Friday, September 11, 2009

Dark Blue World (2001)

True blue

The past is often a part of eastern European Cinema. Viewers are usually compelled to think about the history of that region; it’s the only way to appreciate films from that part of the world. It’s not the case with Jan Sverak.

Sverak is the latest in the long line of distinguished Czech filmmakers that include two-time Oscar winner Milos Forman. He won an Academy Award (for Best Foreign Language Film) in 1996 for Kolya. His works are about Czech Republic’s troubled past, but with a comic touch. It’s a method he didn’t deviate from after the critical success of his debut film, Elementary School (1991). Dark Blue World (2001), which will be shown during the Cine Europa Film Festival at Shangri-La, is not much different. The approach is simpler though.

The movie begins in post-Second World War Czechoslovakia, where a former pilot named Frantisch Slama is languishing in an unnamed prison. He reminisces his life after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. During that time, he and a few other Czech pilots join Great Britain’s Royal Air Force after they refuse to submit to their occupiers. Moments with Karel, the youngest and most reckless member of their group, cross his mind often. Their friendship is put to the test when they vie for the affection of a lonely Englishwoman.

Dark Blue World is Sverak’s simplest film to date. Moviegoers don’t need to Google-search on Czech history in able to follow the plot. In fact, the love-triangle subplot resembles Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. But the movie has an element of fatalism, which is tempered with sentiment. The movie is unabashedly emotional. The bluish color, which frequently appears in the movie, captures Slama’s feelings. Perhaps Sverak followed Krzysztof Kieslowski’s approach in his Colors trilogy, but it was the right thing to do.

Emotion runs high in Dark Blue World, but it doesn’t manipulate the audience. It rather takes them to places we love to go.

(First published in Manila Times on September 10, 2009)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 Spanish Film Festival

Spanish Filmfest sampler

El Abuelo/The Grandfather (1998) by Jose Luis Garci
151 minutes

Jose Luis Garci is renowned for lavish melodrama set in picturesque location. That is the case with To Begin Again, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film 23 years ago.

El Abuelo is no different except that the story - about a proud, old man confronting his aristocratic past and the truth behind his two granddaughters - is stretched too much. Futhermore, certain scenes reminded me of those old Hollywood tearjerkers.

But Abuelo is memorable for three reasons: the topnotch screenplay by Garci and Benito Perez Galdos (adapted from his novel of the same title); Manuel Balboa’s stirring musical score; and the wonderful performance of Fernando Fernan Gomez (in the title role).

Machuca (2004) by Andres Wood
121 minutes

1973 is unforgettable in Chilean history. It's the year when General Augusto Pinochet led the military in ousting leftist President Salvador Allende. Costas-Gavras tackled that subject in Missing. Wood may be late (early 70s seems like ages ago), but he did better.

Administrators of Saint Patrick School attempt to integrate kids from the upper class and the lower class. That experiment results to rich boy Gonzalo Infante being good friends with slum kids Pedro Machuca and his cousin Silvana. It’s a good set up, but when Chile's turbulent events affect the school, the lives of these kids will never be the same again.

Wood's approach is realistic and it's full of subtleties that hint on the tension existing within Chilean society. Both made Machuca scathing and heartbreaking.

Both El Abuelo and Machuca are among the films to be featured during the Spanish Film Festival. It will run from October 3-15 at Greenbelt 3.

(First published in Inquirer Libre on October 2, 2006)

The first two episodes of "Prison Break"

The great escape on TV

It could've been another forgettable TV series, but Prison Break shows lots of promise after its first two episodes were shown in the cable channel, Crime/Suspense.

Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) is a structural engineer who gets himself arrested in able to be in the same prison with his older brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell).

Lincoln is on death row for a murder he claims he didn't commit. Only Michael believes him, and he sets a plan for both of them to escape from the prison he helped designed.

But before the siblings embarked on the great escape, Michael has to deal with an array of interesting characters within the penitentiary: a supportive cellmate (Amaury Nolasco); a former mob boss (Peter Stormare); a pacifist doctor (Sarah Wayne Callies); and a warden (Stacy Keach), who treats Michael like his son. All of them may assist the new prisoner in his plan.

Then there are bigger problems to deal with: how Michael can keep himself unscathed while behind bars; and trying to uncover a grand conspiracy behind his big brother's conviction. In the latter's case, he needs the help of his lawyer, Veronica Donovan (Robin Tunney), who happens to be Lincoln's ex-girlfriend.

What made the pilot episode engaging is the taut direction of Brett Ratner (director of the upcoming summer flick, X-Men: The Last Stand). The tension didn't diminish in the second episode, with Greg Yaitanes (he directed a few episodes of Alias, CSI: Miami and Nip/Tuck) behind the camera.

Give credit to writer Nick Santora for the clever script and for creating Michael Scofield, who may be one of the most memorable TV characters of recent. As the young prisoner on a desperate mission, the British-born actor (whose past film works include Underworld and The Human Stain) is fit for the role. This might also be the show that he would be most remembered for.

Scofield's smartness reminded me of Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes' brilliant arch enemy). Not only did Miller play that quality to perfection, but he also deftly shows his character's hero/antihero nature, which is both appealing and dangerous. The supporting cast (notably Swedish actor Stormare) is also topnotch.

Prison Break is not to be missed. Expect the unexpected in the next episodes. Prison Break airs in Crime/Suspense every Tuesday at 10 PM.

(First published in Inquirer Libre on February 28, 2006)

Little Manhattan (2005)

Bittersweet memories

How many can recall their first attempt, as kids, to understand the complexities of life and love? I'm not one of them.

In the late 1980s, tales of such bittersweet memories were presented in the weekly ABC TV series, The Wonder Years. Fans of the coming-of-age show will remember Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage) who recounts what it's like growing up in suburban America during the 1960s.

On of the show's writers was Mark Levin. Now for his film directorial debut, he updates The Wonder Years - the result is Little Manhattan.

In this modern spin, Gabe is a fifth grader living in the Upper West Side. He can't fully comprehend the fact that his estranged parents live in the same apartment. Yet his life, which revolves around his buddies, basketball and scooting around the 10 square blocks around his building, is bliss - until Rosemary Telesco comes into his life.

Gabe has known Rosemary since nursery school, but when they become sparring partners in karate class, the 10-year-old lad develops feelings for her that both thrill and torment him. He falls into an agonizing dilemma after learning that she's leaving for summer camp. Will she be his girl?

What makes Little Manhattan endearing are the characters that the viewers can relate to, and moments such as those known to make life meaningful. Levin also injects a touch of magic realism, a maneuver that made Ally McBeal a little more entertaining (though the effect here isn't meant to be hilarious).

Everything in Manhattan we've seen countless times, but Jennifer's Flackett's screenplay brims with sincerity, which is irresistible. Further, Levin picked his actors well (it's great to see Sex and the City stars Cynthia Nixon and Willie Garson again). But much of the credit goes to the songs - the selection is excellent for walking down memory lane (for instance, The Beatles' In My Life).

Little Manhattan is not among the most memorable films of 2005. Nor is it one that many might remember 10 years from now. But it certainly makes entertaining viewing.

(First published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on January 25, 2006)

2005 Spanish Film Festival

See the best of Spanish and Latin Cinema at Greenbelt 1

From September 29 to October 16, Instituto Cervantes will feature the best of Spanish and Latin Cinema at Greenbelt 1. The long lineup includes Best Picture Goya (the Spanish Oscar) winners and entries for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category. Here are some to look forward to:

The Sea Inside/Mar adentro (2004, 125 minutes) by Alejandro Amenabar

For Ramon Sampedro, the sea is like the sweet life (la dolce vita). Ironically, a cliff diving accident left him paralyzed for several years and he wants to end his sufferings with dignity by suicide. The state refuses him to, but his struggles touch the lives of many, most notably a lawyer who aids to his cause.

Hollywood has already done two movies about euthanasia, namely Whose Life Is It Anyway? (starring Richard Dreyfuss) and It’s my Party (starring Eric Roberts). However, both films don’t affect the viewers as much as Amenabar’s latest. There’s much to root for The Sea Inside, from great performances (particularly Belen Rueda) to stirring musical scores of Richard Wagner and Giacomo Puccini, but the Chilean-born filmmaker best conveyed that life is beautiful, even when death is near. It’s no surprise that Sea won numerous awards, including the Oscar.

Lost Embrace/El abrazo partido (2004, 100 minutes) by Daniel Burman

For those who are tired of movies about Jews reminisce their Holocaust experience, Daniel Burman’s debut work is a treat: a college dropout trying to come to terms with his Polish-Jewish heritage, his father who abandoned him when he was a kid and the seedy shopping center he lives in, which is populated with quirky tenants.

Burman, who is a co-producer of The Motorcycle Diaries, didn’t do any groundbreaking technique in Lost, but this semi-autobiographical “dramedy” (drama comedy) is overflowing with insights about happiness, redemption and self-worth, all of which we can relate to. The movie is anything but a bore.

Torremolinos 73 (2003, 93 minutes) by Pablo Berger

Javier Camara and Candela Pena wonderfully portrayed Alfredo and Carmen, a stressed encyclopedia salesman and his loving wife facing a bleak financial future. With no alternative jobs around, the couple accepts an offer to make films for Scandinavian moviegoers. The catch, though, is it’ll be erotic pictures, which is in demand in the Nordic region. The venture started well until complications threaten the marital union.

Berger presented a slice of Spain’s history, when the European country turned liberal after General Franco’s death. It’s satiric during the first half, but it cooled down in the next half. It’s quite a letdown, but moviegoers have lots to laugh about, which make the viewing satisfying throughout.

(First published in Inquirer Libre on September 28, 2005)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)

A summer to remember

What makes summer special? Is it the heat, the holidays or the happenings? Many movies try to answer that question, from first love (The Summer of ‘42) to anything under the sun (Eric Rohmer’s summer films). The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is the latest to join the bandwagon. Watching it will make audience be more grateful for the summer.

Four best friends spend their first summer apart from one another. Shy Lena (Alexis Bledel) visits her grandparents in Greece. Self-assured Bridget (Blake Lively) goes to a soccer camp in Mexico and falls in love with one of the coaches. Awkward Carmen (America Ferrera) is expecting quality time with her dad in South Carolina, but she feels left out instead after meeting his fiancée and his soon-to-be stepchildren. Jaded Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) remains at home, films a movie, and befriends a young girl named Bailey.

To keep in touch, they pass a pair of Levi’s pants to each other, as well as the adventures they are going through while apart. What’s magical about the jeans is each one of them fits perfectly into it despite their various shapes and sizes. It also symbolizes a turning point in the life of every girl.

The movie is based on the young adult book of the same title by Anne Brashares. Traveling Pants is not different from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Now and Then and other girlie flicks, but what makes it distinctive is the chemistry of Bledel (Sin City), newcomer Lively, Ferrera (who made a breakthrough a few years ago with Real Women Have Curves) and Tamblyn (daughter of West Side Story star Russ Tamblyn).

The smooth resolution of the gals’ predicaments is expected and a letdown, but Pants has no pretension - some scenes will touch the sensitive nerve of some moviegoers. Adult viewers will appreciate the skillful handling of issues like ethnic labeling. Younger ones will relate to what it’s like to struggle while discovering one’s identity. Everyone will enjoy listening to the songs being played as the plot unfolds.

However, the best message that can be learned from Pants is the virtue of friendship, and how extraordinary it is when the camaraderie remains unaffected as the years go by. Anyone desires such closeness. It reminds me of the classic quote from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A man is no failure if he has friends.

(First published in Inquirer Libre on August 24, 2005)

2005 Cinemalaya Film Festival

Cinemalaya breathes life into local movie industry

Cinemalaya screenings will be from July 12 to 17 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and from July 18 to 23 at the UP Film Institute

The Cinemalaya Film Festival wants to prove that a younger generation of filmmakers will breathe life to an industry once hailed for the likes of Lino Brocka. This writer saw four entries:

Room Boy by Alyosius Adlawan

A lonely motel attendant (Polo Ravales of Encantadia) can't get over his wife, who is confined to a mental institution. He gets another chance for happiness when he meets a carefree prostitute (Meryl Soriano). It won't be an easy choice for him though.

Room Boy is reminiscent of Butterflies are Free, a bittersweet, old Hollywood movie starring Goldie Hawn and Edward Albert. Ravales and Soriano are pleasant to watch during the film's amusing and tender moments, but it could've been more memorable if the would-be lovers were played by actors like Vhong Navarro and Tuesday Vargas.

Baryoke by Ron Bryant

A sleepy barrio gets excited over a videoke machine inherited by their amiable barangay captain (Ronnie Lazaro). The music brings momentary joy to anyone
singing along with it. It later becomes the cause of the barrio's countless troubles.

Baryoke is fun viewing and is partly commended for the performances of Lazaro, Elizabeth Oropesa (as his wife) and Pen Medina (as the kapitan's buddy). However, the movie is ruined when it becomes issue-conscious during the second hour. It's unfortunate that Bryant chose not to be simple and straightforward, which is a surefire formula for a good film.

Balay Daku by Jan Philippe Carpio

Julio and Stella relocate to Bacolod, where the former grew up. She not only had to adjust to the laidback lifestyle, but also to Julio's family as well.

JP Carpio's sophomore feature is 3 hours long and his pacing his deliberate. Nonetheless, patient viewers will be rewarded with shots layered with insights -
about living with a traditional family, a city that looks more like a huge subdivision and Negros Occidental, which has more to offer than sugar canes.

Big Time by Mario Cornejo

Danny and Jonas are best friends who dream of being successful. Wilson likes to take over his father's drug business, but his old man has grander plans for him. His girlfriend Melody only thinks of showbiz stardom. A failed kidnapping attempt brings these four characters together. They plan another one, which they all believe is a quick way to fulfill their dreams. But something goes wrong with their many plans.

The plot has been used and modified many times before, but the film has witty lines, a rowdy atmosphere and flashy shots for everyone to like it. Big Time isn't only a crowd pleaser, but may also be the festival's best entry.

(First published in Inquirer Libre on July 14, 2005)