domingo, 10 de noviembre de 2013

Farewell, Blog!

So, it has been almost a year after my last blog entry. I know my traffic, if any, is small, but I wanted to give a belated heads-up about me moving to anyone that is following me. Since earlier this year, I've been posting my film and TV opinions on HubPages, a website that allows user to write their own content and publish it, while creating a network of followers. If anyone wants to read more about me, feel free to visit me there. The link is here.

In time, I might come back to this blog, but as of now, I feel really comfortable writing there. Thanks to everyone who read or just browsed or stumbled upon my blog during this last 2 years or so. See you around!

domingo, 10 de marzo de 2013

12 Angry Men: Guilty or Not Guilty?


"I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know."
--Juror #8

That statement sparks one of the main arguments of the 1957 film 12 Angry Men, where Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) clearly delineates the basis of "reasonable doubt", and its role in the American justice system. The film, set almost in its entirety in the jury room of the courthouse, features twelve jurors with the obligation of determining the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. If found guilty, the kid will be sentenced to death; if not guilty, he'll be acquitted, but the verdict has to be unanimous either way.

The jury is formed by a hodge-podge of characters from various backgrounds and personalities, meant to be a picture of the America of the day. And therein lies one of the strengths of the film, in the way that Reginald Rose's script and Sidney Lumet's directing manage to establish the personalities of each character seamlessly and without expository dialogues or flashbacks. From the beginning, Juror #8 is portrayed as a thoughtful and patient man willing to go against the flow in an effort to fulfill his duty fairly. He doesn't know the truth, but he wants to prove that neither do the other jurors.

From the initial vote, he is the sole dissenter, against the other eleven. However, he constructs his arguments with caution and common sense against the tide of opposing arguments. Most of the other jurors offer little to their cause. Prejudices, disinterest, indecision, complacency, lack of analysis, bigotry... all of those traits are bubbling inside the other eleven who, for the most part, are unable to counter the arguments of Juror #8. But there's also a disturbing argument being made about how our justice system works, and how swiftly can we gamble on the fate of others, as long as it doesn't interfere with our lives, or just because we didn't give it the thought we should have.

The main antagonistic figure is Juror #3 (played by Lee J. Cobb), who initially appears to be carefully analytical, taking out his notes before saying "I have no personal feelings about this". But as the plot progresses, we can see he brings an emotional baggage that might bias him. The other relevant antagonistic figure is Juror #10 (played by Ed Begley), whose remarks grow more prejudiced and bigoted as the film advances.

The rest of the jurors are a meek banker, a smart and rational stockbroker, a paramedic from the slums, a humble painter, a laid-back and careless salesman, an observant old man, a foreign watchmaker, a chatty ad executive, and the complacent foreman. Through their dialogues, we know enough about the characters without it feeling forced. We find out about their jobs, their backgrounds, their families, and how all that might play a part in their decisions.

But most impressive is the evolution of Jurors #3 and #8 as they continually square against each other, battling arguments back and forth. From bully to bullied, and viceversa, both Fonda and Cobb play their characters masterfully, as they both wag the other jurors from one side to the other, until Fonda declares "You're alone".

12 Angry Men is a unique character study full of excellent performances, a thought-provoking script, and a careful direction. I remember seeing the 1997 TV remake a long time ago and enjoying it, but I think this one sets itself apart quite nicely. Grade: A

(All pictures belong to United Artists, MGM, and its affiliates)

domingo, 24 de febrero de 2013

Argo: A cosmic conflagration

"This is the best bad plan we have... by far, sir."
--Jack O'Donnell

If it wasn't based on real events, one could say that the premise of Argo is one of the most absurd ideas ever. And I have to wonder how many probably laughed at it at the CIA Headquarters when Tony Mendez pitched it in. The fact that it really happened only makes it even more impressive. In a way, that reminds me of Compliance, another recent 2012 watch which is improved by the realization that what one saw on the screen actually happened.

The film follows the efforts of the CIA and the government to rescue six diplomats from Iran in the middle of the 1979 hostage crisis at the embassy. The film opens with a compelling, easy-to-follow prologue explaining the background of the political situation of Iran at the moment. I can see how some people might consider it sort of an oversimplification of things; an "Iran for Dummies", if you may. But I think it served its purpose and successfully established the environment in which the film takes place. After that, we see the riots in front of the embassy escalate until hundred of people manage to storm inside forcing the six diplomats to escape into the Tehran streets and into hiding at the house of the Canadian ambassador.

Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA operative and exfiltration expert, brought in as a consultant by the State Department. As the government scrambles for possible covers to exfiltrate the diplomats, Mendez comes up with the idea of using the filming of a cheesy sci-fi film as the cover. As absurd as it might seem, Mendez worked the logistics of the plan with friend and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), which includes setting up a phony production company, choose a script, design posters and storyboards, and make public script readings.

As Mendez prepares to travel to Iran, he sets up fake credentials and identities for the six diplomats, who are growing more desperate as time passes by, and the possibility of being captured increases. Affleck successfully builds a tense atmosphere around the events with a tight direction by intercutting different events to get the point that they are not safe. None of the diplomats is fleshed out enough, but still the different actors did well with what little was given to them.

Goodman and Arkin were pretty good, and played well off each other. But I'm surprised that Arkin was nominated for this. His performance, although charismatic, wasn't that impressive to me. He did have the best line of the film though ("Argo fuck yourself!"). Affleck was pretty good as well, considering that his role was more of a stoic operative, and required little emotion. But he did handle well those subtle moments of introspection in Mendez mind.

Overall, Argo is a neatly crafted film in terms of directing. Affleck manages to infuse tension in something that probably shouldn't have, considering that lots of people know the outcome. In a way, that reminded me of Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which also had a decent amount of tension, despite the fact that we all know what happened. Plus, he does so without resorting to the typical thriller clichés of explosions, shootouts, and whatnot. As the film progresses, the implausibility of all the "close calls" that the group faces start to mount, but I still found it to be effective. Even though I know it was silly, script-wise, to have the Iranians racing the plane at the last moment, I was still on the edge of my seat waiting for the plane to take off. Kudos to Affleck and Co. for that. Another small moment of "forced irony" was when they showed Sahar crossing the border to Iraq in the end. Interesting, but I could've done without that "a-ha!" moment.

In my opinion, Affleck continues to show that he has the skills to be one of the best current directors. Argo might not be a masterpiece, but it was an entertaining and well crafted film. Grade: B+

(All pictures belong to Warner Bros. and its affiliates)

Spoorloos: Obsession and the banality of evil

(Although I tried to refrain from SPOILERS, the review might include some)

Once upon a time, in the mid-90s, a young teenager that knew little of film rented a 1993 film called The Vanishing. The film, starring some of the 90s hottest stars (Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, Sandra Bullock) ended up being a mildly enjoyable, run-of-the-mill thriller that vanished into forgetfulness shortly after. Fast-forward a couple of years after, the teenager started getting more into films, and at some point found out that the film he had seen was a remake of an European film of the same name. Reading more about it, he found out that the American remake had pretty much changed the whole story in favor of a "happy ending". But what made everything weirder is the fact that the remake was handled by the same man that had written and directed the original: George Sluizer. 10+ years after, the teenager, now a 30-something, decided to give the original a try and what a surprise he had.

There's something to be said when you can watch a film that you already know the outcome and still be thrilled by it and enjoy it. That was my case with Spoorloos which, despite following the same premise as its remake that I happened to see first, it successfully managed to stand on its own not allowing to be overshadowed by its "evil twin brother". Whereas The Vanishing ended up being a forgettable, run-of-the-mill thriller for me back in the 90s, Spoorloos was a compelling and dark film that's still in my head because of its haunting ending.

For those that hadn't heard of it, Spoorloos follows a young couple: Rex and Saskia (Gene Bervoets and Johana ter Steege) as they share a vacation trip through France. During a routine gas stop, Saskia disappears, which launches Rex on a spiral of desperation and obsession for the next three years. Rex's obsession, which has rendered him unable to hold a healthy relationship with his new girlfriend (Gwen Eckhaus), also puts him on television where he pleads the kidnapper to just let him know the truth. This prompts the inconspicuous man (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) into the inevitable face-off with Rex.

All of the performances are pretty good, but I was mostly surprised by Bervoets, who manages to convey Rex's feelings of desperation, obsession, and curiosity successfully, thus making the climatic moments more believable. Donnadieu is also pretty good as the kidnapper: common man Raymond Lemorne, who plays the man with a creepy banality to it, without turning him into a "demon". Their eventual meeting even hints at how similar, or how common, they both are.

The ending was pretty dark and haunting. I think that what happens there is one of the worst fears any of us has. The fact that it mirrors both Saskia's, and then Rex's dreams only makes it more haunting. Yet another haunting thought that passed my mind in the end was, why would someone want to completely change the ending, let alone the same director, in a remake? Sure, I know that in the 90's the studio probably wanted a "happy ending", but then why remake a film if you're going to ax the whole point of it? It's baffling and I have to wonder why Sluizer went with it.

All in all, a very intense watch and a perfect portrayal of what Mark Kermode referred to as the "banality of evil", and the dangers of obsession. Similar portrayals that come to mind are Jake Gyllenhaal's in Zodiac and Gary Oldman in Romeo is Bleeding. Grade: A-

(All pictures belong to Argos Films and its affiliates)

sábado, 9 de febrero de 2013

Bad 4 Good: Teen angst at its early 90's best

The early 90s was a tough time for heavy metal. Granted, the rise of grunge music pushed away lots of crappy acts, but other worthy ones got lost in the shuffle of musical trends. Bad 4 Good could count as one of this victims. The band was formed under the guidance of guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, and consisted of four talented teenagers from 11 to 16 years old. Lead singer Danny Cooksey was known for his 2-year stint as redheaded kid Sam McKinney in Diff'rent Strokes, while guitarist Thomas McRocklin had appeared as "Lil' Stevie Vai" on Vai's video "The Audience is Listening" (see it here).

Refugee's album cover
The band released their only album, Refugee, in 1992. The lyrics aren't particularly deep. They cover all the obligatory subjects of rock songs of that era. From the rebellious nature of "Bangin' Time Again" and Phil Lynott's cover of "Nineteen", to the surprisingly sex-charged "Rockin' My Body", or the eco-friendly "We're Gonna Fight". There are also a couple of solid power ballads in "Slow and Beautiful" and "Nothing's Great About a Heartache". The latter is particularly good, at least for my 80s taste. The album even features a rap/heavy metal fusion called "Felony".

There's also an interesting song called "Terminate" with lyrics that seem inspired by the Terminator films. The song includes lyrics like "built like a hearse, seven times Mr. Universe" and "he's crying tears of metal in the 21st century" or "he'll look you in the eyes and tell you that he'll be back". Considering that Cooksey had a small role as John Connor's friend on Terminator 2, which was released the same year as the album, it's possible that the song was intended to be sold for the soundtrack, but didn't make it.

Despite the seemingly cliché and formulaic nature of the lyrics, the boys more than make up with their talents. Cooksey has a strong, grave voice that lends itself perfectly for screams and wails, but also for strong vocals, while McRocklin, who was a Vai protege, shows how much he learned from his mentor. Bassist Zack Young and drummer Brooks Wackerman aren't left behind either. Although evident in most of the songs, these talents are better showcased in the instrumental headbanger "Tyre Kickin' (Ya Makin' Me Nervous)".

Bad 4 Good disbanded shortly after the album release, and their members moved on to other ventures. Cooksey has become a prolific voice-actor, Wackerman is playing drums for Bad Religion as well as other bands, Young has played for several bands like A.I., while McRocklin quit the business allegedly "fed up" with the industry. But still, as a perennial lover of 80s heavy metal, this is an album I gravitate towards a lot. If you are a fan of 80s metal, the album is a must to listen to; and even if you're just a heavy metal/rock fan, period, you should give the album a try. Grade: A-

(All the pictures belong to Interscope, its parents and affiliates)

domingo, 3 de febrero de 2013

Compliance: A tough, uneasy watch

Some films are fun to watch, while others are a thrill, edge-of-your-seat experience. A few, however, are just too tough to watch, because of the subject matter or the way it is handled (Requiem for a Dream comes to mind). Compliance falls in this last category, not because it is a bad film; far from it. But because it is done so well, that you can feel the uneasiness of the characters involved.

Compliance follows a prank call that goes too far, involving Susan (Ann Dowd), who is the manager of a fast-food restaurant and Becky (Dreama Walker), one of her young employees. The prank caller pretends to be an officer investigating a theft that might involve Becky, but also hints at a possible bigger bust involving her brother as well. As the prank goes on, the situation gets more out of hand until its tragic consequences. Now, it may sound like a simple premise, but the film turned out to be one of the most uncomfortable watches I've had recently. 

The film successfully establishes Susan as a meek, insecure woman which makes the caller's manipulations more believable. Dowd's performance is nothing short of great, but she's not the only one. Pat Healy is disturbingly good as the caller. His cold, carefree performance makes it all the more unnerving and creepy; and Bill Camp, who plays Susan's fiancee, is equally great. Finally, kudos to Dreama Walker for another great performance in such a tough role. She held her own and managed to make Becky's descent into a scared, confused, and vulnerable victim a believable one.

As the film reached its climax, it begins to push the boundaries of plausibility. But after reading the events it was inspired on and realizing it all happened almost as it was seen on the film, it puts things in perspective and only makes it harder to stomach. As I told my wife in the end, reality is scarier than fiction. One starts to wonder "What would I have done if I were in that situation" and, the way things are presented in the film, one can understand why things went as far as they did. Most people are condemning the manager for allowing this to happen, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Overall, a really good film with great performances all-around, but one I don't see myself rewatching anytime soon. Grade: A-

(All pictures belong to Magnolia Pictures and its affiliates)

domingo, 27 de enero de 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first of the nine Best Picture nominees that I've seen. The film follows the lives of a fictional community in the Southern bayou in the middle of a storm and the resulting flood. It focuses on two characters: 6-year old Hushpuppy (Quvanzhané Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Their lives aren't conventional, to put it mildly. At least from the perspective of the average viewer. They live in extreme poverty and Wink wouldn't be on the run to win "Father of the Year". But he does try, within his abilities and resources, to take care of his daughter.

Their lives get more complicated as Wink's health begins to worsen due to an unspecified illness, and due to the threat of a huge storm that approaches. The latter leaves their community flooded and their residents scrounging for food, while the former progressively weakens Wink.

The film felt a bit weird at times in that it feels like a documentary at times. There's a realistic and raw approach to it, in terms of directing, that I think benefits the story and its characters. But in the midst of it all, there's also a certain beauty and mystique to the images on screen. Kudos to first-time director, Benh Zeitlin, for that, and for pulling some excellent performances from both Wallis and Henry. Not that it was necessary, but reading about their real-life stories only adds weight to the strengths of the film. I would go as far as to say that, as impressive as Wallis' performance was, Henry was more deserving of a nomination.

The weakest part of the film, IMO, was the addition of a fantasy element with the approach of the "Aurochs". The director chose to integrate that into the main story, but I don't think he succeeded with it. To be honest, I don't think it was necessary, or that it could contribute much to the overall result. In the end, there was a disjointedness, a lack of cohesion and clear purpose between both parts. At least from my perspective.

But still, the film manages to hold its own on the strength of the two lead characters and their interactions. I really enjoyed that. Grade: B+

(All pictures belong to Fox Searchlight and its affiliates)

viernes, 25 de enero de 2013

Gridiron Gang

I caught Gridiron Gang much in the same way that I did Bullitt a week or two before: unexpectedly while channel-surfing. The difference is that Bullitt was a pleasant surprise, whereas Gridiron Gang is the epitome of mediocrity. Which is a pity cause, after reading about the subject matter, it really deserved a better treatment.

The film follows Sean Porter (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a worker at Kilpatrick Detention Center. Frustrated with the fate that befalls most of his young detainees upon being released, Porter starts a football team - the Kilpatrick Mustangs - with some of them to teach them discipline, teamwork, and leadership. And so begins the endless parade of sports films clichés: the reluctant participants, the motivational speeches, the lack of equipment, the personal struggles of the kids, the inevitable bonding, the administrative obstacles, the crucial game, the inspirational halftime speech, etc. etc.

Some parts still work, at least a little; and Johnson  has some moments here and there. But everything is so bogged down by predictability and melodrama. I lost count of how many shots of teammates patting themselves in the sunset were on the film, or how much the dramatic, crescendo music was overused, but it was overkill.

The final game pushed all the known buttons. Most of the key players are given the chance to shine, but the team still falls behind by halftime. If you don't know what will happen after that, or if you didn't know it after 30 minutes of watching the film, you haven't seen enough movies. Meh.

In the end, we see documentary clips of the real Sean Porter and the real Mustangs, which kinda puts in perspective how some scenes from the film were actually inspired by real events. As a matter of fact, it made me curious to actually watch a documentary about the real events, instead of a cheesy, predictable, soap-opera like version of the story. Grade: C-  

(All pictures belong to Columbia Pictures and its affiliates)

jueves, 24 de enero de 2013

NCIS: Shabbat Shalom & Shiva

(This review includes spoilers)

I really wasn't planning on making a blog entry on NCIS at this point. But two excellent episodes changed that with a spray of bullets. Still, I've gone back and forth for the past 1-2 weeks trying to write a review for them, without much success. I'll just say this, the two episodes in question - "Shabbat Shalom" and "Shiva" - were among the best I've seen from the show.

The first episode featured the return of recurring character, Eli David (Michael Nouri), who secretly comes to the US allegedly to visit his daughter Ziva (Cote de Pablo). However, there are ulterior motives to his visit, namely a meeting with Arash Kazmi, an Iranian ambassador and childhood friend. To make matters worse, Eli, who is trying to make amends with his daughter, has also been involved in the murder of an undercover reporter.

Through its first acts, the episode was solid. I've always thought that Eli is one of the most interesting characters to watch, mostly because you never know his motivations. His character has, for lack of a better word, a complex background and a complex psyche. His penchant for mind games and backdoor talk never allows us to really trust him, which is why his meeting with Kazmi seemed suspicious, to say the least. Eli's personality also adds layers to his relationship with Ziva, which is, again, complicated to say the least. Let's put it in perspective, this is the man who raised his children to be professional killers, and even ordered Ziva to kill his half-brother, in order to gain the trust of a federal agent.

But the climatic events that set this episode apart occurred in the final act. When that shower of bullets hit the Vance's home, I literally jumped off my chair. A very intense moment, plus the director decided not to take us inside the house yet, but instead to follow Ziva on her pursuit of the hitman. This only added to the suspense and expectation of what had actually happened inside. When Ziva and Gibbs returned to the scene of the crime, they found Eli dead and Jackie mortally wounded. I had a feeling somebody would end up dead, but I never thought they would off two key characters in one episode. That was a bold move.

Now, I've never been a huge fan of Cote de Pablo's performance (which I consider sometimes uneven and spotty) or her character, but you probably are cold-blooded, if you at least didn't have a lump in your throat at the scene where she finds her father dead. Just thinking about it gives me the chills. Her performance at that moment was flawless, and the emotion in that scene was heartbreaking. Probably one of the best moments the show has had in its ten years

The follow-up episode wasn't as intense as this one, for obvious reasons. But still, it was a worthy follow-up as the team investigated the possible suspects, which included Kazmi, a Swedish entrepreneur, and finally, Eli's own protege, Ilan Bodnar (Oded Fehr). I think that the best thing this episode did was successfully setting up a worthy antagonist that will probably be the focus of the rest of the season. But the scenes of grief of Ziva and Leon were great moments as well.

I've been a huge fan of NCIS for several years now, which is evidenced here by my previous endless babbling on the show as a whole. But still, I can be the first to point the flaws of the show, like I did once the tenth season started. However, this two episodes were steps in the right direction. Up until now, the first half of this season had been average, for the most part, although still entertaining. This two episodes were proof that the show can still deliver.

(All pictures belong to CBS and its affiliates)

lunes, 21 de enero de 2013

Bullitt: Good, old fashioned action

I caught Bullitt unexpectedly on TCM a couple of weeks ago, when I was channel-surfing. What a surprise it turned out to be. I mean, I had heard about it, but I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did.

The film follows Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), who is recruited by politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to provide protection to an important surprise witness he plans to present before the Senate in a hearing about organized crime. But things go awry when a pair of hitmen storm the safe house where the witness is staying, mortally wounding him. Bullitt sets out to capture the men responsible while investigating the truth behind the witness.

Most people know this film for its iconic car chase, which occurs around the middle of the film, when Bullitt pursues the pair of hitmen across the streets of San Francisco. But, as great and cool as it was, the film has so much going for it beyond that. The film took a really mature approach to the genre that made some modern cop films feel like cartoons, and the authentic and sober take on the police/investigative aspect was a breath of fresh air. Oh, yeah, and that car chase.

The performances aren't any less. I was particularly impressed by Robert Vaughn's slimy portrayal of Chalmers. And even though McQueen plays Bullitt as a mostly emotionless, tough cop, as the film progresses one can appreciate the subtleties of his performance. If anything, I think that the part where Bullitt's girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) rants on him after stumbling upon a crime scene he's investigating felt forced and a bit awkward. In a way, I felt as if it had come out of nowhere, just to add some sort of "personal conflict" to Bullitt's persona. But that's a small complaint.

Despite some intricacies to its plot, Bullitt is a pretty straightforward film. It doesn't rely on gimmicks or other cheap tricks, but rather on the tension and intrigue it builds. I was initially leaning towards a high B+, but the more I think of it, the more I liked it. I will settle on an A-, but even that's bound to change with time.

(All pictures belong to Warner Bros. and its affiliates)

domingo, 13 de enero de 2013

Leverage: The Long Goodbye

(This review includes spoilers for the last season)

In my opinion, there are two kinds of shows one can enjoy. Those that are both masterfully crafted, with great performances, that manage to thrill you in many ways; and those that perhaps have less than loftier goals, but still manage to steal your heart. Leverage will surely be on the latter group for me. This isn't to say that Leverage isn't necessarily masterfully crafted, or that it doesn't have great performances, but its approach is light compared to the likes of, say, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones

Perhaps being on that latter group is what made me go "Aww, man!" when I realized that the show had been cancelled after closing its fifth season. I've been watching it since 2010 or so, and loved it since. For those that don't know about it, the show follows Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), an insurance investigator that retires after the untimely death of his son. Eventually, he becomes the mastermind in a group of con artists that dedicate themselves to help people by conning big corporations (sorta like a more modern A-Team).

The team is comprised by Sophie Devereaux (Gina Bellman), an actress/grifter who becomes Ford's love interest; Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), a former military/mercenary skilled in beating the shit out of everyone; Alec Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a young and smart hacker; and Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a thief and cat burglar with little to no socializing skills. One of the strengths of the show is, in fact, the chemistry between the cast. From the first season, you actually believe their relationships. From the brotherly banter between Eliot and Hardison, to the love relationship between Nate and Sophie, or the innocent romance between Parker and Hardison. That's what holds the show together for me, so kudos to the cast for their performances.

Other than that, the fast pace and light approach are part of its assets. The show flows with an Ocean's Eleven-like vibe, it never takes itself too seriously, and the humor is always present. There are several running jokes among the characters to amuse regular viewers, and the action is solid. Also, for the most part, the cons are ingenuous, even if by later seasons, they've grown more ludicrous and implausible.

This season, its fifth, saw several changes in the show. Most notably, the team moving to Portland, and the relationship between Hardison and Parker, which was being hinted at during the last seasons, is formal. I have to say that, by the middle of it, I wasn't that crazy about the season. Not that it was bad, far from it. But it was more on the average side. The episode that changed this for me was "The Rundown Job". Probably one of the best episodes of the show, it had only half of the team (Eliot, Parker, and Hardison) in New York trying to stop a potential nuclear threat.

I felt like that episode really elevated things, and the ones that followed were pretty good. It all led to the finale titled "The Long  Goodbye Job", where we find out the real reason for the team moving to Portland. Plus, the return of recurring character James Sterling (Mark Sheppard), a former colleague of Nate that now works with Interpol, added to the impact of it. For the first 20 minutes, the final episode seemed to raise the stakes with one of the most intense cons the show has had. However, once the truth behind it all is revealed in the latter half, it kinda felt like a cheat at first. But when you think about it, since most of what was happening was being shown through Nate's "story", it works better. Plus, the reveal of the true con had me smiling, and the ending capped that smile with the endearing goodbye of the team.

Overall, I can acknowledge the show's weaknesses. But then again, I don't think the show aimed to be a very thought-provoking one. What it succeeded for me was in being a damn entertaining one. It also succeeded in creating a connection with the characters. Which, like I said, led me to feel sorry for its cancellation. Still, I think five years is a good run for any show, let alone one that maybe doesn't have the respect or praise that other more known shows have. Farewell to Nate, Sophie, Eliot, Hardison, and Parker. You'll be missed.

(All pictures belong to TNT and its affiliates)

jueves, 10 de enero de 2013

Dredd: Judgment time

Set in the future, Dredd presents a bleak outcome for humanity. Crime is rampant and law enforcement officers called Judges are given the power to dictate sentences swiftly in the scene of the crime. The lead character, Dredd (Karl Urban), is an emotionless, but effective judge. "THE Judge Dredd", as he is called by one of his peers in the film. He is assigned the supervision and assessment of a rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who is sought by the Hall of Justice, mostly for her psychic abilities. Their first assignment together has to do with a triple murder inside a 200-story slum tower called Peach Trees, which is controlled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless drug lord. Soon, Dredd and Anderson find themselves trapped inside the building and fighting for their lives.

I don't even remember if I saw the 1995 version starring Sylvester Stallone, but I gave this remake a watch this week. For the most part, the film is an entertaining action film, full of violence. IMO, its biggest flaw is its similarity to the Indonesian film The Raid: Redemption. Dredd follows the premise of law enforcement officers trapped in a highrise building controlled by a druglord down to a T, which isn't bad in and of itself. But having seen one deflated the effect that the other might have had. Plus, I think that limiting the scope of the film to an enclosed location hindered the possibilities.

The opening act does a good job of establishing the setting, the post-apocalyptic world full of crime and poverty, and its main character. But once the metal doors at Peach Trees close in on the Judges, the film's possibilities are as trapped as the characters. I think it would've been interesting to see more of the world they were living, but instead, the plot is simplified to a shoot-em up with hordes of nameless thugs running at our heroes. I felt that the source material had possibilities for a better and deeper film. There was a moment near the end where I was actually surprised, and thought that the film would go somewhere, but a futuristic medical kit took that away as well.

That isn't to say that the film wasn't good. I thought it was still entertaining, but not much else. I liked some of the directorial choices of Pete Travis (this is the first film of his that I see). Some of the establishing aerial shots were great, and his use of slow motion to illustrate the effects of the "Slo-Mo" drug were inventive. As far as performances go, Karl Urban does what the script asks of him and he delivers, with an emotionless, stoic performance, but there's nothing much one can say about that. Thirlby and Headey were both solid as the rookie Anderson and the druglord Ma-Ma.

Overall, the film is pretty formulaic, but still fun to watch, so my sentence is a B.

(All pictures belong to Entertainment Film Distributors, Lionsgate, and all its affiliates)

miércoles, 9 de enero de 2013

Dead Poets Society: Seize the day!

 "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

That's the ethos that Robin Williams' character, Professor John Keating, tries to instill on his students in Dead Poets Society. The feeling that life is short, and that we should make the best of every opportunity we can. After several years, I gave this wonderful film a rewatch recently, and it was as great as I remembered it to be.

Set in the super-conservative Welton Academy for Boys during the late 50s, the film follows a group of students, who are inspired by Keating's teachings. Keating, who is a former student of Welton, arrives as the new English professor, and his impassionate lectures serve as a catalyst for some of the boys, who decide to follow Keating's footsteps and revive the titular "clandestine" group. The Dead Poets Society meet in a nearby cave to drink and smoke, but most importantly, to share poetry.

Aside of that, each of the boys is inspired and encouraged individually in different ways by Keating. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) gets the courage to "woo" a girl she has fallen in love with, even though she has a boyfriend. Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) becomes more free-spirited and liberal, albeit not necessarily thinking of the consequences, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is encouraged to audition for a play, defying his father orders. And finally, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), who is the most introverted of the group, is inspired to come out of his shell and explore his talent for poetry.

Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson
Despite the prominence of the characters of Keating and Neil, it is in Todd in which the film focuses more. It is his character arc the one that the film follows from his arrival to Welton and him meeting his future friends, through his struggles in class, with his friends, and in writing, and finally how he reacts to the climatic events of the film. Hawke shows early on his career why he went on to become a star, an Oscar-nominated one at that. He plays the shy, introverted Todd perfectly, and his transformation is completely believable. The actors that play the rest of the boys are pretty good too, most notably Sean Leonard as the conflicted Neil, and Hansen as the controversial Charlie (or "Nwanda").

But the showiest role belongs easily to Robin Williams. Not because he overacts it; quite the contrary, his performance as Keating is very subtle, at least by his own standards. But he owns the best lines, and he delivers them with such an endearing confidence that makes you want to be in that classroom for a whole semester. Despite having a spotty reputation because of some film choices, Williams has proved his talent repeatedly, from his comedic and improvisational skills (Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin) to his more dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo). His performance as Keating is, like Good Morning Vietnam, a comfortable middle ground between drama and light comedy. His performance is not over-the-top showy, but can still make you chuckle. His emotions aren't forced, but subtle. His Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved, IMO.

The film is directed by Peter Weir who, ironically, would go on to direct The Truman Show, which I rewatched about a week ago. I wasn't even aware of this, so I was surprised to see similar themes in both films. Both films present characters that are encouraged to break away from their "pre-programmed" paths to make their own destiny. The characters in both films are afraid to explore life away from what they already know or what its expected of them, but are inspired to walk away from that road and find their happiness in their own terms. 

I hadn't seen this film probably in a decade, so I'm glad to say it was as good as I remembered it. Great performances from everyone involved, and a solid, inspiring script. As a teacher myself, I can only hope to have an iota of the impact that Keating has in the film on my own students. Grade: A  

(All pictures belong to Buena Vista Pictures and its affiliates)

sábado, 5 de enero de 2013

The Truman Show: Fate or Freewill?

"If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there's no way we could prevent him." --Christof

Are we slaves of our fate, or are we free to create our own paths? That is the underlying question posed by the 1998 film The Truman Show. Directed by Peter Weir, the film follows the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) who, unknowingly, is the star of a hit reality show which follows his life around the fictional town of Seahaven. Truman, who was born of an unwanted pregnancy, was adopted since birth by the corporation behind the show, and has lived all his life growing up inside the domed city that serves as the set for the show. All this, under the watchful eye of show creator, Christof (Ed Harris). Now, with 30 years, some events lead Truman to question his reality, his marriage to "Meryl" (Laura Linney), and all his life.

The question of whether we, as people, have a designed fate in our future, or the free will to shape it, has been present almost since primitive times. Almost every religion or existential belief poses the question, one way or the other. Although the film doesn't shy away from religious references - some more obvious than others - it presents the same question from another perspective. Truman's whole life has been orchestrated by Christof, and the people behind the show. The "death" of his father was staged to instill in him a fear of the sea, his "best friend" (Noah Emmerich) is a paid actor who receives dialogue cues from Christof through an earpiece, his marriage to "Meryl" was staged since college, and the studio is aiming towards the first "live conception" as they try to coerce Truman into having a baby with Meryl.

So, on the surface, Truman's life is an example of fate, already planned and predisposed by a "higher power" (Christof and the studio executives). But still, Truman shows increasing signs of free will, as several unforeseen events lead him to break away from the path that has been established for him. Even Christof acknowledges in the above quote that Truman has control of his own destiny, if he really wanted to. Truman's most notable "stray" is him falling in love with an extra, Sylvia (Natasha McElhone), during college, instead of Meryl. Although Sylvia is fired from the show, and Truman ends up marrying Meryl, he still cherishes Sylvia's memory and makes efforts to find her.

Other than its symbolism, The Truman Show presents us with strong performances from most of the cast. Both Linney and Emmerich play Truman's counterparts perfectly, as we see in interviews about the show the duality of their lives, enslaved to playing a character all the time. They are as trapped as Truman, only they are aware of it, and are complicit in the scheme.

But the real standouts are Carrey and Harris. The Truman Show is one of the first films that gave Carrey the opportunity to shine away from his usual comedic schtick. Here, he plays Truman with an earnest exterior that hides feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Sure, he has moments to "let himself loose", at least a bit, but his best moments are the intimate ones in front of the mirror, or in the emotionally charged ending. Harris' performance is no different, in that he plays Christof with a confidence and an assurance that makes him feel God-like. The way he parades around the studio, monitoring everything, gives him a feeling of power. But underneath it all, there is a sadness, highlighted by a moment where he watches Truman sleep or, like Carrey, in the ending. I couldn't believe Harris was a last-minute replacement (Dennis Hopper was the first choice) because he was perfect.

The final act is perhaps one of the most emotionally charged that I've seen on film, with Truman defying expectations and triumphing over his fears. The intensity with which Christof unleashes the weather on him is the same with which one would think a deity would threaten a servant that walks out of the way. The final conversation puts the creator face-to-face with his "creation", ultimately giving him the choice to decide what life he wants, thus highlighting the free will that Truman has.

I remember seeing this back in the day, and being somewhat underwhelmed because I was obviously expecting a more "conventional" Jim Carrey film. But as time passed by, it has become one of my favorite films of all time, and certainly my favorite of 1998. Grade: A

(All images belong to Paramount Pictures and its affiliates)

jueves, 3 de enero de 2013

Killer Joe: A bizarre and twisted tale of murder

The first film of 2013 couldn't have been more bizarre. Killer Joe walks a fine line between a dark comedy and a sick thriller.

The film follows Chris (Emile Hirsch), a young Texan drug dealer who, after falling in debt with some thugs, decides to murder his alcoholic mother to collect the insurance money. He then recruits the help of his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Although they try not to involve her, Chris young and naive sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), also agrees to the deed. To achieve their goal, they hire the titular character, Joe Cooper (Matthew McCounaghey), a detective whose side job is as a contract killer. When Chris can't come up with Joe's $25,000 fee up front, Joe asks for Dottie as a retainer. And from there, the plot unravels in what ends up being a chaotic mess.

I have to say, I rented this expecting it to be more of a suspense/thriller. I never thought the film would end up being what it is. And what a bizarre and twisted film it ended up being. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but it sure wasn't boring. The film gloats in its own chaotic and messy nature, as if there were no bridles to hold it back. Depending on what you expect, or how receptive you are, this might be good or bad.

For starters, during the first hour or so, I thought most of the acting was uneven. Everyone from Hirsch and Haden Church, to Gershon interacted and behaved in a sort of self-conscious way, screaming in what seemed to me as unnatural or awkward. Now, on hindsight, I wonder if it was part of the darkly comedic tone of the film. Temple was the only one of the lead family that was pretty good from the beginning. Her performance as the innocent and childlike Dottie was pretty good, without limiting herself to the usual crutches of this type of characters.

But either way, the standout of the film is Matthew McCounaghey as the titular character. McCounaghey completely owns the role of Killer Joe in what I think is one, if not the best performance I've seen of him. His character is a contradiction, in every single way. A police detective, who happens to be a contract killer on the side. A murderer who sometimes investigates his own murderers. A man of order in the middle of the chaos, that which sometimes he is a part of. McCounaghey gives so many layers to Joe, as we see him charmed by Dottie one moment, and then intimidating Chris and Ansel. As reprehensible as his actions might be, he maintains a sense of order in everything he does: his punctuality, his manners, the way he talks. His "employers", in the other hand, are a total mess in all those same aspects.

The climatic scene of the film is a tense dinner at the trailer of our characters which brings to the surface some of this contradictions. In this scene, all the characters collide in one of the most twisted and intense scenes I've seen recently, as Joe confronts the intentions and motivations of each of them. Again, we have to wonder, who is the bad guy then? who is the killer? Despite all the serious ramifications, there are moments in the scene where I was just chuckling and asking myself "WTF?", highlighted by the awkwardly anti-climatic ending. But even if you chuckle or shake your head at it all, I think it was worth it.

Initially, I wasn't sure what to think of the film and didn't grade it. But as time has passed by, I can say I really liked it. I think it's worth a watch for anyone who's ready for something odd, or for a great performance from an underrated actor. Grade: B+

(All pictures belong to LD Entertainment and its affiliates)