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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.
Astro Boy (2009)
Unike its titular child android, "Astro Boy"'s oh-so earnest zing is somewhat attenuated by the lack of a definitive soul to make it stand out. Which isn't to say that David Bowers' 3-D animated sci-fi is a screwed-up experience -- thanks largely to its amusing one-liners and side characters -- but its theme of a boy trying to fit in among those who are different from him fail to stand up to the likes of, say, "Pinocchio," and "Iron Giant."
In the lustrously hi-tech Metro, a city floating above piles and piles of metal scraps, humans are served by robots that are guided by the late Isaac Asimov's robotic laws. Metro resident Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore) is seeking to follow in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), who created most of the city's machines. However, an accident that leads to Toby's death prompts the sorrowing dad to create a robot in Toby's image in a bid to replace his son. Astro, as the mechanical Toby eventually becomes known, is shattered after Dr. Tenma rejects him for not being able to live up to his human counterpart, and realizing that he's not who he thinks he is, Astro leaves the Metro in search of a place where he feels he'll belong.
Bowers' cinematic translation of a 1951 manga by Osamu Tezuka is an uneven -- albeit beaming -- trip, typified by the likes of Cage and Bill Nighy who sound bored, even if Donald Sutherland and Kristen Bell feel game for their roles. But it succeeds in creating an allegory on the rift between different classes, even if they are frustratingly glossed over in service of a predictable story and a few humdrum action. Despite its shortcomings, "Astro Boy" still proves humorously compelling when its hero spreads kindness courtesy of his cant-do-bad heart.
A beta version of you
Calling "Surrogates" mechanical may be too obvious but there's no getting around the fact that this sci-fi saga about androids taking the place of humans in the outside world is a lackadaisical effort. An adaptation of Robert Venditti and Brett Weldelethe's graphic novel, Jonathan Mostow's dystopian yarn aims to be a thinking man's blockbuster a la cinematic translations of Philip K. Dick's works, using moral dilemmas to decorate its main mystery, but succeeds only insofar as it at least keeps things sporadically entertaining when it abandons deeper issues for requisite extravaganza.
After the U.S. Supreme Court has voted to approve an alternate world introduced by a flustered inventor (James Cromwell), society has instantly embraced "surrogates," human-like robots attached to the brains of an "operator." Thus, Tom Greer, a haggard fed who can barely stand up, can look like a creepily unsullied Bruce Willis in perpetually diffused lighting and chase an accused murderer like a triathlete in steroids. But an anti-surrogates coalition led by Ving Rhames' "The Prophet" has been staging a protest over what they claim as an abomination of nature, and whether coincidence or not, an operator was killed when its surrogate was blasted by a classified weapon. The unprecedented incident throws law enforcers -- all surrogates as well -- into turmoil, putting them in a race against time to solve the murder case before someone does a surrogate genocide.
John Brancato and Michael Ferris' run-of-the-mill screenplay regularly conks out every time it feigns interest in shaping Greer's character through a traumatic past and a distant wife, mauling the point on humanity's distorted view through canted camera angles and simplistic moralizing. Mostow sporadically supplies the proceedings with wee bit of genuine tension, though his latest craft lacks the awesome factor that heightened the wonderment of his yet another robots-meet-humans film "Terminator 3." A character claims that the world has forgotten how to experience life, perhaps alluding to this clunk of cipher that's perfectly satisfied to play safe and play dead.
If only the twist were also concealed by the weather...
When Kate Beckinsale's character says she wants out of Antarctica, you could almost hear the actor speaking the same of "Whiteout." No wonder, as Dominic Sena's south pole-set whodunnit based on a graphic novel by writer Greg Rucka and illustrator Steve Lieber is of the dull sort, where tension is conveniently sapped by proceedings so insipid and a narrative arc so obvious one could easily compute for the trajectory.
Beckinsale plays Carrie Stetko, a US marshal haunted by a partner who double-crossed her years earlier, and finally ready to get back to civilization after holing herself up in a scientific research facility in Antarctica. Yet just as she's about to leave for warmer weather, dead bodies pile up and she's forced to look into the case through the Antarctic winter, getting stranded for another half-year with a shady UN investigator (Gabriel Macht), her pilot Delfy (Columbus Short), and a doctor (Tom Skerritt).
Intermittently kept alive by a couple of frantic action sequences amid the titular condition, whatever little success those moments achieve is ultimately diluted by Sena's standard direction, the pedestrian script, and a twist as clear as a spring sky. The remote setting and Beckinsale's tough-as-nails presence keep things mildly exotic, but the notably hackneyed affairs assure that this adaptation never deviates far from its moribund state.
Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa kiyeme (2009)
Do the fumbling thugs, cheeky melodrama, a song number, and action scenes near the end make a case of a satiric look at Filipino comedy? Or do the idea of big-name actors relegated to cameos playfully allegorize the irony that perpetual sidekick-slash-scene-stealer Eugene Domingo now headlines her own movie? Whatever the case, Joyce Bernal's hilariously animated "Kimmy Dora" -- a spruced-up slapstick touted as the actor's launching pad to lead stardom -- dashes along with the comedic precision that benefits from Domingo's impeccable charm as much as from Bernal's (incidentally a former film editor) comedic rhythm.
Epitomizing the kind of contagious bubbliness that utilizes her talent to the hilt, Domingo plays the double role of twins Kimmy and Dora, which are polar opposites of each other. Kimmy is the cruel genius who runs the family business, while Dora is the tenderhearted dimwit who brought home a stray dog she nearly run over. Events lead to Kimmy being kidnapped and stranded in a remote province, and Dora to impersonating her sister as the head of the company.
Domingo is comically transfixing as the lead of actor Piolo Pascual's second venture in film production, and even if her characters' motivations are frustratingly rudimentary, the film's delirious horseplay whisks much of the screenplay's trivial shortcomings. The running length diffuses some of the humor thin, but it nonetheless provides a smart proof of Domingo's versatility as an actress. Perhaps it's why she easily upstages her co-stars; she can carry a movie by herself. Or make it two of her selves.
The Final Destination (2009)
A series of fatally unfortunate events
Arriving on local theaters without the benefit of 3-D, the novelty of "The Final Destination" goes doubly kaput, as it not only lacks inspired deaths and sympathetic characters, but also because the flatness of David R. Ellis' body bag-fodder isn't mitigated by whatever shallow entertainment an additional dimension might have brought.
Eric Bress' script wastes no time in shaping its interchangeable characters as, apparently, Death has to immediately dive into placing its cardboard victims in intricate fatalities that have been the series' central gimmick. Nick (Bobby Campo) experiences a premonition of a disaster in a race track and manages to get a few people out, who would have otherwise died. As per the franchise's tradition, Death won't be cheated and it starts to do anything -- like toppling cans and letting waters drip -- to create a ripple of events that would eliminate the survivors.
Despite showing how lame entertainment can be entertainingly lame with "Snakes on a Plane," Ellis -- who also directed "Final Destination 2" -- doesn't strive for an ounce of creativity, resulting to a terribly disposable fare that fails to hit its its mark despite aiming so low. And as embodied by the narrative shortcuts this gorefest constantly employs, the Rube Goldberg set pieces start to feel less impressive than mechanical, which makes one believe that Death has worked itself too much over the last three installments.
I'd rather play UNO
A frazzled continuation of local stars Marian Rivera and Dennis Trillo's venture into the supernatural realm after "Pamahiin", "Tarot" doles out the creepy rituals, scraggly old folks, and archaic Tagalog sentence structures without ever deviating much from the local horror genre's already decomposing formula. Which is to say, Jun Lana's spookfest piles on the predictable twists in a highly perfunctory regard that's perfectly calibrated for mass consumption.
As typified by its portrayal of an old woman who mysteriously appears to spell out much of the narrative's convoluted mythology only to die soon after but not before oh-so conveniently sending Cara (Rivera) a revealing set of old pictures, much of Lana's narrative hinges on a couple of deus ex machinas to move it forward. After losing her fiancé Miguel (Trillo) on a hiking trip, Cara uses her gift of clairvoyance with the help of tarot cards dug from her grandmother's grave. Alas, good intentions notwithstanding, the poor couple soon find themselves haunted by a veiled woman intent on killing them and everyone around them.
With not a single moment when it tries to do something novel with its material, "Tarot" ends as a formulaic schlock that barely improves on Lana's other handiwork, "Mag-Ingat Ka Sa Kulam", an equally messy ghost tale that reeks of a stench from the Thai film "Alone". Yet despite its nondescript cheap shock tactics, hokey human drama and an army of cringe-worthy dialog, "Tarot", to its credit, slightly captures the sinister aura of its mountainous setting and the cult who inhabits it. Though eventually, just like riding on a horror ride for the hundredth time, it's nigh impossible to be fully absorbed by a PG-13 sanitized horror film where every scare (or shock) is performed with standardized predictability, and the strings already becoming visible.
One-man film crew Robert Rodriguez' moonlighting into kiddie fare has at best produced mixed results, here epitomized by his latest juvenile project, "Shorts," a wishy-washy tale about kids finding their inner heroes and saving their smalltime town. Returning to the hyper-earnest mode of his "Spy Kids" trilogy, director-writer-DP-editor Rodriguez nonetheless can't muster enough cheerio for anyone but the youngest viewers to get over an overabundance of special effects and a monotonous feeling.
As well as pertaining to the stature of its young protagonists, the title of Rodriguez' wishful thinking tale concerns his narrative's central gimmick: a series of short episodes shown as per the whims of its young narrator Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett). Told in a fractured timeline, the series of interlocked episodes show how the town of Black Falls is dominated by the techno mogul (James Spader), and how a group of kids -- including Toe -- change the neighborhood for the better with the help of a rainbow-colored stone that grants the wishes of anyone who possesses it.
Save for the campy blink-first-standoff between two kids, "Shorts"' subplots never evolve into a compelling unit, with Rodriguez running amok with his "homemade" CGI -- perhaps reflecting the unrestrained euphoria of a kid getting his hands on a magic stone -- that does nothing to add to the novelty of its uncharacteristic style. Ultimately predictable and reeking of half-assed effort, the whole procedure gets exhausting after a few rounds of cutesy moxie, though at least Rodriguez wisely sticks to the context of his movie's title and keeps his film reasonably concise.
Typical of Pixar's adeptness in conveying stories, the first few minutes of "Up" pack more wallop than a whole two-hour tearjerker could, as it charts Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) and childhood friend Ellie through the decades, from their role-playing days as intrepid travelers to their marriage, and eventually, Ellie's death. Pete Docter's animated tale is an elegant combination of humor and pathos that perfectly captures the rush brought about by adventure, the uplifting quality of friendship, and -- at once a reminder of Disney's "Bambi" and Pixar's refusal to compromise its narratives -- the pain of losing someone. It's a profundity that's both delicate and penetrating.
78-year old Carl and his wife Ellie had kept a scrapbook of their planned adventures and always dreamed of going to the fictional Paradise Falls in Venezuela, where their childhood hero, the adventurer Muntz (Christopher Plummer), has famously traveled. For some reasons, the expedition doesn't materialize and Ellie soon dies, leaving Carl alone in the house, with the latter about to go to predatory land developers. Inadvertently bringing along the pudgy Wilderness Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), Carl decides to fulfill Ellie's wish as he ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats to South America.
Advertised as Pixar's first foray into 3D, "Up"'s candy-colored palette and graceful portraits of Carl's house floating in the sky benefit from the additional visual depth, though the increasingly silly travails of Carl and his slapdash tour is filled with buoyant energy that keeps it from resting entirely on the technology's novelty. Centering on the theme of one's continual search for purpose, Carl learns of how holding to the past keeps him from reaching his destination and from setting off to new adventures, a moral that Docter fortunately doesn't overplay, but rather is represented in splendid visual metaphors. It may be too easy to call it an elevation to animation but there's no escaping the fact that, for all its jaunty adventures and affectionate regard to relationship, "Up" -- pardon the obvious description -- doesn't let down.
The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)
Love in the time of Henry
Hoping for a sweeping saga on love's ability to transcend dimensions a la "Ghost" or "The Lake House," "The Time Traveler's Wife," Robert Schwentke's melodrama achieves neither the grandness it aspires for nor (at least) a constant sense of giddiness for its leads Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. Strange actually, as whereas Bana plays a man who constantly finds himself involuntarily traveling through time, Schwentke's soppy romance -- as with its leading man -- remains flat and inert.
At the age of six, Henry (Bana) first finds about his condition during a car accident that killed his mom, which becomes a regular tendency leading to his first meeting with Clare, she still being a six-year old child and he a young adult. Such regular visits lead to a romance and, eventually, marriage, as Schwentke's adaptation Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel charts the complications of the couple's relationships regarding Henry's curious condition, though its decision to never bother to explore its cause or nature except for cursory prattle on genetics lead to an unconvincing fantasy-cum-love story that partly keeps one from being fully absorbed.
Yet far more deflating the script's purpose of emotional investment is the lack of distinct personality for its characters, a deficiency which Bana and McAdams try so hard to make up for with their attractiveness and chemistry, but unfortunately proves too considerable to overcome: Henry never comes off more than a vanilla leading man and Clare a callow wife. Schwentke eventually relies on laying the dramatics on the thick with golden hour cinematography, syrupy lines and overdone score; though it's a prefabricated ploy designed to maximize sentimentality but which doesn't propel an otherwise novel idea to motion.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)
With a pre-release buzz that has been nothing short of lethal (fanned into bigger flames by Paramount's decision to withhold press screenings), "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" has its work cut out for it arriving to theaters amidst the insinuations that the prospective summer blockbuster would be a crippling blow off to director Stephen Sommers, perhaps not unlike what "The Island" was to Michael Bay or "Stealth" to Rob Cohen. Sommers' action figures-turned-action movie, however, neither attains the extreme maladroitness its defamers assume it to be courtesy of sporadically engaging moments and a zestful turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- though it's not to say it lives to early high expectations via surprisingly high aggregated ratings -- frustratingly leaving the film in a somewhat oddball state of mediocrity.
This exhausting blend of CGI and contrived one-liners focuses on the genesis of the Cobra Organization, charting Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord's (Marlon Wayans) entry into the G.I. Joe Team where they are to fight mysterious villains intent on torpedoing the world into a bedlam through nanotechnology-based weapons. Sommers' hooey patchwork of blockbuster cacophony resembles a futuristic "The Mummy" -- an analogy maintained by Arnold Vosloo playing a villain and Brendan Fraser's cameo -- and "Van Helsing," where flamboyant chaos take over competent acting, all the more highlighted when the self-deprecating charisma of Fraser and the gruff appeal of Hugh Jackman is replaced by the graceless Tatum.
Paying lip reverence to human drama via flashbacks of its dull characters, "G.I. Joe" unfolds all too predictably with unconvincing fight scenes and, save for a marginally engaging chase scene in Paris, ho-hum action set pieces that never match up to Sommers' early works. The outcome isn't an awful experience, but neither is it a gloriously engaging one. Early scuttlebutt speculating it as the worst film of the year may be a bit overstated, though it's unlikely the film itself will stick to memories long enough.
Esther wants to be different but they play it safe instead
Like "Joshua" in estrogen, "Orphan" not only shares its similarity with George Ratliff's thriller via featuring a precociously villainous juvenile, but also because it stars Vera Farmiga as a mother at the receiving end of her child's diabolical manipulations. Jaume Collet-Serra crafts a mildly diverting hybrid of "The Omen" and "Swimfan" though the proneness of David Leslie Johnson's script to adhere to cheap horror conventions undercuts whatever interesting psychological thriller about a gradually imploding family that stirs underneath.
Played with vicious adequacy by Isabelle Fuhrman, Esther is blissfully welcomed into the Coleman household in a snowy middle-of-nowhere house. Kate (Farmiga), a former alcoholic still reeling from the death of their unborn third child, and John (Peter Sarsgaard), a husband with loyalty issues regarding his wife, nevertheless wholeheartedly accepts Esther as part of their family. Their adopted daughter is gleefully cordial, paints cheery images, eager to learn the piano, and -- for a nine-year old Russian who has just spent a year in the US -- speaks very good English. The mantra "too good to be true," however is slowly evidenced, as the titular daughter starts to react violently to school bullies and casually drops the F-bomb as if it were a customary lexicon for people her age.
Embodied by John's imperious refusal to see something is wrong with the things around him to the point of being laughable, "Orphan" ultimately plays on overly familiar genre tunes that rely too much on foreseeable shock moments and questionable logic of its characters to deliver most of its scares. Collet-Serra, despite the obvious lack of faith that the material would provide the spooks without resorting so much to shock tactics, at least capably maintains an ominous aura that accompanies his villain's innocence largely through Fuhrman's calm, faux-Manichaean scowls and Oedipus cajolery, and Farmiga's gameness to provide her character with more depth than what it's actually called for. Yet despite being ultimately entertaining and having a potential to be more intelligent, it frustratingly pursues a well-trodden path with such earnestness. "There's nothing wrong with being different," remarks Esther early on. Strange, though, that "Orphan" doesn't share the same belief.
Teen love, thin plot
Now far removed from the innocence of Chris Columbus' literally faithful yet cinematically unsatisfying Hogwarts appertif "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" at the onset plunges to its increasingly horrifying world with little regard to establishing its characters or the story for the sake of those uninitiated, which is not to say it's a bad thing, since it's unlikely one would only start this deep into the series. Yet it's this same urgency that typifies this installment's character as less a product in itself than an obligatory assemblage of a gorgeous production design and a handsome cinematography designed for the series' inevitable denouement. Set to conclude with the seventh book split into two parts, there are no more surprises, only mandatory buildup.
The central point of returning screenwriter Steve Kloves' script involves teen wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) trying to obtain a vital piece of information about their arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort and enlists the help of former Hogwarts Potions Master Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who, being close with a young Voldemort (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin) -- then known as Tom Riddle -- possesses that knowledge. This gist, however, is cheerlessly relegated to minor concern, getting lost amidst numerable subplots that mostly include the brewing romance among Harry and his adolescent friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron's sister Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright).
David Yates' sophomore turn as a Potter director has the film in a more ominously cold-blooded and deliberate pacing, producing the ultimate flip side to the fanciful inception of the magical saga. Playful magic is now scrimped and the pervading melancholy manifested through the gloomy desaturated tones provides a fitting analogy to its love-spurned heroes, an aspect that the film so insistently prioritizes and, to some extent, accomplishes. Still, in the greater scheme of all things Harry Potter, "Half-Blood Prince" goes by without the requisite dramatic thrust to substantiate itself as more than a compulsory episode with mostly no consequences, and, save for its paramount climactic showdown, it's a constant looping around its panoramic mythology to give a constant sense of activity but one that actually leads nowhere.
Death is not the end
Fixating itself on the pretext of death as a strong stigma to the Japanese rather than on the necrophiliac titillation possessed by those outside this particular societal circle, "Departures" approaches this issue with credible poignancy made more relevant when seen as a mitigation by director Yojiro Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama to a prevailing Eastern taboo. Although slightly undercut by an ultimately predictable script, Japan's Oscar-winning entry for this year's foreign-language film category is thoughtfully expressive, portraying a morbidly incriminating profession with dignified grace.
Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist for a symphony orchestra which disbands after a performance for failing to gather audiences. Having no job, he and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move to his hometown in his deceased mother's house where, upon answering a help-wanted ad he mistakes for a travel agency, he ends up as "encoffiner"-in-training, helping his boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) perform a set of ceremonial rites for the dead before cremation. Aware of the social demonizing of such job, he lies to his wife about it until she learns of it anyway and pleads that he finds a "normal job," an appeal he finds tough when he increasingly develops a meticulous fondness for his work.
Takita's charming and ultimately touching apologetic on mortality charts the disorderliness arising from an individual's social circle while he pursues his sense of purpose, with the titular itinerary suggesting more than the moribund ritual the film's protagonist is subjected to. Thus, it also becomes a plaintive meditation on Daigo's spiritual and moral development as he attends to the various abandonment issues that haunt him (a father who ran off when he was young and a wife that stigmatizes him for his newly found "filthy" career). Ultimately, "Departures" is as much a story of atonement as it is about dealing with mortality; that in order to fully embrace one's existence, it is necessary to cope with death -- both literally and figuratively -- while nurturing the bonds that exist among those who still live.
Gake no ue no Ponyo (2008)
Fish be with you
Like the 5-year old protagonists of his latest opus, Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" enchants with its unbridled innocence as though the anime-meister has become a child himself in weaving a narrative that relishes in its simplicity and emits an infectious charm in the process. Miyazaki, recalling his earlier works, paints a brightly-colored world obviously geared for the younger audiences and the raw effervescence gleefully strips off the grim thematic elements that distinguish its immediate predecessors.
Ponyo (voiced lovably by Yuria Nara), a fish with a young girl's face (making her look like a cuddly child in a pink overgrown Halloween costume), escapes away from her underwater home and her school of siblings to explore the surface. Stranded ashore, she is rescued by Sosuke (Hiroki Doi), a five-year old boy who, along with his mom Risa (Tomoko Yamaguchi), resides in a house on the nearby cliff. This initial encounter and, eventually, friendship, has a profound effect on Ponyo who now wishes to become human, but by becoming so inadvertently tips nature's balance and unleashes a maelstrom on land. With Sosuke's help, Ponyo must pass a test to lift this curse and completely become a human.
Despite the plot lacking the philosophical sophistication of, say, his most recent "Spirited Away," "Ponyo" is nothing short of an astounding follow-up, characterized by the extremely diligent attention to detail and masterful balancing of the real and the fantastic, and of the simple joys and great fears. It's a straightforward tale that, though at times stalled by its tendency to ramble like a toddler, keeps in tune with its youthful pedigree to magically enthrall. "I will protect you," Sosuke tells Ponyo matter-of-factly, a childlike assertion not unlike the manner in which Miyazaki endows his story with artful spirit.
Itsuka dokusho suruhi (2005)
Two bottles of milk for a lifetime of bottled-up feelings
Lead actor Yuko Tanaka fulfills so much in the exceptionally meditative "The Milkwoman," a tranquil canvass on missed chances in the life of a 50-something woman, charting her routine with sincerely poignant motives. Played out in the picturesque, tranquil town of Nagasaki, Akira Ogata's unconventional romantic film, so to speak, is less a straight-out melodrama than a deliberate introspection of its characters' surrender to their current lives as a result of a tragic past that forced them to a choice they did not call for.
Perfectly embodying the requisite world-weariness subjected to a spiritless routine, Tanaka plays Minako Oba, a middle-aged woman who, before her work shift at a supermarket, takes it upon herself to deliver bottles of milk among the residents of the hilly Nagasaki. One of the houses she constantly passes by to make such a delivery is that of Kaita Takanashi (Ittoku Kishibe), a local government employee caring for her terminally ill wife (Akiko Nishina). Minako and Kaita were high school sweethearts who, courtesy of an ignominious event concerning their parents, separated ways since then.
Opening his film with the foreboding narration of a young Minako vowing never to leave Nagasaki, Ogata does as such with the narrative, patiently sticking with Minako as he, deftly aided by Tanako's understated yet highly effective performance, follows her -- whether she's having chitchat with her aunt (Misako Watanabe) on being single, or when she jogs up and down the countless footsteps of their hilly town to distribute milk -- as she and Kaita gradually overcome the hindrances that kept them apart for years. Such unhurried development may not suit viewers weaned on fast-paced narratives but for the rest, it's a heartfelt introspection that affects powerfully and emphatically.