Tag: oscar

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) live in a place called “The Bathtub,” nicknamed for the area’s tendency to flood when a storm and other natural disasters strike. Located south of the levee, their community is separated from modern society but this is not to suggest that their culture is less than. On the contrary, despite the poverty around them, they are a proud people with a knack for survival. While Hushpuppy and Wink have a fight due to the former causing a fire, huge chunks of ice in the Arctic, which happen encase giant prehistoric animals, melt and collapse. Aurochs tend to demolish everything that happens to be on their way and so the Louisiana bayou is under threat.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on the screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, is the kind of picture that our culture should be hungry for because it meshes reality and fantasy in such a way that is engaging, challenging, and worthwhile. If someone from a thousand years from now takes the time to watch this movie, I imagine that person being transported to the in-folds of time and dreams, a similar feeling that takes over my entire system each time I am engulfed in the imagination and ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The celebration of life is the overarching theme that permeates through the collective lives of the bayou residents. Within the first ten minutes, it immerses us in life, from a crowd of excited people celebrating in the streets while fireworks brighten the dark skies, babies crying for attention, down to the manner in which the chickens cluck every other step and freshly caught crabs skitter about on their alien environment. Flooding us with a myriad of images so alive, it attempts to break down some of our notions about people living in squalor, mainly that they are unhappy and therefore must be pitied.

At the same time, the film is not afraid to deliver the unflinching reality of what it means to be economically marginalized. We watch Wink and Hushpuppy go about their usual days and wonder how they can subsist on what they have–or don’t have. When it rains, for instance, they do not even have a proper roof to keep all of the water out of their home. Further, the walls are so thin, the thunder sounds like a lion’s roar that is only a few feet away. When it is dark, close-ups are used more often to draw us into looking at their physicality and reading their conflicting thoughts through the emotions that have surfaced on their faces. Likewise, the wide shots are utilized wisely, usually in the daytime, in order to give us an idea of what the characters have to work with. And it isn’t much.

Under Benh Zeitlin’s careful direction, the symbolism in the film does not overpower the flow and rhythm of the story being told. For instance, the flood could have been so dramatized that at one point the focus might have shifted to the disaster instead of a six-year-old trying to make sense of what is going on. Instead, Hushpuppy wakes up one morning and mostly everything is submerged accompanied by an eerie quietness. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the typhoon-magnet Philippines. A storm would rage overnight and when I woke up, I would step on my patio and notice that the streets would be blanketed by cream-colored water with current so powerful, moderately-sized trees would be carried downstream as if they were made out of plastic toys.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on Lucy Alibar’s play, offers something unique to the table and it is understandable why some might be at a loss on why it is special. Because our film culture, currently, is so inundated with the familiar, I think a lot of us have learned to expect less. I hope young people as well as future filmmakers will see this, be inspired, and follow by example: that it’s perfectly okay to color outside the lines, use nail polish instead of crayons, or perhaps tear up the pages altogether and make a collage instead.

Gladiator


Gladiator (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.

The King’s Speech


The King’s Speech (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) had a speech problem so he and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) tried to find a speech therapist who could “cure” the future King George VI’s condition. After seeing many medical practitioners to no avail (the doctors actually encouraged the prince to smoke cigarettes), Prince Albert’s wife hired Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man with, at the time, unconventional ways of dealing with stuttering. As Prince Albert and Lionel spent more time together, they were successful at taking small steps forward. But each step meant Prince Albert was that much closer to becoming king, due to his father’s (Michael Gambon) death and older brother’s (Guy Pearce) abdication from the throne, and leading his people in World War II. I don’t know much about British history, but I was very engaged with what was happening. Most importantly, it didn’t feel like a history lesson. The film was a classic character study about a man who was capable of being great but a speech impediment held him back greatly. There was a positive feedback between his lack of confidence and his fear of being judged by his people. We may or may not stutter but most of us share an anxiety when it comes to public speaking. I didn’t expect the picture to have such a great sense of humor. When the characters talked about sex, they were packaged in little suggestions through wordplay and euphemisms. The actors were sublime in delivering the humor without actually winking at the camera. The joke was in the words followed by their body movements and the awkward looks they sent each other’s way. Stuttering and other speech disorders are serious issues but the material dealt with it in a fun but always respectful way. Lionel’s view that a speech disorder was not necessarily always directly related with the machanics of the mouth and facial muscles but might have sprouted from a deep psychological trauma was interesting. Although reluctant at first, Prince Albert eventually opened up about a heartbreaking childhood experience. I looked forward to their sessions because there was a division of class and that division was challenged by the slowly growing trust between the doctor and his patient. That trust between two men coming from different worlds was crucial because the future king would eventually have to make an encouraging speech to his people, a symbol that he was qualified to lead their kingdom, and announce that they were at war with Adolf Hitler. Without Rush and Firth’s strong but subtle acting, aided by Tom Hooper’s assured direction, the material could easily have been heavy-handed. Or worse, it could have been about the speech disorder itself instead of the man who happened to have it. “The King’s Speech” reminds most of us how much we take simple things for granted like being able to speak without having to worry about whether or not our mouths will form the right words.

An Education


An Education (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.

A Single Man


A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.

Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who believe that Quentin Tarantino (“Resevoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Death Proof”) is slowly losing his touch when it comes to filmmaking and storytelling should watch this film. “Inglourious Basterds” essentially covers three groups of characters: Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his men’s (Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom) quest to hunt, scalp, and kill Nazis; the intimidating Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi hunter who prefers to be categorized as a detective more than anything else and who happens to speak English, French, Italian, and German which proves to be quite useful; and Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, who survived Waltz’ massacre three years ago and had plans of her own, along with her trusted friend Marcel (Jacky Ido), to avenge her family. Divided into five sublime chapters, at first the characters had nothing to do with each other. But as the picture went on they all collided, had very entertaining conversations and bloody violence, just as one could expect from a Tarantino motion picture.

I was surprised with how quickly the movie paced itself, considering that I needed to use the bathroom during the first thirty minutes. (I gulped down a lot of soda during the previews.) I couldn’t help but get so engaged with the dialogue because in some lines, the characters attach some sort of threat into their words or tone to the point where it made me feel like I was in the same room with them. Although this was a World War II picture to begin with, it became so much more than that. In the second half, it became about a project about the love for the cinema and using that as a template to put these very intense characters under one roof. What I noticed about this movie was that with each major character, Tarantino moved the camera to match the person’s idiosyncracies and intentions. Therefore, it became more than just a World War II picture with necessary violence. It became a personal character study where the characters became tangled in the intricacies of politics, bureaucracies, and their own morals (sometimes lack thereof). The way Tarantino played with the movie’s tone greatly impressed me (as I was in his other films). One minute I just feel like hiding behind my hands because either something very violent was about to happen or a character knew something the other character did not know and was about to get caught; the next minute I found myself laughing so hard (due to the comedy or relief, it was often difficult to tell) because a character did or said something hilarious.

I can definitely understand why the American mainstream could be disappointed with this movie. For one, pretty much half of the movie had subtitles. (I love subtitled films. Sometimes, I even watch movies spoken in English with subtitles.) They could find it challenging to read and pay attention to the images at the same time. Second, with its 153-minute running time, the audiences were asked to sit through extended dialogues with (from some blogger reviews I’ve read) “very little payoffs that only happened toward the end of each chapter”). As a person who loves long movies, I cannot disagree more because the payoffs happen as the lines were being said. It was the subtleties in each intonation and movement that really made this film that much better than typical summer movie flicks. It was intelligent, had great sense of build-up, very tense, and brutal. So, for me, those kinds of arguments that people brought up were simply a matter of acquired taste. Hey, I didn’t start off loving foreign films and long movies either. It took some time and when it finally clicked, my moviegoing experience became that much more rewarding.

I strongly believe that “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best movies of summer 2009 (if not the best). The performances are top-notch, especially from Christoph Waltz who is already getting Oscar buzz (and deservedly so), the pacing was done skillfully, and best of all, it knew how and when to have fun. If it had taken itself too seriously, it probably would not have been as enjoyable, it would have simply been violent and heartless. I’m already looking forward to Tarantino’s next project.

Frozen River


Frozen River (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Courtney Hunt’s screenwriter and directoral debut blew me out of the water. “Frozen River” is about a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who tries to keep her family afloat after the father of the family leaves and takes all their money with him. Not knowing what else to do because her part-time job is not enough to keep up with the bills, Leo teams up with a Native American (Misty Upham) to smuggle immigrants into the United States for $600 per person. This movie left me so overwhelmed because it’s very efficient with its time. Each minute adds a piece of the puzzle regarding why the characters choose to do what they do. And that’s the key: The characters choose to do what they do even though they very well know that such actions are illegal, yet we still very much sympathize with them. I think that’s where Hunt’s talent comes in–she makes her character so raw to the point where I can imagine the events actually happening in real life. The acting all-around is top notch. Leo and Upham are initially pit up against each other yet they share a common bond that’s strong enough to overcome their differences. Leo definitely deserved her Oscar nomination because, right from the first frame, I sensed a certain complexity from a mother who will do anything it takes to provide for her children (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly). There’s this one scene when they have nothing else to eat other than popcorn and orange juice. It made me think that, if I were in Leo’s situation, I would also smuggle illegal immigrants despite the risks. Also, she has only a few simple dreams for her family (such as getting her children presents for Christmas and buying a new house) but she cannot quite achieve them. While she does tend to blame herself once in a while, she always decides to get up because no one else will solve her problems for her. In a nutshell, the lead character is very flawed but I could not help but admire her resolve. I was also surprised by how suspenseful it got during the smuggling scenes. There’s a lot of political elements that come into play whenever they have to escape such as the differing rules when one is in an Indian reservation. By the end, I was so emotionally drained but I still wanted the film to continue because I was curious about what would happen next to the characters. This is a superb film in every respect; it may be small in scope at first glance but it’s truly quite universal.