Awards Circle: The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper

I wrap up my docket of this year’s Best Picture nominees with these three films that celebrate the short life of its famous (and infamous) personalities. A code breaker, a civil rights activist, and a sniper join the Oscar race plagued by controversies, most particularly the stark lack of diversity (no female-focused entry, no nominations for women behind the camera, and a straight flush of white actors in contention). Before I digress to the criminally overlook films (one of which is SELMA), here are my brief reviews of 2014’s acclaimed biopics – all of which are scrutinized for their artistic depiction of their respective subjects.

P. S.

Boyhood and Birdman reviews to follow.

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THE IMITATION GAME

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THE IMITATION GAME is an elegant adaptation that successfully decodes the tragic life of mathematician Alan Turing. Gliding to a convenient dramatization (to the fault), the bio-pic is made more affecting by Benedict Cumberbatch who embraces the flaws and bares the poignancy beneath the understated brilliance of his cinematic counterpart.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

SELMA

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Rousing and captivating, SELMA is more than just a stage for the cinematic retelling of Martin Luther King’s activism in the 1960s. Director Ava DuVernay boldly revisits the tormenting years of the American Civil War in a richly told chapter about the demands of right to suffrage through the passionate and commanding portrayal of David Oyelowo as MLK. More than fifty years since history was made, SELMA is still as potent and kinetic — a moving memoir that celebrates the dedicated life of the Nobel laureate, with an air of respect and resonance that will arrests one’s historical and social consciousness.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

 

AMERICAN SNIPER

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Bradley Cooper attempts to sink into the sympathetic modern war hero in Chris Kyle’s autobiography but the pro-war statement of AMERICAN SNIPER and its mischievous pandering of self-righteous heroism are misleading to what it aims for — the emotional and psychological consequences of war. There’s a big difference between being called a hero and actually earning that title onscreen; AMERICAN SNIPER imposes itself as an epic action movie with a blockbuster star that one can mindlessly root for because he saves American lives. But the conscientious viewers have enough of the violence that the film juxtaposes to justify the end. This latest war drama is an unfair, one-dimensional, self-preserving charade that tries too hard to make a single human story but in the end, forgoes the humanity of its bigger and more relevant perspective.

Rating: 2.0/5.0

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Capsule Review: Cinemalaya X (Part 3 “Children’s Show”, “#Y”)

In my last review installment of the Philippine independent movies screened at the Cinemalaya X five months ago (which is long overdue), I pair up two relevant films about the Filipino youth which reside in the extremes of the social spectrum. The first one is a grisly look at calloused and desolate children who participate in street fights for a living; while the second is a timely affair with pampered teenagers who proved to be complex as opposed to the silliness of their so-called ‘first-world problems’. 2014 was a great year for the youth’s dramatic representation in Philippine indie (if only the mainstream field has grown up to showcase more mature and sensible material).

P.S. The following are really short reviews but I both like and recommend them (for the discerning and intrigued viewer).

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CHILDREN’S SHOW

Electrified by its excellent young cast and arresting direction, CHILDREN’S SHOW is a painful yet powerful drama inspired of true events – an unflinching look at the gritty games inured children play that no bystander would dare to join. It begs neither mercy nor pity but how admirable it is on every emotional blow it delivers.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

 

#Y

Not your ordinary teen overdose of vices and angst, #Y is a delicate and opportune look on the more privileged kids of the society whose own drama is handled sensitively and tailored ingeniously, thus the injudicious need to judge.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Awards Circle: Foxcatcher, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything

2014 was indeed a year full of memorable silver screen performances – those that were vigorously inspired from their actual counterparts and were spectacular in fleshing out their fictitious characters. The actors’ extraordinary presence gives life to a vanilla script, which is the crucial base of any cinematic undertaking. The common denominator among these three films is the celebrated screenplay but at least one will be disproved in this brief film review. Read at your own risk and feel free to share your thoughts.

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FOXCATCHER

Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum are a triple threat in director Bennett Miller’s harrowing psychological drama that chronicles the unsettling relationship of an American wrestling team until its brutal end. Tatum is unflinching as the self-inflicting Olympian Mark Schultz who detached himself from the shadow of his renowned brother, Dave (Ruffalo), only to find himself ensnared in the claws of the infamous John du Pont (Carell). Director Miller diffuses a seething atmosphere that brews the gripping tension, particularly on the unpredictable du Pont. Trading his comedic facade to a prosthetic nose and whispery voice, Carell is unrecognizable as the “ornithologist, philatelist and philanthropist” who adheres himself as an eagle; but in truth, he morphs into a vulture that gorges on anxiety and fear that ripples to the audience’s goose bumps. A rare, authentic drama, FOXCATCHER will be best remembered in how its likable leads conjured their most serious and best performances to date, all in the hands of a credible bio-pic director.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

WHIPLASH

Pounding of talent in every cinematic aspect, WHIPLASH is a wholly showcase of artistry from director Damien Chazelle, whose sophomore film sizzles with the electrifying performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and the potent sensation of jazz that transcends more than to the eardrums. Bruising yet brilliant, WHIPLASH is full of passion between the manipulative and naïve kind (in the personas of maestro Terence Fletcher and music freshman Andrew Neiman) and pain of its relevance that will engross the audience. Teller fosters his burgeoning filmography as an aspiring young drummer pulsating of aspiration and compelled even in drastic situations. He shares the spotlight with Simmons whose sharp gestures and blistering words are mere figments of the intimidating force he fearsomely has become. More than the animated antagonist, Simmons is a riveting villain — a black hole suffocating all the attention to him — who strikes venom on his students’ vulnerabilities and betrays them of any flicker of trust he lured them. In its brutal moments, WHIPLASH is almost merciless as Fletcher fumes and erupts over a physically and emotionally battered Andrew. But as the film’s David, Andrew is determined to keep his passion on beating and finally earns the approval of the Goliath in a black suit. Reinvigorating of hope and ambition, WHIPLASH, in its unlikely way, becomes a story of triumph not just for Andrew but for the viewers who see the character in them. What director Chazelle created as inspired by his life turns into an inspiring modern masterpiece that definitely deserves a standing ovation.

Rating: 4.5/5.0

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

It has the precise production elements, galvanized by the memorable performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, but the loose thread on its themes and the superficial treatment of its source material dispel the potential of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING on becoming a more self-sufficient adaptation. There’s no denying of the love that stood between acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking and ex-wife Jane Wilde but the onscreen journey of their relationship felt like an obligatory and theoretical portrayal of Wilde’s memoir, rather than the inherent evolution of their feelings that would have made the romantic aspect more endearing. Unfastened from each other’s orbit, Redmayne and Jones are transformative of their craft; Redmayne physically committing himself in Hawking’s withering state that was both fascinating and agonizing to watch while Jones carrying the weightier emotional barrel as Jane struggles in her growing family, frustration and feelings for her lover. Together, the leads are bounded by simple pronouncements of loving and letting go (which is quite understandable) but the chronology of events after their marriage seemed like a disparate reenactment of the Hawkings’ plot-moving moments that one can simply skim on the film’s source material. The film is blatant on its universal motif of love and hope but Director James Marsh only fished on the skin-deep surface of Hawking’s extraordinary life. Without the emotional core that it flimsily established, The Theory of Everything tumbles on its detached storytelling and shallow direction that could have been greater, if it only embraced everything — the heart, mind and soul — of its subject matter.

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Awards Circle: Ida, Nightcrawler

Two moody portraits of placid ambiguity and ruthless realism are meticulously canvassed in these two films that chronicle the weathering journey of their green yet isolated individuals. Widely differing in tone, premise, and setting, Ida and Nightcrawler both feature a youth’s exposure to an unapologetic environment that fiddled with their malleable innocence. For the former, the future is left hanging but the protagonist is stained by her momentary freedom out the convent while the latter catches the antagonist clawing his way up to the food-chain of journalism exploits, erasing the supposed line of ethics in the process. An ingenious pair of character study, Ida and Nightcrawler aspire and succeed in imprinting a lasting impression this awards season.

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IDA

Exquisitely filmed in monochrome, IDA is an incandescent journey of self-discovery through a contemplative road trip mired with secrets and uncertainties in the wintry 1960s Polish backdrop. Much of the film’s Oscar-nominated cinematography lingered on Anna/Ida and the large headroom above her that wonders about the ruminations underneath her calm façade. Steely and pensive, she is a perfect image of the youth whose idealisms are put to the test – she maybe initially deflective of the worldly enticements surrounding her but soon she takes a bite. The cliffhanger is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s abdication after consuming the prohibited in the Garden of Eden. But Anna/Ida’s case is not born out of self-punishment; it was voluntary albeit uncertain of where she goes next. Aside from the historical examination of its setting (Jewish-Polish relations), IDA is a solemn depiction of one’s internal struggle as Anna/Ida grasps the pieces of her real identity while allowing herself to deliberate on the life she really wanted. While the audience slowly recognizes the ‘cracks’ as consequence of Anna/Ida’s brief immersion to the lifestyle she was deprived of, the ending is optimistic that despite the ambiguity of her destination, she will undoubtedly endure.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

NIGHTCRAWLER

I’d like to think that today’s auspicious generation has not mutated to Lou Bloom’s peculiar DNA but NIGHTCRAWLER is the most resonant film about the youth’s dangerous ambitiousness since The Social Network. Maybe it’s the propensity to inflict harm as the expense of success in a dog-eat-dog world. But Bloom proved himself ruthless, apathetic and manipulative in seeding his career from the misfortunes of others that becomes corrosive of the motives of his new-found passion for unflinching journalism. Jake Gyllenhaal’s appetite for exotic characters is satiated under the lens of the darkly entertaining and manic titular lead. Special mention goes to Rene Russo (who deserved an Oscar nod as well as Gyllenhaal) for her sultry supporting role as Bloom’s broadcast superior-turned-accomplice. Aside from the beguiling personification of a predator, Director Dan Gilroy’s solid debut is also reflective of journalism’s voracious thirst for violence onscreen as if its only purpose is to feed viewers of the detestable domestic crimes. NIGHTCRAWLER’s behind-the-camera’s premise, along with Bloom’s recognition of the industry’s preys, is a subtle scrutiny of a more dangerous world we live in. In the end, the film’s truthfulness is stranger than fiction.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Awards Circle: The Grand Budapest Hotel

It’s the time of the year again when film enthusiasts catch up on 2014’s best films to appraise their luster for Oscar gold. (Lately) Checking in to the awards conversation, I begin with Wes Anderson’s latest whimsical ensemble and one of the earliest buzzed movies, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

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I must confess (like Mr. Gustave and Zero’s clerical charade). I am new to the enamoring visual style of Wes Anderson’s curated world. My viewing slate still includes a significant number of his previous films, but a crash course on the dainty Moonrise Kingdom enlightened me of his unique panache. But Anderson’s enticing signature isn’t just defined by the colorful palette and playful sets. He invites us to a world mirroring our own; the vibrancy doesn’t shy from tragedy. Particularly on this film, Anderson paints tragicomedy in sucrose hues whose visual appeal is deboned towards the humanness of the story. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is an enthusiastic tableau that balances its sweetness to the eyes through the sourness of its sentimentality and it blends well, making the film more worthwhile as if revisiting a part of history that is your own.

Its carnation edifice evoking a page from a pop-up book, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is told through a story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, starting from the elderly author’s narration of his younger self (Jude Law) who leafed out chapters of the eponymous hotel’s history from its elderly owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). In chromatic flashbacks, he recounted his humble hospitality beginnings as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of the suave concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (a delightful Ralph Fiennes). Kindled by the death of the hotel’s patron, Gustave and Zero’s adventure (partitioned in five segments) is a circus of aesthetic playfulness that gives much color on Anderson’s black-and-white script. It’s hard to imagine a film that is made so alive by its visuals and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is the perfect epitome, from the ornate production designs to the costumes and make-up (specifically the chameleon coating for Tilda Swinton). (I won’t be surprised if the film sweeps technical nominations at the Oscars.) But what makes THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL such a wholly delight is the ensemble who eagerly donned Anderson’s period quirk. Along with the filmmaker’s staple of actors, it was Fiennes who stood out as he effortlessly crosses the comedic genre as the smooth-talking and stealthy Mr. Gustave. Johnny Depp was initially cast as the ostentatious concierge, which I think would be a quick give-away of the film’s tone (making it predictable). But Fiennes fashions a beguiling elegance that finely fits him in the purple suit; and his classy demeanor makes the farcical scenes more humorous.

Zero’s baptism of fire as The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s newest lobby boy.

Revolori as the sidekick is capable and proves that he’s more than the viewer’s window of grasping Mr. Gustave’s opportunistic actions. While the prized concierge gleams on the passing luxuries of his privileged profession, the naïve lobby boy gradually learns what and who deserve to be reminisced. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is the glorification of Anderson’s knack for visual appeal but beneath the movie’s whimsicality is the cornerstone of sentimentality that old Moustafa wistfully reveals in the ending. Not to give much away, the film, as Rotten Tomatoes summarized, is deceptively thoughtful which makes it more special. Somehow, Anderson’s latest comedy is representative of the materialistic and pragmatic mementos we hold onto: Mr. Gustave and his painting along with the wealth Madame D bestowed him; and Moustafa and the hotel who continue to stand (and struggle) for decades, in the memory of his wife.

vlcsnap-2014-12-05-21h20m38s131Overhead shot (a glimpse of the film’s beautiful photography)

Named after the 1932 Oscar Best Picture winner Grand Hotel, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is everything that you can hope for in a Wes Anderson film, but the novel stylishness tailored for its period setting and the pint of tragedy and pensiveness as the aftertaste make for a more alluring Anderson experience.

Rating: 4.0/5.0