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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Capote (2005)

American literary giant Truman Capote gets a chance to show his more human side and his often misunderstood and derided personality in Bennett Miller's Capote. Chronicling the years following a brutal murder of a wealthy farming family in Kansas in 1959, Capote depicts the fictionist's non-fictional account of convicted multiple murderer Perry Edward Smith's troubled life. Without pandering on the melodrama, the movie at the same time paints the author's sensitivity, magnanimity and unique friendship with Perry.

Based largely on the best-selling and critically-acclaimed non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, which enevitably sealed for Capote the distinction of being one of the finest writers America has produced, the film is very careful not to parody Capote's speech defects and bohemian personality (and thinly veiled homosexual tendencies). Rather it is a moving portrait of someone who truly understands what it means to be abandoned and unwanted. In one scene, when Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), another literary giant and Capote's good friend, confronted Truman about the rumors circulating that he has fallen in love with Perry, Truman told her "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front."

Philip Seymour Hoffman who portrays Capote deserves the Oscar Nomination for best actor in lead role. We all know that he might lose the plum to Heath Ledger or David Straithairn but our respect for him as a talented actor in this film knows no bound. Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper are also commendable for their supporting roles.

One caveat though: Capote fails to connect with the audience, unlike what Dead Man Walking did when it elicited an agonizing sympathy for the killers (not that we should always do so, but that's the magic of cinema) with the outstanding performance of Sean Penn. The plot is mostly linear and is unable to prepare the viewers for a hightened emotional response because there isn't any to begin with. The film revolves around the hesitation of Perry to divulge what really happened on the night of the murders but when he finally did so, nothing further (in terms of sympathy) could be squeezed from the audience. It also has the tendency to drag especially in the middle and towards the end.

I admire the fluidity of Capote's writings but I guess the screenwriter was not able to capture that on paper so the director had trouble translating it to the silver screen. A regrettable act.

Fanatic Verdict: Watch it (only to see how good Hoffman is!).

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Who is Melquiades Estrada? And where on earth is the place (between two hills , verdant pasture and flowing river) called Jimenez?

Ranch owner Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) had only two passions in life: horses and Freddy Fender songs. He was not a loner but when Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) came to his ranch one day, looking for water for his horse, Pete had instantly found a long-lost brother and a bosom friend. Melquiades was an illegal immigrant who crossed the Tex-Mex border to find himself a better job and opportunities for the family he left behind. "I'm just a cowboy," he told Pete when the latter asked him what kind of job he could do. And right there and then they had struck a friendship so unique and warm that the Brokeback Mountain cowboys would surely envy.

Through a series of flash backs, typical of Guillermo Arriaga writing (21 Grams), we learn of Melquiades' past, his dreams and his heart's deepest desire. This desire included being buried in his hometown and in his own place. Pete made a promise to him that he would see to it that his friend got his wish. When an ill-tempered, extremely loathe-able (I invented that term because it best describes him from scene one until just before the end) Border Patrol guard, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), thought that he was being fired at, he pulled the trigger on Melquiades, instantly killing him.

What followed was a neat, poignant, darkly humorous and ironic story of how Melquiades had three burials. For a debut directing, Tommy Lee Jones did a wonderful job on Three Burials. For sure he would be snobbed by Academy Awards because critics are still euphoric over Brokeback. But then again, Cannes is there to take notice of Jones' masterful directing and acting. And if it's any consolation, Mel Gibson was not even nominated for best director and his opus Passion of the Christ thrown into the garbage bin. This is Hollywood, anything is possible!

The Fanatic Verdict: It wouldn't hurt to include this in your weekend viewing list!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Goal (2006)

If you think this movie will be like The Mighty Ducks or Air Bud or any of those movies you've seen and have quite forgotten the plot (if there's any), then you will be happily disappointed. Goal!, starring Kuno Becker as the Mexican immigrant to the U.S. Santiago Munez, is not your type of a Hollywood predictable movie about a rising basketball or football star. First because it does not involve an underdog superhero out to steal the glory from a suppervillain team.

Goal is a simple story of a young man who dreams big and who happens to have a heart and two nimble feet to walk his way to success. The director, Danny Cannon, is so sympathetic with his main hero that he allows him to show his vulnerabilities and strengths. The audience can't help but feel for Santiago as he confronts people who don't believe in him and learn to trust others who can help him reach his full potential. The story is also a good testament to the young man's determination to get into a tough team despite the many odds lodged in his way.

The classic story of an unbelieving father is also in Goal!. But unlikemany Hollywood movies, Goal! does not pander on the melodrama. It does not paint Santiago as a faultless hero but as someone on the verge of maturity and someone just beginning to accept and realize that he can reach even his wildest dreams if he just believed in himself.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Rob Marshall has done some wonderful things to Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha. For starters he transformed the harrowing tale of a fishing village girl who became a celebrated geisha into a fine story of love in extremely difficult circumstances. The cinematography was stunning and the production design marvelous. And so was the musical score and editing (see "the blood in the river scene").

Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister were sold to a patroness in a whoring district in Japan. Acquiring beautiful pair of eyes, Chiyo was destined to become a geisha but her determination to run away back home with her sister ruined everything for her. She was stripped of the privilege to enter a geisha school and instead was made a slave in a geisha home.

One fateful day she met a kind man simply called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who was enamored of her eyes. The man gave her a handkerchief which she dearly kept close to her heart in fervent wish that they meet again someday. A senior geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), took notice of Chiyo's beauty and asked her patron that she study under her. Chiyo, now grown up (Zhang ZiYi), trained rigorously under Mameha's tutelage. Every day Chiyo, now called Sayuri, seemed a step closer to the man of her dreams but Mameha had other plans for her. When Sayurin told Mameha this, the latter replied that it was not for a geisha to choose whom to fall in love with, Sayuri was heartbroken.

Meanwhile, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), was doing everything she could to prevent Sayuri from becoming the top geisha. The Second World War broke out and Sayuri lost her chance to be with the Chairman. Then opportunity knocked again and an old time client, Nobu (Koji Yakusho), wanted her to return to her former profession. She only agreed because she wanted to continue her interrupted relationship with the Chairman.

The movie is a visual feast. The actors did their homework and flew high with flying colors. My only wish is that Rob Marshall could have made the love-angle between Sayuri and the Chairman more intense and two-sided. But that probably is understandable considering this is a memoir of the geisha and Marshall, I think, was avoiding a conflict of points-of-view. The ending was a bit on the corny side and abrupt. It looked like it was tacked on to explain some mysteries in the story. I'm sure someone who directed Chicago could have done better. I think the real challenge for him was to combine subtlely and grace into the main characters' dilemma without appearing too canned and formulaic.

The Fanatic Verdict: Watch it (at home).

Monday, February 06, 2006

Munich (2005)

After being disproportionately "tamed" as Hector in Troy and grossly caricatured by Ang Lee in Hulk, Eric Bana came out a respectable actor in Spielberg's suspenseful drama Munich.

The world was shocked when 11 Israeli athletes were massacred at the Munich Olympics. 11 Palestinian were believed to be behind the killings. A secret Israeli squad, the Mossad, enlisted Avner (Eric Bana) to head a team of experts to track down and kill the killers. What initially started as a simple "mission" from above became a senseless carnage and proved to be a psychological torture on Avner and his men. Working incognito, Avner had to enter the dangerous world of international syndicates to ferret his suspects. His French informant, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), seemed to be working as a double agent and had put his mission in great peril. Even his boss, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), looked unbelievable. Nevertheless, Avner had to trust even some perceived enemies to accomplish his goal. But at what cost, the film Munich brilliantly and poignantly depicts.

Spielberg did an amazing feat in this movie. What I first thought would be an anti-Palestinian propaganda ended up indicting even the Jews. Spielberg was so unrelenting and utterly convinced that war, terrorism and vengeance are the three worst evil on earth and that the violence that we inflict on other people is violence done to us and to our own children.

Munich is a good example of a film that should be made a viewing requirement for all students and all people. Like what he did in Schindler's List, Spielberg, exposes the inhumanity and evil in people who think that they and only they have the Truth on their side. Noteworthy in the movie is how Spielberg did not spare even his fellow Jews who think that killing other people who kill/ed their own people is a justifiable act. Avner 's mother (Gila Almagor) was very proud of his son's "accomplishments" and was heaping praises on him as the long awaited avenger of the oppressed Israeli people. But Avner knew that killing was wrong and would not accept even his mother's justification.

The movie, while it shows the tender and compassionate side of the Israeli assassins, does not glorify nor justify their acts. And for this, Spielberg ought to get credit. Over-all I find the movie moving and immensely powerful.

The Fanatic Verdict: "Bravo Spielberg!"

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Johnny Cash vs. Ray Charles

I walked out of the theater, having this deja vu feeling, after watching Walk the Line. I had no problem with the fine acting delivered by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. My complaint had something to do with the uncanny similarity between this film and last year's Oscar contender for best picture Ray. In case you haven't seen Ray or Walk the Line or both (and you're planning to see either or both films), here are some points of comparison you might want to consider:

1) Johnny Cash wore black, Ray Charles was black.
2) Johnny's brother got killed in an accident (at the saw mill), Ray's brother drowned in a tub of water. Both had guilty feelings over the incident.
3) Johnny was a country/blues singer, Ray was a rhythm and blues/jazz singer. Both composed their own songs.
4) Johnny got hooked on drugs. And so was Ray. Both were busted but were later on freed.
5) Johnny had an affair with his back-up, Ray did too.
6) Johnny suffered depression (or a life of dissipation if you will), ditto with Ray.
7) Johnny ran bankrupt, (ah, can't remember what happened to Ray!) record company refused to hire him initially. Ray's company refused to renew his contract.
8) After a recession, both artists had succesful comebacks.
9) Both were cured of their addiction.
10) Both of them had distant fathers and strong mother's influence.
11) Both travelled on caravans during their music tour.

You get the point?

Fanatic Verdict: Ray Charles wins by a few meager points.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

We got to admit it: Ang Lee fouled up in his ambitious adaptation of the marvel superhero Hulk into the big screen. A long boring story involving a raging green CGI-monster didn't real count as a good enough movie. And we thought that Lee had ran out of luck but redemption came sweet and swift to this Taiwan-born director. Now with another adaptation (this time of E. Annie Proulx's short-story) and directing trophies and a possible Oscar nod come March, Ang Lee is back in his elements.

With the same poignancy sans special effects that he gave us in Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) Lee delivers in Brokeback a very understated yet moving drama. Brokeback stars Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist; two cowboys whose unconventional and illicit love affair brings them together and tears their loved ones apart.

While stationed as hire hands to oversee sheep at Brokeback Mountain, jolly and noisome Jack befriended and drew close the silent and reserved Ennis. One bitterly cold night the two cowboys had a passionate encounter and they were forever change. Discovering that they have more than physical attraction between them and yet realizing that they can't live together , they decided to part ways. But four years of separation was simply too unbearable for either of them and soon they found themselves, having had wives and children of their own, helplessly in love with one another.

It all seemed like a simple love story. But this was in the 1960's. They were living in a tightly-knit Christian communities that never heard of gay relationships. And they were cowboys: the iconic image of the American male. With superb acting delivered by both actors (especially commendation goes to Ledger, though) and their able support (Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams), Brokeback definitely restores Ang Lee reputation and hauls for the director loads of cash and numerous awards.

Filmed in Signal, Wyoming by the virtuouso cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (21 Grams, Amores Perros) who apparently did not know how to shoot a single ugly scene, Brokeback provides an Eden-like set for the "Adam and Eve" of the story. The background sets are too beautiful and serene that they are sometimes a distraction. However they are necessary to contrast the anguish and pains felt by the main characters as they struggled to express what they truly felt in a world that would not let them do so.

The verdict fanatic: For this film, and hopefully no more of Hulk-sy stuff, hats-off for Mr. Lee!