Monday, May 21, 2007

"FRACTURE"
Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike, Billy Burke

"If you look close enough, you'll find everyone has a weak spot"

Cinema 6, Galleria


Fracture



The trailer for "Fracture" practically reveals everything about this thriller. It is marketed as an open close case with a twist but the film makers also piqued our interest by suggesting things aren't as easy as they seem in this murder mystery. If it was, then why bother watching it, right?

Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy aeronautics engineer shoots his wife at close range after he discovers her affair. He confesses to the detective in charge, is arrested then arraigned for trial. Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) is a young public defender with a foot out of the door as he embarks on a his new career in a private law firm. He takes the case assuming it was an easy one to handle but ends up embroiled in something more that he bargained for.

Without revealing much of the plot and its neat little twist towards the end, let me point out the main draw(s) for this average film. It is the two lead stars who essayed their roles with credible conviction. Anthony Hopkins as the wily and cunning perpetrator of the 'perfect' crime was brilliant. He does have a tendency to mumble some of his lines in his other movies but surprisingly and pleasantly so in "Fracture" he delivered his dialogue with a clear diction and sharp eloquence. His portrayal of Crawford as this beguiling aeronautics engineer was at best cunningly smooth with traces of menacing demeanor. His shifty eyes, his eloquent play with words all framed in a subtle almost creepy demeanor gave him the edge over his other co-stars.

Ryan Gosling impressed me with his role in "Murder by Numbers" but totally repulsed me in "The Notebook" and I have yet to see him in his Oscar nominated role as a teacher in "Half Nelson". Here he is a young ambitious and somewhat arrogant attorney named Willy Beachum and he was effectively good. He didn't come across as too forceful yet at the same time, neither was he a weak character on screen. He was just right for the role. It is interesting to note how Willy's character developed from a complacent attorney whose mind wasn't wholeheartedly in the case to that of an ethically moral person who decides to pursue Crawford relentlessly to enforce justice and bring proper closure to the crime.

The scenes which make the most impact are the repartee between Gosling and Hopkins. Granted that they will naturally have scenes together because he is the opposing counsel in the case, it was nonetheless refreshing to watch these two good actors 'battle' it out on screen. Neither of them chose either consciously or unconsciously to steal the scene from the other. Good chemistry and rapport maybe a sign of respect between the two actors shone through the film. No hysterical over the top acting just pure exchange of adroit straight to the point delivery of dialogue.

It is directed by Gregory Hoblit who also pegged that visceral courtroom drama "Primal Fear" which in my book launched the career of Edward Norton. "Fracture's" thin story line does have its weak points like a romantic angle between Gosling and Rosamund Pike which fizzles out even before it begins. Certain questions do abound, but overall the little twist in the end seals the deal. This film isn't exactly as gripping as a John Grisham courtroom drama but neither does it qualify as a bad episode of any of the Legal TV shows like "The Practice" or "Boston Legal". It takes its time to flesh out the characters. The plot moves at a slow pace until the ending where everything starts to quickly make sense complete with loud thumping music enough to get your pulse racing. So I reiterate that the presence of two solid actors who portray complex yet contrasting characters is worthy enough to see this average crime thriller.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"SPIDER-MAN 3"
Tobey Maguire, James Franco, Kirsten Dunst, Dallas Bryce Howard, Topher Grace, Thomas Hayden Church

"How long can any man fight the darkness ...
before he finds it in himself?"

Cinema 5, Greenbelt 3




The main issue with a film being the 3rd installment in its franchise is that it would invariably be compared to the original and its sequel. I don't like comparing anything in life, most of all movies so I won't get into whether Spidey 2 was better than the first Spidey or if Spidey 3 even deserved to be made. Instead , I will focus on the merits of the film based on what I liked and what I didn't like about it. Fair enough, right?

The opening credits of the film starts with a montage of scenes from the first two films shown on these glass cut panels rotating around accompanied by some loud music. A cutesy little voice over from Peter Parker himself pans us into the main story. Things are going well for Spidey. He is a top student in class, his romance with Mary Jane is steady and he is adored by a hero worshipping public. Then we are introduced to not 1, not 2 but 3 villains all out to give poor Spidey or more specifically the stuntmen something to do in the film. Cleverly choreographed fight scenes with loud heart pounding music as well as CGI enhanced techniques ensues. The film didn't hold back in the sounds department - sounds of metal hitting metal, loud thuds, shrieking non human noise from some black gooey meteorite stuff, ambient traffic noise. Masks wearing villains in the form of the New Goblin and Venom all add to the hugely entertaining factor of the film.

The main draw is a well buffed Thomas Hayden Church in a very 'sandy' performance as Flint Marko aka "The Sandman". After he has wreaked havoc on the streets of New York, you feel as if you're on a beach in Boracay with pesky sand oozing from every nook and cranny of your sun burnt body. The way Flint Marko evolved into the Sandman is a neat cinematic visual effect which merits a pat on the back of those hardworking graphic artists. It reminds me of the scene in "The Mummy Returns" where the sands shift into this big wave forming into the face of The Mummy. "The Sandman" was portrayed as a sympathetic villain and you can't help but believe that deep inside he didn't want to do any harm but he was merely a misunderstood petty criminal who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The somewhat amiss parts (I won't say 'bad' because it is too negative) are mostly wasted footage delving on the conflicted Peter Parker grappling with his darker alter ego personality. You know the one where he has bangs, wears that dark Spidey suit inside his clothes and he roams the streets like a creepy gigolo swaying like Travolta in "Saturday Night Live" dance moves. He shouldn't have resorted to acting like a goof ball, it just seemed so forced and totally off character behaviour. Then you have Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) not using her real voice when she sang during her off Broadway play as well as a waitress/singer in a jazz bar. But then it doesn't really matter anyway. That girl can't act even if her life depended on it. All she can do is shriek her lungs out as she hangs precariously from a tangled web mess atop a building. Yes I never liked Kirsten Dunst so it is useless for anyone to convince me otherwise about the obvious lack of her acting abilities.

Thankfully, director Sam Raimi cast the effervescent Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy. Her luminous presence fared a whole lot better than the scruffy looking Mary Jane. Her hair dyed a glaring platinum blond accentuated her expressively set eyes. Even though it was a brief role and very cartoonish in nature, she registered well on screen. Topher Grace as the competitive freelance photographer Eddie Brock was a good 'sidekick' comic relief. The scene where Eddie Brock accidentally transforms into the hideous looking antagonist Venom is another worthy CGI art form.

The inner personality conflict which started brewing within Peter Parker/Spiderman added more character into his otherwise boring personality. It showed his vulnerability as a Superhero. That he wasn't a goody good hero after all. Let's face it if all he did was save someone from falling from tall buildings or fighting against much powerful enemies then it would be pretty boring. My thinking is that as an actor Tobey Maguire has a rather limited range. His detached expressions are mostly one dimensional limited mostly to this blank stare with bulging eyes throughout the entire film. The writers should have thought of something far more innovative than merely let Peter Parker have bangs to signify his alter ego. They should have exploited this side plot more to their advantage. Instead of portraying him as a goof ball with cheesy dance moves. The transformation of Harry Osborn into the New Goblin was a lot more interesting to watch. He had more range as Harry bent on avenging his father's death by killing Spidey. Then he hits a snag when he develops temporary amnesia but towards the end he redeems himself when he teams up with Spidey (his best friend) to defeat the enemies.

Overall, this film had its glaring flaws - underdeveloped characters, poorly edited scenes, wasted extra footage, numerous side plots - but the special effects (both visual and sound), the good ensemble cast and the action scenes make up for it. The recurring theme of lasting friendships, the triumph of good over evil and the familiar family oriented values still remained intact somewhere within the tangled mess of this Superhero movie. Although it may not be the best installment in the Spider-Man franchise, I was relatively entertained so be it.

Friday, May 4, 2007

"EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO"
("PAN'S LABYRINTH")


Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Ivana Baquero

"Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine."

Cinema 7, Galleria


So while everyone was off to see Spidey weave his trail, I was happily ensconced in a dark theater getting awed by an enchanting fairy tale. The beauty that is "Pan's Labyrinth".

A film set in fascist Spain in the 1940s with two stories unfolding simultaneously onscreen. It is peppered by multidimensional real and mythical characters so genuinely authentic, you feel like you stepped inside the pages of a sombre yet fascinating book. Neatly narrated by the haunting voice of a menacing faun, you are easily transported into a magical world. Not necessarily a fun, cheerful place but it still has the same effect. After all, aren't most fairy tales frighteningly dark in nature?

All the usual ingredients for a dark fairy tale are present in this film. You have the lonely little girl, an evil step father, the slimy giant toad, the fairies, a magic chalk, the winding maze, the scary eyeless creature that eats children and of course the faun. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the main heroine in this film is a typical little girl, a somewhat lonely soul who escapes into a fantasy world to block out her apparently harsh young life. Well I wouldn't blame her. Her young life is doomed to be spent in a merciless place with her equally doomed pregnant mother and her sadistic, torture loving step father, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez).

Beautifully filmed in a dark Gothic like atmosphere, the film shifts effortlessly between the real setting and the fantasy world. A damp muddy place provides the backdrop for the very authentic depiction of a small fort/village being inundated by the Communists. Scenes of bloody and violent rebel uprising as well as shots of brutal torture mostly perpetrated by the Fascist soldiers are disturbing images yet you can't help but watch with awe. The fantasy part though supposed to be a magical place is just as dark too. Images of a dim labyrinth, a hidden world which can be entered by drawing a door with a chalk are all cleverly shot with cinematic prowess. A place inhabited by scary and revolting creatures, you sometimes wonder if this is really a fairy tale. Even the fairies look creepy, if you ask me. But it is refreshing to come across a film where you can tune out every few minutes within the fantasy world and in the same breath be exposed to really gruesomely harsh facet of Fascist Spain.

The actors all gave powerful performances without upstaging each other nor did they deviate from the central plot. Sergi Lopez who I've watched in several French movies was masterful in his grand portrayal of Capitan Vidal. A Spanish/French actor with a chameleon like ability to portray mostly villain roles, he has always brought something unique to each of the antagonists he has portrayed in his numerous films. Here, he is this slick haired, clean freak of sadistic and maniacal proportions incapable of any emotional attachment. Yet at the same time, you can't really hate his character because you understand his ruthless streak stems from a troubled background. You comprehend that Capital Vidal was merely performing his duty to the best of his abilities and he had to maintain a reputation befitting his position as an officer in the Spanish army.

But without a doubt, my favorite character in this movie is the Fauno or the Faun. Mysteriously ambiguous and equally manipulative, he is like a wolf in sheep clothing. Friendly and charming one moment and the next instant he is aggressive and fierce. A creaky creature that resembles a very old tree with ears who talks in such a mesmerizing haunting voice. An ambivalent creature who seems to mean well yet you can't help but wonder if he was double crossing Ofelia. His stern goat like appearance towering over the young girl was a sight to behold. Doug Jones, who is an English actor and doesn't speak a word of Spanish portrayed the faun with such aplomb. You can't help but stay glued to the screen each time he made his creepy appearance. He is everything you would imagine a faun to look like. Interesting enough, the only other faun I've seen is Mr Tumnus in "The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", who was amusingly portrayed by James McAvoy. The young actor who was acclaimed for his role in "The Last King of Scotland".

The fact remains that director, Guillermo del Toro was able to convey a suspended sense of heightened fantasy vis a vis an apparently sombre reality. It is admirable that he wrote most of the story himself. It projects a vividly creative and fertile imagination which always provides for a good story telling technique, cinema wise. The film visually presented the effects of war through the eyes of a young girl. But in the grander scheme of things as far as mature fairy tales go, I believe his whole point is that sometimes in this merciless universe, it is so much better to go to a happy place deep within the recesses of our mind to escape whatever difficulties we experience in life. The trick though is to know when to draw the line between fantasy and reality.

Granted that the film is a heartfelt cinematic vision, the fact remains that there are still a lot of questions which abound. I don't know about you but it suits me just fine to have endless questions linger in my mind long after the end credits have rolled by. I'm sure I will continue to question "Pan's Labyrinth" for some time. That's a good thing, you know!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"SHERRYBABY"
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Danny Trejo, Giancarlo Esposito, Brad William Henke

"No one makes it alone"



This film explores the journey of one woman to find her place in this world amidst several difficult but very realistic struggles. Sherry Swanson is a single mother recently released after 3 years in prison for drugs related offenses. Her first concern is to reconnect with her young daughter, Alexis. The child now lives with Sherry's brother Bobby and his wife Lynnette.

A film showcased in very basic surroundings with minimal effects, its simplistic approach belies the heavy human drama it aims to expose. We witness the various emotional upheavals that Sherry struggles to overcome. We cheer on as she connects with her daughter. We cringe at the way that she handles her job interviews. We are repulsed by the manner Sherry's father treats her. We pity her when she unravels after she discovers certain disturbing facts. Yet amidst such dramatic moments in her life, we don't judge her for her shortcomings and her failures in life.

Maggie Gyllenhaal's effortless portrayal of Sherry played a big part in why we the audience are so forgiving towards Sherry. Her acting was superb. Her facial expressions and body gestures convincingly convey a wide range of emotions sans the usual hysterics. She delivers her lines in a clear tone. Her complicated character evolves and grows both physically and mentally as the film unfolds. In the beginning, she is this vulnerable ex convict in tacky clothes trying to redeem herself. In an effort to assume a more responsible role both as a person and as a mother, she adapts a more mature appearance. Deep inside she also comes to grip with the fact that she is just human. Maggie's realistic and effective performance made us understand where Sherry is coming from. Her troubled childhood, her murky past, her vulnerability and most of all her desperate attempt to be a good mother against all odds.

Certain scenes are disturbing to watch but the director doesn't shield us from the ugliness of life. The painful struggles that a complex character like Sherry needs to experience as she goes on her path to succeed as a mother and most of all as an individual is presented within the folds of a clear and steady plot. Ably supported by other less known but nonetheless effective actors, this independent film is certainly Maggie Gyllenhaal's best bet at proving she is a talented yet underrated actress.

A poignantly realistic film about one woman's inspiring journey to make her life more meaningful. It doesn't aim to preach nor does it justify her actions. It simply tells her story, period.
 

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