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Ladda Land (2011)
It's not just another haunted house next door. No, really.
Know what's scarier than figures lurking in the corner? The fact that your efforts to bring your family together become the very reasons they are slowly turning against you. While Sophon Sakdapisit doesn't do much to bring anything original to the haunted house yarn Ladda Land, he effectively ventures into each of his characters' psyche, turns them into real people with real concerns, and successfully fleshes out their fears whether of this world or those of beyond.
The title refers to a middle class subdivision in Chiang Mai, where a well-meaning man played by Saharat Sangkapreecha moves with his family to work for a drug supplement company. He has another reason for wanting to stay there his mother-in-law hasn't forgiven him for marrying her daughter (Piyathida Woramusik) and makes his life miserable by rubbing in his faults and failures as a father to his two children. He's especially estranged to his 14-year-old daughter (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), who grew up spoiled by her grandma. But aside from that, everything's going well with the household that is until a brutal murder occurs at a nearby house and scary things start happening.
It sounds standard but the narrative's arc from the near-perfect happiness of its characters and the world they inhabit to their slow and painful descent to paranoia and madness is near-perfectly smooth. Sakdapisit's skill in creating such trajectory is evident in how he begins the movie, with Sangkapreecha unpacking things and meticulously decorating the house, signifying his desire to start a new life for his family. It's a stark contrast to how it all ends, with bare and empty rooms except for a few objects thrown around, underpinning the tragic outcome despite the best intentions.
There's convincing performances from everyone involved, too. Sangkapricha plays it with such subtlety that even when his character acts like an idiot as required of horror films (Why not call the police first instead of venturing into a murder site alone?), he never comes off as annoying. Woramusik and Sakuljaroensuk's characters are also defined more than other horror movies care to carve out secondary roles.
As a horror film, Ladda Land teeters midway between the best to reach these shores and the worst of them. What's certain is that it works better when it focuses on the family rather than on the spooky things that go bump in the dark. It's wise enough to invest emotionally and ratchets up the tension so well that it even if it doesn't consistently bring in the scares, there's a constant feeling of anxiety.
RPG Metanoia (2010)
A montage sequence in RPG: Metanoia reminds one of the days when the erstwhile hi-tech Nintendo Entertainment System (aka the family computer) fell victim to frequent blackouts and kids of those days had nothing else to do but go outside and play patintero and other such games. Kids playing real games is a strange scenario in a movie that's supposed to embrace and capitalize on the popularity of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). But it's a good thing, right? It may actually inspire the revival of Doctor Kwak-Kwak. Or maybe not.
It's actually this clever dichotomy done well that partly helps in making Metanoia become more than just the Philippines' first 3D-animated movie, moving sprightly between humorous scenes that involve an unnamed local barrio and a virtual world with pleasing visual styles. (Of course, if you're expecting something on par with Hollywood, screw you.) It also features adorable characters brought to life by vocal performances from Zaijan Jaranilla, Eugene Domingo, Aga Muhlach, and a few former Going' Bulilit tykes. Jaranilla voices Nico, an online-gaming geek who's never good in any real-life activity and chooses to dwell in the titular virtual world with his friends. As he puts it, it's the only thing he knows how to do well, so why not take it seriously? Things change when a malevolent program takes over the minds of virtual users, and render them in a zombie-like trance. It's up to Nico Zero in Metanoia and his gang of ragtag tweens to destroy the virus and save the world.
Metanoia engages with its inventive display of the local pop culture and surprisingly heart-tugging moments while not losing sight of its narrative. While it drowns in a wee bit too much mauling on believing in oneself (okay, we get it already) and the climax gets a bit preposterous, especially when it tries to explain the origin and mechanism of the virus, director Luis Suarez guides the film with a sure hand. It's an endearingly winning, creative piece of effort in a time when those qualities don't even seem to matter.
Fine mrtve djevojke (2002)
Fine Live Croatia
Functioning less than a straight-out thriller than an intriguing slice of life in a golden-hued Zagreb in the early naughts, "Fine Dead Girls" presents a decrepit building in the Croatian capital as a microcosm of the former Yugoslav nation and its inhabitants as they try to pick up the pieces from a bloody not-so-distant past. Dalibor Matanic's saga liberally borrows from a lot of classics, but at least he vividly captures the tension and paranoia emanating from each individual, like an ex-army man who ostensibly beats up his wife, to a physician who does illegal abortion in his topmost room, and a man who can't let go of her wife even in death. At the center of such palette of idiosyncratic characters are a young lesbian couple played with understated effectiveness by Olga Pakalovic and Nina Violic. The two initially hide their relationship from a homophobic landlady with a highly chauvinistic son, but are eventually found out and soon find themselves spiraling into societal and moral conflicts. At its best, "Fine Dead Girls" is a meditative introspection into the Croatian psyche during the immediate post-war period, in which various societies struggle to forge an identity following the Balkan conflicts. Matanic doesn't give the film enough momentum to sustain an effective third act but "Fine Dead Girls" deftly paints a convincing portrait of a nation irresolutely trying to welcome every member with open arms regardless of orientation, even as it's raring to return to its feet.
Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
Multifaceted spy drama
With The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), debuting director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck crafts a simultaneously gripping and intelligent political drama about an agent for East Germany's secret police. Just as a Stasi agent finds himself irrevocably drawn into the lives of the couple he's spying on, so does Donnersmarck compel his viewers into an oh-so meticulously crafted piece set in pre-unified Germany, five years before the Berlin Wall's crumbling. Capt. Wiesler, played by the late Ulrich Mühe with an eerie adeptness, is assigned to conduct a covert surveillance on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler initially carries out his task with such calculated efficiency, but gradually finds himself pulled into an emotional web that slowly peels away his impassive facade. In the same way, Donnersmarck lets The Lives of Others unfold into a beautifully structured story that's powerfully told and populated with richly defined characters. It's at once a chilling reminiscence of a recent part in German history and a touching portrait of the human social network.
Los cronocrímenes (2007)
Zippy doubling back
Timecrimes doesn't dole out profound messages on the ontological paradox or the repercussions of messing with the time-space continuum, but it clearly doesn't intend to. Nacho Vigalondo's low-budget sci-fi may have a fraction of the budget of Hollywood giants treading the same theme, but this bang-up thriller on a man's misadventures through time manages to be more taut and clever than the most of them. When binocular-toting Hector (Karra Elejalde) spots a naked woman in the woods one afternoon in his backyard, he decides to investigate. He walks into the forest but before fully realizing what's going on, he's stabbed in the arm by a man whose face is covered in pink bandages. Hector tries to elude his attacker and eventually seeks refuge in a facility, where a lab technician (Vigalondo) convinces him to hide in a strange-looking machine. The contraption turns out to be a time machine, and Hector finds himself an hour earlier, sending the plot into a zippy mindf*ck that keeps the elaborate proceedings so tight that the cracks hardly show. While Timecrimes sometimes stumble into predictable twists, Vigalondo contents himself with constructing engagingly taut labyrinth that culminates in a clever ending presaged by the mess shown just after the opening sequence.
When good girls go bad
P would have been a superior product had its intriguing first act detailing the sorry life of bar girls in Thailand not been dissipated by a digressing and laughable second part, whose juxtaposition with the former feels as proper as a pad thai with ketchup. Aaw (Suangporn Jaturaphut) has never had it easy growing up as an orphaned Khmer (someone with Cambodian ancestry) in rural Thailand as kids her age are looking at her in contempt because of her grandmother who practices black magic, a skill she consequently learns of as well. When grandma falls sick and her medical supply becomes too much to financially handle, Aaw falls victim of her innocence and is virtually sold off to Bangkok to work as a prostitute and pole dancer, and have her name changed to Dau (which foreigners can pronounce more easily). Initially scared and hesitant, Dau gradually becomes more comfortable with her environment and uses her knowledge of black magic as comeuppance for the people who wronged her, only to eventually realize that the evil she puts on others is starting to possess her. Brit director/writer/editor/composer Paul Spurrier's Thai film benefits much from its proficiently crafted drama that makes one gravitate easily to the vulnerability of its protagonist, with the progression of its golden hour sunlight-basked provincial-setting to the harsher neon-lit seedy Bangkok reflecting Dau's slow departure from virginity into a bloodthirsty monster. Yet as with this ugly transformation, P follows suit as it ultimately devolves into a bumbling, schlocky B-horror without an interest to dole any shred of ingenuity as the body count grows, which, in an effort to provide a dichotomy, not only proves detrimental to itself but also to the part which could have worked.
Miss You Like Crazy (2010)
Malaysia like crazy, Malaysia like crazy...
Filipinos have prided themselves in giving clever names to their businesses. If only that wit was shared by local mainstream filmmakers. Or at least by their works' titles. John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo -- along with rom-com go-to director Cathy Garcia-Molina -- in essence return from where they left off in Miss You Like Crazy, the latest project together of the two bankable stars that provides nothing you haven't seen on screen before. Except maybe Kuala Lumpur. Cruz stars as Allen, a young man who thought he's prevented Mia (Alonzo), an overseas worker who's on a break from Malaysia, from jumping off a ferry plying the Pasig River after a chance meeting. Turns out she wasn't suicidal and -- cue meet-cute -- they hit it off right away. The problem is, Allen is engaged to a socialite (Maricar Reyes) and his career hinges on his impending marriage with her. Gasp, what's a guy with two loves to do? Bembol Roco as Mia's paralyzed father amusingly typifies the comatose status this latest glossy schtick turns out to be, with a script that doles out love insights as profound as a fortune cookie quote. For some reason, the Malaysian capital features in some scenes, though, the underused locale is mostly focused on the Petronas Towers and arbitrarily chosen scenes that could have been shot anywhere else. Of course, all Cruz and Alonzo really need to do is play sweet, get mad at each other, and make up. The two are basically playing the prequel of their last cinematic pairing, One More Chance. Like that movie, Miss You Like Crazy is under the guise that it wants to be different but is ultimately undone by the need to pander to intended audiences.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Slumdog Millionaire is the schmaltz that Hollywood is known for. But credit Danny Boyle, characteristic visual artist he is, for delivering an earnest crowd-pleasing melodrama that unabashedly embraces its characters' oh-so heartfelt triumphs against adversities and cynicism, and hits the right notes in the process. Ditching complicated narratives that usually take the better of his films' characters, Boyle's film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan) entrenches itself in its glorification of love, friendship, and destiny (or perhaps karma), composing them and their cacophonous Indian backdrop in cross-processed film colors, slanted camera angles, and fiercely rapid editing. Brimming with joy and sentimentality, Simon Beaufoyt's script (from Vikas Swarup's bestselling book Q&A) narrates through a fractured timeline the saga of Jamal (Dev Patel), an 18-year old Indian boy who despite having raised in the slums and having no formal education, manages to get to the final round of the local edition of the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Such feat catches the attention of local police who, believing he is cheating, interrogate, torture, and mock him; and to whom he calmly explains every momentous detail in his life - diving in a pile of poo to have an autographed picture of his favorite Bollywood actor, watching his mom die in the hands of anti-Muslim rioters, his misadventures with older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) etc -- that ties into his knowledge of the questions' answers, as well as why he joined the contest in the first place -- to meet the girl he loved since childhood: Latika (Frieda Pinto). Slumdog Millionaire is absolutely predicated to the notion that the staunch devotion one has to achieving something and the unwavering love for someone is ultimately rewarded by destiny -- or any Higher Being for that matter -- a concept not lost on Boyle, who relentlessly surrounds his characters with the festive environment of their country as they circuitously find their ways into reconnecting with each other, capped by the Bollywood-style musical number in the end. It's an unabashedly romantic fairytale, and Boyle's eye for beautiful images and proficiency for crisp storytelling enhance a tale where well-meaninged people are rightfully rewarded in beautifully mysterious ways.
The truth shall prevail. Or not.
Opening Japanese cinema to the world (particularly to the West) upon its release, Rashomon's enduring qualities is most evident in, along its title having been introduced into the English language (as in the Rashomon effect), its theme's strong resonance even after almost 60 years it was released. Narratively simple yet paradoxically complicated, Akira Kurosawa's widely hailed classic deftly examines the unknowable virtue of truth that even the oft-recited mantra "To see is to believe" loses its meaning when thwarted by mankind's ultimate predication to subjectivity and -- perhaps -- psychological egoism. Adapted from two Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories, Kurosawa's saga concerns itself with an event that transpired in the woods as recounted in wildly differing perspectives three days later at a court trial by the three participants and one supposedly impartial witness as shown in revolutionary flashback sequences. The differing yet equally plausible testimonies are nonetheless bound by one unequivocal truth: a samurai (Masayuki Mori) died in the woods during an encounter with a bandit (Toshiro Mifune) who may or may not have raped the former's wife (Machiko Kyô) and who may or may not have killed the samurai in the process. The bandit claims the samurai's wife yielded willingly to his sexual advances and he killed the samurai in an ensuing duel; the wife swears she was raped and that his husband committed suicide using her dagger; while the samurai's ghost (speaking through a medium) recounts how his wife wanted to go with the bandit and have his husband killed. Compounding the issue is a woodcutter's testimony that radically differs in details from the previous three accounts that to piece together the details from each perspective into one coherent story is an exercise in futility. No matter, since Kurosawa's concern is less in presenting an objective account of what truly transpired than demonstrating the uncertainty of truth, a theme he and cinematographer Kazuo Myagawa often engage in here -- a murky perspective of the world signified by the torrential rain in the opening sequence, the avant-garde direct shot of the sun partially obscured by leaves, the dense forest where the main action takes place, and one character's continuous monologue that he "does not understand". Masterfully buried in ambiguity and anchored by strong performances, Rashomon isn't much about providing a solution as it is a proposal to come up with one's own conclusion based on one's partiality, a masterful artistic depiction of how truth can be flawed.
Paano na kaya (2010)
Creativity is scarce in Paano na Kaya?, a Gerald Anderson-Kim Chiu schmaltz-fest that remains notable insofar as its title isn't a one-line-fits-all-rom-com pulled from an English-language ballad. (It's a one-line-fits-all-rom-com pulled from a Tagalog-language ballad.) Which is to say, it doles out the straightforward sugar rush an undemanding audience expects -- from Anderson's abs, to Chiu's chirpily oriental schtick routine, to a story that goes deep into romantic-comedy territory without innovation that only the most ardently romantic will swoon past the painful contrivances. In a broadly written plot where all the situations, characters, and dialog seemed to have popped out of a teenage diary, Mae (Chiu) is secretly head-over-heels with best pal Bogs (Anderson), only she's too civilized to tell him and his girlfriend Anna (Melissa Ricks). But when Anna dumps him for her boss, Bogs is left to cry on Mae's shoulders and -- wait for it -- he falls in love with her. Journey is more important for rom-coms, so the saying goes, but the venture in Paano na Kaya? is as predictable as the destination itself, brazenly knocking off ideas from its predecessors, including excruciating code-switching to Chinese one-liners that would make Mother Lily and Joel Lamangan blush. Director Ruel Bayani go far beyond kitsch by spelling out the romance in the clumsiest, most obvious way imaginable: Chiu and Anderson talk about passion of love on a fire truck in the middle of a burning compound. Such attempt highlights the fact that there's far too little brilliance to these hackneyed proceedings to make it anything more than a reason to see the pair in a larger screen.