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Beowulf (2007)
Beowulf can be described as a colossal disappointment., 29 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Beowulf (pronounced as "bay-wolf") can be described as a colossal disappointment. One of the most anticipated movies of 2007, and nearly three years in the making, Beowulf is all-hype but with little, if any, positive end product. Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis who gave us memorable pictures such as Forrest Gump, Contact, and Back To The Future seeks to build upon the technical success of The Polar Express but ends up with a punctured tyre.

Unlike digital CGI, hand-drawn, or stop-motion animation, Zemeckis and his team of talented animators have pioneered a cutting-edge technique that's able to capture photo-realistically an actor's facial expressions and body movements in animated form. In a way, Beowulf makes cinematic history for being the first feature film to be entirely created using the above-mentioned technique.

The animation is truly stunning and visually captivating. There's a jarring problem though - the eyes of the characters often seem to 'stare into space' rather than effectuating eye contact with one another; it's the main reason there's low chemistry among the characters, and also why we feel the presence of a vacuum between viewer and character. Nevertheless, Beowulf has the potential to be nominated for Academy Awards for best visual effects, sound, and sound editing categories though. It's unlikely to win any with Zack Snyder's 300 in the hat as well.

So what really caused the downfall of Beowulf? The filmmakers have simply ignored the very basic fundamental of making a great movie - the screenplay! No great film can survive with a weak script (no matter how impressive the effects are, or how well the director and cast have collaborated). Beowulf's screenplay is as shallow as a fifth-grader's essay. To compound the misery, it's poorly edited with numerous scenes (especially during quieter moments) showing an obvious lack in pacing.

Beowulf's failure could have been prevented. Alas, the filmmakers are too short-sighted to notice its major shortcomings. For all the slash and burn, plus the wonders of modern movie magic, Beowulf isn't the cinematic knockout that I have hoped for. Watching Beowulf was more of a chore than a pleasure. And if I may add: Zemeckis, work harder on those soulless eyes please!

GRADE: C- (5.5/10 or 2.5 stars)

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Enough food for thought for a good night's contemplation of the meaning of love., 29 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As online film critic James Berardinelli puts it, Before Sunset is "one of those exceedingly rare instances in which the motivation for a sequel is creative, not financial." There, he summarizes in a single, meaningful statement the value this Richard Linklater film has for viewers sophisticated enough to appreciate the artistry of its concept. The sequel to the critically acclaimed Before Sunrise (1995), the aptly- titled Before Sunset may not have the allure and magic of the first film, but it still manages to be fresh in its own unique way.

In Before Sunset, the characters Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) meet by chance at a Paris bookstore where the former is holding a book-signing session with the press. They take a spontaneous walk down the streets of Paris, enjoy coffee at a café, and take a boat ride before Jesse has to take a flight back home. Unlike in the first film in which they spent an entire day and night together, both characters have only about an hour now to interact and catch up after nine whole years not knowing whether they would meet again.

Before Sunset's story unfolds in real-time. The film's runtime is literally the amount of time that they have together. With the beautiful, and at times, historical backdrop of Paris in the background, we follow the two characters in a number of long takes as we are brought up to speed on the major events that have occurred in their lives for the last decade. While Jesse looks scruffier and Celine more aged, their chemistry with each other remains undeniably strong, though this is characterized by natural awkwardness in the first half-hour.

As shown from their screen writing credit, Hawke and Delpy have apparently worked very closely with Linklater on the crafting of their characters and dialogue. Their naturalistic acting punctuated by moments of improvisation gives the film a-slice-of-reality feeling that remains true to the essence of the director's conceptual vision. Youthful, starry-eyed love as explored in the first film now makes way for themes about responsibility, commitment, marriage, and regrets. In a way, Before Sunset is more pessimistic in outlook, not only seen through the world-weary eyes of its two leads, but its constraint of time also limits the possibility of a second chance at love with "the one that got away".

There is a quite potent scene in a car that sees Celine angrily airing her grievances at Jesse, who appears taken aback by her uncharacteristic behavior. It shows that while innately we stay roughly the same, we do change with time, often with a more mature but more cynical lens to view things. Shot at a leisurely pace with dialogue that admittedly does not engage as much as in the first film, Before Sunset is still a quite remarkable document of two highly identifiable characters at the crossroads of their lives, pondering what could have been if circumstances had unfolded differently for them.

If Linklater considers to do another sequel in the next couple of years, it would be more welcomed than not. Otherwise, this two-part filmed romance is enough food for thought for a good night's contemplation of the meaning of love, and all the complexities and subtleties that come with it.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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5 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
13 Assassins is guilty pleasure for seekers of violent action who are patient enough to wait for its execution., 27 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

13 Assassins, a Golden Lion nominee at Venice, is a sumptuously photographed film that is excellently set-up by the filmmakers, features an action-packed second half whose intensity rivals that of the climatic hospital sequence in John Woo's shoot-'em-up masterpiece Hard Boiled (1992), and ends on a slightly ambiguous note that unfortunately feels a tad too surreal for a film that is anything but. Directed by Takashi Miike, the infamous director of insanely violent films such as Dead or Alive (1999), Audition (2000), and Ichi the Killer (2001), 13 Assassins is surprisingly tame in comparison, though I must say the decision not to make this a gore fest is spot on.

The premise is as simple as it can be: Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is the evil younger brother of the current Shogun who enjoys torturing and killing women and children to satisfy his weird desire for violence and lust. A group of samurais, led by Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), is hired to assassinate him before he ascends politically to the top and declares war on peaceful clans. The mission is extremely tough because Lord Naritsugu is protected by hundreds of men and a master samurai called Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), who trained with Shinzaemon when they were apprentices, adding a layer of intrigue.

The villainous nature of Lord Naritsugu is depicted very well. Early scenes show his cruelty, in particular a vile scene that sees him shoot arrows at a family that is tied up, including a small boy. There is also a very disturbing scene featuring a nude woman with all her limbs severed, with a character explaining how she is used as a sexual plaything. The soulless eyes of actor Inagaki and his lack of emotion towards human suffering are very effective in building a strong sense of hatred for his character.

In comparison, there is no one strong protagonist, though Shinzaemon comes close. Like Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), the samurais in Miike's film are collectively portrayed as both battle-hardened tacticians with skills to outwit any foe and overly enthusiastic warriors who know the meaning of sacrifice. But unlike Kurosawa's masterpiece, each samurai's personality in 13 Assassins, with the exception of Shinzaemon, is developed only minimally and enough for the function of plot. Very predictably, there is the requisite sword duel in the climax, which gives us a relatively quiet moment of calm in what is a loud and chaotic second hour that while relentlessly entertaining, may be a trifle too overwhelming for some.

In a nutshell, 13 Assassins is guilty pleasure for seekers of violent action who are patient enough to wait for its execution. This Miike film is well-directed and should provide an interesting alternative to the loud fanfare of Hollywood summer blockbusters.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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13 Tzameti (2005)
13 Tzameti is a thriller that neither thrills, nor provides even an averagely satisfying motion picture experience., 27 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is surprisingly, and unexpectedly a bore. This French thriller not only packs no punch, it has almost negligible suspense, except for a couple of scenes which are just mildly suspenseful. Less than ninety minutes, 13 Tzameti may be one of the slowest ninety I've ever spent my life on. The film takes way too long to get viewers into the mood, in fact it becomes alive only after passing the halfway mark.

While the 'Russian Roulette' theme is significantly disturbing, the violence is not as shocking as I thought it would be. It's intelligently shot in black-and-white (a rare sight these days), but I wonder how much better the film would have fared from a cleverer, and unpredictable script. The cast shows little chemistry, and most of them are sleeping pills personified. But they are not to be blamed, the badly-written screenplay offers no room for the actors to work their talents. In a nutshell, 13 Tzameti is a thriller that neither thrills, nor provides even an averagely satisfying motion picture experience.

GRADE: C- (5.5/10 or 2.5 stars)]

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4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
The mystery and thrill of the original still remains, and is undoubtedly one of the more fascinating films to grace the screens in the late 1960s., 25 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Planet Of The Apes is a science-fiction adventure that doesn't need light saber battles, flying spacecrafts, or aliens to keep viewers entertained. In fact, there's nothing significantly sci-fi other than that it's set thousands of years into the future on an isolated planet.

Created by the writer who gave us The Bridge On The River Kwai, Planet Of The Apes is an exploration of the existence of intellectual beings other than Man. Why it's an eye-opener is because there's no other film (which I've seen) that directly shows the inferiority of Man over another species that we know. We have seen films that emphasize Nature's superiority over man in disaster flicks, but this is clearly something uniquely different.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner loves making films that pit Man against the harsh physical environment (e.g. the hostile jungle in Papillon, the hot battlefields in Patton). Now in Planet Of The Apes, we see barren, isolated landscapes similar (but not equaled) to Lawrence Of Arabia.

Cinematography-wise, it's as beautiful as it's stark. Moreover, famous composer Jerry Goldsmith's striking yet strange score helps to accentuate the primeval mood of the place. Charlton Heston's performance is a balanced mixture of boldness and vulnerability, though not as great as what he had achieved in Ben-Hur.

The most notable aspect of Planet Of The Apes is the costume design, and the makeup effects by John Chambers (who won an honorary Oscar for his pioneering work here). It's incredibly realistic, to the extent that the talking apes become humanistic, and have personalities attached to them, rather than just being shallow talking apes.

The chilling climax somewhat compensates for the average screenplay, and the plain script. There have been several sequels, and a remake by Tim Burton over the decades; but unfortunately they don't even work half as well as the original, becoming diluted and commercialized respectively. The mystery and thrill of the original still remains, and is undoubtedly one of the more fascinating films to grace the screens in the late 1960s.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Appears more at home on a Sunday afternoon matinée in a television broadcast than a theater near you., 25 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This light-hearted, no frills comedy directed by Ho Wi Ding is above average at best, and is nowhere near as memorable as some of the low budget independent works from Taiwan such as Au Revoir Taipei (2010) by Arvin Chen. The plot tells of two Filipino labour workers working in the same factory in Taipei. They are Dado (Bayani Agbayani) and Manuel (Jeffrey Quizon). They find a brand-new red couch left alone by a quarrelling local couple and decide to bring it back to the rooftop of their dormitory where they could enjoy cold beer and contemplate the night sky.

As a comedy, Ho's film does provide a few laughs, with the best comedic scene going to the one that shows Dado explaining to Manuel about the need to shrink Taipei 101. Interlaced with moments of subtle drama, Pinoy Sunday shows promise as a "slice of life" kind of film. Unfortunately, much of the drama seems staged, and appears to function in a way that does not feel integral to plot advancement. On hindsight, it feels more of a "road movie" driven not by circumstance, but by coincidence.

While there is a clear motivation by the leads to bring that aforementioned couch back, that motivation is not backed up by an ideal loftier than materialistic desires. This is due in part to the character development of the two leads, which is lacking despite the effort by the screenwriters to include romantic subplots to caricaturize Dado and Manuel as polar opposites when it comes to interpreting love and passion. The link between their romantic exploits and their arduous journey at hand does not seem to be well-established, and even feels mutually exclusive at times.

Judging from the film's ending, it is quite obvious that Ho wants to paint the picture that reality exists and it sucks. Life is a struggle and being "outsiders" in a city that is understandably xenophobic does not help the cause. I had the opportunity to catch Ho's award-winning shorts Respire (2005) and Summer Afternoon (2008), both of which were quite admirable from a technical standpoint. But for Pinoy Sunday, I am less than impressed. While it is not dull, it does not feel at all cinematic, and would appear more at home on a Sunday afternoon matinée in a television broadcast than a theater near you.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Only Yesterday is one of the great animated films to come out of the early nineties., 21 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Only Yesterday is one of the great animated films to come out of the early nineties. Studio Ghibli stalwarts Hayao Miyazaki (who serves as producer for this film) and director Isao Takahata combine to deliver an immensely heartwarming film about memories of the past.

Only Yesterday (also known as Memories of Yesterday) is essentially a Takahata film because it deals with nostalgia. Takahata is a realist filmmaker whose Grave of the Fireflies (1988) remains to be one of the most heartbreaking films ever made. He is a director who values the past and uses it as a construct to further our understanding of one's identity and more importantly, one's inner feelings which could be difficult to translate into words because of abstraction.

Miyazaki, on the other hand, is a conjurer of fantasy, whose films such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) bring our wildest imaginations to life. It appears to be that Miyazaki is the more popular (read: more appealing) and acclaimed filmmaker of the two, but Takahata's films are powerful explorations of social issues which can enlighten us in ways we probably would not have felt before.

Only Yesterday centers on an unmarried woman who lives in Tokyo. Her name is Taeko, and she is lonely and unhappy. She recollects of her time when she was a child when during the holidays she would visit the countryside for bathhouses to relax in. The film becomes a partial flashback of her memory. She remembers key moments in her life – her conservative father's refusal to allow her to act, embarrassing episodes of infatuation and discussion about 'periods' with her classmates, her incapability to understand mathematical fractions – and reflects on their influences toward the indescribable emptiness she is feeling in her life now.

Taeko decides to move to the countryside for a while. Over there, she discovers answers to her identity, and eventually finds meaning in her life. Takahata's microscopic observation of the nuances of his culture's social fabric allows his screenplay to connect emotionally to his audience. A scene features Taeko's family at the dinner table admiring a fruit (i.e. pineapple) they have bought but have not seen before. Anticipating an exotic food experience, they take several optimistic bites, but all except Taeko are left disappointed with its bland taste.

In another sequence (arguably the film's most exquisite), Taeko, who is on her way home after school, meets the boy who has a crush on her along a side street. Both are delicately painted against the shimmering horizon. Moments of awkward silence are interrupted by stammered bursts of one-word verbal exchanges. Takahata films this with child-like innocence and captures the emotion of "first love" so vividly that it would be hard not to smile with a blush.

Takahata's broad, watercolor-esque drawings differ from the intricacy of Miyazaki's finely-detailed ones. But both share similar aesthetic merits and have become the Studio Ghibli style of Orientalized hand-drawn animation. Only Yesterday concludes with one of the most understated but emotionally overwhelming endings ever – a five minute end title sequence which brings the story to a poignant close through the use of silent visuals accompanied by a stirring song sung in Japanese. A recommended viewing for all.

GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)

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2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Cuckoo's Nest is a must-watch for all cinephiles and is most certainly one of the great American films of the seventies., 21 June 2011

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One of the great directors who have made the effortless change from European cinema to the glamour of Hollywood, Milos Forman has two Best Directing Oscars to show for his achievement in two extraordinary films whose fame would forever be indebted to the highly-respected filmmaker from Czechoslovakia – Amadeus (1984) and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The latter stars Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning performance playing Randall McMurphy, a lazy troublemaker who has a history of violence and now fakes insanity that allows him to be committed to a local mental institution.

Randall's arrival shakes things up in the mental institution. He makes friends with a deaf and mute American-Indian called Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) and establishes a love-hate relationship with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the institution's dictatorial head nurse. Always up to mischief, Randall's rebellious nature sees him heavily involved in a series of situations leading up to the film's shatteringly powerful climax that is not only emotional wrenching, but oddly inspirational as well. With an exceptional supporting cast of "mental patients" played by talented character actors such as Danny DeVito and Brad Dourif, Forman's film is a tour de force in ensemble acting.

Both a brilliant behavioral comedy and an intricate drama, Cuckoo's Nest blends strong character interplay with moments of side-splitting situational humor such as the iconic scene of Randall playing foolishly with the water cooler. The sequence that still takes my breath away no matter how many times I see it is the one that starts with Charley Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) pleading Nurse Ratched to return his cigarettes and ends in utter chaos involving nearly everyone in the madhouse. Although the film pokes fun at the unfortunate lives of shackled mental patients, by the end of the film, Forman's sensitive direction would have allowed us to observe the dehumanizing effects of institutionalization.

Cuckoo's Nest explores themes of morality, humanity and friendship through its anti-hero and villain. Randall who yearns for freedom in the institution wages physical and psychological warfare with Nurse Ratched, who is hell-bent in enforcing strict rules and regulations. Some would argue that the head nurse is just doing her job, but by the film's climax, she turns into one of American cinema's coldest and most cruel villains. While the film is shot from the point-of-view of Chief, Randall remains to be our anti-hero and our rallying point against oppressive authority. Yet, we occasionally feel that the ruckus he creates borders on lunacy, to the point that it might be difficult to defend his actions.

Therein lies the brilliance of Forman's film – the development of a complex protagonist and antagonist whose roles interchange depending on the circumstance. There is no clear case of black or white in this film, which makes it an experience to savor even on its umpteen viewing. Cuckoo's Nest is a must-watch for all cinephiles and is most certainly one of the great American films of the seventies. Highly recommended.

GRADE: A+ (9.5/10 or 5 stars)

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Greenberg (2010)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A passive character study of Roger Greenberg., 17 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Greenberg is not a film for everyone. Especially if you are a Ben Stiller fan. Nominated for the Golden Bear (Berlin), Greenberg stars Stiller in his most and probably only serious role to date. Apparently, there is a likelihood that uninformed fans of the popular Hollywood comedian would jump into a theater screening Greenberg and find themselves utterly disappointed that the film is not quite funny, and if it is, it is funny in a serious kind of way. A note of interest, this could be the only time when a Stiller film does not command a full attendance at a local screen near you.

Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a man in his late thirties with lots of time at his disposal and no obligations to work commitments whatsoever. His brother is on a holiday with his own family at Vietnam and requires him to take care of his house for a couple of weeks. It is known that Roger has some mental problems but they are not serious enough to be a liability. The other lead character is Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). She is Roger's brother's assistant who is tasked to "help out with the chores and grocery shopping". In an idealistic scenario, they meet and fall in love with each other and presumably live happily ever after.

But Noah Baumbach (the Oscar-nominated writer-director of The Squid and the Whale (2005)) takes a longer route to build up that ideal. Greenberg is a quiet film about an introverted man with psychological insecurities trying to lead a life of worth after setbacks in the past caused him to lose track of his life and perhaps even his identity. Both lead characters like each other, and in a moment of spontaneous sexual urge, Roger performs cunnilingus on Florence but stops short of intercourse.

Even then, there is a sense of awkwardness in their unusual relationship because Roger is unable to express love towards Florence. As a result, Florence takes it as face value that he just needs a temporary companion and does not see a long-term future for both of them. Stiller's performance is decent, but it is Gerwig's that is far more praiseworthy. She is a new talent to take note. It is to their (and Baumbach's) credit that the "romantic tension" between the leads is excellently sustained throughout, right up to the last scene.

The problem with Greenberg is that it feels too laidback, and may I say, even lethargic to a certain extent. There are moments when the film occasionally straddles over the line of boredom. Despite the good performances, the leads are quite difficult to identify with. Hence, we are unable to share a common bond with them. They might be fulfilled emotionally at the end, but we are not. And even if we are, is there any significance? Greenberg sets itself as a passive character study of Roger Greenberg. It's worth taking a look, but only if nothing else interests you at that very moment.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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2 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
I suspect die-hard fans won't be bobbling up and down in their seats when the end credits roll., 17 June 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Another week, another superhero movie to catch on the big screen. This time it's green, but it is not huge and not by Marvel Comics. Truth be told, not many people know of Green Lantern, unless you are someone who feels that life is not worth living for if one doesn't know these super- cool guys. If it is reassuring, I am not one of these fanatics. Thus, watching Green Lantern for me is more of an exploratory experience than something I would be giddily excited about. Though I suspect die-hard fans won't be bobbling up and down in their seats either when the end credits roll.

Green Lantern, for all of its conceptual creativity, is still a relatively weak genre film. And with the blockbuster gale in our midst, this film will not blow audiences away, but be blown away to Oa instead. Oa, as you will see, is a distant planet far away from Earth where Ryan Reynolds' character Hal Jordan, to his incredulous disbelief, will fly there to undergo training to be part of the Green Lanterns, an intergalactic peacekeeping force of sorts whose superpower comes not only from the green ring they wear but from their willpower.

Directed by Martin Campbell, who famously rebooted the James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006), Green Lantern however is not always a joy to watch. It is still fairly entertaining and for a first installment in a planned trilogy, the setup and storytelling is at least straightforward and clear. The chemistry between Hal and Carol (Blake Lively), who is his colleague at the Air Force and his romantic partner, is cheesy but minimal, though attempts at humor fall flat more often than not.

The film's biggest flaw is in its treatment of its villains, of which there are two. The first one is Hector Hammond, who is played by a sneering Peter Sarsgaard. He seems to transform into the evil cousin of the Elephant Man too late into the film. Thus, his presence is more perfunctory to the plot than someone we truly fear. The other villain called Parallax, a huge octopus-like monster alien that is almost as huge as the alien spaceship in Independence Day (1996), is considerably more menacing. It comes from outer space and it feeds on fear, and gives the film's climax the requisite epicness it needs.

Green Lantern's visual effects is fantastical and at times cartoonish looking, which somewhat fits with the general campy experience that we get from the film. I must say that the superpowers of Green Lantern are quite eye-opening with the use of mind and will power instead of sheer physical strength or high-tech weaponry. Pity he has to constantly remind himself to recharge his ring with a portable green lantern. It must suck to go about saving the world knowing you have to do that every morning.

If you are still in two minds whether to catch this, I say wait for the DVD release. Or just read the comics, I bet they are much better.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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