movie reviews

12 Years A Slave

If you want to convey the horrors of slavery, you don’t need to do much – the very idea is horrific in itself. Steve McQueen’s film based on freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup’s memoir is bare and lean and stark. I have read (though I can’t verify) that the film was shot with one camera for 35 days, and you can see the economy in the use of images. It opens with a silent shot of Solomon with a number of slaves staring at an as-yet unseen master. There is no intensity in their eyes. No fight. No life. Most scenes are silent with no non-diegetic music and no dialogue. How do you convey the horror of lynching? Show several minutes of Solomon with a noose around his neck, abandoned by his would-be lynchers, standing on tiptoes from sun-up to sundown while slaves go about their chores, not wanting to be whipped by getting involved. There are stretches of rare beauty — the music (singing on the field), moments of peace (Patsey creating her corn dolls) — but the film is only made bearable by my knowing that Solomon will be reunited with his family. I did not know about Solomon prior to this film. I did not know that freemen (Solomon was born to a freed slave and a free woman of color) were kidnapped and brought to states where slavery was legal in order to be sold. The fact that I had to say “free woman of color”, that I had to qualify, makes me choke by the grim injustice of it all. Goddamn it, let’s not allow ourselves to do this again.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Speaking of the economy in the use of images, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street ends with a shot of men and women attending Jordan Belfort’s motivational talk, looking on, waiting for wisdom to sink in. You can almost smell the despair and hope – and it serves as an indictment. It is the best image with which to close this film, this shameless show of debauchery and disgusting excess. Belfort and his ilk are loathsome creatures, and they are fascinating, but they do not deserve our admiration.

To quote Matt Soller Seitz:

There will be a few points during “Wolf” when you think, “These people are revolting, why am I tolerating this, much less getting a vicarious thrill from it?” At those moments, think about what the “it” refers to. It’s not just these characters, and this setting, and this particular story. It’s the world we live in. Men like Belfort represent us, even as they’re robbing us blind. They’re America, and on some level we must be OK with them representing America, otherwise we would have seen reforms in the late ’80s or ’90s or ’00s that made it harder for men like Belfort to amass a fortune, or that at least quickly detected and harshly punished their sins. Belfort was never punished on a level befitting the magnitude of pain he inflicted. According to federal prosecutors, he failed to abide by the terms of his 2003 restitution agreement. He’s a motivational speaker now, and if you read interviews with him, or his memoir, it’s obvious that he’s not really sorry about anything but getting caught. We laugh at the movie, but guys like Belfort will never stop laughing at us.

I am reminded of the infamous Enron tapes while watching this.

In the now infamous Grandma Millie exchange, recorded on Nov. 30, 2000, two traders, identified as Kevin and Bob, discuss demands by California officials that electricity-generating companies and traders pay refunds for price-gouging. They also refer to the disputed presidential election, which was as yet undecided.

Kevin: So the rumor’s true? They’re [expletive] takin’ all the money back from you guys? All those money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?

Bob: Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she’s the one who couldn’t figure out how to [expletive] vote on the butterfly ballot.

Kevin: Yeah, now she wants her [expletive] money back for all the power you’ve charged for [expletive] $250 a megawatt hour.

Bob: You know — you know — you know, Grandma Millie, she’s the one that Al Gore’s fightin’ for, you know?

Later in the same conversation, Kevin and Bob express little sympathy for Californians.

Kevin: Oh, best thing that could happen is [expletive] an earthquake, let that thing float out to the Pacific and put ’em [expletive] candles.

Bob: I know. Those guys — just cut ’em off.

Kevin: They’re so [expletive] and they’re so like totally — —

Bob: They are so [expletive].

Nothing funny about these disgusting men.

Ender’s Game

This film adaptation is a visual treat, and it’s a good translation of a good book. The writers made changes but kept the essence of the narrative intact. The SFX and the film’s overall design are stunning.

frozen

Frozen is Disney’s newest animated film offering, and its trailers are not very good. Corny, boring, and they don’t make you go I want to see that the way Pixar trailers do. This is a good thing, because once you’re in the cinema (driven by friends’ crazy-high praises) and the film starts rolling, and the music starts, you are immediately blown away. I literally sat there speechless because wow this is actually good.

Watch it for the music (this film stars Wicked‘s Idina Menzel), for the laughter (the trailers do not do Olaf justice – that snowman is hilarious), and for a different Disney princess story. Finally, Disney! Now isn’t that more fun?

catching fire (film)

The lesson here – the lesson in life – is do not underestimate the power of word-of-mouth.

I was underwhelmed and frustrated by the first film adaptation, so despite my love of Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket/Fashion Diva, I swore not to watch the rest of the trilogy.

I heart Effie.

Because it will most likely suck, and I didn’t even like Catching Fire the book all that much, and the cinema costs money.

Then word-of-mouth. More like word of my social network feeds. I see people recommending the film, people who have not read the book, people who have read the books and hated the first (flawed, forgettable) adaptation.

Thank you, friends and your digital prodding.

Casting and cinematography are A+, but we know this already from the first film. Hunger Games’ gems (and by “gems” I mean “Elizabeth Banks”) just got buried under a ton of shaky camera work, poor characterization, and bad editing.

In Catching Fire, the filmmakers knew what changes should be made to make the story flow, to make the scenes that come after be the only scenes that can ever come after. (Even the Harry Potter films are flawed in this department, with most installments confusing non-readers and frustrating the books’ fans.)

What this produced is a highly entertaining, watchable film, effective in key moments, with a story that flows so well you don’t realize more than two hours has passed.

[Cut for further discussion and spoilers.]

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movie reviews

Halloween is over, but I just want to tell you about these two films that I enjoyed.

I have a hard time finding a horror film that truly gets under my skin (recent disappointments: Mama, Sinister, The Conjuring), so when I do see one that impresses me, I just have to share.

Grave Encounters (2011)

I can’t recall the title, but there’s this ghost hunting show on cable that annoys me to no end. It’s hosted by this eager guy who looks like a gym trainer and sounds and acts like a douche, surrounded by similar annoying douches. Ninety percent of the episodes comprises of shots of the crew in front of the camera practically begging for a paranormal experience. “Do something! Anything! Cut my nose off!” In one episode, something does happen. A cameraman sits in a dark room and something falls in the background. There is no wind. There is no one there. There is no other explanation. The host and the cameraman react to this supposed paranormal encounter by high-fiving each other like drunk guys in a party, chest-bumping and shouting “Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”

I saw maybe three episodes of this and gave up in disgust. It’s like watching a – you know that scene in Ang Babae sa Septic TankWhen the young filmmakers find their shooting venue? They stand on a mountain of garbage and start whooping, celebrating, excited about the awards they will surely receive for the film. For the people living in the slums, this is their life. For the filmmakers, it’s a ticket to international fame.

It feels wrong. Disrespectful.

I’m sure these ghost hunting shows informed the creation of Grave Encounters, which one can also view as a parody. A group of filmmakers, excited to catch a ghost on camera for their show’s Episode 6, locks themselves up for eight hours in an abandoned asylum. Something happens, of course. Things quickly escalate. It features a primal fear, of being locked in a place alone (a place that is possibly alive), which makes it highly effective.

(The host of the show is also a douche, so this is also highly cathartic.)

Pee Mak (2013)

I am wary of horror films mixed with comedy. Very rarely, it works. It works here, to an extent. Pee Mak comes home from the war with his friends and finds his wife and newborn son at home. But the people of the village are acting strangely. They won’t sell food to him. They all seem scared of his wife. When his wife sings his son a lullaby, the neighbors cover their ears.

It’s funny, but when horror kicks in you see that there is real danger for the characters involved. You stop laughing then.

But: It trips in the final act. The concluding scene is too long, the decision makes no sense, and the film is rendered silly. The ride is fun, but the ending is a let-down.

It delivers good laughs though, so it’s not  a disappointing watch. It’s better than most comedy films out there.

gravity

Of the four fundamental forces of the universe, gravity is the weakest – you can hold up a photo with a fridge magnet despite the force of the entire planet pulling the photo back to itself. But without gravity, we lose our sense of direction. Our untethered selves can fly off for an infinite period of time in infinite space, with nothing to stop us and nothing to hold on to. Like falling into a bottomless well. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Alfonso Cuaron is one of my favorite filmmakers.  I enjoyed the visual feast of Prisoner of Azkaban and was moved by the bleak Children of Men.  In Gravity, Cuaron takes the theme of overcoming adversity and the age-old plot of the shipwrecked survivor to outer space. In the opening scene, the Hubble Telescope looks like a piece of log on the surface of the ocean, and Dr. Ryan Stone (of course her name is “Stone”) a swimmer clutching on to it for dear life.

[Cut for further discussion and spoilers.]

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movie reviews

I was supposed to write (repeat 10,000x) but instead I sat my ass down this weekend and watched films.

Lincoln (2012)

I didn’t pay much attention to this Steven Spielberg film when it first came out, despite the buzz it generated. In my head, I described it derisively as “Oscar bait”. I thought it would be one of those biopics that would tell the story of the title character’s whole life, from his birth to his death, dripping with forced, completely unsubtle veneration. I hate that. If a storyteller wants me to admire someone, I’d like to come to this admiration on my own. I don’t need anyone shoving heroism down my throat. It’s a turn-off.

Lincoln astounded me. The film focused on the political maneuverings that led to the passing of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery and ending the American Civil War, showing Lincoln’s brilliance as a statesman, and his decency as a human being (a decency apparently not shared by several of his colleagues). I was unsure about the tone the film would take before I started watching. Solemn? Somber? Rah-rah-USA-forever? The film opens with Lincoln telling a soldier (who remarked that the President had “fluffy hair for a white boy”) that his barber hanged himself and “He left me his scissors in his will.” I was hooked. This Lincoln, who loves to make a point by telling long anecdotes, parables and jokes, is funny. He loves telling stories so much that at one point, one of his  men shouts in frustration, “You’re going to tell one of your stories again! I have no time for your stories!” Though the film is set against the backdrop of the four-year Civil War, it is unbelievably hilarious. I enjoyed the insults hurled during the House debates for the amendment (“You unnatural noise!”), and Mrs. Lincoln’s long-ass, tear-himself-a-new-one speech to a visibly irked congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens.

Clocking in at 2 and a half hours, Lincoln has a lot of bright moments, touching moments. Daniel Day-Lewis deserves all the accolades he received for this brilliant performance.

Mientras Duermes/Sleep Tight (2011)

You live in a secure apartment building, with a concierge filtering visitors, but how safe are you, really? This Spanish psychological thriller should kick your paranoia into overdrive. It’s a nice, slow burn, though it got me thinking: why won’t people in this building invest in deadbolts?

Tell No One/Ne le dis à personne (2006)

This French thriller is based on the 2001 novel by American author, Harlan Coben. Alexandre Beck is a pediatrician who loses his wife to a brutal murder eight years ago. But is she really dead? He receives an email with a video link, showing his wife, Elizabeth, older and alive.

I read and loved the novel back in high school (it’s the kind of book I passed on to classmates for them to read), and was glad to revisit it in a new medium. The novel’s plot is pretty airtight, with twists and turns along the way, and the film adaptation does not disappoint.