Wednesday, October 19, 2016

QCINEMA 2016: Review of HINULID: Maternal Musings on Mortality

October 19, 2016

It did not seem possible at first, but barely had we reeled from her mystical and metaphorical film "Tuos," Ms. Nora Aunor is back with a film even MORE mystical and metaphorical.

Sita Dimaiwat is a very religious Catholic woman who lived in Naga with her one son named Lukas. As a young boy, Lukas was very close to their parish priest, memorizing all his catechism and prayers. As a young man though, he chose to take up Law in Manila instead, memorizing his jurisprudence textbooks. One day, he joined a political rally and was killed. Sita went to recover her son's remains and rode a train to bring him back to their hometown.

Such, simply put, was the bare bones of the story. However, what we saw on that big screen was a complex masterpiece of abstract film art draped on this framework. Nothing was simple about this film, everything seemed on an otherworldly plane, only occasionally resting on solid ground for us to get our bearings straight. The whole film felt like a vivid dream floating in the subconscious of a mother struggling to deal with the death of her only beloved son. The imagery may be whimsical (like the multitude of fireflies, the falling stars, the solitary islet), or disturbing (like the rape of banana trunks, the unspooled cassette tapes, the three dead Christs floating down the river) -- either way they are open to any form of interpretation by the viewer.

Spoken in Ms. Aunor's native Bikol language, the whole script by director Kristian Sendon Cordero was written like poetry, if I were to gauge the words as translated in the subtitles. It sounded like poetry the way the lines were delivered, very deliberate and measured. Nothing it seems sounded like regular daily conversation, even those shared over a meal or a drink -- between mother and son, between two lovers, between mentor and student. There was never a shallow line, as everything seemed to have a deeper meaning. It waxed philosophically about various topics ranging from legends, religion, astronomy, discipline, mathematics and death. 

Ms. Nora Aunor of course felt so right in her present element -- the independent film milieu -- where she can delve into the grittiest, most esoteric and most ethereal subject matters unexplored by mainstream cinema. The three actors (portraying Lukas as a precocious boy, as a curious teenager and as a studious law student) on whom she shared her maternal wisdom all did well. In particular, Jess Mendoza, who played Lukas as a young adult, held his own against the Master herself. He was charming and sincere in his performance, you will certainly feel why his mother is suffering so much after he left her. 

I do not claim to fully understand everything in this beautifully-shot yet thematically profound film. It was extraordinary in the enigmatic delivery of its message. The storytelling style of Cordero was not linear by any means. I sense he may be going for Terrence Malick's style, ala "The Tree of Life". The film flashed back and forward and sideways, at times unmindful of conventional logic, as it melded reality with fantasy, memory and imagination. The final product was entrancing in its overreaching intentions, although admittedly there were times when its sheer depth and emotional heft could get too heavy for the audience to bear.  8/10. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

QCINEMA 2016: Review of BEST. PARTEE. EVER.: Pink Plight in Prison

October 18, 2016

Without much mainstream fanfare, the 4th QCinema International Film Festival opened last October 13 and will run up to October 22 in four major malls in Quezon City. These are: Robinsons Movieworld Galleria, U.P. Town Center, Gateway Cineplex and TriNoma Mall Cinemas. I thought I would never get a chance to watch any of the local indie feature films in competition, but lucky enough I was able to catch some.

"Best. Partee. Ever" is about Miguel Giancarlo E. Ledesma III or Mikey for short, a young rich gay dude who liked to party, preferably with Ecstasy. One day in May 2012, he was celebrating his birthday with friends in a upscale club. Suddenly, cops raided the place and Mikey was arrested in a drug buy-bust operation. Mikey was thrown into prison while his case dragged on in court to the present year. This film recounts Mikey's often harrowing, sometimes hilarious experiences behind bars.

JC de Vera went way beyond his comfort zone playing a gay character in this film. This role required him not only to wear makeup and sashay in some scenes, but also to figure in intimate scenes with another man. He was quite bold here, acting more surely and more confidently than how he seemed in the TV drama shows I see him in. He clearly poured his all into this performance, no holds barred. We can empathize with his fears, confusion, and efforts to overcome the adversity of his current state.

To their credit, de Vera and Jordan Herrera (as Mikey's prison "husband" Pikit) actually portrayed their attraction to each other very well, with convincing chemistry. It could have helped if we saw how the relationship between them developed into something deeper than what should have been just pure lust. Aaron Rivera's charming character of Marby was underused. Acey Aguilar's maniac character of Ramon Bong was inconsistent. Shandi Bacolod's Chubyonce and Xixi Maturan's Daphne are flamboyant scene-stealers. Mercedes Cabral's Atty. Reyna was practically a protracted cameo appearance. 

Writer-Director Howard HF Yambao tried to bring us into Mikey's whole experience from that nerve-wracking arrest to the intricately verbose courtroom and the harshly dog-eat-dog world inside the penitentiary. I appreciated this vivid field trip which I fully intend to only experience vicariously. He tried to tackle a little too much incidental subject matter in too little time, the film came across as unfocused. Certain supporting characters and side plots never really get the full development they deserved. 

The problems of the local criminal justice and penology systems were seriously poked here, with some unintended humor. The plight of the homosexual inmates in prisons were well-presented. The more essential issue of parental neglect was also subtly exposed. While transgender and AIDS issues are important LGBT topics, their inclusion here may have been given a bit too much time -- time which could have been used to further elucidate pressing issues more pertinent to Mikey himself. 

Overall though, "Best. Partee. Ever." succeeds to be a timely, eye-opening yet entertaining warning on the dangers of getting involved in drugs. This important cautionary message could never be over-emphasized, especially among the vulnerable millennial population. 7/10. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS: Stop-Motion Spectacular

October 16, 2016

An animated feature film,if it is not from a big company like Disney-Pixar or Dreamworks, they do not get the promotion and theater exposure they deserve no matter how good its quality. This film by the American stop-motion animation company Laika is one such example. This spectacular film seems bound for Oscar glory, however, it is hardly talked about in local media. In fact, it is only being shown in four cinemas of one mall chain, Robinsons. Well, at least we have them to thank or local film fans would have totally missed out on this gem.

The story is set in ancient Japan. When Kubo was an infant, his left eye had been taken from him by evil spirits. To keep him safe, his mother Sariatu brought him up in a cave and warned him never to be caught outdoors when night falls. As a young boy, Kubo spends his day in town telling stories to the townspeople with his magical paper origami figurines which come alive when he plays his shamisen. a guitar-like Japanese musical instrument. 

One day, Kubo missed his curfew, and the evil spirits came to get him. As per his mother's instructions, Kubo embarks on a quest to recover his father's armor -- sword, breastplate and helmet. He would need this armor to overcome the evil plans of his own grandfather, the Moon King. He had two constantly quarreling  traveling companions along on his quest -- a Snow Monkey and an armored Beetle -- both of whom have magic of their own.

The voices behind the characters are A-list and Oscar-caliber. Charlize Theron gave her strong yet sultry voice to Kubo's mother as well as his overprotective Monkey guide. Matthew McConaughey imparted a rougish charm to the samurai warrior-turned-Beetle, with his humorously naughty zingers. Ralph Fiennes' somber voice lent a serene evil vibe to the character of Raiden the Moon King, Kubo's grandfather. Rooney Mara voiced Kubo's two sinister Aunts, sisters of his Mother, his grandfather's ruthless executioners. Brenda Vacarro played the vivacious elderly lady who cared for Kubo when he was in town. Kubo himself was voiced by Art Parkinson, a 14-year old actor who played Rickon Stark in "Game of Thrones".

Laika had three previous feature films before this one, all of which had done well in the box-office in the US. These were "Coraline" (2009), "ParaNorman" (2012) and "The Boxtrolls" (2014), all of which earned Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature in their respective years. With its deeply eloquent script (by Mark Haimes and Chris Butler) and amazingly seamless stop-motion animation -- its inventive Japanese-inspired imagery, vivid color palette, various realistic textures, and wondrous action-packed visual effects -- "Kubo and the Two Strings" (by director Travis Knight) might just be the one which will finally win them the big prize. 9/10. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of INFERNO: Catastrophe is the Cure

October 14, 2016

The previous film versions of the popular Robert Langdon series of books by Dan Brown had been met with mixed to negative reviews. After "The Da Vinci Code" (2006) and "Angels and Demons" (2009), here we are now with the third film about the fourth book "Inferno." For some reason, the third book "The Lost Symbol" was skipped, for now I guess. Both Ron Howard and Tom Hanks return as director and star respectively.

Robert Langdon woke up injured in a hospital in Florence, Italy, unable to remember what had happened to him. He had apparently grazed by a bullet in an attempt on his life, as told to him by his attending physician, Dr. Sienna Brooks. Not long though, a policewoman comes into the hospital and attempts to finish Langdon off, but Dr. Brooks was able to help him escape.

From there unfolds an elaborate plot involving an attempt to spread a deadly virus by a billionaire megalomaniac who thought humanity is the disease of the world, and he needed to destroy it in order to save the world. Langdon had to get his memory back, figure out the hidden clues, ferret out the bad guys, and travel across Europe in time to stop this potential catastrophe from taking place.

"Inferno" has all the ingredients of the previous Langdon films. He is still interpreting clues hidden in pieces of art and literature (Dante, Boticelli, Dandolo), located in the most beautiful museums and iconic landmarks (Palazzo Vecchio, St. Mark's Basilica, Hagia Sophia) in the world. He still had a beautiful younger female (this time it's Felicity Jones as Dr. Sienna Brooks) along with the ride to help him figure out the big mystery.

While the basic plot is the same, the film departed from the book in certain details. Scriptwriter David Koepp injected a romance angle between Langdon and Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey of the World Health Organization, which I admit was an interesting cinematic angle, however contrived. They also significantly changed the outcome of the events set the cisterns of Istanbul, Hollywoodizing the ending of the film as contrasted from the book.

Tom Hanks is a reliable and credible actor for playing smart heroes like Robert Langdon. I always thought that Hanks was miscast from the start. He was never the face of Langdon I had when I read the books. But I guess we have to accept now that Hanks' star power is one of the reasons that is keeping this film franchise alive. 

Felicity Jones follows the footsteps of Audrey Tautou and Ayelet Zurer in their roles as Langdon's travelling and investigating companion. I guess if there are Bond girls, then they are the Langdon girls. However, the character of Dr. Sienna Brooks was given an interesting spin and development setting her apart from the previous two ladies. 

Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen played the role of Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, head of the WHO, who shared a past with Langdon. Knudsen and Hanks actually had good middle-aged onscreen chemistry together. Ben Foster played Bertrand Zobrist enigmatically, so believably calm you'd actually believe the crazy genocide he is espousing.  Irrfan Khan and Omar Sy play the foreign agents who confound the plot with their deceptive ploys.

Overall, "Inferno" did give us the symbology and humanities lessons we have come to expect from a Robert Langdon film. Fortunately, because of the hallucinogenic visions Langdon was suffering from, Ron Howard was given leeway for some disturbing imagery and special effects to make the film more exciting. However, the intangible topic of Bertrand Zobrist's misplaced philosophy of magnanimity for promoting mass genocide was really better described and grasped via words in a book than via images on the screen. 7/10.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review of THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM: Title Tells Truth

October 9, 2016

Dana is an architect recovering from the death of their infant daughter Catherine. Her husband David decides that it would be a good idea for them to move out of the city and live in a old rural mansion which Dana could fix up. However, there are several strange and scary events that welcomed the couple and their 5-year old son Lucas once they moved in. While looking around the house, Dana discovers a hidden room in the attic which was haunted by the ghosts of a little girl and a stern-looking man. Vulnerable Dana begins to break down and teeter on the edge of sanity.

Kate Beckinsale has been a star for more than 20 years, but it seems her projects have been not so memorable in the past 10 years. Aside from "Pearl Harbor" (2001), "Serendipity" (2001) and "Underworld" (2003), you would be hard-pressed to name another movie of hers. Here, she tries her best to make her role as Dana work, may be trying to much. However, the role was written so badly she could not resuscitate it. Her overly manic performance during her big nervous breakdown scene came from out of nowhere. That said, she is the still the main reason to see this film (if you really want to).

Mel Raido, as the husband David, looked weak and useless beside Beckinsale. Duncan Joiner, the little boy actor playing her son Lucas, was mostly used to create false-alarm tension. "X-Men" actor Lucas Till played the supposedly sexy carpenter Ben, a puzzling character with no apparent use in the story at all. Gerald McRaney only needed to look stern to be scary Judge Blacker. The actors playing the shop owner and the lady in the real estate office were all inexplicably loud and hammy. 

The concept of a Disappointments Room, a secret room where rich families used to hide deformed offspring, could have been promising as a horror device, just like post-mortem photography was for "The Others." However, script writer Wentworth Miller (yes, of "Prison Break" fame) failed to make the most of its potential, in terms of drama or in terms of horro. In the hands of director D.J. Caruso, who once had success with "Disturbia" (2007) and "I am Number Four" (2011), this film became a mishmash collection of every horror film cliche we had already seen before. 

This had all the vintage horror props -- spooky rundown isolated old mansion with unkept gardens, a spooky spiral stairwell, spooky old painted portraits, spooky mirrors across each other, a spooky big black dog. It also had all the vintage horror scenes -- characters wandering alone outside in the dark, a kid talking to seemingly no one, nightmares mixed up with reality, phones not working, keys not working, husband conveniently away on a trip, a dinner party from hell. 

You'd stay know how the story goes, but It was not too well told. It could have used a little more backstory about the former occupants of the house to have more impact. It could have done better in connecting the problem of Dana with the problem of the Judge. So much dramatic potential was wasted. It is not common that you come across a film with such a negative-sounding title. Before you go watch it, you'd worry if its title would actually be self-fulfilling. Unfortunately, this time it did. 4/10. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Review of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN: Inebriated Illusions

October 10, 2016

This is one of rare times that I seriously wanted to watch a film based on its trailer that really caught my attention from the first time I saw it. The plot about a murder mystery looked very interesting, and the role of Emily Blunt looked like it would be attracting Oscar attention. I never got the chance to read the book by Paula Hawkins, so I can only comment about the film itself, and not about the faithfulness of director Tate Taylor's interpretation.

Rachel Watson is a lonely alcoholic woman recently divorced from her husband Tom. She sits on a specific seat on the train she takes daily going to Manhattan where she works. From her seat, she specifically spots the house of Megan Hipwell and envied her romantically ideal life with her husband Scott. One Friday from the train, Rachel saw Megan kissing another man on her balcony. The next day, Megan was reported missing. Disturbed, Rachel gets herself involved by telling Scott what she witnessed.

This film is really an acting showcase for Emily Blunt. She first got international attention via a supporting role in the film "The Devil Wears Prada", which also earned her Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. She would then get to play progressively varied roles in films like "The Young Victoria," "The Adjustment Bureau," "Edge of Tomorrow," and "Sicario." Her role here as the frequently inebriated stalker Rachel challenged Blunt to play a lead character so unstable and flawed, but which should somehow still gain the sympathy from the audience. The nuanced performance of Blunt confirmed my anticipation that this will be the role which may finally snag her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, if not the prize itself.

Haley Bennett just recently caught our attention in the remake of The Magnificent Seven. From that gritty rifle-toting cowgirl role, Bennett displays her versatility by doing a complete turnaround and playing the sultry and slutty Megan. She was daring here with fearless stylishly-shot nude scenes. Those steamy scenes with her psychiatrist where she tells her sexually-charged frustrations were her acting highlights. 

Rebecca Ferguson has limited scenes as the third woman in this mystery, Anna, Tom's sexy new wife with whom he has a baby daughter. She played Hugh Grant's mistress in "Florence Jenkins Flores," and she was a mistress again here. Justin Theroux is a low-key character actor you've seen in several films but probably never took time to know better. As it turned out, his nondescript quality made him a perfect choice for the role of Tom. Luke Evans gets to play the clueless hunk here as Scott, the ideal man in Rachel's lonely fantasies. It was good to see veteran TV actresses Alison Janney and Lisa Kudrow in smaller but marked roles. 

Aside from Emily Blunt's compelling performance, audiences will be kept in awe and suspense by the twisty whodunit plot. As much as I'd like to avoid the direct comparison, the film had the vibe of "Gone Girl" (2014) by David Fincher. It had the same domestic drama turned crime mystery storyline, spiced up by steamy scenes. 

Director Tate Taylor told the story in an engaging manner even as the scenes shuttled between past and present, between reality and neurotic flights of ideas of three women. It was an engrossing 112 minutes running time that will keep you guessing to the end. On hindsight though, I am not sure how much detail you can really see from a speeding train when you have been drinking. Anyhow, the skill of Taylor's storytelling made me gloss over that issue and other seeming inconsistencies. 8/10. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review of CAFE SOCIETY: Winsome Woody

October 7, 2016

His controversial personal life notwithstanding, I generally enjoy watching Woody Allen films. The comedy is so distinctively Woody, so odd and witty, usually self-deprecating. The sets and costumes are always so meticulous to their period. Impressively, he has had a film out almost every year since his debut in 1965 to the present, usually in all three capacities as director, writer and actor. 

Among those I have seen, I liked  "Hannah and her Sisters," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Midnight in Paris." This year, his latest film "Cafe Society" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Woody Allen wrote, directed and narrated this new film.

The film is set in the late 1930s . Bobby Dorfman moved out of his home in New York City to go to Los Angeles to work as an errand boy for his uncle Phil, who was a big-time agent to famous Hollywood stars.  Bobby was smitten with the simple beauty and practicality of Phil's secretary Vonnie. When Bobby professes his love to Vonnie, she reveals that she already had a boyfriend. Problem was, this boyfriend is married, and worse, Bobby knows him. 

This story of unrequited love is very familiar fare in Hollywood. This film just stood out among the others with the same story because of the Woody Allen flair it had. The narrator was Woody Allen himself with that distinct voice of his. Onscreen though, the same distinct Woody Allen persona is embodied in Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby. If Woody was not acting in his film, his lead actor clearly takes on his spirit and voice. This does not always work out perfectly, especially if the actor, like Eisenberg, has a very distinct face and style himself.

Reminiscent of her breakout role as Bella in the "Twilight" films, Kristen Stewart (as Vonnie) is again tackling the familiar role of a girl caught between two men, both of whom she loves. Stewart has become more beautiful of face now, also displaying a maturity  in her acting not seen before. I think she fits the mold of a Woody Allen muse, like Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow and Scarlet Johansson before her. Hoping to see her in future Woody films. 

Steve Carrell continues to explore roles outside slapstick comedy, as his role here was again on the more serious side as Uncle Phil.  Corey Stoll was dashing as Bobby's dangerous gangster elder brother Ben. Blake Lively makes a belated appearance as the lovely Veronica, who catches Bobby's attention in New York. Parker Posey was very likable as the socialite Rad Parker, Bobby's supportive friend. The senior actors playing Bobby's parents (Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin) were very funny.

There were some angles that did not really work, like the $20 hooker scene or the noisy neighbor subplot. As a whole though, I thought it worked. The script may not not be as rich of quotable quotes, though it have that Woody imprint. I liked the atmosphere of old Hollywood glamour here with the countless movie personalities and stars name-dropped. In New York, Ben and Bobby ran a high-end night club. Of course this came with the requisite snazzy wardrobe of furs and silks on both coasts. The cinematography was so crisp and the colors so vivid and warm. The expected Hallmarks of a Woody Allen film are here. 7/10.