Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of ANG HAPIS AT HIMAGSIK NI HERMANO PULI: Informative But Inert

September 27, 2016

The name Hermano Puli is familiar to me as a historical figure as a revolutionary against Spanish rule. However, honestly, he was a mere trivial footnote for me. I do not exactly recall who he was, or what he did. I look forward to seeing films like this to learn more about these less prominent personalities in history. 

In addition, this film was chosen as the closing film of the recently concluded Cinemalaya film festival. It was also chosen as one of the candidates for the coveted Philippine representative to be sent for Oscar consideration. These factors amped up my curiosity to see this film during its commercial run this week. 

Apolinario de la Cruz, a.k.a. Hermano Puli, was only 18 years old when he founded the Confradia de San Jose in their hometown of Lukban in the province of Tayabas in 1832. It was an organization of Filipino Catholics who regularly met and listened to Hermano Puli as he preached about Bible-based values. By 1841, with this group's growing popularity among its all-Filipino membership, Spanish authorities suspected sedition and insurgency, and banned it. When Hermano Puli and comrades fought back, the Spaniards resorted to violence to totally dismantle it.

The intentions of the production may have been noble, but the final product turned out weak. I thought the main weakness of the film lay on the uninspiring lead performance turned in by Aljur Abrenica as Hermano Puli. He tried very hard to look and act "good" such that it turned out really unconvincing and hammy. Abrenica's Hermano Puli felt like a patronizing charlatan with his put-on air of holiness, which was unfortunate. In big scenes when the Hermano was rallying his people into action at Isabang on Mt. Banahaw, or even in that simple scene when Puli cried when he was told about his younger brother's death, Abrenica failed to connect with any sincerity.

There were scenes that show Hermano Puli in a bad light. When he was in Manila, he requested for Lina (Louise de los Reyes), a barrio lass who obviously has a crush on him, to go to Manila and do his laundry. He rebuked his cuidado (or caretaker) Octavio San Jorge (Enzo Pineda) with harsh words in a letter from Manila after the former was arrested and whipped. When they captured a local Spanish alcalde mayor, the Hermano allowed his lieutenant Apolonio Juan de la Cruz (Vin Abrenica) to violently dispose of the official as the latter wished. The scene where the Hermano was distributing amulets may have been based on fact, but the way it was shown onscreen was too sudden and unreasonable. His turn to superstition went unexplained.

In addition, there was the portrayal of all the Spanish officials and friars as comical caricatures of pure colonial evil. Markki Stroem played Col. Joaquin Juet as a livid raving madman, demonic eyes, demonic laughter and all. Kiko Matos played alcalde mayor Joaquin Ortega as a lisping and inept fool, as did the actor who played the effeminate gobernadorcillo. The very fake-looking tonsure hairstyle of the friars looked hilarious. I am not sure if the humor in these scenes were intentional on the director's part to liven things up, but for me they felt uncomfortably out of place in a film like this.

It was interesting to learn about these lesser known events in Philippine history, telling in more detail about what could be dismissed in a history textbook in a single sentence. However despite being concise, this film by Gil Portes (who once won Best Director for "Andrea" back in the 1990 MMFF) felt slow and flat. It is not the religious subject that made it tedious, as "Felix Manalo" (with a charismatic Dennis Trillo in the lead) was able to be engaging despite its length. The way this film projected Hermano Puli did not even feel favorable to his memory. Aside from a few memorable lines, it did not inspire above and beyond telling the basic historical information. 4/10.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016): Magnetic Machismo

September 26, 2016

The original Magnificent Seven was an noted 1960 American Western film directed by John Sturges. It was adapted from an acclaimed "Seven Samurai" (1954) by Akira Kurosawa. Transposed to the wild wild American West, from the plot about a ragtag group of seven gunfighters hired by villagers to protect them from bandits down to the number of men who survive at the end of the final battle was basically similar to the Japanese classic. This story device of recruiting various members for a group mission is very familiar in film and television, from "The A-Team" to the "Justice League".

Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen were already stars upon the release of this film, but the other members of the seven, notably Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn, also achieve stardom afterwards. The most memorable aspect of this film, even for those who have not seen it, is the very recognizable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, which had been used to great effect in old Marlboro cigarette commercials since 1963, as well as other films. This score lost the Oscar to "Exodus" that year, but it remains to be iconic to the present time.

It was the 1870s, and Rose Creek was a town in crisis. A ruthless businessman named Bartholomew Bogue wants to buy out everyone in order to gain control of the goldmines in the mountains around the town. The widow of one of Bogue's victims, Emma Cullen, sought to solicit the uncommon killing talent of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm to help them get Bogue out of their town. 

African-American Chisolm gathered himself a group of mercenaries of varied fighting skills to help him with the big and dangerous task at hand. They were: an alcoholic gambler Josh Faraday, a rifle sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, an Asian virtuoso with knives Billy Rocks, a bear-like tracker Jack Horne, a Mexican outlaw Vasquez, and a Comanche archer Red Harvest. Together they go to Rose Creek and prepare the town for battle.

Of course, the gunfights were all still there, but the scale multiplied several times over in terms of human casualty, as well as the variety of the guns and the multiple explosions, thanks to advances in effects technology and a bigger budget. There were several memorable lines from the first film that also made their way into this remake. The part where the group leader said he had been offered a lot of things, "but never everything", and that story about a guy falling down a tall building shouting "so far, so good" immediately come to mind. The humorous scenes about the villagers training for battle were also reprised.

There were some significant differences between the 1960 and 2016 version. In this age of political correctness, the poor and inept Mexican villagers of the first film were now replaced by regular white farmers. The multi-racial composition of the Seven had already been mentioned, however unlikely that such a group could ever band together back then. There was no equivalent of the Horst Buchholz character Chico from the first film, an impetuous and hotheaded young cowboy who will get romantically involved with a village lass. There was also no equivalent of Charles Bronson's character Bernardo who got to have dramatic interactions with the children of the village. 

Denzel Washington was the main star of the film as the deadly serious Sam Chisolm, and he remains a magnetic screen presence as ever. However, several times, Chris Pratt stole the scenes from under Washington with his funny one-liners and energetic action scenes as Josh Faraday. Pratt's final scene was a pure Hollywood concoction. Vincent D'Onofrio was delightful as the good-natured brute Jack Horne. Byung Hun-lee was bad-ass as the dour but lightning-fast knife-wielding Billy Rocks. 

Some of the Seven though were rather underused. Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux was not in too many scenes for a star of his stature, but he made the most of them with his dramatic skills. Alaskan native actor Martin Sensmeier was physically impressive as Red Harvest especially with his bow and arrows, but you wish he had more to do. Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo was rather nondescript as Vasquez and you won't really remember any remarkable scene he did. 

As the bad guy, Peter Sargaard chews up the screen with his smoldering cruelty as Bartholomew Bogue. That said, Eli Wallach's character Calvera in the original film still remains to be scarier as a villain. Incidentally, you may note Matt Bomer's name in the credits, but his character Matthew Cullen can only be seen in the pre-opening credit sequence. If you came in during the credits, you would have missed him completely.

As the only female in a major role in this film, Haley Bennett will definitely catch your attention as Emma Cullen. She was portrayed as a very strong character with initiative and gumption. Thankfully, in contrast with usual Hollywood tradition, there was no unnecessary love angle that developed between her and any of the Seven. Bennett's star is on the rise this 2016 with many other upcoming major movie projects aside from this one, including "The Girl on the Train" with Emily Blunt, "Rules Don't Apply" with Warren Beatty, "Thank You for Your Service" with Miles Teller, and Terrence Malick's "Weightless" with Christian Bale.

This millennial version of "The Magnificent Seven" was well-made Western entertainment, updating a classic film for the current generation. Like "3:10 to Yuma" (2007) and "True Grit" (2010) before it, it seems the only Westerns with a good chance to get good box office lately are remakes. The new musical score (the last for which James Horner is credited as a composer) is obviously inspired by the original, but cannot match it. Hearing the original theme music played over the closing credits was nostalgic and invigorating. Director Antoine Fuqua (reuniting with his "Training Day" actors Washington and Hawke here) injects this modern version with a generous amount of excitement, humor and yes, gleeful unbridled violence. 7/10.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review of BLAIR WITCH: Chilling Cacophony

September 21, 2016

"The Blair Witch Project" (1999) was supposedly the raw film stock shot by students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard who disappeared while shooting a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch in the wilderness of the Black Hills in Maryland in October of 1994. That indie phenomenon by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez was considered a landmark of sorts in the history of film because it started the "found footage" horror genre. 

For me though, watching BWP was one of the worst movie viewing experiences I have ever had. It had such an assaultive level of shakiness in its raw handheld camera work that it was giving me such a bad attack of vertigo right there in the movie house. I could barely look at the screen at all while struggling to keep my stomach contents down. Even then, I still forced myself to stay on to see what happens at the end, only to get that famously unsatisfying abrupt final scene. 

In this direct sequel, we meet James Donahue (James Allen McCune), Heather's younger brother, who stumbled upon a YouTube video about the Blair Witch where he imagined he saw an image of his long-lost sister. Hoping she is still alive, James organized a trip to the forest outside Burkittsville, Maryland, along with his close pal Peter Jones (Brandon Scott), Peter's girlfriend Ashley Bennett (Corbin Reid), and film student Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) to document their adventure. 

James contacted local yokel Lane (Wes Robinson), the guy who uploaded the video online, who decided to tag along on their trip with his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry). From the very first night, their daring mission turned out to be a foolhardy one as they experienced first hand the very horrors those woods were notorious for, as one by one James and his posse fell victims to the deadly Blair Witch curse.

The unknown actors did well portraying these stock characters we can't really care much about (except maybe slightly for James and Lisa). There was some humor to be gleaned in their exaggerated hammy acting as we see them helplessly hurtle to their ghastly fates. Some of the situations they were put into by the director were so crazy they can be entertaining in a macabre way. 

This sequel is essentially a reboot of the original BWP. The script by Simon Barrett was basically a reworked story line still very much similar to the first film, but expanded to accommodate more scenes of horror and mayhem. I actually liked the "Bermuda Triangle" effect where all sense of time and place and technology were lost. 

 As executed by director Adam Wingard, the horror style was also very reminiscent of the first film with its very shaky camera work, crazy closeups and that cacophonous mix of eerie sound effects to create an atmosphere of fear without seeing an actual ghost or monster. Seeing those trademark "wooden stick figures" hanging around the trees was still as creepy as it was back then. The editing work in the abandoned house was harrowing with some nifty work with shadows. Some gross-out scenes were added in the mix this time, as well as some exasperatingly annoying jump scares. 

For what it is worth, this film should probably be nominated in the Oscar category of Sound Effects Mixing as they must have used every horror film sound effect from wind howling to rain pouring, to animals screeching, to girls screaming, panting and moaning, to bones crunching to body parts being ripped off. The soundtrack worked chilling wonders for me as I still could not look directly at the screen for the most parts because of the extreme shaky cam. At the risk of sounding shallow or irreverent, I actually liked this one better than the first BWP. 7/10.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review of IMPERIUM: Navigating Neo-Nazism

September 18, 2016

After graduating as Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe really gets himself into the strangest and seriously oddball film characters. His first post-HP film was a gothic horror, "The Woman in Black" (2012). After that, he played lead roles in films like "Kill Your Darlings" (2013) to "Horns" (2014) to "Victor Frankenstein" (2015), none of which really hit it big in the box office.  He played supporting roles in bigger hits like "Trainwreck" (2015) and "Now You See Me 2" (2016). Radcliffe returns to the lead in this new one.

When an illegal cache of Cesium goes missing, the FBI was alerted to watch out for terrorist groups who may use the radioactive material to make dirty bombs. Senior agent Angela Zamparo chooses a young idealistic agent Nate Foster to go undercover and infiltrate some local white-supremacist groups who could be planning something explosive for their cause. As the neo-Nazis accept Nate into their subculture, his immersion takes him deep into their lifestyle and philosophy.

Daniel Radcliffe played Nate first as a shy, classical music-loving loner who later had to turn into an intense skinhead racist, channeling Ed Norton, Jr. from "American History X". For the most part, he was quite convincing in his portrayal of both aspects of his character, acting-wise. I liked how he was trying to balance his principles while being undercover in a hateful organization. However physically, it was never realistic that short and scrawny Nate actually spent three years as a Marine in Iraq as he supposedly did. There were times though when his face appeared too suspiciously nervous not to be noticed.

Toni Collette was cool and snappy as Agent Zamparo, Nate's mentor in the undercover business. Seth Numrich was hateful as a young hothead thug Roy.Tracy Letts was so slimy as Dallas Wolf, a man who incites racial hatred via his internet talk show. Chris Sullivan was an imposing presence as the burly and bearded Andrew Blackwell, National Director of the Aryan Alliance. Sam Tramell played Gerry Conway, a genteel family man and engineer with whom Nate developed a deeper friendship, representing the other extreme of the spectrum. 

What was very interesting about this film was its very extensive, documentary-like exposition by writer-director Daniel Ragussis about the range of White Supremacist movement in the United States -- from the neighborhood bullies to the religious fanatics to the organized terrorists. The plot sort of got derailed in the messy final act, but the first hour was very engrossing and fascinating. It shows that terrorism does not always have to come from outside a country's own boundaries. Evil from within the homeland exist, and this film delivers that sobering and disturbing truth with strong impact. 7/10.

Saturday, September 17, 2016


September 16, 2016

There had been so many raunchy comedies about weddings, from "The Wedding Crashers" to "Hangover" to "Bridesmaids" to "The Wedding Ringer". As if this genre had not yet been done to death, here comes another one that makes fun of the sacrament of Matrimony and the madcap circus that usually goes on before and on that fateful date. 

Mike and Dave Stangle are two childish brothers from a well-to-do who rile up all the family parties they attend with their foolish antics. Since their youngest sister Jeanie's wedding day is coming up very soon, their parents order the boys to find themselves respectable good girls to bring as their wedding dates. Since the wedding is to be held in Hawaii, their Internet post about their search for dates immediately goes viral. 

Meanwhile, cheap-dressing and drunkard best friends Tatiana and Alice see the boys interviewed on television and see that this is their big chance to get a Hawaiian vacation for free. They come up with an elaborate plan of deception to snag the boys' attention and succeed to be chosen. However, when they reach Hawaii, it seems these uncouth girls may actually mean more trouble for the wedding than the boys.

So once again, we have annoying drunk or Ecstasy-popping characters going to a wedding, so we brace for the big disaster to come. As expected, this film is a haphazard mishmash of all the raunchy wedding comedies that came before it. Unfortunately, despite having its share of squirmy and uncomfortable moments, this was less funny than the others with many of its jokes falling flat. 

As Dave, Zac Efron could never seem to get away from the juvenile fratboy persona he had been portraying in such films as "That Awkward Moment", "Neighbors" and just recently "Dirty Grandpa". His upcoming film next year is a comedy version of the TV series "Baywatch" which does not sound too promising as well. He needs to start moving forward in his acting career as his face and body may not be enough to keep his popularity afloat.

Adam DeVine is a puzzling comedian. He seems pleasant enough by face, and is really an energetic dynamo on screen. However, he keeps portraying these irresponsible annoying characters, like he did on "Pitch Perfect" and its sequel, and then again here as Mike. I hope he gets the chance to portray other roles in future projects. I actually liked the idea of DeVine and Efron as brothers but their interaction onscreen could have been better executed, as some looked more awkward than funny. 

Despite her Oscar-nominated turn in "Up in the Air," I feel Anna Kendrick has an uncomfortable screen presence in most of her films, including "The Twilight Saga" or "Pitch Perfect". But here as Alice, she felt totally miscast from the get-go with her stringy wig and skanky clothes totally clashing with her seemingly aloof personality. She and Efron do share a moment of romantic magic spark, but all too brief.

Since I do not watch "Parks and Recreation" on TV, I had only seen Aubrey Plaza once before and that was in another raunchy comedy "Bad Grandpa" (the same one with Efron) basically playing the same loose party girl character like Tatiana was in this one. I'd say Plaza's type of comedy is an acquired taste, relying on her pouty badass-girl look to deliver zingers in a cool deadpan manner.

The two most audacious sight gags (that most likely earned this movie an R-18 rating from the local MTRCB) do not even involve these four main characters. A squeaky-voiced actress with the unwieldy name Sugar Lyn Beard plays the role of Jeanie the bride. Her "happy" massage session and her surprising reveal of body hair were bold to say the least! An actress named Alice Wetterland also makes a daring appearance as Mike's nemesis, their lesbian Cousin Terry, who also has a crush on Tatiana.

For those in the mood for a crazy time and game for a little raunchy fun, this film may actually be right up your alley. The goofy goodwill of the two male leads do succeed to hold it up for the most part. The girls are too schizophrenic with their sudden mood and personality swings to be likable. This film has a trailer that practically gives away the whole story, so try not to watch it. Or if you want to save yourself from watching this one in full, maybe the trailer is enough to see the best bits. 5/10.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reveiw of PETE'S DRAGON: Orthodox and Old-Fashioned

September 11, 2016

The original Disney production of "Pete's Dragon" came out in 1977. That film was a musical done with live actors and an animated hand-drawn dragon, in the same style done in "Mary Poppins". It was about a cute, green, pot-bellied dragon named Elliot who rescued an orphan boy named Pete from a cruel hillbilly family intent on enslaving him. Because of the dark story and unmemorable songs, it did not perform too well in the box-office then. It was later hardly heard of ever again unlike most other Disney films. 

This year Disney gives us another film entitled "Pete's Dragon". This film is not exactly a remake. It is not a musical anymore. It was also a combination of live action with animation, but this time, the dragon would be done completely via computer-generated imagery. The only things similar with this new film and the older film are the names of the two main characters, Pete and Elliot. The story though is entirely different.

There was also an orphan named Pete who lived in the deepest part of an American forest wilderness since he was five years old brought up by his gigantic, green, furry friend, a dragon named Elliot. One day when Pete was a wild mountain boy of about 11, Pete was seen by a little girl named Natalie and her forest ranger aunt Grace, who wanted to help the poor little boy. Unfortunately, Elliot inadvertently had a run-in with Natalie's ill-tempered uncle Gavin who wanted to capture the dragon. Will Pete and Elliot ever reunite again?

The portrayal of Pete by child actor Oakes Fegley was quite appealing and endearing. When he was first "rescued" and brought into town, I got reminded of last year's harrowing film "Room," who also had a young long-haired boy experiencing "civilization" for the first time. Bryce Dallas Howard played forest ranger Grace Meacham with much compassion and kindness. Karl Urban was utterly despicable as the unscrupulous and greedy Uncle Gavin. I did not expect to see a leathery Robert Redford in this, but he felt very real as a sincere and loving grandfather. The doll-like Levi Alexander was adorable as 5-year old Pete, especially during his first encounter with Elliot.

Elliot was envisioned and rendered like a giant dog, like a green-furred Scooby Doo. He sounds like a dog with his grunts and whimpers. He even acts like a dog with that "chasing the tail" scene among others. However, I guess this Elliot was designed with young kids in mind. I bet we all wished we had own own soft and fluffy pet Elliot to cuddle into at night. I liked the scenes showing how this Elliot can camouflage and disappear into its background.

From the very beginning, we never really forgot that this was a Disney film. There were several references and similarities to previous recent Disney films like "The Good Dinosaur" and "The Jungle Book". The treatment of this oft-told story by writer-director David Lowery was very safe, wholesome and targeted to very young audiences. Apart from that singularly violent fiery encounter at the bridge, the rest of the film had a languid underwhelming feel about it. The emotions never really swelled towards the end as I was expecting it to. Good for a sentimental throwback vibe, but it felt too old-fashioned for the present day. 6/10.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Review of SULLY: Short and Straightforward

September 9, 2016

Tom Hanks is still one of the busiest senior actors around in Hollywood. Most of his recent films still end up with awards attention, like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011), "Cloud Atlas" (2012), "Captain Phillips" (2013), "Saving Mr. Banks" (2013), and just last year "Bridge of Spies" (2015). This year, he has three films with three distinct flavors. "A Hologram for the King" is a slow and puzzling art film. "Inferno" is the third installment of the popcorn Dan Brown - Robert Langdon film franchise. And then there is this film "Sully," a type which may likely attract Oscar attention again.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways pilot Captain Chelsea "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his first officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) just took off from La Guardia Airport in New York City on a routine domestic flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. A few minutes in midair, the flock of birds flew straight into the path of the airplane, causing both engines to explode and fail.

In the face of certain disaster, Capt. Sully made a decision to land right onto the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survive and the press celebrated this heroic landing "The Miracle on the Hudson." However, amidst the jubilation, Air Safety experts investigate whether Capt. Sully's feat was truly heroic, or was it a foolhardy stunt which actually endangered the lives of everyone on board.

Tom Hanks can really embody these types of characters so well, so cool and collected, so stoic and unflustered. We have seen him in roles like this many times, most recently in "Bridge of Spies." He has been so uniformly consistently good in similar roles like this that they do not make any real solid impact anymore. He is a very good actor no doubt, but incredibly, his last Oscar nomination for Best Actor was way back 2001 for "Cast Away," his last risky performance of note.

The film also celebrates the unprecedented feat of commercial aviation by Capt. Sully, as well as the prompt response of the rescuers from the city of New York. However, the drama and conflict of the film was more about the investigations which came after the landing upon which the career and name of Capt. Sully hung precariously.

Director Clint Eastwood did not waste any time at all with useless diversions, telling the whole story in only a terse yet tense 96 minutes. This extraordinary story was straightforward and simple, and the film was similarly straightforward and simple. This "straight-to-the-point approach" is really the best for true-to-life stories like this. There is no need for extra dramatics in the guise of artistic license. The emergency water landing scenes were harrowing (even if I did not watch this in IMAX). The inclusion of real-life celebrities like Katie Couric and David Letterman added interest. A heartwarming extra scene during the closing credits added gravitas. 7/10.