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Metro Manila (2013)
Sundance 2013 World Dramatic Audience Winner
Metro Manila won the Audience award for best World Dramatic Competition film at Sundance 2013. This is UK writer/director Sean Ellis's third feature-length film. Set in the Philippines this is a story of a rural farmer, Oscar, who takes his wife and two children to Manila to find employment and a better life. The promises of gainful employment and opportunity however aren't as easily realized and their morals and faith are put to the test. In the Q&A Sean Ellis stated that this plot is a well-tread cliché in the Philippines but here it seems fresh, as is the setting of Manila where we are privy to its desperate slums and seedy underbelly.
Metro Manila is a combination of a family drama, heist movie and crime thriller. There isn't a lot of action but there is always the sense of inevitable violence and danger awaiting our protagonist.
Beyond writing and directing, Sean Ellis also handled the cinematography and operated the Steadicam. The film is shot beautifully with an over the shoulder documentary feel (thankfully not a shaky-cam) which brings you wholly into these characters lives and predicaments. We are constantly trapped in enclosed spaces with Oscar which provides not only intimacy, but complicity in his actions. Oscar Ramirez, played by Jake Macapagal, and his wife Mia, played by Althea Vega, both easily elicit our deepest sympathies. The performances (including our two leads) are lead mainly by native theater actors, the film is very cinematic but they bring a naturalistic presence and their talent on screen is apparent.
Oscar and his wife are devout and have tried honest labor farming. The only job she can find is in a seedy dancing bar and he is lucky to find a job transporting valuables in an armored vehicle which is considered one of the most dangerous jobs as the city is rife with criminals. Soon, he is asked to compromise his morals in the face of being able to provide for his family.
This film is a look at how the poor and disenfranchised are constantly exploited and taken advantage of as well as what greed and desperation can lead to. The sense of poverty and helplessness is palpable and is emotionally staggering. You will feel guilty for complaining about your job and any other first world problems you may have. This is a film that entertains, excites and lets you appreciate and reflect on your own situation.
Circles - Sundance 2013
Circles, aka Krugovi, is based on the true story of a Serbian soldier who was killed defending a Muslim civilian from other soldiers while he was off-duty. The results of this event are fictional but that kernel of truth grounds this film in a firm realty. The majority of this film takes place a decade after the Serbian-Bonsian conflict is over but its effects are present throughout.
What makes this film great and sets it apart from a straight-forward narrative is the way it skillfully withholds information and only reveals small details of what happened and the history that has ensued. This keeps the audiences rapt attention and makes it much more tense than it should be because we don't know how the characters are going to react because we don't fully know what happened. The characters don't go off on a lengthy moralistic speech or expository dialogue. The communication is much more realistic in that they don't say what they are thinking and they hide information from each other much like real life.
The cinematography is great, from the millennia old desert and old way of life to the inside of the BMW plant which looks futuristic; this is a film with skillful hands behind the camera. Really, this film should not be as great as it is, but the constant intrigue and slow unraveling of the mystery make this an entertaining and emotional ride. The actors too are compelling and well casted in their roles; this film would not work on any level without their excellent performances. The actor who plays the mobster-father (the IMDb credits are incomplete), even though his role is fairly small in comparison, should be the villain in every movie, he just exudes fury and hate. (He looks like an evil Michael Sheen which is actually Andy Sirkis so maybe he looks like an evil Andy Sirkis?)
From the title of this film, I assumed this would be about the circular nature of violence but in fact this can be taken two ways, it's more about the circular nature of kindness and good, and a more-accurate title would be "ripple" or the ripple-effects of a singular kind-act.
The Truth About Emanuel (2013)
A film about dealing with loss, childhood and motherhood
Writer/Director Francesca Gregorini brings a unique and entertaining voice to her new film Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes. This is a darkly comic yet dramatic film about a young misfit girl who befriends her new next-door neighbor who is a single mother with a newborn.
This film is about, among other things, dealing with loss, motherhood and relationships with mothers. Not being able to be a mother but wanting to, not having a mother and wanting one. It may not sound exciting, or it may sound like a set-up for a romantic comedy of sorts, but this film has elements of horror, mystery, surrealism and gets quite intense at times. The film while it is dramatic and has many moments of the above is surprisingly comedic which helps balance the darker aspects of the film. Few films can pull off the level of comedy and heart- breaking reality that this film employs.
I knew fairly early on that I was going to like this film, the way it played perfectly with the audience's emotion and the striking production design. It is amazing how fresh and different this film feels, there is always an undercurrent that something is wrong which latches you to everything on screen.
I was emotionally invested in our main protagonist Emanuel (played by Kaya Scodelario) and in-turn with the single mother Linda (played by Jessica Biel). Between this and Wuthering Heights, I think Kaya Scodelario is an actress to keep an eye on. I've never been a Jessica Biel fan, until now, she is perfect in her role as 'the perfect mother'. The family dynamic too feels authentic with great supporting roles by Alfred Molina and Frances O'Conner.
The only thing that doesn't quite work in this film is the ending; it ends a bit abruptly and offers some emotional satisfaction but in terms of 'reality' feels like more should have happened to find a resolution for the characters. Maybe that's the point though, in difficult situations like these there is no neat bow to tie and make everyone feel perfect and the dissonance at the end is a manifestation of that. Other reactions may be more mixed but thematically and emotionally it was engaging and I appreciated it a great deal.
Compelling indictment of marital abuse. Sundance 2013
I attended Lovelace at Sundance not knowing too much about the story of Linda Lovelace. Linda Lovelace is the most famous pornography star of all time because of the film Deep Throat (1972) which became wildly popular with mainstream audiences and brought pornography into popular culture. More than an indictment of the pornography business, this film is an indictment and expose on spousal abuse. Linda married young and was sexually and physically abused by her husband throughout her marriage. She was forced into doing these films and acts. She eventually found the courage to leave her husband and wrote a tell-all which is what this movie is based on.
The way this story was structured keeps it interesting and revelatory, and tonally the film is in accordance with her life. Things start off happy and there are lots of funny moments but soon enough things take a turn for the worse and that is where the true drama ensues.
Amanda Seyfried may not seem like the right choice for the role but she handles herself and the material with ease. She does a fabulous job evoking a wide range of emotions and brings her performance to a previously unseen level (at least, from what I've seen of hers). Peter Sarsgaard naturally exudes kindness and charm, we are seduced by it as she is, yet when the time calls for it he is rightly overpowering and terrifying.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman started off making documentaries that were both important and compelling. They made the switch to traditional narrative films with Howl which showcased their talent but Lovelace is further proof that they are multi-talented and continuing to grow in skill.
The film does leave out a few things, most likely for the sake of the narrative, Linda was forced to participate in several short pornography loops before she appeared in Deep Throat, including a bestiality film. She also made two movies after Deep Throat (including Deep Throat II).
The film has instant notoriety for its connection to Deep Throat and hopefully this will drive a bigger audience to it but it will likely gain some controversy as well for its association (in fact there was a small group protesting it at the premiere which is utterly ridiculous). I hope this film gets a large audience as marital abuse in its many forms is far too common a problem and needs to be brought to the forefront of discussion.
Upstream Color (2013)
World Premiere (mild spoilers)
The last paragraph will contain mild spoilers; this is a film you don't want to know anything about before going in so I still recommend skipping it. But I offer it as a jumping point into understanding this film, as I'm sure many will be upset and wonder about that.
I attended the world premiere of Upstream Color at Sundance 2013 along with a Q&A from writer, director, actor etc. Shane Currath. I am a big fan of Primer and I also appreciate esoteric/enigmatic and visual works. Upstream Color definitely can be described with those words. I think Primer is complex and intelligent/intellectual yet can be enjoyed by a broad audience. Upstream Color is easy to understand on a literal, plot level but the themes and allegory are a little harder to understand (I don't claim to fully understand it yet). Needless to say, it's not one that the majority of movie-goers will appreciate.
Aesthetically, it is a beautiful film full of poetic-imagery. It is very visual not unlike the work of Terrence Malick. Our protagonists are exceptionally acted, especially Amy Seimetz as Kris, she is captivating as is the film itself. I'm not going to talk about the plot but keep in mind that it is an allegory. I can't say whether or not I 'enjoyed' this film, but while watching it, it had my fullest attention and it has consumed my thoughts since trying to make sense of it. I wonder if it could have been more effective if it had been clearer. To the movies credit, the last third has no dialogue but none is needed, the film has established an emotional and visual language that the audience fully understands and embraces. This film could be genius; it could just be a lot of pomp with a compelling façade. The film had some real moments of emotional resonance yet at the end I felt hollow and unsatisfied. I probably will revisit this film to understand it and my response better.
The Q&A was interesting, Shane Currath didn't inspire confidence that he had a singular vision and intent for this film (from his answers it sounded like he had some loose ideas and put it on screen). The film prominently features Walden, I thought it may tie in thematically but he stated that when he read Walden it seemed like something you would make someone read as torture and in the film, it is used loosely as such. It may be ironic or purposeful that this film may be a Walden-esque torture as well for some in its transcendental/opaque nature. He also stated that this movie is about tearing people down and their having to build their own narratives. They also may not understand that there are outside forces affecting them, yet they can feel it on some level. That's probably the most-helpful advice in understanding the film.
(mild thematic and plot detail spoilers follow): Keeping those last two statements in mind, at one point 'The Thief' tries to sell drugs to individuals with a worm inside of it that hypnotizes them, let's take that both literally and figuratively as in he is a drug dealer who is trying to get people addicted to drugs which control them and make them do mindless things whilst high and financially bankrupt them. The worm can be viewed as the addiction itself. These people then hit rock-bottom and once they recover they aren't the same people anymore. There were external forces working on them that they weren't/aren't aware of but now they have to build a personal narrative of how to deal with the consequences of their addiction. The part I haven't figured out yet is The Sampler and the pigs but I'm sure the answer is there somewhere, hopefully the previous interpretation I gave is somewhat accurate and helpful.
Sundance 2013 Premiere
I just saw Jisuel/Ji Seul at the US Premiere at Sundance 2013. Writer/Director Meul O. was there to introduce the film and do a brief Q&A as well. This is Meul O.'s first film made on a very low budget, shot in digital and released in Black & White. The film is about orders given by the US Military in 1948 (more on that later) to assume anyone outside of a specific zone is labeled as a communist and is to be shot on sight. Regardless of the historicity of the film, the movie itself has some major problems.
There are a number of characters on-screen, some of which we get to know but most of the characters aren't well defined, because of the black and white and their being in a cave most of the time it's hard to tell who is speaking. Because they aren't fleshed out I really didn't care about any of them, of course I don't want a pregnant woman to die or anything bad to happen to anyone because I have a heart but I didn't care enough about the characters or their struggle because they were mostly two- dimensional. Because of this the big emotional scenes of horror, laughter or sadness didn't have the emotional impact (if any) that it should have. The choice of it being a Black and White movie lead to some great artistic moments and scenes but it also caused some problems. There were titles throughout the film, apparently separating it into chapters (they didn't make add anything for me really, except mark that the film was going on a bit too long) they were always black Korean characters and sometimes I didn't even know they were on-screen except that the italicized subtitles were on-screen. Black-on black is quite hard to see.
The film is set on Jeju Island, the home of Meul O. and the financial sponsor of this film. The people on the island feel this tragedy has been ignored or forgotten by Korea and the world, and in fact, one of the problems is that there is little if any historical record of it taking place, especially the US government's involvement. The US government has denied any knowledge of the order and was not in charge of the South Korean military at the time as its presence was very limited. The subtitles at the end of the film went by pretty quickly but this affected the 120 islanders on Jeju who hid in caves, most of whom were killed and it stated that it is assumed this affected 30,000 others as well (I may have that wrong, the subtitles at the end went by too quickly). All of the violence is done by the hands of the South Korean soldiers but the emphasis on it being under the US Military's orders is made quite clear. The evidence is only a few first-hand accounts from survivors so we may never know the exact details of what happened but the movie assumes it as a matter-of-fact without explanation or evidence. I think a more-interesting film would have involved documenting the survivor's stories and trying to find evidence of the US's involvement in the order.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
A classic for a reason.
Reservoir Dogs is a classic for a reason, it has very colorful characters who are engaging and interesting. It has dialog which is memorable and entertaining and it has scenes which are unforgettable. Superb acting all around, the non-linear time line adds a lot unlike some films, you want to piece the puzzle back together and figure out what's going on just as the characters do and once all the pieces are in place watch the drama unfold inevitably and violently. The 100 minutes fly by as you are riveted from start to finish. Quentin Tarantinos classic is a must see, that means if by some very small chance you haven't seen this critically acclaimed film, do.
Get Low (2009)
When I saw the title, it sounded like a rap-song or something, but I decided to check it out anyways and it looked decent. I still really didn't know what it was about even 15 minutes into the film, my wife and I almost turned it off because it starts off rather dark and slow. I'm very glad we kept with it because Get Low has a great story, with some great acting by Duvall, and a good message at heart. It's a sad story of regret and atonement but those are some of the sweetest and most important stories to tell. It took a little getting used to Bill Murray in his role but he does a good job as well but Duvall really wraps you in and feels "for real". I got a little misty-eyed at the end. Watch it.
Sorry, I didn't connect
I saw the good reviews and was excited for a family film I could enjoy without worrying about content. I can see how this would appeal to a person if they found the main characters endearing. I didn't. The girl is a flighty daisy-minded girl who will likely grow up and make beaded jewelery for a living and the typical boy will grow up to be the typical insignificant person he is working a dead-end blue collar job. There are apparent anachronisms, scenes of spectacularly unspectacular acting and the "flipped" visual effect that you find in bad power point presentations never gets old. Looking for the positive points though, I'll never have to watch it again.
Not up to Snuff
I didn't feel like Tangled was up to snuff with other similar cartoons. I enjoyed How to train your Dragon and Toy Story 3 and I thought I would enjoy Tangled because of the positive reviews by the critics and my family but I was wrong. I'm tired of the stereotypical side-buddy who is just there for the laughs (in this case the stupid chameleon, in others think Wall-E: cricket, despicable me: the yellow things, even in Bedtime Stories: the gerbil). The music was forgettable, I didn't laugh, plus the dynamic between the mother and daughter is very similar to real-life child abuse cases. Personally, I really didn't enjoy it but most people did.