Friday, December 15, 2017

Review of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: Fortifying the Force

December 14, 2017

Two Decembers ago, the reboot of the Star Wars franchise with "The Force Awakens" (J.J. Abrams, 2015) (MY REVIEW) took its loyal and new fans on a fantastic ride. I personally gave it a 10/10 by having the perfect balance of nostalgia and innovation. It set a very high standard for the next Star Wars films to come. The anticipation for the next installment is very high as the final scene with Rey meeting Luke promised so much in terms of story. Finally that time has come to pass.

The rebel forces continued to be under attack by the First Order led by its Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Dissatisfied with seemingly weak leadership of Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) who took over from Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) conspired with Finn (John Boyega) and their new friend Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to hatch a more aggressive plan to disable the First Order tracking device with a code-breaker.

On his remote island, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) initiates Rey (Daisy Ridley) with the basics of the Jedi Force but he was still very much consumed by his failure as master to avert Kylo Ren's turning to the Dark Side. Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ren (Andy Driver) have mysterious visions where they are able to communicate from a distance. They each try to convince the other to join the other side. 

Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are prominently billed first here, and they were really the heart and soul of this Episode VIII. the less I say about them the better, lest I go into spoiler territory. By this time, we already know the new generation characters Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren and are now fully invested in their stories. In this new film, all four of them got to have their own distinct individual threads to weave into the reinvigorated Star Wars fabric. A major new character was introduced in the person of Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who befriends Finn. It was good to see an Asian actor prominently in the mix this time around. 

Like how it was in the last film, there is a possibility that a major character or two may lose their lives, who may or may not be the ones you are expecting. These scenes were executed in a way that kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time -- so good! The action scenes were plentiful and amazing as expected, just the way fans love their airborne fighter battles and light saber duels. That final showdown on a field of white salt that turned scarlet when disturbed was such a spectacle of visual drama on that big screen. 

The humor was also there, usually care of the creatures and the robots as before. The runaway favorite creature this time are those adorable round-eyed birds called the porgs. Any scene with Chewbacca and the porgs were too cute, especially the one at the campfire where Chewy was about to eat. R2D2 had a profound moment of drama with Luke in the Millenial Falcon. BB-8 can do anything it seems, and is becoming a predictable easy way out of our heroes in many of their tight spots. 

While in past Star Wars we only saw seedy dusty cantinas, this time we were brought to Canto Bight, a planet which was one opulent elegant casino of the rich. There are gigantic horse-like creatures there called Fathiers bred to race for sport. We are introduced to some poor kids who live under oppressive conditions at the edge of this society. It seems to suggest that these kids may play a bigger role in future films. 

I am not going to argue with critics who are calling "The Last Jedi" the best Star Wars film since "The Empire Strikes Back." Fully meeting all expectations, new director Rian Johnson came up with another entertaining epic film that captures the nostalgia of classic Star Wars while continuing to steer the franchise into a whole new direction. If I were to compare though, I felt a tad more awe as the closing credits were rolling up after the last scene of "The Force Awakens" than this one, but not by much. 9/10. 


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Crusader vs. Chauvinist

December 12, 2017

In the murky recesses of my childhood memories, I actually recall a tennis game called Battle of the Sexes. I guess my folks either watched the game on TV (not sure if it was broadcast locally) or maybe at least heard and discussed news about it. Despite knowing the outcome of that match, I was still curious how this singular sports event would be spun by dual directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the same pair behind Oscar Best Picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006) into a full-length film. 

It was the early 1970s and Billie Jean King was on top of the rankings in women's tennis. However, she was disgusted about how women players were being treated unfairly (in terms of prize money) by the male officials of the lawn tennis association, like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Impulsively, she decided to rebel against convention -- boycotted the next tournament and organized an association only for women players -- the WTA.

Bobby Riggs was a retired tennis champion with a colorful career and personality. A pathologic gambler and male chauvinist pig, a problem that put him at serous odds with his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue), Riggs saw the lucrative prospect of challenging the top female tennis player of the day -- not only for a big payday, but also to prove that men are superior to women. His first choice of opponent was none other than Billie Jean King. 

Since I followed professional tennis all these years, I found it very interesting to learn about a turning point in its history, specifically about women's tennis. Aside from Mrs. King, I recognized names of the stars back then like Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and Margaret Court (Jennifer McNamee, whom I mistook as Hillary Swank at first). We still hear about Virginia Slims (their memorable tagline being "You've come a long way, baby") and the ladies tennis tour they sponsor up to this day. 

Emma Stone had always been a competent actress and she proves it again here. She is playing a real life celebrity whom many viewers actually saw on TV in action, so various people will have their own standards for what counts as a good impersonation. For me, the Billie Jean King I remembered as a child was more mannish than how Stone portrayed her in this movie (but of course my memory could be wrong). 

I always thought King was a tomboyish sort, but I never knew she actually had a lesbian relationship until I saw this film today. While we are more used to seeing gay affairs in mainstream cinema, lesbian affairs are not too commonly seen. Things did get steamy between King and her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), more than what I thought a PG rating would allow. The character of Billie's husband Larry (Austin Stowell) was also quite a puzzling one. 

Steve Carrell had always been one of my favorite comedians since I first saw him in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (Judd Apatow, 2005). This fun role of Bobby Riggs seemed tailor-made for his screen personality. I did not really know Riggs as a player (he had his career heyday in the 1940s) so seeing Carrell portray this vibrant character was quite a joy to watch. Insultingly chauvinistic as Riggs was, you would not blame his supporters from rallying behind such a charismatic entertainer as he was the way Carrell played him.

The color palette had a faded or washed-out quality typically seen in films set in the 1970s. The make-up, hairstyles and costumes were all carefully on-point as would be expected. The build up of the story by writer Simon Beaufoy in the first act could be slow, and the middle act lagged at points. 

But as the action started to rise for the climactic "Battle" then things got really exciting. The thrilling game proper was so well-executed so realistically you'd feel you are watching the actual game live. You'd also see how different the shots and the speed of tennis were back then compared to how it is played nowadays.  

This film is more than just a documentary about a special sports event in 1973. It is a strong statement about the uphill climb encountered by women on the tough road towards being recognized as co-equals in society. 7/10. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Joint Reviews: A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS and DADDY'S HOME 2: Parental Partnerships and Pratfalls

December 11, 2017

This December, there were two new comedy films released, both sequels of previous modest hits at the box office. "A Bad Moms Christmas" is a quick followup to "Bad Moms" (Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, 2016) (MY REVIEW). "Daddy's Home 2" is a sequel to "Daddy's Home" (Sean Anders, 2015), which I had not seen before. 

I have decided to review these two films together because they coincidentally had very similar themes. Both were set at Christmas time, and both had the parents of all the lead stars come and join in the comic mayhem. The Bad Moms had their respective moms come to visit, while the two Daddies had their respective dads come to visit. 

I think you can readily predict how the stories of both films will run before going to see them. The predictable endings of these two films were uncannily similar as well.


In Scott Moore and John Lucas' "A Bad Moms Christmas," Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all get surprise visits from their moms for the holidays. 

Amy's mom Ruth (Christine Baransky) is a domineering perfectionist  who wanted to do all things her extravagant ways. Kiki's mom Sandy (Cheryl Hines) is so clingy and overzealous that she got her daughter's hairstyle and neighbor's house. Carla's mom Isis (Susan Sarandon) is a gambling rocker chick who never grew up, only seeking her daughter out when she needed money. 

Like the first film, simply having Mila Kunis there elevated the film to a better level. Her musings as Amy, wondering why moms should take the brunt of every year's Christmas celebrations, from the gifts to the decorations to the parties, made a lot of sense. For her part, Kristen Bell's sweet voice and innocent look gave the naughty things Kiki said more shock value. 

Because they wanted to free themselves from their moms' intrusive interference, they have more serious mother issues addressed. For a matriarchal country like ours though, it was tough to see Amy and Kiki tell their moms off as these scenes were not exactly in consonance with our local customs. 

Unlike her friends, Carla actually wanted her mother to stay with her, but Isis was such a rolling stone. Kathryn Hahn had most of the funniest scenes in the film. Because of her job as a waxer at a swanky spa, she had a lot of opportunity to crack the raunchiest of jokes. One of the funniest scenes in the film involved hunky stripper Ty Swindle (played by Justin Hartley) and his hilarious balls waxing session. 

As with comedies of this sort, the comic situations were highly exaggerated with mixed results. It does bring the stressful issues moms faced every holiday season out there on the table, all told very frankly. I am sure non-moms out there will also get the message so they would appreciate their moms more. As therapist Dr. Karl (Wanda Sykes) said, Moms become crazy because their child was born that threw their life up in a loop. Moms will definitely identify. 6/10.


In Sean Anders's "Daddy's Home 2," biological dad Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg) and step-dad Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) have decided settle their differences from the first film to be friendly co-dads to their kids Dylan and Megan. 

Their relationship was going on well, until one Christmas when both their fathers come visit. Dusty's dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) is a macho, no-nonsense, chauvinistic ladies' man. Brad's father Don (John Lithgow) is a sweet, talkative, very gentle man.

Actually you can see the gist of the whole film in the very detailed trailer that practically had all the funniest parts already. Mark Wahlberg played the straight man Dusty to the idiotic shenanigans of Brad, which is right up Will Ferrell's typical slapstick style. 

It was actually stark contrast of the two dads that carried the show for me. Mel Gibson, with that constant smirk on his face, was just having fun playing it tough and romancing the moms. John Lithgow got to shine more because of Don's emotionally effusive character. An unexpected dramatic element in his subplot gave Lithgow's scenes further substance.

The wives Sara (Linda Cardellini) and Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio) were just window-dressing, and the kids Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and stepsister Adrianna (Didi Costine) did not exactly have likable personalities. John Cena's belated and appearance as Adrianna's biological father had no effect at all. 

The PG comedy was very uneven. The humorous situations were either repetitive (too many snowballs and pratfalls) or overextended (that bowling scene or that creche scene). Several "funny" scenes were actually looked very dangerous than funny, like the outdoor lights disaster or that chainsaw disaster or that turkey hunting disaster. If you were in it for the father-son interactions, the issues between Dusty and Kurt did not resonate as much as that of Brad and Don, but this was also expected. Dads may not identify. 5/10. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review of SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES: Contemptuous Corruption

December 10, 2017

Films about solving crimes have a certain fascination from me. Among Filipinos, a good detective movie is a rarity, as rare as a Filipino serial killer, if we are to believe what the film tells us. From the moment I saw the enigmatic trailer, I felt sure that this was going to be a movie that I will like. 

Until recently, I never knew that "Smaller" was first an English-language crime novel, the first in Filipino literature. Author F. (Felisa) H. Batacan won the Palanca Award for English Novel in 1999 for her manuscript. Her book was first published by University of the Philippines Press in 2001.

For each first Saturday of the past seven months, a young boy from Payatas was found dumped in the garbage heap, dead and horribly mutilated. Director Lastimosa of the NBI contacted a couple of Jesuit priests, Fr. Augusto Saenz and Fr. Jerome Lucero, for their forensic expertise to help solve the crime. The two had to hurdle opposition from power-hungry lawyers and corrupt church officials as they rush to solve the puzzling case before there was a next victim.

Under the direction of Raya Martin (his first "mainstream" film after a series of acclaimed art films), the film version of this pageturner was similarly riveting from beginning to end. The script (by Ria Limjap and Moira Lang) used Filipino for more realism but wisely retained the sharply-worded English lines where they mattered most. 

The gritty cinematography (by J.A. Tadena) and the moody musical score (by Lutgardo Labad and Odoni Pestelos) set the atmosphere of gloom and tragedy perfectly. The carefully detailed production design (by Ericson Navarro) brought us back twenty years ago to 1997. There was no hesitation to showing off the mutilated cadavers and actual crimes in bloody progress with some well-done prosthetics and exciting editing (by Jay Halili).

The nuanced acting performances of Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero as partners Fr. Gus and Fr. Jerome really brought the novel's fascinating characters to life. They felt like the local counterparts of Holmes and Watson, or Poirot and Hastings, and it was thrilling to watch their interaction as a duo. It was great their no-nonsense approach to crime investigation, as much as listening to them wax philosophical. I want to see them on work on a next case together!

Buencamino delivers some of the film's best lines of socio-political commentary and boy, can he dish them out! He is calm, serene, but hits hard. That confrontation scene between Fr. Gus and the imperious Cardinal Meneses (played by a slimy Ricky Davao) packed such a solid punch against Catholic Church hierarchy. He even exchanged lines in fluid French with reporter Joanna Bonifacio (played by a plucky Carla Humphries). Loved that small detail about his speaking with a slight lisp because of a painful rotting tooth in his mouth. 

Much criticism was raised against the inefficiency of the National Bureau of Investigation. While some balance was provided by the wisdom of Director Lastimosa (played by Bembol Roco), the ineffectual people under him, like power-tripping Acting Director Phillip Mapa (played by Christopher de Leon) and especially the media-whore Atty. Ben Arcinas (played by Raffy Tejada) were some of the most despicable characters in the story. 

Some commentary was also cast on local politicians like Councilor Tess Mariano (played by a delightful Gladys Reyes) and catty socialites like Mrs. Urrutia (played with bitchy relish by Roselyn Perez). Fr. Gus' aversion to dentists also brought some attention to how free community dental clinics work, with interesting characters like Dr. Gino Sta. Romana (Ross Pesigan) and Dr. Alex Carlos (Jun-jun Quintana).

This is definitely one of the best Filipino films released this year. The technical quality is remarkably precise and first-rate. It felt like watching "Se7en" (David Fincher, 1995), or "CSI" with more smarts and less technology. The relevant messages delivered against its targets are still pertinent and on-point to this day, as if twenty years did not pass. This story could be set today and it won't feel anachronistic at all. 9/10. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of SLUMBER: Hypnagogic Hallucinations

December 8, 2017

July last year, there was "Before I Wake" (MY REVIEW), a horror film about children and dreams. July this year, there was "Dead Awake" (MY REVIEW), a horror movie about sleep paralysis. Now, there's "Slumber" which turned out to be another horror movie about children, dreams and sleep paralysis. Frankly, I was not too optimistic about it from the get-go, but I just had to see how director and co-writer Jonathan Hopkins will give his own spin to this recently used plot device.

Dr. Alice Arnold is a sleep specialist who specialized in patients dealing with parasomnias like sleepwalking, sleep terrors and sleep paralysis. One day, all four members of Morgan family, went to see her for help because of their terrifying nightmares. Father Charlie's dream was about a dead baby, mother Sarah's about her teeth, and daughter Emily's about garden shears. Son Daniel had it the worst as he felt someone sitting on his chest so he cannot move nor breathe.

Maggie Q was the only actress I knew in the cast. She was an interesting choice to play Dr. Arnold. Her being Asian was totally a non-issue, which was good. She looked very professional and believable as a medical specialist. More importantly, I felt the passion of her character for her work, as well as her compassion for her patients. It was just bad though that she was made to refer to Wikipedia (gasp!) for information she should already know as a sleep specialist.

It was just unrealistic how they do their sleep studies where the doctor herself (not technicians) was the one doing the overnight vigil observations, and is still expected to hold her clinics the next day. Of course, odd things only began to happen to her patients right there on her monitor just when she irresponsibly went out for coffee without any reliever. 

Alice's supportive husband Tom was played by Will Kemp, while her artistic daughter Niam (who also suffered from nightmares, but was not integral to the plot) was played by Sophia Wiseman. Her colleague at work Dr. Malcolm was played by William Hope. Clinic janitor Dave was played by Neil Linpow, while his eccentric, sleep-deprived grandfather Amado was played by Sylvester McCoy. Alice's little brother Liam was played by child actor William Rhead. His falling out of a window to his death was Alice's own nightmare.

The tormented Morgan family was played by Kristen Bush (as Sarah), Sam Troughton (as Charlie), Honor Kneafsey (as Emily) and Lucas Bond (as Daniel). I have a personal aversion to dreams about falling teeth so Sarah's nightmares were the worst, the scariest and the most disgusting for me. The little child actors really figured in some intensely scary scenes here, which might give them nightmares in real life. 

It was unfortunate that the final confrontation with the Nocnitsa was so corny and anticlimactic, wasting all the suspenseful buildup to that moment. It was not a long movie, which was a relief, but I was sort of expecting a better payoff for staying to the end. The twist was hinted at earlier, but never really made clear. I was waiting for a little explanation about how a Nocnitsa victim can be saved with some sort of a curse transfer, but that never came.  5/10. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review of ANG LARAWAN: Indelibly Inspiring

December 7, 2017

When one is asked about National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, invariably the first play of his that comes to mind is "A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino." This was a play in English, written by Joaquin in 1950, and first staged in 1955. 

Since then, it had been staged several more times, both in the original English, as well as Filipino translations (by Krip Yuson and Franklin Osorio in 1969, and Bienvenido Lumbera in 1989). The roles of Candida and Paula belonged to Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers, both on stage and the 1965 film version (directed by Lamberto Avellana).

Knowing the musical nature of Filipinos, it seemed inevitable that a musical Filipino version of this classic play would be staged one day. It came to pass in 1997, with translation and lyrics by Rolando Tinio, and music by Ryan Cayabyab. Celeste Legaspi was Candida and Zsa Zsa Padilla was Paula back then. This year, this musical version of "Larawan" also gets a film version directed by Loy Arcenas. 

One of the most anticipated films this year, "Ang Larawan" had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October 2017. It will have its regular commercial run this Christmas as an entry in the Metro Manila Filmfest. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a special screening this morning. Despite a hectic schedule today, this was definitely something I simply could not pass up.

I had already seen a staging of "Portrait" in English by Repertory Philippines in 2009 (MY REVIEW) so I was already familiar with the story. It was Manila pre-World War II. The unmarried Marasigan sisters Candida and Paula lived in poverty in their ancestral home with their reclusive artist father Lorenzo. Their richer elder siblings insist they sell the house and go live and work for them instead. Their father's one masterpiece painting (about an artist and his conscience) could fetch them a hefty sum of money for freedom, but the two sisters struggle to resist the temptations swirling around them to give up their father's legacy.

Being a musical, it was exciting to see Jo Ampil and Rachel Alejandro attack the roles of Candida and Paula. These two are proven talents on the stage, both as singers and actresses, and their screen performances were no less magnetic and soaring. Cayabyab's high diva notes were no problem for them to deliver, while keeping fully in character. Ampil was stern and pragmatic as Candida. Alejandro was the younger, more vulnerable Paula. 

Alejandro had already played Paula 20 years ago in a second run of the stage musical. This year, she plays Paula at the right age and maturity. In fact a number of members of the original stage musical cast also play roles in this film. Celeste Legaspi played the vivacious senator's wife Dona Loleng, while Zsa Zsa Padilla played Conga Queen Elsa Montes. Even Ricky Davao (who played Tony before) got a cameo as a drunkard on the street.

Paulo Avelino played the charming vaudeville pianist Tony Javier who boarded in a room in the Marasigan house. His macho swaggering presence in their house stirred up feelings long-repressed in the spinster sisters, something their gossip-mongering neighbors eagerly pounced on. The camera loved the photogenic Avelino from all angles. He looked very good, even in scenes where he was disheveled or injured. He was irresistible temptation personified in that steamy seduction scene with Paula.   

Sandino Martin was Bitoy Camacho, a young journalist and family friend of the Marasigans, who was telling the story. Martin was also in the other stage musical film this year, "Changing Partners." The selfish haughty Manolo and Pepang were played by the ever-reliable Nonie Buencamino (he surprisingly hit such a high note at one point) and local stage royalty Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (in an unprecedented Filipino speaking role). 

Robert Arevalo played Don Perico, a poet who turned his back on his art for politics and a more stable living as a Senator. It was he who delivered Joaquin's main statements about Artistry. Cris Villonco and Aicelle Santos played Tony's trampy co-workers Susan and Violet at the nightclub, singing their songs with shrill catty glee. Dulce, Bernardo Bernardo, Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad and Jaime Fabregas played the house guests who visited the Marasigan house to watch the grand procession of the Virgin of La Naval. Watch out for a surprise humorous cameo by Ogie Alcasid. 

The technical aspects of this film -- lush cinematography (with those tight closeups) by Boy Yniguez, meticulous period production design by Gino Gonzales, and of course, the rousing musical score by Ryan Cayabyab -- definitely stand out and deserve award recognition. The story tells a lesson about cherishing the idylls and ideals of our past, even if it means fighting against the whole world. We should protect our culture and traditions as they are threatened by time and "progress." These serve to armor our identity as a person, and as a people. The love and fervor of cast and crew for this project radiate with every beautiful scene. 9/10. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of WONDER: Tugging at our Tears

December 6, 2017

August "Auggie" Pullman was born with a rare facial deformity and had been subjected to a series of surgeries to make him look better. He grew up sheltered and home-schooled by his family for his protection. When he reached middle school, his mother Isabel decided that Auggie should go to Beecher Prep, a regular private school. Auggie eventually made friends but with much difficulty after being treated like a freak and being bullied.

Young Jacob Tremblay already impressed me as an actor when he starred alongside Brie Larson in the movie "Room" (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015) (MY REVIEW). While Larson was winning almost all the Best Actress awards that season, including the Oscar, I thought that Tremblay, then only 7 years old when he did the film, should have been cited as well as Best Actor. He did get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor from the Screen Actors Guild. 

As Jack Newsome in "Room," Tremblay had to sport very long thick hair, for which a lot of people initially thought he was a girl. As Auggie with his rare congenital syndrome, Tremblay worked under a layer of prosthetics on his face (which reportedly took an hour and a half to put on each shooting day). Nevertheless, he was able to tug on our heartstrings with a very warm and brave performance of another difficult role. He had this richly emotive voice which you would like to take into your embrace as he told his story. 

Auggie was a lucky boy because he had a very supportive family behind him. His parents were played by two of Hollywood's most winsome actors Julia Roberts (as mom Isabel) and Owen Wilson (as dad Nate). Izabela Vidovic played his sister Via and Danielle Rose Russell played Via's close friend Miranda, both of whom had pretty evocative side stories to tell on their own. We also get treated to a welcome cameo of Ms. Sonia Braga playing the role of their grandmother.  The cute family dog Daisy (played by Gidget) also got significant screen time as the film pulled out all the sentimental stops. 

Child actor Noah Jupe only made his feature film debut this year 2017, but his role in "Wonder" as Auggie's best friend Jack Wills is already his third. I wish they cleared that part about Jack's moment of disloyalty. The motivation of those words he said was never addressed even though he had the opportunity to tell his story. While it may simply be dismissed by saying that these are only kids, but these kids were already introduced to us as sensitive and sensible. Such an unfortunate incident should have been given some sort of better explanation. 

I thought his bullying by the film's main antagonist Julian went on too long that the character became too one-dimensional, which was a pity because the child actor playing him, Bryce Gheisar, looked like he had more sides in him than what was shown. When we meet Julian's parents (Crystal Lowe and Steve Bacic) in that scene at the principal Mr. Tushman's (played by the ever cool Mandy Patinkin) office, this angle of this story went into needless overkill for me. 

You probably think that you've have seen a movie like this before. However, "Wonder" was not just about how a bullied boy got through middle school, told in the first person by Auggie himself. The film also took time to tell the stories of other kids from their own point of view. This gave us another perspective about how the world does not only revolve around special kids like Auggie, but other kids around him need time and understanding as well. 

This was a truly heartwarming film written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who previously gave us "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (2012) (MY REVIEW). This is guaranteed to get your eyes misty, if not outright teary.  8/10

Friday, December 1, 2017

Review of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017): Sharp Shrewd Sleuthing

November 29, 2017

There had already been an excellent film adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel "Murder on the Orient Express" back in 1974, directed by Sidney Pollack. It was nominated for several Oscar awards including Best Actor (Albert Finney), Best Supporting Actress (Ingrid Bergman, who won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design. Its all-star cast included Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, and Wendy Hiller.

Famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot was a last-minute passenger on the Orient Express a luxury train running from Istanbul to Paris. One night, an avalanche causes the train to derail. That morning, it was discovered that one of the passengers in his train car was murdered with 12 stab wounds. 

Poirot investigates the case by interviewing each of the colorful characters in that same car, which included a chatty widow, a mousy missionary, a hot-headed Hungarian diplomat and his beautiful wife, an elderly Russian princess and her maid, a doctor in an interracial romance with a governess, among others. 

Because I had already watched the 1974 original, I already knew the solution to the case (a most memorable one). So honestly, I was watching only to see how director Kenneth Branagh was going to spin this tale and the lead character Hercule Poirot and make these his own. The rest of the time was spent trying to figure out which characters were which from the original film, as some changes were made.

Kenneth Branagh played Poirot with utmost gravity and pompousness. Even from the trailer, you cannot miss the new take on the iconic Poirot mustache, so unrealistically atrocious it looked like a joke. There was his irascible obsession for perfection, balance and details, but this time magnified into practically a God-complex. There was a mention of a missed love which went nowhere, until perhaps for a future sequel maybe? 

Michelle Pfieffer was a scene-stealer as the flirty, husband-baiting Caroline Hubbard. This role was played by Lauren Bacall in the original. Penelope Cruz was very quiet and plain as the missionary Pilar Estravados. She was not made to do as much with this role that won Ingrid Bergman her Oscar in 1974. Judi Dench played Princess Dragonmiroff much more low-key than how Wendy Hiller memorably played this character before. 

"Hamilton" stage actor Leslie Odom Jr. and "Star Wars" new star Daisy Ridley took over roles John Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham previously held by Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave. Arbuthnot became a doctor here to streamline the cast (there was a separate doctor character in the original), which was not a bad decision. Because of Odom's casting, the obvious issue of race entered the story where it was not before. 

Johnny Depp looked so gaunt and disagreeable as his gangster character Samuel Ratchett should, but his portrayal was so awkward and felt miscast. To be honest, Richard Widmark in the original also felt miscast because he also did not look Italian as the character should. Josh Gad also could not flex much comic muscle that I could feel his frustration for not being able to do much with his role of Ratchett's secretary McQueen.  

The cinematography is lush and luxurious. The feeling of claustrophobia was enhanced by those unusual overhead shots as we look into the action as if peeking through a hole in the ceiling. The costumes and the musical score though were not as remarkable as the original. In terms of storytelling, I thought the arrival at the solution was clearer and more logical in the original than in this remake, where Poriot made some fantastic jumps of insight.

The climactic scene of Poirot's grand revelation of his solution to the case was taken outside the train in a more dramatic (though more improbable) tableau of the whole cast seated side-by-side on one side of a long table. In the original, the cast was seated in the dining car of the train while Poirot spoke. The recreation of the murder itself was executed in a remarkably frantic manner which was a fine energetic departure from the blue-lit, rather melodramatic way it was done in the original.

At the end of this movie, there was a not-so-discreet hint that there is a planned next case for Poirot, a murder on a boat on the Nile River. Obviously this refers to the Christie book "Death on the Nile" which also already had a well-known film version in 1978 by director John Guillermin, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury and Mia Farrow in its all-star cast. 

I really do not get it why Hollywood insists on remaking already classic films. While I am all for reviving public interest in Agatha Christie's works, I am sure there are lesser known books or film versions they can revive, not those already too well-known for a remake to be necessary in the first place. Anyhow, this film would still be good for those who have not seen the 1974 original yet, but I would still advise them to check out that first one. 

1974 version: 8/10. 2017 version: 6/10. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review of THE SNOWMAN: Sedated Suspense

November 24, 2017

It is always exciting to catch a well-plotted crime suspense thriller. "The Snowman" was based on a novel by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, the seventh book in his series about detective Harry Hole. I have just visited Norway earlier this year and saw how picturesque and inhospitable the snow there could be. I remember our guide saying with pride that crime is almost non-existent in Norway, so this should be interesting to watch. 

Jaded senior detective Harry Hole and his eager new partner Katrine Bratt are investigating a series of puzzling murders of married women that coincidentally happened during a snowfall. Aside from his grisly calling card of a snowman with the victim's head on it, the perpetrator of these crimes purposely taunted Hole on a personal level, which made him all the more obsessed to get to the bottom of these crimes. 

Michael Fassbender does very well in these films where he is required to be moody and brooding. His character Harry Hole is a drunk and a drug addict, a loser of sorts in the personal front, thus making him even more melancholic. The sedate way this film was executed, his Harry Hole never really had a distinct Hercule Poirot Eureka moment when he finally figures out who the murderer was, so we do not really see any fire in his performance.

There were so many supporting characters whom we do not get to know too well. Rebecca Ferguson was a pretty and spunky Katrine, who seemed to have ulterior issues. Charlotte Gainsbourg was his odd clingy ex-wife Rakel. Jonas Karlsson played her more respectable new husband, plastic surgeon Dr. Matthias.  Val Kilmer had a bizarre appearance as a detective named Rafto who worked on the previous murders. 

There was a side story about a perverted philanthropist Arve Stop (played by J.K. Simmons) and his very suspicious association with a certain Dr. Idar Vetlesen (played by David Dencik) who worked in a clinic who did abortions.. A heftier-looking Chloe Sevigny played Sylvia (the woman in the hen house) and her twin Ane. I don't really get why they had to be twins. These are just some details that confused the story instead of pushing it forward. 

Director Tomas Alfredson previously gave us winners like "Let the Right One In" (2008) (MY REVIEW) and the remake of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2011) (MY REVIEW). "The Snowman" no doubt had beautiful photography of the dramatic Norwegian winter landscape. However, Alfredson told his story too coldly and sedately to create any excitement nor suspense. There were certain scenes which seemed to lead nowhere. The eventual solution of the crime was not feel like it was arrived at convincingly through excellence in detective work. Ultimately, this supposed thriller did not really thrill. 6/10. 

Review of COCO: Ancestral Approval

November 25, 2017

When I first saw the trailer of this new Pixar movie "Coco", I was turned off by the several similar elements to another animated film, "The Book of Life" (Jorge R. Gutierrez, 2014) (MY REVIEW). However despite my initial reluctance, the initial reviews that came out for "Coco" were overwhelmingly positive, so of course, we could not possibly give it a miss.

12 year old Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) dreamed of becoming a musician like his idol, the late pop icon and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, with Antonio Sol as his singing voice). However, his family vehemently opposed Miguel's musical aspirations. This was because they carried a cross-generational grudge against his great-great-great grandfather, a musician who had abandoned his wife Imelda (Allana Ubach) and infant daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) in order to pursue stardom. 

On one Day of the Dead, Miguel discovered evidence that seemed to indicate that he was actually the great-great-great grandson of Ernesto de la Cruz himself. Magical events transport Miguel over into the land of the dead. A desperate dead guy named Hector (Gael García Bernal) offered to help Miguel locate Ernesto de la Cruz. In exchange, Miguel promised to bring Hector's picture back to the land of the living so that he would not be forgotten by his daughter. 

First and foremost, similarities with "The Book of Life" were really there. Both films were set on the Mexican Day of the Dead and involved a trip of the hero to a busy city of the afterlife. Both films were about a boy whose dream of becoming a musician (specifically, a guitarist) was being opposed to by his family. Because of these common themes, you can note several common references to colorful vibrant Mexican customs about death and the family. 

Of course, the main story of "Coco" did go into a totally different direction. While "Book" had a love triangle of Manolo, Joaquin and Maria as a backbone, "Coco" was basically about the coming of age of one boy Miguel while dealing different generations within the same family, both living and dead. There is that very common Disney theme of going for your dream, even if it meant going against the wishes of your elders. 

As told by director Lee Unkrich from a story he himself developed, "Coco" had the trademark charming, funny, sentimental Pixar style, going for the tear ducts of the audience. It beautifully dealt with old age, death and afterlife as normal parts of life, with top-of-the-line animation effects we expect from Pixar and catchy songs we can sing along with.  Expecting this to take the lead in the race for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. 8/10. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of BRAWL ON CELL BLOCK 99: Viciously Violent Vaughn

November 23, 2017

The few times I have seen a Vince Vaughn movie, they had been wacky comedies, like "Dodgeball" (2004), "Wedding Crashers" (2005) or, more recently "The Internship" (2013). Since the debut of his latest film at the Venice International Film Festival last August, Vaughn had been gaining buzz about his unconventional character performance in it, with critics calling it the best performance of his whole career.

When what was supposed to be a routine drug pick-up went wrong, Bradley Thomas was arrested and thrown into a medium-security prison. A "Placid Man," representing the mastermind of the botched drug job, visited him on his second day to tell Bradley that harm will come to his pregnant wife Lauren and his unborn child if he does not obey their order to kill a certain prisoner who was currently locked up inside Cell Block 99 at the high-security prison Redleaf. Bradley had to come up with very violent acts of aggression, in order to get him into that cell block reserved only for the most psychotically-dangerous criminals.

With a huge tattoo of a cross on his clean shaven scalp, this is definitely a very different Vince Vaughn we see here. This 6-foot 5-inch actor, who was usually portrayed as a gentle giant, had been totally transformed here into a fearless, ruthless killing juggernaut. I can see why critics have been noting his portrayal of a role so way outside his usual comfort zone. His quiet moments could also make your skin crawl knowing how destructively crazy violent he could get. That car he took apart with his bare hands in the beginning was just a prelude to how he violent he could get.

It was good to see Don Johnson in a badass role as the tough Warden Tuggs of Redleaf. He has certainly aged a lot since his "Miami Vice" days (he is now 67 years old), but I could still recognize him behind that thick mustache he had on. Scrawny and scowling Jennifer Carpenter was such an unfortunate and unphotogenic choice as Bradley's wife Lauren. German actor Udo Kier, a familiar antagonist in several films, lived up to his character's nickname, Placid Man -- acting so cool on the outside but oh so evil to the core.

The ultra-violence of those fight scenes in this film by S. Craig Zahler (only his second feature film). The sound effects editing and mixing of those heavy punches, breaking bones, skull crushing was bad enough, but actually seeing them happening on that big screen is literally mind-blowing. That disturbing image of that scene where a man's face is dragged along concrete before being smashed in by one massive stomp is not something I want to see ever again. That shocking final scene will stick with you long after leaving the theater. Not my cup of tea for sure, but this film does well for its niche and genre. 6/10.