Monday, July 14, 2014

NON-STOP

Liam Nesson, Julianne Moore,
Michelle Dockery,  Scoot McNairy

"The Hijacking was just the Beginning"


They say that "Non-Stop" is "Taken" on a plane. Given that it stars Liam Nesson whose career was 'revived' after he was cast in the above mentioned film and it propelled his new career path as an action star. Not that he needed any reviving since Liam Neeson has always been a talented and quite steady character actor. But I like his new action star persona and it suits him well.

In this film, he is Bill Marks, an Air Marshall who is taken to task on a flight from London to New York. Someone has hacked his 'secure network' pager and sends him threatening messages that warn one passenger will be killed within 20 minutes if his demands are not met. The person sending the texts is also quite familiar with Marks personal background and also appears to be on the plane since he mentions things that Marks is doing.

Soon enough, it turns into a whodunit suspense mystery as we try to guess who among the passengers is the 'mastermind' of this sick plot. The tables are also turned when Marks begins to realize that whoever is texting him evidently wants people on the plane to think that Marks is somehow also involved in the plot.

Since the whole film has only one setting - the transatlantic flight - it is easier to navigate through the story. The director also has a way of tricking the audience into thinking that certain characters are suspicious by dropping clues that eventually lead nowhere. It is a good ploy to keep the audience guessing and tuned to the ongoing hijacking but it also makes you lose the bigger picture. Eventually when the real culprit(s) are revealed and their motives are exposed, it does not really make any fair sense because it got too murky in all the action sequences and the plot twists that are thrown at you. 

Thankfully, the mere presence of Liam Nesson can do wonders and he is the true and only reason this averagely predictable film is worth watching. His advancing age does not hinder him. On the contrary it has only cemented his action star cinematic strength. It does not suggest a dwindling of power but rather an experienced weariness that makes his determination all the more dynamic.

Friday, July 11, 2014

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

EIGA SAI 2014
Japanese Film Festival
Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex


Little Keita is six years old when his parents find out he is not their biological son. The hospital where he was born made a mistake when the nurse switched babies. It turns out his real family lives in the countryside and they are not as well off as his 'current' family.

This is the premise of this solemn family drama that unfolds flawlessly on screen. The emotions and feelings of all concerned parties are valid and realistically essayed by the ensemble cast. Although it involves a total nightmare situation for the kids who were switched at birth, it seems though they are still quite young to truly comprehend the real situation. It is mostly their distraught parents who bear the grim truth as any parent who are faced with such a likelihood would naturally experience a whole gamut of emotions. Pain, anger, learning to let go even though you have loved the child as your own for 6 long years.

Yet the revelation of the switch also helps clarify some buried questions that have nagged them. Why doesn't their child look like them? How come the mother didn't know from the get go that the baby wasn't her own flesh and blood? How come Keita is not as ambitious or strong willed as his father?  Their inner frustrations are brought to the forefront as the story progresses.

It was disturbingly painful to watch this film. As we are shown the vast difference between the two families, their parenting styles and the contrasting personalities of the kids, we find ourselves taking sides in this complicated conflict. But the manner in how the conflict is manifested through the characters different reactions adds to the poignancy factor of this heartbreaking film.

I also like how the director presented the contrast between both families. How despite being 'poor' and living in the countryside, the shop owner is a very hands on father to his children. His words of wisdom on parenting hit a raw nerve with the rich and ambitious architect who is clearly motivated by his career to the point that he hardly spends any quality time with his growing son. Admittedly, the characterizations of the upper class as being cold and the lower class as warm and loving is a bit of a cliche.

Yet the film never feels gimmicky as director Hirokazu Koreeda uses the situation to examine both the nature and the nurture while dealing with ties that simply cannot be broken and he reflects on the true essence of being a family.

Friday, June 27, 2014

THERE BE DRAGONS

Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott
Rodrigo Santoro, Olga Kurylenko

"Even Saints have a Past"


Renowned British director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission, City of Joy) tackles with keen precision the Spanish Civil War which he used as a backdrop to the story of two childhood friends who veer off into different paths. 

When "There be Dragons" was first released in 2011, the CBCP (Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines) publicly endorsed it because it featured the life story of Saint Jose Maria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. 

In this film, his story is unearthed by a journalist named Roberto Torres (Dougray Scott) who was assigned to write about Jose Maria Escriva, who was then still a candidate for canonization to sainthood. It turns out his estranged father, Judge Manolo Torres (Wes Bentley) was a childhood friend of the founder of Opus Dei. Although Manolo is reluctant at first to recount his past as it still haunts him, he gives in and records it through audio tapes.

This is told in haunting flashbacks as the dying Manolo Torres confesses to his son his crimes and misdeeds circa 1936 when he was a spy working for the Fascist government and he was able to embed himself among the Communist rebels who were led by its leader, Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro). The tale also revolves around the saga of courageous Catholic priest Jose Maria Escriva (Charlie Cox), as well as an ambitious Hungarian volunteer fighter Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko).

So although we are led to believe that this is a biopic of Escriva, the more the film unfolded the more it looked like Manolo Torres had a more pivotal role. Never mind that Manolo Torres is a fictional character and that he was just born out of the figment of Joffe's imagination.  Other than a brief childhood friendship, nothing really connects Manolo and Jose Maria, together. Their stories move forward on parallel tracks that never really intersect or even reflect one another in any meaningful way. 

It also left me wondering how come Jose Maria Escriva's tale was left stranded in the 1930s after he was able to escape and make it safely across the Andorra mountains?  What happened after his escape? How did the Opus Dei flourish? Was his life really 'saintly'?

Perhaps Joffe who is a confessed agnostic didn't want his film to take an overtly religious tone. Perhaps he merely wanted to examine both the goodness and the evil that dwelt in these two men's souls. I can only assume and speculate at this point and form my opinion on merely what was presented in this film.

Having said that, I believe that "There be Dragons" is a good movie, worth seeing. And it should appeal to a wide range of audience regardless of their religious beliefs. The portrayal of the Spanish Civil War is even handed and the action sequences were competent. The cast do their best to flesh out their characters although some of the dialogue can be a tad 'corny' for lack of a better word. It also dealt with redemption, remorse and forgiveness on a wide broad spectrum as essayed by the lives of Manolo Torres and St. Jose Maria Escriva.
Robert Torres said in the film "I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."
Oscar Wilde was right!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

LABOR DAY

Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin
Gattlin Griffith



A coming of age tale set in 1987 (although it seems more like the mid 1970s) unfolds during Labor Day holiday. An unexpected visitor holds a single mother and her son hostage in their own home. It turns out he is an escaped convict although he insists the crime he committed was an accident. 

Josh Brolin plays the mysterious stranger Frank who is quite menacing, physically but eventually turns out he has a heart of gold. I mean anyone who would come across the hunky figure of Josh Brolin would naturally run the other way. Frank's back story is glimpsed through dreamy like flashback sequences sans dialogue. And as his past is revealed interspersed with the ongoing drama, you slowly form an entirely different opinion about his true character.

Once we establish that there is nothing threatening nor menacing about Frank, we feel comfortable about his getting close to Adele (Kate Winslet). After all it really isn't difficult to 'like' Frank, he repairs the house, cooks for them, teaches them to bake a delicious peach pie and he even teaches her son to play baseball.

They are both lonely, lost souls trapped in an unforgiving world who find comfort in each other's company. As expected, Kate Winslet is brilliant in her role. You feel a lot of empathy for Adele as it is revealed that in her distant past she was a fun loving and carefree person, who sadly lost her joie de vivre due to a painful episode in her life. 

Together, Frank and Adele exude a palpable chemistry with an implied underlying sexual tension that is enough to heat the screen yet it isn't laid bare for the audience to feast on. In this case, it is a good element as it doesn't cheapen or vulgarize what Frank and Adele share.

Yet at the same time, it seems that is the only main draw of the film. Aside from the very few minutes of threat and tension of imminent danger as the authorities close in on their search for Frank, the movie pretty much falls flat. 

Since I like and tend to focus on the positive, I'd say "Labor Day" is a tender, nostalgic family drama that is a tense yet powerful dramatization of a deep relationship that blossoms between Frank and Adele. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

ENOUGH SAID

James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus,
Catherine Keener, Toni Collette


I thought that this was James Gandolfini's last film before he died of a massive heart attack in 2013. But it turns out he was able to complete one more before his untimely demise.

Anyway in "Enough Said" he is Albert, a single father who meets Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a freelance masseuse. They are both single parents to daughters who are about to go off to college. They start dating but soon enough problems crop up (like in any normal relationship) and things don't work out between them.

But that was merely a quick summary of their relationship because the film isn't that simple nor was it too complicated to comprehend. It is an adult romantic comedy that explores the nuances as well as the emotions that each character brings to the relationship. By adult, I mean it is mature given that both Eva and Albert have gone through divorces and heartaches in their past. And not adult in the sense that there is nudity involved. Heh!

I'd say that a large part why this film succeeds is due to the chemistry between its lead characters. And given that they are portrayed by well known TV actors whose acting repertoire include playing mob boss Tony Soprano and Elaine from Seinfeld is a an added bonus.  

There has always been something endearing about Gandolfini even though he portrayed a tough no nonsense mobster in one of the most iconic roles ever created for TV. Perhaps it is his 'smiley' face and gentle facial features despite his giant frame that somehow puts people at ease.

Here as Albert, he is adorable as an ordinary guy just trying to live his life after a messy divorce by being a devoted father to his daughter. He is averagely ordinary and I mean that as a compliment. Albert's embedded confidence and his sense of humour exudes warmth and compassion. Excellent acting from Gandolfini, as expected.

On the other hand, Julia Louis-Dreyfus can sometimes be quite annoying and irritating in general in most of her roles. Hehe.  But this only means she is an effective actress as her annoyance can really get on my nerves.  As Eva, she is a woman with a lot of valid anxieties which is quite normal for any woman about to embark on a new relationship. It makes sense that Eva would be indecisive and insecure and always question herself before she commits to another long term relationship. 

What makes "Enough Said" distinctive is how the director treats the plot devoid of any gimmick. What you see is what you get.  There isn't the sickening mushy factor that is standard in most romantic comedies. The approach is direct and treated in a realistically mature way.  

It is a movie about knowing what you want and pursuing it yet at the same time, it's also about knowing your limitations or what I call your 'non negotiables' well enough that you can wake up in the mornings ... yes, alone but you still have your self respect, intact. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

PRISONERS

Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal,
Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, 
Melissa Leo, Paul Dano

"A Hidden Truth. A Desperate Search"


This intense drama focuses on every parent's worst nightmare. It is Thanksgiving, the Dovers are spending it with their good friends/neighbors, the Birch family. Soon enough, both of their youngest daughters have gone missing after they went off to get a whistle from the Dover residence.  

Highly dramatic moments ensue as a frantic search is launched for the missing girls by the local police headed by a dedicated and methodical detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). An unlikely suspect named Alex Jones (played by the ever creepy Paul Dano) is held for questioning as he was the driver of a parked RV near where the two girls had played earlier.  I say unlikely because Alex although a grown man has the mind of a 10 year old boy.  So he is released after the mandatory 48 hours of detention without an arrest warrant has lapsed.

This triggers Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) to take matters into his own hands as he kidnaps Alex Jones and under extreme circumstances proceeds to question him. Chained and hidden in the decrepit bathroom of Dover's late father's house, Alex is constantly beaten, slapped and tortured by Keller as time is running out for the missing girls. Some of the torture scenes are simply implied (which is even worse, in my opinion) but you can tell from his screams the punishment were quite extremely vicious.

This line of 'questioning' runs parallel with the official investigation by Detective Loki as he hunts for other 'usual' suspects and the plot takes on an even darker tone.  Set in a seemingly quiet and small American town overcast with bleak weather, the disturbing story tackles vigilantism, vengeance, guilt and innocence as well as the very thin line between victim and perpetrator.

The movie runs at over two and half hours with a slow yet powerful approach. It gets tough as we watch the villain (Alex Jones) turn into a victim himself as the tables are turned and the hero (Keller Dover) transforms in a subtle yet quite effectively forceful manner into for lack of a better word, a monster.  All in the name of finding his beloved daughter but it is quite difficult to justify the punishment/torture he inflicts on the suspect/victim.

The whole narrative leads towards a gritty and open ended conclusion that will leave a lump in your throat. As well as give you a chance to take in oxygen since somewhere between all the high octane dramatic scenes you stop breathing from all the fervent and cringe-worthy action. This even as you contemplate if the end does justify the means and if the methods applied to attain those means are legitimate and humane.

A great cast led by Hugh Jackman, Melissa Leo and Jake Gyllenhaal heralds this thriller into one of the best crime stories ever filmed for the screen.  Just be sure you are in the right frame of mind to stomach it. 
 

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