Friday, August 26, 2016

Review of USS INDIANAPOLIS: Troubling Tragedy

August 26, 2016

Nicolas Cage peaked in the 90s when he starred in several box-office hits and even earned an Oscar for Best Actor. Of late though, even though he still gets to star in a lot of movies, his name on a movie poster ("Season of the Witch," "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," "Left Behind") does not exactly bode good quality anymore. I was wary to watch this new one for the same reason. However, the mention of the Philippines in the trailer made me curious to catch it anyway.

Set in mid-1945 during World War II, the USS Indianapolis, led by Captain Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage), was secretly tasked to deliver parts of an atomic bomb (which would later be dropped on Hiroshima) unescorted to a naval base in the Pacific. Back on open sea after its mission, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea. The sailors spent five gruelling days with minimal supplies floating on liferafts in shark-infested waters. Only 317 of the original 1,196 crew members survived.

The first hour of the film was quite brisk and eventful. The main storyline was laid out within the first scene. The backstory about some of the young sailors were introduced, oddly not too much on McVay himself. The USS Indianapolis embarked on its mission, delivered its cargo, was torpedoed and sunk all within that first hour. However, this meant that the entire second hour would only be dealing about the survival ordeal of the sailors among the sharks awaiting rescue. It got maudlin and repetitive after the first few shark attacks. This was definitely not the war action film people were expecting to see. 

The actors all seem to have come from the Nicolas Cage school of hammy acting. The major side story was about two friends who were in love with the same girl back home. Another side story was about a couple of sailors, one white, one black, constantly at odds with each other. There was also another side story about an arrogant young officer and his despicable attitude. All these rehashed side stories just served to fill out the rest of the running time before and after the sinking. The best actor for me would have to be Yutaka Takeuchi, the Japanese actor playing court-martial witness Commander Hashimoto, who displayed dignified subtlely in his brief role.

For its Philippine release, this film's subtitle "Men of Courage" was replaced with "Disaster at (sic) Philippine Sea." However, for Filipino moviegoers expecting to actually see some part of the Philippines or see Filipinos in action in this film, they will be disappointed. The Philippines was mentioned but was never actually shown except for scene labels to establish the locations. There was an extra card interrupting the closing credits stating how the search for the wreck of the Indianapolis was undertaken in 2001 in cooperation with the Philippine government and National Geographic. That was all about the Philippines here, nothing more. 5/10.


August 22, 2016

Thomas Kaiser is a reclusive young man who paints art for a living. His nights were regularly interrupted by a recurring dream about a goth princess sleeping in a bed. However, whenever he goes nearer to kiss and wake her, he gets an attack of severe headaches. One day, Thomas receives news of a property called Kaiser Gardens which his recently departed uncle Clive, whom he had never met before, had bequeathed to him in his will.

On the first night Thomas spent at the house, he was actually able to kiss and awaken the girl in his dreams, who introduced herself as Briar Rose.  Since then though, Thomas would be afflicted with a strange malaise whenever he stayed out of the house for too long. Furthermore, it turns out that Linda, the realtor of the property, had more than real estate interest in the Kaiser house, as she was investigating the disappearance of her brother last seen entering the house. Together, Thomas and Linda figure out a way of finding Briar Rose and finally breaking the curse that shrouded the house.

The lead actors were relatively unknown TV actors, attractive but bland. Ethan Peck, who played Thomas, is a grandson of Gregory Peck. He started acting 1996 in unremarkable film and tv roles, but only gained prominence in 2009-2010 on the TV series "10 Things I Hate About You".  India Eisley, who played the Sleeping Beauty, was most remembered for her role on tv show "The Secret Life of an American Teenager" from 2008-2013. Natalie Hall, who played Linda, had two years on long-running daytime TV soap opera "All My Children" from 2009-2011. The best known member of the cast would be Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davison ("Longtime Companion", 1989) as paranormal investigator Richard.

Despite the cheesy sounding synopsis as written, the first half of the film was actually pretty well executed by Singaporean writer/director Pearry Reginald Teo. The atmosphere, the cinematography, the special effects were all in sync to create a creepy atmosphere of mystery, which later developed to suspense and horror. However, the end game did not really fulfill the promise of the first half. It devolved into a messy climax and a rushed open conclusion. The ending made the whole film feel like a pilot episode of a potential TV series than a full movie. 4/10

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of BEN-HUR (2016): Focus on Forgiveness

August 18, 2016

When you hear the title "Ben-Hur," you would automatically think of that  spectacular 1959 cinematic epic starring Charlton Heston in the title role. That classic film won a whopping 11 Oscar awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Actor (Heston), Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Cinematography - Color and most of the technical awards. Aside from this, there had already been a silent film version of this Lew Wallace's 1880 novel back in 1925. There had also been a TV mini-series version just recently in 2010. 

These facts begged the question: why do they even need to make yet another film retelling the at all even when there was already an iconic definitive film version? This new version is directed by Timur Bekmambetov (best known for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), with a script written by Keith Clarke and Oscar winner John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave"). Despite my misgivings that this would most probably be one foolhardy, misguided and needless fiasco, I guess it was curiosity out of anything else about how they would redo some iconic scenes with modern technology that compelled me to go see it on the big screen anyway.

The story was set in Jerusalem at around the time when Jesus Christ was still alive. Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Judean prince with his mother Naomi and sister Tirzah. His best friend Massala is a Roman orphan adopted by house of Hur, so the two boys grow up as brothers. One day, Massala felt he should prove himself and redeem his family name. He left and joined the Roman army, returning to Judea years later as an officer under the governor Pontius Pilate.  When Jewish zealots attempt to assassinate Pilate, the friendship of the two brothers was put to the extreme test.

Jack Huston had the unenviable task of stepping into the huge shoes of original actor Charlton Heston. At his prime as Ben-Hur, tall and muscular Heston looked formidable and almost superhuman. Jack Huston, a scion of the famed Huston clan of Hollywood, wisely did not try to outdo Heston in the physical aspect (which was obviously impossible). He did well by playing Ben-Hur in a distinctly more sensitive and realistic manner. He stood out from the rest of the cast in terms of screen presence, especially in the first half of the film. 

Toby Kebbell was unremarkable as Messala. He played a Messala who was dour and dull throughout the film. He lacked in physical charisma and emotional conviction, especially when compared with the Messala of the 1959 film, Stephen Boyd. He was never at any point a match for Huston's Ben-Hur.

Morgan Freeman (the only A-list actor in the cast) looked terrible with those dreadful dreadlocks he was made to wear as the African sheik Ilderim. This was the same role that Hugh Griffith won his Oscar for, and in this film the role seemed to have been expanded to suit an actor of Freeman's stature. 

British-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi as Judah's wife Esther as a strong and independent woman, not simply a suffering martyr. American Sofia Black D'Elia played Judah's sister Tirzah and award-winning Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer played his mother Naomi. The scenes involving Naomi and Tirzah were among the dramatic highlights of the 1959 film, but the impact of those scenes seemed lacking in this remake.

The look and feel of the film was familiar, reminiscent of "Gladiator." The first major scene sequence one would take note of are those set on the Roman warship where Judah was condemned to be a chained rowing slave in its galley. The sea battle of Romans vs. Greek attackers was also tense and brutal. However, the CG effects employed in these scenes were very obvious. 

The centerpiece scene in all the Ben Hur films is the big chariot racing scene pitting Judah vs. Messala. For this new film, this scene was also shot in the Cinecitta studios in Italy where the 1959 chariot race was also shot. This time, there was none of the pageantry that preceded the race proper seen in the original films, only a speech by Pilate. The chariots here were more compact and less grandiose than the ones seen before, although the horses were just as magnificent. The film crew now had the technical advantages of GoPro cameras to capture more of the frenetic action from all angles. The mixing of the bone and chariot crunching sound effects was excellent. The filmmakers supposedly did more physical stunts than CG, but the overly stylistic execution of the scene, while still exciting, sort of robbed it of grit and realism, making it look CG. 

The interaction of Judah and Esther with Jesus Christ were still packed a lot of dramatic weight. Rodrigo Santoro was a magnetic presence as Jesus Christ, a role also made more prominent in this new version, when compared to the 1959 version where the actor in the 1959 film was not even credited. The ending was totally different from the previous film. This new ending emphasized more the religious message of forgiveness and redemption. When I saw the names of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (producer of "The Bible" TV series) in the credits, I then understood where this sentiment came from. 6/10

Friday, August 12, 2016

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of PAMILYA ORDINARYO: Vicariously Visceral

August 13, 2016

Of the four Cinemalaya films I had seen so far, this one has got to be the shoo-in for Audience Choice award. All its screenings at the CCP have been sold out in advance. Its screening this afternoon at the Trinoma Cinema 2 was a blockbuster. There are no big names in the lead cast so perhaps its popularity has got to be from positive word of mouth. Its trailer alone already packed quite a punch when it went viral on social media.

Aries is 17 years old. Jane is 16 years old. They live by themselves on the dingy streets of Quiapo in Manila. They are the parents of a baby boy they named Arjan, who was just less than a month old. An intrusive gay "benefactress" named Ertha entered their lives and threw them a curveball they never saw coming. The already messed-up lives of Aries and Jane were thrown into further disarray as their fledgling parenthood are put to the ultimate test.

Ronwaldo Martin is following the lead of his elder half-brother and mainstream superstar Coco Martin who also got his start in indie films. In this Cinemalaya alone, the younger Martin is in two feature films in competition, this one and "Tuos" with Nora Aunor. His previous film where he also played lead "Ari: My Live with a King" is also on being showed under the "Festivals Best" program. His Aries is brusque, lusty and rough, just as you would expect a boy living on the street to act. 

Hasmine Killip is so new that I could not come up anything about her acting background. Yet here she is carrying this whole film so ably on her shoulders as Jane. Most of the big dramatic moments were hers and she faced them boldly and nailed them head on. Those harrowing scenes of hers walking around outside the grocery, or those uncomfortable moments she had talking to the sleazy policeman, or that heartbreaking scene of her looking through the contents of a stolen bag -- all so naturally poignant as portrayed. 

The starkly realistic performances of Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in their breakthrough roles as Aries and Jane should be the frontrunners in the race for Lead Actor and Actress. Veterans like Lou Veloso, Allen Dizon, Judy Ann Santos and even Nora Aunor herself face tough competition from these two youngsters. They actually look like the street urchins we see on the grimy sidewalks everyday. It was as if they were not acting at all. I think it is safe to say we would be seeing more of them both in more indie films in the future. 

Director Eduardo Roy Jr. creates a masterpiece of cinema verite with this feature. All the while as we watch these two foolishly callow kids trying to survive on the tough streets, we feel we are right there with them, inhaling the same grime and stench and rugby with them. Those silent CCTV footage type sequences were effectively eerie and entrancing in its documentation of criminal activity. Veteran character actors Maria Isabel Lopez, Moira Lang, Erlinda Villalobos, Menggie Cobarrubias effectively portray various despicable vultures, shamelessly picking on the helpless. 

On the debit side, I thought the whole sequence set in a subdivision outside Manila made the film feel a bit too long and was unnecessarily anticlimactic in my opinion. Anyhow, overall, "Pamilya Ordinaryo" remains to be a sobering look at the plight of teenage parents on the streets. We know there are quite a number of youth out there on the real streets in the same exact boat as Aries and Jane. In this movie though, we won't be able to look away. 8/10. 

*** UPDATE (08/14/16): Congratulations for the #Cinemalaya2016 Awards won by Pamilya Ordinaryo:  Best Film, NETPAC Award, Best Director: Eduardo Roy Jr., Best Actress: Hasmine Killip and Best Editing.

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of TUOS: Mystical and Metaphorical

August 12, 2016

Even though we do not see Superstar Ms. Nora Aunor much in mainstream movie projects, she is as busy as ever in the indie scene. She had been making more than two films a year since she starring in "Thy Womb" in 2012. As ever, a Nora Aunor movie is an event local cinephiles all look forward to, and this, her latest Cinemalaya project, is no different.

In the mountainous hinterlands of Antique, there is a tribe that lives in ancient tradition. Their respected elder is a woman they call a "binukot" -- a cloistered woman who kept the oral tradition alive by memorizing their epics and singing them on special ceremonies. The current binukot Pina-Ilog, with her head of thick floor-length gray hair, is preparing her own granddaughter Dowokan as the fair maiden chosen to be the new binukot princess. Only 15 years old and in love, Dowokan had different ideas about their traditions and defied them. The titular tuos, or pact to appease nature spirits, was about to be broken. 

Nora Aunor had very few lines in this film as Pina-Ilog. Being a weak aging woman, even her actions are limited and controlled, as we see her either confined to her bed or being carried in a basket. We see her performance mostly with her expressive face and eyes. Sometimes we may feel that Pina-Ilog was not the main character. In the end though, there was no doubt that she was. 

The bulk of the acting was on the shoulders of young Barbie Forteza. Forteza was impressive when I first saw her as Ricky Davao's daughter in "Mariquina" two Cinemalayas ago in 2014. As Dowokan, on whom the film's conflict revolved, Forteza had most of the lines and most of the screen time. She holds her own against Ms. Aunor, and was also very effective in her quiet emotional scenes.

The main highlight of this film is the breathtaking cinematography by Mycko David. From the very first scene we immediately see the lush photography of the wilderness, with rich green foliage and blue skies and running waters. This would be taken literally to greater heights during the scenes during the scenes showing how some members of the tribe go down their mountain to the town below. The adventurous camera angles, the macro nature shots, the reflections in the mirrors, the use of the color red in the native costumes were all so remarkable in its beauty. 

However, I had a problem with the seemingly rushed and unrefined execution of strange climax. It was an intense fight scene but so shadowy and unclear, so starkly different from how the rest of the film looked like. It just looked uncomfortably out of place the way it was done. Of course, it can be argued that it may have been done on purpose to emphasize the contrast of the coming transition, and I can see that too on hindsight. 

The complex script about the challenge of preservation of traditional beliefs and practices in the modern times by Denise O'Hara was written in proud Kinaray-A tongue of Antique. There were segments in the film when reality dissolved into animated fantasy in order to bring the epic poetry being sung to life. It was too bad that Ms. Aunor could not sing these verse herself. Anyhow, the vocal performance of Ms. Bayang Barrios in the soundtrack was truly haunting. Director Roderick Cabrido has succeeded to create a film of vibrant visual beauty and rare cultural depth. 8/10. 

*** UPDATE (08/14/16): Congratulations to the #Cinemalaya2016 Awards won by Tuos!
Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Musical Score,
Best Sound, Audience Choice Award (Full-Length)

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of LANDO AT BUGOY: Paternal Predicaments

August 11, 2016

Father and son relationships are tricky, especially while the boy is growing up. Based on my own personal experience, a father learns how to deal with his son by trial and error. A son is never an exact miniature version of his father, despite what others may think or say. Fatherhood is a constant struggle that every father wishes to master, but simply could not. There are simply no instant correct answers nor magic formulas to paternal success. 

Set in the picturesque island province of Camiguin and told in the Visayan language, the simple title "Lando at Bugoy" refers to a father and son with those names. They live together in the same house, just the two of them only, yet they still really do not know each other, nor can they stand one another. 

Lando is 40 years old, a high school dropout who now earns a living by carving tombstones (called "lapida" in the vernacular). His rebellious teenage son Bugoy is a delinquent student who would rather smoke and drink with his gang. One day, Lando decides to go back to school and becomes Bugoy's classmate. Will their shaky relationship take a turn for the better? or the worse?

Allen Dizon is Lando. As a performer, he had been constantly improving in the indie films I have seen him in. He had already proven his acting mettle when he won many Best Actor awards for his role in the recent Kapampangan film 'Magkakabaung". His character in that movie and in this one both have occupations that dealt with death. Impressive how he now speaks in Visayan for this one. 

As a student trying to fit in with classmates more than half of his age, Dizon can be charming or cheesy, either way, his Lando was likable. I felt his sincerity and his effort. As a father, I totally feel his frustration about his son's hostile and disrespectful attitude towards him. It would really hurt a father to hear a son shouting back at him, what more cursing him.  

Newcomer Gold Azeron was very natural in his acting as Bugoy. His role was rather one-dimensional as Bugoy was just being an angry or naughty kid for most of the film. Since he was also a titular character, it was too bad his role was not as well-molded as that of Lando.

Notable among the supporting characters was Roger Gonzales as Bugoy's father, who gets to say some pretty sensible advice about fatherhood. I was hoping He could be having more scenes with Lando and Bugoy than what he had. Special mention goes to the pretty Rachel Ann Ang Rosello as the English teacher, Ms. Emma. Her flawless English was delivered with nary a Visayan accent, which felt a little off given the very rural setting. However, she is quite disarming, especially with her scenes with Dizon.

Writer/director Victor Acedillo Jr. came up with a generally delightful slice of provincial life with this film. I liked how he tackled the various predicaments Lando had to deal with as a single father.  However, after a painstakingly-executed buildup, we get a disappointingly abrupt climax that came out of nowhere. There was big development in Bugoy's character, but we do not actually see what happened to result in this change. I wish this part was not too rushed.  

It was revealed before the end credits that this was actually inspired by a real-life story of one Camiguin teacher named Silvino Bajao. This fact made the whole film more worthwhile. 7/10. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of HIBLANG ABO: Shattered Secrets

August 10, 2016

The country's premier independent film festival, the Cinemalaya, started its 12th incarnation (with the theme "Break the Surface") last August 5, 2016. However, I had not been able to watch any of the films in competition until today. As much as I had certain films in mind I wanted to watch, I would have to watch whatever was showing on the time I can go to the Trinoma Mall cinema. Because of my busy schedule at work, the unpredictable weather and the ever-worsening traffic, I would not even be able to go watch anything at all in the CCP this year.

"Hiblang Abo" tells the story of four bitter old men who shared one room in a home for the aged called "Bahay ni Juan." Huse (as spelled in the subtitles, or should it be Jose?) was a writer who used to work for the vaudeville. Blas was a labor union leader. Sotero was a farmer who always thought of his daughter Victoria. Pedro was once a vagrant picked up from the streets.  These men have dark secrets behind them which they choose not to share with their roommates ... until one fateful Palm Sunday morning.

While watching the film, it really felt like a theater play set into film. The language tended to be poetic and formal, though the action was gritty and realistic. Upon doing research after watching, it turned out that my hunch was right. "Hiblang Abo (Strands of Gray)" was indeed an award-winning three-act play written in 1980 by Rene O. Villanueva. It was first staged on September 1980 by the Gantimpala Theater Foundation at the CCP. 

The four main actors in the cast were also from the theater. They are Lou Veloso as the evasive Huse, Leo Rialp as the discontented Blas, Jun Urbano as the guilty Sotero, and Nanding Josef as the paranoid Pedro. All of them bring their theatrical A-game to the ensemble. Each actor was given his own moments to shine. The role of Mark Daclan (Cinemalaya Best Actor two years ago for "Soap Opera") may be confusing at first, but ultimately a most interesting storytelling choice.

Just last year, director Ralston Jover had two acclaimed films (both of which I was unfortunately not able to see): one about an old man, "Da Dog Show" (which earned Lou Veloso an Urian Best Actor nomination); and another about street children "Hamog" (which won Teri Malvar a Best Actress award at the Moscow Film Festival). It won't be a surprise of any of his actors here would also get an acting nod for their work here. Some technical aspects may seem off, but I usually do not nitpick on these in local indie films given their budget limitations. 

As you can probably surmise, there is more talk than action. Issues of the geriatric male are rarely tackled in films, even among indie films. In recent years, I had seen only "Bwakaw" and "Hari ng Tondo" that I can recall. The pace of "Hiblang Abo" is predictably slow and the story itself is quite a downer -- not really commercial material. However, the topic is thought-provoking, and you may recognize these cantankerous old men among your elder relatives and friends. 7/10.

*** UPDATE (08/14/16): Congratulations to the #Cinemalaya2016 Award won by Hiblang Abo:  Best Supporting Actor: Ensemble of Hiblang Abo - Jun Urbano, Lou Veloso, Leo Rialp, Nanding Josef