Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Best Films of the Year

Of the movies I watched this year there are some that left a mark in my consciousness and have not faded from my memory.

It was a frenzied year marked by monumental epic films bombing monumentally as well in the ticket registers. It was the year that saw a couple of documentaries blaze through mainstream cinemas. A visionary filmmaker/actor's personal passion brought independent filmmaking into a raging victory that took the box office gates by millions of dollars. And there are genre movie busting through their formulaic origins and surprisingly transformed into critical and more importantly commercial hits.

There are also films that are personal and smaller in scope yet provided that knock-out power punch - that great emotional squeeze that strains and clutches the viewer in a procession of passionate outbursts of joy, guilt, pleasure, love, anguish, bewilderment, awe, lust and cinematic illumination.

What follows is my list of favorite films from the past year. It is a varied list ranging from the truly outstanding (read: universally adored) to the bizaare choiches that provided guilty pleasure to not so few cinema lovers.

1) The Motorcyle Diaries: Not really my original choice for best film of the year but the seeming gravity of its theme makes it one very important film. An affectionate homage to the great revolutionary Che Guevarra, the film chronicles that year in his life when he took the road with his friend and traveled across the South American continent to discover the beauty of its people and the countryside. This little trip would eventually serve as the most influencing journey of his life. The journey would stir a calling that would inspire him to pursue and dedicate his life towards the liberation of his poor and persecuted compatriots from the repugnant horrors of capitalist oppression and injustice. The film does not, however, go into his revolutionary days, instead, what is presented is a loving portrait of a man going through an exacting awakening in so young a life. The haunting images of traditional native Americans conjured by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles and the gentle yet ferocious performance of its lead, "Y Tu Mama Tambien's" Gael Garcia Bernal give the film an ardent rein that never lets go.

2) The Aviator: Martin Scorsese will finally win the Oscar with his supremely brilliant film. He hits all the right marks in this soaring film about the flamboyant and eccentric life of legendary airplane builder and pioneer of independent filmmaking Howard Hughes. From the colorful '30s art deco set pieces to the bang-up musical score. From the kinetic camera work and splendid aerial photography to the grand visual effects. From the magnificent actors to the faultless editing and writing. All these were achieved in a film that is so charming and zestful the much touted nearly three hours running time don't feel like it at all.

3) Sideways: Ah, the ironic joy of melancholy as romanticized in this beautiful film. Alexander Payne has crafted a perfectly-tuned film about a couple of middle-aged buddies who take on a road trip across the wine valleys of northern California only to be confronted by painful realization about their lives and how badly they have lived it. This gem of a movie features a wonderful cast that blends along with the director's vision that great comedies are those that cater to the everyday follies of ordinary people and not the laugh-a-minute slapticks comedies have evolved into. Paul Giamatti leads a wonderful cast as a failed writer who has bottled up all his emotions he can no longer afford to set himself loose into the world and experience real happiness.

4) Vera Drake: Britain's Mike Leigh has directed this disturbing and involving drama with so much tenderness and insight that the viewer is left perplexed with an overwhelming emotion of sympathy and compassion for a character whose intentions are pure but whose acts morally questionable. The film is effectively lifted to greatness by the charming and heartbreaking turn of its lead, Imelda Staunton, whose portrayal of a '50s housewife. who so selflessly dabbles in abortion, is just so extraordinary you can't help but rise and applaud for her in the blank darkness of the cinema for a performance that is unquestionably the best of the year.

5) Friday Night Lights: The finest football movie i've ever seen. This film by part-time actor Peter Berg has that emotional blow rarely found in movies about sports. The raw and graphic football scimmages are masterfully assimilated with the special detailing of the personal lives of the central characters - their simple dreams and aspirations, fears and apprehensions. Based on real people and real events, this film chronicle remarkably tackles the subject matter and hits a solid touchdown.

6) The Passion of the Christ: That Mel Gibson would spend $35 million of his own money to fund this film is enough big reason to honor the man with a thunderous applause. But, no, he not only made the film, he made it so great and realistic that not only did he invite trouble he also opened the floodgates that indirectly swamped the hypocrisy of not so few people and reminded the world of the real essence of His sacrifice. Beautifully told and photographed, the film spotlights the last twelve hours of Jesus Christ's life on earth. His sufferings were viciously recreated it was so violent that every lash at Jesus brings a heart-wrenching pain of guilt in almost everyone's heart.

7) Closer: Mike Nichols has masterfully constructed this caustic tale of love, lust, deception and betrayal about four people who are fatefully brought together by the deceptive lure of love to form a roller-coaster of a love quadrangle. This film puts into focus the loftiness of commitments people so eagerly promise at the start of every relationships only to sink to the lowest of irrational rage when faced by the bitter truth of their partner's infidelities. Natalie Portman vibrantly bookends this convoluted and vicious tale as a stripper who doesn't completely reveal all of herself.

8) Spider-Man 2: Wow, this movie has all the elements of popcorn filmmaking and yet encompasses such a broad spectrum of emotions rarely found in movies based on cartoon characters. Sam Raimi has showcased a mastery of this thrilling genre with a telling sequel that reveals the flawed human side of a superhero who is confused and sorrowed on the sacrifices he gives to an impassive society and his forlorn longing for his beloved Mary Jane. This film also offers some of the best fight sequences and dazzling visual effects of the year. It also created one of the most original and sympathetic movie villains ever. In a year that saw the equally impressive "The Incredibles", the superhero action genre has finally evolved into a distinguished franchise.

9) House of Sand and Fog: This late 2003 release got into our town in early February and i thought it was one of the lamentable omissions from last year's Oscar field. This a powerful and disheartening drama involving the struggle of three lost characters over a property that represents the fulfillment of their dreams. One for the rebuilding of his family's life after an unceremonious overthrow from his own country. Another trying to reclaim a property that was her only link to a sane life she ever had. And another trying to put together a new life after he has sacrificed a marriage for that one love he has been longing for all his life. This terrible crossing of path leads to an emotional turmoil that ends in an unspeakable tragedy that leaves the audience helpless and devastated.

10) Fahrenheit 9/11: Michael Moore's searing documentary took the highest honors at this year's Cannes Festival and was one of the major point of debates during the hotly-contested American presidential elections. It is a daring documentary that attempts to present to the public how bad a president George Bush is. Using the September 11 tragedy as his springboard, Moore goes into a series of slanderous accusation and rampaging attacks against the president that at times come out funny but oftentimes outrageous. This powerful film lifted the documentary genre from the confines of arthouse cinemas into the marketplace of cineplexes.

There are films that i also really liked but could not be accomodated in my limited top ten list. There's "Ray", a sentimental biopic about the life of Ray Charles. There was also "Finding Neverland" - a tearjerker based on the life of Peter Pan creator, J.M. Barrie, "Napoleon Dynamite" - one of the most original and quirky films of the year, "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle" - a hilarious road movie that is so silly it made me laugh the hardest this year, "The Dreamers" - Bernardo Bertolucci's lyrical homage to French Cinema, Nick Cassavetes' "The Notebook " - a passionate love story that transcends the barrier of dementia, "Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow" - a movie made with special effects, its a credit to the actors for their effective turns given that they had to act amidst blue screens. And how can i forget the lavish visuals and stunning fight sequences of "House of Flying Daggers", Meryl Streep's menacing turn in Jonathan Demme's disturbing "The Manchurian Candidate" and Tom Cruise's maniacal assassin in "Collateral".

And i cannot end this without a caveat. Clint Eastwood's much-admired "Million Dollar Baby" has yet to be released in a theater near me. I also failed to catch "Maria Full of Grace" and "Bad Education.".


Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Aviator

In Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, Leonardo Di Caprio portrays Howard Hughes, the legendary builder of some of aviation's modern technologies and pioneer of Hollywood's independent filmmaking.

Hughes is a big dreamer who sees no limitation in what he can do. He produced the classic "Hell's Angel's" at such a massive cost unheard of in Hollywood not for personal aggrandizement but to enthuse the public at how wondrous flying can be.

He is a risk-taker who exposed his family's oil fortune to near bankruptcy just so he could finance his ambitious projects. He is a perfectionist who sees no cost in accomplishing his desired perfection. He is a playboy who romanced some of Hollywood's most glamorous women.

But, of all that he is, his phobic attacks and freakish fear of sickness and viral contamination limited him to a man whose irrational worries constrict him and brings about his personal falldown not uncommon in successful and over-achieving people.

Scorsese has crafted a fabulously perfect film. His marvelous and stunning film offers glorious storytelling that is filled with lavish visuals and inspired performances that certainly deserves all the critical accolades that it is receiving. His recreation of the chaotic filming of "Hell's Angels" and his decision to put it in the film's beginning effectively lifts the film off: while it earnestly introduces the viewer to the Howard Hughes character, it also sets of the entire film into a soaring filmmaking masterpiece.

Di Caprio's manic and confident swagger provides the film its very distinct performance. He is in almost every frame in the movie and he doesn't tire at all. He is most brilliant when Hughes spirals down into madness and locks himself up for weeks in his studio room.

Cate Blanchett channels the late great actress Katharine Hepburn with an amazing and graceful performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. Jude Law cameos as Errol Flynn and Kate Beckinsale does a vivacious Ava Gardner in this movie filled with real-life characters painted in not so reverent way but also never demeaning and critical.

In one of the film's tense and dramatic highlights, Hughes is summoned by the Senate to answer the allegations made by one corrupt senator that he was a war profiteer. Hughes rises to the occasion (remarkably, that is, because this took place just after he locked himself up for weeks) and defeats the senator who is reduced to answering questions on his integrity.

It was during this hearing that Hughes made the promise that if the collosal aircraft he was building doesn't fly, he wil leave America and never do business again. But, the plane does fly and along with it the film soars to staggering heights.

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Closer


There is a big revelation at the end of Closer that puts in perspective all the events that transpired in Mike Nichols' caustic tale of love, lust, betrayal, deception and the vagaries of easily told truths.

This film, adapted from a Tony-winning stage play, brings to screen four of the handsomest people working in Hollywood today.

Natalie Portman is Alice. She is a New York stripper who moves to London to mend her broken heart. An accident leads her to meet Dan (Jude Law), an obituary writer in a local newspaper. They easily take a liking of each other and live in apparent bliss for the next few months.

A year passes and come enters Anna (Julia Roberts) into their lives. She is the photographer commissioned to do Dan's cover jacket photographs for his new book detailing his love story with Alice. This series of photograph sessions and, at first, innocent flirting leads to a deeper relationship that hooks Dan and alienates Alice.

Dan's obsession with Anna triggers him to do extreme acts. In one of the films best written scenes, Dan logs into a cybersex webpage pretending to be Anna and indulges Larry (Clive Owen), a Dermatologist to come meet her in a local Aquarium. This innocent and lusty playfulness backfires as the real Anna falls in love with Larry and abandons Dan.

Alice, in all these events, remain in the shadows of Dan, faithful and trusting, loving and understanding.

This is a film that puts into focus how adults make a mockery of love and relationships. After Anna abandons Dan and marries Larry, the films spirals into a terrible series of betrayals and deceptions that ultimately leads to painful breakups and reconciliations.

This masterful love quadrangle is perfect in its triumphant evocation of how lovers tend to lose focus on gentle truths and sometimes demand painful honesty from their partners not to assuage their hurt feelings but to hurl back to the offending party the same pain their acts have caused them. It is very apparent here and so in real life that oftentimes people can easily promise their i-love-you's without taking the consequences of what they are inviting their partners into.

It is also significant to note that the professions of the characters here (that is the reason why i patiently jotted them down) reflect how they are in real life (it is not apparent though that they are able to grasp the ugly pictures they are painting of themselves). Anna is a photographer who was accused early on by another character of stealing her subjects life and using them for her own personal comfort. Larry is a dermatologist who is preoccupied on physical beauty but is hiding an ugly wrathful self. Dan is an obituarist whose main occupation is to write about the ideal lives he paints of his subjects which blurs his own beliefs and make him blind to the ideal life he actually has. Alice is a stripper who allows her patrons to disrobe her without letting them touch her. She goes naked, bares all her body but does she really open up everything about her? hmmm...

In the end, the revelation about Alice, the stripper, will finally unmask her and lovingly define her and puts a mean ending to this rollercoaster of a love quadrangle that doesn't end happily ever after for some.

And Isn't it a fact that in every love stories that begin there is always one person, the one abandoned and left behind, hurting in the background? But, how can one empathize with the character who so bravely declares his love for someone and yet carelessly not try to even know the real person he is supposedly in love with and when he is left abandoned, can the audience be blamed if they don't feel an ounce of sympathy - or for that matter the party who abandons him - for the sad predicament he put himself in?

Closer is one of the very best films of the year. All the actors do good here but special kudos goes to Natalie Portman who, while she vibrantly bookends this tale, despairingly shines as Alice. She acts so good that even when she goes naked the viewer is not a bit distracted. Clive Owen is also very effective in his role that is so easy to like and hate as swiftly as his chameleonic character changes from being nice to being vicious.

The haunting music used at the start and end was never more inspired while the writing witty and crisply naughty.


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Finding Neverland



Every fine movie has its moments of brilliance that strikes the audience and define the entire movie watching experience.

In Finding Neverland, it comes near the end as Kate Winslet's Sylvia lay dying, the play, inpired by her children, is performed right in her own living room. No eyes were dry during these ten extraordinary minutes.

Finding Neverland is a magical film about childhood and the insolent stubbornness of some adults in trying to discredit the lovely memories of how recklessly fun and carelessly exciting it is to be a child and instead live in drab and boring lives.

Johnny Depp is ebullient as J.M. Barrie, the famed playwright whose masterful work on Peter Pan made him a byword in children's literature. But many people who have watched countless incarnations of this delightful tale about the boy who refuses to grow up did not actually realize that it was based on a real child named Peter who, ironically, stopped believing in the whimsical joy of childhood after his father unexpectedly dies and his mother has taken ill.

This is director Marc Foster's follow-up to his 2002 dark film "Monster's Ball". The film is an elegant piece of filmmaking with incredibly great visualization that cleverly captures the rich imagination of writer Barrie and transports the audience through a fantastical ride to that place where children never grow up, Neverland.

As good a movie is however, there are instances when i felt it to be too slow for comfort. And the conflict between Barrie and his wife was presented as a matter of fact but not really fully explained. Yeah, there was a small confrontation between the couple but it didn't reveal much anything at all.

Depp clearly labored hard in coming up with his characterization and it was evident in his stirring performance, but his accent felt a little too artificial. Actors who do accents are only great when the accents help enliven their characters just like in the case of Cate Blanchett in "The Aviator" who does an extremely magnificent Katharine Hepburn - or for that matter any Meryl Streep performances from several movie seasons ago.

Kate Winslet, however, astound the viewer once again with her heartfelt performance of a suffering widow caring for her four children and pretending to be well when she was actually dying.

The film, notwithstanding its minor flaws, remain an entertaining and inspiring work.


House of Flying Daggers



House of Flying Daggers offers a sumptous display of Chinese martial arts done in an exhilarating ballet-like dances combined with colorful and flamboyant set decorations, meticulous costumes and breath-taking photography that captivates and hooks the viewer to an experience like no other.

Zhang Yimou, the director, has fashioned an intricate love triangle featuring Chinese cinema's current darling Zhang Ziyi (who just recently changed her name to Ziyi Zhang), Takeshi Kanisheru, one of Japan's biggest stars and Hongkong superstar Andy Lau.

Ziyi is Mei. She is a blind courtesan in the Peony Pavilion whose skillful dances regularly regales Jin (Kanisheru), an undercover policeman, who has been frequenting the pavilion in hopes of catching a member of the dreaded insurgent group House of Flying Daggers.

In one drunken binge, Jin tries to force himself into Mei only to be thwarted by the timely arrival of Leo (Lau), a Police Captain, who arrests Jin and in an attempt to weigh on the punishment for the alleged indecency of Mei, challenges her to play the Echo Game. This game will engage the blind Mei to follow the bouncing sound of the pea as it hits the drum and strike the exact spot with the weighted end of her long sleeve.

In a succession of spectacular sequences, Mei's true colors are revealed when she attempts to murder the Captain.

Mei is revealed to be the long-lost daughter of the leader of the Flying Daggers group. With this information, Jin and Leo hatches a plan to bait the group by allowing Mei to escape with Jin's assistance in hopes that she will lead them to the enemies' lair which will allow them to wage a surprise attack.

The story then shifts into the development of a love angle that seems innocent and ordinary at first but is later on revealed to be rooted in deception and treachery.

Yimou has crafted an exuberant and teriffic film that invites comparison to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". But this film impressively stands out on its own and delivers one stunning action and dance sequences after another.

In the film's long-drawn climax featuring the three main protagonists, the viewer is treated to an extravaganza of hues and colors in brilliantly photographed scenes of an intense and affecting battle between two men for the love of a woman who lays dying in snow-covered plains.

Yimou is an old romantic whose previous works in "Raise the Red Lantern", "To Live", and "Not one Less" provide scathing criticism of the current Chinese Regime disguised in lavish imagery and tricky narrative that somewhat one can't help but imagine that perhaps this final battle for the love of one woman is another love song to the pre-revolution China and that the difficult choice that Mei is left with in the end is what Mother China had to undergo in order to transform herself into a country to be proud of once again?

But whatever his reasons are House of Flying Daggers is one great piece of cinema.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sideways

Sideways is that kind of film that effectively captures the somber state of bottled melancholy. Not since Lost In Translation has there been a movie that draws a very fine line between laughters and tears. But, if I were to be asked to pick which one is better, I would pick Sideways anytime.

Sideways is supposed to be a comedy (and indeed it is!) but the emotions it conjure from its audience transcends the usual laugh-and-let-go comedy. The laughter it elicits somehow manages to linger in your mind and you find yourself eventually consumed with pity and sadness for the characters that you end up shedding tears (in my case, rather copiously) when you realize that you could just have been one of them.

Paul Giamatti is Miles. Miles is a would-be writer who can't get his novel published. He's a middle-aged something guy whose divorce two years before have left him heartbroken and incurably depressed. He goes on a wine-tasting trip in the wine valleys of Northern California with his best bud Jack (Thomas Haden Church, who won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actor) who is set to marry the week after.

This is a road trip like no other. Think of Rain Man, but on a lighter, more personal level. The trip is perfectly laid out with agendas ranging from golf games to wine-tasting and just plain getting drunk for a week. They meet Maya and Stephanie during one of their wine-tasting stops and Jack develops another agenda: To get himself laid before he takes the so-called plunge. Miles vehemently resists this development and wants to stick to the original plan. It is at this point that the characters start to unravel.

Miles is still stuck over his ex-wife Victoria who unknown to him has gotten married already. When he learns this from Jack, he goes on a classic childish fit of temper that seems very funny on the surface but when examined closer comes out very real and affecting. The crushing realization of what Miles feared becoming real is very distressing to watch. And credit to Paul Giamatti's excellent acting when he doesn't overact this scene when the temptations to do so is high given the hysterical scenario.

He then grudgingly accepts Jack's plan and they go on a bachelor trysts with the two ladies (who are taken for a ride they shortly will discover and regret.)

There is a scene on the porch between Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen) that is agonizingly sweet and tentative. You can feel their lust for each other but you can sense that something is holding them back. This quiet dialogue would be punctuated later on by Miles' near-awakening as Maya describes what it is in wines that she likes most. Miles sees a reflection of him in Maya that he has not seen of himself in a long time due to the years of denial and forced depression that have invariably locked him in a dire state where the only way out is to take the cork out of that bottled emotions he has been keeping himself in and just like opening a vintage wine, enjoy the matured flavor that life offers and celebrate each moment like it is the moment.

In the coming weeks I am predicting that Sideways will get an ensemble acting nomination from the Screen Actors Guild. The Globes will award Paul Giamatti his best actor in a comedy, Thomas Haden Church will get nominated and the film will receive multiple Oscar nominations.

Superbly directed by Alexander Payne, this is one film that transcends its genre and evokes real emotions from its audience.


National Treasure


Nicolas Cage is back in action as Benjamin Franklin Gates (when a character has this name, movie expectations are further lowered) who is on a crusade to locate the hidden treasure left behind by the founding fathers of the United State of America.

Watching the plot unfold is like reading one of those Da Vinci Code rip-offs. In Gates’ search for the treasure he follows a series of trails that point to where the treasure is supposedly buried.

On the hunt also are Gates’ former teammates who as usual in a formulaic movie as this one turns sinister at the sight or just even thought of massive fortune. The film pretty much run in circles until finally the last clue is revealed. But because of the stupidity of the villain (actually, the screenwriter is to be blamed for this), the final scenes, revealing the treasure lacked the excitement it was building beginning from the start of the story.

Diane Kruger, she was Helen in the movie Troy, is the token female partner of Gates along with the token techno-whiz sidekick Justin Bartha.

Given all this and only if one suspends his incredulity and ride along with the story, the film seems fun and probably even thrilling.

One can only hope that when the Da Vinci Code novel is brought to the screen by Tom Hanks and company, they will not succumb to the same failures this film have in loads.

Alexander


Oliver stone have been bludgeoned and speared by critics over what they say is a colossal failure his film Alexander have been. Another critic even likened it to a B-movie. Ugh, that hurts.

It hurts because this film is somewhat a remarkable achievement. Its scope is epic. The photography, set decoration, costume and music are way above your average films. Even the acting is uniformly good especially Angelina Jolie’s deceiving Olympia and Colin Farrell’s headstrong yet insecure Alexander.

The major flaw is in the narrative. The lapses in editing is forgivable but difficult to overlook that it somehow distracts and gets in the way of cohesive story-telling. The film begins with Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins whose brilliance is less evident in a weak role) retelling to his scribes the exploits of Alexander forty years after his death.

Much of what is in the story have already been told in world history textbooks, Oliver Stone however, takes an extra route and delves into the psyche of the legendary conqueror and present him as a human being: his dreams of conquering the world; his bitter relationship with his mother and father; and the most controversial, his bisexuality.

Oliver Stone’s attempt to capture all these aspects of Alexander’s life and merge it along with his victorious campaigns against the Persian Empire and later on the warriors of India end up being complicated and confusing. It did not help either that Ptolemy would segue into the story and just blurt out condensed events significant to the next scene that the movie would jump into.

The film is not a a big a failure as Troy was. Whereas Troy was made to be commercially accessible and for which it failed; Alexander has all the mark of a great Oliver Stone film. The film was made with the director’s vision and he transformed it into a visually ravishing film (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is truly magnificent).

Much of the fuss about the film was focused on the depiction of Alexander’s sexuality. To Stone's credit, this alone is enough evidence that he is still very much his own man. The director kept his vision intact and presented the movie the way he wanted to present it and eventually and perhaps unintentionally paralleling what Alexander did in his last campaign in India. As Alexander's vision of conquering the East ended up in failure so is Oliver Stone's


Sunday, November 28, 2004

After the Sunset

After the sunset is an action-caper designed to give a two-hour entertainment. On that aspect it delivers. Max, Lola, and Stan form a triangle upon which the plot narrative goes around. (And all around it goes!)

Max (Pierce Brosnan) and Lola (Salma Hayek) are retired thieves enjoying the fruits of their labor in idyllic Bahamas. Stan (Woody Harrelson) shows up one day and baits Max to steal the last of the Napoleon Diamonds which, not surprisingly, was on display in a cruise ship docked for a week on the same island where the master thieves are setting up home. Hmmm, at this point onwards, the movie goes on one predictable scenario after another. Most of the scenes feel like a setup designed to elicit laughs (and admittedly they do).

Don Cheadle stars and is wasted as a local gang leader who commissions Max to steal the diamond for his ‘charity’ work.

Visually, the movie is attractive. The Bahamas setting was use to full advantage in undressing Salma Hayek at every conceivable scenario. The music is also lively (as is typical of a movie set in the tropics). Of the clich├ęs in the movie, the most glaring and sometimes offensive is the depiction of the locals: 1) as always having fun; 2) police are inept and 3) women, even those in the police force, are always gorgeous.

But the movie is fun. The climax is not entirely something new but it still delivers some excitement and a little thrill.


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Kinsey

Kinsey feels like a good movie. The performances from the entire cast – from Liam Neeson (who is so commanding in the title role that even when he engages in homosexual sex with his assistant/lover Clyde Martin, excellently portrayed by Peter Saarsgard, the viewer will not ever doubt his masculinity) to the British great Lynn Redgrave who was almost unrecognizable as the final subject/interviewee – were all uniformly good. The photography brilliantly captures the color of the various periods in Kinsey’s storied life. And yet, I was somewhat clueless whether the movie was excellent good or just okay good.

Kinsey is the story of Alfred Kinsey’s life before and after his ascendance as the sex guru of modern America. The film swiftly laid out the foundation of Kinsey’s psychology when it dwelt on his early childhood where his view on the morality of sex was based on his father’s traditionalist teachings (reasons for which are expectedly revealed in one of the film’s highlights – drawing no dramatic resonance anymore given the fact that it came too late into the story structure). The film then quickly jumps into his early adulthood when he becomes a zoology professor at the Indiana University, collecting wasps. He meets his future wife Clara (portrayed effortlessly by Laura Linney) during one of his class and they get married. At this point, talk of sex has been particularly scarce. On the night of their wedding, they both discover difficulty in consummating sex because: first, both of them are virgins; and secondly, Kinsey has a big penis.

Supposedly, that act brought about an impetus on the eventual urge for Kinsey to study sex behaviors of the American people. I haven’t read the biographical book where this movie was based nor have I read any of the landmark books based on his studies of American sex, but given this scenario, I already started having serious doubts about the plausibility of this sudden burst of inspiration.

The film is insightful on the subject matter it professes to dissect. Moviegoers will laugh and snicker at the old sex taboos of the early ‘60s culture about masturbation, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, homosexuality, bisexuality, etc. But are the laughter aimed at the morally-stringent period where sex remained a taboo topic or are they laughing at themselves because these have become almost the norm of the present society and the virtue to distinguish right from wrong have almost vanished to the so-called advancement of sexual psychology?

At film’s end before the final credits roll, a short film compiled by the Kinsey Institute for Sex showing various animals and insects in separate stages of the sexual act is shown. I have no idea what the director’s intention was in inserting this clip but one wonders: have we really gotten down to such low that even those animals who are impervious to the codes of morality pale in comparison to what we humans are actually doing so publicly now? Was it actually the whole conceit of the director in filming this story?



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Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Incredible Bridget Jones

I watched “The Incredibles” and “Bridget Jones” on the same day. And boy was it a blast!

The new Disney-Pixar animated “The Incredibles” is a story about a family of retired superheroes who must spring out from government-imposed retirement to save the world once again from the evil threats of a fake superhero.

Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson provide voices to Elastic Girl and Mr. Incredible respectively. The animation is on par with Pixar’s bests and the storytelling, leisurely and enjoyable.

Some critics have drawn social parallelisms between the fate that befallen the retired superheroes to the current social norm heavily dependent on litigation. The superheroes were once mighty group of law enforcers who were forced to retire when most of the people they saved felt “victimized” by the obtrusive nature of their heroic acts and started suing them. Funny it seems but it happens in everyday life now. In the end though, when the people get to see the goods this real superheroes are made of they are once again exalted in public.

But lingering thoughts take us back to the time when they were unceremoniously retired and there is fear as to just until when the public’s euphoria over their exploits last and how eventually they will be forced into seclusion again.

“Bridget Jones: The edge of Reason” stars Renee Zellwegger as Bridget who returns once again to regale us with her tale of love that doesn’t end happily ever after or so it seems when applied to her overly neurotic personality.

Zellwegger sizzles in another great performance and she is again supported by Colin Firth as the conservative and reserved Marc Darcy and Hugh Grant who is back as bridget’s dashing and playboy ex Daniel Cleaver who happens to have changed for the better and shuns casual sex.

It is 8 weeks into Bridget’s relationship with Darcy when she stumbles on her first great rival, the long-legged, svelte lawyer Rebecca.

Typical of Bridget, she rushes to her friends for advice and she ends up more confused and unreasonably jealous. She breaks up with Darcy and goes to Thailand with Cleaver. In Thailand, they met a stranger who introduces Bridget to the illicit joy of Narcotics. She was almost tempted into going to bed with Cleaver until a ‘room service’ interrupted the interlude.

Bridget is caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Thailand, the package she innocently carries for her friend turned out to have drugs inside. She gets imprisoned but is once again rescued by Darcy.

Later, Bridget realizes that her jealousy were not only unfounded but also funny. When confronted, Rebecca confesses to Bridget that she was indeed in love but not with Darcy. Hmmm… Who could she be in love with?

And so ends the movie happily again until the next neurosis of Bridget comes into surface one more time and unnecessarily wreaking havoc on her romance with Darcy.

There are a lot of funny scenes in the movie but what set this movie different from the first one is its attempt to further show the audience the special character that Bridget Jones is.

In the Thailand prison scenes, she made friends easily with the inmates there. She taught them how to sing Madonna’s Like a Virgin properly and related to their love problems with her own (which she is forced to make up because she realized that Darcy have been very good to her all along.)

Bridget may not be perfect but as portrayed by Zellwegger she comes off lovable and endearing and she doesn't know how much loved she is. There is a scene where Darcy and Cleaver were fighting over something and later on the audience realizes that Darcy is in fact jealous and only wants to be assured that nothing happened between Cleaver and Bridget in Thailand. And if Bridget were present during this fight she would have cheered on whoever was the victor! Lovely.

Birth

Nicole kidman mesmerizes the audience in a 3-minute close-up where all that is seen is her changing expression from anger,disbelief, acceptance and ultimately grief.

Birth is a story about love. Love that comes to people once in their lives and when this is lost, people cling on to it like a child desperate to see his/her toys at home on the first day of school. You just yearn to feel it one last time. Sometimes the grief that is reflected physically is not tantamount to the heavy burden one carries deep in his/her heart. It just gnaws on you and you are almost held captive to it.

Birth is about Anna, a long-suffering widow who after ten years of grieving over her dead husband Sean finally manages to let go and is set to marry Joseph.

Birth is about Sean, a ten-year old boy who breaks into Anna's life proclaiming that he is the reincarnated husband.

The film is appropriately paced for its theme. All the actors do well particulary Kidman and the young boy who portrays Sean, Cameron Bright (he was seen in Godsend, i think.)

To dwell on the story is to break the element of surprise the writer and director so skillfully injected into the film without actually letting the audience feel betrayed or anything.

Anne Heche costars in a pivotal role and provides the truth near the end that is not entirely shocking nor surprising but is painfully heartbreaking.

Ray

"Ray" is about the life of the legendary singer/songwriter Ray Charles. He is a blind Afican-American whose music literally rocked the world with the fusion of classic R&B and Gospel.

The film is a celebration of his music and a loving tribute to his remarkable life that made him the Icon that he is now.

Ray was born to a poor single mother. As a young boy he witnessed a devastating loss that haunts him for many years. He losses his sight soon after and forever lived in the dark. He was sent by his mother to a school for the blind and taught him how to be strong to be able to survive on his own.

Before Ray lost his sight, he was introduced to the piano by a kind neighbor. This introduction lead him to love music and eventually gave him the freedom to become whoever he wants notwithstanding his physical disability.

When his mother died he moved to Seatle and met the young Quincy Jones and together they found an agent who booked Ray in shows accross the neighboring states. Soon, the phenomenal new sound of Ray Charles gets the attention of people from Atlantic Records and signed him up for a contract. The contract produced a string of hits and had all of America clamoring for Ray.

Watching Ray is like watching a great performer march to the stage, waltz through his routine in a deliberate tentative pace and slowly building up his act until he hits full crescendo. The audience, meanwhile, are held in breathless awe.

Jamie Foxx turns in a brilliant and outstanding performance that may in the surface appear to be just an imitation of Ray Charles but as the film gets along and the viewer is brought deeper and deeper into the psychology of his character, Foxx’s heart is revealed and all you see is Ray Charles.

The film attempts to give us as much detail about Ray’s life. In poignant and sometimes harrowing flashbacks, we are told of the demons he is battling inside that made him seek the comfort of heroin. He had a string of extra-marital affairs but he kept his loyalty to his wife.

Supporting performances from the dutiful wife to the agents, band members and mistresses were all very good. But particularly the performance of Regina King as the strong-willed mistress come off as the best specially the part where she was leaving Ray for good and Ray was on his piano composing a new track for his album. Their verbal fight ends up with the composition of the hit song “Hit the Road” and watching it unfold onscreen, one momentarily forgets that they are actually fighting but instead one thinks they are merely collaborating on the music.

The use of Ray’s music to highlight his career/life milestones was inspired and it was further use to greater advantage in the scene where Ray Charles was finally recognized by the state of Georgia after being banned during the height of the desegregation movement when he did not perform in a concert because black people are being restricted to a specific section in the hall. When his song Georgia on my Mind was adopted as the state song, I was misty-eyed and on my feet applauding Mr. Ray Charles, his music, his life and his achievements.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

My current reviews

"friday night lights" stars billy bob thornton as a HS football coach for the small town of Odessa in Texas which holds the record of winning the most HS championships in the state. the movie is a chronicle of the 1988 season and follows the story of the team as they struggle to win each game amid personal hardhips and undue pressures from their proud and passionate townmates. for those looking for a football 101 lesson this is the movie. technicals aside, the personal stories of the athletes that the writers decided to focus on give the movie its weight and ultimately inspires the viewers to root for them and see them succeed.

"taxi" may have had queen latifah in one of her hilarious and funniest roles ever but the lackluster comic antics turned in by costar jimmy fallon swallowed everything up. jimmy fallon is a bumbling NYPD cop and latifah a newbie cab driver. they cross paths one day and they get involved with a gang of robbers who look like runway models. and that is as far as the story goes. bad movie.

"the grudge" is based on a japanese horror hit. it stars sarah michelle gellar who is in japan with her boyfriend who is studying for something i may have missed. anyway, gellar works as a caregiver and gets assigned one day to this one house when the regular caregiver fails to show up. when she gets there, she finds the bike of the regular caregiver parked conveniently inside the compound (oh, serious trouble),thus begins to unravel the mystery of the house. she sees a boy taped and locked inside a cabinet. sees the woman she was attending to killed by a shadow. the horror in the movie works a la the ring because the writer and director patiently tells us the story behind everything in a slow deliberate pace that heightens the viewers desire to know more but also the increasing the creeping atmosphere of fear slowly building and building and wham!...good scary stuff.

"shall we dance" is another movie based on a japanese hit about a middle-aged man who takes up dancing to break the monotony in his life and in so doing bring back not only life to himself but to all the people he inspired and touched. richard gere is effective in the lead role and the dance sequence he does with jennifer lopez is lustful without the lust. susan sarandon costars as gere's wife. good manageable movie.

"surviving christmas" will not survive till christmas. some critics are so harsh they say it wouldn't even make it to halloween. hehehe. and for all the good reasons, they are right. the movie is an exercise in mockery. it mocks the christmas tradition of family and it fails miserably. ben affleck stars as a millionaire who buys himself into a family so that he can celebrate the christmas he never had. premise maybe good but the execution was terrible. it feels like an overextended sitcom rerun that airs at 3 inthe morning. very bad!

NOW THE truly great ones.

"the motorcycle diaries" stars gael garcia bernal and rodrigo dela serna as two buddies who take on a road trip across south america to 'discover the land they only read in textbooks' but they end up learning more than they ever expected. this film is a chronicle of the charismatic south american revolutionary che guevarra's travels when he was twenty three to the outskirts of argentina, peru,chile and venezuela. on the way, he discovers the social injustices to the poor, the division of the rich and the poor, the phlight of the common man. witnessing the transformation of guevara from the exuberance of youthful mindlessness to take the cause of the small people and lead the most successful social revolution in south america is most inspiring. the film is not pro-communist but it is sympathetic to the ideals of the real communist movement. che guevarra was assassinated by the CIA when he was about 35 or so it says in the end blurb. on the performances, both the lead actors do superb turns but kudos goes to bernal who embodies the character of guevara with such charm and quiet ferociousness that the viewers may actually mistake him for the real guevara. very good film. one of the most important films i should say.

"vera drake" is a british film made by mike leigh that won the venice prize for best picture and bestactress. true enough, imelda staunton, the vera drake in the title inhabits the role with such pleasantness and heartbreaking remorse that the audience end up cheering for her eventhough she has committed a very heinous crime. vera drake is a cheerful homemaker who tends to her family with dedication and servile grace. she does home cleaning for several households and attends to her ailing mother. on the side, she also plays matchmaker to her homely daughter and a family friend. But her kindness does not end there, she also helps teenage girls who are pregnant and in distress. vera drake does abortions but she thinks she is only helping the poor young girls. she knows its wrong that's why she keeps the knowledge from her family. tragedy strike when one of the girls she assisted nearly dies and the hospital doctors who treated her brought the matter to the attention of the police. the film is not a sympathetic look at abortion. however, it does not condemn nor does it condone. the film merely shows the frailties of the poor young girls who are desperate to rid themselves of the sad predicament they are in and charitable spirit of vera drake who sees the opportunity to help and does so without asking for any favors. ms. staunton is being touted by many to win this year's oscar for best actress and seeing her on screen validates the critical acclaim.

both films should be very visible in the following months as awards season kick in and i wouldn't be surprised if both collects a few.

-end
november 11, 2004

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