Sunday, February 23, 2014

Movie No. 22 (2014): TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE

Taxi To The Dark Side (2007)
Director: Alex Gibney

This Academy Award-winning documentary feature presents the "dark side" of the America's all-out war against terrorists. It centers on the death of an Afghan taxi driver, who was abducted by American soldiers on suspicion of having taken part in a rocket attack that killed some American soldiers. From this, the film tries to uncover a culture of torture (in trying to extract information from suspected terrorists) that may or may not have been directed by high-ranking authorities in the military.

The documentary is brilliantly essayed despite that it is sad and depressing. It suggests it's up for the audience to decide on whether to accept what's presented to them at face value or not. It leaves questions, which makes this film a sort of mystery-type. 

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 23, 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Movie No. 21 (2014): SECRET SUNSHINE

Secret Sunshine (2007)
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Jeon Deo-yeon, Song Kang-ho
In Korean, with English subtitles

Shin-ae gave up her career as a concert pianist when she married her husband. When her husband died, she decided to leave Seoul for good and translocate permanently to a Miryang, a small town where her husband was born and raised.

In Miryang she starts a school for piano lessons. She meets people that seem to be nice. Unforeseen tragedy happens. Then the rest of the movie is practically an examination of grief that Shin-ae tries to find a way out of, even joining a Christian cult to find peace of mind. And it only results in an even more tortuous implications.

The movie is never contrived. The story is concise and its telling is fluid. Jeon Deo-yeon's performance is something for the book. 

Rating: 3.5/4.0

Date seen: February 18, 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Movie No. 20 (2014): A CUBE OF SUGAR

A Cube of Sugar (2011)
Director: Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi
Cast: Reza Kianian, Negar Javaherian, Farhad Aslani
In Farsi, with English subtitles

The story happens in a span of one day. Family members gather in an old house in an old Iranian city to help prepare for the wedding of the youngest daughter. The bride-to-be's sisters and their husbands and children populate the what-seems-like unrehearsed and chaotic scenes captured by the camera as it pans through the interconnected rooms of the house or intercut shots between the rooms and the garden, or between the garden and the mysterious warehouse, as children talk about ghosts, male adults hunt for a hidden treasure, and female adults engage in lazy talks. Then a power failure and a cube of sugar divert all these preparations into another kind of gathering.

The movie, though basically a portraiture of a typical Iranian culture-tied family, is an irony. That said, I don't want to go further because there's no way I can do that without writing down potential spoilers. There's a fine craftsmanship in the way the movie is directed that can be compared to a perfectly cut sugar cube. The dizzying cinematography perfectly captures the details of the chaos of the wedding preparations and other goings-on. 

This is pure cinema. No gimmicks.

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 16, 2014

Movie No. 19 (2014): A SIMPLE LIFE

A Simple Life (2011)
Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Andy Lau, Dennie Ip
In Chinese (Cantonese), with English subtitles

Ah Tao announces that she's retiring as the servant of the Leung family, who've been very kind to her, after having served them for 60 years. She has just suffered a stroke. At that time, she's living with Roger, the last of the Leung family who still lives in Hong Kong (the others are scattered in different countries). Roger, who's working in the film industry, realizes that she deserves to be attended to. On Ah Tao's request, Roger arranges her stay in an establishment that gives care for old people. The establishment is run by Roger's friend. There, Ah Tao finds another family, but Roger and some of his kins (whenever they're in Hong Kong) never fail to pay her a visit.

The movie takes time to present details that, for me, never render the experience of seeing it dragging. The story is simple, and it is told in details to make it interesting. And, it really does work excellently well. The story telling is straightforward, and without the jaw-dropping climax and plot twists and gimmicks that some other movies would use as adornment. The result is a poignant tale of a rare type of heroism, hope, and sense of gratitude.

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 15, 2014

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Movie No. 18 (2014): "GF*BF"

GF*BF (aka Girlfriend Boyfriend) (2012)
Director: Yang Ya-Che
Cast: Joseph Chang, Rhydian Vaughan, Gwei Lun-Mei
In Mandarin, with English subtitles

This coming-of-age tale involving three rebellious students/friends spans three decades. The movie opens at present time, but immediate flashes back to some three decades earlier (when Taiwan was under Martial Law). Although the plot is not fresh, the movie can still attract interest in the way it presents the unacknowledged love triangle involving the three main characters with the tumultuous political atmosphere of Taiwan in the back drop. The movie succeeds in the manner it refuses to dwell on melodrama; instead, it chooses to concentrate on presenting the interesting dynamics of the three main characters' relationship. The characterization is interestingly rich. The performances are excellent.

There are two things that I picked up from the movie that, as I'm writing this, still linger on my mind. "One person dancing alone is a rebellion." The other: "Even middle-aged people need to grow."

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 15, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie No. 17 (2014): ON THE JOB

OTJ (On The Job) (2013)
Director: Erik Matti
Cast: Gerald Anderson, Piolo Pascual, Joel Torre, Joey Marquez, Leo Martinez, Michael De Mesa, Angel Aquino

The premise is familiar: prison inmates are contracted through a middleman to kill for high-profile politicians. The movie is centered on two prisoners: Tatang is about to "retire" from his "job" because he'll be released from prison soon, ironically due to parole; Daniel is currently training "on the job" to learn the ins and outs of the "trade" under Tatang's supervision. Of course, this can only happen because of clear and obvious corruption in the prison, which mirrors corruption the Philippine society. 

The movie is not perfect. I have problems with some of the (minor) characters. However, the movie still stands out because of it's compelling storytelling, stylish editing in some scenes, effective but dizzying use of in-your-face cinematography, and A-rate acting of the principal cast. Joel Torre's performance is infectious, even in scenes when he's silent, but supposedly deeply thinking. Joey Marquez is a revelation.

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 10. 2014

Movie No. 16 (2014): OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz

Despite its shortcomings, this movie still delivers as a decent entertainment, especially for kids. The visuals are spectacular. Finley, the winged monkey, and a tiny girl made of ceramic are cute and no-nonsense characters. While it's not as great as Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939), it can be commended for it's extrapolating the origins of the wizard in the L. Frank Baum's classic.

James Franco struggles in some scenes. His performance, considering the genre, borders between just acceptable and wanting. Rachel Weisz, as a scheming witch, delivers well. The film is not bad after all. In fact, kids will enjoy it.

Rating: 2.5/4.0

Date seen: February 9, 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Movie No. 15 (2014): DRUG WAR

Drug War (2013)
Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Louis Koo, Honglei Sun
In Chinese, with English subtitles

Timmy Choi manufactures tons of meth. The films begins with him being busted by the police after an explosion in his factory that killed his wife and brothers-in-law. To avoid death penalty, he agrees to work as undercover to pin down "bigger fishes" in the cartel. 

The film is practically 95% foreplay that leads to an explosive climax. Johnnie To used (in this movie) old-fashioned directing, without much stylish innovations in story-telling, but still managed to create a near-masterpiece. 

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 9, 2014

Movie No. 14 (2014): PHILOMENA

Philomena (2013)
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Philomena, as a teenager, was forced to give up her son for adoption. Since then, he had tried looked for her son despite her having had signed under pressure a contract that wouldn't permit her to inquire about the whereabouts of her son. Now, 50 years later, the timeline of the movie, she desperately searches for her lost son, tagging along with her Martin Sixsmith, BBC correspondent who is interested in her story. 

Philomena is a devout Catholic. Her faith is tested in the face of cruelty perpetrated by the nuns, who imposed penance on her sin against chastity. The film is mostly about the search of the lost son. It is interesting how her beliefs clash with those of Sixsmith's during the entire time they're on the road. 

The film is generally heartbreaking despite some moments that are funny. Depending on your beliefs, you might feel judgmental, angry, forgiving, or indifferent. However, you can't simply ignore the genius of Judy Dench as an actress that gives life to Philomena Lee in the movie.

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 9. 2014

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Movie No. 13 (2014): THE SPECTACULAR NOW

The Spectacular Now (2013)
Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler

The film starts in familiar ground, a coming-of-age film. However, it tends to shy away from sentimentality and formula to create set the mood for films of this genre. It results in a movie with admirable humor, humane touch, and bittersweet after note. 

The performances of Teller and Woodley are admirable and believable. This is definitely one of the silent critical hits of last year's good harvest of films.

Rating: 3.5/4.0

Date seen: February 2, 2014

Movie No.12 (2014): INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman

The year is 1961. Lewyn Davis is a struggling singer/songwriter. He turns down a gig which could be his big break. His ex-girlfriend calls him asshole. He's practically homeless, hopping from one borrowed couch (in which he sleeps) to another. Looks like he takes pleasure in all these. But we never get to know what's inside him. The enigma that's Llewyn Davis is carefully captured in one wonderful shot after another in this movie. It's a shame that the Academy Awards electorate excluded it from the Best Picture nominees lineup. Maybe, I understand why. It's not the kind of movie that that's easy to dig and like.

Among the things that make the movie unforgettable are excellent script and cinematography, almost flawless portrayal of Llewyn Davis by Oscar Isaac, the cat, and Justin Timberlake singing Five Hundred Miles.

Rating: 4.0/4.0

Date seen: February 2, 2014

Movie No. 11 (2014): AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

August: Osage County (2013)
Director: John Wells
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney

A tragedy gathers three three sisters, who had been living diverse lives, in the house they grew up in. In the course of several days in August, they clash with their dysfunctional, cancer-afflicted mother, and with each other, as secrets and hidden demons are unleashed.

The story line is something familiar or something similar to what I might had seen in other movies. However, it's neither bad nor spectacular. Let me say "decent." But, why was I reminded of Woody Allen's Interiors when I was seeing this movie? The movie is heavy drama and I understand why some people classify it as dark comedy. In my opinion, a dark comedy is, more often, a drama.

The ever-dependable Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts make this movie memorable. They both stand out, acting-wise. In fact, the rest of the cast do not falter. The best feature of the movie is the cast's excellent ensemble acting.

Rating: 3.5/4.0

Date seen: February 2, 2014