Written and directed by Ron Morales in 2012 and shot with a local cast in The Philippines, Graceland is a pretty tense and suspenseful film that introduces us to a man named Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes). He seems to be a pretty average guy. He's a good father and enjoys spending time with the family that he works hard to support through his job as a chauffeur to a politician named Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias). On one day seemingly not like any other, he heads to the school that Chango's daughter attends, and on the way picks up his own daughter. After he picks them up and on the way home, they are stopped by someone that appears to be a cop. After a scuffle he soon learns that's not the case and kidnappers make off with his daughter, Elvie (Ella Guevera) in a heist that he can only assume intended to abduct Chango's girl.
So with his daughter now being held for ransom, Marlon sets out to make things right. Chango, a corrupt and dishonest man with a taste for underage girls, is no help. The cops, led by a man named Ramos (Dido De La Paz), are of even less assistance because not only are most of them corrupt but they are a little too quick to presume that Marlon may actually be behind all of this. Given that Marlon's since lost his job and is in fire money to pay for his wife, Lina (Angeli Bayani), to have some much needed surgery, his tension level couldn't really get a whole lot higher. Of course, as all of this plays out, character motivations become clear and the truth about the events that took place and why they happened in the first place comes to light. If this sounds vague, it is. No spoilers here.
For the first twenty minutes or so, Morales' film feels like it's going to owe a hefty debt to Fernando Di Leo's 1975 film Kidnap Syndicate, and there are some similarities here. In the Di Leo movie, Luc Merenda plays a mechanic whose kid is friends with the son of a mobster. Kidnappers come for the mobster's son and both boys wind up captive, leaving Merenda's character, a common mechanic, to come to the rescue. In both films we have a common man who cannot depend on anyone else fighting against the system to save a child, but Morales' picture takes things to a considerably grimmer, and sadly more realistic, outcome. This is not a copy of Di Leo's picture, both work on their own merits and despite similar set ups, go off on their own in interesting ways.
A big part of what grounds Graceland in reality is the location photography. Manila is portrayed as a cruel city run by those interested only in furthering their own greedy selfishness. Marlon comes up against this a lot, and corruption is a theme that runs throughout the movie, though even he is not without sin, having aided and abated Chango in his pursuit of young girls. Additionally, however, Marlon runs into emotional conflict as well. This often forces him to lie his way out of various situations and he becomes increasingly desperate as the movie builds towards its conclusion. Yet, in this world where no one is innocent, we inevitably learn how far Marlon will go to get his daughter back. In a sense, though the movie is a crime thriller, it is in many ways a character study in relation to how much wrong he can justify in order to do what genuinely is the right thing.
Don't go into this one expecting Taken style neck snapping action, though there is a bit of gunplay and the film does not want for violence or gritty atmosphere. This is a darkly realistic picture, there are no secret agents who can take on a gang singlehandedly, no masked avengers to come to the rescue. The performances are strong across the board, particularly from Arnold Reyes, who manages to earn our sympathies despite his obvious (and sometimes blatant) imperfections and flaws. Menggie Cobarrubias is appropriately scuzzy without ever wandering into scenery chewing territory and young Ella Guevera completely believable in her role. The movie is a gritty looking picture, shot on DSLR cameras to keep costs down but by a crew who obviously put some care and thought into compositions, lighting and camera movement. If the movie sometimes feels uneven in its pacing it is otherwise quite an impressive low budget picture and, if you can appreciate a movie that doesn't necessarily call for a happy ending, one absolutely worth seeking out.
Graceland look great on Blu-ray framed at 1.85.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Detail is exceptional and given that this was shot on digital cameras, obviously the digital to digital transfer means there isn't going to be any print damage. As such, the image is exceptionally clean but never devoid of texture. Skin tones look great, the movie's use of a fairly bleak color scheme comes through perfectly and black levels are nice and deep. There is some aliasing here that more perceptive viewers might notice but no noise reduction or compression issues to note. All in all, this is a very solid effort and the movie looks about as good as you feel it should on Blu-ray.
Tagalog audio options are provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with forced yellow subtitles offered up in English only. The lossless mix is subtle in its effectiveness but it actually works very well. As the movie changes environments, surround activity changes accordingly and so the mix winds up being quite interesting in how location specific it can get. It makes sense that a room full of children would have more activity in it than a hospital room and while it seems obvious that the sound mix should reflect this, the sound design for the movie is clever and discrete in the way it goes about doing this. Rarely has the constant sound of dripping water sounded so ominous. Channel separation is definitely there, but sometimes you'll notice it more than others. Levels are nicely balanced, dialogue clean and clear and the subtitles easy to read and free of any typographical errors. The score has a weighty presence to it that helps set the mood and all in all, the mix is very strong and it deserves quite a bit of credit for making the movie work as well as it does.
The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary with writer/director Ron Morales and the movie's producers Rebecca Lundgren, Sam Rider, director of photography Sung Rae Cho and gaffer Blaise Miller. This is definitely a ‘stories from the trenches' style discussion where the main focus is on the difficulties that arose and how they were dealt with during the duration of the production. Money was, as is the norm, always an issue but there were plenty of geographic and location related problems too, and these sometimes caused logistical nightmares. All involved in the talk offer up interesting takes of what was done to overcome and most speak quite favorably of the Filipino people that they worked with on the picture, but this does indeed sound like quite a rough shoot. Quite an interesting track to listen to, really, as it goes beyond the scope of the normal ‘who did what' scene specific discussion and instead opens up to give us a warts and all look into indy filmmaking.
Those same commentary participants appear on camera for the twelve minute featurette A Life For Every Lie: The Making Of Graceland, a nice segment in which the interviewees more or less just talk about what making this particular movie meant to them on a more personal level. The disc also includes ten minutes of Deleted Scenes, five scenes in total, one of which is a different take on the opening.
Also included on the disc is a brief (and less inspired) Alternate Ending, a trailer for the feature, trailers for other Drafthouse Releasing titles, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition. Included inside the packaging is a full color image heavy sixteen page booklet of film and disc credits and a download code for a digital copy of the movie.
Graceland is almost relentlessly grim but so too is it quite well made. It's suspenseful and tense but offers more than just superficial chills and makes some interesting statements about how right and wrong can sometimes blend and how corruption and immorality can very much have a trickledown effect. Drafthouse presents the movie on Blu-ray in a transfer that feels true to source and with solid audio as well, and on top of that they throw in some good extra features as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.