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by Jay Seaver

"Higher and Lower."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The easiest way to describe "Graceland" - a twistier, less philosophical take on Akira Kurosawa "High and Low" - maybe does it a disservice by making it sound like it is less than its potential. That's not particularly true; it's actually a pretty great thriller that makes its examination of larger issues so integrated that they don't need to be talked about; they inform every moment.

Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) has been the chauffeur for Filipino Congressman Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias) for years, including taking him and the odd young lady to hush-hush assignations, like the one going on at the start. For all that loyalty, he gets no respect; Chango's wife Marcy (Marife Necesito) is frosty when Marlon's daughter Elive (Ella Guevara) is with him when he comes to pick up their girl Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayod) for school (the girls, of course, are delighted to see each other). He's facing a pink slip as rumors of scandal start to get out, but much worse is coming: A kidnapper (Leon Miguel) pulls the car over and demands Marlon act as a go-between if either father wants to see his daughter again, which naturally makes the driver the prime suspect in the eyes of Detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz).

It's tough to blame him; looked at from the outside, Marlon's got a whole lot of motive, and it's not long before he's on even more shaky ground. Just in terms of making a thriller, writer/director Ron Morales is really not messing around: Graceland has a brutal and efficient setup that puts a noose around its hero's neck early, and then relentlessly finds ways the make the situation worse without ever resorting out-of-nowhere events.

That it can do so indicates that the basic situation is messed up, and that certainly seems to be the case. Morales's story highlights the stark contrast between the rich & powerful and those of more modest means, from how disposable the former often consider the latter to how utterly the police are at Chango's beck and call (and how little protection Marlon has). There's not a societal ill that does not go uncommented-upon, but Morales never does anything purely to inflame the audience's outrage - every bit of unfair treatment makes the movie more tense, and every scandalous action or sadly common incident moves the plot forward. It's an angry movie, but one that simultaneously camouflages and harnesses that anger.

The cast is good enough, in most cases. Arnold Reyes is the one who has to be or else everything falls apart, and, well, it doesn't fall apart. Before the kidnapping, he's a man whose pride has been ground almost down to nothing; afterward, he's just as panicked as one might expect, always on the verge of collapse. Dido De La Paz is frequently hovering just by his side, letting us guess whether he's happily getting paid to let his bad attitude loose or if violence in his very gaze is redirected anger at being for sale. The rest of the cast isn't at that level - it's the sort of low-budget picture where the talent pool isn't always as deep as one might hope - but mostly gets the job done, with Menggie Cobaurrubias having a nice moment or two. Ella Guevara and Patricia Ona Gayod are nice as the girls, showing circumstance starting to change them.

This is Ron Morales's second film set in the Philippines (he usually works out of New York), and he doesn't mess around. Though he shoots in run-down neighborhoods and builds his script around the disparity between the rich and the poor, he doesn't engage in much "poverty porn". Seeing that Morales pays the bills as a grip on bigger productions, it's no surprise that he and cinematographer Sung Rae Cho get some impressive images into the picture, including some impressive night photography. There are a few hitches, particularly toward the end, where Morales does threaten to stretch his theme to the breaking point, but the movie has built up more than enough goodwill by that point.

Still, you've got to be quite impressed by what Morales accomplishes. "Graceland" has brains, almost-painful suspense, and a conscience, and it can sometimes seem rare for a thriller to have even one of those. It's occasionally raw, but more often than not in the good way.

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originally posted: 08/25/12 14:15:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.

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8/02/13 Langano Well done. 4 stars
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  26-Apr-2013 (NR)
  DVD: 23-Jul-2013



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