Category Archives: Fantasy

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011)

Few movies interest my father. The last one we saw together was District 9, and he slept through most of that. Recently, however, he’s gotten hooked on historical films, starting with Roman sagas (Gladiator, Spartacus) then moving on to Chinese epics (An Empress and the Warriors). He came across The Sorcerer and the White Snake on YouTube. After being told the story twice, my mom and I plunked ourselves down in front of a laptop to share the experience. We even had popcorn.

Forbidden love. It’s the oldest tale in the world (save perhaps for creation stories). As with Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a non-human heroine saves a mortal from drowning, thus earning his love. It’s easy enough to believe. But while a princess falling in love with a prince (the first one she sees) seems a matter of course, that’s not the case here. I don’t see why the White Snake Susu (Eva Huang) feels attracted to a poor herb-gatherer like Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). She and her demon-sister Qingqing (Charlene Choi), the Green Snake, have spent centuries observing humans, so why does she fall for this particular one? Are we to pin it all on their exchange of “vital forces” (via the life-saving kiss)? Are we to believe that a thousand-year-old demon can find no other way to un-drown a mortal than by kissing him? Unlike the mischievous Qingqing, Susu is defined only by her love for Xu Xian, and even he has better characterization: a good-hearted physician devoted to helping others. A little backstory on why Susu would find that kind of personality endearing is necessary to building up their relationship.

Halfway through the movie, Susu and Xu Xian hold a mock-marriage ceremony, but of course someone hinders their happily ever after. As a monk committed to exorcising demons, Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) finds their union intolerable. Although my sympathies lay with the couple, the antagonist’s portrayal still stood out: It’s clear that Fahai’s not a wicked magus—just someone with principles to uphold, responsibilities to fulfill. My favorite moment is when he addresses a plea to Buddha during a moment of apparent defeat: “I have been a dharma defender all my life… Why did the calamity happen instead? Have I been too stubborn? Was I really wrong?” This might be asking too much, but I wish the film had explored this theme further. The conflict already dances on the line between good and evil, but the ending’s deus ex machina sweeps all that under the rug—or more accurately, beneath the roiling waves of the sea.

Although it’s apparently famous, I didn’t know about the Legend of the White Snake until this movie, and for that I am grateful. Forbidden love is an oft-told tale in many cultures, but each retelling remains exquisite and inexorably sad. With such material to draw from, the film could have been more successful had it focused on themes of love and religion rather than on its much-criticized special effects, which appear more cartoonish than real. Legends persist because they possess universal resonance. In the hands of the right person, they can be shaped into films that resonate with the fragility of time and the endurance of passion. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the White Snake has not found such an adaptation here.

‘My friends said I’d imagined her, but I’m quite sure she was real, because she kissed me so deeply. That kiss saved my life. In a way, it also took my life.’

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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

By now everyone already knows the premise, but in case you live under a rock—

Years after his parents disappeared, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds a clue that might unravel the mystery. Following this lead, he visits Oscorp Industries to seek out Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s partner in researching cross-species genetics. There, he gets bitten by a genetically altered spider, gaining superhuman capabilities which he uses to round up criminals and impress Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). But the same research that turns Peter into Spider-Man also transforms Dr. Connors into the vicious Lizard, whose evolutionary vision endangers New York City.

Young Peter has always been awkward, but in film he hasn’t exactly seemed very youthful. Although 28-year-old Garfield looks nothing like a pubescent, his charms lend a boyish aura to the new Spider-Man. His Peter is a tech-savvy teen who plays Bubble Shooter when bored, who gets reprimanded for forgetting errands and breaking curfew. His crush, the smart, self-possessed Gwen is a far cry from perpetual damsel-in-distress Mary Jane. She actually plays a pivotal role in saving the day, transcending the typical role of superhero love interest. But while the original Spider-Man series highlighted an adult relationship (with all its encumbrances), Marc Webb’s version presents a sweeter, more innocent love—not better, but refreshing.

That said, their first kiss doesn’t even come close to the iconic Spider-Man scene; but they don’t try to trump it—and no one can blame them. What I can’t dismiss, however, is the clumsily handled conclusion to the romance. Given what happened, Peter’s last quip—and Gwen’s responding smile—seem inappropriate. I also found the Uncle Ben part too downplayed, although I liked the portrayal of Peter’s grief, how he shuns even Gwen’s consolation. Lastly, one bugging omission: Where’d Peter get the Spidey suit?

The Amazing Spider-Man promotes itself as “the untold story,” but essentially it’s the same story re-told with more flair. Perhaps the sequel might hold up to that promise? For now, viewers can appreciate the spectacular action sequences, engineered for maximum visual pleasure, but not overwhelming enough to distract from the story. (It must be way more awesome in 3D, but with a free pass from Sarah, I’m not complaining.) It’s not the original, and it certainly doesn’t mark an industry milestone, but for a franchise reboot just five years after the last film? Not bad, not bad at all.

‘We all have secrets—the ones we keep…and the ones that are kept from us.’

‘Peter, secrets have a cost. They’re not free. Not now, not ever.’

Big Fish (2003)

“In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth.” Thus William (Billy Crudup) introduces his father Edward Bloom (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor), and thus we come to know him. But although William’s voice ushers us into the narrative, it is through Edward’s eyes that we see his life story unfold. Amid the last stages of cancer, the old man remains unable to forsake the storyteller in him; and, to his son’s consternation, regales William’s wife (Marion Cotillard) with gallant adventures of his youth—when time literally stopped as he first glimpsed his wife Sandra (Jessica Lange/Alison Lohman) and when as a boy he divined his death in a witch’s glass eye. Frustrated by his father’s fictionalizations, William resolves to uncover the facts through Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter) and for the first time recognizes the man behind the tales.

I don’t believe enough people realize the importance of having a good movie trailer—and the repercussions of releasing a bad one. Conventional blunders include either selling the film too short, as in Hugo, or revealing too much, as in Big Fish. While undeniably appealing, the difficulty with promotions that promise “an adventure as big as life itself” is that it places a heavy burden on the movie, raising expectations and robbing it of the chance to captivate audiences unawares. Had I not previously seen the trailer, I might have been more fascinated by Big Fish, but as it stands, the movie only fulfilled my expectations, without exceeding it—which is a sad thing to say about a film that grants so much import to the imagination.

Although its trailer cheated me out of (what seemed like) an incredible visual experience, the film did have other merits. The last scene between father and son is strikingly poignant. At that moment, William finally, finally comes to an understanding of Edward—why he embellished his stories, why he told them again and again, why he resolutely insisted on the impossible. At its core, Big Fish tells of the necessity of fiction to overcome the banality of life. Despite its annoying faithfulness to family drama tropes, it is overall a moving chronicle of one man’s desire to be bigger than life, something that mere biographical existence fails to offer.

We were like strangers who knew each other very well.

His birth would set the pace for his unlikely life, no longer than most men, but larger.

‘You don’t even know me.’ ‘I have the rest of my life to find out.’

Midnight in Paris (2011)

A peculiar fate binds love and Paris—and apparently, romance movies. From Maurice Pialat’s depressingly sober À Nos Amours to the more buoyant Paris, Je T’Aime, directors have shown a penchant for charting out love affairs in Paris. Woody Allen’s latest film is no exception. The opening scenes of Midnight in Paris showcase picturesque views of the city: a boat crossing the Seine, the iconic Moulin Rouge windmill, café sidewalks in the rain. The montage runs too long for my taste, but it does establish the city’s grandeur—curiously, not as a city of attractions (although there’s that), but as an everyday residence, where one can gladly brave occasional showers without an umbrella. But in case three full minutes of postcard pictures isn’t enough to hammer home the idea, Woody Allen further underscores the point with an actual line in the movie: “That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me.”

Indeed, Paris has held firm to its reputation as a magical place, where—at least for those “temporarily passing through”—logic takes a back seat and anything can happen. In this enchanted realm, inhibitions are relinquished by the mere mention of the city’s name. Following this tradition, the film sets at its center the nostalgic malaise of urbanites, the longing to transport oneself to a different era: “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” But although Midnight in Paris indicates disconnection and discontent, watching it made me feel fulfilled, in no small part because of the fantastic vicarious experience it provides. Maki and I easily identified with Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an aspiring novelist whose literary career is built on Hollywood screenplays. Visiting Paris with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams), he feels inexplicably drawn to the city, where on a midnight stroll he discovers an anachronistic world and a girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but I also understand that it’s not for everyone. For one thing, not all would appreciate its myriad references, which are what make the movie so gratifying. In one scene, we meet T.S. Eliot. In another, we hear Salvador Dali exclaiming, “I see a rhinoceros!” It’s both absurd and exciting. Although selective in its viewership, Midnight in Paris promises an amusing ride, filled with surprises that make you hungry for the next adventure.

‘No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.’

‘If it’s bad, I’ll hate it. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.’

‘I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing. And when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face…it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until the return that it does to all men.’

‘The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.’

‘You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city? You can’t.’

Hugo (2011)

Set in 1930s Paris, Hugo centers on its title character, a clockmaker’s son who lives within the walls of a railway station. Orphaned and abandoned, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) steals food to survive and filches mechanical parts to complete his father’s project, the restoration of a broken automaton. When toy merchant Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) catches him red-handed and takes a valuable notebook from him, a desperate Hugo turns to the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), for help. Together, they repair the automaton and discover its link to Georges’ secret past, opening up an adventure much bigger than the one they first imagined.

While Hugo generally sustains its fantastic veneer, ill-considered sequences at times break the illusion—the most jarring being a painfully blatant statement of theme. But despite such identifiable blunders, the movie leads you inside worlds far from familiar: gigantic clocks forming intricate mechanical lacework, books spiraling toward the ceiling, tiny toys lining a shop from end to end. In Hugo, your world is scaled down to one city, one train station—where your biggest enemy is the inspector, and the orphanage your worst nightmare. Visually, all this is rendered in spectacular 3D. The opening scenes take your breath away: the onrush of steam in your face, the crowd parting to let you pass—almost, almost like you’re really there. In a word: captivating.

Magnified to gorgeous proportions, Georges’ masterpieces compel the viewer to consider and appreciate the many layers at work in Scorsese’s fim. Although marketed as a heartwarming family drama, the movie’s principal accomplishments lie elsewhere. As a children’s movie, Hugo may fail to mesmerize very young audiences, but does wonders in capturing the hearts and minds of more mature viewers. Whatever the dissenting few may say, I consider this film a success in the seamless unification of its elements: an orphan searching for his father’s presence, an artist struggling to reconcile with a bitter past, and—between them—a mysterious, broken automaton carrying a crucial message. Apart from Butterfield’s inconsistent performance and some awkward exchanges between the two children, I have no real complaints. My eyes blurred over several times while watching this film—at times out of sadness, more often out of sheer awe. I am grateful to Maki for dragging me to its last screening in Metro Manila. Hugo in 3D is definitely something I would not have wanted to miss.

‘We could get into trouble.’ ‘That’s how you know it’s an adventure.’

‘Why should I believe you?’ ‘Because…because it’s true!’

‘If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around. This is where they’re made.’

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

One magical summer, I met Hayao Miyazaki and entered the strange universe of Studio Ghibli. I remember listening to Eandra play the theme of Howl’s Moving Castle and being convinced to watch the movie, which soon prompted me to unearth more. I wept over Grave of the Fireflies, laughed through My Neighbors the Yamadas, and marveled at the mysterious worlds of Ponyo and Nausicaä. For a year I awaited Studio Ghibli’s next film, then titled The Borrower Arrietty.

The movie centers on Arrietty, an adventurous girl born to a family of borrowers—little people who live under the floorboards and “borrow” from humans the things they need for survival. She knows that this peaceful co-existence hinges on one very important tenet: that the borrowers remain undiscovered by humans, whom they perceive as cruel and dangerous. But one day a frail boy named Sho arrives at the house and strikes up a friendship with Arrietty, transforming her understanding of humans but also endangering her family’s existence.

A legend among anime fans, Hayao Miyazaki is a name that has become inseparable from Studio Ghibli. He serves as the production planner for Arrietty; animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes on the director’s role. Even after repeated viewings, Ghibli’s animation does not disappoint. There is always something new to admire in each film. In Arrietty we find a strong emphasis on detail highlighting relative properties: short distances become chasms, a clock’s ticking is amplified to insistent banging, and tea flows out of a pot in gigantic drops. This magnified scale imbues house interiors with a sense of newness, inciting wonder at what we deem ordinary—this I consider the film’s chief achievement.

Content-wise, what I liked most is the subtle dynamics of Sho and Arrietty’s relationship. Neither character overwhelms the other; they are equal in their weakness. I especially appreciated how Sho did not presume to solve the borrowers’ lodging problem, even though it was well within his capacity to do so. That struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. Because of this, I am prompted to deem the film’s few didactic lapses forgivable.

While Arrietty holds none of the exuberance of Spirited Away (my favorite), it possesses the same qualities that made the latter such a success. Charming and splendidly uplifting, this movie shows that it doesn’t take all that much to bridge two worlds. Sometimes, all you need is a cube of sugar.

‘We’ll make do, we always have. You don’t know anything about us!’

‘You protected me after all. I hope you have the best life ever. Goodbye.’

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Is it just me, or are Hollywood movies getting better with their plot lines these days? Since Inception, more and more directors are dipping their fingers into science fiction. In 2011 alone, we have popular films like Source Code, Contagion, and In Time all with sci-fi elements serving as premises to fuel the story. In The Adjustment Bureau, fate is a book that you hold in your hand, and chance is a man in a fedora hat setting up your every choice.

On election eve, Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) meets beautiful, impulsive Elise (Emily Blunt). Fate dictates that they never see each other again, but chance intervenes and sets in motion a problem for the agents of destiny. Harry (Anthony Mackie), a jaded member of the Adjustment Bureau, makes a slip-up that allows the two to meet again, and this time the attraction is strong enough to reshape their lives. The Bureau does not respond kindly to deviance, so in order to stay together, David and Elise must overcome forces they never knew existed and fight against fate itself.

“The guy rides the same bus every day for three years. Who does that?” Romantic movie heroes, that’s who. It’s easy to imagine the same scenario with Ryan Gosling, dutifully waiting for that moment he chances upon Elise again. But Matt Damon, really? Because we saw so much running from him in the Bourne series? For a movie centering on love, the romance falls flat in this film, partly because Matt Damon fails to convince. The script had some winning lines, but it also contained too many cheesy scenes. I prefer Source Code, where the focus is more on the action and the implications of the setup than the romance. Here, all I see is a sci-fi love-conquers-all drama.

Maki agrees with me: The Adjustment Bureau has a promising concept, but unfortunately it came out half-baked. Somehow it feels like the people behind it didn’t think their premise through because they were too busy trying to make it appealing. If God watched this, I’m sure he would feel offended. The Chairman is a whimsical God: he intertwines David and Elise’s fate from birth, then one day rewrites everything. Later on, he again changes his mind. Really, God? That’s the plan, impulsive revision? Plus the hat thing is just hilarious. What God would do that?

‘You ruined me. I didn’t want to settle for less.’

‘You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.’

‘All I have are the choices I make.’

‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Even if it’s only a little while.’

Free will is a gift that you’ll never know how to use until you fight for it.