Saturday, July 11, 2020

Review of ASWANG: Bracing for the Bully

July 11, 2020




During this Covid-19 quarantine, three controversial, internationally-acclaimed documentaries about Philippine politics had been shared by their filmmakers online for Filipinos to watch for the first time. 

Last May, Lauren Greenfield's "The Kingmaker" was streamed, laying bare Madame Imelda Marcos' enduring belief from the Martial Law days up to the present time -- that "perception is real, truth is not" -- straight from her own mouth. In June, on Independence Day, Ramona Diaz's "A Thousand Cuts" was streamed for free on YouTube for 24 hours, two days before a local court found its embattled subject, Rappler founder Maria Ressa, guilty of cyber-libel. 

This weekend, a third hard-hitting political documentary by an intrepid female filmmaker is being shared online. "Aswang" by Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam last November 2019 where it won a major award. Since then, it had also been screened in a couple of big human rights film festivals, and won the Amnesty International award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival held virtually last May.

"Aswang" is about the aggressively heated war on drugs launched in 2016 in fulfillment of presidential campaign promises. Various tragic stories during this drug war among the urban poor had been tackled by several filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza, Erik Matti and Lav Diaz in the past couple of years. The most recent one was Ben Rekhi's gritty "Watch List" released in cinemas just a month before the quarantine. 

In contrast to these works of fiction, Arumpac brought her camera directly to the scenes of actual crimes to tell the grim aftermath among the families left behind. We see the real people and their emotions, not mere actors. We hear their own words, not lines penned by a scriptwriter. We may have seen these families in short clips on the evening news, but here, they are given a little more time to tell their grievances. 

Children who live in these grim slum conditions were highlighted by Arumpac. Her narrative began with the death of teenager Kian Lloyd de los Santos allegedly at the hands of cops. From there, Arumpac picked one of Kian's much younger friend Jomari to serve as a focal point of her film. Left to fend for himself while his parents were both incarcerated, the precocious, street-smart urchin Jomari had prematurely jaded pronouncements, which were in stark contrast with his innocent glee in shopping for superhero slippers and basketball jerseys to wear. 

In between stories of the drug war, the director and her editors also factored in some side stories to further drive home her point against the dire conditions suffered by the urban poor. There were scenes from a fiery street protest against the leadership, with the presidential Visage used as the basis of a satanic effigy. There was also a detour to describe the case of how human rights officials freed a number of male and female inmates who were kept sealed in a dark, humid, putrid cell hidden behind a filing cabinet. 

We may say we have heard all of these things already from the news, perhaps ad nauseam for some. However, when these painful scenes are compiled together in a documentary like this, the tragic human drama is amplified a hundredfold. It aimed to jolt us out of our privileged seats of comfort and direct our eyes to these "invisible" socio-political tragedies happening right under our line of sight. 

How coincidental that it would be streamed to the Filipino public just days after the anti-terror bill was signed into law, and the day after a one-sided congressional vote took down a mass media giant. The timing could not have been more uncanny. 


Friday, July 10, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE OLD GUARD: Tough Theron Thriller

July 10, 2020



Andy (Charlize Theron) led a group of skilled mercenaries: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They had the extraordinary ability to repair themselves from any injury and had been living as immortals across many centuries.  Despite that her group was being pursued by a ruthless big pharma CEO Merrick (Harry Melling) to study their unique physiology, Andy went out of her way to help US Marine officer Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), who sustained a fatal injury while on duty, but somehow completely recovered.

Andy is actually Andromache of Scythia, who had discovered her immortality for several years before Christ. She encountered Joe and Nicky during the Crusades, and they all met Booker during the Napoleonic Wars. Over the centuries, this adaptive crew had continued to gain in combat skills and technological expertise to fight for what they believed was right. To preserve some sense of danger for these characters, there was apparently a random expiration date to their immortality, but they would never know when this day will come.

Back in 2005, fresh from the Oscar Best Actress win for "Monster" (2003), Charlize Theron showed us that she also had action in her repertoire in the sci-fi film "Aeon Flux". However, she really showed off her full grit and abilities as a hard-core action star in "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015), and then again in "Atomic Blonde" (2017). This year, fresh off her Oscar Best Actress nomination for "Bombshell" (2019), Theron further pads her resume in the action genre in this new Netflix film based on the 5-part graphic novel from Image Comics, written by Greg Rucka, art by Leandro Fernández.

As the most senior immortal warrior Andy, the statuesque Theron wows us again with her grace and strength in all her brutal, bone-crunching fight scenes. She looked great with her short smart hairstyle, tank tops and trench coat. She looked convincingly proficient with any weapon she used, be they automatic firearms, the battle axe or her bare hands. She had that no-nonsense air of confidence which tells everyone that she is the leader (and mother-figure) of this elite group, there was certainly no doubting that. 

Aside from their complex fight scenes, Theron's supporting cast were all given their own dramatic storylines. Kenzari's Joe and Marinelli's Nicky were given a very long-term bromance relationship, developed as they killed each other several times over before. Schoenert's Booker saw his whole family die one by one, which imbued him with a great sense of guilt. Layne's Nile found it difficult to accept her new kind of existence and separation from her family. Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave") lent some additional prestige as CIA agent Copley whom the group had worked with previously. 

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood effectively incorporated stylish visuals, breathtaking fight choreography, and rock music to tell her story. At the end, there was a not-so-subtle hint that this could be a continuing series. This could be very interesting time to go back into various times in history to get to see Andy and the other guys in action over time. The show's premise may feel like they were just this new set of X-Men composed of all immortal self-healing Wolverines (sans the claws). However, it was Charlize Theron's outstanding star power that made all the difference here. 8/10. 



Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: CLASSIC AGAIN, ONE-WAY TO TOMORROW, SERGIO: Captivating Couples

July 7, 2020

CLASSIC AGAIN

Director: Thatchaphong Suphasri

Writers: Apichet Kamphu, Kiat Songsanant

Bota (Ranchrawee Uakoolwarawat) went through the diary of her mother Dalah that recounted her 1967 love affair with a shy writer named Kajorn (Thitipoom Techaapaikhun), complicated by his best friend Tanil who was also courting her.  Bota used this story to write a romantic play which will star the campus heartthrob Non (Gee Sutthirak Subvijitra), who just happened to be her crush as well as the crush of her best friend Poppy (Meiko Chonnikan Netjui). 

This Thai film is a remake of a 2003 South Korean film called "The Classic" which starred  Son Ye-jin (of "Crash Landing on You" fame). From the get-go, this movie gave such positive vibes, it was impossible not to give in to its charms. I did not know any of the young actors in the cast but they were all attractive and smiling so brightly, such that it was not difficult to like them all. While there were some overly sentimental scenes or contrived plot points, this was generally feel-good and wholesome, a very pleasant watch with generous doses of sweet romantic thrills. The beautiful Ranchrawee Uakoolwarawat gave such distinctive portrayals of Bota and her mother Dalah, you'd think two actresses had played them. 7/10. 


ONE-WAY TO TOMORROW

Director: Ozan Açiktan
Writers: Drazen Kuljanin, Faruk Ozerten

By chance, a young man Ali (Metin Akdülger) and a young woman Leyla (Dilan Çiçek Deniz) share a private compartment on a train going from Ankara to Izmir. After some initial hesitation, the two strike up a conversation. They discovered that they were both on their way to attend the same wedding. They both tell their stories about the reason why they were attending, and in the process get to know each other quite well.

This was a very talky Turkish movie, the whole story happening only one night on a train. Accidental seatmates Ali and Leyla just go from one topic to another, much like Jesse and Celine did in "Before Sunrise." Once you get into the drift of their conversation, this was not actually as boring as it may sound. The two lead actors Akdulger and former Ms. Universe-Turkey 2014 Deniz both gave engaging portrayals which make you care about who they are and what they were about to do. There could have been ways to expand the story some more but the director decide to keep things between the two of them, which limited his options towards the end. I imagine it would have been more interesting to see their past experiences actually played out on screen than just heard in conversation. 5/10. 


SERGIO

Director: Greg Barker

Writers: Craig Borten, based Samantha Power's book "Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World"

In 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq and United Nations' Special Representative Sérgio de Mello (Wagner Moura) was in Baghdad to assure human rights were maintained during their transition to true independence. One day, their hotel headquarters was bombed and Sergio trapped in the basement. While awaiting to be rescued, Sergio thought back to how he met and fell in love with Carolina (Ana de Armas) three months earlier in East Timor when he represented the UN during their revolution, and she was a member of his staff.

I first met Wagner Moura when he played a charismatic Cuban pilot and defector in "Wasp Network" just recently. Using that same charisma, Moura played another charming real-life gentleman, the titular Sergio, in this film. In "Wasp," his wife was played by Ana de Armas, who also played his mistress here. I was interested more in the parts about his work as a UN Special Representative, than in those parts about his relationship with Carolina.  I felt that this love story angle distracted from the more intriguing and challenging UN diplomatic experiences and decisions of Sergio which could have been told in more detail. 6/10.


Tuesday, June 30, 2020

HBO Go: Review of PERRY MASON: Gratuitous Grittiness

June 30, 2020




After graduating from reading the Hardy Boys mysteries, one of the next books I enjoyed a lot were the Perry Mason novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Mason was a smart criminal defense attorney who came to the rescue of innocent people accused of crimes, usually murders. Together with his trusted secretary Della Street and his private investigator Paul Drake, Mason would be able to get his client off the hook by convincingly proving that someone else was the murderer.

For two episodes running now, there is a new series on HBO Go entitled "Perry Mason." In this current version set in the Great Depression, Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) was a depressed and drunk detective, estranged from his family and suffering from PTSD following his service in the war. Della Street (Juliet Rylance) was the secretary of Atty. E.B. Johnson (John Lithgow), who hired Mason to investigate his cases. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) was a cop who could not rise in the ranks because he was African-American. 

There had been already been a long-running TV series from 1957 to 1966 (starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street) which was very faithful to the style of the books. Burr and Hale reprised their roles in a series of television movies of similar spirit which were released from 1985 up to Burr's death in 1993. This reboot is aiming for something different. So far, this is just Perry Mason only by name, but everything else about it is not the same as the books described anymore. 

The atmosphere of the whole show was as dark and gloomy as the recesses of this Perry Mason's mind. This involved a working-class couple Matthew (Nate Coddry) and Emily (Gayle Rankin) Dodson, whose 1-year old son Charlie had been kidnapped. However, upon delivery of the $100,000 ransom, the infant was found to be dead. The couple was a member of the Radiant Assembly of God church under the charismatic leadership of preacher Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany). One of the wealthy elders of the church, Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), hired Atty. Johnson and Mason to help them with their son's case.

In these first two episodes, we are still getting to know this version of Perry Mason, his flaws and the reasons behind these flaws. We see him as street-smart and manipulative to pry valuable clues out from the most unlikely sources. So far there has not even been any scene in a courtroom yet, which was unexpected for a series entitled "Perry Mason," but I look forward those scenes as they seem to be coming up soon. 

So far, I could call this show gratuitously gritty noir, unflinching from showing sex and violence at its darkest, dirtiest and most disgusting. The production values are topnotch yet the mood is generally grimy. Because this is set in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, Golden Age Hollywood was a looming presence (with references to Fatty Arbuckle, Clark Gable and Groucho Marx), so that is interesting for me. However, the present murder case and the religion angle are not connecting so well with me yet.

With still six more episodes to go in this series, I am not yet sure if I will be hanging on until the end. Will they be sticking to just this one crime story, or will other more engaging angles come out later? Let's just see first where the next couple of episodes will take us. However, as of now its disloyalty to the source material is still eating at me. 6/10


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Netflix: RevIew of EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA: Tuneful Triumph

June 28, 2020




Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams) had been very close friends growing up together in the small fishing village of Husavik in Iceland. Ever since he saw ABBA win Eurovision on TV back in 1974, Lars had been obsessed about writing the perfect song to win the Eurovision for Iceland, something his father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) was very disappointed about. However, Sigrit, with her beautiful singing voice and faith in elves, supported Lars' dream all the way as his partner in their band called Fire Saga. 

For the current contest, Lars submitted his song "Double Trouble" for consideration to the Iceland song committee, and by sheer luck they made it to the finals. Despite a disastrous performance, bizarre circumstances still aligned that caused Fire Saga to be Iceland's representatives for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest held in Edinburgh, Scotland. There, rustic Lars and Sigrit had an exhilarating time hobnobbing with the glamorous contestants from other countries, like Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) from Russia and Mita (Melissanthi Mahut) from Greece

I am not really a Will Ferrell fan. I never watched any of his famous films like "Elf" (2003) or "Anchorman" (2004). I believe the first and most memorable film I saw him in was "Blades of Glory" (2007) and this was on HBO only several years later, not on the big screen. Come to think of it now, the plot of "Blades of Glory" about achieving an impossible feat was also seen here. As Lars, Ferrell (now 52, but seemed 60) looked too old to be the son of Pierce Brosnan (now 67 but seemed 60) or the love interest of Rachel MacAdams (now 41, but seemed 31). However, the childish immature demeanor he had in his role still made us accept him as the leading man in this foolishly outlandish yet curiously charming comedy. 

I was also not a Rachel MacAdams fan. The first film I remember seeing her in was "The Notebook" (2004) which I did not really like too much despite its immense popularity at that time, and up to now. She was really sweet here as Sigrit, I liked her performance a lot. I was floored by her singing prowess while watching the several song numbers in this film, especially that crystalline and breathtaking final note in the song dedicated to their hometown of Husavik. I would find out afterwards though that her voice was mixed with the vocals of Swedish pop singer and former Eurovision contestant Molly Sanden, but anyhow MacAdams was able to sell the performance as if it was truly hers all along, not unlike what Rebecca Ferguson did for "Never Enough" in "The Greatest Showman".

We know Dan Stevens can sing when he voiced Beast in the live action remake of "Beauty and the Beast" and here we see him sing as himself with that rich baritone. American pop star Demi Lovato made short guest appearances as Icelandic singer Katiana, while talk show host Graham Norton played himself as the host of the Eurovision contest. I particularly enjoyed that "Pitch Perfect"-like "Song-Along" where random pops hits like "Believe," "Ray of Light," "Waterloo" and "What a Feeling" were sung by a series of singers, whom I later found out were actually contestants and winners from recent Eurovision contests!

Overall, I enjoyed the high spirits and wholesome humor of this comedy. Some jokes may run too long or fall flat, but it was all in the spirit of goofy fun. I thought it caught all the campy and cheesy spectacle of the Eurovision Song Contest, making this an orientation of sorts non-Europeans about the contest mechanics, style and atmosphere. You can see the disasters waiting to happen during Lars and Sigrit's song performances and this was part of the fun. There were occasional scenes of violence which may be scary for younger viewers, but generally, this was feel-good all the way. Many may keep humming the catchy "Ja Ja Ding Dong" after watching, but Fire Saga's final number on the Eurovision stage was truly a worthy climax brimming with nationalistic pride and fervor. 7/10. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: WASP NETWORK, LOST BULLET, RISING HIGH

July 21, 2020



WASP NETWORK

Director: Olivier Assayas
Writers: Olivier Assayas based on the book by Fernando Morais

One particular day in 1990, Cuban pilot Rene Enriquez (Edgar Ramirez) abandoned his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) and flew his plane all the way from Havana, Cuba to Miami, Florida, USA to defect. There, he joined an organization led by Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaragila) which worked to thwart the plans of anti-Castro groups. He joined missions to help other Cubans were crossing the ocean to the US by dropping them supplies, as well as other shady fund-raising activities. 

The first thing which would attract you to check out this Spanish film was that cast. Three prominent Latino actors headline this -- Penelope Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal and Ana de Armas. Acclaimed Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez and Brazilian actor Wagner Moura play the two Cuban defectors Enrique and Roque who became members of the Wasp Network. While the US treated them as terrorists, they are regarded as patriots among the Cuban masses. It started off fine telling Rene's story alone. However, adding the stories of the charismatic Juan Pablo Roque (and his marriage to Miami socialite Ana) and network pioneer Gerardo Hernandez made the whole storytelling lose focus and feel episodic. 6/10. 


LOST BULLET

Directed by: Guillaume Pierret
Written by: Guillaume Pierret, Alban Lenoir, and Kamel Guemra

Lino (Alban Lenoir) was a serving time for his petty crimes when a senior policeman named Charas (Ramzy Bedia) noted his skills in automotive engineering. Lino worked as a mechanic to enhance their police cars to make them stronger and faster to keep up with the cars used by criminals. Charas helped Lino to reach out to his younger brother Quentin (Rod Paradot), who was also involved in illegal activities. However, circumstances turn awry when Charas was killed by a dirty fellow cop, and Lino was being framed to be responsible. 

This French film was sort of a take off from the Fast & Furious films with its gangsters and fast cars, but the car stunts in this one were done practically, none of the incredible F&F special effects. Gruff French actor Alban Lenoir played Lino, a role which would have been played by a younger Jason Stratham if this had been a British production. Lenoir had some awesome scenes of manual combat, especially that exhilarating sequence where he was battling practically the whole police department to escape. It was an exciting watch while it lasted, but it was still a B action movie at its heart. 5/10. 




RISING HIGH

Directed by: Cüneyt Kaya
Written by: Cüneyt Kaya

Using his innate charm and slick eloquence, Viktor Steiner (David Kross) rose from abject poverty to become a real estate tycoon with the help of his enterprising and quick-thinking pals Gerry Falkland (Frederick Lau) and Nicole (Janina Uhse). However, their under-the-table get-rich-quickly shenanigans soon gave rise to a lifestyle of excess and vice. This life of decadent opulence made them careless in their business deals and later even took a toll on Viktor's personal life. It did not take long when the taxman had to come along to collect their dues. 

This German film had so much of a "Wolf of Wall Street" vibe, you cannot unsee the very obvious references and similarities in style. Like "Wolf," there were scenes of wild parties, cocaine sniffing, champagne fountains, fast sportscars, sexy women -- no surprises here. I will not pretend to fully understand the elaborate financial real estate transactions Viktor and company engage in, from the auctions to the mortgages to the taxes, and to the schemes they resort to circumvent the authorities. Anyhow, it was good to see David Kross again in a lead role 12 years after he romanced Kate Winslet in his Oscar-nominated breakthrough film "The Reader" (2008). 5/10. 


Friday, June 19, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: DA 5 BLOODS, A FALL FROM GRACE, ALL DAY AND A NIGHT: African-American Anguish

June 19, 2020

DA 5 BLOODS


Directed by Spike Lee
Written by:  Danny Bilson, Paul De MeoKevin Willmott and Spike Lee

Vietnam War veteran buddies Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) all go on a trip together to Ho Chi Minh City. Their personal mission was to bring home the remains of their squad leader Norman Holloway (Chadwick Boseman). Further on their agenda was to also locate the stash of gold bars from a crashed CIA plane in the area where Norman died. Also tagging along was Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors), who met landmines advocate Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) along the way. 

The premise and intent of Spike Lee for this project was commendable. The strong message how the Vietnam War had victimized African-American young men in particular was effectively delivered.  However, the final form of the script over-cooked the plot, and the execution was oddly amateurish, especially those clumsy action scenes. The acting ranged from glaringly hammy to awkwardly stilted, from supporting actors to the leads. Watching the same senior actor play both young and old versions of themselves was confusing, especially that their leader Boseman was obviously looked their junior. Boseman was cool as usual, but he was barely there. The treatment of Vietnamese characters could have been better. 

Spike Lee is coming from a successful run at the Oscars last year with "BlackKklansman" where he won his first ever Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Therefore, expectations ran high for this follow-up project, which even made it to a list of strong contenders for the Best Picture Oscar next year. Despite all that hype, after sitting through its 157 very uneven minutes, I never got why this should get any awards buzz at all. 4/10.


A FALL OF GRACE 

Director: Tyler Perry
Writer: Tyler Perry

Grace Waters (Crystal Fox) was pleading guilty to murdering her husband Shannon DeLong (Mechad Brooks). Boss of the public defenders office Rory (Tyler Perry) sent Jasmine Bryant (Bresha Webb) to arrange her plea deal to settle the case once and for all. However, when she got to hear Grace's story behind her supposed crime, as well as some corroborating testimony from Grace's best friend Sarah Miller (Phylicia Rashad), Jasmine felt she had enough reasonable doubt to actually bring the case to court.

This was supposed to have been a legal drama, but writer-director Tyler Perry had so much cheesy soap opera melodrama going on. On top of it all, there was another layer of implausibility the way the apparently straightforward plot suddenly developed an outrageous epilogue which threw all realistic logic out the window. The usually exciting court proceedings were all written and staged in an embarrassing manner. Really, what respectable lawyer would defy a judge and insist on calling of a witness to the stand after both sides have rested their case?

Phylicia Rashad (from "The Cosby Show") and the revered Ms. Cicely Tyson were in the cast, but for some reason, acting felt terribly over-the-top across the board. There was nothing in Bresha Webb's voice and performance that made her credible as a lawyer, but then again she's not supposed to be a good lawyer in the first place. The absolute worst offender had to be Mechad Brooks and his ludicrous villain portrayal, complete with evil laughter and absurd behavior. His "Ashtray, b***h!" scene will definitely make you cringe. The over-wretched acting in this supposed tragedy was unintentionally humorous. 3/10.


ALL DAY AND A NIGHT

Director: Joe Robert Cole
Writer: Joe Robert Cole

An aspiring rapper named Jahkor Lincoln (Ashton Sanders) had a tough childhood with his addict father JD (Jeffrey Wright). From petty crimes with his friend TQ (Isaiah John), he eventually became a gangster under Big Stunna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). While in prison serving a life sentence for murdering drug pusher Malcolm (Stephen Barrington), Jahkor's girlfriend Shantaye (Shakira Ja’nai Paye) gave birth to their son Zion. 

Ashton Sanders showed off more of his raw acting talent which we all first saw firsthand in his breakthrough lead role in the Oscar-winning film "Moonlight" (2016). Jeffrey Wright gave another marked performance as JD, as he consistently did in the past. The rest of the generally unknown young cast were all very natural actors, as if they have really lived this tough life on the streets. This realistic casting had a very authentic effect on the story that writer-director Joe Robert Cole (noted for co-writing the screenplay of "Black Panther") was trying to tell 

With its slick visual style and infectious rap soundtrack, this certainly had the feel of a very good movie. However, the only problem with this was that the story really had nothing new to say. There was a protagonist who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks to an abusive drug addict father, and later grew up to be a gangster himself. When he had a child of his own, he promised that his son will not be like him. Then we see a flashback of his father making the same promise when he was born. The vicious cycle of life in a black gangster just went full circle, just threatening to turn the same way all over again. 6/10.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME, 365 DAYS, INTUITION

June 10, 2020


THE LAST DAYS OF AMERICAN CRIME

Directed by Olivier Megaton
Written by Karl Gajdusek based on the graphic novel by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini

In the near dystopic future, the US government had developed a loud debilitating signal called the API (American Peace Initiative) which could prevent anybody from committing crimes. Therefore, several criminal groups want to commit one more big caper before their "happy days" are over. One of these rich crime brats was was the brash and crazy Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt) who conscripted Irish gangster Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) to be his muscle -- the same Bricke who just so happened to have been casually involved with Kevin's hacker girlfriend Shelby (Anna Brewster).

The title of this movie immediately grabs you when you see it. There was simply a lot of promise in that title as to what its story may offer. However, it would not take you that long into the movie to know that this was not going to be a smooth ride at all. This was obviously going to be B-movie affair from the first act, and seeing on the timer that it will run 149 minutes (almost 2 hours and a half) long, may make you give up sooner than later. Michael Pitt was so over-the-top in his cartoonish portrayal of Kevin Cash. That scene where Kevin met his tycoon father was the ultimate in hammy acting. The storytelling was so unclear, such that the curious few who hang on to see how the story would just be riding along with what they see without really understanding what was happening. There was even that additional character of a cop Sawyer (Sharlto Copley) which was not well-developed at all. Ultimately, it turned out that its bold title was already the best part of this thing. 2/10



365 DAYS

Written and Directed by Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Klimala
Based on the novel by Blanka Lipinska

The marriage of hotel director Laura Biel (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) from Poland with her boring husband Martin (Mateusz Łasowski) was on the rocks. They went to Silicy on a holiday trip to try to resuscitate their relationship. One night, Laura was kidnapped by young Sicilian mafia boss Massimo Torricelli (Michele Morrone), who had been obsessed with her since he caught a glimpse of her years ago on the day his father was murdered in his presence. Massimo promised Laura that he will not touch her while she is his prisoner, but guaranteed that she was going to fall in love with him in 365 days.

The so-called "story" of this Polish film was merely a flimsy excuse of a plot on which to display the two lead stars in various degrees of undress and engaged in multiple explicit erotic encounters. One scene of Massimo's aggressive seduction was a scene early on when he actually chained Laura's limbs to the four posts of a bed, immediately reminiscent of the sado-masochism of the "50 Shades" films on which it was probably inspired. There was no suspense at all if sexually-frustrated Laura will fall in "love" with persistently dominating Massimo in her captivity, which made Stockholm Syndrome seem disturbingly attractive. To fill in the other empty minutes without sex scenes, there were repeated scenes of luxurious shopping which Laura indulged in care of Massimo's wallet.  Its current Netflix popularity is due to its hedonistic prurient voyeuristic type of entertainment, which was its primary aim in the first place. 4/10


INTUITION

Written and Directed by Alejandro Montiel

Inspector Juanez and his novice detective Pipa were involved in the investigation of a mousy young woman Minerva who had confessed to killing of her best friend Gloriana. However, evidence seemed to point to a mentally-disturbed young man who lived next door.  Meanwhile, Pipa was also secretly assigned to investigate the involvement of her boss Juanez, whose work ethic had recently been erratic, in the roadside murder of a young man from a gypsy family involved in the murder of Juanez' wife. 

We first met the character of Pipa in the 2018 Argentine film "Perdida" (also on Netflix) where she was investigating the dormant case of her long missing friend Cornelia. "Intuition" was supposed to have been the prequel when Pipa was just a new cop, however, none of the characters in the previous film were here (the name of the missing Cornelia was dropped only once) nor did we get to know the character of Pipa more. Lead actress Luisana Lopilato (real-life Mrs. Michael Buble) is competent as Pipa, while co-star Joaquin Furriel (with his dark brooding eyes) did well playing the secretive Juanez. Everyone else in the supporting cast turned in unfortunate amateurish performances. You can surmise from the synopsis that there are several cases thrown into one complex mix-up here, so it can get confusing what clues, suspects and red herrings belong to which case. However, despite all its incredible leaps of chance, this crime drama does grip you while it lasted. 5/10.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, TUNE IN FOR LOVE, TWIN MURDERS

June 3, 2020


ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES

While out running one early morning, high school student Theodore Finch saw his classmate Violet Markey standing on the concrete railing of a bridge. Finch talked Violet from jumping, and since then took extra effort at school to snap her out of her depression, which was caused by the accidental death of her sister. When their teacher assigned a project to report about beautiful places around their state of Indiana, Finch convinced Violet to be partners. As Violet opened up to him however, Finch began to withdraw from her. 

This serious teenage love story was based on Jennifer Niven's best-selling 2015 young-adult novel of the same title. Niven herself adapted her book and co-wrote the script with veteran screenwriter Liz Hannah ("The Post"). Like many young adult films, the words in the dialogues are quite eloquent and quotable, though not necessarily realistic. Lead actors Elle Fanning and Justice Smith had charisma and gravitas as the troubled young couple in the middle of the story. The mental health advocacy of the material (about depression and suicide) was front and center throughout. However, I felt the abrupt climax lacked emotional impact the way it was executed, and actually gave the whole film an unexpectedly ironic twist at the end. There could also have been more flashback scenes to better flesh out the respective back stories of the two teens to understand them better instead of relying on narrations only. 6/10.


TUNE IN FOR LOVE

In 1995, juvenile delinquent Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) took a job in the neighborhood bakery run by Mi-su (Kim Go-eun. The two start to get close, but Hyun-woo's troubled past got in the way and they parted ways. Over the next ten years, Mi-soo and Hyun-woo took divergent careers which kept them away from each other. While fate had been allowing their paths to cross occasionally, unfavorable circumstances persisted to cause problems, making it difficult for them to get back together as a couple. 

When I started watching this movie, I did not expect that the lead actress was Kim Go-eun, best known now as Police Lt. Jung Tae-eul in the ongoing Netflix series "The King: Eternal Monarch." I would admit that Kim was the main reason I persisted to watch this even if the storytelling of the drama became rather slow and melodramatic towards the middle to the end. One of the criticisms against "The King" was Kim's lack of chemistry with superstar Lee Min-ho in the sophisticated sci-fi fantasy series. I thought her unconventional beauty and restrained acting style fit the simple reality-based drama of "Tune In" more. Leading man Jung Hae-in (star of dramas "While You Were Sleeping" and "Something in the Rain") was deglamorized in workman duds as Hyeon-u, but his scenes with Kim still carried heartfelt emotions. Who would have thought that an email password could become something romantic? 6/10. 


TWIN MURDERS: THE SILENCE OF THE WHITE CITY

Detective Unai Lopez de Ayala (Javier Rey) was called back by Vitoria police chief Alba Díaz de Salvatierra (Belén Rueda) to investigate an apparent resumption of a series of ritualistic murders which he handled 20 years ago. The previously convicted perpetrator Tasio (Àlex Brendemühl) was still behind bars. The new murders followed the exact pattern before: two victims, one male and one female, from rich families, of the same age, both nude but decorated with flowers and positioned in a dramatic tableaux. Autopsy showed that they were killed in a particularly grisly process that involved bees. 

The gothic atmosphere of this film was so very well-captured by the director with the locations, the lighting and the music. In this regard, I thought the chase scene on the rooftop and nave of a cathedral was very well-shot. The main mystery actually started off as very interesting, but as the story went along, it ultimately became very confusing and convoluted because of the numerous characters involved played by different actors going back and forth in time. The scenes of Ayala interviewing Tasio in prison were reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs." The way the identity of the murderer was even revealed midway without any build-up was a strange and disconcerting storytelling decision that affected the narrative flow negatively. 4/10.


Saturday, May 30, 2020

iWant: Review of MALAYA: Pressured Prerogatives

May 30, 2020

Malaya (Lovi Poe) was a communication arts graduate from Manila who just joined her mom and brother working as domestic helpers in Italy.  One day, she met Iago (Zanjoe Marudo), a Filipino born in Italy determined to make a good life on his own. The two got close to each other in no time while working together, and fell in love. However, real life soon came into the picture and major decisions needed to be made. 

Malaya felt bitter that her mother (played by Isay Alvarez) who left to work in Italy as a domestic worker. She was determined to not be a domestic helper when she herself was petitioned by her mother go to Italy. On the other hand, Iago had issues against his own absentee father (played by Robert Sena). He grew up with an Italian family who took him in as their own, hence his facility with the Italian language. He was also not content with minimum wage jobs. How will falling in love affect their ambitious natures?

Lovi Poe seems to be the go-to young actress to cast when the script requires the female lead to show a little skin and engage in sexy scenes, much like what she did in her last two films "The Annulment" (2019) and "Hindi Tayo Pwede" (2020). Her patrician beauty kept her always looking dignified and classy. As an actress, she was able to project sincerity effectively. This was even when the character of Malaya, who had difficulties moving on from bad experiences, did not seem to be her real-life personality.

Zanjoe Marudo worked hard on his Italian language and accent as his role required. This interesting character was actually quite a challenge on paper because of what it demands from its actor. Marudo did well in his portrayal, but you can't help but feel that there was still more that could have been done with Iago. His was the more unpredictable character and he was the one who was driving the story forward with his decisions, until Malaya made her own decision at the end. 

This latest iWant original film followed the lead of local romance films focused on the life of Filipino workers abroad, like "Milan" (2004) and "Dubai" (2005), and more recently "Barcelona" (2016) and "Hello Love Goodbye" (2019). The story was set in the Puglia region of Italy, the heel part of the boot-shaped country. The picturesque nature views and charming town architecture were put into good use as the backdrop of this love story. The soundtrack with emo songs by Juan Karlos fit right into the film's anxious mood.

Director Connie Macatuno went back and forth in time to tell her story, which can be confusing with all the cards that indicated when the scenes were happening. As the film's title and the lead character's name would indicate, she stayed true to feminist themes she told and developed in her two other films, "Rome and Juliet" (2006) and the first iWant original film "Glorious" (2018). 6/10. 




Thursday, May 28, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews of RICH IN LOVE, ONE DAY WE'LL TALK ABOUT TODAY, WHAT ARE THE ODDS?

May 28, 2020

RICH IN LOVE

Director: Bruno Garotti

Teto (Danilo Mesquita) is a handsome playboy, the lazy spoiled heir to the major tomato business empire of his father Teodoro Trancoso (Ernani Moraes). During a local tomato festival, he met capable medical intern Paula (Giovanna Lancellotti). Unsure whether he could win her without knowing his real circumstances, Teto lied that he was just the poor son of the farm caretaker who wanted more in life. When he went to Rio de Janeiro to train for an executive position in their company, Teto solicits the help of his friends to continue his complicated charade to woo Paula.  

The plot of this Brazilian film was actually very common -- about a lie that kept on growing until it just fell under its own weight. However, it remained to be very watchable just because of its lead stars Mesquita and Lancelloti (and the romantic chemistry between them) are too attractive to resist. The supporting roles of Igor (Jaffar Bambirra) and Monique (Lellê) were also very likable despite being Teto's accomplices in his big lie. A major plot hole would of course be the sheer impossibility that the managers of the tomato company in Rio would not know how their boss's only son Teto looked like, especially since they knew of his notoriety as a ladies' man. Anyhow, this remained to be a light, diverting and entertaining watch. 6/10. 


ONE DAY WE'LL TALK ABOUT TODAY

Director: Angga Dwimas Sasongko

Narenda (Donny Damara) and Ajeng (Susan Bachtiar) have three adult children who still live with them, a very close-knit family. Eldest brother Angkasa (Rio Dewanto) worked with concert musicians. Middle child Aurora (Sheila Dra) was a mixed-media artist about to have her first public exhibit. The youngest daughter Awan was an budding architect still competing to work for her dream firm. However after Awan met band manager Kale (Ardhito Pramono), the children began to feel the pressure of their father's over-protectiveness. 

This Indonesian film (based on a book by Marcella F.P.) was a compelling family drama about a festering secret that manifested itself only after two decades of strained artificial harmony. The story was told flashing back from present to the past. The color palette, musical score and production design were all excellently done. There were two sets of actors playing the parents (Oka Antara and Niken Anjani played the younger set), and three sets of actors playing the children at different ages. The actors were very good, however, the younger actors did not really look like their older versions, and this careless casting somewhat negatively-affected the totality of this otherwise above-average film. 7/10. 


WHAT ARE THE ODDS?

Director: Megha Ramaswamy

On the day of the major scholarship exam, an unusual girl named Vivek (Yashaswini Dayamawho) decided to boycott the exam to make a statement. She grabbed her permit out and ran off. She realized too late that she had inadvertently grabbed the permit of the popular head boy Ashwin (Karanvir Malhotra) out as well, which caused him to also be unable to take the exam. Because of this mishap, Vivek and Ashwin ended up spending the whole day together out in the streets of Mumbai, and struck a special friendship between them. 

This unusual Indian movie had a good part of its script in English, but it was still not really an easy watch. Older viewers may just give up after the first 30 minutes. However, if you do decide to give the film a chance, it would go from one weird scene after the other -- dancing senior citizens wearing red tracksuits, stealing a bottle of alcohol from a a bar, and strange encounters with a guy urinating on a roofdeck, a motorbike thief trying to recover dentures, and a neglected hungry goldfish. Director Megha Ramaswamy's concept of cinematic art in her first feature-length film may look whimsically indie, but was ultimately very puzzling. Only the quirky charms of the two young lead actors can hold your attention enough to finish this film to see where it led. 4/10.