Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of EASTERN PROMISES


December 11, 2007


This is Director David Cronenberg's follow-up to "A History of Violence." Once again, he composes an exposition on the subject matter of violence, and likewise, he extracts an electrifying performance from his star Viggo Mortensen by delving deeper in that vein.

This time around, Cronenberg brings us into the world of the Russian crime organizations in London. We are taken there by Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, as she looks for relatives of a 14 year old girl who dies in childbirth under her care. The girl leaves a diary written in Russian which leads Anna right into the web.

Through Anna, we meet the major players in that Russian underground: a deceptive restaurant owner-crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller Stahl), his psychologically-disturbed son (Vincent Cassel) and their stoic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). With this story as background, the movie proceeds to delve right into the underbelly of the subculture where these protagonists live their depraved lives.

The acting is of very high caliber. Armin Mueller Stahl is a familiar name because he was once an Oscar nominee (for Best Supporting Actor in "Shine"), but I have never really seen him. This is a showcase role for him, and most likely will get him another nomination at least. Vincent Cassel chews scenery in another role reminiscent of his role in "Derailed" of a psychotic criminal. Naomi Watts underplays her naive role and lets the actors outshine her, yet she is still quietly effective in her own way.

But the star of the film is really Viggo Mortensen. He is really very convincing as the astute and confident driver who climbs up the ranks in the Russian mafia. He was as effective in his scenes of gore and violence, as he was in tender scenes with Naomi Watts (and Vincent Cassel!). As he can project a genuine sense of evil and dread, he can similarly show sincerity and concern. Certainly, that controversial bloody Turkish bathhouse fight scene would most likely be talked about for years to come.

This film would not be easy for everyone to watch. The violence and gore levels are high. But being very interesting and rare trip down the Russian underground, plus the tour-de-force acting, makes this film a definite must see. As I said about "The Departed" last year (coincidentally another gangster film), this may be the first potential Oscar Picture nominee I have seen this year.


Review of BEOWULF


December 6, 2007



I watched this spectacular movie completely in mind-blowing 3D and IMAX! I think this is the only way to watch this movie, and I do not regret the money I paid for it. This is the most expensive movie in commercial run in town these days--P400, a little less than US$10.

This is only the third movie I have seen in IMAX. First was those few minutes of "Superman Returns". Then the much longer and better 3D sequences of "Harry Potter 5". This is the first one I have seen in IMAX that is completely in 3D.

This is one of those movies where the technology is the star, not the story, the script nor the actors. The movie is completely computer generated. The artwork was excellent in the architecture, the landscape and the male characters, especially Beowulf himself. The 3D effect multiplies the grandiosity and excitement of everything in the film several-fold. The action sequences were really top notch in 3D, most especially the climactic battle of Beowulf and the Dragon. I certainly cannot imagine how this movie would look and feel in 2D.

Ray Winstone's Beowulf looks every inch a hero, but the story makes him flawed, thus more realistic. I did not know who Winstone was before this movie. He has a grand time looking heroic, with his stances, poses and braggadocio. He was totally naked during his battle with Grendel, and the way his manhood was hidden by various other props can be quite amusing, which distracts from the great action somewhat.

I was a bit off-put by the strange over-the-top rendering of Grendel's monstrosity. I did not expect such extremely grotesque interpretation, with a mishmash of deformed human features. The script did imbue Grendel with much drama and tragedy, much enhanced courtesy of Crispin Glover's acting.

Angelina Jolie was depicted in gorgeous elaborate artwork as Grendel's mother. All the scenes involving Jolie were really very well done. She does well in looking both beautiful and sinister at the same time. Her costume is very remarkable as well. Unfortunately, aside from her, the other female characters were not very well rendered, particularly Robin Wright Penn's Queen.

Overall I would really recommend watching Beowulf. But please watch it in 3D. I cannot avoid comparing this movie with a similarly-themed movie shown earlier this year, 300. I liked 300 much better because of the live actors involved. I read that 300 was also available in 3D IMAX format, but I am not sure if they showed this locally. I don't think so. I gave 300 a 5-star rating despite seeing it only in 2D. Beowulf could have been an average movie, but it gets an extra star because I saw it in 3D.


Review of LIONS FOR LAMBS


November 15, 2007



The very impressive poster attracted me several months back. What a cast this movie has -- Redford. Streep. Cruise. Wow. I did not really know what movie was all about, but I simply had to watch it.

This movie is really a filmed debate on the current situation of the United States and its war on terror. I am very sure a lot of Americans would either love it or hate it depending on their political leanings. It is quite frank, even extreme, in both its left-wing and right-wing pronouncements. The script, with all its conflicting views and witty repartee, is amazing to hear, coming alive through the mouths of the impressive cast.

I liked this debate. In fact, I almost wanted to watch it again right there. I liked the intense interaction between jaded left-wing journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) and hotshot US Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). The senator is convincing Roth to publicize a story of a new military strategy in attacking Afghanistan using smaller attack points. Meryl Streep, what more can I say. She is so natural. You actually forget there is a script. Her adlibs sound like actual adlibs. Tom Cruise is also very good. His personal charisma was needed to make his decidedly "more negative" character three-dimensional and real, and counter-balance a perceived left-leaning bias. I believe Cruise pulls off this difficult task very well indeed. Political content aside, the deceptively static conversation scenes involving these two characters is very vivid and alive, an undeniable acting master class.

The other debate involves Prof. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) and his smart but delinquent student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). The professor is convincing his student to take his studies seriously, and to take his talk one step further. The acting is also very natural. Robert Redford was so cool, and you believe that he is your favorite idealistic political science professor in college. Garfield, I have never seen before, I needed some time to get used to his fast talking style. But he holds his own. The conversation between them was very convincing in its arguments from both sides. The movie's enigmatic title was explained by Malley when he said, ""World War I. German soldiers wrote poems about the bravery of British Grunts. Admired them. Almost as much as they laughed at the British High Command who just wasted those same Grunts by the hundred-thousand. A German General wrote, 'Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs'."

As these debates were going on in Washington and California, respectively, two former students of Prof. Malley, Arian Finch and Ernie Rodriguez, are involved in the military operation launched by Sen. Irving. They have fallen from their aircraft when it was attacked by the enemy while flying over a mountain pass in Afghanistan. Both injured, the pair had to rely on their idealistic spirits, as the Taliban closes in on them.

I just realized after I watched that the critical feedback about this film had been negative. For me, I disagree with this consensus. Maybe being a non-American, I can be more detached from the sensitive subject matter. It is a good film. It makes the audience think. True, there are many questions presented by this movie, and no answers. The audience is challenged to contemplate on these matters and create their own stand. As American's policies invariably affect the world, even non-Americans should know the issues that surround the political situation in Washington DC. This film summarizes these conflicting issues very well.


Review of LUST, CAUTION


November 3, 2007

 
Ang Lee has become one of those directors for which every film becomes an anticipated event. This particular one is catching a lot of attention because of several graphic scenes of a sexual nature, but it really is not fair to just judge the movie by those scenes alone. These scenes were shown locally without cuts (unlike Singapore or China). I believe they were integral to the plot, as the characters relationship deepens, and their original motives distorted, with every intense act.

Like "Brokeback Mountain", "Lust, Caution" is also based on a short story, this time by Eileen Chang. But Ang's exposition and interpretation extended this material into a 2 hour and 35 minute movie. I did not feel the length of the movie. It was very well paced and very interesting all throughout. Again, films with situations based to real history interest me. The contrast of the lives of the rich and poor at that time were very well portrayed. The rich talk about jewels and gossip over the mahjongg table, as outside, the poor need to line up to get their rice rations and die on the streets.

As with other Ang Lee films, the cinematography was again the main star -- very rich and vibrant. The camera angles were very unique. The production design of old Shanghai and Hongkong, complete with the period costumes, were very painstakingly depicted.

Both lead stars were very daring in the depiction of their roles. Tony Leung is really very good in this one. His intensity as an actor penetrates the screen. As the female lead, Tang Wei is very impressive, considering that this is her first movie. Those quiet scenes in the cafe (purposely chosen by Mr. Yee because it had bad food, thus less people who could see and bother them), and the geisha house (where Mr. Yee lets down his guard and likens his own situation with whoring) are the best in the whole movie.

Despite all this embellishment, the main conflict and story are actually very simple, even disappointing in its resolution. This is my main complaint about this movie. I had wished for a less typical denouement, but that was not to be.



****** SPOILERS FOLLOW ********

The story is about a girl Wong Chia Chi (a daring debut performance by Tang Wei) who joins a patriotic theater group, headed by Kuang (Wang Lee Hom) in her freshman year in college during the war of China with Japan. One vacation, her group got the idea of assassinating a big-time Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (the ever dapper and sinister Tony Leung). Wong posed as Mrs. Mak, a lonely businessman's wife, who infiltrates the Yee household by befriending and playing mahjongg with Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). While Wong has succeeded in attracting Mr. Yee's attention, this initial attempt did not succeed because they were accidentally found out by one of Mr. Yee's lackeys whom they had initially used as a connection. They had to kill this guy in the movie's most violent scene.

Three years later, Wong was back in Shanghai, and back in college. One day, she again encounters Kuang who recruits her back to reprise her role as Mrs. Mak. She agrees, and finds her way back into the Yee household. This time, Mr. Yee wastes no time in consummating his lust for her, pent-up for the past three years. After the initial violent rape scenario, more sex scenes follow, all with so much intense passion. Things come to a head when during the day that Kuang's group was set to kill Mr. Yee, Wong had a sudden moment of weakness that changes the course of their plans.

For me, the resolution of the story is the one area of disappointment for me, as i felt that the ending was so much similar to other movies that dealt with the same plot. I would have wanted to see Wong see her mission through, despite the huge 6 carat diamond ring dazzling before her eyes at that fateful moment. I thought she would be much stronger in her resolve than that, especially seeing how much she had already gone through in her life to get to that moment.


Review of 1408


September 26, 2007


This is as close to a one-man show as we can get. Just one lead actor appearing throughout the film, the others are all minor supporting characters. John Cusack really goes through the gamut of human attitudes and emotions in this one film. For me, it is a convincing tour-de-force acting performance. He really gets into the skin of his character and rides the storyline all the way through the roller coaster from hell, from its benign beginning to its heart-stopping twists and turns, up to its fiery end.

He plays Mike Enslin, a writer who debunks popular haunted places. He gets challenged to stay at Rm. 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City by an anonymous postcard. He could not resist the challenge, despite all the efforts to convince him not to stay the night. His life turns 360 degrees after the manager leaves him in the fated room. The evil spirit of the room, along with ghosts of the room's past victims, as well as Enslin's own personal ghosts regarding his daughter who died of cancer, all join forces to torment and torture him physically, mentally, psychologically and emotionally.

After this movie, you will never hear "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters the same way again. This sweet song actually became creepy! The movie never loses focus. Very exciting. Tight, very well-edited. There's a strange bit at the end with Samuel L. Jackson's hotel manager character in a perplexing scene. But then the whole movie is one big perplexing and torturous trip, you can't really not nitpick on these small details. Hope I can get to read the Stephen King short story on which this film is based in the future.


Review of DISTURBIA


September 13, 2007



Finally I got to see a movie after a month, I think. Caught this movie that unexpectedly copped the number 1 slot in the US box office earlier this year. The prologue scene before the opening credits really gave me quite a jolt! Turns out that that smashing scene sort of just sets up the personality of the lead character Kale played by Shia LaBeouf. He socks his Spanish teacher one day and gets put under house arrest.

I am the type who might even enjoy this type of confinement. But apparently Kale most definitely isn't. He gets very restless on the very first day since his X-Box and Online activities were curtailed. In addition, he gets sassy with his mom, who gets even by cutting off the plug of his TV. Bereft of things to do, he starts looking out his windows, into the lives of his next-door neighbors. He gets very excited with pretty and tone Ashley, who just so happened to just move in with her family. However, the suspense comes in when he notices very strange goings-on with his other neighbor Mr. Turner. Is he involved with a series of missing women?

As far as the actors, I see Shia as a young John Cusack, with a sad-sack charm about him. I just have to say that this guy is lucky to be able to romance gorgeous Megan Fox in "Transformers", and now the beautiful and sexy Sarah Roemer in this movie. I just felt his room was too over-the-top messy. I couldn't be THAT bad! I totally failed to recognize Carrie Anne Moss as Kale's mom! David Morse, on the other hand, is really getting the hang of playing these creepy characters. I certainly have seen him in other movies with characters like Mr. Turner. For the Asian best friend Ronnie, he just had to totally be geeky. What a stereotype! For his credit, actor Aaron Woo did quite well in this obnoxious role.

This is teen angst meets "Rear Window." There were really scenes that bring you to the edge of your seats. The scene of Mr. Turner and Ashley in the car is classic creepy. Same with the "Blair Witch"-style camera work when Ronnie breaks into Mr. Turner's garage and house. Exciting! The angst scenes however did not really sit well with me. I think they are way overblown. Just OK with me overall. I would not call it a waste of time. Some tense and exciting suspense scenes that make it worthwhile to catch in theaters.


Review of DERAILED


August 30, 2007


I just caught this on cable in Saigon, while packing my suitcase the night before our departure. I did not really have background information about it. I actually thought it was a love story. Much to my surprise, it was nothing of the sort at all! The action that went on inside that seedy hotel room between Charles (Clive Owen) and Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston) went from steamy fantasy to violent nightmare in a matter of minutes.

As a man, I felt I am feeling everything that Clive's character was feeling as he went through his ordeal. I liked the quiet understated acting of Clive Owen. He projected the sheer weight of helplessness and haplessness as Charles goes into a massive guilt trip. His eyes could not have been more expressive of despair. Man, kawawa talaga! (Sorry, I could not express that too well in English. "He is really pitiful!" simply does not carry the same punch.)

It was also great how the story turned out with the surprising revelations and secrets. Neat! Vincent Cassel is truly vicious here. And Jennifer Aniston, wow! All I can say is, she isn't Rachel Green in this one.

OK, it does get a little illogical towards the end on how Charles gets his justice. But for me, the great emotional story development in middle part more than makes up for this.