Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"NOTES ON A SCANDAL"

Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy

"One woman's mistake is another's opportunity"





I usually watch films on our DVD player downstairs in the living room but for some strange reason, the disc couldn't be played. So I had no choice but to use my sister's laptop and plop myself in her office chair, instead of being sprawled on the couch.


The movie was engrossing enough so I didn't mind the discomfort. For a film that deals with a grave subject matter (teacher and young student liaison), it had a very subdued and subtle nature. It helps that two (well three if you include Bill Nighy's brief role) of the main characters are portrayed by talented actors who gave formidable performances without resorting to histrionics.


Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench) is a prudish old(er) teacher of history while Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the new Art teacher. They are complete opposites in every single way.

Sheba displays a bohemian flair with a luminous presence. The wife of a much older man who was her professor in college and mother to a teen aged daughter and a young son with Downs Syndrome. She is effervescent with a friendly smile. A bit vulnerable and seems bored with her cushy little life. A bit overwhelmed by the need to constantly look after her 'special' child. This explains why she gets weak and ends up being seduced by her 15 year old student. There is a part in the film where she justifies the adultery by comparing it as "wanting another drink when you know you shouldn't". It seems like given her background this affair was bound to happen, sooner or later.

Barbara is a typical spinster whose main activity is writing in her diary and looking after her old cat, Portia. I would have to say that she is the more interesting of the two characters. The story is told from Barbara's perspective through her narration of the events which come across as incisive as well as funny. In her diary, she describes a rotund teacher as "pig in knickers". I know it isn't nice to make fun of others but come on we all do it in our heads, we can be brutally insulting about other people's flaws. So to hear several remarks out loud in Barbara's journal entry made me chuckle a few times during the film. She exhibits several flawed characteristics as a person. On the surface, she is a reclusive lonely spinster who develops a dangerous tendency to form delusional attachments with her object du jour. Her need for constant attention evolves into possessive behavior, almost maniacal in nature. She is creepy yet she doesn't seem to acknowledge that fact that she is already fatally obsessed. When Sheba's affair is discovered and she confronts Barbara about the possible consequences. Sheba is distraught and laments "I might go to jail for 2 years", she is devastated. Barbara nonchalantly dismisses it as "It passes by so fast" or words to that effect. That line gave me goosebumps. Deep inside, I see Barbara as a misunderstood spinster who covets (I figured this out - it is like a play on names. Barbara Covett = Barbara covets) companionship. It just so happens that she 'lusts' after women but then she recounts how the brush of the bus conductor's hand against her skin triggered a reaction between her legs so I don't know what to make about that statement. Unless of course, the bus conductor was female but I doubt it. Don't we all long for that? Not that I am justifying her irrational behavior but it just seems fair enough to truly understand where she is coming from and not automatically jump to conclusions without a fair assessment of her personality.


The clandestine encounter between Sheba and her 15 year old student witnessed by Barbara, one evening becomes the main crux of the entire film. The way that Barbara uses the 'affair' to manipulate Sheba's secret to her advantage. The transformation of Sheba from a bored housewife to a sex starved vixen. The effect of the scandalous affair over Sheba's family. The dramatic confrontation scenes all heightened with an intense musical score which can be a bit too loud for my ears. Every angle is explored, poked and exposed to the viewer who can't help but be compelled into the whole gripping intensity of it all. It culminates in a bitter sweet ending which is both satisfactory and wanting at the same time. It is interesting to note that the film is rather short and compact but you feel the definite closure and the characters' acceptance of their fate as sure as the sun will rise from the east.

It is good, the movie was filmed with British actors and not given a Hollywood treatment. It would have turned into a salacious TV film of the week complete with juicy details of the affair dissected to bits and pieces. Regardless to say, Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett gave the film its essence. It says something about an actress (Dame Judi Dench) if she is willing to be filmed without any make up on and looking very stern. If the roles were enacted by less talented artistes, the film would have faltered terribly.


A film adapted from a book by Zoe Heller entitled "What was she thinking: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel" . The movie has all the elements of a good drama. A steady plot, a gloomy cinematography depicting the heavy subject matter, a score that builds up the crescendo and fine acting from two of the best actresses, the Commonwealth (England and Australia) has to offer.

Friday, March 23, 2007

"THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP"

Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg

"Close your eyes. Open your heart."




I remember distinctly this film was the opening movie at last year's Cinemanila. But as luck would have it, my schedule didn't permit me to catch it. Besides it was shown at around 8:30pm at SM Mall of Asia, of all places. It probably started by nine something if I know how things go here. No I'm not sour graphing because on hindsight, I believe it is a movie more appreciated when seen in the comforts of one's home. A handy remote control to pause and rewind at your free will. Because if you thought that "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was confusing with all those erasure of memories, trying to figure out if Joel erased all memory of Clementine first or vice versa, then you got something more bizarre for lack of a better word coming your way with "La Science des Reves".

The correct translation is "The Science of Dreams" but for some reason, they changed it to "The Science of Sleep" for its international release. Directed by Michel Gondry, who also manned "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", he is French and noted for directing avant garde music videos for artists like Beck, The Foo Fighters, Radiohead among others. But whereas "Eternal" had the witty Charlie Kaufmann to thank for co-writing that surreal story, "The Science of Sleep" is the first solo venture of Gondry and unfortunately it hasn't fared as well as expected.


Ok here's the gist of the storyline. Stephane's (Gael Garcia Bernal) parents are divorced. He was born to a Mexican father and a French mother and he returns to France upon the death of his father to start a new job. Stephane moves into his mother's apartment (his mother lives with someone else) and meets Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) his next door neighbor, a somewhat eccentric yet creative type. Stephane is a visual/graphic artist who likes to paint/sketch with a very fertile and rather twisted imagination. He has this habit of daydreaming about his life as it unfolds. There is a very thin line between his reality and his dream world. It actually gets to the point wherein Stephane is unable to distinguish one from the other. But he isn't retarded nor is he mentally challenged, let's just say he is a daydreamer. This is his story.


The first part of the film conveys clear and set boundaries. You can tell which scenes are part of his dreams and which shots are his reality. When cardboard figurines or inanimate objects float or fly by - well obviously that is his dreamworld. The background takes the form of a little TV studio set where he annotates on snippets in his life. A very MTV video type of scenery abound with a myriad of psychedelic colors bursting in several scenes with accompanying new age music. While, his very boring real life involves a dead end job at a calendar printing company where he feels his creative energy isn't maximized to its full potential. It also centers around Stephanie, his next door neighbor with whom he feels a close connection since she is also an artist who is crafty and quite imaginative herself. It's like they are on this same surreal level, creativity wise. His reality are depicted through shots of an arrondisement (neighborhood) somewhere in Paris and his very mundane office settings.


But as the plot progresses Stephane seems to get lost more and more in his fantasy like world vis a vis his reality. At this point, it would be justifiable for you to pause the film several times to assess if the scenario presented is really happening or if they are part of his dreams. It turns into some mambo jumbo melee of confusion both for Stephane and unfortunately the viewer too. Filmed in several languages where the characters speak in French, English and a bit of Spanish, I would say it is fairly easy to wrap one's head around what is unfolding on screen. By that I mean if you just take it at face value and not get into an analytical mode by dissecting what each of his dreams signify. You know sometimes how in your waking moments as you go along your daily chores in some routinely manner, you tend to manifest certain activities in your dreams later that night. Then the next day you recall your dream and/or nightmare and say oh that's because I watched a horror movie before sleeping or I received an e-card from that person that's why I dreamt about him. Well normally a sensible and rational person can tell the difference and know how to control these subconscious moments from ruining our daily existence. Stephane though chooses to make his dreams a mechanism for him to escape into a fantasy land each time certain things in his life don't go as planned in his dreams. He seems to thrive in that notion that somehow if he really wished for it hard enough in his dreams, his fantasies would turn into reality. More so than his boring life being the pits, he is also stuck in a job he loathes where his creativity is curtailed. This film is also about Stephane's sad love story. Because deep inside, the way I see it - it is all a matter for Stephane to express his true feelings of affection for Stephanie. But she is a bit indifferent and won't really reciprocate his feelings for her. After a while, it gets a bit tedious that he suddenly turns into this obsessive self absorbed type of guy who won't stop dropping hints laced with sexual overtones towards Stephanie. Clearly she isn't interested and I understand why. The guy is a bit off not in an insane way but just off in some moments of fantasy. I don't know for some reason, it never crossed my mind that Stephane might be crazy as in mentally challenged. Alright I will stop rambling on and on. There are several interpretations to Stephane's character pattern behaviour. All of them valid in its own way.


The actors give credible performances in their subdued no hysterics manner of acting. Gael Garcia Bernal has always had a steady stream of roles where he has proven time and again that he knows how to project on screen. His booming voice, with or without accent he can deliver his lines with a crisp clarity. A natural fiery Latino actor (Mexican) who would of course get typecast with the standard Latin immigrant role (i.e Babel) but at least Hollywood is giving him the proper exposure and publicity he deserves.

The other main character, Stephanie is portrayed by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is a bit dull to watch, sometimes drones on like a bee but hey I guess the role merits her behavior. Besides she is the offspring of two great French artistes. Jane Birkin, a waifish British/French actress and THE Serge Gainsbourg himself. Now if you don't know who Serge Gainsbourg is ... well I suggest you Google the guy. I'm sure there will be endless websites in his honor. Personally, I remember him as this ageless singer who sings with a slur has a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other crooning depressing French love songs and ballads.


Alright I will get to the part where I either recommend the film or not. Well let me put it this way, you need a fair amount of patience and a strong threshold to endure this type of surrealistic, dreamy sequence film making technique. it is different, eccentric and a bit bizarre but overall tolerable enough to watch. I couldn't help but hear this song (Reality) by Richard Sanderson in my head:


Dreams are my reality
A wondrous world where I like to be
Illusion are a common thing
I try to live in dream
Although it's only fantasy

Dreams are my reality
I like to dream of you close to me
I dream of loving in the night
And loving you seems right
Perhaps that's my reality

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"A GOOD YEAR"


Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Albert Finney, Freddie Highmore

"Everything matures ... eventually!"




Is it safe to assume that "A Good Year" is a romantic comedy even though it stars The Gladiator himself, Russell Crowe and it is directed by Ridley Scott who gave us big action hits like Black Hawk Down, Black Rain and of course Gladiator?


Well let's see:
You got the romantic setting of French Provence with its rows of vineyards.
You have the female love interest with such a fancy name, Fanny Chenal.
You have a great soundtrack with its neat blend of vintage French songs along with English standards.
A story line that involves a very romantic beverage - red wine.
The leading man was charming in a brutish way. He lacks some social skills but it nevertheless makes his character somewhat interesting.
As for the comedy part well just watching Russell Crowe dressed in loose khaki cargo pants with a tucked out shirt trying hard to fit in a rural setting is funny in itself. Heh!


So yes I guess it is a romantic comedy, after all.


You can safely say this movie is like the male version of "Under the Tuscan Sun" except it is located in Provencal France instead of the Tuscany region in Italy. A film based on a novel by Peter Mayle, a British author who has written extensively about the French culture particularly life in Provence.


Max Skinner, a highly ambitious and power driven investment broker in London learns about the death of his uncle. Uncle Henry (Albert Finney)didn't leave a will so Max being his only known relative, must put his uncle's affairs into order. It involves a decrepit chateau with its neglected vineyard. As Max spends some time in the Provence to renovate the chateau, he recalls fond childhood memories with his boisterous Uncle Henry. It makes him question his current lifestyle as he contemplates on what is really important in his no holidays, always money driven life.


The first 10 minutes of the movie is focused on Max's very hectic life in London as an investment broker. I thought his secretary Gemma was especially crucial in these scenes. She was perky and alert with her English spoken with a slight Indian accent. She was his lifeline and she was hilarious. Then Max is transported to a very different scenery as he embarks on a soul searching journey. He recollects scenes from his fancy free summery childhood. Times he spent in the chateau with his Uncle Henry reading books, swimming in the pool, tasting wine, playing chess and roaming in the vineyard. The director slices the film with brief flashback scenes of Max as a boy. Done in a non intrusive way, the flow of the film is steady with scenes of a fanciful innocent past as well as current scenes with a regretful Max a bit guilty for not keeping in touch with his uncle. Max's emotions fluctuates as he tries to bury the past and to move on with his busy life in London. But in the process, he slowly rediscovers himself, learns to love his new surroundings and finds love in the process.


I loved the cinematic visual of the French countryside with the rows of vines, the chateau as well as the post card image of the town square with its little bistros. Very Gallic atmosphere of life in a little French town still devoid of skyscrapers and modern technology but very charming in every way. The neat trick of adding some vintage French songs by such artists as Johnny Halliday and Jean Sablon along with English songs from the past with catchy tunes was in my opinion the best part of the film. I'm a sucker for French songs even though I am currently not as fluent in the language as I was during my childhood. It still brought back nostalgic times of my now very distant Francophone past.


Russell Crowe as a romantic lead was believable and it is reassuring to see he is capable of portraying characters with some emotional attachments instead of a character who annihilates his protagonists.
I've always loved the boisterous Albert Finney who I still remember as singing Daddy Warbucks in the film version of the musical Annie. Marion Cotillard who isn't known in Hollywood is a rising star in French cinema after roles in movies like "Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles" ("A Very Long Engagement") and "Cavalcade" She is currently drawing rave reviews for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in the movie "La Mome" (The Kid). "La Vie en Rose" is the US title of the biopic of this diminutive singer with a haunting voice who was such a hit among the French troops who fought in WW2. I wonder if I'll ever get a chance to see this Edith Piaf biopic. Wishful thinking I suppose.


So yes I liked the movie mostly for its French connection. It makes me want to ransack the nearest book store for Peter Mayle's books about Provence. It is well directed with a refreshing storyline. A nice personification about self discovery as well as learning to accept the nuances of the choices one makes in life. Oh watch out for the French version of the song "An itsy bitsy polka dot bikini" as the end credits roll by. It was so cute.

Monday, March 19, 2007

"MUSIC AND LYRICS"

Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Brad Garrett, Haley Bennett,
Campbell Scott, Kristen Johnston




You mention HUGH GRANT and I would be among the first in line to watch his movies. Except this time I was distracted by a couch potato activity (i.e watching the complete DVD set of some TV shows) so I missed "Music and Lyrics" run at the cinemas. But fear not, there is always the local video store or your nearest OPM (original pirated movies) stall to the rescue. Actually I wanted to rent "American Dreamz" but it was out.


How you can you not love Hugh Grant? I'm talking to the ladies but if you're a guy and you're inclined to love him too then by all means, be my guest. He usually portrays some miserable poor sod who acts like a bumbling idiot but he always get the girl in the end. Hurray! Perfect leading (romantic comedy) guy material to the core. Judging from the few times I've caught his interviews on talk shows, he is just as miserable (he even calls himself a miserablist according to this article in a local newspaper), as witty with his distinct British dry humor as he is on screen. I mean gee the guy can't seem to get settled in his life, always breaking off his relationships with some of the most gorgeous women in the world (Elizabeth Hurley, Jemima Khan). He probably has this worry wart complex with some very deep commitment issues. He seems the type who rather not have kids at all and by jolly that for me is very sexy. Yes I'm not into marriage, kids and the whole shebang either. So there!


Anyways back to "Music and Lyrics", it starts with a video of a group known as Pop!, a major band in the mid 80s complete with an early MTV style, 80s hairdo, tight pants singing their biggest hit. It was a hilarious opening scene. It reminded me of the bands I grew up listening like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, REO Speedwagon, Fra Lippo Lippi during my high school days. Fast forward to present day, Andy Fletcher who was a member of the group is now going solo. He performs at state fairs, high school reunions and basically living the life of a has been pop star. A life someone like Andrew Ridgely from WHAM might be living right now. Heh! His ever faithful manager gets him an audience with Cora Corman, the latest pop princess who is into the whole spiritual karmic crap. She is coming up with a new album and having been a big fan of the group Pop!, she wants Andy Fletcher to write a new single which they will perform together as a duet. One problem - Andy Fletcher doesn't write lyrics. He mostly composes music. So under pressure to have a new song by the end of the week, Andy enlists the help of his 'plant woman', Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore). She seems to have a way with words so together they collaborate to come up with a catchy tune with a pop beat. Voila - the lyrics to "Way back into Love" is born.

The first part of the film shows how Andy and Sophie brainstorm together to come up with a song. References to other 80s group/stars provided good fodder for a funny dialogue and some witty one liners. So that was fairly tolerable. But of course, a film needs to have some conflict to add up some dramatic moments. In "Music and Lyrics" it comes in the form of Sophie suddenly backing out from supporting the 'karmic' way that Cora has butchered "Way back into Love" That is when the film gets dragging and is pulled out from every angle to prolong the silence treatment drama between the two main characters. For a moment there I lost interest on whether Andy and Sophie would kiss and make up. Franky, I couldn't care less if they did. Then comes the very corny "I'm openly declaring my love moment" ending which I fully expected to happen. Truth be told, the song "Way back into Love" itself was rather cheesy. The lyrics was saccharine sweet but felt like the composition of a nine year old while the music did indeed have a catchy tune it was rather amateurish. The boring interpretation sounded like a commercial jingle duet between a washed up singer and dare I say a Paris Hilton lookalike who even sounds like the hotel heiress. Ugh. It reminded me of that song from "Duets." You know the song sang by Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis but at least "Cruisin'" sounded more professional.

But the movie wasn't that bad. It had its share of funny one liners to salvage it. They were mostly uttered by Hugh Grant in his typical deadpan dry humor style with his cute British accent. Drew Barrymore is her usual quirky self. Their portrayal of Sophie and Andy were credible and they clicked as a (love) team. The cutesy factor working in their favor. The supporting cast were not intrusively annoying. It is best to just rent the film, watch it one lazy weekend when you want to chuckle a few times and simply chillax - a word which I recently found out means a combination of chill and relax.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"THE HOLIDAY"

Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach, Edward Burns, Rufus Sewell




I was still reeling from the Greek tragedy overload when I decided to rent a couple romantic comedies from the video store to watch this weekend. "The Holiday" refers to the Yuletide season so why the heck was I watching it in March? Oh hush! I wanted something light and breezy with a feel good tone to erase the memory of 300 Spartans being massacred by Persians. Well this film met my criteria except Cameron Diaz's acting style or should I say her non existent acting style totally ruined it for me.

The premise was cute enough. Two recently single (again) women agree to swap houses so they can both get away from the pain of their respective break ups. You know "the whole healing I need to move on" process. Iris (Kate Winslet), a British writer for a newspaper was unceremoniously dumped (well maybe not dumped but you get the idea if not watch the film to see what I mean) by the RUFUS SEWELL (yes I needed to capitalize his name because he ranks pretty high in my books) during the office Christmas party. While Amanda (Cameron Diaz), an American owner of a film advertising company dumps the EDWARD BURNS (oops there I go again, but hey he's awesome and I love him, so there!) after he cheated on her. So to make the long story short, Iris is transported to Santa Monica to spend the holidays in Amanda's ultra chic digs while Amanda makes her way to Surrey in England to heal her wounds in a snow covered cottage in the middle of nowhere. Iris starts socializing with her (well Amanda's) neighbors, the reclusive award winning film writer Arthur (Eli Wallach) and the ever so amicable film (music) composer, Miles (Jack Black). Amanda on the other meets Graham (Jude Law - who isn't capitalized because well he isn't that good nor bad either just an OK), Iris' older brother who stumbles on her door, one very cold night. The film switches between California and Surrey to show us how the women cope with their new surroundings and if they are making any progress vis a vis their 'moving on' process.

The scenery in both places is crisp but of really contrasting styles. I prefer Amanda's crib with the ultra modern architecture, the automated gate and that switch you press to draw the shades down to hide out any trace of sunshine. Plus all those DVDs of films she had in her library is my ultimate dream in life. To own a home theater system with all the films I've collected all stacked neatly in one huge cabinet for easy access. Pure bliss! Iris's place in Surrey is a cosy cottage with a chimney, a snow laden pathway leading to a little white picket fence. So very rustic, English countryside ambiance but nonetheless charming in a postcard-y way.

But even the cosy surroundings of the English countryside couldn't salvage my irritation with Amanda (Cameron Diaz's lack of personality) especially when she interacts with Jude Law. I couldn't get the part where Jude Law tells her she was the most interesting person he has met in his whole life? Duh? There was no chemistry between them, none that I could feel anyway and please she is not that interesting at all, OK? I figure if it was any other actress than Cameron Diaz like perhaps Sandra Bullock, then maybe just maybe it would have been more credible. If not for Jude Law's ever oh so charming presence in the scenes in Surrey I could have easily just fast forwarded the film to go to Iris and Miles in Santa Monica. Yes, really I couldn't take much of Cameron Diaz any longer.

The rapport between Kate Winslet and Jack Black though was visibly funny but not in the slapstick kind of humor. Kate Winslet has always had this whimsical facial expression which makes her a delight to watch. Her well enunciated British accent adds to the smooth delivery of her lines. When she opines in her narration, it is sincere and heartfelt and you can't help but nod in agreement:
"For some quite inexplicably, love fades; for others love is simply lost. But then of course love can also be found, even if just for the night. And then, there's another kind of love: the cruelest kind. The one that almost kills its victims. Its called unrequited love. Of that I am an expert. Most love stories are about people who fall in love with each other. But what about the rest of us? What about our stories, those of us who fall in love alone? We are the victims of the one sided affair. We are the cursed of the loved ones. We are the unloved ones, the walking wounded. The handicapped without the advantage of a great parking space! Yes, you are looking at one such individual."
I also like how Iris treated the reclusive film writer (Eli Wallach) with the amount of respect he deserves. It must be fascinating to have a conversation with someone who has been in the film industry since its birth. Just imagine all the fancy insights you can pick up from his experiences during an era where leading men the likes of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart romanced leading ladies like Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn. The age before Hollywood studios became greedy with box office profits and overpaid their stars with millions of dollars for a few lousy minutes on screen.

It is also refreshing to see Jack Black act his age without resorting to making funny faces or making a fool of himself. He has good comedic timing and this cutesy in a chubby sort of way look which can be endearing in itself. Although I have to say how convenient was it that Miles caught his actress girlfriend with some other dude? So that incident could pave the way for Iris and Miles to be together, it seemed a bit forced.

But overall, this film had its cutesy moments, light fun filled scenes and a very feel good tone. All the ingredients you can expect from a Nancy Meyers movie - the director who gave us "Something's Gotta Give" and "What Women Want".

Friday, March 16, 2007

"300"

Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Michael Fessbender, Rodrigo Santoro

Cinema 2, Shang Cineplex

"Prepare for Glory!"




It has been a pretty hectic month so I haven't had time to indulge in my favorite past time - watching movies. But I have been straining my eyes a lot lately by watching complete DVD sets of my fave TV shows like Grey's Anatomy (Season 1-3), Heroes (Season 1) and Lost (Season 2 - 3). I still have the whole seasons 1 to 5 of Jack Bauer in "24" to go. Phew!

But I was determined to make my way into a jam packed cinema to watch "300" on the big screen. There are certain movies which need to be experienced within the confines of a dark theater on a giant screen. Nothing compares to the thrill of having your heart racing with adrenaline when those huge loudspeakers with Dolby Surround System booms full blast except maybe drinking tons and tons of espressos in one seating at your favorite Starbucks (I'm a Figaro habitue). Glad to say this movie didn't disappoint in injecting me with my adrenaline fix. I was totally blown away by Frank Miller's movie adaptation of his graphic novel. The same author/artist who gave us "Sin City" which I found interesting in a fascinating way and really grew to love despite its genre. I have to admit that comics turned into movies isn't my cup of tea, so to speak. Case in point - Spider Man (the third installment coming soon), the Batman franchise, the X-Men, Fantastic Four and of course Mr Clark Kent himself, Superman. But it doesn't mean I don't enjoy these popcorn chomping variety of films, I would probably just rent them from my local video store or catch them on TV when they are shown.

The main attraction for me in "300" is the theme. The story based on the tale of King Leonidas and 300 of his finest and most fierce Spartan warriors in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Their inspiring against all odds story, a suicidal mission to defend their rights and their freedom against a very mighty opponent, the Persians. So on the subject matter alone, I was already sold on the idea. Never mind that everything except the cast was computer generated in some studio in Montreal or whether the historical aspect was accurate or not. I think it was a very pretty bold venture to depict a tale the likes of which we could only imagine in our heads while reading about it during our Greek mythology class in high school.


From the very first frame when Dilios, the narrator (one of the warriors) tells us about the arduous path (known as Agoge) a Spartan boy embarks on to become a warrior till the very last shot of an Elysium field and everything in between, most of the scenes were pretty fast paced with full action and dramatic moments to keep you fixated to the screen.

Cleverly edited sequences of well choreographed battle scenes (my favorite element of the movie) shot in a dusk tone/hue permeates throughout the film. A heavy metal sound mixed with melancholic music to highlight several important scenes all add up to one very thrilling, suspenseful masterpiece of an artistic undertaking. It has the stunning visual effects of a video game, which is a good angle given that it is based on a graphic novel, after all. It totally reminded me of this strategy game my sister plays on her laptop which if I recall correctly is named "Empire Earth" or something to that effect.

The male actors (the warriors, anyway) are airbrushed with flexing abs and well chiseled bodies looking menacingly virile with their flowing crimson robe, heavy protective shield and elaborate head gear. The others (those in Sparta) are clad in their elegant white togas. Very believable performances from the dominantly male cast led by the Phantom of the Opera himself, Gerard Butler. His strong and very powerful personification of King Leonidas was quite humane. The fully bearded soulful yet passionate leader of the Spartans whose steely gaze can make you cower with fear. The rest of the male cast were equally effectively credible in their supporting yet very significant roles. The women the few we are shown (mostly Queen Gorgo) are resplendent in their Grecian empire cut flowing dresses with their tresses curled with flawless perfection. Costumes very appropriately depicting that long lost era. And these are just the Greeks or specifically the Spartans. You should see all those characters/creatures on the Persian side of the equation. Man, they were an eclectic mix. I'm at a lost of words on how to describe their whole lot (everything from Dervishes, Africans, Moors to Maharajahs riding massive elephants were thrown in). Special mention of course goes to this God like character Xerxes, the Persian king. He looked like someone you wouldn't want to encounter alone in a some dark alley. His shiny shaved head, his towering figure with a hairless body adorned by ornately designed accessories and all those piercings on this face. Yikes that must have required several hours of make-up and wardrobe set up for Rodrigo Santoro who was totally unrecognizable in his role. Heck even his voice was deep and creepy, he sounded like a kidnapper using a scrambler to disguise his voice when he is making his ransom demands over the phone. I did notice though that in some scenes where Xerxes was addressing King Leonidas it was pretty obvious Santoro was acting in front of a blue screen because his eyes were not totally focused on Leonidas' face. I guess it is can be difficult to be depicted as this 9 foot God who towers above everyone else. probably not Rodrigo Santoro's fault but some poor graphics guy who couldn't properly aligned Xerxes vision in the correct path.

As expected, a movie about a war would be filled with very violent and gory scenes. I've developed this tendency to actually be fascinated with violence unfolding in a movie but only when it is done with perfection and not merely added in for some cheap thrills. Of course being female, it is natural for me to cringe and even gasp at the sight of a stab wound, decaying human flesh or shriek when limbs are torn apart by a ravenous beast. But overall I am pretty impressed and in complete awe at the skillful manner, violence is shown in some movies nowadays. But strangely enough, I don't like watching horror movies where there are senseless gory and very bloody scenes - I prefer to be scared out of my wits psychologically instead of seeing bodies soaking with blood lying lifeless after a lengthy torture scene. Anyways, in "300" I practically cheered during those battle scenes well not out loud people might think I was some sadistic blood thirsty vampire. I mean in the execution of those fight scenes. The artistic way the blood lingers in the air after a spear is thrust into the opponent's body or the manner a head is decapitated and sent flying away from its body. The crunchy sound of flesh being stabbed with a sword or a spear. The sound of a shield pushing against another shield, that shrieking deafening metal to metal sound - it was all such a thrill to watch. It became more intense when Zack Synder, the director decided to insert really loud heavy metal music during those ferocious battle sequences. The loud crescendos adding to the amusement with good entertainment value.

It was also commendable that Synder didn't make us immune with consecutive fight scenes after fight scenes but instead decided to splice in the other subplots. Shots of Sparta where the Queen Gorgo desperately tried to rally more support for the warriors from the politicians. Boy, she was a feisty woman. I like how the director portrayed the Spartan women. Ever since I read about Sparta in high school, I've admired the bold and feisty nature of these Greek women. They might have been one of the first bunch of feminists in ancient history. Way to go! Another notable subplot were brief scenes in the Persian side where images of greed and total debauchery reigned with Xerxes right in the smack of it.

The dialogue were mostly laden with rah rah speeches of King Leonidas rallying his 'bodyguards'. Shots of extreme close-ups of a fully bearded King thrown in for good measure.

"We Spartans have descended from Hercules himself. Taught never to retreat, never to surrender. Taught that death in the battlefield is the greatest glory he could achieve in his life. Spartans: the finest soldiers the world has ever known".

As well as some funny one liners to break the serious tone of the combat scenes. The steady narration (I'm a big fan of narration in movies) was a nice touch. It felt like you were actually reading the graphic novel out loud and turning the pages being totally engrossed in your reading material.

I guess I am just rambling at this point so I conclude by recommending you watch "300" at your local cinema theater on a giant screen with a good audio system. Be prepared to be enthralled by some stunning visual effects but mostly be inspired by a tale of courage, valor and triumph and if you pay attention, you will discover it is also a love story. The love of one valiant King for his beloved Queen but ultimately it is the patriotic love of its finest warriors for Sparta.

"A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it."

Thursday, March 1, 2007

"THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND"

Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington

"Charming. Magnetic. Murderous."

Cinema 2, Glorieta 4

Idi Amin



By hook or by crook I was determined to watch this film, not because Forest Whitaker garnered all the best Actor accolades in all of the Award shows (Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA & the Oscars) although it did sustain my curiosity but because he portrays a real life character, Idi Amin. A persona whose name became synonymous with brutality, cannibalism, a reign of terror and really maniacal despot of an African nation. You mention Uganda and you automatically associate it with Idi Amin. I missed the film's week long showing at the Greenbelt cinemas because I was out of town so I had no choice but to flock all the way to a cinema in Glorieta 4 (not really my favorite place) to catch it.

The story of Idi Amin is recounted through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan, who wanting to escape from the clutches of his physician father spins a globe to determine where to practice his medical profession. It is interesting to note that his finger first landed on Canada but he cringes then spins it again to Uganda. I somehow found that really funny for some reason. The first few minutes of the film focuses on his medical work in a little Ugandan village set in the early 70s when the former President Obote was overthrown by a coup d'etat led by then General Idi Amin. The first time the viewer sets eyes on the new 'hero' of Uganda is a fleeting glimpse of him from the bus that carries young Dr Garrigan into town. The next sequence is when the camera creeps up behind Amin's broad shoulders during a rally, he is on stage giving a little ra-ra uplifting speech to an enthusiastic crowd at the village. From that moment on, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin takes command of the film and the country (Uganda) and you can't help but be totally drawn into the whole gritty nature of both the film and the personality of this larger than life man.

So while the story is about Idi Amin, it is also the tale of Nicholas, the young Scottish doctor (a character who was inspired by 3 different people in the close circles of the dictator) driven by some altruistic sense to make a difference in Uganda. You might say he was like a silent yet powerful partner in some shady firm. The connection in this unlikely partnership is their common 'dislike' for the British. It is self explanatory for Nicholas, being a Scotsman et al while for Amin it stemmed from being a janitor who had to clean the latrines for the British army which ruled Uganda for several decades. So where as it was fascinating to watch Idi Amin's fall from grace, in my opinion it was more gripping to watch Dr. Nicholas Garrigan's steep decline into the corruption of his soul. How the fearless yet impressionable young lad sort of dug his own grave, so to speak. How all I could say to him while watching him getting into deeper s**t was 'you should have known better, you fool'. The change or should I say his realization about his part in contributing to the general paranoia of the delusional Amin comes gradually then it spreads like a bush fire until he tries desperately to 'escape' from it all. The build up to that part was the most thrilling part of the film. It puts you on the edge of your seat, you dig your nails into the seat and then you are made witness to one of the most gruesome scenes I have experienced lately in a movie. To say more would reveal everything so I won't. I also would like to add that I believe that James McAvoy deserved some recognition for his supporting role in this film. I mean compare it with the small role of Alan Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine" or the even smaller role of Jackie Earle Haley in "Little Children", McAvoy's performance as Dr. Garrigan was brilliant. But yes I know it isn't up to me. Heh!

As for Forest Whitaker's portrayal of the delusional despot well he absolutely nailed it. From his accent to his cadence, everything was spot on. He also managed to give Idi Amin some really humane characteristics that you can't help but like the guy. His almost childlike fascination with anything Scottish, his shallow sense of humor (when he showed his body doubles to Dr Garrigan) to his doting fatherly attributes to all his children as well as his grandiose illusions of being the father of Uganda. Yet at the same time, you can sense the brewing rage, the paranoia, the need to hold on to power, the delusional almost maniacal personality festering on the surface. All the typical signs of a tyrannical despot in the making. How they all want to do good by their country, for their country yet slowly resort to really brutal, sadistic means to hang on to the reins of power.

The grainy type of filming contributed to the gritty nature of the movie. It had this documentary feel to it. A fetching soundtrack mix of some 70s pop songs with an African beat along with those haunting African music helped sustain the suspense, but I think sometimes it was too loud, though. During the early parts of the film, the violent scenes were sanitized. So when the consecutive sequences of really brutal scenes towards the ending were shown, it totally makes you grasp with shock and cringe with horror. But I was a bit annoyed by the jarring dreamlike sequence which unfolded before the gory scenes, it felt like the director was spaced out, it just felt out of place from the natural flow of the film. Overall though I think that it was important to show some really graphically violent scenes to show the extent of the brutality of Idi Amin but somehow it just seemed quite sudden or maybe I just got too sympathetic towards Idi Amin that I somehow forgot he was capable of such gruesome atrocities. I like how they somehow managed to sneak into the film, the Entebbe airport episode, the one about the hijacking of an Air France plane by Palestinian terrorists - it makes the film more historically accurate. I distinctly remember that fateful day because the only casualty in that unfortunate incident was the brother of the former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his brother was the leader of the Israeli forces who stormed the airport to rescue the remaining passengers/hostages.

In conclusion, I'd say that even though the film had some technical flaws, it is a well acted and an insightful film about President Idi Amin of Uganda - as seen from a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan's point of view.
 

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