Thursday, February 26, 2015

THAT THING CALLED TADHANA

Angelica Panganiban, JM De Guzman

"Where do broken hearts go?"


I guess it has been established from the contents of this blog that I don't watch Filipino films. There is no profound explanation why, I just don't watch them. Although on a few occasions when I am channel surfing on the telly, I settle for a local film mid stream for the simple reason that there is nothing 'nice' on at that appropriate time. 

But a blogger friend sent a shout out on her FB page where she tagged me along with others and she highly recommended this film. I was in luck as it was still showing at the cinemas.

The title translates to "That Thing called Destiny" and it functions on the simple question 'where do broken hearts go?' which is a hugely popular Whitney Houston song. We first meet our main characters at an international airport where Mace (Angelica Panganiban) is having trouble with her luggage which weighs over the allowed baggage requirements. Anthony (JM De Guzman) a fellow Filipino traveler comes to her aid by providing space in his luggage for her excess clothes. During the flight, they start conversing about their past relationships and the exchange of sob stories continues as well as when they decide (on a whim) to go to Baguio then Sagada.

Being broken-hearted and sharing sob stories is a good premise to bank on. The dialogue is witty, funny and thought provoking. The two leads share a palpable chemistry even though they are complete strangers who are slowly getting to know each other. Their exchange unfolds in scenic and familiar settings like Baguio (the City of Pines) and the rustic yet enchanting Sagada (a popular tourist sight in the Mountain Province). 

It is refreshing to watch a film in the vernacular where you immediately get any innuendos implied from the dialogue. The terms and words used are simple, straight to the point and they convey the bitterness and pain that Mace imbues as she tries her best to wrap her head around the failure of her relationship. 

As far as romantic comedies go, "That Thing called Tadhana" doesn't go the predictable route (this is a good thing!). It does not rely on the cheesy and corny "kilig" factor which irritates me to no end with the pairings of young local celebrities whose only claim to fame is being part of a love team. I like how the ending hints at a sequel as it keeps us guessing on the fate of Mace and Anthony.

A realistic narrative, clever dialogue, gorgeous cinematography, believable acting from the leads - are the ingredients that made this film, a huge success. It makes me hopeful that the local film industry is still capable of producing really good quality movies. And maybe just maybe it would end my aversion towards local films. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY

Helen Mirren, Om Puri,
Manish Dayal,  Charlotte Le Bon


It was the last night of my Lunar New Year holidays in HK with sis dearest so I wanted to watch a light, feel good film. Not too much drama, no intriguing plot to figure out so we settled on a clashing cuisines comedy.

Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolate, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) amuses us with a tale about racial tolerance, cultural conflict and triumph amidst diversities. 

The Kadam family leaves London (where they stayed for a year but decide to move because of its cold climate) for France where they set up an Indian restaurant, right across Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin starred French restaurant owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).

Set in a picturesque small town in the South of France, the tit for tat ensues as soon as the tacky banner of the Maison Mumbai lights up for opening day. From buying out all the vital ingredients needed by their rival to vandalism of the opponent restaurant's fence, all these scenes unfold in a light humor manner.

Beneath the rivalry, a romance blooms between Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), the son/soulful cook of Maison Mumbai and Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a sous chef who works for Madame Mallory. A typically predictable plot line that is to be expected in this genre. 

As quickly as you can fry some lamb chops, the rivalry basically evaporates like steam from a pressure cooker. Soon enough, Madame Mallory takes Hassan under her wings and teaches him the rudiments of French cuisine albeit with some Indian flare.

From that point on, the plot ventures into the preposterous and highly unrealistic zone with Hassan landing a job in a top Parisian restaurant. He is the toast of the culinary world, his picture and his rise to fame story is featured in all the major dailies and magazines. Really ridiculous if you ask me because there is no way on earth that classically prepared French food would accept any form of variations least of all, the strong flavors of Indian spices. Quel horror!

Despite growing up in New Delhi (India), I have never developed a liking for Indian food. Too spicy and just too many spices for my palate. We've also lived in Belgium and had our share of French fare as Paris was just a short train ride away. So I can say with authority that Indian and French cuisine are totally different from each other in every way! 

But nevertheless, this movie was cozy and entertaining regardless of the flaws in the plot line. It certainly felt like a bland dish which needed more salt to make it more tasty. That's why they have a small corner with condiments in most restaurants. We all have different palates so it is up to us to season according to our discerning tastes.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A MOST WANTED MAN

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams,
Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Robin Wright,
Grigoriy Dobrygin


This movie adaptation of John Le Carre's novel is an absorbing spy thriller reminiscent of Cold War espionage films. The premise is in a post 9/11 arena where the intelligence agencies around the world are still on high alert when it comes to pinpointing any person of interest who might pose a clear and present danger to the general populace. It is set in Hamburg, Germany which the opening text states as the site where Mohammed Atta planned the September 11 attacks. 

The main characters are part of a small covert German counter terrorism intelligence unit whose main function is to cultivate sources within the city's Islamic community. It is headed by Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles) who works in a decrepit office and it is obviously clear that his resources and funding are quite limited, well given that officially their unit does not exist in the grand scheme of government agencies so he is in constant clash with the city's legitimate defense and security agencies, as well as with other intelligence agencies like the CIA.

Yet somehow they all come together as they investigate the sudden appearance into Hamburg of a suspicious Chechen and known militant jihadist named Issa Karpov. The film early on sets the tone on the great lengths that Bachmann goes to in establishing the wide and complex surveillance operations on their target. Bachmann decides to keep an eye on Karpov in the hope that he can be used as a bait for the bigger fish. He thinks this may be his chance to nab a moderate Muslim academic who may be channeling money to terrorists. This approach runs counter productive with the main agenda of the security/defense/intelligence agencies. So a game of cat and mouse ensues, amidst a tangled mess that also involves a human rights attorney and a banker with dubious dealings ... the clever machinations is quite fascinating to watch.

A typical slow burn spy movie with surveillance scenes, waiting in cars, negotiating with as well as intimidation of witnesses - all done in a bleak, dreary cinematographic tone. The city itself seems to be steeped in gloom. Visuals of dark streets, seedy bars, rundown apartments and hi tech office buildings - a palpable world of displaced people - spies and suspects alike - all struggling  for meaning and acceptance in a city that isn't too welcoming.

A cast composed of good and solid actors like Nina Hoss, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright add much weight to the cynical and somber tone of this spy thriller. 

But mostly it is the much valued presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman who made this provocative movie worth watching.  He makes a brilliant spy in the classic John Le Carre mold - his characterization of Bachmann is determinedly sharp and quite precise. Physically, he is a mess - disheveled, chain smoking and possibly a heavy drinker. Yet mentally he is a loner of strong resolve who is fully aware of his failures in past missions but also uses his flaws to his advantage. My only 'complaint' was Hoffman's on and off German accent but it was just a minor distraction.

I conclude by saying that the final outcome of this film was so unbearably tense and I had no indication it was going to end that way. The frustration was quite visible on Hoffman's face but my frustration also rose when I realized we would never see him portray again these type of roles or any role for that matter. Tragically sad!

Friday, February 20, 2015

FOXCATCHER

Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo,
Steve Carell, Vanessa Redgrave,
Sienna Miller


Next up for our movie marathon here in HK is another compelling true story. A disturbingly dark drama about sports, wealth, and murder. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo portray Mark and David Schultz respectively. They are brothers and champions of the U.S. wrestling team, both gold medalist Olympians. They are commissioned by the reclusive billionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) to spearhead a training unit for the U.S. team to achieve success in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This is done on the du Pont sprawling estate known as Foxcatcher.

The film shows the different paths the Schultz brothers embark upon once training begins. Mark who has always been insecure about his capabilities spirals out of control. He loses motivation and barely makes the U.S. Olympic team. Dave does better in coaching but is sidetracked by concerns about his sibling's attitude as well as the odd relationship that develops between Mark and the creepy John du Pont. It is vague to say the least. There are implications of intimacy or it might just be the eccentricities of a lonely tycoon who is clearly a deranged figure. He seems to be driven by a fierce patriotism and is convinced that America is losing its glory so he's determined to see it soar again. By putting together a formidable U.S wrestling team is his way to achieve that myopic goal.

Steve Carell as the creepy John du Pont delivers a powerful performance. It is completely focused and profound pretty much like the wealthy industrialist. Carell is precise and sturdy as his character is certainly not a beloved figure. Almost unrecognizable with all those heavy facial make up to resemble du Pont, Carell sinks deeply into the character of a man whose hope for his country is shadowed by his self doubts and his constant need for approval from his demanding mother. Certainly a tragic figure who had good intentions but the method he chose to achieve them had lethal consequences. 

The director allows an in depth understanding of all the motives yet there were also a fair amount of ambiguity. He draws out scenes that offer much to the narrative but there is still so much left out that we do not know about as well. 

"Foxcatcher" is quite dark and contains disturbing material which may not appeal to everybody. It is about many things - sports, sibling rivalry, the clash of egos but most of all it explores the liberties and constraints that come with the effect of vast wealth. We might be able to buy whatever we want but it won't feed a hungry soul that longs for something money can never buy! That in itself is the sad part of this psychological drama.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

ROSEWATER

Gael Garcia Bernal. Kim Bodnia


So here I am in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year holidays and what do you know? It is the first day of the Lunar New Year and everything is closed for 4 whole days except for convenience stores like 7/11. Nothing much to do but stay home so we decided to have a movies marathon.

First up is "Rosewater" which is directed by Jon Stewart. Yes, you read that right. The late night host of satire news is quite the celebrity and a polarizing figure in TV. It was a good idea to start with a small scale, dramatic true story about political freedom for his directorial debut. A few months ago, he announced his retirement so perhaps film making would be a good career move for Stewart. 

The movie is based on a book entitled "Then They Came For Me" by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian Canadian journalist for Newsweek. He is played by Gael Garcia Bernal. In 2009, Bahari was in Tehran to cover the presidential elections but shortly after was arrested on suspicions of being a spy for the CIA, MI6 and the Mossad. He was held in captivity in a solitary cell for 118 days.

Most of the film unfolds in a small cell and there are several scenes of Bahari being blindfolded, rigorously interrogated and subjected to various forms of mental and physical torture by a man he knew only by his scent of rosewater.

The diminutive Mexican actor gives a poignant performance as Bahari. Shifting from a calm collected journalist who knows he has done nothing wrong to a fearful, nervous wreck as his prolonged incarceration takes a toll on his tormented psyche. 

Even though physically, Bahari still looks the same as the day he entered the cell, Bernal's subdued yet heartfelt characterization is spot on. You can sense his sense of utter desperation as the days pass by and he has no knowledge nor information if there are people outside who are aware of his unlawful arrest. Though we are shown footage of protests held outside the Iranian embassy in the US and Canada, the film hardly tackles on the legalities involved in proving his innocence to secure his release.

Flaws aside, I believe that "Rosewater" is a worthy drama about the realities of torture and the quest to find the truth in an oppressed state. And Jon Stewart does a solid and efficient job for a first time director tackling such a serious and sensitive subject. But he handled it with a good mixture of heavy drama and lighthearted moments. Job well done, Jon Stewart!

Monday, February 9, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley,
Matthew Goode, Charles Dance,
Mark Strong

"Unlock the Secret,
Win the War"


I was pressed for time as I wanted to watch all if not most of the films nominated for Best Picture of the Oscar Awards. "The Imitation Game" is one of the nominees in that prestigious category. 

Actually there are essentially two ongoing plots unfolding in this movie. There is the investigation of the police after a robbery occurred at the house of scientist Alan Turing. As he is in the custody of the police, he recounts through flashbacks the very important role he played during the second World War. 

During World War II, the Nazis had an early advantage with the help of "Enigma", the encrypting machine which enabled their military to communicate without worrying about the message being intercepted. In retaliation, Britain formed a special intelligence unit. A team comprised of mathematical experts and scientists were gathered and their mission was to crack the "Enigma" codes. The group of diverse characters experienced several setbacks, false starts as well as personality conflicts as they raced against time to decipher these coded messages.

This biopic is adapted from the novel "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges as a tribute to the unsung hero. Because despite the pivotal role he played during the War, he was never really recognized as a hero because of his homosexuality.

It is an averagely good story with enough tension and drama added to make it an interesting film. But it is the flawless acting of Benedict Cumberbatch which saves the day. His performance is by turns, awkward, triumphant and very heartbreaking. The poignant part comes after the war, when Turing was publicly humiliated for his sexuality. He was persecuted, arrested, convicted and even chemically castrated for being a member of the third sex. This embarrassment led the visionary to commit suicide just as he was on the brink of further developing his machine to what is presently known as the computer.

Although I read that there are historical inaccuracies in the film, it was also an eye opener. As it made us to be aware of the injustices that members of the third sex suffered during that period. I was shocked to learn that it was crime to be a member of the third sex in the UK until 1967. An act of Parliament known as Sexual Offences Act decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. Imagine that was just 48 years ago.

It also made me sad that due to this discrimination, a genius like Alan Turing was not given due respect for his innovative invention. Hopefully, this movie in some small way would be a much delayed tribute to such an iconic figure.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

WILD

Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

"Wild" is based on an inspirational bestseller. The story of Cheryl Strayed who decided  to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, alone. It was triggered by the death of her beloved mother and to exorcise her personal demons such as addiction, divorce and her desperate descent into debauchery.

The plot veers all over the place with continuous flashbacks that presented her 'former' life where we see her interact with her family, friends and strangers. Along with her hiking adventure where nothing really happens, pretty much long stretches of rough, rustic landscape. Honestly, I was expecting her to be eaten alive by some wildlife or worst be killed by other hikers, yes it was my morbid mind taking over the plot. I guess she was lucky, the PCT is fairly safe for first time hikers.

So naturally, the entire film is focused on a single character portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in an entirely non glamorous role. I am amazed her petite frame was able to carry that huge backpack through such rugged terrain. Her youthful appearance might have been a disadvantage as I saw the real Cheryl looked much older. 

But Reese's nuanced performance is note worthy given that most of the time she is out there on her own without any human interaction. Laura Dern gives terrific support work as the single mother who faces many odds but continues to be a source of strength and inspiration to her children. 

I can't help but compare it with another film about self-discovery, "Into the Wild" which was modest in its interpretation yet had more depth in depicting the tragic story of another hiker. 

"Wild" doesn't have the same spiritual appeal but it is still a good case study and a powerful account about determination and self improvement. But by the end of the film, Cheryl doesn't solve all her problems, it leaves room for a sense of uncertainty which is just fair as life itself is full of unpredictable moments.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

GRAND PIANO

Elijah Wood, John Cusack,
Don McManus, Kerry Bishe

"Play or Die"

The apparently ageless Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a famous pianist who returns on stage after a prolonged absence. 5 years ago, he developed stage fright and had a mental block thus failing to complete his late mentor's most famous composition piece.

Wracked with nerves for his comeback concert, he finds a note on the musical score sheet which says "Play one wrong note and you die!" He falls victim to a sniper who communicates through an earpiece and demands that he complete the impossibly difficult piece/composition on stage.

This same premise has been done in past movies like "Phone Booth". Both share the idea of a 'victim' being watched by a sniper who forces him to adhere to his demands. Although it is not as claustrophobic as the Colin Farrell starring thriller, "Grand Piano" is still ridiculously far-fetched. But good camera work, a streak of dark humor and some well edited tension filled moments make it watchable. Yet towards the end, the tension fizzles and becomes downright preposterous.

The best part of the film are the musical pieces that Selznick skillfully showcases on stage. It helps that he is played by Elijah Wood whose facial expressions convey many different emotions. He is suitably jittery as he tries to overcome his stage fright as well as try to extricate himself from this unfortunate dilemma.

It is an intriguing concept to bank on yet it fails to deliver as the true motive falls flat and loses its tone.
 

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