Graceland (US - BD RA)
Jonathan looks at the Blu-ray release of the Tagalog-language thriller...
Reading the plot description for Graceland brings to mind some recent thrillers, particularly a couple of Luc Besson productions, churned out with minimal effort for a quick cash in. I was a little skeptical going in, but I trust Drafthouse Films to put out films that are at least interesting and off of the beaten path. Yeah, the plot reads like your standard kidnapping yarn, but where most thrillers of this type don't even flirt with moral complexity, Graceland is constantly dragging you through it. It's a film where no character gets to make easy decisions and nobody comes out unscathed. It also demonstrates a willingness to go into dark territory that you'll never find in a Hollywood thriller. Sometimes its twists and turns don't ring entirely true, but overall it's a refreshingly thoughtful crime story and a haunting moral drama.
The film follows Marlon (Arnold Reyes), a chauffeur for a Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias). Marlon has it rough. He has difficulty connecting with his young daughter and his wife is hospitalized. He spends his days working hard for Changho, a corrupt politician that uses Marlon to help clean up his messes. We first see Changho in a hotel room following a sexual encounter he had with a young, drugged girl. He gives Marlon money for payment as well as some to give to the girl when she wakes up, and instructions to take her wherever she wants to go. Marlon is deeply troubled by the situation but reluctantly complies. The next day news of Changho's illegal activities has hit the media. He has to let Marlon go. Things go from bad to worse when a botched kidnapping occurs and the kidnappers take Marlon's daughter for ransom, mistaking her for Changho's daughter. To divulge much more of the plot would ruin the punch that Graceland packs.
What we're left with a heavy moral dilemma for Marlon. He must navigate tricky waters between the kidnappers, Changho, and an untrusting police detective to ensure that his daughter is returned safely. Marlon is not a man of many words, but Arnold Reyes's performance makes the character easy to sympathize with. You can see inner turmoil and indecision written all over his face in every scene. Compared to rest of the cast, he's an easy choice for most likable character. But part of what makes Graceland such a challenging (and in that respect rewarding) film is that by the time the credits roll, even Marlon will be difficult to root for. The last time a US film made me think hard on what I would've done in a character's situation was the resolution of Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece High and Low came to mind when watching this film. Both have mixed up kidnappings and reflections on wealth disparity, but Graceland is more focused on twists and turns than saying anything about class differences. Some of these twists will illicit a "yeah, right" from viewers, but more often than not the plot developments add layers to the characters and make you rethink your stance on them.
This is Ron Morales's sophomore film. He showcases a strong visual style, managing to focus his camera on unlikely beauty in the trashiest of locales - sometimes very literally. There is a garbage dump that the key players in the story will each find themselves visiting at some point, and it almost serves as a character in the film. It's a harsh place where terrible things happen, but somehow the compositions Morales and his photographer Sung Rae Cho form with heaps of trash in the background are visually striking. I couldn't locate a figure for the film's exact budget, but I know it was very small. This became especially apparent when listening to the commentary track on this Blu-ray. Morales never lets his budget get in the way of thrills or storytelling. The movie very rarely feels cheap, and Morales's tweaks to the standard kidnapping plot keep the proceeding intriguing in a way that big budget Hollywood fare hardly ever achieves.
I couldn't find any information on what camera Graceland was shot on, but this 1080p transfer reminded me very much of the way The Raid looked on Blu-ray. It appears to be a cheaper digital camera, which is no shock given how small the budget apparently was. Constraints taken into account, the movie still looks quite good on this Blu-ray disc from RLJ Entertainment thanks to some wonderful photography from Sung Rae Cho. Morales mentioned using old lenses on the digital camera, which are likely what gave the film its distinct look. Outdoor scenes have a very desaturated appearance but the strong lighting makes them the clearest and cleanest looking scenes in the film. Darker scenes have an apparent but consistent amount of digital noise in the darker areas of the picture that is expected given the source material, and it kind of works given the film's gritty material. I still would've loved to see how this would look on film, but I know it isn't realistic for a low budget movie these days. Actual artefacts from compression/transferring the film to the Blu-ray medium are not an issue.
The movie's budget is felt more in the audio department than the video. Graceland's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix expectedly lacks the polish of a big budget thriller, but that isn't to say there aren't some nice little touches here and there. There isn't much direction to any of the sound mix, but every scene has some appropriate ambient noise. Outdoor scenes where activities are happening in the background will have some noise in the rear channels. You can often her the noises of a distant city or vehicles passing nearby. There's nothing here that will take full advantage of your HD sound system, but the track makes good use of surround channels and lends itself to the story just fine. I would like to note that the subtitle option on the disc is locked to English. There is no way to disable the subtitles entirely. I noticed the same thing with Drafthouse Films' release of Klown.
Extras kick off with an Audio Commentary track. This track features director Ron Morales, producers Rebecca Lundgren and Sam Rider, and the director of photography Sung Rae Cho. This is very much a technical accounting of the filmmaking process. Nearly the entire commentary track is dedicated to the location scouting, how they filmed a scene, where they got certain actors from, and working with an extremely low budget. The commentary track rarely talks about the story at hand. It is easy to admire Morales and his crew for the crazy hours they worked on this film and the things they had to do to get around budget constraints. The crew is all together here and it sounds like they are recording from one location. Every one feels like they had an equal hand in the success of the film, which is a nice departure from solo director commentaries where producers and directors of photography usually don't get recognition for their work.
Next up is A Life for Every Lie: The Making of Graceland (HD, 12:15). This is a short but sweet little behind the scenes feature that covers ground the commentary track did not. You'll get more of Morales talking about the story and what inspired him to make this film. The director of photography and the producers also talk about Morales and how they got on board with the project. They go into some detail about the challenges of their small budget and what is what like to just go to the Philippines (where none of them are from) and try to throw together a movie without very many resources. Next up are Deleted Scenes (HD, 9:30). There are five in total. Some of the highlights include a scene where an interrogator working for the police detective beats up Marlon for answers. There's also some footage of the kidnapped girl interacting with her kidnappers, something we did not see much of in the final film. Next up is a neat little Alternate Ending (HD, 1:09). I can see why it wasn't used but I thought the execution of it was neat. No spoilers here though. Last of all there are a few trailers on the Blu-ray disc, including an HD theatrical trailer for Graceland.
Graceland has a few flimsy plot developments, but it gains a lot of points with me for its unique spin on the standard kidnapping formula and its haunting moral quandaries. It's refreshing to see a thriller where the line between right and wrong is so blurred. This Blu-ray release has a fitting AV presentation given the film's budget constraints. The extras on the disc are quality but small in number.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 23rd July 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Tagalog
Extras: Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Ron Morales + Producers Rebecca Lundgren and Sam Rider + Director of Photography Sung Rae Cho, 'A Life For Every Lie': The Making of Graceland, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Ending, 16-page Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ron Morales
Cast: Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, Dido De La Paz
Genre: Crime and Thriller
Length: 84 minutes
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