Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's all in the mind

It took me a while, but I finally saw Inception today, and I finally saw what all the fuss is about. It is by far the finest film I've seen all year, and it's going to be tough to top it. This is director/writer/producer Christopher Nolan doing what he does best: screwing with the audience's minds, in the most elegant, exquisite and highly entertaining way.

If you didn't take as long as I did to see Inception, you'd know by now that the title refers to the act of infiltrating a person's subconscious and planting an idea in it. This speculative fiction premise of the movie is intriguingly novel by itself, but in the deft hands of Nolan, it becomes utterly compelling. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, still trying painfully hard to be taken seriously) leads a team of thieves that specialize in "extraction", stealing secrets from sleeping people's dreams. Cobb is bribed by Japanese tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) into accepting an inception job, the objective of which is to take down the empire of Saito's business competitor, Maurice Fischer, who is on his deathbed. Cobb and his cohorts are tasked to enter the subconscious of Fischer's son and sole heir Robert (Cillian Murphy), and plant the idea of dissolving his father's corporation.

Simple enough plot? So it would seem, but then it thickens into the consistency of almost-dry cement. Cobb's own subconscious is so messed up he endangers his team during their missions, as he battles his personal demons who keep showing up in the form of his two children and his dead wife (Marion Cotillard). I can't go into further detail without revealing too much, in case someone reading this hasn't seen the movie, but suffice it to say it requires one's full concentration to follow the crafty and convoluted twists and turns of the story. And even then, in the end you'll be left befuddled, as evidenced by the audible collective groan that rose from the audience when the lights went up inside the cinema-- just like waking up from a bizarre dream you can't wrap your head around.

Anchored by an interesting and arresting plot, Inception is buoyed by amazing CGI and special effects. Most kick-ass was the scene where Cobb's trusted point man Arthur (a very grown-up and very fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in a hotel hallway, fighting off some guys in zero gravity. Excellent casting and flawless performances give Inception added credibility and character-- and prove that you don't need 3D when good acting already gives a film extra dimension. Special mention goes to
relative unknown Tom Hardy, who is a scene-stealer (and quite easy on the eyes) as Eames, the team's "forger", and young Ellen Page, who plays Ariadne, the gifted rookie "architect" Cobb enlists to assist them. Page failed to impress me in her claim-to-fame titular role in Juno, but I was more than suitably impressed with her in this one.

Reminiscent of Nolan's brilliant breakthrough movie Memento, Inception is one big mindf*ck that has viewers debating and discussing days after they've watched it. I don't have the words to adequately encapsulate how awesome this film is in its complexity, its originality, its artistry. This is one of those films you have to see for yourself in order to perhaps not fully comprehend, but definitely appreciate. The Dark Knight may have elevated Chris Nolan to superstar status, but Inception firmly establishes him as a genius.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Legally bland

Since watching last Sunday's matinee of Atlantis Productions' staging of Legally Blonde: The Musical, the chorus of "Omigod You Guys" has been stuck in my non-blonde head. However, this case of Last Song Syndrome is not exactly proof of how much I appreciated the theatrical adaptation of the much-loved movie starring Reese Witherspoon, who immortalized the quintessential undumb blonde Elle Woods. Aforementioned song may be catchy, but apart from a handful of other well-composed songs and some impressive choreography, Legally Blonde: The Musical pales in comparison to the film from where it got its roots (hair puns half-intended).

First of all, the humor of the original movie was not fully present in the theatrical version, or at least the Atlantis version of it. I'm not sure whether to blame it on the Meralco Theater's crappy (and ancient) sound system, or the actors' poor diction and delivery, but a lot of the lines-- which I suspect were quite witty-- got lost in transmission. The improbable but amusing tale of Elle's journey from flighty sorority girl to formidable Harvard law student was told clearly enough, but with less of the smart sass that made the movie so engaging and endearing.

Second, the cast Atlantis assembled did not quite succeed in bringing to life the memorable characters from the movie. Nikki Gil, who obviously exerted every effort to play the part of Elle Woods, still failed to fill her pink pumps with the same convincing clueless-yet-clever charm Reese Witherspoon brought to the role. At times, Ms. Gil appeared to be trying TOO hard, almost begging the audience to believe she's really a blonde ditz-- and I suppose it doesn't help that we know she's really neither. While her vocal prowess was more than adequate, her acting skills did not do justice (legal pun not intended) to such a larger-than-life character. Her Elle was more caricature than anything, which is lamentable as the lovable Ms. Woods is actually one of the most honest and accessible female figures to come out of a Hollywood comedy.

The supporting players were no better. As the leading man, Nyoy Volante was a subpar Emmet Forrest-- his portrayal was a bit weak, even sheepish; his vocals were overpowered by Nikki Gil's (particularly in their duet "Legally Blonde"); and his slight stature did not help his stage presence (in certain scenes it was easy to forget he was there). Jinky Llamanzares played bubbly beautician Paulette Bonafonte, who's supposed to bring much comic relief to the story, but instead of nailing all her jokes (most of which were garbled by her weird accent), she seemed more slapstick and silly. Even the popular "bend and snap" gag didn't really work the way Jennifer Coolidge (a.k.a. Stifler's mom) rocked it in the movie. Geneva Cruz as Elle's celebrity client and fellow sorority alum Brooke Wyndham did a kick-ass job performing "Whipped into Shape", belting out the song while dancing and jumping rope, but most of her speaking lines, including some choice one-liners, fell flat. And those three girls who played Elle's sorority sisters and "Greek chorus" were irritating in their irrelevance and just plain unfunny.

The only actor I found no fault with was, surprisingly, Cris Villonco (whom I used to find annoying when she was a kid). Playing Elle's ex's new flame Vivienne Kensington, Ms. Villonco was the sole performer with the right balance of acting and musical talent, and even in the relatively drab outfits she wore (and standing next to Nikki Gil clad in shocking pink), she stood out for me.

Third, some elements were added to the musical that weren't in the movie, and said additions felt unnecessary, including Paulette's inexplicable longing for "Ireland", the already mentioned Greek chorus, and a trip to the scene of the crime in the middle of a court trial. The only new thing I liked was the number "There! Right There!" where the people in the courtroom tried to decide if the pool boy on the witness stand was "gay or European".

Perhaps if I were not to compare the musical with the movie, Legally Blonde could stand on its own and be considered pretty good. But even then, the acting would have still disappointed me, especially after being thoroughly impressed with the casts of the last 2 Atlantis shows I saw (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Avenue Q).

Moreover (and as pointed out by my viewing companion), the choreography was not very polished, at least not as polished as in previous Atlantis productions. Nikki Gil is a serviceable but not spectacular dancer, and it was made more apparent whenever she was placed alongside the trio who played the Greek chorus. Filipino actors always fancy themselves triple threats, but realistically very few can pull off acting, singing and dancing all together-- and the evidence was right there on stage for Legally Blonde.

The final verdict? Not as bad as Spring Awakening, but only half as good as I was expecting. Perhaps with a different cast, in a different theater, Legally Blonde: The Musical could have been better, and I would have gotten more out of it than LSS.