Monday, October 23, 2017

QCINEMA 2017: Review of BALANGIGA: HOWLING WILDERNESS: Artistic but Appalling

October 23, 2017

Mainstream audiences like their films to tell stories to be diverting and entertaining. Indie films are a way for more adventurous filmmakers to go beyond those traditionally-desired constraints in order to explore darker stories using daring visuals which may not sit well with its audience. I have seen quite a number of local indie films already over the years, and I thought I could take anything an indie director throws at me. And then along comes a film like "Balangiga."

This film was set in the year 1901, in US-occupied Samar province. In retaliation for an armed uprising by the villagers of Balangiga, the Americans launched a merciless mass killing that reduced the whole Samar into an island of death and despair. Escaping from Balangiga after his father was killed in a massacre, 10-year old boy Kulas and his grandfather (Pio del Rio), along with their trusty carabao Melchora. 

In order to avoid Americans controlling the town of Borongan, they needed to traverse three mountains and seven rivers in order to reach Quinapundan, where Kulas' mother was staying with relatives. Along the way, they passed another massacred village and picked up a toddler, whom Kulas called Bola, who miraculously survived the carnage. When the grandfather was overcome with exhaustion, the two little boys had to fend for themselves.

This is an art-house film to the max as executed by its director Khavn (who claimed in the credits that this film was not by him) and his cinematographer Albert Banzon.  Khvan employed various innovative camera angles and image-distorting techniques to further drive the "modern art" treatment of his historical subject. He also played around a lot with bright blues and bright reds. 

It had very strange, esoteric and provocative imagery that shout "Art!" but the rationale for these scenes can be questionable. I can maybe sense that the recurring image of giant bird made of Christmas party junk which spoke a Southern drawl could be a symbol of the American Eagle. But what about that truly unsettling scene of an obscene roadside "preacher"? What about those disturbing scenes of animals being abused, like a goat being molested, or a pig impaled to bleed, or a chicken whose head was being slowly severed?

There was admittedly a certain charm about using children to drive a story across about senseless violence. The film starts with whimsical images like a flying carabao as dreamt by Kulas. However, as these dreams of Kulas become weirder the longer they are on their trek, so will the images we see become more and more bizarre as the film progressed -- from stylish midgets to flying fireballs to walking church bells. 

As Kulas, the scrappy Justin Samson (who looked younger than 10) did a lot of stuff that most adults would not have the strength or the nerve to do. He had to climb tall trees, lift heavy-looking loads, pick mint leaves out of a pot of "boiling" water, eat various seemingly dirty half-cooked rootcrops and meat, hack off animal heads and shoot a rifle at someone. His most discomfiting scene of all was when he had to go inside the disemboweled carcass of an animal, reminiscent of Leonardo deCaprio's similar scene in "The Revenant".  

As Bola, Warren Tuano was impressively well-behaved for a child his age. He even had one particularly well-shot scene where he was crying and calling out to Kulas in full dramatic mode. Tuano must have been no older than two years old because he does not seem to talk yet. His first scene had him completely blackened up, sitting among "dead" people with fires burning around them. Then there was another dangerous-looking scene where he had to toddle down a slope to go to a pond. 

This film may receive critical acclaim for its undeniable artistic merits. However, as a parent, I found the film truly upsetting and even appalling, especially when I imagine how harrowing an experience the shooting this film may have been to those child actors. Samson and Tuano had precarious-looking scenes amidst tall grasses and trees, in the dirty pools of water, in the mud and in the rain. I only have to trust that the health (both physical and mental) and safety of these children were taken seriously into consideration by the director while shooting this film in the name of art.  4/10. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Review of BAD GENIUS: Impugning Integrity

October 21, 2017

Cheating in school exams is an open secret. Almost everyone does it, but no one openly talks about it. Thai director Nattawut Poonpiriya came up a hip film that tackles this very sticky topic and wound up with the highest grossing film in Thailand this year, as well as the most profitable Thai film distributed worldwide of all time so far. Aside from "Shutter" (2004) and "Pee Mak" (2013), it isn't very frequent that we get a Thai movie in local cinemas, so this one promises to be a really good one.

Lynn is a brilliant math genius and scholar in a prestigious high school. Her richer (but not so academically blessed) classmates conscripted her to let them copy her answers during major exams by tempting her with a generous fee of 3K baht per exam per person. When time came for the international-based STIC exams, Lynn called in her fellow genius scholar and competitor Bank for his incredible memory as the stakes of their massive cheating operation were raised to reach millions of baht for both of them.

Lynn was played by Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, a fashion model who debuts as an actress in this film, and what an impressive debut it was. A lot of excitement and drama also hinged on the charismatic performance of Chanon Santinatornkul as Bank. They did not have typical teen-idol looks, but there was an unspoken chemistry between them which was quite thrilling, especially on that scene on the pedestrian bridge. 

The millionaire classmate Pat and his pretty popular girlfriend Grace were played by Teeradon Supapunpinyo and Eisaya Hosuwan, respectively. They play typical rich brats who think money can buy their way out of any situation. Thaneth Warakulnukroh played Lynn's father, a humble schoolteacher Vit, in a most realistic and sympathetic way. I totally identified with his painful frustration and unwavering support of his daughter. 

The story was told and edited in a very exciting way, like a heist caper. The elaborate plans even involve Lynn and Bank flying to Sydney, Australia in order to get a four-hour headstart on the exam answers to transmit to Pat and Grace. I don't know if this is based on a true incident in the past but that final sequence alternating between events in Sydney and Bangkok was very suspenseful. All possible thrill gimmicks were used to enhance the tension during that climactic series of events. 

Overall the movie is a cautionary tale against dishonesty. At my age, it was uncomfortable watching cheating shenanigans in school unfold on a big screen, but I am sure high school students will find it very funny and entertaining, but I hope not educational in terms of techniques. A twist before the ending came gave me a big jolt because of a shift in character which I did not expect and I did not like, but I admit that this change was not completely implausible. Lessons about academic integrity will be taught here in this film, and I hope the target audience learns it. 8/10. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review of THE FOREIGNER: Avenging Atrocity

October 19, 2017

Even if he gets older and older, a Jackie Chan always promises to be a great action film. The premise of this film is quite clear from the trailer alone. It is basically Jackie's character exacting revenge on the people responsible for the death of his daughter. The story is not exactly new, yes. However, the promise of seeing more signature Jackie Chan actions scenes still make this latest project a must-see for his local fans.

Within the first five minutes of this film, Quan Ngoc Minh's daughter Fan (Katie Leung) was one of the victims killed by a deadly bomb explosion in London, an act of terrorism for which an Irish group called UDI had claimed responsibility. However, the police counter-terror command led by Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon) could not tell the distraught Quan who was responsible for his daughter's death.

A stubborn Quan then sought out Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy, an ex-UDI member turned politician who now served as liaison between the N. Irish and the British government. When Hennessy was giving him the runaround on the phone, Quan actually went to Belfast to confront Hennessy in his office. Quan, using his background as a Special Ops solider during the Vietnam War, made the next days precarious for Hennessy to force him to spill out the names of the terrorists. 

Unlike what the title suggests, Jackie Chan's Quan Ngoc Minh is not exactly a "Foreigner". Quan was born in China, but he had migrated to the UK thirty years or so ago and is already a British citizen. I guess the title is just a more political correct term than "The Chinaman", a 1992 novel by Stephen Leather upon which this film was based. However, we still hear the word "Chinaman" in a couple of scenes as uttered by Irish thugs.

As expected, Jackie Chan delivers on the promise of amazing martial arts fight scenes. This guy lost nothing to age it seems, as the fights, be they bare-handed or with big knives and various household items,  were still as bone-crushingly realistic as ever. Being that Quan was Jackie Chan, we had no doubt whatsoever that he can take on multiple opponents or be hurt very badly, yet still come out victorious. Being Special Ops, he can do anything single-handedly!

As this story was about terrorists, it was inevitable that there would be big explosions. Aside from the department store explosion in the beginning that took the life of Fan, there was that one big chilling explosion on one of those iconic red double-decker buses in the middle of a bridge over the Thames, which must have been quite a challenge to film. Quan also got to set off his own little explosions from grocery items, smaller in scale but no less destructive.

One big difference of this film from the typical Jackie Chan film is the complete lack of slapstick comedy. Chan was dead serious here. That one tearful scene where he was first interviewed by police after the bombing was very moving. I thought they did not really have to make him trudge around like a very old man when he was obviously still very spry and capable to walk up straight. 

Pierce Brosnan was also looking older and grizzled here as Liam Hennessy, but he was still no less a lady-killer. While Hennessy has his hands full toeing the line between his rebellious past and his diplomatic present, he also has to balance two women in his life. Actually without the interesting twists and turns in Hennessy's side of the story about his wife Mary (Orla Brady), his nephew Sean (Rory Fleck-Byrne) and his mistress Maggie (Charlie Murphy), this could have just another typical generic revenge film. 

This nuanced portrayal of a complex conflicted character was a nice return to form for Mr. Brosnan, who had been in forgettable projects in the last few years. Pierce Brosnan had worked with director Martin Campbell before in his first outing as James Bond "GoldenEye" (1995) and the two will work together again in a film version of Ernest Hemingway's "Across the River and Into the Trees."

I think you can never really miss with a Jackie Chan film. I had seen Chan in a straight drama before, "Police Story 2013" (MY REVIEW) where he also played a distressed father, and it was good to see him here is another variation of that theme.  He knows what his audience wants and he delivers. Seeing Chan and Pierce Brosnan together playing roles they are not usually known for, spiced with director Martin Campbell's style of raw brutal action, made formulaic "The Foreigner" still compelling to watch. 7/10.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review of SEVEN SUNDAYS: Richly Rewarding Reconnections

October 15, 2017

When news about this film first came out on social media, my attention was immediately grabbed with the stellar combination of actors that were assembled for this project. Now that I had actually seen the movie, all the more I am commending the casting director for this unprecedented, brilliantly inspired casting decisions that really made this film even more special than it already was on paper.

69 year old Manuel Bonifacio learned bad news from his doctor that he had only barely two months to live because of terminal cancer. His last wish was for his four busy children to spend these last seven Sundays of his life together with him in their family home. 

At first, all four siblings A, B, C and D were saddled with personal baggage and past issues with each other that made these reunions painful instead of happy. With each passing Sunday though, these lost familial bonds were slowly being mended. Suddenly, Manuel receives another piece of news which threatened to break these bonds all over again.

A is eldest brother Allan, played by a comebacking Aga Muhlach. Muhlach can still use his big puppy-dog eyes to great use in those emotional scenes to make us all care about his familial and financial predicaments. The more mature Muhlach may have gained some heft physically, but this actor still had his dramatic chops intact, which was especially seen in those moving scenes with his son Marc (Kyle Echarri). 

B is second son Bryan, played by Dingdong Dantes. He is the one sibling who was able to succeed financially, and therefore tended to be bossy and had to deal with different issues as to what he needed to do for his family. Bryan had so many chips on his shoulder, which gave Dantes several potent dramatic confrontation scenes, all of which he delivered with elegant dignity. These scenes affirm that he is one of, if not the best actor of his generation. 

C is the only daughter Cha, played by Cristine Reyes. It could have been the story of just three brothers and the story probably still would have worked, but having a daughter in there provided a showcase of how Filipino brothers are very protective of their sisters. Cha's husband Jerry (Kean Cipriano) may be a good father to their kids, but he was also an incurable philanderer. Reyes was so raw and vulnerable in portraying the hurtful pain in this martyr wife character, which made us all want to reach out through the screen to help her.

D is youngest son Dexter, played by Enrique Gil. He grew up basically alone, since their mom died early, their dad was usually abroad working and his siblings were already in college, and this estrangement due to the significant age gap was sensitively portrayed by Gil. As an actor, Gil tended to give way to his more senior co-stars as his character was really meant to be distant, but when it came for his moment to shine in the climactic confrontation scene, he did. 

As the patriarch Manuel, Ronaldo Valdez was in the center of everyone's story and he was able to hold the whole film together with his geniality and genuineness, like how most of us regard our own fathers. Unlike most movies about senior citizens, Valdez' Manuel here is still sound of mind and active of body and he had a healthy sense of humor and joie de vivre, so the dramatic aspects of the story never slid down to melodrama. Honestly, at no point did he look like a man with terminal cancer.

Ketchup Eusebio was Manuel's loyal companion and confidante, his nephew Jun. I thought that Cacai Bautista was hilarious as Bryan's homely executive assistant who had a huge crush on her boss. April Matienzo was sprightly and cute as Dex's neighborhood friend Camille. Donita Rose was underused as Bechay, Allan's very pregnant wife. Iza Calzado and Edward Barber have cameos in surprise roles -- no spoken lines but still poignant.

Jeffrey Tam was appropriately annoying as Mr. Kim, a Korean businessman who wanted to buy the ABC's Family Store out so to have a parking lot for his mall across the street. Ryan Bang suddenly showed up at the end to play another Mr. Kim, the previous Mr. Kim's brother. This final over-optimistic scene, complete with a clunky dance showdown, felt awkward given the intensity of drama preceding it, but I guess it is there to end the hopeful film on a high note.

There were moments in "Seven Sundays" that reminded of another cherished family film "Tanging Yaman" (Laurice Guillen, 2000). The long-strained relations between the rich second son and the humbled eldest son was the most obvious similarity. 

The various stories may all sound familiar and the ending may have been predictable, however director Cathy Garcia-Molina and her talented cast told the Bonifacio family's journey in a warm and relatable way that all Filipinos can identify with. (With the English subtitles in the print I saw, I'm sure foreigners can relate as well.) 8/10. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review of GEOSTORM: Climatic Calamity

October 13, 2017

The trailer of this film already made very clear what this movie was going to be about. This was not just going to be about a tornado like "Twister" (1996), or an earthquake like "San Andreas" (2015), or a tidal wave like "2012" (2009), or a space disaster like "Armageddon" (1998). This new film will be a smorgasbord of disasters all in one film in one CGI extravaganza -- a worldwide cataclysmic event they call a "Geostorm".

Because the Earth is already suffering extreme effects of climate change, an international group of scientists led by Jake Lawson built a satellite system called "Dutch Boy" to stabilize the earth's weather conditions. One day, there was a severe snowstorm in an Afghanistan desert that actually froze the inhabitants to death. A serious malfunction in Dutch Boy was suspected so Jake was called in and sent to the space station to check it out. 

On Earth, Jake's estranged younger brother Max Lawson, who worked in the inner circle of the White House, did his share of investigating and damage control with the convenient help of his secret fiancee Secret Service agent Sarah Wilson, as ruthless American politicians appeared to be involved. As giant hailstorms fall on Tokyo and massive tidal waves flood Dubai, the Lawson brothers have only an hour and a half left to try to stop the countdown before the whole world gets destroyed by the deadly Geostorm. 

As it was already quite evident in the trailer, the acting of the cast was on the hammy side. The whole cast felt miscast, almost everyone did not look realistic for his character even if they were supposed to be decent actors. Of course, one man can be 11 years older than his brother, but Gerard Butler and Jim Sturgess did not look nor act like brothers at all. Andy Garcia did not feel like a US President, nor did Abbie Cornish as a hotshot agent, nor Alexandra Maria Lara as the commander of a space station. 

On the other hand Ed Harris as the US Secretary of State Leonard Dekkom. You knew exactly what his character was all about the very first moment we see him. I also have to commend the work of young Talitha Bateman, whom we just saw as the tormented lame girl Janice in "Annabelle: The Creation" earlier this year. She was very genuine and sincere in her role as Jake's daughter Hannah and her voice-over narrations that bookend the film. 

Many special effects were too obviously CG when compared to other recent disaster films. The work on the Rio de Janeiro scenes did not look good, with a bikini-clad girl outrunning the freezing wave from the sea, leaving people and even a flying jumbo jet freezing up in its wake. The "exciting" parts dealt with electric cars driving away from breaking up roads in Hongkong or lightning bolts (with big man-made explosions) in Orlando. The typical "down-the-wire" race against the clock and the "heartwarming" montage of relief and jubilation afterwards are such dogeared cliches. 

So, what we end up here is a strange inharmonious marriage of three distinct genres -- the catastrophic world disaster flick and an outer space thriller and a political potboiler to boot. This is the directorial debut of Dean Devlin who had written and produced films like "Independence Day" (1996) and its sequel "Independence Day: Resurgence" (2016) before, so it seems he just rehashed ideas from his previous films and blew their scale up with a much-bigger budget. Word is there had been other writers and directors who spiced things up further in numerous rewrites and reshoots. 

The climate aspect is certainly timely, and may in fact be too timely for comfort in the wake of recent real-life destructive storms and earthquakes. But unfortunately in real life, there is no larger-than-life Gerard Butler character with his Dutch Boy to fix our deranged climate and his superheroic derring-do to save the world. 4/10. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of VICTORIA & ABDUL: A Monarch and her Munshi

October 10, 2017

I had always liked those genteel British films showing their respect for their royal tradition and fastidious rules of ceremonial etiquette. After a long dearth of seeing such films on local big screene, along came of trailers of this charming movie by Stephen Frears about an elderly Queen Victoria who developed a friendship with a young Indian servant. This was only going to be shown as an exclusive feature in a few theaters. Lucky I got to catch it today, on what may be its last day.

It was 1887, the 50th year of Victoria as Queen. By then, the octogenarian Victoria was a very lonely and cantankerous queen until a handsome and charming Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim caught her attention when he presented her a gift during one feast. Abdul's refreshing candor revived the senior monarch's  joie de vivre as she enthusiastically took lessons on Urdu and about the Koran from Abdul. She even called him her "munshi" ("teacher" or "spiritual mentor"), much to the distress of the racist royal household. 

In her scene-stealing, Oscar-winning 8-minute long appearance in "Shakespeare in Love" (John Madden,1998), Judi Dench portrayed Queen Elizabeth I. This time, her role as another iconic queen, Victoria, would have her onscreen for almost the whole two hours running time showing exactly why every Judi Dench film is a must-see. Her Queen Victoria was a lonely and cantankerous queen until Abdul revived her joie de vivre. Dench portrayed that reawakening so vibrantly. It seemed so magnificently effortless. 

Dench had already played Queen Victoria before in another John Madden film, "Mrs. Brown" (1997) Coincidentally, it was also about the sad newly-widowed Queen and her close friendship with her late husband's Scottish manservant named John Brown. The conflict of the story in this new film actually paralleled that of "Mrs. Brown" a lot, since John Brown also wielded a lot of influence over the Queen's decisions, like Abdul did. "Mrs. Brown" earned Ms. Dench an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, as this current one may well lead to another nomination as well.

Ali Fazal  is such a joy to watch in the first act of the film as the winsome Abdul, a guy who was just too happy to be in the royal presence and relished every moment of his adventure, not fearing to break protocol. Fazal's charisma was such that we do not wonder why the Queen would find him so fascinating despite their racial and social class differences. However, as the character of Abdul took on darker tones as the film went along, the energy of Fazal's performance went down along with it.

The arc of Abdul's story unfortunately also reflected on the whole film as well. I felt that the first half of the film was absolutely glorious with its infectious sense of humor in its comedy of manners. I had a smile on my face throughout these scenes recounting their first meeting, their trip to windy Scotland, their first lesson in Urdu, the Queen first learning about the mango, singing with Puccini in Florence. (Certain contentious matters about British occupation of India were taken rather lightly, but to be fair, these were not ignored.)

However, as Abdul increasingly gained the Queen's confidence, one cannot also help but feel that he was already taking undue advantage of the Queen's kindness towards him, even when her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, and the rest of the household was obviously against it. When lies get into the way of their friendship, it did not feel too good to watch anymore by the third act. However despite this, it was also in the downbeat of Act 3 that the triumphant acting performance of Dame Judi Dench also became absolutely exquisite. 

Of course, the breathtaking cinematography of Agra, Isle of Wight and Balmoral also added to the immense appeal of the film as a whole. 8/10. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review of BLADE RUNNER 2049: Replicant Reproduction

October 11, 2017

The first Blade Runner movie had a massive cult following. I am not part of that cult. I did not watch Blade Runner when it was first shown in 1981. I only watched "Blade Runner" recently in preparation for this sequel. It was a beautifully-made, moody, groundbreaking film. Having seen it, I recognize that most later movies that presented futuristic cosmopolitan cities featuring androids with artificial intelligence were all inspired by its radical vision.  

If I were to produce a long-awaited sequel, I would have probably waited two more years to release it because the events of that seminal film happened in the year 2019. Los Angeles police officer Rick Deckard is a "blade runner," whose job was to find rebel bio-mechanical beings called replicants and kill them. However, Deckard fell in love with an advanced experimental replicant named Rachael, with whom he had sexual relations. 

In this 2017 sequel "Blade Runner 2049", it was this intimate relationship between Deckard and Rachael that formed the vital connection between the two films. In the year 2049, thirty years after the events of the first film, K is a new-generation replicant built to be blade runner to destroy all previous replicant models. 

After killing off an ex-combat medic replicant, K finds a buried box which contained the remains of a woman who died in childbirth 30 years ago. However this woman is a replicant in which childbirth was not supposed to be possible. In the face of replicant rebellions, all evidence of this discovery, including her child, should be extinguished. This investigation led a conflicted K to Las Vegas where Rick Deckard had been in hiding all these years. 

Director Denis Villenueve's Los Angeles seemed bleaker, more empty than Scott's original vision of bustling metropolis as 30 years had passed since then. The sceneries we see were more of the typically dystopian scenery we have seen in other futuristic films in terms of the steampunk production design and the costumes of fur and leather. Roger Deakins' cinematography gave this landscape of the future a haunting vibrance. His scenes of K in the orange-tinged wasteland of giant stone women in stilettos and buzzing beehives, and in that strobe-lit nightclub with the hologram Elvis were surreal and bizarre. 

The pace of the storytelling was very slow, which would definitely try the patience of some audiences who are not familiar with the premise of the first film. This pace was puzzling considering that the main plot only revolved about the Rachael's remarkable ability to reproduce, which was quite straightforward. Yet there were so many confounding details around that core to prolong the movie unnecessarily.

SPOILER ALERT from this point on.

It was odd how old man Tyrell was somehow able to develop this ability with Rachael 30 years ago (despite replicants then were complaining about their short life span), but Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his takeover company still cannot figure it out in 2049. They never come around to elucidating the science behind this old but remarkable technology, which Wallace now coveted in order to produce more replicants to meet the demands of the time (illogical as it was for a businessman like him). It was just a miracle we should simply accept happened, impossible as we knew it was. Aside from this, most scenes with Wallace felt wrong to me -- those glassy blind (?) eyes of his, his brutal misogyny with the "newborn" replicant, the overlooked detail in Rachael's clone.

Ryan Gosling had a seemingly blank face the whole film, yet with it, he can still convey loneliness and loss so well. That evocative scene when K believed that he was the missing child as he saw the date inscription under the toy horse was a quiet moment, but it was so full of aching and longing. That scene when Freysa (Hiam Abbass) tells him a dream-crushing piece of information, K was also silent, but Gosling's face was a poignant portrait of dashed hopes. I am not sure a replicant created for the sole purpose of killing can be expected to be imbued with so much sensitivity as Gosling projects, but I guess he was just following his director's instructions. 

Harrison Ford gives a better, more emotionally convincing performance here as the old Deckard than when he last played another iconic absentee father, Han Solo. For me, it was when Deckard appeared on screen about 1-1/2 hours into the film that the whole story finally came to life. That intense conversation between Deckard and K (thinking this man could actually be his father!) about Rachael and the child, love and being a stranger was the best scene of the whole film. The way Ford was playing him, there was no way Deckard could be a replicant, no matter what some dropped clues may suggest.

Ana de Armas played Joi, K's hologram girlfriend. She was cute and perky as she was created to entertain, yet she was also capable of deep caring it seemed.  After playing Antiope in "Wonder Woman" earlier this year, Robin Wright is playing another tough character in Lieut. Joshi, K's superior officer. Aside from courage, the two characters would also share the same abbreviated screen time. Sylvia Hoeks was positively chilling as Wallace's violent girl Friday, Luv  -- ruthless, heartless, deadly. She definitely woke the film up whenever she was onscreen. Swiss actress Carla Juri plays Dr. Ana Stelline, a immuno-compromised scientist in a sterile bubble whose job was to create memories for replicants. 

There is no doubt that "Blade Runner 2049" is a visual spectacle. I am sure that all the technical awards next year will have it prominently on their nominations list in all award giving bodies. Roger Deakins might just finally bring home his first Oscar for Best Cinematography after 13 unsuccessful tries. 

This special film demands you don't tune out at any moment of its nearly 3-hour running time, lest you miss an important detail. However, those unfamiliar with the mythology and the style can be frustrated with all the long jargon-filled or philosophical conversations, as well as the glacial-paced unfolding of the main point of the story. This challenging film will make you think about it and read about it after you've seen it. It will make you want to watch it again. 8/10. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

My Review of MY LITTLE PONY: THE MOVIE: Friendship First

October 6, 2017

I only have a vague idea of what "My Little Pony" was all about. None of my kids ever had a "My Little Pony" phase in their toddlerhood. My son says this show was only for little girls, but my daughter never got into them as well. After the "Smurfs" (MY REVIEW) and the "Trolls" (MY REVIEW) had been recently rebooted for this generation of kiddies, this time it is the turn of those cute colorful ponies of Equestria to strut their stuff on the big screen. 

Princess Twilight Sparkle is busy organizing her first Friendship Festival with her friends in Canterlot. Suddenly their activities were attacked by Tempest Shadow, a bitter unicorn with a broken horn. Twilight's fellow princesses (Luna, Celestia and Cadance) were all petrified and abducted. Meanwhile, Twilight and pony posse Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy, as well as her pet dragon Spike, were all able to escape. 

It turns out that Tempest had been conscripted by the Storm King (in exchange for his repairing her broken horn) to kidnap all of Equestria's princesses because he needed to use their collective magic, so she needed to capture Twilight to complete the set. On the other hand, Twilight needed to figure out how to avoid capture, as well as how to prevent the impending major disaster to her realm if the Storm King were to achieve his evil plans. 

I really had no idea what "My Little Pony" stories were about since I had never seen any of their shows on TV ever. I was expecting to totally be bored by its relentlessly juvenile sweetness. At first, it took some time for me to know which pony was which. I sort of figured out that if an elegant-looking pony had a horn on its forehead, it was a sign of royal lineage. The initial scenes about the festival preparations were cornily saccharine, but once Tempest and company showed up, things got more interesting. 

I did not expect bad things to be happening as I thought this was going to be a completely positive film without any antagonist. Aside from scary events like petrification and kidnapping, there were also scenes of lying, betrayal, stealing, quarreling, angry outbursts among the ponies themselves! Princess Twilight is the princess of friendship, yet she inexplicably does the most unfriend-like actions. This was actually rated PG in the US (yet rated G here).

The original voice actors from the TV series, Tara Strong (as Princess Twilight), Ashleigh Ball (as Rainbow Dash and Applejack), Andrea Libman (as Pinky Pie and Fluttershy), and Tabitha St. Germain (as Rarity), still voiced the "Mane 6" ponies. Guesting vocals include those of  Emily Blunt (as Tempest),  Liev Schreiber (as the Storm King), Taye Diggs (as the street-smart cat Capper), Zoe Saldana (as parrot pirate captain Celaeno), Kristin Chenoweth (as hippogriff princess Skystar),and Sia (as the pegasus singing superstar Songbird Serenade).

The artwork is proudly 2D traditional animation (which I later found out was by Filipino animators of Top Draw Animations), beautifully drawn and executed whether the scenes be set on land, sea or air. The quality of the animation is first-rate, not what you'd see on TV or straight-to-video features. The songs generally had melodious catchy tunes kids will like (I liked the songs too, by the way). 

Overall, this film was a pleasantly delightful surprise.  I was very surprised with how complexly the story developed. This was definitely not the shallow confection geared only for little toddler girls I thought I would be watching. Could it be that I'm becoming a "brony" (a fan outside the Ponies' target demographic of little girls)? 7/10. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review of THE DEBUTANTES: Bloody Birthdays

October 5, 2017

In the grand tradition of Pinoy horror that it actively pushed in the "Shake, Rattle and Roll" films, Regal Films produces this new horror film with a unique casting gambit. This latest work of director Prime Cruz features five of the prettiest young actresses of today as five teenagers all about to turn 18 one after the other in a course of two weeks. However, a sinister force is determined not to make their debut birthdays happy ones for them. 

Kate Angeles is the typical school genius who was also a major social outcast. She wore a thick long unruly crown of hair with oppressive bangs to frame her sullen face. She was an orphan who lived with her aunt, and shared her bedroom with Wena, a younger girl who can remain remarkably calm come whatever happens to help Kate cope with her bullies.

Kate longed to belong to a group of popular girls in their school, the Saint Clarence University, est. 1955. These pretty and stylish girls included Jenny, Candice, Shayne and Lara. Of course, these girls would simply ignore Kate like she did not exist. One day, a flunking Lara desperately asked Kate to help her with her math lessons and the two eventually get closer. 

Lara invited Kate to attend the debut party of Jenny (coincidentally the same birthday as Kate's), the mean girls played a very mean prank on the poor nerd. From that day, each of the mean girls would meet a terrifying death one after the other, all on their birthdays. Kate had to rush to figure out how the curse could be stopped before it reaches her friend Lara.

The plot ran like most teenage horror flicks where each character gets picked off to die one by one until only the main character would remain. The revenge scenario seemed to the obvious order of the day. However it will still puzzle some viewers because Kate always seemed to be asleep when the victims met their violent ends. Actually, I think you will figure the mystery out before the reveal, as the answer was not that hidden that complexly. 

Sue Ramirez, with her remarkably sad eyes, does pretty well in her role as the tormented Kate. She was definitely deglamorized here to make her look mousy and wretched. At first, there will be questions surrounding this strange girl. Why does she keep retching and vomiting at the sink? Why does she have all those terrible scars on her back? What is Wena's relationship with her? These questions will all be answered in the course of the film, which is good. But I am curious why no one ever cared to ask her about the scars even if they were in plain sight.

Miles Ocampo, as Lara, seemed to be content to play her usual goodie-goodie roles we also see her play on TV. The three mean girls were over the top in their mean-ness towards Kate. Everyone was one-dimensionally bad girls. Jane de Leon played the nasty ringleader Jenny. Michelle Vito is the kleptomaniac snoot Candice. Chanel Morales is the stubborn swimmer Shayne. No remorse indeed for the wicked.

I have to commend the two child actresses who were outstanding in their harrowing roles here. Faye Alhambra is the one who played the ever-supportive Wena. Kim Chloie Oquendo is the one who played Kate as a young girl. 

It was very unusual that the girls were always alone, with no one else around, even in very public places like a parking lot or a public pool. It was always only them inside their houses at any time. No one comes to their aid when they are already screaming or struggling loudly. There was a scene showing Kate's aunt and her toddler son, but they were never seen or heard of again throughout the film. 

The story of this horror flick is not too complicated. The horror effects were competent, and the scary tension was built quite well. When you see that guy in the dark-colored monster though, no, it was not really scary. But wow, he came out of someone's mouth! At least, that was new. However, there was not really any good jump scares. 

"The Debutantes" is geared towards the teen crowd same as its protagonists. The teens' obsession with cellphone video taking and social media posting is well-addressed. Remarkable that there is not a single significant male character, except one in a flashback. It was also remarkable there was not a single significant adult character, except that same one in the flashback. Overall, this was not bad, but it had nothing too innovative or special to make it too memorable as well. 5/10. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review of FLATLINERS (1990 vs. 2017): Afterlife, Arrogance and Amends

October 4, 2017


Five popular young actors of the 1990s starred in the original "Flatliners" film. Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) was the bold one who had the bright idea of stopping his heart to see the afterlife. He invited his best classmates to revive him from asystole: the reckless class topnotcherDave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), the libidinous Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), the aloof Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts), and the cautious Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt).

After the euphoria of Wright's revival from one-minute long death and his story of what he saw beyond, all the other students (except the sensible Steckle) outbid each other on how long they wanted to stay dead before they were revived. Little did they expect that waking up from death would bring with it ghosts from sins of their past back to haunt them.

I got the impression that director Joel Schumacher was trying to deliver a message against the arrogance of medical science in interfering with the destiny of a person's life and death. I found it a very fascinating topic because I too was a medical student when I first watched this film. I had seen people arrest and be resuscitated, and was curious what their experience was during those critical minutes when their heart stopped beating.

I wondered why were they still having anatomy dissection class when they were already rotating in the clinics and were supposedly already quite adept with advanced cardiac life support. Stunts like this never crossed my mind when I was a naive first year med student in Anatomy class. I had my doubts about the science of the film back then, especially about the accuracy of the resuscitation scenes that were shown. I saw the logic of using a cooling blanket to extend the window of resuscitation, but I had not seen it used in the local setting.

The post-resuscitation hauntings appeared to be very random, no specific patterns. Two of them dealt with "ghosts" of people who were still alive. Dealing with these guilty thoughts were relatively going to be easier. Two of them were haunted that deaths of people in their past. Dealing with these types of ghosts were obviously going to be more challenging. I felt this horror part of the film felt messy and somewhat cheesy with sentiment. What these past sins have to do with their near-death experience was never elaborated. 6/10.


I am not sure what sparked the idea of reviving "Flatliners" at all. The 1990 film (starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts) was not exactly a well-received film when it first came out, earning only middling reviews. The plot remains basically the same -- five medical students willingly undergo "flatlining" (heart arrest) in order to see what was on the other side at the point of death. This new version by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev has some significant differences from the original.

Courtney (Ellen Page) conceptualized this radical experiment to show the status of brain activities at the time of death that causes the visions reported by people who came back from death. Oddly, she picked Sophie (Kiersey Clemons) and Jamie (James Norton) to assist her, two who were not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. Unlike in the first film when documentation was only done by a video camera, here Courtney monitors the brain via a imaging scan.

In her panic for their being unable to revive Courtney, Sophie paged their topnotch classmate Ray (Diego Luna) for assistance and he delivered. Another classmate Marlo (Nina Dobrev) followed Ray into the fully-functional underground hospital wing built for nuclear emergencies and also witnessed Courtney's successful resuscitation. Afterwards, Courtney was noted to display boundless energy and a prodigious memory, so everyone else wanted their own turn, except Ray. 

As before, the participants also experience horrific visions -- Courtney from her younger sister who died in a car accident, Jamie from an ex-girlfriend he had abandoned, Sophie from a girl she bullied. What I liked about this new version was that Marlo's ghost was actually medical in nature. As doctors we deal with life and death, and we have to admit that we do not always make the correct decisions. The ghost of such a patient who suffers a morbidity, or worse a mortality, is a doctor's most dreaded nightmare.

Another big difference is that one ghosts of these five doctors actually succeed in extracting its revenge on the person who wronged it. Like the first film, the script never really made clear what was causing these hauntings. One of them mentioned the word "demonic" which sounded absurd when considered in the meditative context of the first film, but that was how the doctors' malevolent visions in this new film looked like.

The actors all looked more like senior residents already than interns. At least Page, Luna and Dobrev seemed credible in the execution of the resuscitation scenes. Norton and Clemons never did come across as doctors at all. It was a great idea to have Kiefer Sutherland from the first film come back. He played their training officer Dr. Barry Wolfson in this version. It's a shame they did not have him portray his old character Nelson Wright. That would have been more interesting mentorship. 

There were some confusing details if you listen closely to their medical conversations. Sophie was already an intern, yet she still cannot memorize the 12 cranial nerves -- something any first year med students knew by heart. Well, at least they did not have anatomy dissections anymore, and knew how to use imaging to monitor brain activity and do endotracheal intubation while resuscitating in this reboot. They attempted to discuss sparks in the amygdala at one point after the first flatline attempt succeeded, but too bad that they never mentioned the experimental aspects anymore after that.

The filmmakers really poured on the computer-generated special effects to say that "improved" on the original. However, making this film feel like a "Final Destination" film was not the way to go. I wish they would have gone deeper into the science (fiction) aspect they built up in the first half, but director Oplev instead decided to mine the horror aspect for all its worth in the whole second half. Shallow thrills prevailed over scientific insight and that was truly unfortunate. 4/10. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

My Review of THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE: Middling and Messy

October 2, 2017

At first there was "The Lego Movie" (2014) (MY REVIEW), which told us that everything Lego is awesome. Then suddenly this year alone, there were two more Lego films! "The Lego Batman Movie" (MY REVIEW) was released in February, and now, barely six months later, this new one "The Lego Ninjago Movie" hits the screens.

The old owner of a Chinese antique shop tells his young visitor a story about the legendary city of Ninjago. The bustling metropolis was always attacked by a dark Lord named Garmadon who wants to take control over the city. However, he is always foiled by  a group of ninja warriors who possessed the powers of Water, Fire, Earth, Ice, Lightning and Green. 

The secret identity of the Green Ninja was Lloyd Garmadon, the 16-year old son of the evil Lord, who had always been shunned in school because of his father. The other ninjas were his friends Nya, Zane, Jay, Cole and Kai, and their group was under a white bearded Master Wu, the younger brother of Lord Garmadon.

When Lloyd uses a forbidden Ultimate Weapon against Garmadon, it unleashes a real-life cat named Meowthra on Ninjago, which causes so much destruction. This forces Lloyd and the ninjas to face more dangers in order to obtain the so-called Ultimate Ultimate Weapon which was their only hope to defeat Meowthra. En route on their quest, Garmadon joined in the fray, leading to father and son getting to know each other more.

The animation in this installment of the Lego franchise maintains the same frenetic pace of bright images at full blast. The color-coded rendition of the Secret Ninja Force were reminiscent of "Power Rangers" (as with the inclusion of "The Power" in the score). Those mech (fighting robot) battle scenes had a "Transformers" style of close-up action cinematography. The scenes at the Temple of Fragile Foundations reminded me of "Kung Fu Panda" imagery. The inclusion of a live cat interacting with the animated city folk and structures of Ninjago must have been quite a challenge for the team to execute.

Several noted film actors are in the voice cast, although I cannot say that they were particularly distinctive. These were Dave Franco as Lloyd Garmadon, Justin Theroux as Lord Garmadon, Michael Peña as Kai (the Red Ninja of Fire), Olivia Munn as Lloyd's mother Koko, "Fresh of the Boat" couple Randall Park and Constance Wu also voice minor characters, Chen the Cheerleader and Mayor of Ninjago, respectively. Jackie Chan played the elderly man Mr. Liu in the bookend live action scenes, as well as voiced Master Wu.

Compared to the first two Lego movies, this one was not as interesting to watch because the formulaic story of an outsider turning into hero three times around is getting too redundant. The jokes were mostly juvenile, only mildly funny for adults, many even falling flat.  The soundtrack sounded rather generic, except for a radical flute arrangement of GNR's "Welcome to the Jungle" by Master Wu.

The central story about an absentee father and his son was strewn with spoofs of every cliche in that familiar movie plot line. While it is still fun to watch, there is oddly no emotional connection that comes through, and for that the viewing experience flounders. 5/10.