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Friday, September 30, 2005


Louka (Zdenek Sverak), a fifty-something cellist who had nothing to be proud of in himself except his sexual virility and adventures with women, agreed to marry a Soviet immigrant for a fee. Initially hesistant of the arrangement, he relented when he saw that the woman was attractive enough to whet his insatiable appetite for younger women. But he was dismayed that his new "wife" ran off to Germany leaving her five-year old Russian son to his care. Kolya (Andrei Chalimon) did not know how to speak Czech nor he, Russian, so they were off into a confusing culture clash that exposed each other's vulnerability.

This film had the Communist Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia for its setting. When Louka did not accept the Soviets' proposal that he work for them, he was sacked from the prestigious Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and he ended up playing dirges at funerals. But this did not dampen his naughtiness and free-spirited, devil-may-care attitude towards life and its vicissitudes until Kolya came his way. Precocious, innocent, fragile and desperately needing love, Kolya somehow mirrored Louka's inner personality. Through Kolya, he learned to take care of a soul other than his own. And through him, Kolya learned the meaning of trust and hope.

Together, the "father-and-son" pair learned to love each other and teach each other that friendship between two perfect strangers (belonging to nations of opposing ideologies at that) was possible. Allegorically, the movie tells of Czech peoples "marriage" with the Soviet nation which brought about an initially unwanted "baby." And since what had been done, cannot be undone, the Czechs had to accept things and move on (but not simply an acceptance that is blind to the terrible and sometimes ugly lessons of the past) and start anew.

The repeated theme on Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, Christian symbolisms and images provided a clue that this was no ordinary film. Aside from people finding each other, it is about a God who constantly looks for us, finds us and takes us home especially when we have exiled ourselves too long and too far.

Excellent. Tugs at the heart and leaves lasting impression.

Trivia: The director and the main actor are real-life father and son.

Director: Jan Sverak
Cast: Zdenek Sverak, Andrei Chalimon, Libuse Sanfrankova, Ondrej Vetchy
Released: 1996
Country: Czech Republic

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Le Papillon

When you're tired and cranky and in a foul mood it's good to sit down and relax and watch a film like Le Papillon (The Butterfly). Films such as these, no matter how simple they may be, make you feel that, contrary to what you think, life is truly worth living.

An irritable, aging lepedeptorist (butterfly collector, that is) meets a precocious, inquisitive little girl and their lives are not the same again (Oh, I hate lines like that but it's true). Julien (Michel Serrault) is an avid butterfly collector who embarks on a yearly journey to catch the elusive Isabela butterfly that lives only for three days and three nights. Little does he know that her neighbor's daughter, Elsa (Claire Bouanich) hides inside his car to be with him.

Julien is torn between sending back the girl to her mom (Nade Dieu) (who has been amiss with her motherly duties to Elsa) and tagging her along in his three-day search for the butterfly. But Elsa is so clever that she is able to devise a plan to be with Julien. What happens along the way is an amusing story of how two people, so different from one another can help find each other escpecially if they themselves are looking for something in common.

Julien's past life is revealed and so is Elsa's present predicament. Then an accident prompts mother and Julien to face up things that for so long have frightened them. Sometimes, we keep looking for things from far away places only to find them eagerly waiting for us.

Truly a magical, magnificent metamorphic movie!

Quotable quotes:
On love that hangs by the thread, "If it's true love, it does not ask for proofs. Asking for proofs means there is no trust. If there is no trust, then there is no love." - Julien

"Why do we say we 'fell in love' and not 'rise in love'? My mother fell in love and got pregnant
at the same time." - Elsa

Director: Philippe Muyl
Cast: Michel Serrault, Claire Bouanich, Nade Dieu
Country: France
Released: 2004

Monday, September 19, 2005

Raise the Red Lantern

Zhang Yimou's allegorical adaptation of Su Tong's Raise the Red Lantern has won critical and blockbuster acclaim. Set probably in the pre-Revolution China, it is a deceptively simple story of a fourth mistress of a wealthy Chinese who dares defy generations-old tradition of concubinage and unwritten familial codes. Songlian (Gong Li) becomes the fourth concubine of a nameless Master (his face is hidden from beginning until the end) when her father unexpectedly dies and she has to quit university schooling. Unable to support her family, her mother arranges her marriage.

From the very begining, we see Songlian as a defiant, rebelious and diffident woman. She does not take the marriage coach that is supposed to pick her up. She upsets rules in the household by making impossible demands on the Master. She concocts ideas to show the other three wives that is educated and will not bow to their caprice. She however finds the household antagonistic towards her. A maid, Yan 'er (Kong Lin), is assigned to attend to her who despises her and spits on her laundry. We later learn that she is jealous of her as she too wants to be a concubine herself.

If anything, Songlian hates competition. Even the third mistress' (He Caifei) machinations are no match to her stubborness and cunning. (To get the Master's favor, Songlian pretends that she is pregnant.) Only the second mistress (Cao Cuifen) seems to have developed a liking for her. But the latter's duplicity is revealed when Songlian sees a voodoo doll bearing her name, pricked with several needles, inside Yan'er's room. It is the second wife's doing and from then a bitter struggle between Songlian and her begins.

Other intrigue such as the illicit affair between the second mistress and the family physician, Doctor Hao, is revealed and ends disastrously. And the mystery of the locked rooftop room shakes Songlian no end.

This film was disapproved by the Chinese government because it dangerously paralleled the corruption in the mainland and its ruthless exposition of the powers that oppress people and make lives miserable for the citizens.

A beautifully haunting movie meant to be seen by everyone.

Director: Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, To Live, The Long Road Home, House of Flying Daggers)
Cast: Gong Li, Kong Lin, Hei Caifei, Cao Cuifen
Country: China
Released: 1991

Friday, September 16, 2005

La Vita e Bella

This very controversial tragicomedy by Roberto Benigni hit the U.S. and Europe like a lightning bolt. It infuriated the conservative Jewish community calling it "an insensitive portrayal of the Jewish concentration camps" by taking the Holocaust lightly and by "poking fun at the sufferings of the Jews." I even had a friend who actively campaigned not to watch it by posting internet reviews highly critical of the film.

Since criticisms came strong, I had to watch the film myself and see whether the allegations were true. I was grateful that I listened to my 'reel' instincts or I lost my chance of watching one of the most wonderful films of all time.

Guido (Roberto Benigni) was a happy-go-lucky Italian Jew who had only humour and belief in the power of imagination and of love up his sleeves when he courted the beautiful Dora (Nicolleta Braschi) who was currently engaged to a Fascist. But the power of love triumphed as Dora chose him over his fiance and together they started to build a family of their own.

But this was during Hitler's war and the Reich was determined to wipe out all the traces of Jewish blood on the face of the earth. Jews from Italy were deported to the German borders where they would remain inside the concentration camps. Dora insisted that there had been a mistake, that her family had been taken inside the death trains. But the German soldier said that there was no mistake: only Jews were to be taken. Her son, including. Unwilling to depart from her loved ones she made the ultimate sacrifice of shedding her racial identity and taking on a Jew's so she could be with them, until death. The second half of the film begun here with its muffled poignancy and suffering disguised and hidden from Guido's son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini) and revealed only to the viewers.

Equally unwilling to let Giosue experience the horrors of war and the inhumanity of life inside the concentration camp, Guido invented a game of make-believe where the price was not only freedom but a lifelong gratitude and love and affection.

Having seen the film at last, I can say that it deserved it's Oscar nod (Best Picture and Best Actor) but not it's unfounded accusations. Go out and rent a copy!!!

Director: Roberto Benigni
Cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicolleta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Country: Italy

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Central Station

Released in the same year we saw La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) in 1998, some critics have argued that this Walter Salles film should have won the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. I like both movies equally and can't decide as of the moment which one is really better.

Central Station comes to me as a type of film that quietly creeps into your system, invades you and leaves you...transformed. The director has a knack for making suffering a thing of beauty and tragedy a work of art. We see Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), the former teacher who mulcts money from illiterate people by writing letters for their loved ones. We are aghast to learn that she does not mail them but keeps them piled inside a cabinet. What kind of woman is she, we ask.

Then comes Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), the innocent young boy whose father runs away from them. Desperate, his young and beautiful mother hires Dora's service, asking him to support the boy. It seems that 'Madame Misery' (the evil twin sister of Lady Luck) is sneering at them. Josue's mother is killed in a freak accident while crossing a street in Sao Paolo, leaving him a complete orphan.

As Fate would have it, Dora and Josue are united by this bizaare circumstance. Dora at first, has nothing to do with the boy. But the boy has nowhere to go to and she has "promised" that the letter would reach Josue's father. Dora takes him in and together they search for the missing father. What they find along the way is more than what they expect. This is a tale friendship found at an unlikely place between two unlikely people, a story of love that binds complete strangers and a living testament that hope springs eternal.

Trivia: The two main characters in Life is Beautiful are named Dora and Giosue. Coincidental?

Director: Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries, Dark Water)
Cast: Fernanda Montenegro, Vinicius de Oliveira, Othon Bastos,
Country: Brasil

Sunday, September 11, 2005

El Crimen del Padre Amaro

Based on the 1875 novel by Eca de Queiros, El Crimen del Padre Amaro reeks of scandals, intrigues and corruption in a predominantly Catholic Mexican Church. Bright, handsome, charismatic and newly ordained, Padre Amaro (Gabriel Garcia Bernal) was sent to a far flung village in Mexico to assist the aging curate Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia). On his way to the parish, the bus he was riding on was robbed by highwaymen, presaging a violent ending to the story.

When he arrived at the parish church, he was immediately captivated by the young and beautiful Amelia (Ana Maria Talancon) , a volunteer catechist. Padre Amaro was shocked to learn that the curate was keeping a mistress, Sanjuanera (Angelica Aragon), Amelia's mother, for a long time now. He also learned the the parish priest was building a big public hospital using laundered money from a local druglord. Meanwhile, a summons from the bishop brought Amaro to the city with a mission to bring back to the fold a rebel priest, Padre Natalio (Damian Alcazar), suspected of aiding communists.

While all these were happening, a passionate and forbidden love affair erupted between Amaro and the sixteen year-old Amelia. Things turned really nasty and uncontrollable when Amelia told Amaro that she was pregnant and when Amelia's erstwhile boyfriend who was a journalist learned about this and the above controversies.

A scathing criticism on the power that corrupts while it pretends to be at the service of the oppressed.

Outstanding performance from Bernal and Gracia. Fast-paced story. Chilling conclusion.

Directed by: Carlos Carrera
Cast: Gabriel Garcia Bernal, Ana Maria Talancon, Angelica Aragon, Damian Alcazar, Sancho Gracia
Released: 2002
Country: Mexico

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Les Choristes

Christophe Barratier's unassuming and heart-warming film Les Choristes is a remake of a 1945 classic, Le Cage aux Rossingols. Set in the post-war French provence, a retired teacher, Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) seeks his fortune in an infamously known reformatory school for orphaned boys, petty criminals and street urchins. From his first day of school he has encountered troubles from disturbed rascals and incorrigibles. The schoolmaster has known only one philosophy in life and he has zealously applied this to the young boys: Action = Reaction. Read: for every misdeed an equivalent corporal punishment is meted out.

But the kindly and genial new teacher, Monsieur Mathieu knows that there is only one way to reach out to these troubled children: through their hearts. So he arranges a class to teach them music and
choir singing. At first he meets strong resistance and pessimism from the school head and some members of the faculty. But soon his labors reap rewards when the Duchess visits the school one day and is enamored of the boys' angelic singing.
Through the gentleness of music, Monsieur Mathieu teaches the boys discipline, camaraderie and their purpose in life, that is, to make music and let it resound into their very hearts and the hearts of people around them. Told in the voice of Monsieur Mathieu's youngest pupil and adopted son Pepinot (Maxence Perrin, the adorable son of Jacques Perrin, Cinema Paradiso, Flight of the Innocents, Olivier! Olivier!) to his childhood friend and classmate Morhange (Bonnaire/Jacques Perrin) who is now a famous concert conductor, Les Choristes scores big in the hearts of the audience and critics alike. Comparable to Mr. Holland's Opus, Dead Poets' Society and Dangerous Minds, this film is a runaway best-seller.

Directed by: Christophe Barratier
Cast: Gerard Jugnot, Jean-Paul Bonnaire, Maxence Perrin, Jacques Perrin, Phillipe Du Janerand.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Big Fish

"In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened... but that's what kind of story this is."

William Bloom (Ewan McGregor) grows up not knowing much about his father (Albert Finney). His mother Sandra (Jessica Lange), summons him to their old house where his father lays ill. On his father's deathbed, William asks his father to reveal his real self to him and not the fancy and tall tales he is wont to tell about his life. The father argues that some people tell stories as they are without complications but they are not as interesting as his stories.

So during the time that Ed Bloom is recounting his great exploits and adventures to his son, we also see a glimpse of man who has experienced defeats and many failings that he has to sugarcoat his tales. We hear for example how the young Ed was considered a man about town in during his college days, his legendary friendship with the town giant, his having discovered a secret community where people do not age, his friendship with a conjoined twin opera singers.

William considers these stories as a way his father used to hide his true identity. But little does he know that behind every lie lies the truth and every bit of a legend exists a reality larger than life.

Director Tim Burton (A Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) soars high in this fantastic tale of a man with great imagination for adventures and even a bigger heart to live them.

There are some fish that cannot be caught.

Director: Tim Burton
From the Novel by: Daniel Wallace
Adapted for the Screen by: John August
Cast: Ewan McGregor (Down with Love, Star Wars IV-VI, Moulin Rouge)
Albert Finney (Breakfast of the Champions, Erin Brokovich)
Jessica Lange (Blue Sky, Tootsie)
Helena Bonham Carter (Margaret's Museum, Fight Club)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

"When people ask me, good listeners, why do I hate all the Tutsi, I say, "Read our history." The Tutsi were collaborators for the Belgian colonists, they stole our Hutu land, they whipped us. Now they have come back, these Tutsi rebels. They are cockroaches. They are murderers."
- a Hutu radio announcer

This 2004 Oscar contender has Don Cheadle as its prime actor. Set in the 1994 Rwandan history of Tutsi genocide that left a million and a half dead, Hotel Rwanda is a raw portrayal of the violence that grips a nation still smarting from its colonial past. As hotel manager of the four-star Hotel Rwanda, Paul Russesabagina has made numerous and often helpful connections with the military and business circle. He knows the byways of illegal trade and can get around restrictions with bribe ranging from 10,000 franc Cuban cigars to expensive Champagne.

Inside, Paul is just an ordinary decent family-loving man who just wants to live his life. He is a Hutu who marries a Tutsi woman, the beautiful Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and has three children. When the Hutu rebellion erupted in 1994, Paul is confronted by a difficult decision: to save his own family and flee or save his countrymen including his "enemies" the Tutsis.

Called by critics as a modern-day Schindler, Paul takes in all the Tutsis he can cramp inside the abandoned Hotel Rwanda (Belgians and other nationalities are safely evacuated out of the country). Now, Paul has to use his intelligence, compassion and connections to buy the lives of the Tutsis from imminent death by the hands of the Hutus. All would have been fine had not an arrogant and treacherous Hutu concierge threatened to tip him off to the police if he sent the former away from the hotel.

Violence escalates when the Hutu renegades break into the UN peacekeeping forces and begin harassing and bombing the hotel to wipe out the littlest Tutsi hiding there. Even Paul's own relatives and family are threatened by Hutu militia and he is rendered powerless before them. His desperation mounts as he learns that even his former friends can't do anything to help him.

A tale of riveting suspense and harrowing drama. A film that everyone should see...

Written and Directed by: Terry George
Cast: Don Cheadle (Ocean's Eleven/Twelve). Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte