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)