heroine by circumstance, is such a powerful slow-burner that her intense metamorphosis is still being repeatedly used as the model character arc for sole survivors in many films of the same kind even to this very day.

But although this 'zero to hero' arc has been used a year before "Alien" was released in the form of Jamie Lee Curties as Laurie Strode in "Halloween", Ellen Ripley is a hundred times more chilling in how she has responded to her situation mainly because the survival rate in space, paired with a murderously invulnerable Xenomorph, is relatively low compared to a suburban neighborhood hunted by a slow-ass, Captain Kirk mask-wearing Boogeyman. And also because, let's admit it, playing this little survival game in space is infinitely more intensely terrifying to behold.

But the "Alien" experience, as we all know, wouldn't be that unforgettable if not for Ridley Scott's exquisite direction, Dan O'Bannon's (rest in peace) simple but effective writing and H.R. Giger's iconic creature design. Taking one out of those three will surely render "Alien" quite deficient and lacking so it's fortunate that they have created a film so good that it has bred an expansive franchise and even cross-over films, much, of course, to the delight of fans who wanted more of it.

And then there's the rest of the cast, which consists of Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto. If I am to look upon that particular line-up of actors without a further knowledge that this is indeed a science fiction film about a murderous alien in a spaceship, I would have mistaken this to be an elegant ensemble drama.

Indeed the talent of "Alien's" cast has made O'Bannon's writing more natural on-screen, as they have truly provided it with human spontaneity that an otherworldly and literally alienating film like "Alien" crucially needs. Their performances were not legendary by any means, but their chemistry exudes a certain relational authenticity that it has been the strong, primary highlight of the film just second to the very arrival of the extraterrestrial slaughterer itself.

Now, look at it again: The Nostromo's crew sitting around a white, futuristic table, eating futuristic foods while taking about home. Aside from the creature itself, isn't that what you'll remember most about "Alien"?

But after all, what has really made "Alien" a legendary classic? Well, if you look at it, the story is too simple to even qualify as such, which plainly concerns the crew of a commercial spaceship named "Nostromo" and their unlucky encounter with a not so accommodating creature that serves as the antithesis of Spielberg's "E.T.". "Alien" does not even possess "2001: A Space Oddyssey's" mystical ambiguity or even "Planet of the Apes'" revolutionary utilization of a twist ending.

So what, then, has made "Alien" so special? I believe it is how the film exemplifies the greatness of having just the right amount of everything. It's a science fiction film that does not bite more than it can chew, it's a suspense movie without the usual overkill and it's a monster movie without the visual excesses. The performances do not dominate and even the creature lurks in the blackest darkness, teasing you with the terror that it entails rather than scaring you with its physical wholeness and its tails (Why? I want to make a rhyme, damn it!). "Alien" is a film that wants you to look at the vast emptiness of space not as a purely meditative speculator asking the 'whys', 'wheres' and 'hows' but as a cautious spectator asking the most perverse 'what ifs'.

"In space, no one can hear you scream". Just reading that tagline alone is enough to send genuine shivers down your spine. Watching the film is even a taller order for your nerves to handle. Beware of its scares but be compelled by its greatness.

Prometheus
Prometheus(2012)

It's not a highly intelligent science fiction film or a purely imaginative Ridley Scott creation. But what makes "Prometheus" a picture that is worthy of all the hype that it has amassed throughout its promotional phase is one word that Ridley Scott was able to strongly uphold: audacity.

Even now, I can't say if "Prometheus" is really necessary because however original this companion piece may be, the first "Alien" film will always stand on its own strong feet as an untouchable and seminal science fiction work that dared the darker mysteries of outer space like never before and, probably, never again.

Being announced as an indirect prelude to the events in "Alien", it's given that "Prometheus" will hand out some answers to things that the said sci-fi horror classic have left quite ambiguous for so many years. And with its trailers leaving an impression that this will certainly be a film of significant magnitude, it's also given that this will also expand the "Alien" universe even more.

The result is certainly not the greatest prequel or Ridley Scott film that we'll ever see, but it is, nonetheless, a brave piece of filmmaking that clarifies as much as it raises new questions and is also a science fiction film that balances the scares with some far-reaching concepts of human creation.

It stars Noomi Rapace of the "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" fame as the perfect actress to channel Sigourney Weaver's intense portrayal of bravery and claustrophobic fear in the "Alien" films as Ellen Ripley. Here, Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw, an archeologist who, along with a ragtag crew with the same intent for discovery, was commissioned by the mysterious Weyland Corporation (look for a geriatric Guy Pearce) to brave the far reaches of the outer space and land on a distant planet to unearth a key that may or may not hold the answer to our deepest inquiries about the origin of the human race, or its annihilation.

Aided by a humanoid named David (Michael Fassbender), who's greatly fascinated with Peter O'Toole's turn as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia", and watched upon by an antagonistic Weyland Corporation representative named Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the team set on to do what they were tasked to do, but not without some magnified mishaps or two.

For a science fiction film dealing with the typical 'mission gone wrong', 'not knowing what we're dealing with here' theme, "Prometheus" is strictly a standard venture. But despite of that, it's still a high concept film that may surely be flawed at some point, but is nevertheless thought-provoking both as a prequel and as a stand-alone film.

Opening with a highly unusual scene of a muscular, Dr. Manhattan-like creature that looks more like a character taken from a 'sword and sorcery' film rather than from the world of hard science fiction, "Prometheus" introduces itself as a tall cinematic mythology. And with this type of prologue of sorts, Ridley Scott is evidently on to something here that's bigger in conceptual scope compared to the first "Alien" film.

But with such expansive ambition is a most critical issue of whether or not it can really deliver the promised goods. Like 2011's sleeper hit "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", "Prometheus" is a film that is burdened with the pressure of conveying a very interesting story that can hold its own ground but can also pull off a great feat of patching up questions of origin.

For some veteran directors armed with such films as "Alien" and "Blade Runner" in their resumes, it's not that unusual at this point in their lives to be highly contented with what they have contributed to the film industry. Look at George Lucas and his countless re-releases of "Star Wars" and you'll know what I'm talking about. However, for Mr. Scott, it seems as if he's veering away from what Mr. Lucas, right now, is doing.

Instead of squeezing dry a highly lucrative franchise like "Alien", and with that I mean desperately pitting an aged Sigourney Weaver once more with the wretched Xenomorph in a most ill-advised "Alien 5", Ridley Scott, nearing the twilight of his career, is brave and still confident enough not to do that but has instead created something that merely revisits the franchise but whose main intent is to refresh it.

The result may be imperfect, but what I adore most about "Prometheus" is not much about the very execution itself, although it has great merits of its own (particularly the strong performances by Rapace, Theron and Fassbender), but the sheer bravery of touching and expanding "Alien's" cinematic universe while also maintaining the integrity of narrative originality.

Surely, fans may be infuriated by how, in some ways, "Prometheus" has ruined the simplistic mystery and horror of 1979's "Alien" by way of its exposition. Though that can surely be a case in point, I admire how the film took a more mythological approach to counter "Alien's" style of silent, straightforward terror.

"Prometheus", as a prequel, gave enough answers regarding how one of the most despised movie creatures of all time came to be. But with that, the film has also left fresh new questions to ponder about. Not since "Blade Runner" have I ever been more satisfied with how Ridley Scott has left some things open.

Shame
Shame(2011)

It's a coincidence for this film to have included a reference to "Gimme Shelter" (describing it as 'hell') because, along with the said Rolling Stones documentary, "Shame" is really one of the few films that has truly left me shaken, despite of its polished filmmaking facade, because what it shows is all too real. And despite of its extreme sexual content, this is also one of the few instances that it was absolutely necessary.

But aside from that, "Shame" is also my solid proof, based on their powerful performances, that Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are genuine acting forces to be reckoned with. "Shame", for a lack of a better description, is what "American Psycho" would be minus the killer instinct and the violence but with uncontrollable lust and utter regret as their substitutes. And unlike the said Mary Harron adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, "Shame" speaks volumes of truth that "American Psycho" can't even muster to raise save for its satiric tone towards '80s yuppie narcissism. Oh, and did I forget that "Shame" has heart?

Composed of scenes that have seemingly rendered New York city as a 'sleepy' metropolis merely populated by few nightly nocturnes roaming the city's underground bar and sex club scenes, "Shame" is an intense character study of one man leading an all too isolated sexual life in an all too big a city with little to no care in the world.

Living in a posh, minimalist apartment filled with boxes and boxes of pornographic materials and a steady income more than adequate for some nightly prostitutes, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), originally born in Ireland and has grown in New Jersey, is now living his own version of the American Dream. And where's better to consume it in excessively emotionless amounts than in the so-called center of the world that is New York City?

But then we can't accuse Brandon of not going after any emotional connections either. Trying his romantic luck with a co-worker named Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he forces himself towards love; an idea, along with marriage, that he was otherwise skeptic about.

But like Travis Bickle's complete opposite, a character that's desperately in search for some genuine romantic attachment, Brandon's intended connection with Marianne might have been done just so he can tell to himself that at least he has tried this pesky little 'love' thing. And assuring himself with that fact, that he can't really exist within the context of genuine romantic affection (marked by his inability to have proper sex with her), he once again wills himself back to his empty pleasures.

For Brandon, his is a life worthy of envy, but not until his quite unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly comes to visit. With too simple a story, also written by its director Steve McQueen, we are given an unforgettable tale of obsession and sexual descent. But given that those themes have been tackled in many films before, "Shame" separates itself by highlighting another: the painful, guilt-ridden emotions the morning after.

There's this powerful scene in the film that shows Brandon, after spending a night of sexual experimentation, in a complete emotional breakdown. Twisting his body in a semi-fetal position and gnashing his teeth, with fists closed, he implodes in a controlled and inhibited rage not towards the prostitutes and the sexual materials that have been the instruments of his sexual excesses, but towards himself.

Michael Fassbender, in probably the most overlooked but also maybe the best performance of 2011, has painted and embodied a painfully complex character in the form of Brandon. By conveying a very convincing and an almost frightening character transformation, from a silent and laid back young professional into a sex-chasing desperation-incarnate to a poor sap trapped within his own compulsions, not to mention Brandon's intimate yet hostile relationship with his sister, Fassbender has brilliantly portrayed a modern man's conflict between extreme hedonism and familial affection.

What would he choose more? a path of sexual self-destruction or his dysfunctional relationship with his sister? The fine line has already been blurred, and maybe, just maybe, Brandon can handle them both, but not without any absolute consequences, and with a hand 'shamefully' covering a side of his face.

"Shame", one of my most anticipated films of 2011, has equated my hype towards it and has introduced unto me a major collaborative force in the form of Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen. Fassbender, who has portrayed a revolutionary psychiatrist in "A Dangerous Method", has now played here in "Shame" a man who might be in dire need of one.

Biutiful
Biutiful(2010)
½

After his emotionally powerful "Death Trilogy", Alejandro González Iñárritu has since left us to wonder what will be his next step. Enter "Biutful", an emotionally devastating and painful film that has, at least, shown what Iñárritu can do by relying purely on his own emotions as a filmmaker.

With this film sorely missing Guillermo Arriaga's powerhouse screenplays which have made his three previous films infinitely more special than they already are, Alejandro González Iñárritu, impressively, has never faltered in handling the film's dramatic eloquence as he guides it seamlessly both in how its story will unfold and how its emotional investments will pay off. What's also very commendable is how Iñárritu was able to tell an encompassing tale even when the very film itself is only limited through an almost singular (which is Javier Bardem's Uxbal) point of view.

If the films in the "Death Trilogy" were able to intimately portray mosaics of happenstance character interactions through multiple and overlapping subplots, "Biutiful's" approach is more simple but one that's still with a similar feel, with a lesser chance of having contrivances in its execution due to its more plain narrative structure. And by far, this may also be his most personal film.

Being dedicated to his father, "Biutiful" is not just a film that merely tells a thoroughly fictional tale made special by the abundance of gritty realism. Behind every emotions, actions, and decisions, those of which determine the fate of everyone in the film, Iñárritu is seemingly backing all of them up piece by piece with a love poem, fully manifested in the film's numerous scenes of poignancy, for his father and to the very beauty of redemption and personal peace. So touching and emotionally provoking this figurative love poem really is that in the end of the film, what one may feel is both sadness and transcendence; two aspects that we surely can find in an Alejandro González Iñárritu film.

The film tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a weary man who, after being informed by a doctor that he is terminally ill, tries to fulfill his paternal role to his children to the fullest that he can, mend the emotional distance between him and his bipolar wife Maramba (Maricel Alvarez), and make his every actions matter as much as possible within the two-month time frame that he has left. What makes him even more on the edge, aside from the fact that he is dying, is his involvement in illegal dealings with two Chinese businessmen and his unusual gift of being able to talk to dead people.

In a sense, "Biutiful" might be what Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" wants to be in the sense of how the former has successfully injected the tender yet tormented nuance of the afterlife. And also, maybe, "Biutiful" is the perfect antidote to Rob Reiner's extremely romanticized and sweetened take on terminal illness in the form of "The Bucket List". But then, none of this would have been that possible if not because of the actors involved.

With tour de force performances by Javier Bardem, who has never looked so emotionally vulnerable and physically weak on film, and Maricel Alvarez as his wife, scenes flow easier and more naturally that it has heightened the film's sense of brutal honesty regarding the usually painful fact of life of having so much to do with so short a time. But aside from this vibrantly existential vibe, "Biutiful" also tackles the more alarming issues of abusive blue-collar exploitation and illegal settlements on foreign lands, but not in the form of a subdued social commentary. Instead, they have been turned into subplots which make up not just the very soul of the story and of Uxbal himself but also a very potent and pungent portrayal of life's numerous social truths.

Playing a playboy painter who leads a bohemian life in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", here in "Biutiful", Javier Bardem now portrays a man living on the, I'm clinging on a cliche here, edge of society desperately trying to be the best father, husband and person that he can be amid the surrounding poverty. Through these dichotomous performances in both films, Javier Bardem has exposed the extremes of Barcelona in terms of human existence, with the latter one shining forth within Iñárritu's masterful directorial hands.

To be a bit personal, my affinity towards Alejandro González Iñárritu's films started with my initially perplexed reaction to his film "Babel" (the last film in his "Death Trilogy" but is, ironically, his first film that I have seen), with that slow pacing, raw performances and ethereal musical scoring by Gustavo Santaolalla. Then followed up by "Amores Perros", "21 Grams", and a further "Babel" rewatch, I think it's just apt to say that his films are the ones that have truly introduced me to the emotional complexity of cinema. And after seeing "Biutiful", a film with an intensely beating heart, I reminisce the trilogy, and again, I'm hearing the guitars.

The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar, known for films that contain unique mixtures of human comedy, dramatic absurdity and gender commentaries, is unusually darker and bizarre in "The Skin I Live In", a film that greatly offers a very, very morbid take on grief and infatuation but is also able to preserve some of Almodovar's trademark humor, albeit a more underlying one.

As if partly inspired by Victor Frankenstein's travails or even Scottie Ferguson's (of Hitchcock's "Vertigo") obsessive fixation towards a mysterious blonde woman, Almodovar's cinematic touches in this film are infinitely more brooding and, in some ways, also more pitiful in tone as it brings our protagonist, a brilliant plastic surgeon named Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), into a fate already sealed by certain doom and imminent futility as he obsesses himself in endless experimentation with a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya).

I know, I know, there has been an almost automatic requirement for any film review to contain at least two to three sentence plot synopsis so that readers can familiarize themselves to whatever film the reviewer is tackling, ranting or plainly rambling about. But with me excluding one in this review, do think of this as a favor. See the film for yourself and be enlightened of what may be one of the most unique cinematic experiences that you may ever lay your senses upon for quite a while. Now, with that being said, let's go back to the review proper (or something like that).

Obsession and tragedy, these has been one of the more recurring themes on film as far as the 'mad scientist' sub-genre is concerned ever since Victor Frankenstein found out (maybe 'discovered' is the posh word) that electricity can resurrect the dead. It has been nothing but a tired cinematic vehicle, but just like David Cronenberg's "The Fly", "The Skin I Live In" offers a truly thought-provoking story and some unforgettable characters that genuinely remind us of the potential narrative and emotional power that the said sub-genre really has.

But with that being said, it does not mean that "The Skin I Live In" merely exists within the 'mad scientist' boundaries and not a step more. Instead, the film's quality is truly multifaceted that viewers may attend the theater runs with different expectations but can still come out individually satisfied in different ways.

To watch the film expecting a tense and suspenseful film, one would not be disappointed. If one comes into the film expecting a humane film about flawed love and emotional tragedy, you won't be let down either. Perhaps this is how Pedro Almodovar has intended the film to be seen: as a deeply human film about the inhumanity of cognitive and emotional irrationality that balances profundity and some suspenseful storytelling. But still, I believe those are not the main reasons that has made this film a truly special one. For me, it was Almodovar and his trademark directorial self that has.

A filmmaker known for his sensitive and tender approach to gender-bending narratives, Almodovar has made the film sexually unnerving and shocking in the surface for the purpose of capturing enough attention so that his real message concealed within the film's sensational imagery can be absorbed more thoroughly, which now reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk's novel "Rant".

In there, the main character's mother used to put thumbtacks or other mouth-crimsoning objects into foods that she cooks. In that way, she sternly believes, their great taste would appeal to the palate more competently because you've dissected through the meal to get there. In layman's terms, she believes that ecstasy comes after difficulty, which is what "The Skin I Live In" is all about. Beneath the detestably explicit visual content, there lies Almodovar's ever-compelling gender commentary, waiting to enlighten its audience with what it has to say.

A perfect companion piece or, should I say, a more twisted cinematic brother to "All About my Mother", "The Skin I Live In" raises questions that provoke not just the mind and the heart but also the very perception of one's own gender and where does it really reside: In the mind, in the genitals, or in the heart?

Whether it is in a person's physical appearance or somewhere deeper is not what's important. Even Almodovar is cautious enough not to preach his side all throughout the film. What counts is that he was able to raise this very idea seamlessly, with capable emotions and with proper humanity, within the film. As the plot twist (yes, there is one) reveals itself, it's not much about how it was unveiled, but how it affects us afterwards. Call it an emotional twist if you may.

With a penetrating story, powerful performances, notably those of Antonio Banderas (overlooked) and Elena Anaya (terribly unnoticed), and a sobering outlook that questions the requisites of what really makes one man or woman, not mentioning the effectively dream-like visuals and musical scoring, Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" is, bar no genres, one of the best films of 2011.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
½

To be honest, my first reaction when I first heard about this Hollywood adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel was that of utter irritation. Although I haven't read the novels, I just believe at the time that there's no absolute necessity in making a western adaptation of a book that has already been masterfully made 3 years ago by a Swedish production.

I remember that I even shook my head when I saw both the first pictures of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander and the very run-of-the-mill (by thriller film standards) trailer itself. Though I more than agree about the casting of Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, all in all, I just don't really care that much about this project from its pre-production stage up to the initial releases of promotional materials.

"The Swedish film is enough for me, let them have this Americanized Dragon Tattoo." This has been my subliminal mantra before the film's very release. Now reminiscing my ridiculous demeanor towards this Hollywood adaptation as I write this review, fresh from watching the very film of which I have been quite disdainful of, I can only think of one phrase to sum up this pre-judgmental flaw of mine: "Oh, how wrong I was".

But with that, I'm not saying that this adaptation, as great a stand-alone film it is, is head over heels better than the 2009 film. For a lack of a better word, both films, as far as overall quality is concerned, are 'stalemate', which applies even to the performances themselves. Although I would say that, with a gun pointed at my head, Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander has the softer spot in my heart, I believe that Rooney Mara is as enigmatic in her interpretation, if not as charismatic.

Daniel Craig, on the other hand, offers a more athletic-looking Mikael Blomkvist and is very into his character that his body language in the film is very effortless in scenes of unbearable suspense and surprising tenderness. Despite of his affiliation in that little movie franchise about an indestructible and highly sexual spy agent we call James Bond, Craig has been very, very believable in this film as a vulnerably mild-mannered journalist torn between the sheer passion of his investigative work and the preservation of his pristine name as a well-known one.

Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer, on the other hand, offer great presences in vital roles, while Robin Wright makes up for her limited screen time as Blomkvist's editor and lover quite well.

Though I must say that Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish Mikael Blomkvist) possesses the more world-weary physical demeanor that suits the character better, Daniel Craig is the more intense one compared to the former, which makes him more capable in shouldering the heavier scenes as the peril of the story piles up.

Just like what I've mentioned in my review of the earlier Swedish adaptation, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", as intriguing as its little whodunit murder mystery is, is a thriller of characters, not of plot. David Fincher, the perfect man in Hollywood to handle this film (and the whole "Millennium" Trilogy) with great composure, balance and proper genre experience, did just what the expectations call for him to do.

A man that I can rightfully regard as one of the contemporary greats of the thriller/suspense genre, with works like "Se7en", "Zodiac" and even "Fight Club", Fincher is a humane handler of characters even within the most unbearably disturbing (e.g. Cops tracking down gruesome killers, a founder of a gazillion dollars worth of social networking empire (just kidding)), or the most unusual (e.g. a man physically growing old backwards, an insomniac with a split personality), of situations. And in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", it really shows.

In a worst case scenario, both Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Bomkvist can be turned into characters that may closely mirror members of Scooby-Doo's mystery machine, with the Vanger murder mystery serving as the shadowy plot to unmask and the 'it's him all along' twist serving as its burdening cliche.

David Fincher, armed with a strong source material and a screenplay of considerable strength by Steven Zaillian, was able to give great priority to the characters without sacrificing any chances of turning the very story into a muddled maze merely solved by taking the wrong path just so a sort of closure, however half-baked, can be attained.

Our protagonists, aside from being a two-team investigative force, are also two people wrapped in romantic ambiguity. Tackled by the Swedish adaptation with recurring hints of mutual affection, this film has even rendered their relationship close to perfection. It's not much their sexual scenes that have enforced this idea but the subtlest of moments.

One poignant scene near the end of the film is when Blomkvist and Salander are lying considerably apart in bed as if two reflective lovers. In the scene, there has been no direct gestures of affection directed to each other save for Lisbeth's retelling of her scarred past and their lingering eye contact.

The camera position perfect, that little space in the middle a spot-on balance-giver to the whole moment and the lighting totally exact. As they lie there subliminally contemplating what their relationship really means and as we absorb this key scene, the more that we already know what the answer is. And surely so that in another scene, as a sales clerk asks Lisbeth to whom will she give the jacket she had just bought, a gift obviously intended for Mikael, she answered that it's only for a 'friend'.

Well, after all that she has gone through in the film, that which involves digging up absolute truths hidden layers deep within the snow-covered wilderness of the fictional town of Hedestad, we're quite aware that what she said to the sales clerk was a lie.

"What is hidden in snow, comes forth in the thaw" is the film's tagline that's also a Swedish proverb. It was indeed a half-century old tale of hate, murder, and misogyny that was unearthed, but so are shades of something that resembles love. One of the absolute sleeper hits of 2011.

Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown(1997)
½

Known for his brash and trashy, but ultimately brilliant, cinematic sensibilities, "Jackie Brown" may unusually be Quentin Tarantino's subtlest film to date. With its characters more focused on committing actions based on the narrative's impulses rather than on raw characterization, Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who would rather dwell on what his characters are thinking than what the story dictates upon them to do, may very well be out of his groove in this film.

An adaptation of Elmore Leonard's double-cross novel, "Rum Punch", a book that is highly enjoyable and bursts of great literary energy, "Jackie Brown" is a plot-based screen adaptation that does not expose its characters through the trivialities of a hustle and bustle life that made Tarantino a cinematic household name but merely through the very strict context of the film's central conflict.

Immediately greeting us with the image of Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) slouched on a sofa watching the former's self-produced 'gun' movies, an image that has been the very representative of "Jackie Brown" in much the same way that Uma Thurman in a "Game of Death" motorcycle suit is to "Kill Bill", the film begins without that initially puzzling opening chapter in the novel which dwelled on a Neo-Nazi parade and instead started headstrong to tell, through a seminal image and the dialogue, who these two main characters are and what they do: Ordell, a street smart gun dealer, and Louis, a fresh from prison low life who's taken in by the former, his old pal, for a job.

Unlike Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", both of which begun with not so relevant opening conversations, "Jackie Brown", proving Tarantino's intent to direct against his staple style, is evidently tight in its storytelling that it dared not to let its characters fall that much on some small, unrelated talks just for the mere sake of it.

One of the great aspects of the film, aside from Tarantino's rapid dialogue, is the casting itself. Elmore Leonard, a novelist more concerned with how his sleazy story would play out more than his character's back stories, still has properly conveyed in "Rum Punch" how his characters would look and act like. Except for the obvious main character change from a middle-aged white woman named Jackie Burke in the novel to a smoky, middle-aged African-American woman named Jackie Brown here and the complete overhaul of Bridget Fonda's Melanie character, the film is particularly spot-on with the characters, their demeanors, and how their literary interactions would translate into film.

The story, in simple terms, is about the eponymous character's thrilling attempt to play the cops and Ordell with each other so that she can be able to escape with the latter's half a million dollar payoff, with a bail bondsman named Max Cherry (Robert Forster) assisting her in the process. But with Tarantino exercising his usual dry wit, the 'thrilling' part has been, in a way, transformed into an edgier brand of dark humor which has been one of the reasons for Tarantino's directorial successes.

As much as possible depriving the more tense sequences of generic musical scores, these particular moments, instead, have been perfectly peppered not with musical accompaniments but with an underlying humor that has been greatly established in the film's earlier scenes that it's like you're part of Jackie Brown's intent to scam everybody but is secretly smirking, with sweating forehead and all, while you're doing it.

But then there's also the film's problem, which is the utter devaluation of Max Cherry's emotional connection to her estranged wife; an aspect of the story that has been finely tackled in the novel but is entirely absent in this film. Because of this, Max Cherry has been rendered as Jackie's stiff, lovelorn accessory and nothing more. It's a shame because, as far as characterizations are concerned, I think Max Cherry is the most fleshed-out of all the characters in the novel, which serves as an antidote for "Rum Punch's" half-serious and caricature-like portrayal of the criminal underworld.

As for the performances, there's nothing much that can be said about it because both Sam Jackson and Robert De Niro have, time and time again, proved that they are the staple greats of this industry, especially in portraying hard-edged criminal roles. Even Bridget Fonda is great as Melanie. But I, for the life of me, can't fathom how such a beautiful junkie like her can get into any man's nerve THAT easily (you'll see why). Oh, well, maybe the word 'junkie' does. While Pam Grier, one of the most resonant faces of the '70s blaxploitation scene, made the Jackie Brown character her very own that it's just difficult to read "Rum Punch", with a prior idea of who plays who here in "Jackie Brown", without imagining Jackie Burke as Pam Grier no matter the descriptions.

By Tarantino's standards, "Jackie Brown" may very well be the least violent of his films but is also the least natural one. It's quite obvious that this film has made Quentin exert the additional effort to pull it all off in the name of giving the source novel some screen justice. There's also this sense of inhibition in "Jackie Brown" that suggests the idea that QT has been utterly reserved all along and is quite cautious to pull out all of the tricks in his sleeves for this one. Maybe it's really just better for Quentin Tarantino to make films based on self-indulgent inspirations, not pure adaptations.

But to end on a positive note, who would have thought that this is a 2 and a half hour film? Some may point out that the running time made the film a bit sluggish as it goes, but I never felt it. In some ways, I may have even preferred it more if "Jackie Brown" runs for 3 solid hours so that it can properly cover Max Cherry's emotional conflict regarding his divorce plans for his wife and may even leave enough time for that little Neo-Nazi mission spearheaded by Ordell Robbie himself. And the ending, well, it couldn't have been handled better.

Dark Shadows
Dark Shadows(2012)

If ever their continuous trio efforts have thought Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter anything, then maybe it is the reality that film collaborations can only last so much, quality-wise, if every new film they create won't end up to be more disappointing than the previous one. With the exception of the very good "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street", the triumvirate has but recycled their seemingly manufactured comic sensibilities and staple gothic cum fantastical imagery to suit up and take on one project after another. Their previous film, the disappointing "Alice in Wonderland" proved that they are slowly running out of steam, and now, here in "Dark Shadows", a cinematic retelling of a classic '60s/early '70's TV series, they have presented quite an alarming fact that they just may need to take some time off and part artistic ways. Well, temporarily, at least.

Tim Burton, one of the most reliable filmmakers of our time in terms of gothic storytelling, especially with some added bits of deadpan humor that he can only call his own, is slowly becoming a passively commercial one. Although I have to say that there are still hints of faded greatness in "Dark Shadows", especially on how the film has introduced itself, it lacks emotion, a sense of purpose, and a pure narrative, with the latter being the thing that I question most about the film.

Yes, it's quite interesting to see how Tim Burton would interpret a TV series that has been aged by time, but then there's the thing we call a 'smoothly-told story', an aspect which, as we all know, is a staple Burton strength but has strangely gone AWOL here in "Dark Shadows". With a beautiful cinematography and set designs that have perfectly captured the atmosphere of the 70's which reminds me a lot of Hitchcock's "The Birds" (I know, it's a 1963 film, but still), all we need that can really put this film's engines into a creative high is a story that will be compelling and, at least, involving enough for 120 minutes or so.

Mentioning the introduction again, as we see Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) slowly transform from a mild-mannered heir to the Collins family business and fortune to a blood-thirsty vampire as a result of a curse, "Dark Shadows" has finely highlighted the classic elements of a great Burton film: A timeless and emotionally-charged gothic tale, some quirkily strange characters and a twisted take on history.

But as it proceeds to the narrative proper, which suddenly brings Barnabas and an old (and evil) flame in the guise of the beautiful Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), both of whom have lived their mortal lives in the 18th century, into the 1970s, its middle part has somehow begun to dwell on nothing really important or integral to the story at hand. Some pointlessly brief 'blink or you'll miss it' comedic scenes from Depp's character, various beating around the bushes here, some '70s musical references there, and an awkwardly aggressive sex scene. It's as if the film's introduction and climax (specifically the last 5 minutes or so) are the only ones that are worthy of Burton while the whole segment in the middle are nothing but bitter-tasting nails that have sealed shut any traces of potential. Well, why bother to feed us frustratingly rusty nails when it could have been more than gracious, umm, cinematic pastries (or any, say, figuratively scrumptious cinematic delicacies. Well this is getting awkward) of some specific kind that "Dark Shadows" could have offered.

Also, what's with the whole fish-canning business rivalry that Barnabas and Angelique have ignited in the 1970s timeline? Maybe it's a thing of faithfulness to the original TV series, maybe it has worked before in the small screens because TV shows have better chances for stretched-out narratives, but for a film that can only tell a story within a limited time frame, it's just so hard to buy.

So, as what the film has suggested, if your cursed ex-darling has suddenly returned within your reach, a man which you have both despised and so passionately loved at the same time, the first thing you are going to offer him is a mutual business concession? Wait, isn't this supposed to be a fine semi-comic film about immortality, blood-drenched vendetta and vampires? And where are the emotions that have supported the film's opening scenes very well?

"Dark Shadows", instead of carrying the cult TV series in its shoulders to bring it into the high heavens of the big screens, has sadly succumbed to a lazy story and deficient character development. Great example: just look at how poorly handled the revelation about Chloe Moretz's character was?

While directing "Dark Shadows", Tim Burton should have retained within his line of thinking that what they're doing is a 2-hour film, not a long-running, 30-minute a week, boob tube show that can certainly afford a bush-beating or two; could have saved the story. But then again, maybe he did, and it's really the screenwriting department that is particularly at fault here.

The performances, however good they are, particularly those by Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer and even Jackie Earle Haley have been rendered quite pointless because of the film's strained storytelling. While Johnny Depp, well, what would you expect? Depp is his typical self here, which is not a bad thing, but perhaps a bit too 'typical' and a bit too 'himself'.

Started up like "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and ended like "Edward Scissorhands", both of which are Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's prime works as creative collaborators, "Dark Shadows" ended up as a cluttered proof of what may appear as an artistic exhaustion on their part as far as actor-director partnerships are concerned. Add up Helena Bonham Carter in the mix and you got a panting little film begging for its creators to have some break.

A Dangerous Method
½

Here in "A Dangerous Method", David Cronenberg dips his fingers into the realm of Analytical Psychology. Directing this film with two of the founders of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, as the chief characters, Cronenberg, one of the most visually audacious filmmakers out there, is surprisingly mellow and at ease with reality here, add to the fact that "A Dangerous Method" is a historical period piece which follows a true story very closely.

But that does not mean that he won't play with some peculiar stuff here. Being a director of this film but at the same time also a keen observer of the entire psychological unraveling wrapped in its very debauched innards, Cronenberg covers various truly unspeakable things in the film but is utterly dignified while doing it as he navigates through every scene with a gentle demeanor. Of course, the fact that Jung and Freud, both blessed with the utter characteristics of the perfect gentleman, are the main players in this film has helped to make the film externally pristine as they walk through the equally elegant backdrops of Vienna and Zurich.

But, as they say, looks can be very deceiving.

With Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud being successfully played by great contemporary actors Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen (who has made his third film now with David Cronenberg) just like two genuine intellectuals wasting their days through the dissections of the human mind, it can be said that the very 'psychiatric' subject matter of the whole film should have stayed where it should have been: in Psychology 101 classes. Though at some points that's particularly agreeable, especially when the film seemingly begins to be too 'lecture-y' in its tone, specifically when Jung and Freud start to talk in a language that is too abstract outside of their field, the film still has managed to be truly riveting at some points.

Some of those said 'points' can be traced back to Sabrina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley who just might have been robbed of an Academy Award nomination, and the brief but penetrating presence of Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel who has now made his second film with Cronenberg following "Eastern Promises".

Sabina, a hysterical young woman aspiring to be a psychoanalyst who's under the analytic care of Carl Jung, may initially look as if she's a lost cause, but knowing how she became a professional child psychologist after the events in this film while also changing the lives and the very field of both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, the more that her utterances in this film increasingly become more and more fascinating as it goes.

While Otto Gross, the man responsible for goading Carl Jung's little 'experimentation' with the darker possibilities of sexual exploration via the deprived Sabina, is Jung's patient who believes that the thing we call 'maturity' is what he calls a mere 'parameter' that hinders people to achieve complete sexual fulfillment, among others.

Jung, initially introduced by the film as a seemingly stern man made almost invulnerable by the flaws of the mind, is surprisingly easily persuaded to try out Gross' view of sexuality. Cassel, a great French actor tailor-made for these kinds of edgy roles, is effortless as the subtly manipulative and magnetic Otto Gross as he delivers, in semi-cryptic utterances, his very own sets of sexual beliefs while greatly highlighting a tone of 'if you don't want to listen to me, it's okay' passivity.

Throughout the film, I can't really say if Fassbender and Mortensen, as great as they are as individual actors, both have made a truly cohesive chemistry in the film. Sure, their presences alone made this film worth the watch, but there's an underlying flaw that runs through the film's veins that speaks of forced character dynamics. Though some scenes between them gives the film its needed tension, especially in the scenes when they both exchange scathing yet formal letters as their professional and personal relationship dwindles into oblivion because of contradicting ideas and a terrible secret, I would have preferred if the film has been a bit longer. In that way, I believe the film could have developed the relationships better and also would have given way for more thematic exposition.

"Only the clash of destructive forces can create something new". At the time quite a revolutionary insight, Sabina, with those words, might have just also prophesized Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud's relationship. Cronenberg, now more than ever playing with words both conversational and philosophical in nature, has managed to throw into the air various intriguing ideas but was quite unsure of what he wants to do with all of it.

But in the end, I believe that the whole film, although it has dwelled within the deterioration of Jung and Freud's closeness both as a mentor to an heir and as a friend to a friend, comes down more strictly as Carl Jung's story viewed from the perspective of the grim reaper looking at the aftermath of a man who may have stumbled upon a great intellectual discovery but is internally destroyed by uncontrollable impulses and made weak by guilt as he drifts away in silently fractured contemplation, burdened by the visions of the apocalypse; of thousands of corpses bathing in the blood of Europe; of the First World War.

Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2(2010)

With the anticipation that surrounds the film as to whether or not it can live up to its predecessor and if it can really give 'War Machine' enough on-screen justice, "Iron Man 2" is a film full of pressures both as a sequel and as a build-up for a far greater thing: "The Avengers" (which is, as we all know, indeed great). Writing this review and knowing that the said ensemble superhero film is now considered as arguably the best superhero film ever made, the more I consider "Iron Man 2" as a mere front act to the real, larger-than-life Supershow. But then again, that does not mean that this film should be now rendered as entirely irrelevant; 'immensely flawed' may be the better description.

With Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux going semi-contemplative with Tony Stark's mortality for the better part of the film while at the same time being able to pull out a worthy (and more vengeful) enough villain from the deeper comic book pages to stand up against Stark and his 'world peace-privatizing' iron suit, "Iron Man 2" worked as a medium to channel Stark's true emotions and his response if faced by the idea of death and vendetta. Of course, being a sequel, it means that it will be less about seminal characterizations and more about how Tony Stark's character would be able to pull through for another film; trickier, really.

Now fully highlighting Stark's extravagant life and his brush with mortality, "Iron Man 2" should have been a film about emotions. While it may not be in the same emotional proportions like that of Batman's revisionist character arc, the film should have gone for something that is more existential in tone. "Existential?" You may ask. "Why fit in some heavy philosophical nonsense in a film built for nothing more than the usual thrills and entertainment?" You may follow-up. In all fairness, I've seen what the film has done, and that is to turn Tony, while in the process of finding a new element to combat the poisonous substance that the very technology that keeps him alive has been inflicting to his heart, into a self-destructive drunkard that recklessly goes his way through (what he believes), potentially, the final days of his life.

Yes, indeed that's what "Iron Man 2" has been quite successful in handling. But instead of giving us a more emotionally vulnerable hero that we can be able to care for more save for some of the disposable laughs, they gave us scenes where Tony Stark comes out as a total dickwad and not as a man suffering from mortal anxiety. Robert Downey Jr., as what he has always been, is very effortless as Tony, with the fast talks, verbal quips and all, but there's something in his Tony Stark now that is lacking. "Iron Man 2", evidently yearning for some emotional dimensions on Stark's part, may have written one funny sequence too much that is has made the film more of a transitional sequel rather than a follow-up that should have been more concrete in its emotional depth.

In terms of the cast, I really have no complaints regarding Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as Lt. Rhodes, but there's something in Cheadle's eyes that tells me that he, playing Stark's best pal, does not want to be in it at all. While Scarlett Johansson, playing Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow here, is there to serve as nothing but a prelude to his infinitely more integral role in "The Avengers". Gwyneth Paltrow is entertaining enough in the role of Pepper Potts and Sam Rockwell is, with all the superficial swagger and awkward flamboyance that he has successfully infused into the character, perfect as Justin Hammer, Tony Stark's incompetent business rival. Samuel L. Jackson, on the other hand, is surprisingly a bit too ghetto as Nick Fury that I can't help but think of another infinitely more 'double-daring' afro (please tell me that you get the reference) character in place of his eye-patched one here, specifically in the scene inside a diner, where I just can't help but imaginatively replace RDJ with a long-haired John Travolta.

But then there's Mickey Rourke, who was able to convey the silent intensity necessary as the revenge-seeking Ivan Vanko/Whiplash that Tony Stark's character should have provided in the first place (I think the writing is the one that's at fault here, not RDJ's performance). Rourke has given, what I think, the second best performance in the film (first being Sam Rockwell's) and, if the Academy Awards have awarded him the Best Actor for "The Wrestler" instead of Sean Penn in 2009, could have started an 'Oscars' trend for the "Iron Man" franchise here.

"Iron Man" featured Jeff "The Dude" Bridges as the villainous Obadiah Stane, who won his first Best Actor Oscar playing a lost, worn-out soul bent on redemption in "Crazy Heart". And now, "Iron Man 2" featured Mickey Rourke, who has been nominated and should have won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing a lost, worn-out soul bent on redemption in "The Wrestler". Struggling to finish this review, I have instead arrived at that 'Rourke should have won the Oscar' sentiment yet again after all these years. It's a pity that I'm yet to be at peace with that. But then, coming back to the real film at hand here, it's also a pity that "Iron Man 2" came out as a bit forgettable, came up short with its true emotional potential and is even lesser in its action sequences compared to the first film. The climactic set piece is cool, though.

Marvel's The Avengers
½

At last, the unbearable anticipation is finally over. "The Avengers" has finally reached countless theaters and boy how successful it has been in terms of how it has delivered both stylistically and substantially, thanks to director Joss Whedon and company who have never repeated the same mistakes committed over and over again by those mediocre superhero/comic book films in the past.

Now, I wouldn't really delve on the breath-taking, action-packed set pieces because we all know what a stacked film, superhero-wise, such as this one can bring to the table. Instead, I would deservedly commend how a film of such magnitude, under constant pressure (mainly from fanboys and critics), specifically on whether or not it can bring these larger-than-life superheroes together within the premises of a 2 and a half hour film without being overbearing, contrived and deficient in characterization, was able to solve potential cinematic problems by applying patience in its narrative, constant energy to its main characters and fun in its immediate atmosphere.

Surprisingly, Samuel L, Jackson (playing Nick Fury), who has never looked so damn slick and composed in the face of certain peril since he's had it with those slithering titular creatures in the cult hit "Snakes on a Plane", isn't the only producer of energetic abundance here. Although at times he may sound more like a royally pissed off Jules Winnfield than a legitimately enigmatic leader of an equally mysterious group, he was able to carry the film in certain moments without overusing the film's humor nor squeezing dry the film's supply of campy one-liners. At times, he's even the most serious of the bunch, but for good measure, because it has given the other main actors their time for some comic horse plays other than Robert Downey Jr. of course, whose knack for such is already given.

The cast, led by Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo (a rookie to the whole 'Avengers' project), with the addition of Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Tom Hiddleston, who has been very good in his Loki character, never succumbed to the quasi-legendary presence of Sam Jackson and to a certain extent Downey Jr.'s and was just as impressive on how they have balanced each other on all aspects, be it the action sequences, the conversational moments or even those random in-betweens.

But of course, this can be laudably traced back to the film's very screenplay itself, written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, which has properly built up the titular superhero group's chemistry on screen. So, after all, "The Avengers'" success, although how mind-bogglingly large and explosive (and expansive and expensive) the film's scale is, can be summarized in one simple yet very apt word: patience.

For the more jaded viewers, this patience on the whole project can be seen as nothing but a largely profitable scheme that has milked the whole Marvel lore by individualizing the superheroes through the production of their respective films (which are, in all fairness, quality ones) and then finally putting them all in one movie to create the ultimate money machine.

Well, if that's the case, I can live with that because if a film of such overwhelming scale can be pulled off in such a highly satisfying and entertaining fashion the way "The Avengers" had without making its audience feel that their money has gone to undeserved corporate pockets, then people will keep watching, and enthusiastically at that.

For once, it's even us who are truly indebted to a film like "The Avengers" because it has taken within its shoulders the mountainous task of actually realizing a 'wet dream' of an idea and being successful at it. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk; who would not watch a film of such escapist promise?

The audience knew it, the film and all that were involved are aware of it. The viewers have been let down many times before and we have seen the disappointing results. The rushed action consciousness of "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", the lazy mishmash of villains in Joel Schumacher's "Batman" installments and the 'biting more than I can chew' mentality of "Spider-Man 3". "The Avengers" has heeded the unlearned lessons of those aforementioned superhero films and has absorbed them as cautionary measures.

Dwelling more on how Captain America and company would gel as characters and, later on, as a team in a genre-merging (science fiction, fantasy and action) cinematic whole, this has been proved very fruitful because it has given the film enough grounds for character dynamics mainly due to the film's fairly strong screenplay, which has utilized dialogues that may not be particularly believable (it's still a comic book film, after all) in some ways but nevertheless ones that have properly ( and even emotionally) advanced the story without resorting to much cheese.

Though the film is not exempted from those notoriously contrived moments that were inserted just for the sake of collective laughter in theaters, they were surprisingly passable and does not distract from the film's more dominant tone of action seriousness and also does not make the film an unintentional CGI-laden slapstick.

In my "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" review, I've written that despite of the film's countless flaws, it still has set the bar high for climactic CGI action set pieces. Admittedly, "The Avengers" has never surpassed it in terms of its indulgent length, but for good reason.

Though "The Avengers'" climactic battle in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, New York is a bit generic in its overall look and execution, it still satisfies because instead of bombarding us with non-stop, pedal to the metal action that may result to nausea and overly tired eyes, the film's final action sequence has been, although it is still destructively exhausting like most CGI films, compact and to the point, with enough breathing spaces and even an awe-inspiring continuous shot of the whole climactic carnage (arguably the film's definitive moment) to put it in a relatively sober perspective.

So now, we have finally reached a final, most crucial query: How does "The Avengers" rank in the list of greatest superhero films ever made? Well, in terms of an almost orgasmic abundance of superhero presence and the film's balanced approach to characterization, action and fun, the film may very well rank among the best. But is it really the eager representative of the whole comic book genre? I really can't say, but the whole "Avengers" project, from the very first "Iron Man" installment up to this very film, has been rather successful and is, collectively, one of (if not) the best the genre has to offer, both commercially and critically. But then again, there's always Christopher Nolan who may beg to differ.

My Week with Marilyn
½

"My Week with Marilyn" is a textbook example of great performances trapped within the confines of an 'okay' movie. The film, mainly about the tension between Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier during the making of "The Prince and the Showgirl" and also about her brief (though harmless) liaison with an employee working on the said production named Colin Clark (whose memoirs this film has been based), lacks in storytelling urgency and may have been too mundanely directed (by Simon Curtis) that it has resulted on it being less fascinating than it should have actually been mainly because of the fact that it has relied more to its actors' strong performances (which, in ratio, is not particularly healthy for a film that seeks balance), specifically Michelle Williams' and Kenneth Branagh's, rather than the substance of the very material itself.

Not turning their roles into complete caricatures nor try-hard impersonations, both Michelle Williams, who deservedly got an Oscar nod for her incredibly vulnerable portrayal of cinema's greatest sex icon that is Marilyn Monroe, and Kenneth Branagh, who played the legendary film and theater actor Laurence Olivier, stayed true to what the film is humbly all about and did not act beyond the stature of the very topic itself.

"My Week with Marilyn", though it features movie icons (include Vivien Leigh there, played by Julia Ormond) in a light that bared their all too human side, is not really about their lives but more about the nuances of their fame. Hell, the film is not even mainly and solely about Marilyn Monroe either. Instead, the film shows the exploits of Colin Clark (well-played by Eddie Redmayne) when he worked as an employee in Laurence Olivier's production company and his subsequently unforgettable 'week' with Marilyn Monroe herself that is self-affirming yet heart-breaking and worth forgetting.

The said production outfit, at the time preparing for a film called "The Sleeping Prince" (later renamed as "The Prince and the Showgirl") starring Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, is a dream come true for Colin, who grew up constantly watching motion pictures with utmost delight. The film's production then started, and so is Colin's fueled enthusiasm as he navigates through dressing rooms and movie sets with starry-eyed curiosity and as if functioning on a trance. He indeed enjoys what he's doing so as far as existential clichés are concerned, he finally found the place where he truly belongs. But for Marilyn, in contrast with Colin's workplace 'high', seems to sleepwalk through the production, with her heart struggling to find the essence of her showgirl character, her emotions a mess, and her mind a confused car-wreck. As a result, shoots are delayed, casts are frustrated and Laurence Olivier (who's also the picture's director) surely is infuriated.

Branagh, playing Olivier in one of the most perfectly cast roles in quite a long while, which is an understatement, really, because the inevitability of him crossing paths with Olivier one way or another is but given (both Shakespeare graduates, on stage and film), seems to channel him in a way that is humorous, melancholic and on-the-edge all at the same time; indeed an aspect in his Olivier characterization that he has purely derived from his very own acting energy and his inclination in combining overwhelming emotions with quasi-theatrical gestures.

Michelle Williams, on the other hand, has fully erased all skeptical notions towards whether or not she can do justice to the Marilyn Monroe role. Once, I've even read many posts in an internet forum repeatedly stating that she was terribly miscast in the part and the likes of Scarlett Johansson, who's appropriately buxom just like Monroe, should have played her instead.

Well, to begin with, I beg to differ with that alternative choice. If by chance Monroe has been played by Johansson instead, who's a modern sex icon in her own right, it will probably distract from Monroe's almost mythical screen presence (As a result of countless comparisons between the two that may also conjure up futile arguments) which will ultimately ruin the film's very impact.

So Michelle Williams, although armed with the proper acting credentials (with her great, Oscar-nominated performance in "Blue Valentine" the previous year), still has insurmountable odds working against her. But still, she has succeeded with what she's tasked to do, which is indeed a very tall one, to say the least. Mixing seductive playfulness that has always been a Monroe trademark with the illicit sadness commonly identified with larger-than-life movie stars, Williams, in a rather stellar effort that has certainly paid off in a very exemplary way, has finely portrayed Marilyn Monroe both as a movie star and as a conflicted young woman (though I think she has succeeded with the latter more) lost in a haze of bright lights and disheveled by the burden of fame.

All in all, I have to say that "My Week with Marilyn" is a fairly forgettable venture towards a potentially otherwise territory. But with the help of the performances (with Dame Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper and even Emma Watson providing additional attractions) and the film's conscious commentary regarding the sad and empty lives that many famous people pitifully lead once the novelty of fame finally wears off, the film has been at least particularly memorable. But still, I felt that it all just came and go, with only the portrayals being the ones able enough to leave a relatively enduring mark.

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music
½

"3 days of peace and music". This has been the phrase that has been most associated with the monumental music event that is "Woodstock". But this documentary film itself, aside from being able to highlight just that in an epic (it runs for a staggering 3 hours and 50 minutes) and almost hypnotic kind of way, is a definitive benchmark in documentary filmmaking.

Today, it can be particularly debated that what happened in "Woodstock" is but a niche manifestation of an obscure state of mind not representative of what America really was at the time. There's also some who may argue that the far out, violence-free miracle that has occurred at that vast dairy farm at Bethel, New York is merely a temporary illusion of transcendental happiness completely demystified by what happened at Altamont Speedway (see "Gimme Shelter") when the Rolling Stones held a free concert there less than four months later; a tragically sobering event (one homicide and 3 other deaths) that is commonly regarded as the "Anti-Woodstock".

But still, after more than 40 years since the figurative birth of this 'hippie' counterculture generation at this legendary music festival, "Woodstock" the documentary is truly potent and also often times genuinely powerful and moving in its truly flawless documentation of both a fragment of social history and a particular highlight not just of pot-induced rock and roll but the unparalleled sway of music in general.

Director Michael Wadleigh, supported in editing and directing by the likes of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese (both were then-unknown), who painstakingly covered the whole festival with an unbounded passion and goal to cinematically present and capture "Woodstock" not simply as one of those rock concert documentaries that usually come and go but as a simulated experience of what it could have been to walk through mud and smoke some weed at the time, has pulled off the nearly impossible by way of how he has put this massive Aquarian assemblage into a cohesive cinematic whole without sacrificing the minute details of almost everything that has happened there. So, although "Woodstock" the documentary is a solidly realistic time capsule of a film that has finely preserved the era itself, it has also transformed, after all these years, into a timeless film that is as much a thing of envy for free willing, flower-minded folks today as much as it is a perfectly documented curiosity piece for present social scientists.

But aside from being limited into what it merely is (a documentary film), what this documentary can be specifically proud of aside from the very content itself is its utter display of great cinematography and skillful editing. Jumping back and forth between simple interview footages and complex multi-image coverage of every musical performances ranging from that of Richie Havens' to that of Janis Joplin's and Jimi Hendrix's (all spine-chillingly great performances, mind you) that seemingly converge in a trance-inducing visual feast, the film, as it progresses, slowly changes form from being your usual documentary feature into a full-fledged experience; from your usual cinematic collage into a kaleidoscopic wonderland.

As equally fascinating as the musical performances themselves are the slices of existence during the 3-day event that were finely captured by Wadleigh and company's ever-observant lenses with poignant subtlety, which is what makes it a documentary film that is on the league of its own. Just like the great "Gimme Shelter", "Woodstock" is also devoid of any post-production voice-overs or narrations that may simply render the whole film as thematically contrived and emotionally artificial. Instead, the film lets the whole event and all the people speak for themselves in a quasi-surrealistic presentation of images and music that has been masterfully put together to create a potent statement on its own with little to no spoken words.

Commonly branded as the definitive rock concert documentary, I think it's much more than that. For many people including myself, "Woodstock" is not just a simple music festival. Boundless in its audacity and rich in love, it is a cultural revolution that has thankfully found its place in the annals of socio-cultural history, much the same way as how this film has deservedly found where it truly belongs: in the shortlist of the most important documentary films ever made.

Hugo
Hugo(2011)
½

Well, I can really say that 2011 has really been a great year for cinematic love poems. We have "The Artist", which pays tribute to the seminal greatness of silent films, and then we also have Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris", a film that has not only been an endearing piece about the eponymous city itself but also one that embraces the people behind great works of art and timeless literature. And finally, there's Martin Scorsese's "Hugo".

A film that centers on the beautiful power of imagination and the innocent wonder of early cinema, it is, overall, a piece of cinematic work that has truly breath fresh air into the boundless limits of storytelling and has also been a larger-than-life portrait/tribute to the great Georges Melies: a revolutionary director and the first true cinematic artist to whom we owe our wondrous film-watching lives and whose pioneering works have contributed to the advancement of cinema as a strong artistic medium.

Martin Scorsese, a man who I have been and will always consider as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and a man who we all loved by way of his films that deal with violence, loneliness, criminal perversions and even thematic controversies (with his truly masterful "The Last Temptation of Christ"), directed "Hugo" with surprising humility and simplicity without any traces of recklessly self-imposed panache. Sure, there have been countless elements in the film which may come across as truly audacious (the most glaring example being the automaton), but come on, "Hugo", a film adaptation of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" written by Brian Selznick, is in no way up for something grounded in reality here.

Combining magical realism with the ironically down-to-earth story of Mr. Melies himself, "Hugo" is a balanced film which, in a very good way, wallows on 'adventure' that isn't literal in the Jules Verne sense of the word but more about the journey of the mind and the heart towards a hidden treasure chest not filled with tangible gold and pearls but one that is located somewhere within the very passionate soul of a truly great man.

Armed with visual sensibilities that closely mirror Tim Burton's recent child-friendly films, Martin Scorsese, furthered by that comparison may, on an initial glance, look out of place and sync with what he's working on, which is an adventure film that appeals to both the adults and the younger ones alike; a truly far-fetched idea considering that he really hasn't worked with the latter demographic before.

But looking at how "Hugo" actually turned out as a whole, right there and then surfaces the fact that he is indeed an unbelievably flexible filmmaker whose greatness cannot just be contained within the crime genre. As I watch the film, the joy of making it is evidently abundant in "Hugo's" very atmosphere which when coupled with the transcendental-sounding musical score created by Howard Shore, is a feast both for the eyes, the ears and, as corny as this may sound, the heart.

The actors do not disappoint either, and although Asa Butterfield may have done a bit better as the titular character, he has been quite a joy to watch in his convincing chemistry with Chloe Grace Moretz in a very sweet and 'harmless' (Remember "Kick-Ass"?) performance. Along with the enjoyably bit parts played by the legendary Christopher Lee and Jude Law and the comic part played by Sacha Baron Cohen as the train station inspector, it was Ben Kingsley's performance (which I believe should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award) as Georges Melies that has served as the figurative coal that has constantly kept the film's narrative locomotion on the right track.

Martin Scorsese, aside from being repeatedly heralded as one of the best filmmakers ever, is also one of the most passionate and vocal lovers of cinema out there. And here in "Hugo", he has expressively created a near-perfect cinematic love letter to the very medium itself that was initially seen as nothing but a passing fad (a statement ironically given by the Lumiere Brothers themselves), but now generally regarded as one of the most powerful means of expression, if not the most. And it all started with a trip to an all-smiling moon courtesy of a man motivated by endless wonder and fueled by nothing but his own dreams.

The Artist
The Artist(2011)

"The Artist", with its fascinating charm, wit and wonderful emotions that have served its entirety well in its ode to the beauty of silent filmmaking, is pretty much a throwback to the olden times which may not have offered anything very new to the table but is simply just irresistible in its irrevocably tantalizing, lighthearted allure.

If you may come to look at it in its actual themes and content, one can easily see that "The Artist", directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is nothing really special in terms of what it has to say. Are we talking about 20's silent film nostalgia here? Well, I reckon that it has already been tackled in the same outright fashion by Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain". Are we talking about the post-fame and fortune lives of silent film stars as the dawn of 'talkies' came about? I guess Gene Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." is the definitive film to highlight that.

So what, in the end, made "The Artist" so special? I, for one, think that one of the reasons why is because of its utter innocence and lack of pretense and well, maybe because its ode to a bygone yet golden era is just too hard to ignore and all too easy to appreciate and embrace, thanks to star-making performances by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. Dujardin, an actor that is completely unfamiliar to me except for this very film, oozes with effortless grace, appeal and dramatic range. Armed with finely studied physical movements that finely evokes the awkward, oratorical-like gestures that has been the trademark of so many silent films, while at the same time embodying a look that seemingly combines a traditional silent player's to those of Gable and Grant (ironically two of the most well-known faces of the golden era of talkies), Dujardin took on the role of George Valentin as if he was born to play it or, in a more 'art imitates life' perspective, born to be him.

Same commendation goes for Berenice Bejo, who played the role of bit silent player turned talkie movie star Peppy Miller with an almost magical enthusiasm peppered with just the right amount of romantic fervor.

On the technical side, "The Artist" was able to mimic the beautiful Black and White shadow plays of such masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang while injecting within this two-tone world a sort of colorfully dimensioned wonder hidden beneath every frames, acts, and characters waiting to inevitably burst into an escapist whole. Of course, for a film like "The Artist", there must be a considerably weighty conflict to complement the lightheartedness of the whole affair.

In "Singin' in the Rain", there's Gene Kelly and company's transitional difficulties from silent films to talkies. In "Sunset Blvd.", there's Gloria Swanson's madness to keep up with. Here in "The Artist", although it took me a while to convince myself that it's indeed strong enough a device for narrative complication, it was George Valentin's pride. Yes, the melancholy contained in the said cinematic transition has been a wonderful topic to explore and further develop in films, but what is always overlooked is the fact that silent players are adamant of change not mainly because they are technologically caught off-guard by the sudden arrival of dialogues but because they are mostly a proud lot. They stay loyal to their belief that moving pictures are an art form that need not any talking mouths or swirling tongues because, for them, gestures and musical scores are enough. This is the main concern for George Valentin, along with his declining finances and his flop "Tears of Love" picture.

Subtle as it may seem, "The Artist" is, on its own, a sentimentally outdated commentary that challenges the longevity and artistic integrity of voices in films and whether or not it can keep up with the already established wonder of silent pictures. But more than anything else, "The Artist" is a wonderfully-weaved little love story that bridges the artistic gap between sounds and mere gestures, dialogues and title cards.

And within the film's great silence accompanied only by orchestral musical scores, it's quite evident that, in all the film's joy, laughter and tears, it has more to say, romantically and whatnot, than any other love-oriented films these days. "The Artist", instead of being an untimely elegy to the art of silent films in the same fashion of how Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" may be to Western films, has breathe uncommon life into washed-out cinematic memories of a bygone era and has turned them into sounds, images and emotions that are as lively as they can be and are worth treasuring and relishing one more time, 'with pleasure'.

Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge)

With its beautifully multi-layered drama and its great sense of closure, "Three Colors: Red" is quite easily the best film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy. It stars the beautiful Irene Jacob as Valentine, an easy-going fashion model, and Jean-Louis Trintignant ("The Conformist") as an enigmatic retired judge who eavesdrops on his neighbors' private lives by way of wire-tapping their telephones and successively playing them in his speakers as if a series of radio shows. Although the relationship between Valentine and the judge is peppered with psychosexual tension, which my more cynical mind, to a certain extent, reminds me a lot of the relationship between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, the film, albeit the enveloping intrigue and mystery that surrounds the whole film's premise, is a hopeful exercise in love and human warmth.

Out of the three films, I think that "Three Colors: Red" is the most immediately relatable but at the same time also the most cryptic (the questionable actions of the retired judge). We can relate with the adventurous Valentine because, unconsciously, we are also her because by any chance our car may ran over a dog and find out that the wounded animal has a name tag with an address in it, we will immediately return it to the owner, which in this case is the judge. This is how Valentine and the mysterious judge met, therefore forming a bond forged out of curiosity and developed out of the immediacy of human connection.

For some filmmakers, with this kind of characters, a twenty-something girl and a sixty-something man, it's enough grounds to create a relatively pretentious romance. But Kieslowski, himself about to reach sixty years of existence himself (which he never did when he suddenly died in 1996) by the time this film, his last one, was released, knows better by instead playing this type of character relationship with dramatic assurance, wisdom and lots of heart. Of course, it's not without a hint of tragedy and a sense of isolation, which both "Three Colors: Blue" and "Three Colors: White" has finely established in different perspectives.

But aside from this filmic relationship, Kieslowski also has something much trickier to pull off: how to coherently tie up the three films while also giving his current characters enough breathing space to wrap up their own situation.

On one side, we have the budding emotional involvement between Valentine and the privacy-invading judge. On the other, there's also a young judge named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), whose life, in many ways, closely mirrors that of the judge's and who's currently involved in a run-of-the-mill romance with a personal weather reporter.

At surface viewing, "Three Colors: Red" may look like your typical film by way of how it tackles love and existence at different viewpoints, sometimes in bliss, sometimes in pain. But Kieslowski has created his characters to fit an urgent inevitability to unconsciously interconnect. In this idea of intertwining of fates, Kieslowski has already gave us a tease by mistakenly letting Julie (from "Three Colors: Blue") enter the courtroom where the divorce trial between Karol and Dominique is taking place in the beginning of "Three Colors: White". There's also the hunched old lady (who appeared in all three films) immersed in a mundane difficulty: The camera and the characters always catch her laboriously trying to put an empty bottle inside a trash bin; a prominent figure in the whole trilogy that has been, in a way, the barometer of the protagonists' characters. (Julie merely looked at her in puzzled sadness while Karol minutely smirked at her predicament. Only Valentine has the basic courtesy to help her put the bottle in the bin).

In this film, it has truly, as they say, come in full circle.

But not in the way how a generic ensemble film may. Sure, the film may have discoursed about the general outlook of love by way of those two (bliss and pain) extremes, but the film is a minuscule observation of love and life at the same time as it is a far-reaching, 'what if' meditation on time . In the end, "Three Colors: Red" relies on the singular choices and plans of its characters instead of giving the responsibility to an invisibly omniscient hand to move the likes of Valentine and the judge as if indifferent chess pieces. And for that, the film was uniquely pragmatic.

After 'liberty' and 'equality' were tackled through individualistic perspectives by way of Julie and Karol in the two previous films, "Three Colors: Red" was able to brilliantly put these stories, stories of people striving through all too human flaws, in a holistic harmony even in the midst of a tragedy. This may very well be the significance of 'fraternity' in the whole film, but "Three Colors: Red" is also quite aware of another infinitely more transcendent thing: destiny. Again, with its fascinating visionary depth and articulate human drama, "Three Colors: Red" is the best film in the trilogy, and is also a fitting swan song for Krzysztof Kieslowski, who sadly passed away far too soon.

Three Colors: White (Trois Couleurs: Blanc)

A slight departure from "Three Colors: Blue's" transcendent and melancholic tone, Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors: White", representing the middle color in the French flag which symbolizes the virtue of equality, is humorous in its study of sexual weakness and subsequent redemption. The film opens with a trial scene involving Karol Karol (Zbiegniew Zabachowski), a hairdresser who has, ever since his marriage with his wife Dominque (Julie Delpy), failed to sexually consummate their love.

With his numerous insecurities and sexual inferiority plaguing their marriage and also are the things that are responsible for putting him on the pitiful end of a divorce, just like Julie's isolation in "Three Colors: Blue", he has withdrawn himself from the main stream of existence. But this time, this isolation is never a strengthened choice. Pushed into the streets with a frozen bank account and only a large, almost empty suitcase to live with, he is a definitive image not of emotional bravery (unlike Julie) but of defeat.

But as fate permits it, he meets Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), initially a mysterious Polish lad who has soon became his friend. Unlike the previous film which broods about loneliness and repeatedly hints on isolated sadness, our protagonist here in "Three Colors: White" is also a lonely little chap but with a trusted pal. Although of course inserted by Kieslowski more importantly as an initial plot device (this film is, after all, the most plot-reliant of the trilogy), the Mikolaj character slowly transforms from being a hazy character with questionable intents into a surprisingly upbeat light that has been most instrumental for Karol's new lease on life, which is the same equivalent of what Karol is to Mikolaj. And in this friendship that was built in a time of utter tribulation, there's the cause of it all: Dominique.

Julie Delpy, who I have first seen in "Before Sunrise" as the intelligently vibrant and sweet Celine, is unbelievably cold and indifferent as Dominque. At times she even looks and feels like a femme fatale. But Kieslowski, veering away from the shallow dimensions of character stereotypes, treated Dominique not as the aggravator of the situation but also as a victim of circumstances. Just like every wife, Dominique only wants sexual and emotional fulfillment in her marriage. But Karol, ever the shy sexual weakling, never properly took on the role of an accommodating husband.

From what I've noticed, "Three Colors: White" was very well-known as a revenge film as much as it is recognized internationally as the only comedy film in the trilogy, albeit a dark one. For many, this certain 'revenge', planned by Karol to give Dominique her deserved comeuppance (the catalyst being the time when he has heard her pleasurably moaning on the phone, presumably while having sex with another man), is the poetic justice that the film is looking for on Karol's part for him to attain the signified 'equality' that the color 'white' is representing. But as I look more into it, the less I give a damn about Karol's so-called vengeance scheme.

Sure, it was, for a moment, very enlightening and emotionally purging for us because we have rooted for Karol in the film's entirety. Yes, we are supposed to, but we're not compelled by Kieslowski to overly do so because he has never overlooked to give dear Dominique her own share of a beating heart.

In the end, as I subconsciously decipher the pure significance of 'equality' in the whole film and as Karol gradually changes from a vulnerable sap into a relatively powerful businessman and a confident male, the more I think that it's not Karol's quest for revenge that is the real point of the film in terms of aligning itself with the color white's 'equality' symbolism but more significantly about how Dominique, being a good wife and all (the film shows how genuinely happy she is during their wedding), gets what she deserves: a Karol who's sure of himself, is sexually assertive, and knows what he wants.

In a way, I even think that when Dominique finally found out about Karol's vengeful scheme, sure she was shocked, but she's also silently elated. With the way how her husband has handled and cleverly played the situation to manipulate the situation to his advantage and set it against her, she has realized ever so unconsciously that Karol, at that very moment, has finally become a man, the one that she's waiting to love. This therefore creates equality between the ever- loving feminine (Dominique) and the now transformed masculine (Karol), making their marriage worth all the emotional pitfalls, the agony of sexual misgivings, and the pain of relational apathy.

So surprisingly, "Three Colors: White" is not just a one-sided tale of revenge but is also an exploration of the essential role masculinity plays in strengthening a marriage. Absurdist as the film may sometimes seems to be, Kieslowski still has offered a fresh take on the thorns and roses that populates not just the spacious boundaries of love, but also the bumbling and stumbling confines of life.

Fargo
Fargo(1996)

"This is a true story".

That is the opening statement here in "Fargo" which, more or less, automatically connotes the utter seriousness of the film's noir-like predicament. With seedy criminals like Steve Buscemi's funny-looking Carl Showalter and Peter Stormare's psychotic Gaear Grimsrud initially populating the screen with their presence, and with William H. Macy's Oscar-worthy performance as the awkward car dealer/equally awkward kidnap mastermind Jerry Lundegaard making the film more fascinating to watch, it's easy to foresee the unfathomable consequences that their weird chemistry and premeditated kidnap scheme would bring about.

And with that penetrating, albeit untrue claim, it is but common for the film to depict a criminal situation with diabolic relentlessness. But Joel and Ethan Coen, even though how limiting the film's genre and premise may be, are just too darn versatile, brilliantly sardonic and oddly comic to be hindered by limitations.

As a result, not only did we get a well-executed, wildly comic crime film, but, more significantly, also an unstoppable cinematic tour-de-force that wallows in cinematic perfection, be it in terms of characterization, the desperate plot or the finely photographed (by Roger Deakins) titular setting itself.

But if there's one reason that separates "Fargo" from other films, it surely is its peculiarly rhythmic dialogue. Delivered in all its integrity by the cast, especially by Frances Mcdormand as the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson in what may be the most wisely chosen of all Oscar Best Actress winners, "Fargo's" tongue-in-cheek screenplay gives it an otherworldly comic feel with an originality that makes its own stand even when compared to Tarantino's uniquely trivial dialogues that has been an alternative staple for the crime genre ever since "Pulp Fiction" altered the stream of popular cinematic culture.

The film's story, told in a narrative that mixes violence, laughs and pity, involves Jerry Lundegaard, a car dealer that is waist-deep into money-related problems, and his plan to kidnap his own wife (by hiring the aforementioned criminal duo above) so he can 'monkey business' his way into collecting a million dollar ransom, which his filthy rich father-in-law (played by Harve Presnell) would pay.

But then the Coens couldn't just allow themselves to give us a smarter, calmer and cooler Jerry or a more organized and systematic Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud either because if that's the case, as common sense would always say, there won't be enough grounds for a film. Instead, they gave us a Jerry in the form of the great William H. Macy that is superficially smart, ostensibly calm and just a tad bit cooler than a panicky little rat who's merely dragging his own hide out of an unexpectedly nightmarish situation that he himself has created.

Shrouded in criminality and founded in frustration, "Fargo" is a double-sided film much like the Coens' later adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men". On one side, "Fargo" is an individualistic tale of a cornered man nearing himself into financial crumble and unnoticeable isolation who just happened to have formulated a perverse idea as his last resort. On the other, it's your common police procedural with a not so common police chief on the bloody trails of Showalter and Grimsrud, both of which are not really the smoothest of low-lives

If Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell in the Coens' later "No Country for Old Men" displays the elegiac sentiments of a geriatric policeman who witnesses the Texan landscapes' criminal evolution with melancholic eyes, Marge Gunderson is a fast-thinking, no non-sense woman that is wholly focused on her work that, despite of the icy entirety of Fargo, always see every day as a beautiful one.

Naturally appealing and sometimes even condescendingly-toned, Frances Mcdormand proved in this film that she is one of the most agile actresses out there while at the same time effortlessly integrating her portrayal of Marge Gunderson into the pantheon of great film heroines. Marge may not be the most immediately memorable but she definitely is the most unique.

As time passes by, as I repeatedly watch "Fargo", my main reason for revisiting the film is becoming less and less about the plot itself but more and more about the characters and the wonderful dialogue.

When their masterful rookie effort "Blood Simple" was released in 1984, Joel and Ethan Coen were hailed as 'fresh' talents representative of the neo-noir world. After "Fargo", it was never the same for them, and they haven't stopped since then. But out of their wonderful body of work, "Fargo", after all of these years, still stands tall as their towering masterwork.

Three Colors: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu)
½

Even though I am clueless regarding Krzysztof Kieslowski's other works before I even laid my eyes on "Three Colors: Blue", and even though how frustratingly misleading the little summary on the back of the DVD really is, I still immensely liked the film. But not in a way how I may like a straightforwardly well-written film.

Deviating from filmic conventions, although it is in fact a very linear film, "Three Colors: Blue" manages to convey the deepest of emotions not much through storytelling but more through calculated camera movements and stunning cinematography (by Slawomir Idziak). And with that, the film has managed to make me appreciate its wholeness in much the same way how a beautifully experimental musical piece may capture a music lover's heart.

With a title that suggests immediate melancholy and visuals that further this emotional atmosphere even more, "Three Colors: Blue" is more of a mood piece than it is an immediate narrative. It is, as it flexes its finely-toned existential muscles, an emotional spectrum subjectively seen through the eyes of a middle-aged woman named Julie, played by Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, who, after being involved in a car accident which claimed the lives of both her husband and child, decided to completely remove herself from the life that she has always cherished and loved.

Starting her aimless goal by selling their house, all the other things in it, and burning the difficult concert piece that her composer husband has written to commemorate the unification of Europe but sadly hasn't finished, Julie rented an apartment in a not-so-affluent part of Paris and started to live her life in utter isolation, save for some slight interactions with other people here and there (with a young prostitute being the most notable).

But even though she wants solitude, there's Olivier (Benoit Regent), a colleague of Julie's husband, who constantly shows his love for Julie but is seemingly contented by the quite sad fact that he can only show it in futile admiration. But despite of that, he is always ready to support her in the midst of her emotional plight and is also eager to finish her late husband's concert piece. For a film (again, back on the DVD's summary fiasco) that has promised utmost 'mystery' and 'seduction', "Blue" is surprisingly warm and affectionate in its romantic notions and never, even for once, stooped down to an extremely sensationalist, 'sex for the sake of it' level.

The film is also quite rich in its visual interpretation of emotional alienation and frustration. With Kieslowski uniquely using sudden fades into black in scenes whenever Julie is met with the difficulty of answering questions that may unveil what she's really feeling at moments, and ingeniously injecting blue-colored objects to enforce the film's recurring color motif, "Three Colors: Blue", as it progresses, patiently develops into a purer form of art house cinema that criss-crosses between realistic human emotions and esoteric overtones.

Form and content, message and execution, these are the most basic requirements for a film to be considered as an artistic whole. For this film, Kieslowski balances both on a very thin wire as if a cerebral circus performer, seemingly experimenting as he paces along, even with one outweighing the other, but nonetheless, a walk that is not without a clear finish.

"Three Colors: Blue", as a whole, surely is a fine piece of foreign cinema that seeks to inform its audience that there's no such thing as a generalized emotional milieu for a certain societal stream. 'Existence is isolation', Kieslowski, in part, may have had in mind as he works with this film, but it can never be denied that he has created the film with a concrete glimmer of hope and a beautiful melody somewhere in his mind.

"Blue", the first chapter of Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, is a very effective drama film about tragedy and artistry. But more evidently, it is an ideal example of how brilliant the art of cinematographic composition, partnered with some achingly beautiful music, can really be when skillfully pushed to absolute perfection.

Primal Fear
Primal Fear(1996)

As much as it is a powerfully fearless courtroom drama, "Primal Fear" is a film better remembered as the shockingly brilliant cinematic debut of Edward Norton. But to limit this film solely for that fact does not do "Primal Fear" justice. True, it was Edward Norton, with his performance that I wouldn't bother to call as one of the great ones in recent memory, who has carried the film from its brutal opening scenes up to the shocking conclusion, but let's not count out Richard Gere. I have to admit that I have not watched a full Richard Gere film prior to "Primal Fear", as I've thought that, based on some snippets that I've seen from some of his works, he's merely playing himself on all of which I've partly seen. And with 'all', I mean two or three films, so they're not much for me to judge.

Nonetheless, Richard Gere is seemingly at his comfort zone playing an arrogant, cocky, scene-stealing hotshot lawyer named Martin Vail that apparently takes cases because he just likes the money and the attention. But with the film judging him worthy to be its hero, Gere convincingly transformed from such a charismatic prick into a silently desperate anti-hero that may or may not care for his client's fate, an altar boy named Aaron Stampler (masterfully played by Edward Norton) who 'allegedly' murdered a prominent Catholic Bishop, but still proceeded to defend him because his instinctive hunch tells him that the boy is innocent.

Meanwhile, on the side of the prosecution, there's Janet Venable, played by Laura Linney with reckless fervor and dry wit, a lawyer who takes on the role of prosecutor in the case more because she wants to keep her job (she's continually being pressured by her boss, John Shaughnessy, portrayed by John Mahoney) and less about unraveling skeletons better locked tight inside a closet. Surprisingly, both Gere and Linney had wonderful chemistry together, as their slightly humorous vibe makes the off-courtroom scenes seem to take on a bit of a comic tone, which personally makes those said scenes easier to watch even with all those barrister jargon being spontaneously thrown in the air.

"Primal Fear", with its initial narrative spark that fully promises a tangled murder story, may be much more deceptive than how you may initially think it would be. With a story (thanks to the source novel by William Diehl) that involves the Catholic Church and some muckraked revelations here and there, the film, with us viewers not knowing what we're really in for, is founded upon an evolving and sharp-edged murder case that may look isolated yet can really be something much more, but then again, can just be the other way around.

With this simple a cyclic narrative flow, "Primal Fear" has been way more effective in conveying complexity through its roundabout revelations and logical beatings around the bush to achieve a certain coherence to support a conclusion that may otherwise be deemed too simple, but one that will ironically make you ponder for hours on end even by the time the credits finally run out and all else are black.

Director Gregory Hoblit, a man whose career surprisingly never took off after this very impressive film, has painted a cinematic Chicago that's like a Gotham City that never was. Modernistic in its immediate towers and skyscrapers, depreciated in its mid-dwelling apartments and almost dystopian in its underbelly, cinematographer Michael Chapman has given Chicago a proper look to accompany the film's tone and also to disassociate and contrast the murdered bishop's posh house with those of the less unfortunate ones.

Whenever one hears the term 'courtroom drama', it's easy to expect some larger-than-life speeches given by the main characters, be it the lawyers themselves or the haplessly accused ones. We've seen Paul Muni's numbing speech in "The Life of Emile Zola", we've witnessed Gregory Peck's "In the name of God, do your duty" monologue as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird", and we've breathlessly beheld the lingual battle between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men".

"Primal Fear's" courtroom scenes, on the other hand, never had any big-time dialogue exchanges or killer monologues. Instead, facts are treated as facts, while short-handed evidence and wrong choices of words equate frustration and seem like nothing more. The film, after all, is truly more focused on what it has to unravel than what it has to say.

To succeed on film at a young age, there are mainly two extremes: it's either you're really, really good at what you do or you just had the looks (sometimes it's even a case of nepotism). Norton, with his brilliant acting chops, stumbled and stuttered his way into cinematic prominence. He surely has taken the hard way. Indeed the path of a true actor.

The Lives of Others

A second viewing.

With Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" being its closest cinematic kin, "The Lives of Others", one of the decade's best films and is also a stunning directorial debut by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is also exceptional in its well-calculated thrills and is touchingly human in its very essence, which more or less separates it from the aforementioned paranoid classic. "The Lives of Others", with its beautiful emotional center that develops and permeates throughout the film, elevates itself from merely being a strongly-acted piece about the iron-fisted times of the German Democratic Republic into a genuinely transcendent piece about the beauty and mystery of human nature.

Set in 1980's East Germany during the times when German socialism is at an all-time high, privacy invasions through surveillances a commonality, and the destruction of the Berlin Wall nothing but an unrealized fantasy. Wiesler, played by the late Ulrich Muhe in a truly underrated performance that I think should be considered as one of the best in the last twenty years or so, is a seemingly cold surveillance expert and Stasi (German secret police) agent with principles that are well-intact, objective methods for investigations that are proven to be effective, and a solitary way of life. For many years, he has been a success in his field, capable of making suspected radicals squeal the names of associates and potential inciters of rebellion against the state confess to whatever they know. But despite of his strengths and an ability to thoroughly dissect, he struggles to connect.

"Stay a little while", says Wiesler as he futilely tries to convince a cheap prostitute to stay with him after they had a stiff sexual intercourse. Ironically, he is a man that technically controls the fate of those he interrogates and wiretaps but can't even guide his own. Here is a man whose existence has been rendered almost meaningless by his work but still oblivious of the fact.

Enter Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright, and Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a stage actress: a couple that has been ordered to be put under surveillance technically because of radical suspicions but is really about Minister Hempf's (Thomas Thieme), a Stasi superior, ulterior intent to personally own Christa-Maria for his own sexual fulfillment.

Wiesler willingly signed up for the former but never for the latter; and to make his situation even more conflicted, Dreyman is slowly turning into the serious GDR critic that he was always suspected to be. And to make it even worse, Wiesler is silently being drawn into the couple's personal world plagued by emotional imperfections and forces they cannot control but nonetheless proved to fit Wiesler's concept of transcendent human connection. Furthermore, it's a world that Wiesler has never experienced before let alone felt. They represent his most hidden of hopes and the very truth of his own being.

But there's one personal challenge for him: He mustn't fly too close to the fire. Should he be the silently harsh Stasi agent that he always was? Or should he be a silent crusader for the sake of what's more righteous and more beautiful, at least for him?

From such a simple character as Wiesler, in a performance by Ulrich Muhe that is brilliantly understated and flawlessly complete, "The Lives of Others" has brilliantly embraced emotional importance and an unconditional faith in humanity more than the usual conundrums of a suspense-filled affair.

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck once mentioned in an interview (and is also mentioned briefly in the film) that he was always fascinated of the fact that Vladimir Lenin, as it was told, can't seem to bring himself into finishing the Russian revolution every time he listens to Beethoven's 'Appasionata', his favorite musical piece of all time.

If the power of art can bring or manipulate people to such momentary departures from who they really are, how powerful can it really be? But is that really the case? What if art and beauty, in fact, brings people closer into what they really are? "The Lives of Others" sided with the potential idea that humans are innately good and that humanity, for whatever it has been all throughout history, always strives for an inner truth. The oblivious Wiesler unconsciously did, and unlike Lenin, his 'Appasionata' never stopped playing.

50/50
50/50(2011)

Echoing its very title, which tells of the survival rate of people suffering from the spinal cancer that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character has contracted in the film, "50/50", at the same breath, equally focuses both on despair and optimism as it pushes its way to highlight the often tackled issue of mortality.

Almost single-handedly carried by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's simple yet very effective performance as the cancer-stricken Adam Lerner, the film, directed by Jonathan Levine and written by Will Reiser (which I found out to be Seth Rogen's real-life friend who was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s), is a bittersweet eye-opener regarding the reality of cancer patients that stare death at its very eyes on an everyday basis, while making the often uttered and always superficially imposed phrase 'live like you're dying' literally a thing of urgency. But what's wonderful with this film is how it has gravely wrapped its narrative around the inescapable reality of being diagnosed with cancer yet never completely succumbed to what's bleak and hopeless.

"50/50", fully advertised as a buddy dramedy of sorts between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, surprisingly does not capitalize on the very mere idea of these two starring in a film. Hell, even the tagline teasingly said so ("It takes a pair to beat the odds"). While both of them had their share of poignant moments together, the film's emotional drive is not concentrated to just both of them but is instead finely rationed among its other characters, namely Adam's mother, played by Anjelica Huston, his rookie therapist, played by Anna Kendrick, and his artist girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

As I'm watching the film, I initially thought that Seth Rogen's character Kyle, Adam's best pal, was integrated into the film merely for some sideshow comedy and nothing more, which entails the fact that maybe, the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen may end up humorously great but dramatically lacking.

But then I realized that having Rogen and his usual improvisational self in the film made him a potent antidote to counter the film's potential brushes with dramatic clichés. Making him all too serious and suddenly turn him all too teary-eyed at Gordon Levitt's pitiful character can be a bit awkward and is a complete departure from what made Seth Rogen popular in the first place. Fitting enough, Rogen's comic performance made the film more naturally dramatic and his character's relationship with the main character Adam feel more genuine.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a truly versatile actor who can play a lovestruck average Joe on one film, transform into a convincingly stern, gravity-defying action hero on another while still skillful enough to turn all psychotic and murderous on the next, embraced subtlety in this film, portraying the different psychological phases of a cancer patient, the various physical pains and the seemingly cold acceptance of the inevitable with a great display of bravery but also of an evident 'Why Me?' frustration.

Although "50/50" centers at the harsh reality of cancer, it has prevented itself to be completely overwhelmed by hodge-podge sentimentalism and preachy utterances about hope and survival that make films of this type all too fleeting. Instead, with this change of tone, it has given the film a cleaner and infinitely more honest emotional atmosphere.

"50/50" is relatively unique in its dramatic and comic effortlessness as it ironically tackles a laborious, life-threatening illness. And while we may all have immediately foreseen the sad inevitability of Adam Lerner's fate, there's still an unconsciously lingering thought, with the film successfully equalizing optimism and the otherwise, that it may just be a boulder-like obstacle that can certainly be endured.

'Keeping up with the battle' or 'dying without a fight'; 'family and faith' or 'to concede and surrender'. "50/50" takes these absolutes and laid it into the open. The film maintains the fact that the act of 'fighting' or 'giving-up' does not just apply to battling cancer, but also to life in general. And that cancer, although it has prematurely claimed countless lives, is not always an end but sometimes just a phase. "50/50" surely holds on to that claim for a reason.

Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko(2001)
½

(Note: It's the Director's Cut that I have seen)

I think it's quite a mistake to brand "Donnie Darko" solely as a horror let alone a thriller film. Sure, the film's prevalent elements suggest that it is, but the film completely transcends both genres to which it's most commonly attributed to. On the other hand, I can't also say that the film is inclined to be a full-fledged drama film either, as its emotional content is often times overshadowed by the film's overwhelmingly menacing visual texture. A film written and directed by Richard Kelly, it's a film that I have fully expected to deliver and also to disturb, but its thematic complexity I haven't seen from a mile away. It's one of those films that you're going to watch for the first time out of curiosity but for the second strictly for cathartic clarity.

"Donnie Darko" is a deceptive film that, in initial impression, asks for nothing but your senses, making you think that it's merely one of those typical psychological thrillers, but then catches you off-guard with its beautiful convolutions and blasts your senses and your bedazzled mind away. It is a difficult watch, mind you folks, but not in the sense of how epic period films are. It's difficult in a way how reading a complex literary gem is: intellectually frustrating, even discouraging in the beginning, but is ultimately rewarding.
Description-wise, it's quite challenging to state what this film is all about in a one paragraph, five-sentence synopsis. But seeing it fit to combine various films to create an impression of what the film might look and feel like for braver souls who may want to give it a go, then this is how I see it. It's like a cross between Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides", with Brian De Palma's "Carrie" and even Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" dually sneaking somewhere in a dark corner to provide the dream-like scares. That and some heavy-handed concepts of time travel.

Set in an 80's American suburbia, it's a bit of a stretch for the film to have etched some fantastical science deeply into itself. But with what I've said earlier, seeing that the film's true motive, at least from how I see it, is to give its characters dramatic pay-offs that are wholly unique (producing a sense of emotional catharsis out of the idea of portals and vortexes) in terms of how they were built up more than to depict an adolescent schizoid's mad internal world, it has nonetheless made the film's distinct mood shifts and tonal overlaps seem justified.

Jake Gyllenhaal, now a very fine actor of considerable fame, can be proud to call "Donnie Darko" as his great coming-out party, but the same can also be said regarding how Richard Kelly and company felt about Gyllenhaal's performance. Seething with deranged half-smiles and enigmatic behavioral patterns, it can easily be surmised that his Donnie Darko, a teenager with distorted visions of an impending oblivion and an evil-looking, six-foot tall rabbit, is one murderous freak. But on the other hand, with his acting talents winded to the fullest, Gyllenhaal was also able to merge those with childish tenderness and youthful naivete. With that, what came out is a character that may externally be judged upon as a doomed nightmare incarnate but is, after all, still entirely human.

One may regularly see people dressed as Donnie Darko on certain Halloween parties but I think he's not meant to be seen like that. "Donnie Darko" is a film that agreeably shows the dangers of psychological distortions but does not focus on its negative consequences but on how it affects lives in ways both unexpected and unseen, either good or bad. For some, with this kind of character treatment, it's an opportunity to yet again exploit give-away murders and bloody mayhem that may even breed dreadful sequels, as it is even quite fitting to see the title "Donnie Darko 2" dwell in movie marquees, complete with cheesy taglines that border on the desperate, but I'll just stop right there.

The film may or may not have provided all the answers regarding its hidden truths, but nevertheless, "Donnie Darko", with its conceptual complexity that deservedly inspires an intellectually stimulating post-viewing discussion or two, has awaken my ever-analytic sensibilities and my urgent need to understand. It is a film that achieves to simulate the sensation of reading an intriguing little book without trying very hard to do so. The film, for the magnitude of its ambition, can easily be branded as nothing but extreme cinematic pretense on Richard Kelly's part, but what it surely can't be accused of is cowardice of vision. A true modern classic, I believe.

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol
½

The "Mission: Impossible" film franchise never really had any major missteps. In fact, all previous films are solid ones in their very own right regardless of how they were received by critics. But then there are always these particular flaws that may have never really affected the quality of the installments but nonetheless still left obvious holes in terms of execution. Brian De Palma's extreme complexity in the first film: an aspect that is very difficult to overlook let alone comprehend. And then there's John Woo's fetish for cool-looking, slow-motion action sequences (and those pigeons) in the second film which, more or less, beautified the film but seemingly favored pure stylish brawns over brains. Then finally, J.J. Abrams created the third installment, mixing just the right amounts of blockbuster spectacle and simplicity, but with the latter making the finale seems rather anti-climactic and stale.

Now we're into the fourth film in the franchise. It's the first film in the series that has a subtitle, and you must admit that 'Ghost Protocol' sounds rather pleasing. It's also the film in the series with arguably the hardest mission for the IMF yet (trying to stop a nuclear war), not even mentioning the fact that they must accomplish it as a rogue squad branded as fugitive terrorists. And most significantly, it is, I think, the first Mission: Impossible film that has flawlessly excelled both in storytelling and thrills, and also featured the most ideal incarnation of Ethan Hunt.

Maybe it is how Tom Cruise shows his maturity both in character and in looks, maybe it's Hunt's 'been through so much' game face nature or maybe because his status as an action hero skyrocketed because of his larger-than-life mission in this film. Wherever you look at it or whatever you choose among those aforementioned reasons for his forward march towards character transcendence and true iconic ascendance in the hierarchy of action heroes, "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol", with its purity of intrigue and globe-trotting peril, complemented Tom Cruise's arguably most well-known film role in a manner that admittedly neither you nor I have anticipated or expected.

In strict confession, I never thought that "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" will even be a worthwhile watch as it looked, as the first trailers were released, nothing but a retirement tour of sorts for our ever so skillful and intelligent agent Hunt. And to add more to my initial skepticism, although Brad Bird is an Oscar-winning director, I really can't see him, a man who has directed heart-warming animated films after another, with one of them being about a gourmet rat, to helm such a frenetically-paced action movie.

Surprisingly, he has delivered a truly and thoroughly solid action movie that is relentless in its innovative action set pieces (the opening Russian prison brawl and the sandstorm-plagued car chase, among others) and imaginative in its new IMF devices, such as the retina-identifying hologram-like projector and the remote-controlled magnetic floater or whatever those things are called. Oh and there's also this little stunt involving Cruise's Ethan Hunt, some technologically-enhanced sticky gloves, and a tall-ass building.

However exciting the climactic sequences situated in Mumbai may be, it's this skyscraper-navigating mega stunt set in Dubai that will certainly be this film's flag-carrying image, just like how every previous installments had their own. In part 1, we have Ethan Hunt, with arms outstretched and body hanging in mid-air, infiltrating a secured CIA facility with a thin rope in his waist. In part 2, we have the black-clad, shades-wearing Hunt riding a bullet-evading motorcycle. In part 3, we have him sliding and jumping a tower somewhere in Shanghai.

But the more I think of the sick building stunt here in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol", the more I think that it is indeed not just this film's highlight, but of the movie franchise's as a whole. It is indeed a most proud moment for the action genre.

While Simon Pegg's humorous on-screen skills is a given, it's a surprise to see Jeremy Renner, known for playing hardened characters such as the war-addicted bomb expert in "The Hurt Locker" and the lethal bank robber in "The Town", stretching some comic muscles and building a great relational chemistry with Pegg, Cruise, and the smokin' Paula Patton; a true revelation to me considering that the trailers suggest that his character in the film, an ally of Ethan Hunt, may or may not be what he seems to be.

But indeed another surprise is Michael Nyqvist of the "Millennium Trilogy" fame. An actor which I came to admire as a heroic journalist in the form of his character Mikael Blomkvist in the said trilogy, he is a breath of fresh air as the film's sublime chief villain, a bold yet risky character choice that has given the film a bold benefit, considering that most popcorn blockbusters prefer a more outspoken and often theatrical antagonist.

When all is said and done, the "Mission: Impossible" series, with what "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" has done to give it a forceful upward pull, may have solidified its position up there as one of the most enjoyable action franchises of all time with enough tricks in its sleeves to immerse us in a world of covert agents, dangerous adventures and complex missions, while at the same time indulging itself in a cunning chess match with cinematic timing and delivery. Light the match and play the film's musical score in your head over and over again, get pumped up or maybe buckle up, let the clichéd testosterone-filled statements flow, this is a genuine blockbuster treat, and it's quite adamant that you accept it.

Chinatown
Chinatown(1974)
½

A second viewing.

What make film noirs such a joy to watch are their own unique ways of weaving complex plot devices and interestingly enigmatic characters into one riveting narrative. And as a bonus, we also get to see compelling notions about morality and some hints of psychology. This is the generalized beauty of the said genre that we come to love. But then there's also a sole ingredient in it that is also the flavor base of the whole course: An exemplary anti-hero.

This is what Jack Nicholson's great performance as J.J. Gittes has particularly achieved here in "Chinatown" with his combination of passive body languages and a sense of motivational indifference. He is a seedy private investigator who helps (with cash on the side, of course) husbands and wives find out a truth or two about their marital problems by way of his sleuth abilities. He talks with clients briefly, calls for a standard contract, and done, he is in for the job. This is Gittes' job that even makes him a sort of a celebrity for some but an object of disgust for others. Director Roman Polanski (handling an original material written by Robert Towne, who has gone on to win an original screenplay Oscar for it), who directed the film with low-key mastery, has able to highlight Gittes' occupational detachment from those commonly accepted (banker, insurance agent, police) in society or at least, in its late 1930's L.A. setting.

Consider the scene in the barber shop where he engaged into a brief but loud argument with a banker about the validity and social soundness of his job. As far as we're concerned, we want Gittes to win the said argument and put the banker into a whole lot of verbal beating. But Polanski, who is acting like a personality censorship agent (a brief display of selective exposure), immediately cuts the scene and transitioned it into the next where we see Gittes calm and cool again. This can be Polanski's unnoticeable answer to a potential criticism of the film not having enough back story to fully expose Gittes' psychological connection with the eponymous place. In Gittes' world where everyone wants to find out skeletons in one's closet by way of a private investigator, he prefer his own to be in utter concealment.

And then there is "Chinatown's" handful of unforgettable characters, ranging from the most enigmatic (Evelyn Mulwray, one of the film's highlights, greatly played by Faye Dunaway) to the most villainous (Noah Cross, played by the great John Huston), and even to the most mundane of fellows that hates 'nosy fellas' (cameo by Polanski himself).

As the film progresses with its one-bit pace that may detract some viewers who prefer their mystery/thriller films shaken and quick to the fullest extent, we also come to immerse into the sepia-toned Los Angeles setting, back in the days where it is still labeled as a 'desert city'. The dried riverbeds that is repeatedly visited by a boy riding a horse, the orange groves that speaks of both serenity and danger, and the desolately oriental mood in the Mulwrays' home, which also houses a salt water garden pond that is ornamental as it is pivotal. These key places of mystery and intrigue has been established with an almost otherworldly musical score and an escalating sense of dread that makes the film a lot more arresting, despite of its degree of quietness, than any other 'louder' films of its kind.

Judging from Gittes' actions that transforms him from an amoral observant into an unconditional hero, it can be wholly concluded that J.J Gittes', no matter how far he may put his emotions away from the conflicting gist of what he is trying to investigate, unhealthy trait of increasingly treating every case he handles a tad too personal is his obvious downfall. But isn't that what essentially makes him human?

The allusion to Chinatown is, contextually speaking, quite misleading. Unlike the earlier "Midnight Cowboy" (in its case, New York City) or the later "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag" (Manila), "Chinatown", aside from the happenstance connection of Gittes' past to the said place, never treats the culturally different area as a visual protagonist unlike how the other two aforementioned films have done so. The place was even introduced with nothing else but bits of establishing shots. But what the film has powerfully highlighted instead is the fact that it may not evoke the stirring qualities of a definitive visual texture that may accompany the said place, but it gave texture to J.J. Gittes' heart and soul even more so, especially when the silently doomed climax creeps into the screen in a sequence that is one of the most devastating amalgamations of honest emotions, violence, outright hatred and confusion ever on cinematic display, downplayed by the raw innocence of Chinatown's bewildered silence and cheap neon lights.

'Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". It may be an immortal line that stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of 'Rosebud' and 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn', but judging from the overall cinematic wallop of "Chinatown" itself, to 'forget' it is the last thing you'll ever do. This is powerful stuff.

Hobo With a Shotgun
½

If you think "Machete" is bloods and guts galore, well, you haven't seen "Hobo with a Shotgun" yet . The film's concept, once merely a fake 'Grindhouse' trailer winner, delivered despite of its seemingly limited premise of a homeless man trying to clean the streets of an anarchic town. Initially, when I first laid my eyes upon the said trailer, I thought it was quite imaginative in its idea of creating a gun-toting character out of a hobo, but I thought the man playing the eponymous role in the 2-minute imaginary project (at the time) is too young and fairly unconvincing. This is where great tweaks in characterizations come to play.

This is where Rutger Hauer's appealingly exhausted old man look pervades itself quite effectively. From being just a film that highlights a man's exploitative exploits of exploding heads and maniacal sadists "Taxi Driver"-style minus the immense psychological baggage, with the help of Rutger Hauer's Clint Eastwood-ish presence, "Hobo with a Shotgun", in a way, transformed into some kind of an all-out urban western with a no name hobo at the crimson spotlight.

At first, I thought that the primary villains in the film were too exaggerated that it borders outright outlandishness even in the standards of 'do-it-all' B-movies. But then I realized, if this is not the way how these actors would act, then how should they? Brian Downey, who played the attention-seeking town kingpin 'The Drake', is a perfect contrast to Rutger Hauer's reserved and laid back Hobo, and so are Nick Bateman and Gregory Smith as the kingpin's sons. I do not know, but in "Machete", when I saw good ol' Steven Seagal as the prime villain, I can't help but notice the dry antagonistic chemistry between him and fellow few-worded Danny Trejo as they both struggle for an unsure, short-lived climax. But "Hobo with a Shotgun" fully capitalized on how characteristic contrasts (the silent Hobo and the foul-mouthed Drake) helps the psychological and emotional drive of the story. As we witness the dichotomous dynamics between Hauer and Downey's character, it just makes the pay-off all the more enthralling to anticipate and we, as audiences, are quite sure that the build-up won't just culminate in a big stare-off contest.

Molly Dunsworth, on the other hand (pun intended here for her character's 'handy' fate), although how cliched it is to have a prostitute with a heart of gold as the feminine lead, is energetic, boisterous and sweet all at the same time as Abby, the girl who Hobo envisions as a school teacher and tells of metaphorical stories about bears. Oh, and she also has an Ash-like "Groovy" moment in the film and an encouraging speech that is the thing of 'cheese'.

As for the screenplay, there's nothing much to say as it is more concerned about Hobo's one-liners and doomed soliloquy that the entirety of the script are just left-over trash languages but ultimately fits into the film's decaying urban backdrop. Now, if you want to watch a film solely for fun that you can repeatedly view even if you're brain dead but with enough adrenaline left, "Hobo with a Shotgun" is pure, razor-edged, brain residue-littered entertainment for you.

It is a film conceived from perversion and exists in bad taste, but what you may find out, the same as how I did, is that it's also surprisingly dramatic and hopeful in a silly and flawed kind of way. Plus, do not expect much explicit sexuality. Yes, the film is violent, profane and rabidly morbid, but it's nothing more than a graphic depiction of vigilante justice that seems to be also injected with a father-daughter thematic undertone. And for that, I salute the film not for all that it has done but to what it hasn't.

In a world of a hobo armed with nothing but a rusty old shotgun and some aspirations for idealistic change, sex is not an option. But frankly, judging from the film's overall content of everything bloody red, crushed and dismembered, where would you really put those scenes? Even its bar and club settings aren't really very welcoming to such. What we got instead are harshly-situated innuendos that fit into the film's pumped-up feel but do not really materialize into any pumping scenes. But is that a bad thing?

The Departed
The Departed(2006)

Stripped off of all the cinematic gloss and melodrama of "Infernal Affairs", "The Departed" is much more raw and pulsating in its delivery compared to the said Hong Kong original, and also more entertaining in its step-by-step revelation and thrills. Headlined by an all-star cast, particularly by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio (evidently showing how a Hollywood pretty boy before can convincingly pull off a hardened and at the same time conflicted character) and with the film itself fully enhanced with a much extensively realistic and sometimes spontaneously comic screenplay, it's a Best Picture Oscar well-deserved. And don't get me started about Martin Scorsese's best director win merely being an overdue honor for his legendary film career and not for his individual merit for this film. It sickens me, really.

"The Departed", above all, is the crowning jewel of his post-De Niro 'crime' film resume. Unlike "Infernal Affairs", which presents a deep articulation about choice, identity and destiny, "The Departed" ignored those flowery things and instead replaced them with sharp-edged machismo, rough visual texture and a hint of madness. This time, it's not much about the double lives of two moles pitted against each other and their subtle connection but more of an acute generalization of the violent nature of gangsterism itself.

And Jack Nicholson, as caricature-like as he can be, still displayed a thoroughly commanding and menacing presence as Frank Costello, whose knack for unpredictably pungent humor puts a slight comic antidote to refresh and balance the film's dark tone. An overly serious villain for a gravely-toned film is too much a chore to watch, so having someone like Mr. Nicholson to grace the screen with a conspicuously unique persona is, although I know how violently ragged "The Departed" can often times be, a thing akin to beauty.

But that does not mean that Nicholson owned and breathes fire and life unto the film. Damon and DiCaprio, the dual center of the film, didn't give in to Nicholson's larger-than-life screen occupancy. Matt Damon, with films such as "The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Good Will Hunting" and the more recent "The Informant!" as evidences to his stellar acting range, shows how he can be as increasingly heroic as Jason Bourne but can be equally despicable as a con man, scam artist, a nervous liar or as a man who runs a life of cyclic performance art. His Colin Sullivan, a mole planted by Nicholson's Costello in the police ranks, belongs fully to the last, but is a combination of all that were mentioned. That's how tricky and quite complex Damon's role really was.

Again, unlike "Infernal Affairs", who treated its Sullivan equivalent as a redemptive anti-hero, Scorsese (and screenwriter William Monahan) molded Colin Sullivan from pure lies, self-advantage and pure-bred 'pretty face' villainy and manipulation. Maybe it's just me, but I can't see one likable factor regarding Sullivan, except for the fact that him being constantly pushed around by more righteous bullies like Mark Wahlberg's Staff Sergeant Dignam (who would have thought that he's the same guy who played Dirk Diggler?) and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio's Billy Costigan is surely a pitiful view. And after seeing the film for about four times, I believe that Damon's character is much harder to pull off than DiCaprio's, although both performed with equal energy and considerable dimension.

Some scenes were taken contextually verbatim from "Infernal Affairs", such as the wrongly-spelled word in the envelope and the pre-climactic final unraveling of the film's integral secret via the scene between Sullivan and Costigan inside the police headquarters. But what takes me in as to why "The Departed" is the better film overall, quality-wise, is the fact that everything seems to belong, and not a single thing felt forced.

Granted, the Hong Kong original is much more exquisite in its moody cinematography and perfect choice of seedy locations, but there's this pure spontaneity encapsulating "The Departed's" wholeness, enabling all its aspects, from its gallery of characters to the endlessly profane sputtering, to attain a specific level of believability.

Martin Scorsese, after creating opuses after opuses in his directorial heydays, seems to have been merely sitting tight and effortless while directing "The Departed". But that does not suggest any negative connotations. 'Sitting tight', meaning that he's been through so much cinematic gems (It's just not easy to choose just one 'best' film from his resume) that directing another masterpiece such as this one is, for him, not even a walk in the park, but like a leisurely sit in some prairie.

"Could you double-check the envelope?" Martin Scorsese uttered while finally taking hold of his first ever Oscar statuette. Don't worry, sir, that may just be a sole award, but with all the films that you've made that have waited and truly deserved that little golden man, the one that you've just received is much denser in its meaning.

And besides, you've transcended the AMPAS a long time ago, and a masterwork such as "The Departed" is just a mere reminder that you certainly still have 'it' and your burning artistry won't go out anytime soon, on this life or the next. It's (the film) also a clear-cut benchmark of how one must do a contemporary gangster neo-noir: with rough intensity, abundance of grit, and a penetrating moral undertone.

X-Men: First Class

Because of the dismal "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", I never really looked forward to watch "X-Men: First Class" mainly because of a premature thought that if even the iconic Wolverine can't seem to bring the film franchise into places other than 'Mediocrity Avenue', what more a bunch of barely adolescent mutants? I saw the film's stills showing them young lads wearing yellow-colored battle gears of some sort and wasn't particularly impressed. I found out about how Wolverine isn't even included in the mix and was immediately sensing doom. But then I saw that Matthew Vaughn, the director of the underrated gem "Layer Cake" and "Stardust" (not to mention "Kick-Ass", which I consider a bit overrated and oh so over-the-top but still quite decent) will direct it, that wonderful actors James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender will headline it, and I was intrigued. I read about how "X-Men: First Class" would tackle the 'secret ' history of the Cold War and I was slightly elated.

But still, I haven't seen it in theaters for no particular reason other than the fact that my anticipation towards it wasn't really that high like that of a devoted fanboy or a pumped-up viewer. After watching the film, considering that I'm not even a fan of the previous films or a compulsive reader of the comic books, which of course suggests my slight indifference towards the "X-Men" universe in general, I still immediately thought that it is indeed one of the best superhero films that I have ever seen. Color me surprised.

Was it the actors, the story or the execution? I think that these three have indeed contributed to the overall experience, especially McAvoy and Fassbender's great and seemingly effortless portrayals of Charles Xavier a.k.a. Professor X and Erik Lensherr a.k.a. Magneto respectively, who both equaled and, at times, even fully surpassed the standards set by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen's performances in the earlier "X-Men" film incarnations. Although on a slightly negative note, I thought that Kevin Bacon's character Sebastian Shaw is too exaggeratedly maniacal considering that the film's core premise is more or less still particularly grounded in reality, or to be even more specific, in history. And really, I just can't imagine anyone else other than Magneto wearing that telepath-blocking, Greek warrior-like helmet.

Aside from the semi-tragic regression of Professor X and Magneto's relationship from best friends into eternal foes which is the film's real highlight, "X-Men: First Class"' other real star is the very scope of the narrative. Never have I seen a popcorn superhero movie, aside from "Watchmen" maybe (though I can't consider that to be a popcorn film), that has bravely tackled a quiet yet extremely turbulent part of our history which is the Cold War, or even more specifically, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is the closest the world has gotten to a full-blown nuclear war, and was also able to create excellent, special effects-laden action set pieces out of it.

And what's more impressive with "X-Men: First Class" is that it even squeezed an engaging and entertaining story out of such a politically-charged military affair without feeling forced or distracting, execution-wise. Hell, Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor's" love triangle story arc feels even much more contrived when compared to this, which really proves the strength of this film's screenplay.

And considering that it's about mutants and nuclear war, and especially the fact that "X-Men: First Class" basically belongs in the superhero genre, a category which we all know to have been following a flawed storytelling dogma ever since Superman messed with the idea of dual identity and Lex Luthor with megalomaniacal villainy, sure, the film has all the energy and visual force prevalent in a typical superhero feature, but more importantly, it also has enough threads of reality to counter an otherwise chaotic CGI fest with filmic sobriety.

With a story and presentation neatly balancing its tone to appeal to everyone, from the typical blockbuster suckers to the more nitpicking purists who want source material faithfulness more than anything else up to the history buffs who appreciate a parallel reality once in a while, "X-Men: First Class" is both substance and style, power and grace, a film that teeters between 'rage' and 'serenity'; a rare feat for a film categorized in a genre where it's perfectly fine, or sometimes even compulsory, to neglect the first and wallow in the latter.

This film may not be like "Watchmen" in terms of thematic depth and quasi-philosophical take regarding the superhero mythos and the end of days, but "X-Men: First Class" delivered what it needed to in ways that are extremely satisfying, truly exciting and even thought-provoking: As a commercial and critical sleeper hit that gives a fast-waning superhero movie franchise a much-needed jolt of life, as a picture-perfect origin story that sets the bar high for other cinematic prequels, and as an allegorical exploration of discriminatory hate. This is the most definitive "X-Men" film yet.

The Tree of Life

By immediate definition, "The Tree of Life" cannot really be considered as a film, basing on its lack of narrative, plenty of randomly befuddling visual spectacles and little to no dialogue. I think it's much apt to categorize the film strictly as a motion picture poetry piece whose reason for existence is not to be merely watched but to be experienced. "The Tree of Life" is pure esoteric cinema; a film that does not require narrative comprehension but emotional and psychological involvement. It explores life both in its simplicity down to its complex conception. It visually articulates both the world's creation and the very landscapes of the soul.

Given that "The Tree of Life" is a difficult watch much in the same way Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void" is, it is a film conscious of its own awe-inspiring beauty and is also a strong meditative piece with enough sorrow and despair as it has hope and deliverance.

One of the things that I liked most about this film is how it has purely prioritized its metaphysical nature while at the same time gearing away from the A-list presence of both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. For some, it's a perfect time to capitalize on these two actors' fame, but director Terrence Malick never did. Numerous times, there are even scenes where Pitt and Penn were shot from the neck down or over the shoulder. For Malick, at least from what I see, his vision is the film's real star, and considering the magnitude of what he's ambitiously trying to depict here in "The Tree of Life", everyone and everything must take the backseat.

But then, although the film will certainly be remembered as a deep-treading, and almost psychedelic, visionary work, it is finely balanced by a simple family drama in its middle part, with child actor Hunter McCracken delivering a beautifully realized performance as the Young Jack (Sean Penn's character), Jessica Chastain as the joyful, loving but vulnerable mother, Mrs. O'Brien, and of course Brad Pitt in a surprisingly subtle turn as the father, Mr. O'Brien.

For some suckers for psychedelic visuals, a trait that was brilliantly displayed by the film in the beginning (with its "Discovery Channel-esque" visual representation of dinosaurs and some hammerhead sharks), they may think that the slightly plodding little drama inserted in the middle just to make up for some sense of coherence is a bit of a disservice. I, for one, loved the middle part, but fleshing out such a segment then jumping back into the surrealistic, mind-numbing journey of metaphysical proportions later on may have cost the film of tonal consistency.

As the film returns to its phantasmagorical netherworld with whispering voices echoing some questions of existence, "The Tree of Life", instead of purely having the free-flowing feel of poetic filmmaking, embraced a more patterned approach (Surreal visuals in the beginning, drama in the middle, surreal visuals yet again in the end), which resulted with the film having to concentrate its imagery into two fragmentary parts.

There really is no doubt regarding Terrence Malick's elegant audacity as a filmmaker, but "The Tree of Life", although a powerful film that holds within its hands an unhindered vision, is slightly suppressed in its otherwise successful attempt at cinematic bravery.

Carnage
Carnage(2011)

"Why can't they leave?", Luis Bunuel asked Gil Pender in Woody Allen's fantastical "Midnight in Paris" after the latter pitched the former a film idea (that is to say, the plot basics of "The Exterminating Angel"). "They just can't". Gil answered. Such is also the case for Roman Polanski's protagonists in "Carnage", a film based on the Tony award-winning play "God of Carnage", written by Yasmina Reza.

If the bourgeoisie characters in "The Exterminating Angel" can't seem to find a way to leave a lavish dinner party, "Carnage's" characters can't seem to break a cordial meeting (they decided to hold such because of their respective kids' earlier altercation in a park) because of, well, some cobblers, coffee, and just the right amount of angst and mutual disgust.

Watching the film with a certain consciousness of the performers involved, I can't help but feel a larger-than-life thump somewhere within me that reminds me of something akin to a beautiful heart-ache. John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet. 4 Oscars and 8 nominations combined. As a film lover, if the mere idea of those names and these numbers joining forces for a film project not enough to put you into a state of bliss, then I'm afraid nothing will.

Although in parallel essence almost the same with Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in its approach on situational degradation, only this time armed with parental sensibilities, "Carnage" is tightly humorous and uniquely energetic in all its hard-edged argumentative glory that these actually evoke a certain charm that can only be attributed to this film alone.

The cool but sharp-tongued Alan (Waltz), a lawyer whose intent to constantly join in onto the whole conversational fiasco continually fails because of the repeated rings of his cellular phone, which he's more than enthusiastic to always answer. And then there's his wife, Nancy (Winslet), an elegant woman in her mid-thirties with a collected exterior that's not enough to fend off the power of Scotch and nausea.

While on the other side, there's Michael (Reilly), your typical American husband who is, as what his wife claimed him to be, seemingly contented with living a life of mediocrity. And lastly, Penelope (Foster), Michael's wife, a writer who feels the plight of people in Africa (Darfur, specifically) but can't seem to feel the plight of her own lack of emotional control.

These four parents, as they initially welcomed each other and ate cobblers together like fine, civilized folks, gradually transform into all-out verbal warriors one moment, pathetic criers the next. With wide-reaching topics in the tip of their tongues such as the "John Wayne" concept of manhood, the superficiality of writers, and, well, some hamsters, "Carnage" is, aside from being a study of contemporary parental thinking, a teeth-gnashing, word-jousting, vomit-inducing (quite literally) little confessional of a film with just enough unraveling tirades that have finely expressed the film's honest-to-goodness take on the oftentimes childish vulnerability of adult life.

Roman Polanski, after directing the more than impressive "The Ghost Writer", a thriller that is also a borderline adventure film, chose to direct a small, enclosed and set-limited film with only his actors and actresses to create wonders with. Fortunately for the exalted exile, his actors were immediately wonderful all on their own, with a powerful material working greatly to his advantage. What came out is a film that is a bit too standard in its technicalities, but one, just like other stage-to-film adaptations, that is relentless in its verbal athletics, poignant in its emotions and purely articulate in its entirety.

In Bruges
In Bruges(2008)

A second viewing.

Oh, the beauty of style and substance. Stripping down the very essence of filmmaking and wherever which way you try to go around its principles, it will just bring you back to these simple words. "In Bruges", a slick crime comedy, a most surprisingly solid morality play and a meditative travelogue that explores the historical and religious significance of the much-preserved medieval sights of Belgium's Bruges, is an exemplary flag-carrier of the two nouns. It's like a film that could have been directed by Guy Ritchie but with an added strength by way of its thematic depth.

If the aforementioned British director, whose films I particularly admire but have never completely drooled and obsessed over, puts contemporary gangsterism into certain feats of absurdist twists of fates and distortion of events, "In Bruges'" director Martin Mcdonagh had, in some ways, also incorporated such playfully omniscient style into his characters but only as a superficially conscious device. Mcdonagh has put his two protagonists, Ken (the great Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (a revelatory performance by Colin Farrell which won him a Golden Globe) into the 'fairy tale-like' corners of Bruges because of a botched hit, which claimed the life of a child, but dared not to laugh at their predicament.

Sure, it's easy for the film to elicit sardonic smiles and chuckles from its audience judging from the scenario alone, which centers on the idea of two seemingly hardened criminals entrapped in an ennui-inspiring place, especially for people like them which the film has assumed to despise culture and history (such is not the case for Ken, it is for Ray). But unlike Ritchie's half-serious gangster films, "In Bruges" looks humorous only in its very surface. It is very distinct on the way it has conveyed the ever-recurring and ever-haunting notions of guilt and redemption without looking forced at the slightest bit. Maybe it's Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell's performances, maybe it is the freshness of the material itself, or maybe it is the brilliant cinematography, by Eigil Bryld, and musical score, by Carter Burwell. But to argue for each side would be very futile. Maybe, they just all work together perfectly.

And then there's Ralph Fiennes, whose portrayal of the rabid but highly principled gangster Harry Waters, the man who has sent Ken and Ray into the dreamy, cobble stone-laden streets of Bruges because of the latter's careless mistake, has caused many viewers to compare or even consider his performance as something of a homage to Ben Kingsley's unexpected turn as the unpredictable crime boss Don Logan in "Sexy Beast".

With the help of the film's great screenplay filled with trivial cues and modern conversationalist tones, which we just can't deny to have been influenced one way or another by "Pulp Fiction", Fiennes' character, which has the negative potential to be very caricature-like, passed off as somewhat believable and genuinely menacing in his distinct way.

We know of his principles, we know that he does not stand for killing innocent people, especially children, and we know that if some unexpected shit hits the fan, he won't think twice to fix everything himself and lull breakers of his code into an eternal sleep. His beliefs are forged of extremism, his methods violent but strangely understandable, his paradoxical impulse to kill someone who wrongly killed somebody is harshly immediate but completely undeniable.

Looking at the parallels of the film's themes with biblical concepts of hell, purgatory and the penance for sins, 'Bruges' might as well be both the purgatory and hell, and the penance for sins may be the film's depiction of the psychological manifestation of guilt, or may also be Harry himself, who just arrived, armed with a handgun and some 'dumdums', to collect.

"In Bruges" surely has been nothing but a sleeper hit more than 3 years ago, with the likes of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Dark Knight" taking over and dominating 2008's cinematic scene. Sure, that's also how I perceived this film at the time: A fascinatingly humorous, uniquely made crime film and nothing more (although I saw my 2008's top 10 movie lists on my old blog and saw it ranked at no. 3. I may just need to move it up a bit higher). But after rewatching it to once again witness its richly layered take regarding the context of existential woes, personal demons and bitter regret unfold in a beautiful ballet of humor and violence, it is, I can personally say, one of the greatest postmodern crime films in existence and simply put one of the decade's best films.

Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother)

With the brilliant "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" being the Pedro Almodovar film I've watched prior to this, his exploration of the unparalleled emotional strength of women, at least in my self-chronology, continues on with "All About My Mother", a film that lightly caresses your heart with its poignancy but also puts into humorous situations after another the subtle absurdity of life. Although it's Almodovar's witty screenplay that is the film's beating heart, it's the sheer talent of its cast that has fueled it with pure and unbridled energy.

Performances by Cecilia Roth, who played the main character Manuela, a single-parent hardened by the terrible highs and lows of life, Marisa Paredes as the stage actress Huma Rojo, Penelope Cruz who contrasts all the other performances with her subdued turn as Sister Rosa, and especially Antonia San Juan's colorful portrayal of the character Agrado (the best performance in the film), a person whose socially unacceptable transsexualism never hindered her from being an optimistic representation of a hard-living modern woman, sweeten the screen with a unique vigor for life.

The film's title, "All About My Mother", when you look at how the narrative has unveiled itself, does not fully suggest that the film is indeed purely about Manuela's individual exploits as she searches on to locate her son's father and as she takes care of numerous colorful characters. With the use of the possessive pronoun 'My', which of course pertains to Manuela's son Esteban, who before dying in a tragic car accident wishes to know who his father is and who, after death, may have continued to look down upon her mother as she copes up with his death, with her quest and with life itself, it suggests that the story is spiritually progressing through Esteban's birthright to know his father. So the film, in essence, does not merely get its life force from Manuela alone, but also from the memory of Esteban's final wish.

"All About My Mother" is, in context, a humanist adventure fueled by a two-sided notion for a tribute: One given by the already omniscient Esteban in an underlying manner, who flowers up her mother's endeavors by means of his prose taken from his diary, and one by Manuela herself as she tries to keep the fire burning in Esteban's torch of memory by way of fulfilling his dying wish: To find his father.

Unlike the later "Goodbye, Lenin!", a film from which we rarely see the character of the mother but infinitely more of her son as he desperately find ways to fend off any shock or surprises that may worsen her health, "All About My Mother" views this idea of a parent-child relationship in an opposite way by championing the concept of a mother's love to her son (instead of the other way around), but in an equally unconditional light.

In the film's entirety, its urgency is more inclined towards the dramatic rather than the comic. Of course, the spontaneity of the more humorous moments adds to the film's effective tonal shifts from colorful to gray and vice versa, but "All About My Mother" is infinitely more important to be absorbed as a drama that articulates the emotional context of promises, mistakes and reconciliations rather than as a comedy of blunders, innuendos and homosexuality. Nonetheless, the film works in either way.

But what has slightly put me off about the film, on the other hand, is its running time. Pedro Almodovar greeted our senses with exuberant, highly original characters yet ends the film with suddenness. It's one thing for a film to end and for us to want more, but to ask for more plainly because something lacks is another. I don't know what I've felt between the two when the film has ended, but I surely would have loved the film more if it would have been a bit longer, and I don't care if the conflict is already resolved. Well, on second thought, maybe it's just delusion.

Source Code
Source Code(2011)
½

Director Duncan Jones has already explored the genuine value of humanity by way of a relatively simplistic and observant film in the form of "Moon". He dared to redefine what really makes one human in the said film without even being, well, immediately human in nature. He has highlighted such in the fashion of say, "Blade Runner", and laid down a visual texture akin to "2001: A Space Odyssey". It's the struggle of a complex idea and visual stagnation (with it being set at the far reaches of the moon) that Duncan Jones has finely combined and from these was able to forge a brilliant science fiction film.

With his encounter with sci-fi minimalism a flat-out success, Here's "Source Code" coming within the midst of our viewing sensibilities. Molded more out of the same blockbuster tone like that of Nolan's "Inception" and a scenario close enough to Tony Scott's lukewarm "Unstoppable", the film, with its tight focus on the emotional content but still not deprived of some good ol' popcorn fun, is quite a well-balanced sci-fi affair with enough heart and soul on one side, energy and adrenaline on the other to fully present a complete film experience.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who's genuinely proven to be a capable actor to portray vulnerability in otherwise gun-equipped and battle-hardened roles ("Jarhead", "Brothers"), is very effective as the film's very Philip K. Dick-like protagonist Colter Stevens, a reluctant man clueless of what and where he's got himself into, emotionally needy yet articulate of his humanity.

Characterization-wise, that's just about it, I believe, in terms of complexity. With director Duncan Jones quite uninitiated with handling many characters at once (he only had the characters of Sam Bell and the robot Gerty to play with in "Moon"), this little hole in his skill has slightly showed itself in "Source Code".

Although the supporting roles, specifically the Goodwin and the Rutledge characters, were well-portrayed by the very dependable Vera Farmiga and the ever-impressive Jeffrey Wright respectively, the said characters were stereotypical at best. But with the material's imaginative edge, by Ben Ripley, reigning over the entirety of "Source Code", this slight flaw of deficient characterization is not really that noticeable as the film itself is just too overwhelming in its execution that you just wouldn't bother to look anywhere else.

To be frank, I expected this film to be very action-packed like, maybe "Deja Vu" (another Tony Scott film) in its race-against-time tone. I wouldn't really bother about an action set piece or two, but I'm impressed as to how "Source Code" has maintained its pulsating nature without resorting into unjustified action sequences.

Right now, as I ponder the reason as to why I liked this film very much, I realized that my admiration towards "Source Code" roots out more from its unorthodox view of humanity and the beauty of life rather than its intelligently magnified playfulness with space-time continuum and the mind. "Make every second count", the film's tagline preaches. Well, "Source Code", in its overall cinematic execution, verily did just that.

Midnight in Paris
½

Woody Allen, which we all know to be a truly psychological and philosophical filmmaker as well as a humorously cerebral director, an aspect of his being that collects much admirers as well as some haters, completely shines through in yet again a film of unique charm, intelligence, wit and imagination set in a city where beauty and mystique converges into one: Paris.

Although it stars Owen Wilson (alongside impressive supporting performances by Michael Sheen, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard among others) as Gil, a character who seemingly treats his flirtation with the idea of premature infidelity (his character is just about to be married) merely as an exercise in curiosity by way of an unexpected trip into his 'Golden Age' subconscious (in 1920's Paris where he met countless demigods of art and literature), which as a result came out to be quite harmless and at the same time maintained naivete in its depiction of a brief psycho-sexual adventurism, the character still could have been played by a younger Woody Allen. Often times, I can even see Owen Wilson channeling Allen himself.

I believe that although this film could have been done in Woody Allen's cinematic heydays (maybe in mid-70's to early 80's) and still be as effective as it was today, "Midnight in Paris" nevertheless still stimulated my hidden cravings for new ideas and moved me with its gentle approach regarding the ideas of artistic confusion, romantic crossroads and the subsequent individual growth by way of traveling into a subjectively ideal past.

In the hands of a purely narrative-driven filmmaker, "Midnight in Paris" could have been a try-hard romantic/fantasy film with the hero torn between living his love and life in the present and reliving a past he quickly learns to love. But just like, say, Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day", this film is too busy with its brilliant articulation of its fresh idea that tackles the paradox of insecurity, shown here in the form of "The Golden Age" mentality, which beholds the idea that it's a human tendency to hope, reminisce and visualize for a more ideal moment in time where everything's akin to an artistic and literary utopia, that the film isn't shallow enough to conceptualize a too far-fetched an explanation as to why Owen Wilson's character travels back into his personal 'Golden Age' every midnight.

For Allen, it's the characters that speak for the film itself. All we know, Owen Wilson's character is too exhausted with the overly urban and inch-deep intellectual exercises of working as a movie scriptwriter that he dares to internally lash out. All we know, he wants 1920's Paris, write pure novel, and walk in the rain more than anything else. Woody Allen injected these subtle characteristics on the Owen Wilson character to serve as simple catalysts for the film's turn of events and nothing more. No flashy time-travel nonsense, no unnecessary plot devices and no silly folklorian justifications as to why these historical jumps were possible.

Instead, the film's seemingly esoteric tone puts itself into a separate plain of romanticized existence; an alternative landscape where impenetrable icons like Dali, Picasso, Hemingway and Fitzgerald adhere into a single route of interconnected existence, where one may bump into the other, or where a man may travel back in time, develop romance with a charming lady, travel back into the present the next night and then see a memoir with his name mentioned all over the pages in romantic adoration, penned by the very same lady almost 90 years ago.

It is things like these, although devoid of any logical explanations, that can really put a genuine smile into your face. And it is films like "Midnight in Paris" that can really restore your faith in the hidden capabilities and the wonderful complexities that the romantic comedy genre can offer and conceive. I can only thank Woody Allen for that.

Another Earth

It's a true breath of fresh air to really watch something like "Another Earth" especially in a time where science fiction films almost always equate to aliens, colorful spaceships and the expanse of the outer space. Although this film has small doses of each of the aforementioned sci-fi stereotypes, "Another Earth" is a whole lot different, highly inventive all on its own and, in the fashion of films like Duncan Jones' masterful "Moon", beautifully dramatic.

Unusually, the film is founded by two narrative extremes: One is its angle of human drama, which exemplifies simplicity in approach, and the other is its transcendental vision, which highlights the film's ambitious scope. With this kind of double content which may risk the equal depiction attention of both ends, balance is most important, and the film, for that matter, does not disappoint.

Mike Cahill, who directs his first cinematic film (his previous one, co-directed by Brit Marling, being a documentary), did what most fresh filmmakers must do, and it is to enter the film scene not with anxieties and insecurities of visions, but with utter confidence and a slight dash of flamboyance. Such ideas like this one here in "Another Earth" admittedly does take a lot of guts and unbounded devotion to really pull off and be successful in its execution. And of course, such far-reaching exercise of the imagination do need a 'more than adequate' budget, but the film nevertheless proved that it isn't always the case, and that often times than not, mind outweighs currency, vision exceeds the means and conceptual quality reigns over monetary quantity. Even just for that reason alone, "Another Earth" should be viewed as an ideal celebration of the creative affluence of the independent film spirit.

The performances in the film, although done by fairly unknown performers, were still able to convey the film's dramatic essence. Brit Marling (also the film's co-writer), who plays the film's main character Rhoda, is assured and effectively compact in her portrayal of a young woman and her guilt-ridden (because of her involvement in a tragic car accident) descent into a directionless existence. Although Marling's character is a fairly complex role to play with her constant transformation from being lost, finding herself, being lost and finding herself again, her performance captured Rhoda's lack of existential motivations early on in the film that it made her character simpler to empathize with.

William Mapother, playing John, is quietly affecting in his portrayal of the anguished musical composer/professor who lost his family in the said accident, is blank-eyed in his detachment from life, but whose connection with Rhoda, being unaware of her involvement in the accident, soon slowly brings him back into its tender symphony.

"Another Earth", although as what I've said earlier, purely relies on the counterbalancing of its main dual content (simplistic human drama and grandiose sci-fi vision), it's also significant in its subtle irony. What if in the aftermath of death there's more to life? What if in tragedy there's love? What if in the presence of a celestial wonder there's disillusionment? "Another Earth" can only contemplate the answers, but rest assured, it's inclined towards what's more hopeful.

Melancholia
Melancholia(2011)
½

Now here's a cinematic vision of the apocalypse which does not linger on wastelands, viruses, or famous landmarks being destroyed, but on something that is much more tautly compelling. "Melancholia" portrays an end of the world scenario where there isn't any last ditch efforts for heroism, but instead only passivity and fatalism.

But this film, another masterful creation by Lars von Trier whose auteur visions never cease to amaze me, more than anything, is a psychological drama. Yes, it does have a great build-up towards an apocalyptic situation, but "Melancholia" started as a dysfunctional mental drama and ended as a surprisingly tender one. More than ever, I think that the film's fictitious planet, named 'Melancholia', that is about to collide with Earth in a colossal, space-bound "dance of death" is an immense dramatic device and is there purely to accentuate the film's drama and give it a more desperate edge. It's a drama film enveloped in dreaded hopelessness, it's a film filled with frightening ideas but more importantly, it's a film that shows imagination at one of its highest but at the same time at its darkest, and produces a fluctuating dramatic depth quite reminiscent of films by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Judging from his previous works, it's quite evident that Lars von Trier is firmly growing not just as a filmmaker of ideas but a director of actors. This can be seen in Bjork's emotionally draining performance in his "Dancer in the Dark" or even in his most recent "Antichrist", which is highlighted by Charlotte Gainsbourg's staggering performance (who also stars in this film). "Melancholia" further elevates this budding directorial skill of his with its manifestation in the form of Kirsten Dunst in a heavily complex performance (she won the Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) as the emotionally impaired Justine and, again, Charlotte Gainsbourg in a vulnerable role as her sister, Claire. Lars von Trier has started the film with a lavish yet nightmarish wedding (with Justine as the bride and Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgard, as the groom), which suggests the unconscious, entropy-like effect of the 'Melancholia' planet even in the subtlest of human relationships.

From this sequence, populated by great character actors like John Hurt as Justine's father and Stellan Skarsgard as her boss, amid a highly-populated environment, the film has built a genuine connection between Justine and Claire; a connection that may not be perfect (Claire repeatedly stated how sometimes, she hates Justine so much) but a deeply felt sisterly bond, nonetheless.

And then there's Kiefer Sutherland who coolly played Claire's husband, a wealthy scientist whose skepticism about the planetary collision between 'Melancholia' and Earth brings emotional tranquility to his wife but worry within him. He is, after all, living in pretension, just like how Justine pretended she's all smiles at the wedding.

I'm not much of a fan of child characters in film (only the unnecessary ones) because often times they can be a drag, but Cameron Spurr as Leo sure is a revelation especially with that distinct voice which really fits the film's tonal disposition. Now, some may argue that "Melancholia" has broken some rules in the 'Dogme 95' film movement, which Lars von Trier himself has founded, but seeing that this is a film made 16 years after it, I think it's time for him to deconstruct, and "Melancholia", combining art house sensibilities with technology, came out to be a worthy end product.

Aside from the ethereal shots in the opening sequence and some special effects here and there, von Trier maintained his usage of a non-stagnant camera (brilliant cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro) and kept his grasp on the whole film's emotional nuances and themes. Although it can be stated that von Trier has compromised with some visual magics of the mainstream, "Melancholia", as an aesthetic whole, is still wholly independent and utterly pure.

Should the planet "Melancholia" be taken literally? Being aware that it is also a name for a psychological condition, the fictitious planet can be an encompassing metaphor for emotional transformation (notice how Justine and Claire trade positions, emotional-wise, as the film progresses) and degradation (how the once cool and collected John has suddenly met his fate in a fashion too unfitting for him).

As much as it is a vision of the apocalypse, "Melancholia" is also a psychological discourse, albeit not too showy about it. As the planet 'Melancholia' looms large above, it may be a bringer of end to human existence, but it can also be a sign of the arrival of a distorted state of mind. One of the genuinely 'great' films of 2011.

Basquiat
Basquiat(1996)

It is a common practice in the film world to explore the lives of painters and artists, particularly those who lived and died by their art. Jean-Michel Basquiat is surely not an exception but rather a most definitive representation of it. He gives life and form to his countless statements through graffitis, shows his messily ecstatic but ultimately epochal visions through his paintings and evokes a new voice of artistic non-conformity by way of his creations.

But then, to counter this searing passion prevalent among artists like Basquiat, the film, directed by Julian Schnabel both with an attention to content and a slight delve into the experimental, then puts all of these into a final salvo towards self-destruction. Jeffrey Wright, one of the more impressive character actors of our time, delivers an unrecognizable performance as the title role. For roles like these, stars always have this tendency to either unnecessarily steal scenes or bury the real people they're playing in the afterthought of their very own persona. This is not the case for Jeffrey Wright. As I may describe it, his performance 'took its own form, life and time'.

His on-screen rendition of Jean-Michel Basquiat developed not through an obvious 'pen and paper'-bound emotional and psychological metamorphosis but through a more simple approach: Wright, as an actor, preferred not to merely play or portray Basquiat, but to embody him. Although he does not look like the late artist himself, Jeffrey Wright achieved to embrace the role not for the sake of showcasing some superficial acting prowess but to internally channel Basquiat as a human being. This unconscious but fruitful connection between Jeffrey Wright and Jean-Michel Basquiat was particularly enhanced by the fact that Julian Schnabel is also an artist/painter.

Considering that the artistic connection is fairly established between Wright, the mythical Basquiat and Schnabel, the film, in effect, has been much more transcendental and relatively honest in its emotional backbone and at the same time, also purer in its artistic merit.

The film's cast is great, with supporting roles by Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, a bit of Christopher Walken as his usual patented self playing an interviewer (this therefore completes an unofficial "True Romance" cast reunion), Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat's friend and Willem Dafoe as an electrician. David Bowie is wonderful to behold as Andy Warhol, whose facial resemblance with the enigmatic pop artist himself immensely helped in his portrayal and also added some authentic weight into his performance.

Although there were scenes that were too dormant for their own good, the film is quietly successful in almost all levels, specifically on how it was able to lift itself into a higher form of human 'drama' without accidentally spelling it out with an additional 'melo'. "Basquiat", as a biopic, is quite unique in its position. The film does celebrate the short-lived life and genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat but does not overly glorify him. The film shows his bleak self-decline but does not fully capitalize in it to exaggeratedly highlight a drama that is more than the film can swallow.

"Basquiat" is urgent in its neutrality as an observer. An observer of a man whose voice was deemed as coming from the gutters but whose art was deemed as a gift. With this middle ground stance, the film, with a great black and white look upon the short and bittersweet life of a "young black painter in a white art world", is an uncommon triumph.

Drive
Drive(2011)
½

Humanity and brutality. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who deservedly won the Best Director Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has beautifully tackled both in a stark existential light, that which echoes the likes of "Taxi Driver", and ultimately weighed both in a blurring contrast which highlights the compromises of poor choices. "Drive", with its violent nature and perverse tone, could have easily been a disposable Grindhouse-like feature. Its exaggerated depiction of nerve-wracking gore, an aspect that is a most common reason for audience polarization, complements the whole film but still suggests a heightened feel of sensationalism for the sake of shock.

Yes, these violent scenes are truly unnerving, but looking at the main character, a skilled driver who works in the movies and also for night heists, played with great control but also with unflinching rage by Ryan Gosling, his mysterious transformation from a passive loner to an involved, blood-drenched avenger is the one that's much more disturbing. Forget the violence first, it is this protagonist's motives and questionable decisions that is the film's center. With him lacking enough character background, it makes his actions all the more intriguing, but his surprising notion towards love and connection without much words to back it up, on the other hand, makes him all the more affecting.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (basing his screenplay on the novel of the same name by James Sallis), exposes two primal human impulses, to kill and to love, and brilliantly incorporated it into the film's stylized, almost poetic take on noir. What resulted is a perfect amalgamation of both substance and form, with a fair amount of adrenaline rush to sweeten it all up.

In its very immediate surface that echoes some action film formulas, It is expected for "Drive" to contain one-dimensional characters, particularly the villains, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. But these displays of intended shallowness is overwhelmed by the film's pitch-perfect rendition of tender love. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan sure has never worked before. Ryan Gosling sure is already initiated with love stories. But Carey Mulligan has been memorable via her turn as a naive young woman in "An Education", so jumping from innocence to maturity, performance-wise, is really quite challenging on her part.

It's almost a thing of miracle, but their chemistry here in "Drive" flowed smoothly despite of some initial constraints. Carey Mulligan, although very young, has portrayed Irene, the main reason for the driver's daring decisions, with this sense of desensitization towards life. It's as if she has gone through so much that she simply wants someone to hold. And him, the driver, on the other hand, being lonely and a complete nobody all his life (albeit him being a stunt driver for the movies), only wants someone's life to touch. With the use of great lighting, cinematography and music (with the elevator scene being the best example), "Drive" has successfully established these two characters' link with an almost melodious feel but also is effective in breaking it.

Narrative-wise, the film is tight in its execution, holds on firmly with what it is all about, and never went on for something else. This particular focus for what's immediate rather than to experimentally delve more on something that is marked with pretense only highlights the film's material strength in its consistent ability to tell a story and also to seamlessly state why it has been told in the first place. It roots out, of course, as what I've said earlier, from the characters' flawed choices.

Nicolas Winding Refn has stated that "Drive" is a tribute to surrealistic director Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose cinematic deviance is a thing both of beauty and disgust. That is particularly limiting because "Drive" is, above all, a general tribute to what great, uninhibited filmmaking is all about.

Sleeping Beauty
½

Things happened. Mysteries were unraveled. A woman's adventurous desires and curiosities were explored. Yet first-time director Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" felt like nothing has occurred in its entirety. With its sterile cinematography that surprisingly enhances the film's numerous scenes and effectively infuses a certain fascinating spell into its very mood, this visual stagnation that seems to pull "Sleeping Beauty" into the more elitist forays of art house self-indulgence, ironically, has also been its most appealing quality.

With a thematic feel that somehow reminds me of "Belle de Jour" and a bit of "Eyes Wide Shut", this film deeps its fingers into the dark waters of moral decadence, that which involves prostitution, without articulating much explicitly about it. Though it sure shows high-class hedonism brought into the extremes and has initiated Emily Browning's character Lucy into a world of worldly desires and emotional abstractions, Julia Leigh has able to handle all of these heavy-handed subject matters with finesse, therefore highlighting the film's very elemental issue of sexual and psychological adventurism without visually going over-the-top.

With enough reason, I sure did expect this film to be a bit more daring than it actually was, based on its compelling gist, some hearsay, and Emily Browning's intent to flex her indie muscles, which more or less suggests that it's a given that she will delve into nudity. Admittedly, the film sure had its issues, particularly its sudden transitions from one pointless scene to another that really shouts of incoherence. But in many moments, Emily Browning's uninhibitedly strong performance subtly redeems all of these missteps. Of course, it's hard to rescue a film, however great its starring actors or actresses are, from narrative imperfections. Even the characterization of Lucy had its major flaws, specifically the fact that she did the things that she has done in the film without any concrete motivations.

Was it for money? Then why did she burned one during a scene? Is it for carnal pleasures? Then why is she constantly hesitant and unsure of what she's doing? Ultimately, maybe Julia Leigh is too set on molding a very complex character that she has unwittingly brought Lucy into a place with a tad too much questions without clear signs of answering them, let alone some tries to do so. But to redundantly express myself, Emily Browning sure has delivered a stellar performance in this film that completely erases her earlier fiasco in Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch".

Now, to consider another perspective, Maybe Julia Leigh has intentionally painted Lucy's character in an obviously abstract form simply because she wants to convey her female protagonist's boundless alienation, both from her immediate environment and from us, the audience. "Sleeping Beauty" is, after all, a tale of a woman's aimless descent not into some cliched madness, but into a conscious reality of submitting to depravity.

But as deficient as the film may be in terms of its certainty for narrative goals, a scene halfway into the film has stood out the most on how it has perfectly deviated from the film's overall nature of existential aimlessness with its all too vulnerably human voice. It's the scene where this old client, as he gets ready for his 'turn' for the sleeping Lucy, poignantly recounts a short story to the madame, Clara (played by Rachael Blake), that relates to his existence.

He expressed the fact that all his life, he didn't have any 'broken bones' (symbolically presenting his mundane, all too normal and restricted existence) but merely pretended. And now that he's broken down and wearily old, he has regretfully conceded to the fact that they are now, sensing that everything's too late, that time cannot be turned, and it is only from this carnal retreat (in the form of Lucy) that he may find momentary peace.

This sequence really did struck a chord and left a relatively powerful impression within me with its assurance that at least in a film filled with meaningless encounters with sexuality, perversity and whatnot, there's someone who's indeed in the mix not for the utter senselessness of it all but for a tired admittance of defeat. A film that is truly not for everyone, and I mean it.

Tower Heist
Tower Heist(2011)

With a half-engine steam of energy seemingly got from Danny Ocean's capers and John Mcclane's shoeless skyscraper escapades coupled with a fine comic establishment by way of the 'recruitment for a mission' treatment, "Tower Heist", though pure disposable fun and nothing more, is truly well worth your time.

Ben Stiller, with his usual gentleman approach to humor, is the sober center of the whole film while Eddie Murphy, in his pure ghetto ass glory, serves as the film's riotous catalyst for its scattered, language-driven comedy. With director Brett Ratner having successfully handled Chris Tucker's mouth in the "Rush Hour" films, there's no doubt that he can also pull it off with Eddie Murphy. Even more so that he has greatly incorporated considerably resonant dialogues into Murphy's character without going over-the-top.

With many actors in the film for the director and the writers to potentially play up a convincing chemistry, Ratner and company conjured up a nice balance among the chief players, with established actors like Casey Affleck and Matthew Broderick having their respective moments, while budding ones like Gabourey Sidibe and Michael Peña stealing scenes of their own. For some, "Tower Heist" may seem a bit too formalistic in its execution of a comic caper. Though that and a slight lack of climactic ingenuity may very well be considered as hindrances for it to achieve a certain uniqueness that will separate it from other films of its kind, its 'no detours' take on its narrative makes it all the more enjoyable and easier to take that at least, though stealing a car from a secured skyscraper isn't really what 'reality' suggests either, creates a vulnerably believable atmosphere where thieves may get caught anytime and that plans can be half-baked as best. No twists to spice up the character dynamics, no plot distortions to sweeten up what's happening and no far-fetched surprises for us to surmise.

For once, it's truly refreshing to see a film dealing with a big-time caper without complexities that were there just for the sake of surprise. "Tower Heist" captures what is 'enjoyable' without any plot pretensions and instead sticks with what the story is all about and what the characters are going to do. I'm just having a problem with the fact that the main antagonist isn't that well-formed as a character and too hands-off with what he's accused to do (securities fraud, especially inflicted to his own employees) that I consider having a bunch of laid off guys (well, and a hardened thief) storm his expensive flat and break glasses and walls to steal a millions' worth of an article a bit of an overkill. He's just too corporate and too thinly-introduced as a villain to be remembered and be taken seriously. For a film to succeed, a memorable adversary must be of the essence.

Sadly for "Tower Heist", it had its 'James Bonds' in the guise of Stiller and company but seemingly neglected the notion for a more crucial 'Blofeld'. The film had numerous high points, especially Eddie Murphy's scenes of comic tirades that may seem generic and over-used but admittedly never gets old. But as the film heads towards a potentially explosive 'climax', the part where I often ultimately weigh off a writer's talent in how he/she can properly wrap all of a film's happenings into one final justification, "Tower Heist" exhausts itself on its own ideas that it reaches a climax where the words 'lukewarm' and 'underwhelming' are written all over.

Maybe the film being all too linear is both its strength and weakness. With that, "Tower Heist" surely isn't a perfect heist film nor is it an excellent comedy film. But at the end of the day, "Tower Heist" mixed both genres in moderate amounts and as a result, created a finish product that may not be ideal representatives of either but nonetheless a film that has the ability to deliver just the right dose of adequate escapism, but one that certainly won't last that long.

The Serpent's Egg

I am really not quite sure what really is "The Serpent's Egg" more weighing flaw: The whole alienating premise of the film or David Carradine's robotic performance. But basing my choice on my better judgment, I'm gearing more towards the latter.

Throughout this whole Ingmar Bergman-directed feature, aside from that final, pseudo-scientific revelation, the film really felt nothing but an aimless exercise in existential angst. With our disillusioned and hapless protagonist roaming the decaying streets of 1920's Berlin that is completely unaware of a governmental take-over being led by someone named Adolf Hitler, I think that the groundwork as to why he's slowly being consumed by despair was not properly established, resulting with us being left with a main character that is both underwhelming and emotionally plodding.

I just don't think that David Carradine, a cult actor known for roles such as "Caine" in "Kung Fu" (a bit unrelated but it's interesting to note that his character here is then named "Abel"; a sort of an unconscious biblical allusion) and later as "Bill" in Tarantino's "Kill Bill", fits these kinds of roles. He's just relatively too tough-looking to really make his character believable and empathetic. Even Liv Ullmann, an actress of great emotional depth, is a bit out of place playing a forgettable character.

But then, there's Sven Nykvist's calculated cinematography that constantly puts dread and bleakness even in the most joyous cabaret settings and at the same time, finds emptiness even in a crowd. This is particularly evident in the film's impressive and disturbingly ambiguous opening scene (that is, until the climactic final exposition) where Nykvist has shot a scene of people of different ages and walks of life descending a stair with deeply melancholic and exhausted faces in stark, grainy black and white.

At certain points, the film's flimsy hands seem to let go of my already fleeting attention, but there's no doubt about the uncannily fascinating impression that the climactic 'explanation' scene, pulled off rather brilliantly by Heinz Bennent who played an experimentation scientist who knows the core secret as to why people like Abel are slowly slipping off from sanity, has left me.

Yes, it does felt that that crucially revelatory sequence looked and sounded more like a scene that you may see from those 'mad scientist' movies rather than from 'art' films like this, but for it to prophetically foretell the Nazi revolution's supposed 'New Society' and at the same time highlighting and comparing its idealistic superiority to an old one founded by the goodness of man is truly unnerving and, in a way, very brave.

And considering that this is Ingmar Bergman's first and only Hollywood film, "The Serpent's Egg" should be remembered more as a testament of his unbounded audacity rather than as a disappointing speed bump in his otherwise flawless oeuvre.

Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang (You Are Weighed in the Balance But Are Found Wanting)

Living in the modern Filipino film culture, one can't easily delve oneself deeper into it without even hearing about the film "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" and marvel about how heavily metaphoric the title really is. And then, with an unconscious compulsion, you then become curious. What is the film really all about? I, for one, initially thought that this film, although undoubtedly one of the finer Filipino films, isn't clearly one of the all-time greats. That's me and my unflinching idiocy. I then rewatched it with the aforementioned question rerunning in my mind, and then some. And just like that, I was in utter awe.

"Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" may widely be considered as Lino Brocka's seminal masterpiece, but somewhere within the corners of my mind where "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag", "Bona" and this film are on a continual struggle for subjective supremacy, it might just be his best work.

Contrary to Brocka's trademark ambient sounds-enhanced, raw visuals-enforced neorealisitic approach to contemporary Filipino squalor that has been ever prevalent in his later films such as "Insiang", "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" boasts of a powerful human drama set within the hypocritical social and religious milieu of a seemingly quiet rural town.

Part coming-of-age film and part cinematic indignation of inhuman judgments, the film succeeded to disturb, touch and shake viewers all at the same time with its potent ability to deliver both an encompassing social commentary and an observant exploration of an adolescent's moral journey from debilitating indifference to something mirroring righteous courage and humanity.

The teenager, named Junior, played by then-rookie actor Christopher De Leon (who won a FAMAS for his performance in the film) who surprisingly handled the role like a seasoned veteran, is caught at an early crossroad; in this existential standstill, he can't seem to find his own path. Should he follow his father's successful yet women's perfume-laden path (a serial womanizer, that is)? Must he pursue a romantic, but ultimately hollow and immature commitment, or does he have the fiber to embrace the lives of two sideshow social outcasts whose deeply felt relationship overpowers their physical and mental shortcomings?

In some ways, just as how Brocka applied it to his later film "Jaguar", "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" is a film that deals with crucial choices. Even with the dream-like opening sequence alone which, in a very hallucinatory way, portrayed the emotional nightmare of an abortion, both in its procedure, the aftermath (this powerful scene prophetically answers some of the questions that were raised in the 1985 film "Hinugot sa Langit) and the psychological effect once the choice regarding it was finally made, though in the film's case, a one-sided one at that (Lolita Rodriguez's Kuala seems unwilling).

Today, mentioning the name Lolita Rodriguez is like unveiling a dignified marble statue of a true Filipino cinematic icon, and for that kind of automatic pop culture thinking, suffice it to say that it was duly in part of her legendary performance in this film as the town lunatic, Kuala. It's one of the best performances in all of Filipino cinema, and her detailed conveyance of staggering facial expressions and uncanny gestures brilliantly merged and crisscrossed both the overly animated movements of a dirty mental case and the uncommon emotional depths of a woman who just suffered too much and is begging, by way of her soul creeping silently through her eyes, for all of it to end.

Mario O'Hara's role as Berto the leper is just as tricky to pull off. Listening to some of his lines, the character may easily drift into one-dimensional nobility, but O'Hara kept it all together quite consistently and has able to display the visceral goodness of a man who has nothing left to lose but just enough time to love. Eddie Garcia also shined in his role as Junior's father, Cesar, a role he so conveniently and effortlessly played that the very polygamous core of the said character has since been iterated quite heftily in his action film roles (the 'Manoy' persona).

One of Brocka's real, unequaled strengths is his great execution of endings. The one here in "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" is a great example. Playing with the facial expressions of both the extras and the chief actors while still maintaining the emotional strain of the ending's dramatic center, the film, although can easily be branded as a communal tragedy, is still hopeful despite of its wounded premises. And as Junior emerges from Kuala and Berto's hut, carrying a symbolic purity that is a product of two individuals that were subjected to inhumanity, there's a feeling of solitary safety, and at last an emphasis, as Junior looks upon the people's guilty faces, of what was really weighed and found terribly wanting: the town itself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Even though I have watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" way back (I think I was in 4th year high school or something), seeing it for the second time after reading the Ken Kesey-written novel from which the film was based is like seeing it anew. With the similarly-titled book conveying an uncanny life and energy that easily stimulates both the raw senses and the imagination, this film adaptation bursts of the same raw vitality of the human spirit fully prevalent in the said literary work. It's as if this film isn't merely a cinematic translation of classic literature but more of a direct affirmation of the material's true underlying power.

Even in just the film's opening scene alone, as we see the car which carries our flawed hero R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in a performance that only 'he' can call his own) into the mental institution, there's this clear-cut inevitability of a living and breathing cinematic rendition, and how everything, although there were drastic liberties taken by director Milos Forman and company, really seems to fall into place and almost symphonic in a way. Never have I been more excited of seeing a book's setting, which in that case a mental hospital, being visually laid down into separate sets of narrative establishments, and never have I been more compelled to see characters, even clinically-crazy ones at that (which I have treated as my subconscious friends for more than 2 weeks while I read the book), slowly populate the composite spaces of the screen.

Considering that the film is that of a mercurial human drama, inappropriately as it may seem, I was extremely pumped up towards re-watching "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the same way as when I'm about to watch a nicely-hyped thriller feature. And as the film, with only slightly more than 2 hours in its sleeve to cover all of the novel's essence, comes to an end, I came to a conclusion which I deem to be very proper: As a mere adaptation, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" had its issues, particularly the much discussed and polarizing change of the story's main point of view from Chief Bromden (played by Will Sampson) to McMurphy. But as a stand-alone film, it really is quite untouchable in its unwavering capacity to deliver a walloping emotional punch and an unforgettable humanization of a place commonly conceived to have forgotten about it. It is indeed one of the best films of the 70's, and the fact that it has swept all the major honors in the 48th Academy awards agrees with my rave assumption.

What really moves this film forward in terms of both pacing and characterization, aside from the brilliant dynamics of the relationship between Nicholson's defiant McMurphy and Louise Fletcher's great portrayal of a mechanically brutal Nurse Ratched (I wonder if she's an acquaintance of Miss Trunchbull, or Warden Norton perhaps), are the eager and resilient all-around performances by the film's sideshow supporting cast of Acutes and Chronics, specifically early roles by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and especially the underrated character actor Brad Dourif. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (edit: I read in the IMDb trivia page that he was actually replaced by Bill Butler early in the production due to Wexler's creative dispute with producer Michael Douglas) finely contrasted the mental institution's structure, both its calm exterior shots and white-painted interiors which symbolically exudes the characters' pristine but insidious imprisonment within a so-called therapeutic environment with the suggestive spark plug-like 'chaos' about to explode at any given time.

Like Milos Forman's earlier "The Firemen's Ball", through the use of quick cuts and rapid verbal noises to highlight the escalation of tension and full-blown disorder, he has painted a fragile mental atmosphere merely held together by the Big Nurse's wide-eyed cold glances and authoritatively monotonous voice, but is forcefully being loosen up by McMurphy's knack for anarchic freewill.

But McMurphy is by no means an enduring hero of sorts. Unlike other inspiring, Oscar bait-y films that have since came out of the bowels of Hollywood, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is never meant to be a black and white struggle between the proverbial 'good' and 'evil', but as a timeless study of extreme authority clashing with non-conformity.

Chief Bromden, on the other hand, is our mediator, but at the same time, a conceptual representation of the 'unreliable' narrator (at least in the novel). And as what I've mentioned above, if the varied characters have been my friends for the past 2 weeks or so while I read the book, Bromden has been my bestest there is, and seeing him quite underdeveloped in the film is like reuniting with a good ol' friend of mine again after so many years but mysteriously does not seem to want to talk to me anymore.

But through that crucial flaw, a flaw so detrimental that it has given Ken Kesey enough reason not to watch the film until his dying days, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is still a masterful film that blurs the boundaries between comedy and drama, the bittersweet and the tragic.

"But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that." Great, enduring words from McMurphy which speaks of great meaning regarding the characters' predicament as much as it does to filmmakers in general in the context of literary adaptations. There's a recurring trivia that Ken Kesey, seeing this film one time on TV without knowing that it is indeed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", thought it was interesting (of course he immediately found out). Just as what I've said earlier, although in some ways a letdown as an adaptation, it brilliantly succeeds as a film which holds its own ground as a genuine classic of American cinema.

Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver(1976)

A film review/analysis of what may be the best film ever made:

With its main target being to portray the extremely acute post-Vietnam War angst and disillusionment, director Martin Scorsese focused his lenses and vision to a lone cab driver cruising through the filthy streets of New York that almost alludes to a contemporary 'hell', and subtly articulates about the ambiguous nature of insanity. And the result is, well, not just his masterpiece, but one of the finest films American cinema has to offer. It stars Robert De Niro in a heavily complex (and one of the screen's greatest) performance as Travis Bickle, exhibiting both his mastery of subtle acting and his ever-escalating intensity.

But his Travis Bickle is never just a character. He is a representation. A social mirror of how depression and loneliness exist in a subjugated psychological fragment of society where existence is just for the sake of it, and the meaning of the word 'interaction' a fading afterthought. There are those who do not want to meet any new people save for some of his/her few acquaintances. There are those who do not know people much but is striving to meet some. And then there is Travis.

One of the film's timeless aspects is its disturbing, angry, but ultimately sad narration by Bickle himself. Here's a man who transforms his solitude into an anger-laden vigilantism against the so-called 'filth' of the streets. Here's a man who has nothing but his own breathing body and his own deteriorating psychological health. But at least, here is a man who stood up. But to look at Travis Bickle as a flawed hero is far from what "Taxi Driver" is all about. To look at him as a man with a goal and and a concrete initiative is far from the film's nightmarish view of what Travis Bickle is and what he's in for.

If we'll go into a direct assumption that him saving a young prostitute is a heroic deed, then why haven't they just made "Taxi Driver" into a dramatically redemptive little action movie? The answer is this: the whole 'saving the prostitute' mission he had is, like his existence, just for the sake of it. Looking at Travis's motivational pattern, all of his actions root out from him being rejected by the beautiful campaign worker Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd).

With him having nowhere to go from there, he went on for a plan to assassinate presidential candidate Charles Palantine, not just to horribly capture the imagination of countless people regarding the fact of how terribly 'far-out' a man can be to do such a thing (John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman already captured ours in real life) and also to take hold of Betsy's attention. This is where ambiguity regarding his actions really starts to go haywire.

Some would say that his plan to kill Palantine is a condemning act to blame the said candidate for not being able to clean up the city's filth. But take note of their scene inside Travis' cab earlier in the film. Their conversation, although a bit distant in nature, is an honest exchange between two men craving for change. See how Travis' eyes went from being patronizingly phony into deeply-set ones as he stated how he wants someone to just flush all the city's scum down the toilet.

In all fairness, Travis do want some change, but relating this sentiment with his act to kill Palantine for not being able to do so (to do something with the city, that is) is foolish. Just like a common psychologically disturbed fellow resulting from extreme social isolation, Travis dreams of 'grandeur'. He wants to be 'that' man that has purposely killed the presidential candidate, and the people will remember him for it. The same applies to his final ditch effort to save the young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster in a performance that earned her an early Oscar nomination) from his manipulative pimp (played by the great Harvey Keitel).

Because he failed in his previous plan, and also maybe because he has thought that killing a high-profile political figure may put him into the psychotic row of the history pages, Travis decided to enter the territories of folk heroism and masqueraded himself as an obscure social crusader, albeit an extreme one. Take note of the film's tagline: "On every street in every city, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody." Travis Bickle may have achieved cult status as an ideal cinematic anti-hero, but I view him more as nothing but a confused and heavily disillusioned fellow who wants to prove something within himself and to everyone, even if it takes a casualty or two to do it. But although I do not see him as a hero, I see him as a truly sympathetic figure, and a truly saddening one at that.

Scorsese (along with Paul Schrader's masterful screenplay), with his ethereal but deeply unsettling depiction of 70's New York City, enhanced by Bernard Hermann's misleadingly seductive yet menacing musical score, symbolically pushes Travis Bickle into a lonesome spotlight in the middle of a show, only to subsequently find out that audiences are filing out of the venue even before he had the chance to step into the stage. "Taxi Driver" is the manifestation of how he may have hypothetically felt at that moment, and the result is a film of unequaled greatness. Please do watch this film, and let the brilliance of what 'true' cinema is all about pervade within your soul.

Three Idiots
Three Idiots(2009)

Here's what pure cinematic escapism is all about. "3 Idiots", which gained an unexpected popularity among the adolescent demographic here in the Philippines, has combined colorful characters, a well-weaved (though a bit far-fetched at certain turns, I must admit) narrative and a breathing, all-smiling grasp of the meaning of true education, the joy of learning and of course, friendship.

Aamir Khan, looking like a cross between Tobey Maguire and Jude Law, plays Rancho, a character wrapped in a velvet of myth but whose energetic presence and sentimental vulnerability makes him all the more affecting and engaging even though merely imagining someone like him to exist in real life departs from plausibility. Think of him as Andy Dufresne reiterated into India's stoic engineering culture. Just like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's splendid "Amelie", which boast of relentless sub-narratives that have enhanced and expanded its mono-centered story (to that of the titular girl) into a 2-hour circus-like universe of emotions and ideas, "3 Idiots" has masterfully etched a unique atmosphere out of the potentially boring and monotonous everyday lives of the engineering world.

But then again, with Bollywood and its endless arsenal for entertainment, that which includes rainbow-palette dance sequences and sugary sentimentalism, nothing is impossible, except of course putting a toothpaste back into its tube (a little in-joke there).

Aside from being a highly amusing comedy film about camaraderie, it's also a wonderful showcase of existential optimism that even borders light philosophy, but never succumbs into conceptual confusion. This is "3 Idiots'" specific strength. Along with its long-running energy are well-conceived ideas that never falter in the face of quick humor. Director Rajkumar Hirani took advantage of the film's catchy overall visual texture and effectively inserted life lessons and instant but penetrating wisdom into its very core, added up some quick-witted conversational symbolism, a genuine inclination to connect with its viewers and voila, an ideal thinking man's quasi-fantasy dramedy.

But limiting "3 Idiots" within the accepted idea of the term 'thinking man' is just like adhering myself to school director Viru's (one of the film's great highlights, played by Boman Irani) stern but flawed educational principle of text-book knowledge and by-the-book intelligence. Just like what Rene Descartes famously stated, "I think, therefore I am"; with "3 Idiots", as what I have mentioned, being a film for thinking men, I used the term in the sense of how it encapsulates the cerebral wholeness of everyone whose gift to distinguish schooling from education, from memorization to absorption automatically makes them its tailor-made audience. A film that is purely fit for every autonomous thinker who can beat their heart or two for an education that is something more than a one-sided inclination towards a monetary future.

For once, I'm really glad that a film of this content and caliber has able to pervade itself into the immediate film-watching vicinity of many people, especially students. Glaring and losing hope at those trash comedy films being spoon-fed into mainstream audience's mouths just to compensate for everyone's hunger to be entertained and be somehow enlightened, along came "3 Idiots" with all barrels blazing and every means utilized to deliver something much, much more than a few laughs.

If the usual comedy film can induce laughter, this film 'inspires' laughter. This is an ideal film for values formation and a wonderful Indian picture that never squeezes out its distinct cinematic character from the common geographic and cultural staples of the country itself. It treads its own path and creates a name out of something truly original and very worthwhile. And also, it never felt like it's almost 3 hours long.

Monster
Monster(2004)
½

What make serial killers seem to be subjects of mystery and perplex are the constant speculations and certain inconsistencies as to how painful and deeply scarred their pasts really were to justify and serve as valid arguments as to why they have done their atrocious deeds. What made Ted Bundy rape and kill? What triggered John Wayne Gacy to don that creepy clown costume, take on that 'Pogo' persona and do the same? This particularly distances Aileen Wuornos (at least on how the film has portrayed her and her motivational catalyst to kill) from such human abominations.

There's never an abnormal impulse within her to murder save for her desperation and for survival. Here's a real-life killer and high-way prostitute whose casualties are not the result of psychological distortions but of a mind rendered numb not mainly by a traumatic past (her being raped by a family friend and countless other instances) but by its concentrated manifestation into the present. At some point, I even see the cinematic Aileen Wuornos as some sort of an unknowing vigilante that only kills those who deserve it and, in the bitter end, if only it's circumstantially necessary.

"Monster", of course not considered as a straight-laced biopic, is part-stigmatic romance and part-road film but overall an engrossing drama of a woman's internal conflict hopelessly and helplessly taken to the extremes. This merge of meager sub-genres is, without a doubt, heightened at every pace by Charlize Theron's legendary performance as Aileen Wuornos, although I really think that it fully transcends the simple concept of the term 'performance'.

There were leading portrayals in many biopics that whatever make-up you put unto the actor's/actress' face, no matter how much characteristic emulations bordering impersonation they may take on, they simply cannot work for the sole reason that you can easily see what's under those biographical skins and how they were more an exercise of a star's outer acting range rather than a deeply felt performance piece.

For Charlize, there's a sense of bitter, almost teary-eyed urgency in her Aileen Wuornos, and an obscure side that she's more than eager to tell. Along with her disturbing but incredibly human portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, it's understandable to put a younger and more naive fictionalized lover on her side in the form of Selby Wall (Christina Ricci in a powerfully understated role) to really add some more weight to Aileen's motivations for money and a clear-cut reason for her to thrive on living. There were these poignantly sad scenes where Aileen Wuornos, determined to lead a normal life and quit a lifetime of hooking, awkwardly set on to apply for jobs she's less than under-qualified to pursue.

From these we see her potential for a legitimate social existence, and also from these, backed by her narration that tells of the flowery words about success that she has heard from a known band's drummer when she was 13 years old, we see and hear her simultaneous concession to the fact that life is not always about chasing dreams and all that 'rich' and 'famous' bullshit but is in fact, quite simply, just bullshit, and 'prostitution' is at its very tip.

A film beautifully photographed by Steven Bernstein and written and directed by Patty Jenkins with sheer but not overly biased empathy, "Monster" destroys the claim that apathy and nihilism are the only thing that runs through someone like Aileen's mind; sometimes, in her case, it's an act to lash out against an unforgiving social state that just sadly and uncontrollably went too far, which leads us to the film's very title, "Monster".

Is it pertaining to Aileen herself, to the outer forces that have abnormally molded her to what she has become, or a combination of both? I very much prefer it to pertain to the Ferris wheel that she has repeatedly mentioned throughout the film. An emotional retreat and a rare innocent slate of her existence. Let's let her have that.

P.S. A perfect companion piece to Kimberly Peirce's equally great "Boys Don't Cry".

Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction(1994)

Oh, how "Pulp Fiction" exemplifies the very meaning of the phrase 'it gets better after every viewing'. One can watch this film any way he/she wants to. If you're in a mood for a pretty slick, densely-written comedy of characters and choices, then there's nowhere to look further than this film. If you're in for some pop culture-laden crime film, then "Pulp Fiction" it still is.

Now, if you may initially think that this film is nothing but a shallowly self-indulgent farce that extracts its energy and ideas from worn-out B-movie references and obscure music, then simply look at it through Jules Winnfield's (the immortalized Samuel L. Jackson) desensitized eyes. It will immediately turn into a film of staggering, multi-layered power, and a rough-edged ode towards spiritual redemption and hard-bound honor, which is what the film is really all about, at least in my view.

But do not get me wrong about that 'selective exposure'-type subjective viewing that I have recommended. I mean, it can still be enjoyed in its immediate layer of violence and involving dialogues. But "Pulp Fiction", unlike any other films not just of its kind but of any films in general, gets better every time you dig a little bit deeper. There's little to no doubt why critics have endlessly analyzed the film ranging from its theological relevance to its devilish undercurrents (Did Marsellus Wallace's really sold his soul to the devil?). Many people have since relished all that's been there, surface-wise. Now it's time to further the appreciation.

There have been countless deconstructions, theorizing and analogizing (I'm not even counting how many speculations have been formulated regarding the content of Marsellus Wallace's briefcase) that have occurred and transpired ever since this film claimed one of the uppermost pedestals of postmodern cinema so that it can rightfully stand side-by side with the seminal works of Jean-Luc Godard.

"Pulp Fiction" has also created a colorful, albeit violence-laden, alternate reality where gangsters may kill in cold blood and talk about foot massages and cheeseburgers and rejected TV pilots at the same breath. A parallel but infinitely peculiar netherworld where normal-looking fellows can ably run pawn shops the same way they can also be dangerous homosexual perverts.

But the film, a masterful merging of spontaneous articulacy and empirical pop culture knowledge by Quentin Tarantino, Quentin Tarantino (I just have to mention him twice) and Roger Avary (who both deservedly won an Oscar for the film's unique screenplay), ceased to be just a cynical exploration of the wholeness of crime.

For a film that consists of sex, drugs and violence that blur the boundaries that separate it from the thematic commonalities of a typical B-grade fare, Tarantino and Avary infused their subtly hopeful sides into it to provoke, balance, and substantiate the transgressive nature that they have visually depicted all throughout the film. "Pulp Fiction", with its ironic mixture of cruelty and humanity, displays an unorthodox poise that makes it even more special and, to a certain extent, quite illuminating.

There's not much to say regarding its top-notch all-star cast, with Sam Jackson, John Travolta (as Vincent Vega) and Uma Thurman (as Mia Wallace) delivering the highlight performances, and with Bruce Willis as prizefighter Butch Coolidge serving as our rare glimpse of heroism that may either be self-serving, unconditional or both.

But what really served as the film's transition point from darkness to light is Jules' powerful dual delivery of the "Ezekiel 25:17" Bible verse. Notice his initial delivery that seems to be an oratorical expression of superficial, god-like anger. Then compare it to his enlightened utterance of the said verse in the film's final scenes. For people who may say that "Pulp Fiction" is nothing but a pretentious, overwritten mess that has an almost 3-hour running time but does not even have anything concrete to say at all, take a look at the tonal difference between the two line deliveries and how Jules, in his latter enunciation, stresses the line about how he tries real hard to be a shepherd with glittering conviction. It's just stunning.

Sometimes, it's not mainly the narrative that hands out change, but the characters themselves. Consider Winston Wolf's (Harvey Keitel) unforgettable remark: "Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character." Fortunately, Jules surely is and certainly has.

The Fly
The Fly(1986)
½

Before anything else, even now, I still can't believe that I have bought a copy of "The Fly" from a legitimate store for a whopping 25 pesos (that's around 50 cents in American currency), while countless copies of Asylum-produced films like "Transmorphers" and "The Day the Earth Stopped" (Really, they thought someone would fall for that?) are there in the same store sitting comfortably in their overly expensive asses. Oh wait, a film called "Fargo" also sits in the lonely 25 bucks rack. Damn, really.

Now, moving on, I think it's quite refreshingly sardonic for director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue (who adapted his screenplay from the 1958 original and also from the George Langelaan short story) to use an irrelevant insect to shockingly introduce us to the narrative's true frightening pulse. The film could have also worked on a much lighter level if its anomaly would have rooted out from the simple idea of the teleportation device itself, but the film took this common science fiction nugget into the real extremes, not just for the sake of it, but to offer something more.

Now we see the downside of intellectual grandeur not just by how it portrays the toll it gives to a man who has one mentally and socially (living in isolation, a lousy hair, Einstein references and the like), but also physically. The film of course focused more on the very last. But that focus that may seem, at first glance, too shallow a center point for a film, was emotionally balanced by enough doses of drama and "Frankenstein"-ish goth romance. What differentiates "The Fly" from Mary Shelley's literary classic, though, is how the first specifically merged both the 'fiend' and Victor Frankenstein in one wholeness, in the form of Jeff Goldblum's Seth Brundle character.

How he turned into that ghastly, slimy and monstrous creature, that is where the story's Olympian god-like intervention and alteration of the characters' motives and actions take full command of the film. Like the fly inside the teleporter plot mischief, Seth Brundle's motive as to why he carelessly attempted (and technically succeeded) to teleport himself was for one simple reason. No, not those complex internal conflicts regarding a self-debate of how he can change the world and himself by way of molecularly transporting himself through electricity and wires and stuff, but for the simple fact that he was crazy drunk (with a baboon as sole company) during the time.

Like the Coen brothers that seem to laugh at their protagonist's (especially in their neo-noirs) own misdemeanors and faux pas as they go helplessly and hay-wire insane from one situation to another, Cronenberg brilliantly manifests this unconscious natural albeit peculiar flow of existence that purely enunciates that sometimes, things, particularly the crazy ones, just happen. But from this initial, almost comic-like hammering of nails to seal Brundle's 'unfortunate fate', "The Fly", after being initially founded by an uneasy but evidently passionate romance between scientist Seth and journalist Veronica (played by Geena Davis, who later became more renowned as Thelma in "Thelma and Louise"), is emotionally intensified not mainly by its visual horror but by the sheer idea of love.

Through this way, the film became more or less a much relentless horror. A horror of choice. The film instantly became more concerned not about who kills who or who goes where or who decapitates which body part, but what it really takes to give up something. Would you relish love all the same even when the one you continuously love is a physical manifestation of hate and disgust? "The Fly", surprisingly, answered immediately with a not-so-subtle shotgun blast, then a fade to black. Not seeing what happens next is an extreme rarity among science fiction horrors. Not even the most recent "Splice" denied us a peak of an uncertain epilogue.

This is the thing that will surely be a constant reminder as to why I 'll always place "The Fly" on a separate field of existence, far from other films of its kind. It is this brave adamant stance to refuse us the answer to the question "What happened next?" that took me into "The Fly's" almost hypnotic spell of fright, bodily fluids and mad love.

It is this film's shining ability to just live in the moment, the beginning, middle, end and all, and forget about any prolonged post-carnage drama that convinced me of its audacious greatness. Fast-forwarding through the film in weary anticipation of a surprise post-credits sequence and subsequently finding out that there's none, there's this slight sigh of relief. Post-carnage drama? I believe Veronica's brief but infinitely tragic weeping is enough. I was moved, alright.

Mou gaan dou (Infernal Affairs)

It took me a long time to get my hands (and eyes) on this film that has gained much more attention after it was remade by this fairly obscure director named Martin Scorsese as that little film called "The Departed". And finally, after seeing "Infernal Affairs" for the very first time, there clearly isn't any doubt why such legendary filmmaker would be too fascinated by it that it has inspired him to re-imagine it into a solid Oscar winner.

Of course, suffice it to say that "The Departed" is the better overall film from the screenplay up to the raw performances (although "Infernal Affairs'" solidly ethereal cinematography takes the cake for me), but this film introduces how Asian cinema, as a whole, can accelerate into higher degrees of narrative sophistication and more complex characters without the usual jumps, kicks, and overly stylish gun ballets.

While I'm watching the film, there's the common bias circling within my head as a result of watching a remake and an original in the wrong order. Some scenes seem simplified, a few subplots looking quite underdeveloped and a hefty lot of melodramatic injections that have filled up more than the film can contain. At times, with the choruses of sentimental musical scores, there's this feeling that I'm watching a John Woo film with Woo being on a set piece-sized lazy fit (due to the lack of literal action, that is).

But then there attacks the film's hard-hitting Shakesperean (by way of how it can transcend time boundaries) plotline that is truly powerful and tragic as it is timeless. Really, you can put the film's story into whatever historical timeline and its tensely emotional grip won't get any weaker. Two people on the opposite ends of an equally sharp double-blade. Two goals of two contrasting characters running and functioning on fragile moral codes. This is Lau and Yan (played by Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai with equally silent intensity and incendiary emotions), trapped in ordeals that are choices of their own.

The film may look like your usual cat-and-mouse-type crime thriller but "Infernal Affairs" also appeals in an existential and almost spiritual kind of way that seem to form a lyrical discourse about self-preservation and destiny in the middle of a casualty-laden chess match between the mob and the police force. Like Woo's "The Killer" or even Michael Mann's "Heat", the film perfectly contrasts a couple of isolated characters and filters them through a dramatic lens before putting them into a crucially consequential collision.

"Infernal Affairs" is also wise and articulate enough to put thematic issues such as split ideals, torn loyalties and true selves into a subtle parallelism in the form of Lau's girlfriend's novel about a man with 29 identities. More than ever, thinking once again of "The Departed", I eternally hate Matt Damon's scheming Colin Sullivan (the remake's Lau). Immediately, I assumed the same for Andy Lau's character. I even thought Lau's brilliant facial expressions that show tension, deceit and conceit in different magnitudes of situations evoke an enveloping sense of disdain more than Damon does.

But seeing how the film's events unfold, I see Lau more as a tragically-fated character that merely found himself on the wrong end of the 'black and white' moral spectrum. And deeper and deeper I delve into the film's almost mythical deconstruction of the usual moral 'black and whites', the more I realize how "The Departed's" informant twist regarding Jack Nicholson's character (the remake's crime boss equivalent) was really uncalled for.

But then, both are different films, but there's really something about "Infernal Affairs'" picturesque choice of locations that seem to enhance the story's atmosphere at a distinctly unique level that not even the mean streets of Boston can match.

For me, the produced sequels to this film were completely unnecessary. For once, "Infernal Affairs" is a stand-alone moral fable more than it is an immediate thriller film. It's a deeply human film more than it is about the exploits of despicable gangsters and game-face police officers. And finally, it's a character-driven picture more than it is a twisty little police procedural.

Hypothetically speaking, if I'm a video store clerk and you would ask me which section I'll put "Infernal Affairs" into, I'll gladly put it in the 'drama' section any day of the week.

Oro, Plata, Mata
½

"Oro, Plata, Mata" can easily be accused of being too explicit and overly indulgent on Peque Gallaga's part, but it can't be doubted that this film puts forth a visually harrowing perspective that does not merely settle on pacifist commentaries or wartime tears. Sometimes, just like how Gallaga has presented his allegorical "Scorpio Nights", films must not wait in some dark corner in hopes that someone may clumsily pick them up out of curiosity. They must be assertive with their audience regarding whatever they want to show, and "Oro, Plata, Mata" succeeded to do just that, with the occasional 'shock' factor on the side.

Just like "Batch '81", which suddenly begins with a musical score that mirrors the sounds of a circus fun fair, this film also opened with a music that seems out of place. A mixture of harmlessness and sardonic sarcasm, the music plays as if it's poking fun of its mannered bourgeoisie characters, Bunuel-style. The film's opening credits greet us with assortment of characters moving in 'slow-motion' as they fix their hairs and smoke tobaccos. Going along with these scenes is this sinister feel that wraps them that seem to suggest that "Oro, Plata, Mata" is about decadence as it is about the entrails of war, if not more.

And as the film furthers its linear yet episodic narrative descent into the grave unknowns of war, it unfolds an unsettling portrait of how even the most mannered of people may easily concede to the angst-ridden sexual temptations that root out from living in ennui. But Gallaga, who shows his mastery of visual composition and a hint of exploitation (I believe that the film still would have worked even with two to three sex/nude scenes less), backed by Jose Javier Reyes' screenplay, extends the fact that the film's characters' emotional and carnal transformations weren't human deconstructions, but a simple case of skeletons in the closet. It's right with them all along.

Joel Torre, his first screen role, is remarkably effective as the frail Miguel, whose psychological metamorphosis from a mama's boy to a hardened killer is every bit believable. While an array of portrayals by Sandy Andolong, Lisa Lorena and Maneul Ojeda balances the film with subtlety, the film is made literally alive amid the film's more dragging moments by commanding performances from Lorli Villanueva and especially Mitch Valdez (credited as Maya Valdes in the film) as the calculating 'doktora', whose sexual promiscuity inspires the innocent Trining (Cherie Gil) to pursue and quench the thirsts of the flesh with Hermes (the vastly underrated Ronnie Lazaro), a Guerrilla rendered mute by the war.

There's no question about "Oro, Plata, Mata's" distinct influence across Philippine cinema. Whether it's the scope, the family-centered narrative or the violence, this film attracted 'greatness' for itself but does not brag about it. Never did I feel, all throughout its more than 3 hours of running time, that the film relished in self-importance. Self-indulgent, yes, there were specific scenes which were more a showcase of great cinematography and production design than sharp needles to stitch the whole film together. But still, "Oro, Plata, Mata" is nonetheless a lasting Filipino film that tackled the horrors, the deep wounds and the indelible scars of the Second World War unlike any other of its kind.

In the long run (quite literally for its length), it's never an overly pacifist film. Although there's this ambiguous 'diwata' character played by Kuh Ledesma that may subjectively symbolize the tarnished state of our 'Inang Bayan' (Mother Land) during the onset of war, the film is more about the isolated effect of violence and sexual immorality upon two families than it is a cinematic anti-war essay. Hell, we only see one Japanese soldier in the entirety of the film.

"Oro, Plata, Mata" is never concerned about the sentiments against foreign oppression that comes from islands away. With its blood-drenched message, the film is a brutal depiction of how at chaotic times, barbarism and decay gush out from nowhere else but within one's own backyard.

Annie Hall
Annie Hall(1977)

A second viewing.

Looking at the gallery of the previous Oscar winners for best picture, "Annie Hall" is definitely one of the most unorthodox and unglazed of all the films that have won the coveted prize. No majestic scope, no larger-than-life characters and no unreachable emotional core, but only an accessibly psychoanalytical and pop-intellectual presence of Woody Allen and his one-liners. Oh, and there's also the impeccable Diane Keaton as the titular character (whose real name is, well you've guessed it: Diane 'Annie' Hall) whose unassumingly fluctuating romance with Allen's character Alvy Singer founds the film's distinct modernist approach to the uber-complicated thing we all call 'love'.

Opening scenes meter what we can expect from a particular film's wholeness, be it an initial action scene or a non-linear middle scene pushed right into the beginning. We are introduced into "Annie Hall" with a monologue by Woody Allen, to which I'm not sure if he's uttering his entry comic speech as him being Alvy Singer, the other way around or a random combination of both. Either way, it's a subtle delivery that may not give the immediate feel of the film but definitely serves unto us the fragile wholeness of our neurotic main character. Why is he even talking to us in the first place? Is he really that lonely in his own reality of 'death' and isolated 'mental masturbation' that he wills himself to break the fourth wall?

Unlike other 'love' stories that preceded "Annie Hall" which starts with impossible chance encounters and ends with reconciliations, this film started somewhere where Alvy and Annie's romantic complications are at an all-time high but their emotional excitement for each other at an all-time low. Then like an unsure blend of fantasy and reality, the film then traces the pieces of how this 'nervous romance' came to be, or at least something like that. But with the tone of the film, which I believe can go on for days and days (the movie itself) even without an audience (this Woody Allen fellow really talks a lot), it's apt to say that the film really couldn't care less.

The ability to enact both a pessimistic existential viewpoint (according to Alvy, the 'horrible' and the 'miserable' are the only dividends of life) and an indifferent humor throughout yet hints on an underlying warmth beneath its 'foreskin'. This is one of the unique aspects of the film which certainly gave it the prestigious Oscar award. Right now, the said award is nothing but history, and although I think that "Annie Hall" haven't aged that well, its portrayal of the distorted nuances of 'love' and 'contemporary existence' never did.

Written and directed by Woody Allen himself, I know that it's not quite right, chronologically and qualitatively speaking, that I was introduced into Allen's works (not counting "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") via "Annie Hall", a film that is widely considered to be the artistic zenith of his film career.

Now on the other hand, although I loved every moment of how Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's effortless chemistry pervades the screen through and through, their dialogue exchanges that seem like trivial conversations between two not-so-special souls and their consummate embraces and kisses amidst a backdrop of a surprisingly subdued New York City (photography by Gordon Willis), I really can't see myself as Alvy Singer.

Reckon how other 'love story' heroes mirror us one way or another? This is Woody Allen's difference. He can look as plain, thin and 'balding' as he is, but at least, his Alvy Singer is never completely us. A character that is molded more out of clumsy ubiquity (based on his sometimes alienating but seemingly all-knowing one-bit opinions and whatnot) than crazy human simplicity.

Granted, "Annie Hall" is a complex film of romantic proportions, but its heart lies within two key jokes uttered by Alvy himself: the humorous 'elderly women' analogy and the 'chicken brother' joke. Unnoticed as it may seem, these jokes weren't just meant to give a start and end transition for the whole film but a perceptive change for Alvy Singer himself. And like the autobiographical stage play that he has created near the end of the film, after all his musings about the futility of life and the importance of death, he simply wants his romance warm and eternalized, just like everyone else.

Walk the Line

"Walk the Line" is, without a doubt, one of those typical biopics that follow the 'redemption' dramatic formula as its narrative pattern. But armed with top-notch performances by Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, the film struggled to be more than just another 'biopic' film. Of course it is strictly about Cash's real rise, self-destructive fall and rise again as a musical icon, but it's also a subtly observant film that focuses about these two people's unorthodox human connection and the greatness of a slow-moving love.

Notice how in many films that tread the 'redemption' process as what I've mentioned above, the person which the biopic is specifically center-weighted for typically goes through rushed marriages and easy romances with their better halves(see "People vs. Larry Flynt" and the classic "Raging Bull"), only bringing about problems on the way. "Walk the Line" (and Cash's romantic life) expresses utmost differentiation.

Sure, Johnny Cash's marriage with Vivian (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) was tackled in a fairly quick exposition, but with the film mainly about Cash's fascinating emotional exploits with June more than it is about his emotional and domestic problems with his initial wife, "Walk the Line", with a refreshingly patient direction by James Mangold, treated this Cash-Carter bond as a slow-burning fire. Fire that is occasionally being blown off by the wind, but still strives on with its flame.

Trickier as it may look to pull that extra-marital vibe off, the idea of being 'tricky' does not start there. It starts within the internalization of the actors themselves. James Mangold once mentioned in the "Becoming Cash/Becoming Carter" featurette that he is not concerned about whether or not Joaquin Phoenix would properly impersonate and emulate Cash's distinct gestures and facial expressions. What's important to him is the 'interpretation'. He is indeed more than correct.

I have seen images of the real Johnny Cash and trust me, aside from the slicked back hair, the facial structure of Cash and Phoenix are far from even being remotely similar. But guess what? Phoenix, for how much time he stayed on-screen, embodied the destructively alienating, non-conformist nature of the 'Man in Black', complete with powerful facial translations of a constantly self-debilitating internal conflict.

Phoenix, with a uniquely quiet intensity that is only his own, is such an inspired casting choice. Mangold could have gone for leading actors better-suited for the marquees but he chose not to. Besides, as what I've seen in his visual and dramatic treatment for "Walk the Line", the film is never made to be the usual Hollywood biographical offering. Aside from the common elements such as the non-linear opening scene, the childhood flashback and the aforementioned 'redemption' format, it's very different in context.

Sure, Cash came back, sober and all, to the music that he himself has nurtured and many people have since came to love with a better sense of inner peace. For some 'biopic'-fleshed main characters, coming back into a once abandoned limelight means going through a process of physical and mental self-improvement. A 'process' so honey-glazed that it seems too tiring and one-dimensional.

Cash, on the other hand, came back, black-clad, a slicked back hair and a voice colder than the night than it ever was before, to record live inside a maximum security prison while ridiculing its warden and critiquing its yellowish drinking water in the process. Talk about stern anti-authoritarian stance and a pair of steel cojones.

"Behind every great man is a great woman". That quote perfectly fits within "Walk the Line"'s 'great love conquers all' theme, but I think it's better to rephrase that as "Beside every great man is a great woman". Johnny and June duet, don't they?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Just when Hollywood is being continuously filled up with useless prequels and countless spin-offs, here's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" looking at us with eyes all straight and determined. Filled with awe-inspiring sequences that reminds me of the first time I saw the gigantic wonders of Spielberg's "Jurassic Park", it's a 'make or break' film that may easily solidify and further cement the fact that the 'Planet of the Apes' franchise is long dead and gone. But guess what? With what this film has achieved with its intelligent narrative and surprisingly compassionate emotional exposition, it re-integrates itself into the gallery of other science fiction greats and dare declare its reverberated pulse.

At least from what I've watched in the original Franklin J. Schaffner film, the first "Planet of the Apes" film relies on the lonesome breath of its human characters (particularly Charlton Heston's character) because with apes around you and nothing more, where else would you? It is the sense of emotional neutrality that separates this film from the said 1968 film that has also able to give this prequel a hair-raising feel of both suspense and warmth.

But before anything else, the film, directed by Rupert Wyatt with an ability to back his already compelling narrative with balanced kinetics and drama, of course assumes that you already knew that Earth and the titular planet, at least in its make-believe reality, is the same (thanks to one of the greatest cinematic twists in movie history). In fact, that's basically what this film is all about: the establishment of how apes has taken over the world and why. But what makes this film stand out, though, is its switch of perspectives without touching the chords of its already finely-toned dramatic impartiality.

We may feel sympathy towards the apes from time to time, but this film incurs its strength more by means of empathy, which cannot be achieved into great effect if not because of Andy Serkis' remarkable motion-capture performance as the aptly named primate Caesar (after the great Roman Emperor). We thought that his role as Gollum was the towering and unprecedented milestone in his career, but this film offers great contest that some may think twice. His Caesar holds its own with its distinct sense of tenderness and logical brute force.

It's a fair belief that CGI characters, no matter how feverishly dramatic they can be, still will never equal that of a real actor's mark. Serkis' Caesar is different, and so was the other primates. There's something uniquely powerful in their ability to exercise the meager traits of simple humanity that they seem to quietly re-invigorate the nuances of being human. And balanced by a strong lead role by James Franco as Will Rodman, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is an utterly convincing tale of compassion and connection amid an immense evolutionary barrier.

Supporting roles include Freida Pinto, whose performance quietly shouts of 'generic leading lady', John Lithgow, who gave a brief but resonant one as Will Rodman's father, and Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. Oh, sorry, as Dodge Langdon. Talk about stereotype casting. He's been through these 'bullying' and all for 8 movies. Come on, move on, mate.

The film, although advertised more for its visual effects, is still more about the tension of the build-up rather than it is about the climactic siege of the Golden Gate Bridge. True, the final action setpiece left me and all the other viewers in utter awe, but the scene when Caesar defiantly shouts "No!" for the first time as his tongue finally reaches the capacity of human language, has inspired the audience around me to utter a resounding "Whoa!"

If such middle scenes can simulate such reaction, you know the film's doing something right. And how more can it be right? By immediate standards, this is how you do a prequel. With a miniature Statue of Liberty and the Icarus spacecraft on the side. Fully aware of its source film and gratefully so.

Memento
Memento(2000)
½

After a 4th viewing, I finally came into terms on how great a psycho noir film "Memento" really is. Its lonely and constantly manipulated protagonist Leonard Shelby (played by the very underrated Guy Pearce), who is out there in the open searching for the man who raped and murdered his wife, isn't the only one that goes with the wave of the film's conflicted theme of revenge, deceit and selective thinking, but also us. 'This' character helps Leonard and 'that' character aids him, but can they really be trusted? "Memento" is indeed a film that gives its ultimate revelation in the end (which is also supposedly the chronological beginning of the film's colored sequences) just like any other mystery films, but what elevates the film above other movies of its kind is its unique view of its characters' reliability. Do they really speak of the truth?

The film plays like a crooked little jigsaw puzzle game and we, the audience and Leonard, are the clueless arrangers. Or is it like a tight-strung political conspiracy and we are the Woodwards and Bernsteins? "Memento" is truly successful in its layered exploration of the barren landscapes of a short term memory disorder-inflicted mind that visually simulates this through the film's reverse chronology. Christopher Nolan, who directed the film with both the limitless consciousness of a daring independent director and the depth of a human dramatist, fragments the film with subtle linkages that makes the film all the more urgent in its presentation. It's purely involving yet it never spoon-feeds plot devices and narrative necessities.

"Memento" merely plays like a confused sleuth who constantly goes around places until its confusion turns into a foggy clarity. As evident in its pattern alone, it stands as a film that was never really created to answer its own teetering questions. It probes into the deepest and treads the slightest yet the next thing you may know, it unravels on its own. Here is an exceptional mystery film that is more concerned with its protagonist's internal catharsis than the audience's plot satisfaction.

Here we do not have a hero but a mere vengeful soul. He wants answers but so do we. "Memento" hands out its clever twists and turns just like any other cinematic exercises in doing so but does not have the courtesy to give a parenthetical period. It's a fourth wall cerebral involvement and I'm more than happy to join in.

I hate films who opens up a lot of doors yet don't have enough capacity to close them afterwards. "Memento" is different. It's meticulously written to the point that I have even imagined Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan drawing out diagrams for the film's numerous probabilities. We're very much aware of their skillful ability to answer the film's many questions with stoic narrative certainties, but they chose not to.

Like people with Anterograde Amnesia ourselves, Nolan is our few-worded storyteller that tells us an unforgettable tale of desire, slight "Vertigo"-esque psychological attachment and human closure but does not consider the necessity to leave us a pen so that we wouldn't forget. But as I like to call it, 'it's living in the moment and in it alone'.

Aside from a rich, 'blink and you'll miss it'-type of story, the film is also filled with splendid performances by former "Matrix" colleagues Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. He (Pantoliano) embodies our common view of an unreliable handler of truth. Do the words he says comfort or distort? If I'm Leonard, I'll gladly tattoo them down all over my body. That is if he's me, but that is if Teddy's worthy of my trust.

"Memento" gathers its audiences with its engrossing grasp but leads them astray to each their own after the film ends. Some may find Teddy as a legitimate guide, some may consider Sammy Jankis nothing but a tarnished flashback, but again, to each his own. "Memento" surely polarizes in-depth views and what-if analyses among its viewers, but as a film that brilliantly shows the mystery of motives and the flaws of human relationships, it concentrates its audience into a common agreement that it is indeed one of the first great films of the new millennium.

First viewing, I thought it was confusing as hell. Second, I thought it was good but still confusing as all hell. Third, I thought it's not as confusing as how I initially thought it was but still wasn't as great as how everyone thinks it is. This is my fourth viewing and the rating speaks for itself. It's not 'confusion' that bothers me anymore but its characters' (particularly Teddy's) 'reliability' and the liability of Leonard's tattered memories. A double door worth finding the key for.

Captain America: The First Avenger
½

The most outstanding testament of how Marvel handles its core superheroes with utmost care in films, this is truly, without a doubt, the best Marvel movie that I have seen, or to be more exact, the finest 'Pre-Avengers' Avenger movie out there. It certainly balanced the typical side humor present in almost all popcorn flicks with its action sequences that makes it all the more explosive and the seemingly implausible romance that puts the exaggeratedly sweet cherry atop the cake. It's a war-torn celebration of patriotism and outlandish strength, and who would be better to represent such a film but the most obviously propagandistic superhero out there that is Captain America?

But a reminder to those who might be put off by the film's geographically-specialized protagonist, the film, directed by Joe Johnston like a true blockbuster filmmaker, is also quite conscious with it's hero's stupendous status. Like a war-time satire, it highlights Cap's post-frailty but pre-hard hero masquerade as a symbolic mascot that parades around camp after camp and city after city to promote bravery and desire for clean-cut Allied victory. It partly worked because of Chris Evans' nuanced portrayal as a pretty boy figure that seemingly came out of the corners of the American Dream but whose outer motives is all but superficial. As told by the film's very fascinating look at Steve Rogers' literally 'small' beginning as a Brooklyn Boy U.S. draftee wannabe, his moral fiber is perfectly sound save for his physical built. But along came the scientific experiment and bam! Just like that, he's now muscular than ever and a genuine super soldier.

Now, based on the standards of common superhero origins, Steve Rogers' rise as a star-spangled super patriot is all too easy considering that Bruce Wayne got his parents killed before having enough inner strength to balance his conflict between being a hero and vigilante to become the legendary bat entity that he is. It can easily be said that Captain America's path towards being a superhero is relatively convenient compared to others, but with how the film has introduced his humble origins with a slightly sympathetic and sentimental view then combining it with over-the-top occult and far-fetched science, do all superheroes really need to have some dark past to really carry out a great back story?

Strictly speaking, Captain America really is one of the few superheroes out there that really does not belong in an edgy reality. Although he existed in an era of widespread violence that is World War II, he's on a territory of his own. Some may say that his appeal is more inclined to children more than it is for adults, but with his no-questions-asked fighting skills that the film has captured with its uniquely overblown (in a good way) Serial-style action sequences and a hardcore haze of Nazi foes, Cap balanced both demographic well enough. He's both a kid's dream idol and an adult's colorful nostalgia, and with "Captain America: The First Avenger", his myth as a Marvel character and as a most recognized figure of pop literature was finally materialized into the silver screen in a most overwhelming, and quite surreal fashion.

With non-stop and knock-out (wow, two hyphenated rave adjectives in a sentence?) excitement and great performances by its array of actors, particularly Tommy Lee Jones in his Lee Marvin-like character, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and Stanley Tucci's bit performance as Dr. Erskine, it is a wonderful all-around cinematic experience.

But surprisingly, Hugo Weaving, considered the absolute go-to-guy for villainous roles (come on, he even voiced Megatron) and is also one hell of a versatile actor, is flatly one-dimensional in his role as Red Skull in a very 'James Bond villain' kind of way. But then of course, that might be intentional.

In countless alternate worlds where heroes and villains repeatedly play death-defying chess games of immense magnitudes with each other, Red Skull uses his mouth more than his hands. Words are not particularly useful when you got a boomerang shield heading into your face, you know.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" is like a grocer's errand boy who came late for your orders yet you find out that there's extra something that he has put inside your grocery bags. We all know that a good Captain America film is long overdue, but as it finally came into our very midst, it exceeds the simplicity of the qualitative requirements of a decent movie. Instead, maintaining with the errand boy analogy, it 'delivered' with the silvery spark of a great action-adventure film. Sure, it's a given that Cap's 'Avengers' mates are extremely ecstatic about the film, but I instinctively know that elsewhere, Indy is also out there wearing a smile.

Sucker Punch
Sucker Punch(2011)

A 2-hour cinematic excuse to showcase what I may call a 'Trinity Complex' (after Carrie Ann Moss' iconic role) prevalent all throughout many female characters in so-called cool and kick-ass films. But sadly, with all its kinetic visual gibberish, the narrative took a hefty lot of beating.

Zack Synder, mostly known as a heavy-handed visual director, indulged too much on surface pageantry and partly forgot about narrative justifications. It also just shows that Mr. Synder really lacks the emotional side to really carry out the film's 'freedom' theme (that reminds me a lot of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" ) that might as well be just as potentially compelling even without any of those phantasmagorical action sequences.

And considering that this is Zack Snyder's first originally-conceptualized live-action project of his (With his past projects being a remake, a CGI animation and 2 graphic novel adaptations), he should have pushed for a more logically coherent direction in terms of its plot and didn't took the easy way out by means of a CGI action-fest that nonsensically takes place in the protagonist's mind (played by Emily Browning) while dancing her brains off and supposedly hypnotically putting those who witness her perform into a temporary trance.

As those scenes went on like those of "Black Swan", dragons, giant armor-clad samurai warriors and robotic henchmen pollute the screen like it's nobody' business and with complete disregard whether it may look horrendously ridiculous or not. Why can't they just film an extremely alluring dance number in plain sight? Why resort to such an intense (though very forgettable) orgy of bullets and explosions when it's core tale is pretty strong enough on its own?

Another problem I have with the film is its complete neglect of character development. There's Emily Browning which I think could have pulled off a great performance. Abbie Cornish is truly assertive in her role. Carla Gugino, riding the same 'older than her age' role that she previously portrayed in "Watchmen", is quite good. What lacks is an entire characterization that is essentially needed in such a film of hard-hitting action. Compare it to say, Tarantino's "Kill Bill". That's also a heavily stylized film. But before it completely went ape-crazy with its gutsy violence and musically-enhanced action setpieces, the chief players were fully fleshed-out first via Tarantino's wondrous writing.

"Sucker Punch's" character-texturizing deficiencies (But I should have known based on the characters' names alone) aren't about the context of 'do we care about the protagonists?' but to the extent of 'do we even bother about them?' As our female leads slash, bash and gun-bang (is there such a word?) their way into the film's surprisingly dramatic ending, it should have been one hell of a foxy, hard-hitting ride (and an action vehicle about 'woman empowerment').

But instead, it has embraced its ridiculous self and, armed with the typical musings about existence translated into narrations, Kamikazeed head-first into a pretentious oblivion. It's just a shame that its main selling point (the history and fantasy-combining action sequences) also ironically paved way for its cinematic downfall.

If only they have retained the simple gist of the story and completely sacked the idea of a literal psychological warfare and countless cerebral gunfights, "Sucker Punch" could have been more worthy as a celluloid-occupier. Oh, and one more thing (keeping up with the Scott Glenn catchphrase), it's also an obvious letdown of leviathanic proportions, considering that it once boasted of being on par with "Inception".

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

At last, we reached the end. The final Harry Potter film. The final adventure of the characters we both loved and hated. The heated conclusion. The teary-eyed farewell. As I see the vicinity of Hogwarts in complete rubble and places such as the Forbidden Forest nothing but abandoned, although I never followed the "Harry Potter" saga that much closely, there's this subconscious childhood reminiscence of the wondrous universe that these films have once created, and how it's extremely saddening to see these faint memories of colorfully magical places turn into a grayish limbo-like battle arena. But then again, like Voldemort's villainous return to form, this transformation is purely inevitable to reach the peak of the story's ultimate crescendo.

Going with the tradition of the last 3 films of the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" remained at ease with having small in-between adventures before it goes relentlessly full-speed to the much-anticipated final encounter between the Dark Lord and our hero, whose bravery is put to the greatest test.

A particularly well-made scene is the initial action sequence of Potter and company escaping from the vaults while riding an obviously exhausted and aging dragon. From these wonderfully computer-generated dragon alone, one can easily see the sense of magical realism that the film is heading into. It's not your usually 'bold' representation of the said creature where it flaps its enormous wings like it's a perfect god of the skies. Like how the "Harry Potter" film franchise has grown and aged, the dragon shows the passing of time and its attachment into a serious, more visually conscious fantasy film whose emotional core is also very much attended to.

The film, like the previous ones, is littered with great performances all around that are more or less fueled by a common dramatic baggage that senses both victory and defeat in a constantly contradicting fashion. But Alan Rickman, who portrayed Severus Snape with pitch-perfect indifference and apathy all throughout the saga, was highlighted by the film (finely integrated into the film with rich visuals) using a clever flashback that has put into exposition both a startling plot twist and an unexpected heroism.

All of that, enhanced by Rickman's best performance in the series yet, greatly contributed in properly depicting maybe the best character of the whole J.K. Rowling wizard universe aside from Harry Potter himself (though some may passionately argue that he's merely a monotonous poster hero).

Countless times it has been said that the entirety of Harry Potter's story isn't for children in the first place or are there little to no purely kid-friendly subjects in it save for the occasional awes and wonders. But "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" simply takes the cake as the most matured by way of how it has subtly analogized Dumbledore and Snape's relationship to that of Jesus Christ and Judas' and its realistic contemplation about death and sacrifice (highlighted by the scene where Harry Potter, Radcliffe saving what maybe his best performance for last, asks Sirius Black whether or not dying hurts).

Judging from its overall positive reception by audiences, comparisons with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is a given, but unlike the aforementioned Peter Jackson film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is much more narrow in its conclusion, preferring simplistic summation rather than full, overlong and seemingly endless walk towards a very satisfying end.

But sadly, it is also short in its much-hyped duel between Potter and Voldemort, which I think would have made the film a perfect one if only it would have been a minute or two longer. And Is that epilogue really necessary? Is Neville Longbottom really that essential a character to be a full-fledged hard hero? Like Voldemort's strategic positioning of his Horcruxes, this film proves to be very, very powerful yet particularly flawed.

But needless to say, it's still a fitting end to a decade-long cinematic display of love, magic and friendship that has undoubtedly left a mark to each and every one's imaginations who had the chance to witness it all from the innocent start until the very end. But as we see Potter's tranquil smile in the end, something tells me that sadness is all but absent. Somewhere, there's still heaviness. A feeling that channels ours. Somehow, we never really wanted it to end. There's a reason why "Pottermore" was created.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

It's easy to say that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" pumped you up for the final Potter film. But aside from that plain rave about the film (I honestly think that saying that this merely 'pumped' you up for the next one undermines this film's true worth as a pure film on its own), this one's also a well-conceived exercise in atmosphere building. True to the inevitability of its transition of tone, it's given that "Half-Blood Prince" fully paved way for the immense darkness that has since fully set in into the whole magical saga. But this first-half adaptation film really makes the previous installment seem like an exuberant daisy farm.

With "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" indulging its key story into such themes as death, emotional degradation and desire, one can easily suffice that this one's a true departure of what the film series used to be. But again, unearthing these dark undertones and integrating them into the mythos of Harry Potter purely enhanced the potential of what the series can really be.

The film opened with a stark dramatic introduction into the emotional and decisive conflict of Potter and his friends, looking at windows and uttering 'Obliviate' spells as they try to meditate on their final adventure where both Hogwarts and the world's fate lie. Through this and a cunning initial action sequence (that has brought magical carnage into the city outskirts), it's easy to see that this film won't be hesitant anymore in its displays of negative emotions and suspenseful chaos.

Then the film suddenly transports its heroes' quest into the Ministry of Magic itself that seems like a fantastical remodeling of the bureaucratic, uber-cyclical world of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (with a Graham Chapman look-alike as Ron Weasley's disguise). Two introductory scenes of pure adventures wrapped in dark intents and intrigues. These types of moments, no matter how bordering craziness some scenes may look like, truly conforms with the wondrous tradition of the Potter lore. But hinting at shades of blackness and blue, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is much grittier in its collection of episodic tasks and missions and are ultimately more satisfactory in their respective in-between catches of breath.

But this time, there's no dragon-riding suspense or broomstick-riding, flying keys-fighting excitement just for the sake of it and how the word 'fantasy' relate with the name Harry Potter just like how the term 'adventure' connects with Indiana Jones. This time, there's much more at stake.

Among the other films in the series, this film is the most mature in its exploration of the Potter-Granger-Weasley friendship dynamics and marks David Yates' pure ease and proper form as a "Harry Potter" film director. Its only minor flaw, though, is the eponymous Deathly Hallows' improper narrative positioning within the duration of the film and how it was actually tackled. For 2 and a half hours, the film has gotten itself from the most dangerous of perils and into the most bitter of jealousies yet the very titular 'Deathly Hallows' were only imposed into proper exposition in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. Although the very retelling of the "Canterbury Tales-like" story of the Deathly Hallows legend is thoroughly overdue, it was visually told in a style that has likely to have merged Indonesian 'Wayang Kulit' puppetry with atmospheric CGI animation that bursts of great imagination.

Now, if 'hyped' is the only thing that you've felt after watching "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1", then the film has failed to inculcate its whole power unto you. For me, I'll describe it as a very 'powerful prelude that can wholly stand alone'. But of course, speaking of the anticipation regarding part 2, I was also truly pumped, alright.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Now this is what's great when a Potter film is done particularly right. After a slightly weak effort in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", director David Yates has replenished this film with a brilliantly balanced mix of teenage love (developing between Potter and friends) and the gritty abundance of dread polluting and tinting the air as the brooding presence of the Dark Lord is getting more and more overwhelming and his powerful than ever arrival a pure inevitability.

For the first time, although it initially looked like "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" will be a conflicted film, tone and theme-wise (whether it will emphasize the romantic subplot more or fully focus on the desperate quest to uncover Voldemort's secrets and exploit a loophole in his self-achieved immortality), it came out as a great combination of both and ended up as a truly ideal film in the franchise that can appeal both to those who seek the obviously inescapable romance between our heroes (mainly the teenage audience) and those who like their Potter film broodingly stirred and menacingly thawed.

Daniel Radcliffe, who I found to be quite stiff in the previous chapter, has qualitatively raised his performance a notch higher and looked more comfortable and eager as the lightning-scarred chosen one. On surface level, his character may look too hard to comprehend. One scene he is as confident as ever, but in the next, he's as insecure as the next nerdy fellow. He may be a reluctant hero, but his Harry Potter role can be viewed, especially in this film, as a representation of the destruction of people's 'not a care in the world but confused as all hell' teenage monotony. A cyclic stage in one's life broken by one's choice to move deeper and deeper into the intricacies of a dangerous, world-threatening affair as part-curiosity and part-bravery.

Maybe 'revenge' is Potter's ultimate goal, but looking at his numerous adventures that seems to beat more around the bush than to progress, I can quietly see that J.K. Rowling attached this 'retribution' scenario (and also the 'chosen one' prophecy) as subtle MacGuffins to subtly move the whole intricate plot line so that her characters' countless adventures can be wholly justified. After all, "Harry Potter" is essentially a children's fantasy book, a genre where bulks of make-believe journeys are nothing but commonplace.

But back into the whole "Half-Blood Prince" situation, it was a beautifully placed (and enhanced by the film's revelations' seamless narrative timing) penultimate complication that creates what seems like momentary displays of adolescent happiness and then juxtaposing these emotional elements with the contrasting difficulties that lies ahead for Dumbledore (a great performance by Michael Gambon) and company like a massive Herculian task. It's a film, although mainly tinted with pale, eviscerated colors, that supports itself with the strength of its solid 'black and white' visual comparisons (scenes of romance and of downfall). And with that alone, I think the film has succeeded to be a very strong installment in the franchise with such a simple cinematic approach in contrast.

Another note-worthy performance is of Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, a very crucial character that is rightfully downplayed by Broadbent with the needed lack of awareness and apathetic ineptitude towards the darkening weather of events. True, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" might as well be one of the most uneventful films in the franchise in terms of action sequences, but as a Potter film that is finally equipped with the needed bridge across a trodden path into an impending end, this is a film of heart-pounding emotional proportions. Raising wands and trickling tears, this one's one of the best in the series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
½

It has been quite obvious that the "Harry Potter" film series has gradually became darker and darker the same time when its main stars grew older and taller. This change of thematic tone is given for such a series of far-flung magical mythology because as film viewers, we can't stay with what's merely colorful and limited forever. We can't indulge ourselves with wondrous flying cars and levitating spells for a long time when there's the Dark Lord himself and some Dementors somewhere out there.

So if "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" clearly is the prelude to the series' descent into narrative darkness and character complexities, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the further sustenance of this said transformation of tone. Throughout the film, we see scenes completely colorized with blue, signaling an impending, higher conflict. While the characters, especially Potter himself (Daniel Radcliffe really reminds me of Keanu Reeves' acting chops in many scenes), who is drawn into a psychological torment/mind games with 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named'.

Then ironically, Sirius Black, played by the ever-disturbingly brilliant Gary Oldman, whose roles of marauding villains completely overwhelm his resume, is surprisingly the lighter part of the film as Potter's father figure in the middle of an escalating tension. The previous installment, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", is a very action-packed film that was although justified in its action sequences by the mere Triwizard Tournament, translates the best into a good old blockbuster offering.

In contrast, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" lacks the action set pieces (except the climactic but short-lived Lord Voldemort and Dumbledore duel of contradicting elements) and the overall sense of story-telling vitality save for its slowly relishing and equally unnerving build-up into an ultimate encounter.

Even the bureaucratic theme in the film is little to no significance into the film's general 'awaiting a villain's return' tone except for the fact that this little plot line summarizes the Ministry of Magic's trembling fear for the overpowering Voldemort's revival of powers. Although I have to say that I immensely liked Imelda Staunton's effective performance as the dictatorial, Trunchbull-like Dolores Umbridge.

In the long run, what will generally matter is how the franchise has ended. There are some which have finished with high and flying colors ("The Lord of the Rings" saga and the "Star Wars" sextology), but there were numerous which have ended with bitter-tasting salvos (such as "The Matrix" and Christopher Reeve's "Superman" films). "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" will surely be remembered as that middle 'Potter' film which concluded with a high-powered encounter between two powerfully opposite wizards and an installment in the franchise with lots and lots of blue. Oh, and maybe as that film that contains an 'under a mistletoe' kissing scene for our beloved titular hero.

Jackass 3
Jackass 3(2010)

After not seeing some 'Jackass' antics for a long while (being tired and slightly irritated of it are some of the reasons why), here they go again. But this time, these 'out of proportions and out of taste' gang, which is particularly known for physical extremities and their inclination towards the utterly disgusting and the absurd, ironically conforms with the movie experience-enhancing craze that is the 3D technology.

I'm not so sure if the film really needed that 3D add-on as the stunts performed in it were too alarmingly death-defying on their own that it can immediately hit some pretty large nausea-inducing nerves without even giving the entire promise that those s**ts and stuff would look like they will fly right into your face. But come on, this is the movie biz, therefore, money is in the other end of the rainbow, so although I can't quite see the true necessity of 3D (I even think the slow-motion scenes were good enough without any added unaligned reds and blues), I fully understand it.

"Jackass 3D" is almost virtually the same compared to its two full-length predecessors, but with many scrap-worthy segments even made shorter to give way for more rambunctious, mind-numbing, and vomit-inspiring acts, you can see the behind-the-scenes will that they have gathered and put up together just to finish up the film by way of how they have inserted numerous 2-minute parts just to compensate with the requisite running time of a full-length feature.

But watch out for that Steve-O-manned finale. After a decade of forcing their derring-do, daredevil-wannabe selves (I still can't fathom how they brand themselves as professionals. Professionals of what?) to put toy cars in their rectum, defecate and eat, eat and puke and defecate and puke some more, the film's said finale (the Porta Potty Bungee) really exemplifies their spent sweat and blood. And as Chris Pontius aptly emphasized, "That had it all - it had danger, it had s**t, it had puke, I mean that's what this show's all about." Spot on indeed.

Then there's this scene near the beginning of the film where one of them asked what they were doing on a farm with a bunch of stinging bees. "Making a hit movie", said the other. Their outlandish pseudo-bravery, showboating and penchants for pranks are all notches higher than the average person, but their capacity for reason clearly isn't. But with the kind of film/show "Jackass" is, do they even need any?

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
½

Oh, If only I can turn back time. A review coming from a person that has first watched the 2005 Tim Burton adaptation way before this family classic, I got my perspectives the wrong way. I got the comparative order jumbled. When it should have been the later film being compared to the numerous strengths of the earlier one, I had it the other way around. But enough of that, let's move on.

Throughout the entire time I'm watching this film, I can't help but feel that the Willy Wonka character has virtually no backstory, let alone the exposition of his real reason why he closed his factory to the public save for Grandpa Joe's (played by Jack Albertson) unimaginative retelling of the said tale. But beyond Wonka's build-up in the film that may potentially treat his character merely as a golden ticket distributor, moderator and tour guide into the whole film and nothing more, Gene Wilder bursts into the scenery with impeccable style in the most literal sense.

As he first walks through a red carpet, with supporting cane and all, that stretches from his factory's double-doors up to the very external entrance gate, I immediately felt the enigma within him and his internalization of the Wonka role. And then he left the cane sticking into the ground and act as if he's falling, face first. But suddenly, he tumbles and regained his footing all in one motion with the honed finesse and energy of an effortless master acrobat. In that scene alone, I almost completely forgot about Johnny Depp's portrayal, and also from that point on, my ready-made comparison between the two actors immediately came into a halt. Gene Wilder, in the simplest of terms, owned Willy Wonka. He inhabited him and vice versa; shame that the said iconic character wasn't given enough story flesh to bulk him up a bit more in terms of his relative weight to the whole narrative fare. And it's more of a disappointment that the film was titled as "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" despite of the fact that it just doesn't feel like he's the center of the film.

Now, with that said, I can still fairly say that I have enjoyed the film as a whole, although I would have much preferred it if the two musical sequences before the factory scenes were removed as they just do not add anything to the film whatsoever. Yes, maybe the sense of melancholy and joy (Mrs. Bucket's song and the dance scene between Charlie and Grandpa Joe) are the specific emotions that were targeted to be conveyed in these scenes, but both could have been achieved with a more linear approach. And both songs aren't just that catchy at all.

But then, there's the production design. The tagline of the film is "Enter a world of pure imagination". If it tends to be more accurate, I think they should have added 'silly' somewhere in the middle of the sentence, but that's not an insult. Not at all. Unfolding the premises of Wonka's factory, the film has unveiled machines, mechanisms and devices that are laughable at best. But thinking about it all, I think the film completely distanced itself from the wondrous imagery of common fantasy and instead extended its hands and fully embraced its surreal, weird, bordering traumatic, but ultimately joyous and imaginatively quirky side. A beverage that makes a person who drinks it float up the air, a gum that simulates a three-course dinner, a flavored wall, and even a nightmarish boat ride. It is torn between the fantastically linear and the bizarre, but I think it chose to lean on the latter more.

And somewhere between the film's intent of appealing to the general audience and to connect with fantasy film admirers is an uncommon purpose to expose the darker, more desolate side of loneliness and eccentricity. Take note of Wonka's song number near the beginning of the factory scenes and his preacher-like blabbering during the boat ride scene. These key moments, beyond the unadulterated sense of fun, awe and hilarity, suggestively show his on and off, in and out flirt with lunacy. But the plot twist of sort in the end is the true depiction of Wonka's character's real intention, narrative-wise: that after all, he is the delivery boy of the film's moral lesson and the enforcer of the rewards to those who successfully align themselves with it.

Willy Wonka. The eccentric and the weird. His peculiarities, superficiality and unorthodox authority. Moved and touched by a gobstopper. Even in its ultimate emotional justification, the film is imbalanced at best. But the way it was executed and served in its colorful banquet of images and characters that includes a bunch of Oompa-Loompas that seem like Munchkin rejects, was quite effective. And also, it slightly pokes fun of media (the way it has covered Willy Wonka's 'Golden Ticket' craze), the virtue of fads and the conscious mass hysteria that roots out from the trivial promises of mass-consumed products. So, aside from being an exuberant adaptation of a beloved Roald Dahl classic, it's also quite loaded with what it has to say.

Temptation Island

(Since there's no Flixster page for the said 2011 film which I'm pertaining to, I'll use this one.)

Well, alright, I raised my rating to two full stars partly as a tribute to the original cult classic which this film has almost remade shot-by-shot and word-for-word. But remaking a film made in the 80's and completely retaining almost all of the dialogues that made the original so fascinating and endlessly intoxicating in its ability to capture, time capsule-style, the verbal pretenses of the bourgeoisie class (especially represented by the character Joshua in the original film) of the said era, I believe, is completely wrong.

Dialogues such as 'poor, proletariat, indigent people' should have stayed in the original and in it alone because as I hear it being uttered by John Lapus (who played Joshua in this remake), I can't help but feel the uneasiness of how comically oblique and strange the delivery is, especially coming from a supposedly homosexual character who dwells in the postmodern world of fashion where every terms and jargon are with added flash, sociopolitical words like 'communist' are the last things you may hear.

But despite of that, in a time where our local showbiz industry's range of gay performers are from undeserved hosts to stand-up comedians, John Lapus delivered the needed sense of villainy, vanity and lunacy, but he really never inherited the brash deadpan performance by Jonas Sebastian as Joshua in the original. But judging from John Lapus' gurgling, smoker voice, and his regular stint in television where he's regularly thrown in the air by a myriad of dancers while dancing off-sync with the music, you really can't expect subtlety from him.

For the bulk female cast, there really is nothing special going on except Marian Rivera, for the simple reason of her being the typical noisy comic actress that she is, Rufa Mae Quinto, whose stereotyped verbal tone is almost always effective, and Lovi Poe, mainly because her character is the most interesting of all. Solenn Heussaff (a real eye-candy, by the way) and Heart Evangelista, on the other hand, are all too unremarkable in their roles.

While the male roles, filled in with the typical 'pretty boys', suffered because of a crucial casting mistake (or a cast list typo?). Aljur Abrenica, who plays the role that Alfie Anido has played in the 1980 film, is characteristically far out of proportion and capacity with the character he plays (which is supposed to be a smart lad, me thinks). Newcomer Tom Rodriguez, who plays a lowly waiter in the film, should have scuffled for Mr. Abrenica's role and the latter should have been demoted in the waiter's shoes. Aljur's acting chops are just too 'wooden' ("Machete" pun, ha!) to show even a hint of involvement in the whole film.

Personally, I think director Chris Martinez should have fully heeded the nuances and true essence of the word 'remake' first before making this one. Aside from a screenplay fully devoted to the original's satirically composed dialogues (which I think, although how rich the source material is, does not give this remake any rightful merits) that is a delightful thing of the past, this "Temptation Island" remake is, overall, a very messy film, editing wise. Scenes jump from one to the other without a sense of adhesion, while relationships develop without a sense of emotional rhythm. And that final, post-island scenes are just too overlong in a very cliched and unnecessary kind of way.

And those 'food' hallucination scenes, which made the original even crazier and cheesier, are recreated not for the sake of eliciting the penetrating idea of 'hunger', but for the sake of the chief actresses to showcase their modeling prowess once more.

Compared to Martinez's earlier film "Here Comes the Bride", "Temptation Island" is an empty, absurd load of cinematic tosh (Maybe it's its campy intent, but it just doesn't translate that well). And who would have known? John Lapus' bodily parts produce finely grilled pork chops. Nice.

As the end credits roll, scenes from both the original film and this remake show up in succession. And for what? For comparison. Dialogues overlapping with one another, sometimes one trailing the other. I can't see the necessity of this remake. For comparison? If both are fueled with the same script and virtually with the same line deliveries, who needs that? If one needs a biting satire regarding the not so glitzy side of contemporary fashion, beauty contests and the world of social climbers and nausea-inducing extreme elitism, then local films such as "Pinay Pie" and "Bikini Open" are much more potent representations. Not this one.

(By the way, except for the dialogues, I did not like the original "Temptation Island" film that much either. So there.)

A Dangerous Life

(A reaction paper/analysis for my 'Communication and Society' course)

First of all, It's just quite funny to think that a film that ultimately tackles one of our nation's core achievements as a collective whole (the EDSA People Power Revolution, that is) was made by a foreign production company, anchored by a foreign director and scripted with a foreign language. But aside from that, this epic, though terribly dated film "A Dangerous Life" still captured all the haywire tensions that has led to the famous revolt and the momentary euphoria that came with its conclusion. Headlined by an impressive cast of Filipino character actors with the likes of Ruben Rustia, Joonee Gamboa and Ray Ventura to name a few that although squeezed themselves into the film with stagy rhetorical intents and over-dramatization, have executed their roles with considerable marks of their own.

Tessie Tomas, on the other hand, is very good in conveying the superficiality and materialism of Imelda Marcos, though I must admit that she is quite difficult to watch as a straight-faced Mrs. Marcos in the initial scenes without second-thinking that she might burst into some comic skits (after all, she really is more well-known as a comic actress).

Now, for the perspective of the film, mainstream filmmaking has, time and time again, repeatedly used an 'outsider looking in' point of view in recreating historical events. Great examples are Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields'' (which I thought was quite effective in combining both a journalist and a Cambodian native's viewpoint) and the masterful "The Last King of Scotland", a film that has tackled the horrors of Idi Amin Dada's brutal regime in Uganda seen through the eyes of a Scottish doctor. "A Dangerous Life" isn't very different, either. Tony O'Neil, a reporter played by Gary Busey, is sent to cover the escalating political trepidation in the Philippines mainly ignited by Ninoy Aquino's assassination. This is a very conventional yet very wise move for the screenwriter to filter all these events leading into the People Power through an American's vantage point. Busey's character instantly served as the audience's guide into the whole scenario without them (for director Robert Markowitz and screenwriter David Williamson) investing much time experimenting with other native Filipino characters whose sensibilities may be deemed too alienating for the general viewers (which are from western countries, I believe).

Then there's the O'Neil character's love story arc between a fellow journalist named Angie (played by Rebecca Gilling) and a misguided radical (played by Dina Bonnevie, whose physical stature is awkwardly unfit to be Busey's love interest). From these, the creators just got wiser. Putting a foreign onlooker into an isolated national dilemma (the waning yet increasingly desperate days of the Marcos regime), that is good. But placing that foreign onlooker in a love story with a native Filipino character that is emotionally and physically involved in the whole scenario? Better. It instantly puts Gary Busey's character in a quick emotional attachment with all the transpiring events that is connected with Dina Bonnevie's character's heart and soul as a Filipino, and it even makes his character more compelling and, dare I say, more heroic to watch. This is the meager comforts of first-world filmmaking, and with just a few scenes of the Tony O'Neil character frantically picking up phones and turning off bad news-infested televisions, we got ourselves a brave and concerned foreign journalist.

Obviously, the key moments in "A Dangerous Life" in terms of how 'Mass Media' influences and molds society is when Jaime Cardinal Sin called for all Filipinos listening to him through 'radio' to stand up and march onto the streets to help fend off the armed forces surrounding Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo; places where Defense Minister Enrile and AFP chief-of-staff Eddie Ramos held their mutiny. Through the curious and significant use of the said medium of mass communication and Sin's pleading voice delivered by the transmitting devices, this combination has achieved two things: the alignment and awakening of Filipinos' sense of oneness through a common goal (as voiced out by the Cardinal) and a declaration of mass media's sheer power as a communicative whole.

And then vice-versa (how society has influenced Mass Media), the film has shown this through its exposition of reforming and renaming the Marcos-attacked "Radio Veritas" into "Radyo Bandido". Because there is an increasing demand for necessary updates and information about the events that are happening during the time, the radio medium has able to anticipate and out-think the bullying perpetrators that has destroyed the radio station's first incarnation and rebuilt it through a hidden transmitting device and continued its feed of news to both the mere listeners and the revolutionary participants. Simply speaking, it has able to adjust to the countless calls for truth by a contemporary Filipino society seeking for change and reform.

Those are the moments that has fully shown this 'Mass Media and Society' interaction, but there's this fascinating exchange between Jaime Fabregas' character Ben Balamo and Gary Busey's Tony O'Neil. "Your country is like a gangster movie", said by O'Neil in frustration and anger. But Balamo, arguably my favorite character in the film, has answered back with something like this: "But remember, the Philippines had 400 years of Spanish Catholicism and 50 years of Hollywood". That line alone that is both comedic in its delivery and satiric in its underlying anti-colonialist tone, also tells of the overwhelming influence of mass media in a country's societal stream.

Because of being exposed in a milieu where foreign clutches and western cultural imports control and condition the minds of third-world countries like the Philippines, this Jaime Fabregas-uttered line is a few-worded answer to the things that western powers (in this film's case, America, represented by Gary Busey's O'Neil) are repeatedly and hypocritically complaining to us regarding our country's numerous shortcomings in moral fiber and culture of corruption; in many ways, it is from them that we have inherited these.

"A Dangerous Life", despite of its illogical use of Sri Lankan extras in the climactic crowd scenes (It's sad how no one in the crew is even aware how different Sri Lankans and Filipinos look), a one-dimensional portrayal of Corazon Aquino (by Laurice Guillen) and an unnecessary fictitious character 'Tiger' Tecson played by Roy Alvarez (who I think should have played Gringo Honasan based on physical likeness), is still packed with some hints of thematic depth and solid commentaries about the limitations of power and the futility of political alliances. But in the end, although how good the director handled the scenes leading into the historical conclusion that is the Corazon Aquino era, I just can't feel the sense of victory in the end.

Yes, maybe it is the inadequately indifferent extras, but maybe it's also that penetratingly romantic eye contact and reconciliation of sorts between Tony O'Neil and Angie. So, after all, is this film just another one of those 'love caught in a tide of political turmoil'-themed films ala Doctor Zhivago and many others? I hope it's not the intent. But if it is, then it really is a shame.

"A Dangerous Life" is an obviously labored recreation of a defining time in our history where we have taught the world a lesson or two about the essentials of democracy, the importance of simple humanity and what it takes to be a true, proud nation. But alas, it surely isn't a definitive one.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
½

Although I really did not find the much-hyped 'Apollo 11' plot that fascinating (I still believe that this one's a messy little exercise in narrative disjoint) and the introduction of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's character anything other than a forced casting decision due to Megan Fox's departure, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is nonetheless still an enjoyable blockbuster thrill ride where it feels like you're no longer watching a big-budgeted movie let alone a film. A theme park ride, more like.

As the film bombards everything that moves with explosions, collapsing things and flying men, as one's ideas about the limits of human stamina and survival impossibility blurs into a little spot in the film's array of robotic showdowns (and structural meltdowns) for domination, freedom and some 'can you top that?' on the side, we may not know it, but with a dumb blockbuster like "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" in front of our very 3D-ridden eyes, it's too overwhelmingly flamboyant to ignore, and just too visually phenomenal to pass.

Alright, I, for one, hate Michael Bay. His films are nothing but thick collectives of machismo sandwiching a thin narrative and paper weight characters, except for "The Rock" which I really like. Believe me, I'm ready to denounce this film with all my might, but as the film reaches the plot's conflict which I found to be much more perilous and engaging than I have imagined, my ready-made hatred towards the film diminished like how people in the film disappear when they're hit by those Decepticon beams. I'm just completely drawn in by the intoxicating CGI-fest that this is.

Is it the"Forrest Gump"-esque 'historical people' visual composites, the film's pseudo-political pretense or Ms. Whiteley's bosom? Of course, I really cannot pretend that any of those trivialities is the real reason why I liked the film, because the genuine one is two pure, simple words: action scenes. For me, however high a critic's intellectual capacity is (except for those who think that they're utterly superior that they cannot admit it to themselves) and encompassing his/her film knowledge is, there's still these sets of films that really cannot be denied, visuals and entertainment-wise. The likes of the first "Transformers" film (not counting the second one because that one's a real stinker), "Avatar" and every other superhero features, these are movies that are shown and will stay for what they are and nothing more. No psychological complexities and artful avant-gardism, to say the least. Just pure old movie fun catering not to any specific demographics but to anyone ready to surrender their minds in exchange for some fun. And here in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon", I wholeheartedly did.

Now, the supporting cast, for a change, are very likable in a silly and limited kind of way, but that's how it is. Frances Mcdormand, John Turturro and John Malkovich, who unknowingly assembled for some sort of a mini Coen brothers cast reunion, are by all means effective, except for Malkovich who, after some scenes or two, really failed to leave an assurance to what his character is all about. The Witwicky parents are still here but their running time are reduced extensively, and I'm grateful for that.

Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel are there for the absolute macho presences and Patrick Dempsey is a messily cliched villain inserted to counter the film's larger-than-life-and-earth villainy. Now for Shia "CGI Baby" LaBeouf, there's not much to say except that he runs, jumps and runs a lot. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, although the leading lady, shouldn't have even been in the film in the first place. I think Megan Fox still should have played the leading female character because this third film leaves a space for a potentially climactic emotional crescendo between her and LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky character.

Now, from a messy plot and a mediocre cast performance, how did I still rate the film 'higher than fair'? Well, because I think that for a third film that speaks of such generic tagline as "Earth's Last Stand", although its cinematic posture wobbles constantly in the entirety of its running time, it still strongly held its own on the way to a climax that is one hell of a ride worth taking and buying tickets for.

If "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" is a self-confessed (I think) 'so-so' in terms of plot execution and character fleshing, its lengthy climax has created a new, indelible standard in CGI action set pieces. Hundreds of Robots and a metal snake + a city to destroy and some heroic humans = a guilty pleasure. A truly spectacular one at that.

The Hangover
The Hangover(2009)

(First Viewing)

"The Hangover" contains many hilarious sequences, but apart from that, there is nothing really special going on in this film. Yes, it is enjoyable, but it is also rather disposable.

(Second Viewing: Opinion still hasn't changed)

Oh, how this fell short for me. "The Hangover", a very ingeniously-structured comedy film with an original stroke and naturally appealing characters, although how everyone seem to deem as a modern emulation of a comic masterpiece, never really delivered as what it is heralded to be. The film's establishment was good enough as we see a garden wedding being prepared and readied to the tooth, while looming overhead shots of the proverbial 'Sin City' that is Las Vegas reveal themselves as the opening credits roll.

It is quite menacing a foreshadowing that seems to belong more in a thriller film than in a raunchy comedy, but it is still an effective build-up. Then we get to meet the characters/culprits of the titular dilemma that roots out from the mere idea of a conventional bachelor's party: Alan (Zach Galifianakis), an eccentric, behaviorally ambiguous brother-in-law to be for Doug (Justin Bartha), the groom that is nowhere to be found and is the reason for the quest in and around Vegas and the Mohave desert. Then there's the pretty boy Phil (Bradley Cooper) and the dentist Stu (Ed Helms) who are both clueless on what they have done yet sublimely relishing all of it.

One of the most inventive things in the film is how these particular characters wake up, clueless, aching heads and all, in a room filled with residues of an overtly wasted and distorted night. A tiger in a bathroom, a mattress impaled in one of the Caesar Palace's adorning statues, a missing tooth and a baby. Oh, and add up an impromptu wedding that even predates the one that they're actually going to attend.

The said room (or villa), filled with out of place objects (and animals) here and there for the characters to pick up the pieces and re-trace their steps, is very unique, otherworldly and even surrealistically over-the-top. Indeed a promising initial entry pass into the craziness of it all. But after that, the whole film started to slowly disintegrate and tread the grounds of contrivance by way of how it tries to mend and connect events that led to their disordered villa and their pitiful physical states. At certain sequences, out of nowhere and of the blue, assortment of low-lives and pesky criminals suddenly enter the scene from all sides.

There's nothing wrong with that, The Coens' great "The Big Lebowski" executed that well without looking the slightest bit of being forced. But in "The Hangover", it's just too flimsy in its handling, letting the likes of Mr. Chow (great portrayal by Ken Jeong) and some other baseball bat-wielding scums crash and attack their way into the forefronts of the film. At least in "The Big Lebowski", we got a reason for the suddenness of the attack on the Dude's house and carpet, and it's articulate in its characters' exposition. In this film, on the other hand, the entrances of such characters are just too meddled and a bit exaggerated in their reactions considering that what happened the night before is just too uncontrollable and downright crazy to be easily and shallowly reciprocated with retribution. Add up the 'Black Doug' character near the end that is inserted suddenly without any prior introductory scenes, we got some characters whose immediate presence are questionable at best.

"The Big Lebowski" is brilliant in its gallery of bizarre characters that are lively and offbeat all at the same time. "The Hangover", in comparison, just offered nothing more but a sideshow of caricatures merely there to serve as oblique, one-dimensional ornaments in the whole shebang, and it's really quite disappointing.

Now you may ask, why compare "The Hangover" to "The Big Lebowski"? Well, considering the praises that this film has garnered that hyper-molded it as an instant comedy masterpiece, I think comparing it with a 'true' comic genius of a film is quite logical and valid. And based on what I've came up with, this film does not have enough on its sleeve. 'Some guys just can't handle Vegas'. Yeah, that's a fact, but there are also people who just can't handle too much hype. Count me as one.

The Hangover Part II
½

"It happened again." That line uttered by Phil, played by Bradley Cooper, isn't just a dialogue that welcomes an expected rehash of the million to none mishap in the first "The Hangover" film. In a way, it is a pure declaration of things to come. If the first film dared to create an outrageously original narrative out of two split ideas of a delayed wedding and a very bad hangover, this second introduced us to something consciously cinematic and contrived: they're now officially nothing but a plot device.

But despite of the fact that "The Hangover Part II's" overall quality both in and out is basically just the same with its predecessor, I think this film is now more focused more than ever to its characters than the far-fetched plot. And although the 'Wolfpack' (their name, according to Alan) do not have any control to whatever happens in the film, their profanity-laden, insanity-driven and drug-addled antics surely reign over it.

"Bangkok has them now" is more or less a phrase about the idea of hopelessness and being done for, but I think the phrase "They are now IN Bangkok" is a more apt generalization. Do you really think that they are the victim here? Or is it the other way around?

Much has been said about the film's extreme one-dimensional Asian stereotyping, Eric Cartman-style, by way of Zach Galifianakis' Alan. But looking at it, Galifianakis' character's suggestive racism is much more depleted compared to the film's visual texture that is more or less the one with the more judging, eyebrow-raised tone. The camera pans over Thailand's dirty streets, claustrophobic alleyways and cheap transvestite clubs. And if ever it goes through high-rise buildings, they're just treated as places for criminal deals. The police are portrayed as silent idiots who can't discern an old man from a young I.D. picture, a Kim Jong-il look-alike criminal (perfectly portrayed by actor Ken Jeong in both the first film and here) shown as an effeminate little bastard and an exploited elderly monk on the side.

Of course, to a viewer whose comfort zone is in the open and a sensitivity that is considerably heightened, "The Hangover Part II" can easily be seen as a comedy piece about third-world condemnation. Unconsciously (maybe), some critics who have rated it below average may have done so because of its heavy-handed undertones or because of its distasteful visual preferences. But you know what? This film, for whatever it tries to achieve, whether it is to be a reluctant adventure feature, a mystery film or a naively transgressive exploration of Bangkok's underbelly, pulled it all off quite convincingly and without relent.

And surprisingly, the much-needed performance push for the film was never undermined for the sake of shock comedy. Zach Galifianakis is quite successful as the eccentric Alan, Ken Jeong, as what I've mentioned above, is great as Chow and even Paul Giamatti's cameo is never wasted. But I think Ed Helms as Stu is the best in the film in his ability to convey and contain both vulnerability and contempt in his predicament, both for his pungent exploits in the streets of Bangkok the night before and his uneasily cold relationship with his bride's father.

As a sequel, I think "The Hangover Part II" is arguably better and more resonant with its exotic choice of country and pseudo-cultural crash course compared to the first's colorful though bland Las Vegas setting. And as a comedy film, it has all the goods and clumsy energy of a charged summer farce, well-conceived plot twists and turns, to say the least, and some commonly-placed grotesques.

Only the sense of 'I've seen it all before' (even the picture slideshow during the end credits is still intact, there to do nothing but (clears throat) fill up potential plot holes) and an awkwardly mishandled Mike Tyson cameo prevent it from being outright 'solid' and truly exceptional, save for its great cinematography and some scattered hilarity.

Super 8
Super 8(2011)
½

Just like the case with Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist", "Super 8" will certainly be more remembered as a Steven Spielberg-produced spectacle than it is a J.J. Abrams-directed film. Abrams, who in my opinion has not proved anything yet in terms of cinematic imagination and vision (a full-length directorial resume that merely boasts of a "Mission: Impossible" sequel and a "Star Trek" reboot) because of the fact that he does not necessarily have to start from scratch from those film projects, could have capitalized on "Super 8" as his genuine coming-out party. But instead, what he did is ride on Spielberg's sci-fi, kid-friendly, wholesome fixation on aliens (come on, let's not pretend that extraterrestrials aren't the ones involved) and became somewhat an obligatory man on the helm to carry out the superstar director's 'been there, done that, seen that, heard that' concept. And worst of all, seemingly with puppet strings attached.

Yes, "Super 8" is a gargantuan letdown for me, but not because of the film's tired content and mindless use of explosions and CGIs in its clumsy second-half, but because of its broken promise to deliver something new and bring forth an intriguingly-themed film to reverberate the once prosperous conceptual disposal of the science fiction genre that is slowly running out of stock. Now come on, do not pretend that you have not felt even the slightest bit of curiosity when you've seen the enticingly minimalist trailer. It's the main reason why I have even seen "Super 8" in the first place. And also mainly due to the hyped nostalgic feel that comes along with it that may potentially bring the stellar, one of a kind atmospheres of Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." back to prominence for a new generation of audiences to see.

Now granted, the premise of the film is new and quite puzzling, inspires revelatory anticipation and its opening sequence up to somewhere before all those prolonged forebodings (come on, how can you maintain a strong sense of silent menace when you have heard that otherworldly creature's wail before? "Jurassic Park's" Tyrannosaurus Rex, anyone?) is potent at a considerable degree. Even the characterizations of the kids who set on to make a short film called "The Case" about zombies and stuff, although forced and emotionally compressed just so we may properly care for them before complications start, is interestingly dramatic and naively charming.

The sad-eyed girl next door (Elle Fanning), the straight-laced main kid (Joel Courtney) and the bossy overweight one (Riley Griffiths). Oh, and there's also the cartoonish pyromaniac (Ryan Lee). Initially, they're a joy to watch, being overly animated and concerned regarding their cheesy film production and all, but in the subsequent scenes, they just plunge down along with the film's qualitative execution.

Suddenly, they are heroes. Suddenly, the sad-eyed girl is now the missing damsel in distress. Suddenly, it just all felt wrong. There's nothing bad to see those pesky kids running and fending off some shrapnel here and bits of metals there, hell they're at the peak of adolescence, they truly are supposed to run. It's an age of physical restlessness. But heroes? Really? A film which promised something different, resorting to a cute swash-buckling bunch? And in a more extreme extent, one of them as an alien persuader? Haha, I'm sorry, but no thanks.

And that grieving father/deputy character (Kyle Chandler) who even disguised his way to find out the exact truth behind it all. He never even really found anything of utter importance that may serve as a solution. The next thing I know, he's there, with his child, looking up into some out of this world creature and subliminally saying goodbye.

Oh please, that abomination is far worse looking than those in "District 9". And aside from the inability to move on which the deputy character and the alien indirectly share (one emotionally and the other quite literally), there's no bond between them whatsoever, so weeping and a sense of longing shouldn't have even been an option for the first.

"Super 8", although a bit inappropriately titled, could have been an above average science fiction blockbuster fare. It's got these mysteriously looming vibes surrounding it. It has good leads and it's packed with suspense and thrill-a-minute laughs. If only those are rationed in exact moments and its forebodings ultimately leading into a creature worth the wait, the build-up and the running time, "Super 8" could have been infinitely better.

The kids' cheesy, awkwardly edited zombie flick "The Case", which was shown during the end credits, turned out to be the real highlight of the film. It's momentarily fun to watch, but it's hardly worth my money.

Director J.J. Abrams and executive producer Steven Spielberg, who tried to revisit the old ways to thrill, let us feel and make us believe, came silently blazing with "Super 8" in their hands, but with all the grumpy old cliches holding on tight along with them. And an ugly alien.

Stardust
Stardust(2007)
½

"My dear, I will give you everything, even the stars, just for the sake of our love". From that romantically far-fetched a line that is oh so abstract a thought and all too hyperbolic a statement begins the startlingly original adventure of "Stardust", a film adaptation of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel of the same name that vibrantly tells of magical realms and transcendent love that may initially look as if we've seen it all before, but with a comedic execution that makes it seem fresher and genuinely a notch more enjoyable than any films of the fantasy genre had ever been.

It's like Tim Burton's fantastically twisted vision merged with bits of Monty Python and some conventional fairy tale staples. As the film starts, with that deep-voiced narration by Ian Mckellen, "Stardust" created a distinct universe of myths and magic with eager flamboyance and familiarity, visually decreasing the sense of otherworldly surprise (that is clearly present in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" via the wardrobe and in "Alice in Wonderland" via the rabbit hole) and minimizing the line that separates the human world from those of flying vessels and ambitious witches.

But this time, there's no spells to cast or tornadoes to be felt just to enter the land of whatever, but merely a wall to cross secured by a not so quick-witted a guard. Now there's Stormhold for you.

Matthew Vaughn, who previously directed the great "Layer Cake", captured the essence of the said parallel universe without any foreboding of age-long reign of darkness a la Sauron or suggestions of full-fledged random craziness a la Lewis Carroll. It walks along the fantasy land with Shakesperean opportunism (as to how the film has portrayed the ambition of power by means of the King's (the legendary Peter O'Toole) sons' struggle to possess the ruby that is the affirming object of kingship) and the commonly grim characterization of witches who want nothing but eternal youth and beauty.

They can separately try to get what they want and get done with it, right? Without getting on each others' nerves and may even inhabit two different films to isolate their goals, isn't it? But as it unfolds (effortlessly that is, thanks to Gaiman's source material), their goals manifest in the guise of Yvaine (played by Claire Danes), a fallen star that is as knowledgeable as she is clueless. But wait, there also enters our alliterated hero Tristan Thorn (played by Charlie Cox) who, based on the opening line of this film review, also strives to capture Yvaine and bring her to his true love as a romantic gift. And just like that, "Stardust", with a relentless but wholesome narrative pulse and high doses of magically bizarre slapstick, begins its rat race for a star that, in some ways, resembles that in "Maltese Falcon".

Now, if there's something I'll definitely remember in the whole film, it will be the 'characters' themselves and no, it's not Yvaine and Tristan. Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, who gave unforgettably comic, over-the-top performances as Lamia the witch and Captain Shakespeare respectively, provide the sideshows that paint the world of Stormhold with contrastingly two-sided hues of eccentricity. With Claire Danes and Charlie Cox in the lead roles whose star powers and on-screen charisma (but based on what I've seen in the film, there's not much to scrutinize in their performances and formed chemistry) still isn't particularly tested that may also potentially give its studio a clunker of a film, veterans Pfeiffer and De Niro lend their shoulders for a share of the burden and oh what a support it was. "Stardust" just isn't the same without the presence of Pfeiffer's vain witch and De Niro's closeted pirate.

Add up Mark Strong, whose villainous roles in films bring him closer and closer on the verge of type-casting, portrays the sole-surviving prince Septimus (among his seven brothers) with that kind of vilely murderous instinct unforgettably displayed by Macbeth minus the downward spiraling insanity. Yeah, at first, I was quite unimpressed. Another antagonistic one for Mr. Strong, indeed. But all throughout his portrayal of the said character, one can sense his 'tongue-in-cheek' intent.

He bullies, brutalizes and kills anyone on-sight who hinders him in his goal for Yvaine and her ruby necklace. He renders anyone not on his side dead or dying, but he's deadpan in what he does. In this Septimus role, "Stardust" has immensely succeeded with its darkly comic tone. With the film being a fantasy picture, with such heavyweights as the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films serving as the genre's flag carriers, "Stardust" may have used some ideas that can easily be branded as repetitions.

But to what it is particularly disadvantaged, it makes up for its perfect approach for comedy. And to where it may look cliched (specifically in its magical and romantic elements), it makes up for its uniquely conveyed gallery of characters. "Stardust" is a beautiful, sometimes softly tender, sometimes ruggedly fast-paced and grotesquely overwhelming fantasy film that has achieved to leave a mark in such a conceptually-loaded genre.

By observation, after I watch some fantasy movies, there's always this recurring feeling of wonderment and awe mainly because of the visuals and nothing more. But after watching "Stardust", of course there's still the same feeling, but with a delightful smirk traced upon my face.

"My dear, I will give you everything, even the stars, just for the sake of our love". If that rings true to the one who promised the words and a place such as Stormhold a thing of reality, there will surely be a hundredfold of star-chasing adventures here and there. Yeah, right.

Cidade de Deus (City of God)

A third viewing (or fourth perhaps).

Reading my old "City of God" review once more (a very short one at that), I can still visualize and feel through the praising adjectives that I've previously used (such as 'breathless', 'brilliant' and 'powerful'), the extreme awe and cinematic revelation that I have witnessed. And even after all those years when my copy of the film rested somewhere inside the bowels of my black CD wallet, popping it back once again in the DVD player reignites a personal film experience quite unprecedented. And watching it once more, although like visually revisiting a chaotic moral hellhole, proves one thing: its power, both from its narrative drive and its despicable yet richly molded characters, is purely inexhaustible.

As the knife appears out of the initial blackness and creates contact with the chopping block in the film's raw and frantic opening scene that shows the eponymous place's abundant disorder, we suddenly see a doomed chicken which suddenly broke free of a cook's hands and inspires a hood chase. The scene, shot as if drifting between carelessness and control, may simply look like a vignette-like slip-in to expose the life in the ironically named slums, but it is particularly vital for the film. In its entirety, with its non-linear progress, we eagerly anticipate the film's highs and lows as the protagonist Buscape (Rocket), played by Alexandre Rodrigues, narrates the brief but violent history of the place.

In a way, the film's narration is a cinematic comfort. It is a re-assurance, delivered both in a conversational glib and half poetics, that what we see on-screen isn't just witnessed by the fourth wall population that we are. Of course, it's adventurously insightful to see a film created out of a 'fly on the wall' perspective, but like De Niro's Sam Rothstein in Scorsese's "Casino", we need a distinct personality to somehow filter everything that occurs. And even though Buscape is neither special nor participatory in the film's crucial events, he is our bridge that leads us into the gang-overtaken, drug-financed urban mutation that is the 'Cidade de Deus' and the ever-investigative world of journalism (considering that he is an aspiring maverick photographer).

Analogically speaking, he is our Virgil into Ze' Pequeno's (Lil' Ze') (award-worthily played by non-actor Leandro Firmino) 'Inferno', and in this hell, there's no fires and brimstone but guns, trigger-happy fingers and lots of drugs. Now, for it being set in a repugnant slums and it being based on a true story, I think it's expected for those who still haven't seen the film to mention "uber realism" as its primary visual preference. But with its clever, stylish and fast-paced usage of flashback transitions and montages that are usually accompanied by percussive musics, it has elevated the film from being an excellently written crime film into a truly unforgettable representation of a modern masterpiece. One that shows violence through close range, observant eyes and redemption through distant but hopeful ones.

'Join in or die out'. that may ultimately be the clockwork maxim that runs through Lil' Ze' and other hoods' minds, but for Buscape' and, to a certain extent, Benny (Lil' Ze's best friend, played by Phelipe Haagensen), there's something in it for 'or', and it is worth a try.

"City of God", pitch-perfectly directed by Fernando Meirelles (who also directed the great "The Constant Gardener" and the quite abysmal "Blindness") and Katia Lund, does not condescend to the harsh realities of living the life of illegalities and crime. It criticizes, exposes and sometimes even understands, but it never looked upon the 'Cidade de Deus'' extreme alternative of a lifestyle with a fully raised eyebrow. I think the film concedes to its existence but never the pertinence of escape. With that, "City of God", albeit a transgressive facade, provides a slight relief.

Blue Valentine
½

Love. Oh how sweet and promising it really is when it first flourishes between two people's hearts. It shows how everything seems to be all too easy, how nothing seems to hinder no one, and how everyone around you is but a blurring haze. That is the description of 'love' in the earliest of its budding, but when all those reside somewhere into a corner and reality once again sets in, well, what then? "Blue Valentine", a heartbreaking, charmingly funny yet emotionally draining independent film that depicts with utter realism and emotions stripped off of all the gloss of cinematic consciousness, the disillusioning eventuality of the aforementioned romantic euphoria.

The film, directed by Derek Cianfrance and shown in a 'back and forth' non-linear structure, perfectly captured both a relationship's magical first weeks to the shattering trials and slowly settling indifference of the latter ones. The couple, Dean and Cindy, (performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams that certainly warrant spots in a shortlist of best performances of 2010) although with a hint of an escalating spatial gap, clearly still have love for each other. And unlike other films who show a couple's connection through quick smiles, hugs and kisses, Dean and Cindy's relational strength are underlined by hardships.

Of course there's a time where the film seems to slightly go into romantically 'cute' sequences to develop both the characters' mutual affection, but between those lines, we see the passiveness of their deteriorating love. In the opening scene, we see Dean, along with their daughter, go into their bedroom to wake Cindy up. Dean dives into the bed and playfully kisses Cindy, but she shrugs off. From that scene onwards, I think it's fair to say that at least we can weigh it off that Dean is much more enthusiastic to redeem their downward spiral of a marriage than his wife. He even sets up a romantic revitalization of sorts in a 'future' room (filled with all those sci-fi buttons and stuff) in a themed motel with Cindy.

But the thing with Dean is, he's too defensively fragile. "You're never going to guess who I saw at the liquor mart." Cindy said to Dean while they're on their way to the motel. "Bobby Ontario", she then followed. It turns out, this Bobby Ontario is Cindy's old flame. And after hearing the name, Dean turns into a short silence and engaged into an uneasy argument with Cindy that furthered the fact that he is insecure with himself. And as what was subsequently followed by a conversation inside the said 'future' room between the two about what Dean really wants to do with his life aside from being a life-long blue collar worker, he is insecure with what he really want to be. A hint of an unconscious quarter-life crisis rising in the midst of a couple in trepidation. I think 'falling out of love' is an understatement.

Michelle Williams, in these scenes I've mentioned and a whole lot more, flawlessly inhabited the character Cindy's evolution from being an innocent young lover at a crossroads to an innocent young lover whose last-second epiphany taught her the ropes of 'responsibility' and finally, a wife whose own emotional exhaustion, because of an unhappy marriage, suggests desensitization.

Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, with his carefree demeanor all throughout the film, substantially portrayed Dean, a character of considerably stern masculinity (in terms of knowing what to do in the right times but sadly, barely knowing what to say in truly important ones) that despite of his educational limitations and lack of adequate parental guidance and upbringing, hesitates being meek in life.

Both characters are flawed, has gone through so much yet still knew too little. As their utterances of 'for better or for worse' fade into an ethereal image of their longingly long kiss, they have experienced with delight the 'better' but they have not prepared for the 'worse'. But aren't all couples?

"Blue Valentine", with its grounded approach to the nuances of love and the transformation of romantic warmth to consuming coldness, depicts love stripped bare from all the picture-perfect qualities of its immediate visualization upon the sweet acceptance of vows and wearing of the rings. And also explicitly shows the transitory pleasures and disappointments of the supposedly passionate sexual connection that comes with it.

Any imagination for a transcendental love will all be for naught once the storm settles in, and no motel room can rightfully compensate for the shortcomings of sex. But when it finally subsides and all seems to be back to the usual normality of marriage stability, then what? "Blue Valentine" supports the fact that though a marriage ceremony ends with short answers like 'I do' , every step from then on always begins with some questions, half-finished sentences, tearful apologies and even lessons along the way.

Beyond that point, 'Do I?' resonates more. It's not a question to fully reevaluate one's feelings toward his/her love, but an emotional disambiguation of a romantic perspective in a state of confusion and doubt. Love is too complex, tangled and often times painful a phenomenon that we just have to accept it as a fact. I'm sure "Blue Valentine" wholeheartedly does.

Run Lola Run
Run Lola Run(1999)

Judging from its title alone, "Run Lola Run" can easily be surmised as being fueled with non-stop kinetics, both in its characters' and camera's movements. This is particularly given for a film so much known for its music video-type, stylish editing techniques, an unorthodox time frame and a colorful assortment of characters. But thematically speaking, "Run Lola Run" is also surprisingly rich and capable with its inclusion of some pop theoretical approaches to the almost impenetrable concept of 'destiny' and its 'every-minute-of-the-day' fragility.

"The ball is round, a game lasts 90 minutes, everything else is pure theory," said the security guard in the film's opening scene, holding a soccer ball and subsequently kicking it up in the air. I think it is quite accurate to consider and analogize that the 'ball' is us, the 'game' is our existence and the pure theory is the film itself. This is what makes the film considerably special in its own right aside from its distinct visuals and 'back and forth' story structure.

Unlike other films who seems to overly wallow in their own constructed philosophies, "Run Lola Run", backed by a masterful direction by Tom Tykwer, tends to be more speculative than indulgent. As our protagonist Lola (perfectly played by Franka Potente) runs through streets and sidewalks and as she meets different fates after another, the film raises itself up the ground and above the rest and lays down its two cents. But that does not necessarily mean that it is not entirely confident with its intellectual concepts because it was quite sure with what it wants to talk about even in the opening scenes alone (with introductory quotes by T.S. Eliot and Sepp Herberger), but the film never stresses them. It never forces them to its audience. It is carefully lively with its exposition, but never too lively to spoon feed them to us.

"Run Lola Run" never fully strives to be too intellectual; plainly speaking, it is just a purely inventive film made for the MTV generation of the time. But with its unique humility regarding its underlying notions about space, time and the endgame of life hidden by the exuberant editing and the immediacy of real time, the film looked more intelligent as a result with its orderly outward flow. Although that is quite ironic considering that the film is about the constant disorder that is 'life'.

Its scenario is simple enough. Simple enough that it may only just warrant a short film's running time. A small-time hood named Manni (played by Moritz Bleibtreu) is set to deliver to his superiors 100000 Deutsche Marks. But the problem is Lola, his girlfriend, never came at the right time to pick him up. As a result, Manni took a cab on the way to the subway to ride a train to the agreed upon delivery place. But again, there's a problem: Manni's inept attention to details and his tension towards the police.

He unwittingly left the bag of money in the train seats, only to be possessed by a dirty vagabond (played by Joachim Krol, whose character's beard in the film reminds me of Sam Rockwell's in "Moon"). Manni then calls Lola for her to do something about it or else, his superior will kill him. Lola begs Manni to stay at the phone booth and that she will do something about it, but her boyfriend is one impatient fellow. If she doesn't arrive to where he's at after twenty minutes, he will go and rob the grocery store across the said phone booth he's in.

So here begins Lola's (and at some extent, also Manni's) animated (quite literally), frantic and desperate adventure for the 100000 Deutsche Marks and for love's sake. As she runs her way into whatever she can come up with, I can see her extreme love to Manni, but is it already bordering martyrdom? Or is she subliminally guilt-ridden by her initial lateness?

Of course, her moped (a motor vehicle) was stolen that's why she hasn't arrived on time at Manni's picking point, but she ignores that detail. She runs and runs and runs, thinking of the simplest means out of a situation that is brought forth by the most complex and mysterious of forces: Chance. On the surface, the film plays like a Tarantino-esque ode to the confusing deconstruction of time, but as its characters transitionally act in the most urgent of means, the film's stupefying idea about the relative changes of destinies resulted by even the slightest of bumps and the shortest of time delays runs in the background.

"Run Lola Run" is a relentless, race against time thriller/adventure with a great soundtrack. But at the same time, it is also a highly creative take on the abstract yet compelling nature of time and minute decisions, the considerably large role of people in altering the linear trajectory of what we call 'time' and finally, the truthful fact that as these said changes may really do happen, we might not know it. And that if ever we do, we just might as well not know what to do with it.

Lola, for her uncommon nature to stop wrong decisions and miscalculations of time (and also to scream real loud like that boy in "The Tin Drum"), is our inner 'fantasy for omniscience's' envy. Our lives are 'unrelenting adventures', her life is a 'choose your own adventure'. Both are entirely different, but the recurring comedy of errors sure is the enjoining force. "Run Lola Run" is indeed very fun, but some of its repetitively cyclic patterns prove to be its slight drawback. Oh, but so is life.

Body Heat
Body Heat(1981)
½

One hot night in a coastal town, a lawyer subtly forced himself quite capably into a married woman. He bought her a cherry snowball, they fell in love. The consumption of the pleasures of the flesh is their primary goal. They groped, gyrated and talked. The married woman quietly despises his husband, but wait, she wants his money and so do the lawyer. 'What about murder? The two agreed. But will it be a perfect crime? Can they pull it off?

These are the questions that echo all throughout "Body Heat", a more-than-impressive directorial debut for Lawrence Kasdan, writer of such blockbuster movies as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Empire Strikes Back". It really was quite ironic for a mainstream writer such as Kasdan, who established himself by creating proses for enjoyably superficial adventure and science fiction films, to explore so patiently, with two insidious and overtly sexual characters that made the film noir genre so darkly fascinating and strangely involving, the extent of a murder for a gain, from its conspiratorial planning to the burdening aftermath.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, the error-prone lawyer whose womanizing ways easily makes him very vulnerable for manipulation and deceit. Hurt painted a character that may immediately look smart, witty and quietly reserved on the surface, but internally rambling with his own shortcomings and an unquenchable thirst for love. But he found that latter desire in the form of the initially distant but very sexual Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner with powerful complexity that seemingly re-envisions the legendary Barbara Stanwyck performance in "Double Indemnity" (although that may be intentional, as "Body Heat" was an indirect re-imagining of the said Billy Wilder classic). And along with that, the idea of the money he may get for offing Matty's husband (played by Richard Crenna. Yes, John Rambo's superior Col. Trautman) may serve as an easement to his first. Without readiness and barely an inch of a gut, the sluggish Ned finally agrees to conspire with Matty. But at what expense?

From those simple motives and without any cinematic contrivances in the murder itself, no additional disguises nor fleeting establishments all the way to the very deed, the film has able to carve an identity of its own in a haze of noirs that may easily look and feel the same: It opted for simplicity that is fueled with escalating intensity. Nothing complicated, nothing confusing, exactly just like how any potential criminals may prefer it to be.

Yes, there were some narrative nuggets that mainly serve as the plot's progressing points to weave the story well, but the consequentially enclosing sequences for Ned and Matty that follow their committed crime were purely founded by the two characters' deteriorating, though still emptily carnal, artificially romantic relationship, at least in the eyes of one of them (I wouldn't say who).

There were no outer forces, though Ned's friends and colleagues Lowenstein and Oscar (strong supporting performances by Ted Danson and J.A. Preston) are on a steady probe. No lawful deus ex machinas, no conscious editors or Lawrence Kasdan to pull the plug. Kasdan has already laid down a well-written material, so if it implies it's 'well-made', it is up to the molded characters to emphasize and internalize the film's core, and up to the actors to make it even more convincingly so.

Gladly, both shattered the limits of expectations. William Hurt and Kathleen Turner breath life into the film through their uneasy, sexually-charged interaction, while the atmospheric musical score by John Barry that highlights the film's moral sleaze, the watchful guidance of Kasdan himself and the artistic hands of cinematographer Richard H. Kline that harmonizes otherworldly fogs and warm color tones to render the clashing seediness and scorching liveliness of a heat-wave-stricken town added further effect.

Through that photography, not only did the two main characters breath life into the whole picture, but they also sweat dread. They have no choice but to absorb the natural heat, but to welcome the exceedingly tempting allure of money albeit a casualty, they surely have. Call it blood-drenched hedonism, but they preferred not to have any. For Ned, he had a choice to escape and give up, but he pushed on. Is it love or is it the money? Is it both or none?

As we question his motives, as we question hers (Matty), just like the great "Double Indemnity" and other great film noirs that dared to show the follies of crime and how the most perfectly executed one may also unexpectedly be the most flawed and stupid, our inquiries about a 'perfect crime' ceases to persist; there's already an answer, and the entirety of "Body Heat", it is.

The film is a haunting tale of where extreme desires may put people into just to make these a reality: in the edge of desperation, on the foolish side of manipulation and in the wake of dishevelment. And just when we thought that the moral tangles in the film would slightly loosen up a bit and the responsible ones are about to be completely punished, there's suddenly a victor, and what he/she has left behind, he/she could not care less.

Find out the character's gender for yourself, and whether you're a film noir/neo-noir viewing completist or just a simple lad whose spine tingles in the presence of a riveting narrative filled with carefully-placed twists and revelations, "Body Heat" is a must-see. Or watch "Double Indemnity" first then this, or the other way around. It will be very, very rewarding. Oh, and there's Mickey Rourke too.

Lost In Translation

A second viewing.

Time and time again, it has been proven that a mark of a great film is the fact that no matter which place and what timeline you bring the core of the main story and its themes, the impact will always be the same. That claim is valid, of course, not strictly limited merely for films, but in every medium of artistic narratives as a whole, so to speak. Shakespeare's works, for example, right? Set "Hamlet" in Ancient Greece, "Macbeth" in Imperial China and "Romeo and Juliet" in Monarchical India, but the essence of their tales won't even be affected. 'Timeless', as they say.

But then there comes Sofia Coppola, armed with a little film called "Lost in Translation", a very picturesque 'Japan' to render fresh and some emotions to transcend. The aforementioned claim to greatness of films, as what was stated above, appeared to be not the case for "Lost in Translation" that made it rightfully so. Its theme of alienation and a subsequent connection in a haze of culture shock and language barrier (although were treated by Coppola's script with witty naivety that does not poke fun in the wrong places) was tackled perfectly by specifically setting the film in 'Japan'.

Putting it in China will get the same effect of misunderstanding and cultural difference, but the ideal Japanese bluish grayness wouldn't be there. Setting it somewhere in Europe may look too elegant, while locating the film somewhere exotic and infinitely tropical will be too adventurous and lively. The film needed stagnation, but at the same time, it asks for some unpredictable quirks and eccentricities. Japan is, after all, the definitive country there is. Tokyo's technologically advanced, contemporary metropolis, to be exact.

So, now that the alienating location was established, where would the film extract its romance? With the help of Scarlett Johansson's knowing yet discreet performance as newlywed twenty-something Charlotte and Bill Murray's naturally comic performance (that is one of the best performances of his career) as midlife crisis-inflicted actor Bob Harris, the film (along with its emotionally observant screenplay that won Sofia an Oscar) has further elevated the film from being a potentially lackluster travelogue-cum-romantic comedy film into a whole new height.

Granted, there were scenes that may look like cinematographic clichés for films set in foreign countries (the much used editing where a character is looking out from a car or a train's window, while images of landmarks are juxtaposing along with their wondrous stares and awestruck faces), but it was part of their characters. Beyond their situations, one tagging along with her husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi) for a job (Charlotte), and the other in there to shoot a whiskey commercial (Bob), although debilitated by cultures and places immensely different from their own, they still strive to appreciate Japan as it is, and to understand.

In some scenes, it was quite obvious that Bill Murray were ad-libbing lines mostly for comic effect, but it makes his character's bond with Charlotte much more genuine with all its tender spontaneity. To be precise, it is in a scene where they are eating in a typical Japanese restaurant of some sorts. Scripted or not, Bill Murray delivered his lines so irrevocably funny in a certain conversationally mundane way that Scarlett Johansson's laughs looked more authentic and very 'by-the-moment'. These sequences have helped to uphold their already very involving chemistry, and through that, they have achieved to inhabit the sensibilities of real people that for once, although how admittedly beautiful Scarlett Johansson is, by way of her portrayal of Charlotte, I wouldn't even be surprised if I bump into her character in a crowd of tourists all dazed and confused. Yes, she was that convincing.

There were many unforgettable scenes in the film mostly enhanced by Bill Murray's everyman-type humor and Scarlett Johansson's combination of ennui and starry-eyed cultural wonder. But it has got to be the final, evocative scene that easily takes the cake as the film's defining moment that exposes the silent power of love.

We see them say goodbye in the hotel lobby, but we all know that it was merely for formality's sake. After the brief farewell, Bob rides a car. Then in a busy corner, Bob Harris asked for his driver to stop. She saw a blond-haired woman that seems like Charlotte. It was her indeed. He went into her and they embraced. He then whispered to her something inaudible to us, but what Bob has said were just meager in importance. We have followed their connection, their relationship and their love close enough for the film's entirety that in that final whisper, we accepted their privacy and we gave it to them.

And as Bob returns to the backseat of his car that will bring him into the airport and then back into America, he alternately looks out the window and around him. The buildings and the highway. The cars and the skyline. At first, when he arrived in Tokyo, he looked upon them with questions in his mind, but after he has professed his love to an acquaintance in a foreign land that has unconsciously taught him to understand, he looked upon the metropolis with cathartic eyes. This time, it's with clarity, and with a hint of a smile.

The Truman Show

Our protagonist's name is Truman. Of course it's a play on the words 'true' and 'man', implying that he is the only person in his make-believe reality that is, well, living a genuine existence. But from that simple wordplay materializes a fascinating exploration of an individual's awakening consciousness in the midst of a soap opera-like artificiality. If ever you find out that the perceived life around you is nothing but a novel-length script and the people that surround you nothing but a mass collection of actors and bit players, would you lash out? If yes, won't you consider the utopia of a perfect life that it has got to offer? An existence where everyone is your friend and vice versa? A life without any blemishes save for the occasional ones of your own? This is what "The Truman Show" has raised with emotional wonder and revelatory humor, while adding up an unforgettably absurdist, over-the-top view of the advantageous inner core of media's wholeness. From that combination, the film, directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, which could have also been directed by Frank Capra and penned by Paddy Chayefsky (of "Network") in their heydays, is an optimistic, sometimes dramatic, at times laughably satiric contemporary classic whose spirit-soaring vibes only Hollywood can pull off. With enough visionary intent, that is.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" proved that Jim Carrey is infinitely better in non-comedic roles and "The Truman Show" only furthered the fact. He plays Truman Burbank, the unknowing reality TV show personality, with perfect humor and pathos that combine to inspire empathy. And through his portrayal, he also ignites in the process the hidden paranoiac within us all. What if my whole family is unreal? What if they bring home groceries merely because of advertising commitments? You may say it's far-fetched, but it's a valid psychological condition, and it has a name ("The Truman Show Delusion", or simply, "The Truman Syndrome"). Now back to Jim Carrey's acting, his antics, exaggerated and all, is littered everywhere but were never the focus of the film. The laughs, although not as loud and boisterous as how a common comedy film would have evoked it, are much more rewarding.

It's never Jim Carrey all the time. No, it was not just him that produces the focal comedy, but the idea of his character's place and situation. Consider the scene where he's (as Truman) driving his car when suddenly the car radio goes out of frequency and unexpectedly feeds off a stoic, trained narration/instruction of his present place and the street he is currently driving through. He then reacts with sublime surprise far from his usual face-distorting persona that made him a household name. But nevertheless, we laughed. I laughed. The crew's technical glitches, Truman's ever-smiling, by-the-book wife Meryl (impressively played by Laura Linney), even the countless advertisements in between Truman's life. Sure, there is Jim Carrey and his embodiment of a modern cinematic funnyman in the center, but "The Truman Show", with its knock-out visual splendor, energy and existentialist views, extracts its comedy from endless sources other than its central actor. That is one of the instances where the richness of a material really shows. It's got a scene-stealing actor headlining, but the film never delved to fully capitalize on him. Its foundations are indeed strong enough and the film preferred it for Carrey to purely act and embrace Truman Burbank and not the other way around. The latter would have been too distracting.

But I have to admit, I have raised an eyebrow on some of the technologies used in the film, notably the water and wind-controlling system that simulates a storm and the artificial moon that serves as the night light of Truman's town and also harbors the ubiquitous Christof (the ever-reliable Ed Harris), the puppet master of it all, and his crew. The concept of that particular control room is too visually excessive that they look more like megalomaniacal Bond villains than TV show staffs. But looking at both sides, that brief complain of mine can also be counterpointed by the fact that "The Truman Show" IS a satire, and also, maybe because the film is consciously set in a not so distant future with an ambiguous time frame so creation of things bordering implausibility are completely acceptable.

"The Truman Show" is and always will be a perennial feel-good movie, with Jim Carrey showing his competence on playing a transcendent character that reminds a lot of Jimmy Stewart's unique everyman appeal. But beyond the laughter and tears, the film is also a fascinatingly original depiction of what mainstream media has ultimately become, from its initial innocence to its present condition almost completely akin to gratuitous voyeurism. It shows the bastardization of entertainment and its toll on its unaware and unwilling participants. And with that, "The Truman Show", made in 1998 some years before the true boom of reality shows, is indeed quite prophetic. Ed Harris' Christof a mirror of TV's "Big Brother"? Who would have known?

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Although one pirate less from looking more like a spin-off than an adequate sequel (I think "The Further Adventures of the Eccentric Captain Sparrow" is a more apt title for the film), I think this fourth entry into the 'Pirates' franchise is obviously striving for a fuller and more exotic vision of an adventure movie. It even puts into cinematic life a couple of enigmatic figures of the seas that are things of legends: Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard (played by the wonderful Ian McShane) and the creepy presence of mermaids. But hindered by an unequal pacing, an overexposed Johnny Depp, and a lackluster, claustrophobic climax, it failed to be a memorable one. But do not get me wrong, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" got all the right elements to be (lead actors' chemistry, fine supporting cast and a well-thought idea for the quest). Only God and Rob Marshall know what has really gone wrong.

Ever since Johnny Depp's turn as Jack Sparrow in the very first 'Pirates' film, I think he has always been a cinematic crowd-pleaser. Every gestures and antics, every eccentricities and one-liners, Depp delivers with surefire laughter response from the audience. But I think here in "On Stranger Tides", sure he's the life of the film (with Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa in a close second), but at certain moments, his humor is quite fleeting and a bit repetitive. This is not Depp's fault though because he has donned those sweaty wigs and that silly half-drunk persona with all the best he could. But being overexposed as Jack Sparrow in this film is the true culprit for making this latest reprisal of his a lukewarm one.

Personally, I think Johnny Depp's Captain Sparrow, who currently resides in filmsite's "100 Greatest Movie Performances of All Time" and is arguably the most recognizable character he has ever played, never belongs into a film where he is the sole, title-carrying protagonist nor was the character created and fleshed out for a very long screen time. Do you Recall how he has been Will Turner's (played by Orlando Bloom) polar opposite in terms of heroism all throughout the first three films? Reckon how he has been that humorously sacrificial, ever so defiant Kraken dinner in "Dead Man's Chest" who (spoilers) died for being so. Remember how he has been completely absent almost one third done into "At World's End"?

Sparrow is a weird, adventurous and otherworldly character, but also is encapsulated with a hint of enigma. Sure, we've seen his father Captain Teague (played by Keith Richards), but what else? He is a bumbling, sideshow-type of a hero and I think he should have stayed like that. His presence in "On Stranger Tides" is like commissioning an award-winning experimental short film director to direct a 500 million dollar epic, competent but not quite fit. Of course, Sparrow IS the heart and soul of the "Pirates of the Caribbean's" wholeness, but his presence in the franchise's totality is fueled with great ubiquity that immediate visualization of Jack Sparrow as a full-fledged romantic hero is, based on his slightly amoral personality, a bit out of character.

But on one side, as what I've mentioned above, Depp's chemistry with Penelope Cruz is truly great and screen-bound to please. It's sexy yet wholesome. Straightforwardly funny yet full of suggestive innuendos. Now back to the negative (oh, how fast the transition is), another one of my complaints in the film is the unnecessary romantic arc between the very unnecessary character Philip (played by Sam Claflin) and the mermaid named what else but "Syrena". It's too forced and too meet cute. This is a ragged and slimy high adventure after all, isn't it?

And finally, some of those actions. They are often unexciting and the camera is a bit torn on whether to be positionally stagnant to capture all the stunt works and sword fights step by step or to go 'Bourne' (shaky cam) into all of it. With that, I think Rob Marshall is a tad bit indecisive on what to do with those particular scenes, which then leads me to a conclusion that Gore Verbinski (who directed the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films) is a better handler of action sequences, and much more exciting at that.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is good enough for the typical, adventuring movie escapists, but considering the less pressure that the film has on its big-budgeted shoulders (the reason being that the previous "Pirates" installment was not much positively received by critics), the film should have gone on to tread better heights. Its narrative spark that is the search for the fountain of youth is quite fascinating and those little doses of close-minded Spanish Catholicism (that also tells of their killjoy tendencies) inserted near the end furthered the film's departure from summer movie shallowness. But ultimately, its comparative inferiority to Jack Sparrow's earlier exploits and a lacking script proved to be its separation points that easily distinguish it between a good film and a really bad film. Somewhere in the middle but leaning on the 'bad' more, maybe? Yeah, something like that.

Burden of Dreams
½

Somewhere near the end of "Burden of Dreams", Herzog stated that he 'shouldn't make movies anymore' after the emotional, physical and intellectual drain that is "Fitzcarraldo". Of course, Herzog never stayed true to his words as he still kept on generating great films after great films since. But this documentary, capturing the legendary filmmaker's seemingly inexhaustible grasp to his ambitions in the middle of an Andean disillusionment, provocatively shows Herzog in near surrender (his film career) and without regard to the future.

But ironically, throughout the film, Werner Herzog shows an unusually calm demeanor. Looking at the things he is trying to fend off at the time, the likes of turbulent rapids, malicious rumors and political power struggles (not to mention the almost biblical task of moving a steamboat up a hill), a feeling of despair creeping within is not asking much. But he never snapped, at least not on the verge of suicide. Perhaps that's a consolation.

Herzog, known for his deeply tranquil voice (especially in his numerous films where he incorporates poetic narrations), is quite unsurprising in his display of passiveness in an environment that demands otherwise. Hell, he even got shot in the middle of an interview and could not care less. But what Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" has captured brilliantly is his internal descent into a void of questions and uncertainties. In many sequences, Herzog navigates through the natives' camps, treacherous terrains and dangerous waters seemingly animated by a mission and even carries a smile once in a while. But along those moments, in the middle of each and every scene and triggered by Blank's questions, we hear him speak out.

It's not one of those pedestrian interviews where answers can be immediate, quick and solid. In these particular scenes, with his thick German accent, his words flow out, eloquent, vibrant, even frightening at times. It's a combination of a poet's uncommon inner articulacy, an everyday glib of a wisdom man and the dark, declarative enunciation of a doomsday prophet. And through that, he exposes his mind and soul. A mind that is pessimistic and unsure. A soul that is anxious and insecure. But a wholeness that is awfully determined and focused.

Yes, he can quite see the finish line, but he can't go into a full run. Budget, time constraints, the force of nature, you name it. He is a man of ambition and larger-than-life aspirations and will stop at nothing to put those into fruition. But he can see, in the distance, the looming presence of the inevitability of failure. And it's quite clear.

"Burden of Dreams", although about the agony of filmmaking, can also be seen as a documentary about the generalized significance of personal dreams. "Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project." Herzog said. From that point on, the idea of finishing the film ceased to be merely just associated with the succeeding post-production. It is his ultimate self-affirming test as a filmmaker and as a dreamer. But on one side, it's also his sense of closure. A sigh of relief, if you can still just call it that.

Now, who would think that Herzog's harsh exploits in the wilderness and a psychological flirt between lunacy and megalomania would root out from his consummate, against all odds passion for his craft? Coppola maybe, with Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" on one hand and a gun on the other.

"...I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment." Herzog said regarding on what he thinks of the Andean jungle. Maybe if you ask him regarding his devotion to finish "Fitzcarraldo", it will be the same answer. He just wanted it done, with his visions still intact, and more importantly, his sanity.

Kakabakaba ka ba? (Will Your Heart Beat Faster?)
½

The fumbles of the Yakuza. The desperate awkwardness of Chinese determination. The insidious depiction of Catholic nuns and priests. I think it's a great decision for Mike De Leon, one of the best directors there ever were in the Philippines, to put a film prioritizing such themes in a not-so-serious environment where anyone at anytime (although especially in the climax) can break into production numbers. In spirit, "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?" is, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", an unexpectedly bizarre adventure into the illegal and the unknown for two uninitiated couple, or at least, love birds. But in its entirety as a film, it is a sharp satire about how these underworld dwellers seem to have all the fun in the world, forming sinister plans, dancing their way into drug production and superficially praising God's daily bread.

And with a sense of bumbling lack of control, the film has expressed these mindless chases for grotesque pleasures and taboo in a happy, energetic and strangely harmonious light that we question its unusual tone. But I believe De Leon and screenwriters Doy Del Mundo and Racquel Villavicencio knew more. That 'question' makes the film. It evaluates our response to its display of romanticized moral disregard. With quirkiness, music and a slip-in psychedelia on the side.

The film's MacGuffin is unique enough: a cassette tape cum opium container. It was unwittingly put into one of our protagonists' (played by Christopher De Leon) jacket by the Yakuza errand man Omota, one-dimensionally played by APO's Boboy Garovillo (although may be the exact intent). Through that performance, it transforms foreign smuggling into a Wile Coyote-like affair, with occasional busts and foils treated as nothing but episodic humor and successes immediately countered by funny miscalculations. In an early scene, the film even pokes fun to the fatal culture of the said Japanese crime syndicate when failure hits the fan through cutting of fingers. Shown in a flat screen television sticking out from a Shoji screen. The film's tongue was really that immersed on the cheek.

The lovebirds mentioned earlier were played by Christopher De Leon, Jay Ilagan, Charo Santos and Sandy Andolong. Their performances were quite enjoyable, but that's where the script shows its contrivance. At certain points, they ride into dialogues not by means of natural flow but through conversational timings that were obviously rehearsed and coordinated. At least they could have applied some of Bunuel's passively comic treatments to satiric characters that were always proven to be very effective. But still, I have to praise Mike De Leon and company for creating such a different film in our local industry that seems to live and die on melodrama.

By the standards of our movies, "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?" is utterly subversive, with radical attacks ranging from gangsterism to the Catholic church's hypocrisy, while it also brought forth a notion that musical can quite fit as a narrative crescendo to such a wide-tackling satire. But maybe it's also an easy way to visually portray what they really wanted to: The crazy, megalomania-inspired higher ones' intent to control people through the, symbolically, 'opiate of the masses' that is mainstream religion, as coined by Karl Marx (furthered by how Pinoy Master (Johnny Delgado) wants to produce mass wafers mixed with opium to be given to church-goers). So, after all, there's some ounces of critical inputs in the film, too.

I must admit, I did not like "Kakabakaba Ka Ba?" that much compared to Mike De Leon's masterpiece "Kisapmata", arguably the best Filipino film ever made, and "Batch '81". But I love the way the film has ended. Dancing nuns. A Singing drug kingpin. A samurai duel. With a unique approach to the final wedding scene, the film embraced some sort of a Jodorowskian afterthought.

Amidst a two hour run of exhilarating, fantastical imagery, a crew, holding a clapper, suddenly shouts "Cut!" and the camera zooms out from above, exposing the band playing the musical score to only be a few feet away from the actual scene. It fully echoes Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain" and its most memorable character, the Alchemist's immortal line: "Real life awaits us". Well, let's break the illusion then, shall we?

A Woman Under the Influence
½

Great films like "Sunset Blvd." and "Psycho". They have both shown 'madness' in a way both disturbing and doomed, uncontrollably fatal and in brutal askew. Both pictures solidified the fact, with utter exclamatory conviction, that being in such a mental state is synonymous with being 'done for' and you can't really do anything but inhabit its very delirious core. And although the latter statement was still further raised by "A Woman Under the Influence", this film, directed with raw attention to the essence of the story and characters rather than the overall aesthetics by John Cassavetes, is a revolutionary break-out party (a bit hyperbolic, I must admit) to the hidden side of this seemingly over-used cinematic theme of psychosis: That madness can also serve as a familial balance.

Peter Falk, which I have first seen playing himself in "Wings of Desire", delivered an unforgettable, emotionally powerful and quite underrated performance as the husband Nick. The character is a blue-collar worker striving to keep his family together, and by the sight of his sublimely pleading eyes, he means good for everyone. He immensely loves Mabel (Gena Rowlands), his wife, and his children even more so. But he is quite weary of Mabel and her slow drift into a self-losing basket case.

His weariness is quite valid, after all, and with the help of the shaky camera utilized by Cassevetes that sometimes even goes out of focus, he has established Mabel's initial sequence as she, panting, exaggerated, and worried, assists her children as they go with their grandmother into her car to go to her house. "I shouldn't have let 'em go", uttered by Mabel. This sequence, although it shows her unusual redundancy, does not really highlight her insanity but shows her neurotic tendencies. As we see her repeat instructions, mostly about her children's well-being and safety, and fast talk her way to her mother's attention, Gena Rowlands depicts Mabel's personality with a slight slant of ambiguity: Does she really mean every word?

"A Woman Under the Influence" is infused with such incredible sequences after another, mostly dominated by Ms. Rowlands' weird, pathetically disorienting glib of tongue. She wants to entertain Nick's friends. She immerses into childhood persona just to make children laugh. But ultimately, she is marked by sadness. Yes, she is mentally unstable, but did she ever wanted to be in such a condition?

Then, in a tolling decision lifted by frustration and exhaustion on Nick's part, he sent her to a mental institution. He then tries to care for his children himself. But as shown by the significant sequence in the beach, shot within a considerable distance and with a point of view not leveled to an adequate position, the film showed Nick's incompetence as an affecting parent. Of course, he loves his children more than anything else, but with things that needs tenderness and detailed caring, he is gravely lacking.

Through this sequence, not only was it suggested that Nick really misses his wife with her free-willing interaction with their kids, John Cassavetes, with his great characterization of Mabel, also made us audience miss her. Despite the deterioration of her mental health, as she left their house and was committed to an institution, she also left a hole in her family. For once we see, after her erratic mental episodes, her encompassing influence to Nick and their children. Her utility. Her vitality.

After watching "A Woman Under the Influence", I thought that the film is really much more about the essential presence of a mother in a family rather than it is about the complexity of madness. Yes, beneath its sheer depiction of deafening attempts to control an insanity-inflicted individual and its uneasy portrayal of mental instability, it's centered in the significance of a caring matriarch. Mabel may be raving mad, she may shout senseless phrases and dance in the tune of the"Swan Lake" atop a couch, but her importance echoes throughout the four corners of their house all the same.

And as suggestively shown in the final scene approached with a sense of suburban calm, Nick and Mabel will always stride to strive. And as they make their bed and close the curtains, they, after all that have transpired, are still in one piece. That is until something else do them part.

The Graduate
The Graduate(1967)

Alright, before anything else, let me say that "The Graduate" is definitely one of the best films of all time. And I rarely brand any films with such commendations quite easily (as if I'm a somebody. Ha.). It features a more-than-worthy star-making performance by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft's memorable and definitive portrayal of a promiscuous cougar in the guise of Mrs. Robinson. Add up the beautiful songs of Simon & Garfunkel and a deeply resonant ending, we got here a masterpiece.

But when I say 'masterpiece', it's not by the standards of what the word may immediately connote (pageantry, scope, larger-than-life actors) mind you, but what this influential little film has left behind. Back in the late 60's when it was released, with much cultural changes happening in the forefronts of America, maybe it's popularity has sparked mainly because its main theme hasn't been explored before. Sure it's a romantic-comedy. Sure it's a love story. But at the time prior to this, mainstream speaking, any films of the genre won't mean anything if it isn't anchored by A-list stars.

Then "The Graduate" came. It's a story of a newly graduated man. It should be happy, right? Even I thought so. The film opens with our protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sitting in an airplane. He should be glad, right? the camera then follows him as he steps onto a moving walkway with his face filled with uncertainty, fearfulness and a hint of dread. Yes, he graduated, but he doesn't know what to do next. Then he encounters one of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson. She asks him to drive her home, offers him a drink and requested for him to unzip her dress. This should have been a meet cute film, right? After some time, he delves into a semi-guilt-ridden affair with her. Hesitant at first, he likes the idea of it, and he likes her too. But then he meets Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). He loves her at first sight but Mrs. Robinson won't allow love to bud between the two. It should have been very easy, right?

From those complications rooted out from the idea of romantic relationships, "The Graduate", based on a novel by Charles Webb, unfolded what it was all about. Of course it's mainly focused on Benjamin's elusive quest for love, but I think the film is more about his existential search for meaning and its consequences. Only from that that his two-sided encounter with love, transgressive, determined and all, was inspired. And with the help of the uncommon cinematography by Robert Surtees which occasionally focuses shots into Hoffman's face with an intent to document his subtle pain and emotional crisis through his facial expressions, "The Graduate", aside from being an unorthodox tale of romance, succeeded to show the sweltering pressure of a newly grad whose own mind dictates he's got nowhere to go.

The film is filled with many memorable sequences, but there's one great scene in it where Benjamin, wearing a scuba outfit, enters the swimming pool and in the presence of his parents and some other guests, remained standing, motionless, below the water. It's a moment that can easily be gazed upon as a random slip-in about suburban life's view of young people's successes. But through its initial first person point of view to his plunge into the pool, it finely highlights his isolation, with the water pressure translating into his own and from that bluish loneliness he seeks to find warmth. But he is cornered. By his parents. By his parents' friends. By himself.

"The Graduate", directed masterfully by Mike Nichols, is an unforgettable film. Not just because of some of its laughs or its central romantic arc, but because of its exposition of the difference between flirting with the idea of love and simply embracing it. We saw both sides, Benjamin experienced both; he preferred the euphoria of true romance. But after all, uncertainty is still in his eyes and a sole question still in his mind: "What should I do next?"

As the film ends, I can't help but give "The Graduate" a small applause and slightly scold myself as to why I haven't seen it sooner. A true classic, and what "Fargo" is to Roger Ebert (as a definitive reason as to why he loves movies), "The Graduate" is to me. It really is.

True Romance
True Romance(1993)

Although directed by Tony Scott, "True Romance" is, from all sides, taken over by Quentin Tarantino's (who have written the screenplay along with Roger Avary) trademark brushstrokes of unrelenting references to B-movies, stylishly vulgar dialogues and killer MacGuffins. The film is also a perfect ensemble exercise of character acting, featuring such greats as Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman and a whole lot of others.

Clarence and Alabama, described almost sarcastically by the film's very title, were perfectly played with the needed air of 'go for luck', 'not a care in the world', 'against all odds' romance by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. Now, when I look back at the very beginning, I think that the complications ironically came from the very manifestation of love between the two itself. Yes, I believe, it does. When I heard Alabama deliver the line 'It was so romantic' after (SPOILER) Clarence killed Drexl her pimp, they surely are in for some distortions, and so are we.

it all began when Clarence, all alone in a triple billing theater watching Sonny Chiba's (used later by Tarantino as Hattori Hanzo in "Kill Bill") movies, was suddenly covered by popcorn (yes, it was THAT cheesy) via Alabama's clumsy slip. After a small talk, they went for a pie, read some comic books and, as expected, into the anticipated heat of the night.

However, it was then revealed that everything, from the initial encounter (explaining the popcorn trick) up to their sexual climax, were planned and that Alabama was hired by Clarence's boss for his birthday. But then, Alabama was guilty. They hugged each other. After the artificial fling, love it really was, indeed.

From those basic blueprints, one can see how these initial sequences can also properly fit into a tiring mid 90's comedy romance film (an everyman falling for a prostitute with a heart). But with brash Tarantino with the pen and action stylist Tony Scott on the helm, expect this romantic idealism be unraveled, taken down piece by piece, then put back together. We got here a turbulent love story.

With the help of the cocaine MacGuffin and some satiric intent, "True Romance" also fearlessly entered a part of Hollywood's immoral side, the retaliative urgency of the mob and the egotism in the police division not just to serve as morally imperfect backdrops for Clarence and Alabama's romance but also to give an inexorable portrait of human desperation and the intertwining of situational fates.

And even though I think that the film's climax was a bit rushed and too 'explosive' that it almost seems out of place in great contrast to its carefully progressive, well-written narrative establishment, the film nevertheless delivered enough goods to be considerably well-remembered as a high-notched blazing craziness that fully belongs to both the crime and romance genre.

Oh, and you want a definition of pure cinematic gold? Take note of the Sicilian scene. Hopper and Walken on a verbal dance of fear-inducement and sarcasms. Astounding. Just astounding. And after writing this, I've stumbled upon a "True Romance" film review describing the particular scene with the same, exact word (astounding) as I've used. Oh, the beauty of appreciative coincidence.

Thelma & Louise
½

Not much of a stranger to woman empowerment due to his strong heroine in the form of Ellen Ripley in "Alien", Ridley Scott got this optimistic feminine absolute out of the infinite confines of outer space and brought it closer to home and into a more realistically compelling social milieu in "Thelma & Louise", an essential piece of feminist cinema that has paved way for other similar films to be accepted as mainstream expressions of the thematic core that is the emotional unraveling of women.

The film initially unfolds with the titular characters' slightly daring attempt to elude the exhausting and tightening grip of the male-dominated order of life, so they planned to get away for a temporary vacation for some R&R. In a brief moment, as Thelma prepares, she saw a gun inside her drawer (as I have found out, this narrative technique is called a "Chekhov's Gun"). Without any attention to details, she quickly puts it into her bag. Director Ridley Scott shot this brief scene without any foreboding of sorts. He downplayed the whole moment with some (as I recall) considerably, soothingly adventurous background music, making us join the whole emotional road trip from the start like nothing out of the usual is expected and things won't even go into the slightest hint of ominousness.

Suddenly, Thelma was sexually harassed in the parking of a bar and Louise then shot the attacker. They fled the scene (Do not worry, those are nothing but basic narrative expositions seen in almost all of the film's plot description; it's not a 'you've taken away a part of me'-type spoiler) and from that point on, it's not much of a reality-grounded story than it is an arresting commentary about the current state of women in the social hierarchy and a de-objectifying adventure of two carefree, defiant souls who try to unconsciously teach some male grotesques an overdue lesson or two.

It starred Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as Thelma and Louise, respectively. From the film's halfway and beyond, their performances display somewhat a sense of fluid rebellion and uninhibited aggression. As they run for their lives and from captivity, they also slowly come to terms with their fate as their plan into Mexico fades. And no, it's not a kind of reckless desperation commonly displayed by hardened outlaws, but more of a series of acts performed so their presence can be felt, albeit the barren landscapes, as they flap their wings to fly against the winds of conformity (I've already used that 'winds' thing on my "Easy Rider" review, but that does not necessarily suggest that "Thelma & Lousie" is strictly an emergent counterculture fare) and into a cathartic landscape of emotional freedom. The film is also surrounded by strong supporting performances by Harvey Keitel, a surprisingly tender Michael Madsen, a young Brad Pitt and consistently dependable character actors Stephen Tobolowsky ("Memento's" Sammy Jankis) and Christopher McDonald.

Wherever I may really look at it, "Thelma & Louise" shouts of Cheris Kramarae's Muted Group Theory with all of its radical upper-handedness and shared thoughts and ideas about feminism. But I also think of the film as a tragic yet sweet observation about repression, scarred pasts and hope regardless of its backdrop that is seemingly an ode to expressive crimes.

But through all the two main characters' critical violations of both the established social norms and grips of the law, Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer stayed true to themselves and their companionship. They might have gotten too far at some point in their journey (but can be particularly blamed to their awkward decisions and other people's utter provocations), but they embraced the fact that their uncommon Thunderbird journey to hesitate the chains of social stereotypes and get away from their criminal liabilities wasn't an instinctive transgression but a compulsive expression. After all, they just wanted to fly.

As I watch "Thelma and Louise", I expected an encapsulating crime tragedy like that of the same dually-titled "Bonnie and Clyde". I never thought that it will be such an exhilarating, contemplative, even inspiring piece of road trip cinema.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
½

"Didn't we pass a castle back down the road a few miles? Maybe they have a telephone I could use." Said Brad Majors, a hero. A very cliched line from hundreds of horror films to fundamentally begin a complication. And from that so begins the crazy night in Frank-N-Furter's gothic castle and the fun of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as a whole, filled with hilarity, horror and sexual innuendos that is also an out-of-this world ode to the cheesy greatness of B-movies.

'Frankly' (He. He. He he.) speaking, 'cult' films, like this one, are really very hard to scrutinize based on pros and cons as they aren't merely just films alone. Like "Star Wars", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is an unsurpassed phenomenon that blurs the borders between 'cinema' and pop culture. Through the years, it ceased to be just a film but also an embodiment of the numerous taboos of the 70's and at the same time, the era's uncontrolled, raging energy. To look at the film's (based on a stage play) ideas, characters, and set designs, it's hard to imagine all of it being created by sane minds. A distant galaxy called Transylvania and a planet named Transsexual? A cross-dressing scientist? Lots of eccentric grotesques? Coming from a perverted disposal, more like.

But from these seemingly outrageous thematic excesses and far-fetched conceptual liberties arises a balanced treatment of the musically ordered and the characteristically absurd. With Tim Curry's amazing, awe-inspiring depiction of a free-willing transsexual scientist who creates his ultimate hedonistic object that is 'Rocky Horror' (played by Peter Hinwood) and Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick's portrayal of a gullible, naive and repressed young couple, the film, directed by Jim Sharman, has achieved to pit two opposites.

We may be abhorred, disgusted and repelled by Frank-N-Furter's unorthodox sexuality and all, but it is perfectly contrasted by the straight-laced couple. We may see weird dance numbers amid surrealistic backdrops but they were viewed through the considerably unknowing eyes of Sarandon and Bostwick's characters. Decadence and innocence. Both contained in a colorful, gothic and occasionally shocking musical bizarre fest. Oh, how it delivered immensely.

Sure, the whole film is pure outlandishness just for the sake of it, but with Charles Gray's (by the way, he has played both an ally and a villain in the James Bond franchise) semi-profound statements, mostly told in intervals, about the emotional capacity of human beings only meagerly connected to the quick peripherals of persuasion (which Frank-N-Furter took advantage of), the film has also tread something other than music and choreography.

Sure, these can be nothing but cynic cliches commonly heard from many films dealing with pessimistic outlooks about human existence, but it sure fired away to fully complement the immoral undercurrents of the film. We may succumb to LSS, singing "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?" and "Sweet Transvestite" at the back of our minds, but the film, as a cinematic entirety, exposes the emotional and sexual repression prevalent on many people dealing with the same situational predicament as in the film.

Tragic, fun, mischievous, even weirdly sexy, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is, after all these years, still a refreshing cinematic experience partly because of it's aghast-inspiring perspective about the futility of human control caught in the middle of an enticing prospect for dissipation. But also, quite simply, because the film is just so much fun to behold.

A Hard Day's Night

"A Hard Day's Night" opened with the fab four being chased by their crazed fans. They stumble, they impersonate, they hide. But contrasting their attitude towards the mob to, say, Buster Keaton's in "Seven Chances", which he is helplessly chased by a hysterical crowd of unmarried women, is quite fitting. Unlike Keaton who ran for his life through bulging boulders and all, John, Paul George and Ringo ran for their lives just for the hell of it. They just wanted to be chased, make fun of the idea of it, and have a good time.

From those starts this energetic film that is part documentary, part quirky comedy film that cemented the, at the time, emergent phenomenon that is "The Beatles". As what the summary states, "A Hard Day's Night" puts into perspective a day in their exhausting, almost cyclic lives as music heartthrobs and recording artists. But just about when we are going to think that 'fame' is a thing pleasurable only in the start, the bumbling "Beatles" added their own peculiar twist into it, creating a refreshing milieu of the concept of 'celebrity' where constant tumbles, pressures and shows are nothing but snippets of fun and every troubles found along the way absorbed with carefree enthusiasm.

Before the band's journey into a more experimental style of music later in their careers with non-matching outfits and a more indifferent John Lennon, they have been an icon for their 'cool' fun and humorous, Liverpudlian antics, which "A Hard Day's Night", directed by Richard Lester (who also directed "Superman II & III") has captured with crisp black and white photography (by Gilbert Taylor) and a seemingly endless source of energy. The film was, as expected, virtually plotless, with countless vignettes and small adventures commonly caused by a person in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong age: Paul Mccartney's 'other' grandfather, played irritatingly (I do not know if that is a complement) by Wilfrid Brambell.

Yes, the four are having a great time, playing pranks, drinking booze and having clean flirts with various girls, but it was further enhanced, with potentially consequential outcomes, by this old man with an insidious intent to steal scenes and demand attention. He is by no means the weak part of the film, as the entirety of it was written splendidly by Alun Owen with an unrelentingly contagious wit and fast pace (though with some ad-libs here and there). But the scenes specifically intended to be dominated by John, Paul, George and Ringo's showcase of their ensemble, spontaneous comedy were at times overshadowed by this pesky old-timer's countless attempts to act without accord.

Of course, "A Hard Day's Night" is a comically trivial deconstruction of "The Beatles'" larger-than-life fame, but the old man's numerous acts of idiocies should have been, at least for me, a separate film on its own. In all fairness, if ever the character was envisioned as very exasperating as what was materialized on screen, I think Wilfrid Brambell performed well and did it justice, but the character really bothered me, just like what he did to John and company.

"A Hard Day's Night" is the testament of the band's career's highest peak, and after many years, although some may find the jokes a bit dated, it is still a potent time capsule of a film that brings us into an era where mindless fan adoration is purely and outwardly reciprocated with substantial artistry. Nowadays, the first will always be somewhere out there waiting to be unleashed on the sight of a new celebrity phenomenon, but the latter may just really be nearing the gutters.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios)

Women reign in this unstoppably comic romantic farce directed by famous Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. I do not know, but Spanish actresses really have a very unique way of conveying cinematic energy. Maybe it's their relentless native language or the contrast of their seemingly ordinary, straight-laced feminine features with unfitting comedy that has able to pull it off. They inhabit the screen with deadpan hysteria and overwhelming desperation that they never seem to bother with any kind of consciousness with how they look or act.

Do you reckon how some actresses act on a comedy film obviously aware that they're in on it anticipating every punchlines and absurdly crude behaviors? "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" came wallowing in the opposite, making its characters squeeze out stupefying humor from the odds of their internalized romances than the jokes concerning them. It's a pure comedy film parodying the maddening residues of a romance and the secretive yet strangely amusing life of 'lovers' than real 'couples'. It's never a rom-com romp. Yes, the film's comic foibles is at play, but the idea of romance is so far away.

The film's visual composition is very impressive considering that it's more concerned with its characters than its surroundings (its various settings are treated merely as narrative 'addresses' than truly involving set pieces). And accompanying the far-fetched reality of the whole plot, the film is uniquely exuberant in its colors (especially in Pepa's (the beautifully, dryly humorous Carmen Maura) scenes in her apartment), depicting quite subtly, although with vibrant hues, the colorfully crazy nuances of a mistress' life.

Yet with its overwhelming, intricately written female characters that show the likes of a squeamish woman involved with Shiite terrorists, one who faked her sanity to get out of a mental institution and a woman whose facial features resemble a Picasso painting losing her virginity in a dream, which director Almodovar may have injected some feminist empowerment into, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" is never a film mainly concerned about feminism. Above all, I think it's more inclined with destroying the foundations of chauvinism and the romantic narcissism of men. Hell, we even see our women characters at the peak of emotional vulnerability after their devotions to their 'loving' men spiral out of their control. Is that purely feminist? No, I do not think so. I think the film is more of a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the overall sloppiness of modernist love; quick and easy, passionate yet dire.

There's a scene in the film where the main object of affection, Ivan (a namesake of mine), Pepa's ex-lover, Lucia's (classy madness by Julieta Serrano) ex-husband, and Paulina's (Kiti Manver) current flame, is shown dubbing a Hollywood film with his Spanish language. The actor in the film within the film, Sterling Hayden, is commanding Joan Crawford to repeat what he says ("Lie to me. Tell me you've always loved me. Tell me you would have died without me."), but her mouth, although spouting words, never lets out any sounds. It was all silence on her part.

Yes, in the film's immediate reality, Joan Crawford's dubber (who is Pepa) is not yet present. But Almodovar, through that subtle scene, may have expressed his particular stance to what women must do in times when men's affectionately 'hollow' words pervade itself and when their romantic authoritarianism takes over: Shut up. Think. Wait.

Well, Pepa certainly didn't, and in the next scene, as she hears Sterling Hayden's words dubbed by Ivan through her headset, she fainted. Stung by the flowery words of an aging 'Don Juan', she was. But then there's always time for sobriety.

Lola (Grandmother)

Just when I thought that Brillante Mendoza will not get out of his trend of sexual and disturbingly putrid depictions of the modern downsides of Philippine society, here he comes bringing "Lola", a painful, yet at times comic, observation of two striving grandmothers on opposite sides of a situation (one whose grandson is the victim and the other, the suspect) trying to cope up with the tragic trails, including financial shortcomings, brought forth by an uneasy crime. Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio, both past their physical primes, may have just given their more-than-impressive swan songs. Director Mendoza, who is not that much known on squeezing out pure performances from his actors/actresses (as his characters usually just blend in into the realistic palette of the surroundings), handled may be the two most astounding ones from aged performers.

In some ways, it's almost a miraculous feat on his part (and cinematographer Odyssey Flores) in terms of enhancing Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio's natural and honest evocation of suppressed sufferings and prolonged sacrifices as impoverished grandparents through a panoramic view of the present social state of those inflicted with destitution. But the real highlight is of course from the two brave, nagging, and at times, swindling heroines who will do just about anything not just to resolve their numerous woes, mostly involving money, but also to unconsciously prove their 'worth'. Throughout the film, as the camera follows them both, we see them express stern authority to younger people, ask for directions and assistance like one, and show extreme determination like middle-aged fellows.

They embody the three stages of life based on the entirety of their characteristics. Their bodies show the tweaks of aging, but when, as they say, push comes to shove, their minds does not.

But in one specific sequence that is arguably the most resonant in the film, our protagonists engage in a very subtle, open and realistic conversation about the simple realities of old age. Many times, I have overheard old people talking. No, they do not talk about transcendent and elegiac things such as existence and life affirmations. Instead, they talk about the most trivial of things such as aching bodies, rheumatism and efficascent oils.

Brillante Mendoza captured the sequence with lightness and sheer minimalism. Amid the laborious small journeys here and there, this scene is their break. They do not reflect upon paradoxical things about their hardships but merely talk with a sense of common likeness. Although being the opposites in a tragedy, they share the beauty of human 'connection'.

At times visually and thematically similar with Nagisa Oshima (based especially on his explicitly unrelenting "Serbis" and "Kinatay"), Brillante Mendoza departed from the comparison to simply tell a poignant story. And what makes "Lola" even more fascinating albeit at times being emotionally painful is its underlying tenderness that treats these aged heroines of life not as urban sufferers but as rare triumphants.

Mendoza has already channeled the polarizing alternatives of cinema, but with "Lola", he may have glanced on some of De Sica and Ozu's brushstrokes and created an absorbing and empathetic film about human struggles and tribulations. Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio's performances made it all the more affecting.

Johnny Got His Gun

I have watched enough 'pacifist' war films in the past, but I can safely say that "Johnny Got His Gun" is the most emotionally penetrating of the bunch that also extracts tenacious hope out of despair. What makes this film, masterfully directed by Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo (who won for penning the great romantic film "Roman Holiday"), very effective in what it tries to impart to its audience's sensibilities about the inhumanities of war is its pure focus and sheer devotion to its main character.

In other films dealing with the same underlying sentiments, the message and emotions are too widely distributed to a variety of characters that they sometimes appear to be too far-fetched, hence meager in overall effect. But in "Johnny Got His Gun", which beautifully reigns on the longings and memories of the titular character and wholly explores the landscapes of his entirety, Dalton Trumbo maximized the whole film and merged Johnny's personal struggles as an extreme amputee with his flinching anti-war sentiments. It ultimately came out as a spell-binding commentary not just pertaining to the sheer senselessness of conflicts, but also regarding the endurance of the soul.

Timothy Bottoms portrays the quadruple amputee Johnny with his trademark sad eyes and deadpan energy. Through his flashbacks and overlaps of fantasies and retained memories, he leads us through an unforgettably cerebral journey inside the psyche of an ordinary man who, as told to him even by his father (great performance by Jason Robards), is nothing 'unusual'. This is not a soldier whose life is filled with overachieving decorations or countless belligerence in the battlefield. He is a simple man with the same existential woes like other people usually have. But what separates him among others is his sense of 'hope'.

This film could have easily drifted into an unfathomable territory of pity and despair. But with Dalton Trumbo's attention to emotional balance, while enhanced by Jules Brenner's cinematography, "Johnny Got His Gun" surprisingly tiptoes between sets of spirited humor amidst its pessimistic undertones. But aside from all of these, the film is also quite articulate in its seemingly elegiac approach to religious 'faith'.

Eccentrically surrealist as it may seem to be, Donald Sutherland's 'Christ' is not shown as an omniscient observer but as a man of wisdom capable to immerse. He gambles with the soldiers, he fancies carpentry and he also signs checks. This can simply be a visual injection by Luis Bunuel who did an uncredited screenplay contribution to the film, but it is still subtly affecting in its approach.

"Johnny Got His Gun" fully suggests that in times of chaos, especially those created and prolonged by the follies of men, God does not merely watch from above but guides in close contact. But also as what the film's theme suggests, he is also imperfect in his own right.

There's a significant exchange in the film where the military doctor asks the priest to convince Johnny to put his faith in God. The priest, after seeing the poor condition of Johnny's physical predicament, tells the astute military doctor that he will not risk testing Johnny's faith against his (the doctor) stupidity. Johnny is a product of the military doctor's profession, after all. It's a conversation rooted out from situational desperation but it's quite obvious that the failure of the military doctor to reply to the priest's indirect accusation alludes to his acceptance of the generalized mistakes created by his occupation.

The film, although has raised some potent promises regarding the condition of men of duty like Johnny, is a bleak observation of casualties and the secretive tendencies of 'war' and its officials. And as if out of nowhere, it is evenly contrasted with the demonstrativeness of a 'freak show' on a traveling carnival. The latter may exploit, but it does not, in any way, take lives so relentlessly as the first.

Many films have shown emotional desensitization in the middle of violence and carnage. But "Johnny Got His Gun" does not put itself along those lines that may just evoke mindless, machismo-filled indifference; the film is, after all has been said, a liberating study of the maddening physical limitations of a man nowhere to retreat but his collective dreams and his conscious mind. It tells of the imminence of hopelessness yet it struggles for life. Dalton Trumbo and Johnny. They prefer the 'carnival' more.

Antichrist
Antichrist(2009)
½

"Antichrist" is, beyond Lars von Trier's titular allusion to religion, a harsh, denigrating and sadomasochistic exploration of the psycho-sexual landscape. At certain points, as far as descriptive cliches are concerned, this film is like a combination of Raimi's solitary horror (as displayed in "Evil Dead") and some gutsy bits of de Sade. It's relentless in its graphic nature, uninhibited in its sexuality, yet particularly hopeful in its catharsis.

Lars von Trier, who recently stated that he'll never make another film with a happy ending, convincingly pulled off a satisfying conclusion to such a crazy, debauchery-filled film such as "Antichrist". It's Dante's Inferno all over again, filled with ambiguously disturbing psychological insights that may not translate well into reality (it's a bizarre fantasy, after all), but still a balanced approach to human nature's unpredictability.

The film opened with a slow-motion, black-and-white, 'perfume commercial'-like sequence of 'He' and 'She's' lovemaking. Unbeknown to them, their infant son is already climbing into a table and reaching into a window. The child then accidentally falls into his death. Through this ironic juxtaposition, von Trier has captured it with a sense of hypocritical artistry. As 'He' and 'She' are engaging in a charged, 'not-a-care-in-the-world' intercourse, it was accompanied by a beautiful heavenly music. While on the other hand, 'death' is happening in the other room, with the child symbolically shoving the figures of the three beggars (representing 'grief', 'pain', and 'despair') atop the table down to the floor.

The lack of care was highlighted as the two characters' sexual vigor completely engulfs their care for their child. Is it a pitiful tragedy on their part or not? For 'She', it was unbearable, so the couple went into their cabin in the woods for some reflection and, hopefully, to cleanse off the tragic residues and heal emotional wounds.

With the main 'woods' setting simply labeled as "Eden", and the two characters solely called as 'He' and 'She' (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in such unrestricted performances), von Trier is seemingly up to no good. With too many thematic possibilities out there to tread, he chose to mercilessly destroy the idea of the thousand-year parable of "Genesis". But in the film's context, it's not the fruit that has turned the two characters into sinners but the raw fragility of the mind. He (von Trier) snobs the cliches that 'dreams' are the catalysts of psychology and goes straight into abstraction; he blended reality with the subconscious materialization of the psyche, resulting in a bluntly caustic depiction of a gender-dictated netherworld of phobias and fantasies that even went into the extremes of gynocidal fanaticism.

"Antichrist" is not your typical 'horror' film or 'psychological thriller' (IMDb being clever and knowing enough not to label it as 'horror'), it's way more than that. At certain moments, it even tackled the pathetic consequences of misled fatalism. The film is such a thematically layered piece of auteur work that just happens to be masquerading as a show-off of 'shock-a-minute' senselessness.

"Antichrist" is never biblical nor a religious challenge to the higher echelons of Christianity. And though admittedly blasphemous at times, it never ridicules the idea of it. Von Trier and his film is too consummately drawn into the powerful magnet of dark psychological stirs and its toll on the rationality of man that it dared not to look back.

To the detractors, you may ask, "why is this film even in contention to win the Palme d'Or in 2009?" To be honest, upon my initial look into this film, I also asked myself the same. But after looking thoroughly deep enough into what this film has got to say, the question has since faded. "Antichrist" is truly gut-churning as it is an exercise of strange cinematic eloquence.

Fat Girl
Fat Girl(2001)

Adolescent sexuality. It's a theme too sensitive and downright naive to really expose in such a raw, disturbing and depressing light. Yet that's actually what director Catherine Breillat has done in "Fat Girl": A thorough exploration of early sexual awakening, abstract sibling relationships and artificial promiscuity that ultimately leads into disintegration.

I really think that with a more light-handed filmmaker, the theme could have been made and executed as a bittersweet tale of gullible love seen through the eyes of a fertile and curious girl. But given that a sensible approach to the issues tackled by the film is much more preferable, "Fat Girl" neglected all of these and instead hovered around its characters with detached apathy. And putting an ambiguous, fantasizing, ennui-stricken female character in its center both as an observant and observed does not just complicate the matter, it also puts the film into a critical extremity.

Call it depressing, call it exploitative, but by all means, "Fat Girl" delivered what it has intended to, and also puts into exposition and emphasis those that should have been otherwise. And just like Gaspar Noe's works, the film has displayed uncommon bravery.

The film is chiefly about the relationship between 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and her sister Anais (Anais Reboux in a very daring performance). The opening scene, after we heard Anais' haunting song and saw her dead set stare, we are introduced to the relational condition of the siblings. We hear the words 'fat slob' and 'loose morals' hurled at each other devoid of any verbal emotions. They walk shoulder to shoulder through the woods and into the streets but they're of the opposite looks and mindsets.

Anais, an overweight girl, states that first-time sex should be with anybody, while Elena, a beautiful 'Lolita-like' teenager, suggests the generalized importance and pleasures of 'sleeping' around with many. It's a conversation captured with such normality and spontaneity that it makes it more disquieting.

How did such girls at a tender age know too much and very opinionated about things they shouldn't be hearing about in the first place? Catherine Breillat brings us into an alternate reality of France where it's not all about the elegance of love and romance, but a washed-out place (both in color and moral fiber) where the idea of sex is messy and sudden while the concept of virginity is not about its preservation but to whom it must be lost and why.

"Fat Girl" also delves into sexuality to which physical carnality is endlessly fantasized while the context of true love contained within it is superficial at best. As I hear the narcissistic Fernando's (Libero De Rienzo) promises to Elena as he fondles her virginal body, it sickens me. Through that specific sequence, Breillat also gives out a statement about how sweetened, unfulfilled pledges is an easy way 'in' into cheap romances and also the easiest way out.

Yet the essence of the sisters' relationship does not start and end on sexual commentaries. We are also compelled to notice the sisters' 'love-hate' connection. One sequence, we see them throw dry insults at each other as if they have a scorned relational void rotten by time. But in the next, they suddenly hug each other. Insult, hate, laugh, laugh, hate, insult.

It's their cycle, but is there an absolute? What is the true weather of their bond? "Fat Girl" presented it with such disfigured profundity (highlighted by how Elena and Anais recalled their childhood and how they compare themselves in front of a mirror) that it seems futile to look deep enough and as if both of them locked up the answers and covered it up with their one-bit fantasies.

Graphic and at times, emotionally disorienting, this is the antithesis to shallow teenage films talking about 'cute guys' and 'first dates', "Fat Girl" rests upon a dark truth within adolescent existence; 'truth' which do not just come like a gentle revelation, but one bent on shattering the windshields of escapism to present us with certain uncomfortable notions, but those that are ultimately in touch with reality.

The film is widely known to have a very 'controversial' and 'shocking' ending. I do not like hype, but "Fat Girl's" final sequence lives up to its notoriety. Quite ironic considering that it's about victory.

Thor
Thor(2011)
½

"I shall smite you with thy hammer". That line surely fits into the Shakesperean lexicon. And even though Kenneth Branagh's initial attachment into the project seems to have raised some eyebrows or two (Really? Kenneth 'Hammy Hamlet' Branagh directing a CGI-laden blockbuster?), he proved that he truly belongs at the helm with his beautiful handling of Asgard's King Odin's (played by Anthony Hopkins) "King Lear-esque" relationship with his throne and his two sons, Thor and Loki. With Branagh and the materialized universe of "Thor", I think it is a match that may not be made in heaven, but somewhere where harmony is ever-present.

Chris Hemsworth, which on first impressions may seem stiff, played the titular character with surprising effectiveness, comic arrogance, and romantic tenderness. Just his first innocently brusque sequences in the realms of Earth (in New Mexico to be precise) filled with uneasy flamboyance and bearded Viking behaviors makes his performance very special and also is the humorous center of the film.

Kat Denning's portrayal of the human character Darcy tried some comic reliefs with all her references to current 'Generation Y' fads just so, you know, connect with the younger demographics' funny bones, but she failed. Gladly, she has shut up in the film's second-half.

Natalie Portman, on the other side, is the typical brainy damsel who found a romantic connection with the powerful Norse God, inspire change within him and on Thor's heroic part, solidify some motivations for him to protect the mortal world.

Now, we've already seen director Branagh play with the wonders of exquisite production design in his rendition of "Hamlet". But this time, he plays with the complicated and chaotic beauty of CGI, as if scene after scene, he is testing his ability to flawlessly execute every digitally-altered shots. But at times, except the establishing shots of Asgard and Jotunheim (where the Frost Giants live), the fast-paced action sequences are seem sketchy, sudden and a bit too shaky and dark. Even the climactic struggle in the Bifrost Bridge, although colorful, majestic, spectacularly surreal and emotionally critical all at the same time, is filled with physically lackluster series of weapon jousting.

In one scene, we see Thor racing against time, flying with his hammer in hand, to encounter his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It's moments like this where heroes of his kind made names out of: Intense music, battle-face expressions and wide-scale fragile surroundings.

But then the next scene, Thor, after his ultimate fly into heroism to hinder a destructive plan, lands at the scene with obvious detachment and slow paces. It could have been a 'great' culmination of a deep brotherly conflict in the name of a noble throne, but the whole emotional atmosphere where Branagh could have invested much ultimately lacked the immediacy.

But on a meritorious side, Kenneth Branagh, with the help of the hammer-clenching avenger's expansive universe, created a wonderfully-prepared psychological conflict to put the idea of Thor's 'unconditional heroism' into a blurring test between his own kingdom's well-being, which he was born to love and to lead, and the mere mortal reality of Earth, where he learned to embrace the roles of 'protector' and 'lover'.

Is it his universe or the other? This film, for once, bravely responded without any safe cinematic answers. That's where Thor succeeded to which heroes like Superman failed. Through the endless showcase of might, magic, monsters and kings, "Thor" attained believability, at least in terms of a hero's decisive choice to which immense fates, both from our realm and beyond, eternally rest. Including Stan Lee's cameos.

Good Bye, Lenin!

I was quite weary before watching this film as I haven't been that familiar with the history of German division aside from the fall of Berlin Wall and well, Reagan's famous 'tear down this wall' speech. But "Good Bye, Lenin!", with a narrator (that's also the film's protagonist) that seem far too poetic at times but ultimately convincing, delivered the necessary information with a tone of mundane deliberateness to highlight the character's naturalism for audiences to follow the film's political background closely .

It's as if there's a far more important theme to tackle other than socialist intricacies. But of course, there is: An enduring story of a son's love to his mother devoid of any conditionals.

After his socialist mother (Katrin Sass in an impressive performance) has awakened from an 8-month comma due to a heart attack, Alex (played by Daniel Bruhl, whom you may recognize as Frederick Zoller in the later Tarantino film "Inglourious Basterds"), who have learned from the doctor that his mother shouldn't be shocked or hooked into excitement in any way whatsoever as it may result to complications, is eager to keep her home. But complications is never just a health dilemma. The Berlin Wall has fallen. It's now one Germany, and the stocks of Spreewald gherkins has cruised into scarcity. Her mother's reality has turned into a unified land filled with alien capitalism.

He faced the situation with a calm demeanor and absurdist resolute, and helped by his friend and aspirant filmmaker Denis (Florian Lukas, who's like a cross between Robert Carlyle and a younger Ed Harris), decided to re-create GDR in ingenious kinds of ways as to prevent her mother from having the heart-thumping revelation of her life. A well-intended deception heightened by comedy. A 'comedy' that surely roots out from social idealism (the mother) suppressed by empirical determination.

Director Wolfgang Becker directed these sequences with uncommon energy and quirks that the first hour of the film flowed so effortlessly with quick pace, ease and story-telling delight. Yet from those elements mainly conceived from clever concepts and scenarios, "Good Bye, Lenin!" is still focused in its human drama.

It's less a politically-toned film than it is a penetrating study of connection (Alex's family), re-connection (the father sub-plot) and disconnection (from A horrid emotional past and the attachment to the GDR). Of course, from the point of view of a German who have experienced the social atmosphere of East/West Germany, "Good Bye, Lenin!" is mainly affecting due to the countless nostalgic references to olden times and the euphoric destruction of separatist sentiments. But from those way outside looking in (like me), what's very special with this film is its balance of happiness and melancholy by way of how it highlights the fun of liberty and the anguish of mistakes.

"Good Bye, Lenin!" is very eloquent on all sides, capturing the essential 'celebratory' mood of reunified Germany and the irony of the countless ruins and how it tries to accommodate its reverberated surroundings in desperate vain, especially how the wrecked Lenin statue hanging below a helicopter seems to communicate something to Alex's mother (one of the many great scenes in the film) as if asking for forgiveness or asking for her hand and saying, 'my child, my deeply socialist child, come with me'.

From its shifting pace to comic moments and times of tears, "Good Bye, Lenin!" has been strongly consistent with the entirety of its delivery and it has rendered a political reverie-turned reality into a convincing world of varied emotions and where euphemistic acceptance is a possibility. And moreover, departing from the complexities, the film is, simply put, a lasting love letter to all mothers who have loved their children unlike any other.

Gummo
Gummo(1997)

The nothingness of nothing, the meaninglessness of conformism and the ennui of existence. Sounds like the last thing for a film to be made about, right? But then there is "Gummo", a film that tackled it with such surreal handling and awkward story-telling (that mirrors the film's essentially subversive yet minimalist approach) that, although how polarizing it can be, has shared such an abstract yet endlessly intriguing piece of mind out of some trashed and dilapidated obscurity.

The film, although revolving itself around different misadventures of the tornado-stricken town's (Xenia, Ohio) juvenile inhabitants and seemingly at ease with its own lack of direction, its focus rests deeply upon friends/partners in crime Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton) and their several miscellaneous exploits and small transgressions. But then, although they were the ones that were chiefly followed all throughout, the ADD of the camera is still evident, so why is that?

'That's what it needs', Director Harmony Korine may and could have said regarding Gummo's visual and narrative style. No, not just because of glorified 'pretense'; that's too vague and generalized a word. But because it complements its characters' urban journey into whatnots and wherever perfectly. It dared to observe this psychologically chaotic state brought forth by a natural disaster (though I think the film is not about its traumatizing effects) with a certain amoral viewpoint.

Now, I'm almost halfway done with my review yet I still haven't written anything about what the film is really all about aside from all those pseudo-nihilistic themes mentioned in the very first sentence. But here we go, a piece of my mind.

(SPOILERS)

I look upon "Gummo" not as a film dealing with the devastating after-effects of a catastrophic tragedy but as a sharply satiric, yet thematically contrasting piece of work about the endpoint of human entropy. Throughout the film, we see the people punching each other (genuinely), wrecking inanimate tables and chairs, and even spouting 'hate' racial statements. As we adjust into the film's confused perspective, we realize it's their way of life.

At first look, it's really hard to notice anything even remotely profound about the whole film, but digging deeper enough, I even found the 'feline torture fixation' prevalent in the teenagers' (especially Solomon and Tummler) set of daily activities a surprising symbolism.

The cats are the representations of an 'orderly' life. There's one scene where Tummler is about to shoot a black cat, only to be hindered by Solomon, telling him that it's a 'house cat'. The cat then ran inside the house. It was revealed that it's owners are three sisters that, although having some shares of personal eccentricities of their own, lives a considerably simple and 'ordered' life.

Considering that many of the juvenile characters are into killing cats, it's quite given that from their absurd preferences such as that, their lives are therefore rendered directionless due to their astute destruction of the 'guardians of homes' (an Ancient Roman symbol for felines).

Then after some time, the sisters lost the black cat. They printed out fliers to distribute to people in hopes of finding the animal. The next thing they know, they were sexually harassed (unsuccessfully) by an old man in a car. Yes, the deed was prevented, but it was a shape of things to come.

The next thing we see, the two of the three sisters are in a pool, amidst a rain, kissing with the Bunny Boy (played by Jacob Sewell, another significant character whose place in the film is really very unclear), on the way for a potential menage a trois. After that, there's Solomon and Tummler staring at the said 'missing' animal with cocked cap guns. They then shot the 'black' cat dead.

Then in the film's most haunting moment, the Bunny Boy ran through a shrubbery, into the camera, and, without emotions whatsoever, shows the dead 'black' cat. Like a leader of a cult he seems to be, the Bunny Boy, in victory, shows the animal as if proclaiming another conquest. It shows, through the loss and death of the cat, that the said conquest was indeed the three sisters, subconsciously convinced into the free-for-all ride into constant nihilism.

I also like how "Gummo" has able to convey in utter simplicity, the sheer innocence of the mentally disabled, especially the scene of the 'challenged' woman near the end speaking about how she always loved to put her dolls and toys 'straightened out' because 'she takes care of them'.

Because of her lack of idea of the psychological milieu around her, she lives an 'orderly' life, fully suggested by how she sings the ever-organized 'ABC' song near the beginning. And even after all of the displayed random acts of the film's characters whose minds and emotions are in askew, doing things for nothing as they head for endless perplexities to waste away, the woman sings 'Jesus Loves Me" as she calmly lies in her bed for a peaceful sleep.

"Gummo". Started rough, ragged and tasteless, ended as a simple, underlying embrace to the saying 'ignorance is bliss'. As her song lingers into the end credits, a heavy metal music suddenly interrupted it; we're back into reality.

Moon
Moon(2009)
½

(First Viewing, 2010)
2009, a year of 2 breakthrough sci-fi films nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards, the mammoth "Avatar" and the equally great "District 9". But in terms of tenderness and subtly affecting emotions, "Moon" beats both. With a limited budget, director Duncan Jones created a visually impressive moonscape, and a mind-stimulating narrative. And me having watched some of Sam Rockwell's performances in the past, I expected an above-average performance, only to be surprised that he delivered more than that. "Moon" was inspired by Kubrick's masterpiece, "2001", so I thought that the AI robot GERTY would turn its back to Sam Bell in the end(with that emotionless Kevin Spacey voice), only again be surprised and immensely touched when he didn't. composer Clint Mansell also added a vital part in the film, the enigmatic musical score which parallels the film's story. (SPOILERS) Through the years, many films tackling life has touched us, but I never expected a film about clones and artificialities, set in the limitless boundaries of the outer spaces to evoke human emotions as much as "Moon" did.

(Second Viewing, 2011)
Clones and artificial intelligences on films, although must not even be extracting discoveries of human nature aside from their clockwork selves in the first place, are, time and time again, tested by the burden of emotional conflicts and the endless quest to belong. Be it the great "Blade Runner" or Spielberg's more contemporary "A.I". We have seen them strive from the pains of misunderstanding and perceptions of technological stigma seen from sociologically-grounded eyes. Here in "Moon", with Sam Rockwell delivering a one-man virtuoso performance, the further extremities are reached; they are even deprived of mainstream reality.

I think it's quite impossible to review and analyze this film without divulging some plot revelations or two, so here we go, spoiler warning. Sam Bell (Rockwell) is an astronaut near the end of his 3-year contract and is about to come home and away from the lunar solitude of the moon. After some startling discoveries, he found out that he, although how confident, is not what he may seem to be. When he saw his fellow clone, at first, he is in denial. He initially asserts that it's nothing but a delusion. They found out that the real Sam Bell has returned to earth for many years. Instead, they have been developed from the original's DNA fo