Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"PERFECT STRANGER"

Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi

"How far would you go to keep a secret?"

Cinema 2, Greenbelt 1

H2A


I had some time to kill between running errands so I thought I'd go watch a film. My choices were rather limited ("Wild Hogs", "The Hills have Eyes 2", "The Reaping") so I was left with this Halle Berry, Bruce Willis whodunit to entertain me.

Rowena or Ro for short (Halle Berry) is a New York based investigative journalist who normally goes undercover to do her exposes. Her somewhat estranged childhood friend Grace shows up one day with tales of a lascivious affair gone wrong with Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), a sleek ad agency owner. A few days later, Grace is murdered so Ro decides to unravel Hill's suspicious involvement by disguising herself as a temp at his ad agency. With the help of her tech savvy geek friend, Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) she tries to weed out Hill through some elaborate online machinations. The film winds up after 109 minutes with a rather predictable twist framed by a significant parting shot.

The film tried its best to get the viewer engaged in its little plot. It had potential but somehow failed in its mission. It had the usual ingredients - flawed main character, presentation of conflict/crisis for dramatic effect, well blended supporting characters, a valid side plot to diffuse the tension, a twist in the last few minutes (predictable though). But somewhere in its course, it didn't live up to its expectations. I read it had 3 to 5 different endings which the director toyed with so I figure it affected the overall effect of the film. The editing department seemed to have slacked off and forgot to check the flow of the film with a certain amount of diligence. The director presented us with subtle clues every now and then with brief flashbacks to give Ro's character more dimension and depth. We get some blurry background details about her past in its aim to make her a well rounded character.

The two main issues working against this film are its predictability and credibility factors.
Rowena didn't exude this certain panache to make her character more believable. All she does is parade herself in short skirts and stilettos. She doesn't do much work except type seducing messages on her IM (Instant Messenger) using her "IOL" account. Something she couldn't even pull off on her own. OK granted that Ro wasn't really tech savvy, I couldn't believe she didn't figure out the main conflict in the film. She is supposed to be a hard nosed reporter with a hunger to expose the truth. Grace, her friend seemed rather distant to be someone she supposedly knew from childhood. I know they were estranged but I couldn't see a certain bond of friendship between them. And what about Miles? For someone who supposedly also works for the newspaper, most of his time is spent hacking away at programs to help his friend Ro pull off her disguise.

During the first half of the film we are led to believe that the steady buildup would lead to an explosive climax. The subtle use of brief flashbacks didn't contribute much. Certain aspects were not clearly explained. Although it is fairly easy to figure it out. I still didn't see the point of added footage just to prolong the movie much farther. The last few minutes seemed rather rushed. It looked like the director lost track of time so suddenly faced with an inconclusive ending, he wraps it all up in an instance. Perhaps it was an attempt to end the film on a suspenseful note, but by then you are just glad it was over.

Halle Berry in my opinion has never been much of an inventively creative actress. She mostly uses her sex appeal to get her by. In this film, she doesn't disappoint as proven by all those tight fitting outfits she wears. Bruce Willis is well being his usual self. A smirk here, a little twinkle in his eyes there, factoring in his charming wit to pull off this sleek and sleazy ad executive. Giovanni Ribisi as Miles is the only redeeming factor in this film. A geek with a festering deviant creepy behaviour, he looks like someone you won't want to mess with. You watch as he slowly unfolds into this creepy character without breaking a sweat and you think OK yikes so that's good acting.


This is one of those films which you can chalk up as a I.wanted.to.kill.time activity. Probably best you wait for it to be shown on cable TV but you don't actually watch it, you just leave the TV on while you are preparing dinner or something. Or one boring night you find yourself at the video store, you notice you've practically seen every single film on their neatly stacked shelves so to justify your presence there in the middle of the night, you grab this film just for the heck of it.

Yes alright, I guess you get my point, right?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"INDIGENES" ("DAYS OF GLORY")

Jamel Debbouze, Bernard Blancan, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila

"The True Story so controversial, it couldn't be told until now"


"Indigenes" is the French word for "Natives" or Indigenous People. In this World War 2 film, it refers to the soldiers of North African descent, more specifically of Algerian and Moroccan heritage who fought for France against the Nazi Occupation. The story of the 7th Algerian Infantry Division, a unit composed of recruits from the Northern African region and trained by French officers. They faced fierce battles in Italy and helped liberate parts of the French countryside from the German forces. A closely knitted band composed of diverse group of men from different backgrounds but sharing one common Arab heritage.

The main focus is on 5 male characters. Saïd is a young naive yet idealistic man who joined the army straight from his village. Yassir, a protective big brother to Labri. Messaoud, the marksman who falls in love with a French woman, Irene. Their compassionate and educated leader, Corporal Abdelkader and Sgt. Martinez, the Pied Noir (French Algerian) squad leader who considers himself more French than an Arab. They are portrayed by talented French Algerian/Moroccan actors also from diverse acting background. The only one I am familiar with is Jamel Debbouze, a famous comedian in French cinema. He also had a brief role in "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain" or simply "Amelie" as it is known outside of France. The actors won the best ensemble cast award in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival which is evident through the good rapport and camaraderie they projected on screen.


The film is slow paced and takes a while to get going, battle scenes wise. The dialogue is a sputtering of French with Arabic as the characters shift between the two languages, flawlessly. But there are English subtitles throughout the entire film so you won't be lost in translation.

It basically focused on the well developed characters who are all endearing to watch as different human emotions are reflected through them. Rage, bravery, fear, pride, honor - all notable characteristics expected from soldiers fighting a common enemy. But there is also an added poignant warmth and heartfelt emotions prevailing within each of them. The fact that they are Algerians fighting on behalf of France, a country most of them have never set foot on should tell you something about their ultimate sacrifice and dedication. OK granted that some of them joined to save them from poverty in Algeria. Case in point, Labri laments "They make us march like mules, why did you enlist us? Let us go home" His brother Yassir replied "For the money. So we can marry you off, bro". They also faced discrimination on all fronts. From the French officers who used them as pawns and sent them as the first infantry to take a hill in Italy where the battle ended with heavy casualties. As well as from within their own ranks, where the French Algerians (known as Pied Noir) look down on the Africans with some sense of superiority complex.

The scenes evolved from one setting to another by showing an aerial shot of a place which reminded me of a Google Earth satellite shot. The time frame is chronicled through big bold words flashed across the screen tracing their journey from Maroc 1943 to Alsace, France 1945. Not sure if this is historically accurate but there was a scene in the movie where the Germans dropped some propaganda fliers printed in Arabic into the Vosges forest which ironically only one of the Algerians could read which stated:

"Muslim soldier, know that you can cross to the German side where you will be warmly welcomed and your life will be saved. Your leaders send you to die rather than the French. Muslim soldier you were not born into slavery, Germany will give you freedom. The day of Independence has come for Africa."
Of course, the soldiers were not easily persuaded and one of them even stuffed the pamphlet into his boots for some protection against the biting wintry cold.

The most provocative moment of the film comes towards the end when their unit was assigned to Alsace to reinforce the US military's 37th division. The Algerian infantry was pivotal in securing this post. They were the first unit to retake Alsace which was a German stronghold. Probably swayed by false promises by a swell headed French commanding officer, the last few men left to guard the place were doubtlessly the most heroic soldiers in French military history in the second World War. The exciting last minutes of the film was a heart wrenching scene where the 5 remaining soldiers held off the Germans with sheer patriotic might. Hauntingly scored with an Arabic song which sounded like a pleading chant with sounds of heavy gunfire whizzing past for full dramatic effect, it is a beautifully filmed sequence which gave the entire film its much needed soul which until that moment seemed to be fluttering in the wind like a bullet ridden flag.

The main point this film wanted to convey was the grave injustice the Algerian troops suffered in the hands of the French government itself who didn't give them due recognition for their role in fighting against the German invasion. In 1959, the pensions of the soldiers from the countries who were to gain independence from France like Algeria and Morocco were cut off. It was only as late as 2002 when the French government decided to pay them back but I guess by then some of these soldiers would have been dead or living in miserable conditions in some poor village in Algeria. The best line came from Said who mentioned:

"I free a country, it's my country. Even if I've never seen it before, it's my country."

A socially relevant film with contemporary history theme about a small group of long forgotten heroes who fought for France during the second World War. Cinematic wise, it isn't without its flaws, but it did showcase a different perspective from the usual war movies which always feature Europeans fighting against well, the Germans. Their story deserved to be told to remind the younger generation as well as the generally unaware viewing public about the valiant efforts of the Algerian Infantry brigade in helping the French army secure a victory over the German invasion.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA"
Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Greenbelt 1, Cinema 1


There are always two factions in a war. Since time immemorial, the film industry has bombarded us with stories of American troops battling everyone from the (Native) Indians, the Germans to the Japanese.

Therefore it was a good concept for director Clint Eastwood to present us two movies depicting the battle of Iwo Jima. "Flags of our Fathers" was shown first and I have to say I was disappointed by its lack of proper characterization of the flag raisers on that island. "Letters from Iwo Jima" was shown a few months later and although it was much better than "Flags", I wasn't thoroughly impressed by it, either. This film which depicted the battle from the Japanese perspective was also adapted from a book entitled "Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi".

Filmed in mostly grayish and sepia tones, the film shows us the lives of the Japanese soldiers who were already living on Iwo Jima long before the US got involved in the war in the Pacific. The soldiers mostly through Saigo, a baker narrate their daily experiences to their wives back home through letters. We are shown brief flashback scenes of their lives in the land of the rising sun before they were recruited by the Imperial army to fight and die for their country. Then we are introduced to the man, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who would lead the soldiers to hold fort against the US forces, Iwo Jima being the first point of entry into Japanese soil. The Japanese at this point had already suffered heavy casualties in the battle of the Marianas islands, the ammunition supplies in Iwo Jima were also running low and worse of all, the main headquarters makes it clear that there will be no reinforcements whatsoever. Much against the wishes of the other Japanese officers, the well polished and erudite General (a former Japanese military attache assigned in Washington, D.C) devises this cunning plan to dig tunnels and caves inside Iwo Jima itself instead of fortifying their barracks along the shoreline. So the Japanese were literally *in* Iwo Jima not on it.

The first 45 minutes of the film is dull and slow paced with the soldiers mostly digging and trying to find some sense of purpose for being away from their families. Their officers keep harping them on with propaganda statements about soldiers expected to die for their emperor and Japan. The characters were well fleshed out and replete with highly emotional gestures. In one letter, Saigo expressed his fear to his pregnant wife:

"We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?"

Clint Eastwood also projected the officers who had lived briefly in the US before the start of the war as being more refined with a forgiving humane nature. While their local bred counterparts maintained that "surrendering is a sign of cowardice". It was more honorable to commit suicide by blowing themselves up with grenades. A trait inherent in a face saving society like Japan.

Once the US forces land on Iwo Jima, the film picks up a notch or two. Not nearly as dramatic as I would have expected since most of the scenes are in dimly lit caves. After a while it gets tedious to squint my eyes at the bleak darkness, I was hoping for some rays of sunshine to wash over the film so it would be more engaging for me as I started to fidget impatiently in my seat. The last few moments of the film turns into this Hollywoodish scripted little spiel. First, you have that patriotic song from the kids in Nagano sent over the radio dedicated to General Kuribayashi. It basically elevated the guy to hero status. It felt like an eulogy sang for a person who was still alive and knew he was going to die in a few hours. Then you have Kuribayashi doing a "I will always be in front of you" speech to rally the few remaining soldiers to fight till death. Yeah sure as if he really did have time amidst the hell breaking loose scenario. Essentially cheesy little scenes to pull on our heartstrings, really. It was so corny.

I admit I am totally biased. I grew up listening to first hand accounts about the atrocities committed by the Japanese in my country. So it has tainted my judgment even though it happened almost 60 years ago. I can never bring myself to be sympathetic towards them. That might also be the reason why I wasn't emotionally invested in this film.

I mean sure the plot is more heartfelt. The Japanese soldiers were merely pawns used by their imperialistic government. It was filmed entirely in Japanese with English subtitles so it was more natural. It is well directed by Clint Eastwood. Ken Watanabe was brilliantly credible as General Kuribayashi. It is a good glimpse into the 'other side of the fence', so to speak.

But.

It was too sanitized for my taste. You cannot really believe that those soldiers were that tame. It glossed over the horrific brutality which really unfolded on that island. It is just so mind boggling how human beings can treat other human beings with such evil contempt.

I could go on and on but I won't. I've already said enough as it is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"THE GROOMSMEN"


Edward Burns, John Leguizamo, Jay Mohr, Donal Logue, Matthew Lillard, Brittany Murphy, Heather Burns

"There is a difference between getting older and growing up"

Cinema 5, Power Plant, Rockwell




I've always been a huge fan of Edward Burns ever since I saw his first venture into the film industry via "The Brothers McMullen". A small budget film he wrote, starred and directed which got rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, almost 10 years ago. Its plot revolved around this Irish Catholic brothers living in New York state suburbia. It touched on religion (Catholicism), delved into family matters all presented in a non intrusive way. Normal folks with ordinary dreams and aspirations. A simple yet realistic portrayal of every day life. So except for "A Sound of Thunder" which I didn't have an interest in because it was a sci fi flick, I've followed Ed Burns' steady career as an actor through the years. My favorite so far is "Confidence" where he played this wily con artist who used the F word like every 15 minutes, with aplomb.


The Groomsmen takes us back to his prolific style of showcasing a diverse group of people who share some commonality. In this case, they are the friends of Paulie, a 30 something guy who is getting married in a week to Sue who is 5 months pregnant. His entourage includes his older brother, Jimbo (Donal Logue), his cousin Mike (Jay Mohr) and his long time friends Dez (Matthew Lillard) and T.C (John Leguizamo).

Each character is well developed with his own personality strengths as well as flaws. All personified with their own qualms about their career, their civil status and life in general. Bonded by years of friendship, they also deal with valid problems like happy family life, infertility, homosexuality, immaturity. You know the normal angst and grievances of a group of 30 something guys.
The setting is in a closely knit neighborhood where they all grew up in. The sort of locale where people don't lock their front doors, kids play in the streets and you can practice with your band right in your own garage. A safe suburban community where strong family values still reign supreme.

The dialogue is riddled with crisp funny lines as well as an effacing good repartee among the 5 main male characters. They reminisce about their good old days of being in a band, their antics in high school. Talking about it like it was just a few days ago instead of almost a decade. They also express about their looming fears such as impending parenthood, the travails of married life, being single in the 30s and sexual orientation. It is presented with a comedic fare with some light emotional dramatic moments. All well connected to give us a cohesive view of life through the eyes of five different guys in their 30s. The best line in my opinion was uttered by T.C (John Leguizamo's character) when he said:

"When you reach 35, you finally have your mind set but your body starts to go away".

Or something to that effect. I actually laughed out loud and completely nodded in agreement with his statement.
Ed Burns would probably not be credited for being a good actor but he isn't a bad one either. He is just a steady credible presence on screen and he doesn't hog the limelight especially since he is in the company of other steady supporting actors. Donal Logue and Matthew Lillard are actors known for their comedic roles in films as well as in TV shows. They played their well fleshed out characters with ease and charm. Dez (Matthew Lillard) made a very convincing role model for the happily married 30ish guy. His advice to the confused Paulie about marriage was head on. When Paulie was lamenting the fact that once he gets married, he will lose his free time. Dez said:

"Well what do you actually do in your free time anyway? You either just watch TV or you jerk off. Free time isn't as fun as it is meant to be"

Another hilariously true fact of life. John Leguizamo has always been very versatile in his various roles. Here as T.C, the 'prodigal' friend who returns for the wedding of his friend, Paulie in his capacity as a groomsman, he gave a good performance even proving to us that he has a good singing voice as the lead vocalist of their defunct band (which was a revelation for me).
The biggest revelation though for me was Jay Mohr. OK so I've never been his fan. Truth be told, I would change channels whenever I saw him on TV. I thought he was this whining trying hard to be funny character which always irritating me to high heavens. In "The Groomsmen" he was still this whining, vindictive man child character who needs to grow up and act his age but these characteristics played in his favor since that is exactly what his Cousin Mike role entails. The good rapport and camaraderie among the group of friends was refreshing to watch.


"The Groomsmen" is a vintage Ed Burns movie. A snippet into the trials and tribulations of an intact set of 30something friends who course through life. It is a nostalgic, funny, feel good movie which put a smile on my face despite the fact that I had to watch it while listening to the loud snores (it was really loud!) of a senior citizen sleeping 4 seats away from my right.
 

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