Friday, December 9, 2016

Review of YOUR LIE IN APRIL: Motivated by Music

December 9, 2016

In recent years, only violent action Japanese films, like "Ruruoni Kenshin,""Attack on Titan" and "Godzilla Resurgence," got shown in local cinemas. In total contrast, this new film seemed to be a teenage romance drama if you were to judge it by the poster. I would not have intended to watch it, except that my daughter was really excited to go see it. She has in fact read the manga twice!

Kōsei Arima is a piano prodigy since he was a child. He was actually famous for winning major piano competitions at a very young age. Now 17 years old, Kosei does not play piano anymore ever since the death of his mother, who was his piano teacher and harshest critic. Through his good friends Tsubaki and Watari, Kosei meets Kaori Miyazono. She is a girl who played violin with a rebellious streak, believing that music is free and should not be strictly defined. 

This film features a cast of attractive young Japanese actors and actresses, Suzu Hirose as Kaori Miyazono, Kento Yamazaki as Kōsei Arima, Anna Ishii as Tsubaki Sawabe and Taishi Nakagawa as Ryōta Watari. Yes, for most scenes, they played it cute for their teenage target demographic. However, the four, especially Hirose and Yamazaki, were still able to effectively make the proper emotional connection to elicit romantic thrill and painful tears with their audience. 

I do not know if they were really playing those instruments, but Hirose and Yamazaki certainly convinced me that they were violin and piano prodigies for real. They were performing with utmost confidence, flair and bravado as only real musicians could, unless they were really very good actors. They were playing entire pieces of classical music here, by Mozart and Rachmaninoff among others, not just snippets. I thought these scenes were simply a joy to watch and listen to, while hearing commentaries from the judges, the audience and the artists themselves. 

My daughter said that in the manga, the characters were only supposed to be 14-year olds. I thought making them older at 17 can bring up a more comfortable sense of romance. The film was able to capture all the highlights of the story, effectively delivering a more compact and logical version of the story by judiciously deleting less vital sub-plots. I thought the storytelling was fluid, not episodic at all. 

For me, I really liked the first part of the film, which was so youthfully energetic. All those musical performance scenes were so magnificently shot and edited, as if we were all attending a real classical concert. People who don't like classical music may squirm with impatience or even fall asleep (like Watari, haha). But I was riveted with the music, even if I was not familiar with the pieces. The scene in the cafe with the kids playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" at the piano was simply adorable. 

The heavier drama of the third act felt a bit too long for me, since I thought it was just prolonging the inevitable. However, my daughter loved how they did this last part very much, so what do I know what these teenagers like? Anyhow, I liked how neatly all the details of the story were wrapped up in one enlightening monologue and montage. All in all, I liked the positive spirit of the film -- so innocent, so carefree, and yes, so kawaii. 8/10. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review of MOANA: Polynesian Princess Paladin

November 30, 2016

We meet another princess in this latest Disney film. The last Disney princess film was "Frozen" (2014). From the icy and snowy North Pole, this time we are brought to the other end of the world, on a lush green island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

The titular character Moana is the daughter of an island chieftain, and is already being groomed to take her father's place someday. Her overprotective father forbade her from sailing beyond the reefs that surround their island. One day, the coconut trees of their island got sick and the fish disappeared. Moana, influenced by her eccentric grandmother's mythic stories, took it upon herself  to sail well beyond the safety of their reef. She needed to search for the macho demigod Maui and make him return the green stone "heart" he stole from the goddess Te Fiti in order to appease her.

I immediately got a vibe of "The Little Mermaid" with its background situation about a daughter who felt trapped in by her father's strict regulations. Again I am somewhat disturbed by the message being sent to young viewers about going against their parent's wishes. Under all that Disney goodwill, there seems to be a rebellious streak being encouraged for what a child perceives as "bad" parenting. This made me uncomfortable, watching this as a dad of teenagers.

Throughout the film, several film references were evident, mostly other Disney films, like "Hercules" and "Princess and the Frog". It comes as no surprise to learn later on that Ron Clements and John Musker, the writing and directing team behind “Moana,” also created those three mentioned films. 

The generally upbeat songs written by Broadway wunderkind Lin Manuel Miranda had the feel and tone of another musical play "Once on This Island." My favorite song was that smart-aleck number sung by Maui called "Your Welcome". I never knew Dwayne Johnson could sing! Another catchy tune was that song sung by the gold ornament-encrusted crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) called "Shiny". The lyrics of all the songs are all fun and hip, with traditional heart and sentiments.

Hawaiian high school student Auli'i Cravalho was cast to voice the title character Moana Waialiki. She was confident and eloquent in her voice work, despite this being in her first major film production. Dwayne Johnson gives his distinct voice and personality to the proud and naughty demigod Maui. Maori actress Rachel House lends authenticity to the inspirational character of Gramma Tala, Moana's grandmother and link to the past. Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger was kind and gentle as Sina, Moana's mother, while New Zealander actor Temuera Morrison played Chief Tui, Moana's formidable yet loving father and chief of Motunui Island.

The full-bodied 3-dimensional characters with the rich realistic look and textures of the ocean water and the island flora were in Disney's trademark clean animation style. The action sequences set on the water and in the air were all spectacularly exciting to behold. That scene with the warships looming into view looked magnificent (straight out of "Mad Max Fury Road" it seemed), however ridiculously cute those coconut bad guys were. I have to take exception to the annoying sidekick character of Heihei, Moana's bug-eyed pet rooster, which felt out of place to me for being too dumb and ugly. My favorite character in the whole film was Maui's independent-minded tattoo silently arguing with the owner of the skin on which he was drawn. 8/10.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of THE AGE OF SHADOWS: Trains, Traitors and Torture

November 27, 2016

For the third time this year, a Korean film gets a commercial release in local cinemas. The first two ("Train to Busan" and "Tunnel") were box office hits in its home country. This third one is a little more special. It is the film South Korea selected to vie for the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Usually we need to wait for film festivals to get the chance to see such critically-acclaimed films, but this time we are seeing it on a regular run. Hope this trend continues not only for Korean films, but other foreign language films as well.

It was the 1920s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A Korean policeman named Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) led the enemy drive against his own countrymen resisting Japanese rule. The leader of the resistance, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) and his comrade Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose antique shop was used to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul, tried reverse psychology to persuade Lee to help their cause instead. 

I went into this film not knowing that it had a historical setting. I was not too familiar with this particular time in Korean history. However, I was aware of the suffering caused by Japanese occupations in the Philippines and other Asian countries, and how local resistance fighters desperately sought to emancipate their country from such oppressive control of the ruthless Japanese forces.

The story was not that easy to get into at first because of the confusing names and faces of the characters, as well as the unfamiliar historical circumstances. But the plot does settle into place after a few scenes and you will be completely drawn into the complex web of intrigues from intersecting interests and loyalties. This is a fascinating tale unlike other Japanese occupation films I had seen before. 

All the newspaper ads promoted was that Gong Yoo, the lead star of "Coffee Prince" 10 years ago and "Train to Busan" this year, is starring in this film. How amazing it is for Gong to star in two huge films in a single year. His acting career was certainly jump-started in a big way, and internationally. His most memorable sequence here was also running around on a train, but he was trying to avoid capture by Japanese police, not zombies this time. Something happened to him at the end which I thought was medically impossible, but let's just call that creative license.

The true lead star here though was the long-respected, multi-awarded Korean actor Song Kang-ho. I have seen him perform in a number of memorable critically-acclaimed films like "Memories of Murder" (2003) and "The Host" (2006) for which he had been named Best Actor, then more recently "The Throne"(2015), also earning him Best Actor citations. Here in "The Age of Shadows" for which he had also been nominated for Best Actor, Song never made it easy for the audience to know what his conflicted character was up to, and that is what made his performance masterful. It is all about subtlety.

Byung-hun Lee is a bonafide Hollywood star now with films like "GI Joe," "Terminator Genisys" and just this year "The Magnificent Seven." In this film, his role as Che-san was small (practically a cameo), but his charisma made it remarkable. Tae-goo Um was over the top as  Hashimoto, the sadistic cop with those criminally prominent cheekbones. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Korea for his floridly hateful performance here. Shingo Tsurumi was quiet but chilling as the Japanese police superior Higashi. 

The last time I heard of writer-director Kim Jee-wun, it was for the multi-awarded horror flick "A Tale of Two Sisters" way back in 2003. His direction of "The Age of Shadows" was confident and assured. The cinematography was slick and glossy, as the period production design and costumes were impressive, though I thought it did go overboard with the graphic gruesome violence of torture (director's horror background resurfacing). This suspenseful historical episode was told clearly and engagingly in its 140 minutes running time, despite its multiple characters, shuttling languages (color-coded subtitles) and varied locations. 9/10.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of ALLIED: Sentimental Spies

November 24, 2016

We all first heard about this movie when it had the unfortunate association with the biggest breakup news in Hollywood this year -- the divorce of power-couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. One of the reasons being floated was an alleged affair of Pitt with his co-star in the film, French actress Marion Cotillard.  This had shades of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (2005), incidentally also a film about married spies, where Brad Pitt dumped Jennifer Aniston in favor of his co-star Jolie. Gossip aside, the quality of this film looked outstanding based from the trailers alone. This was THE movie to watch this week. 

It was 1942. Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan got together French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour in Casablanca, Morocco. They pretended to be husband and wife in order to infiltrate a German function to execute a dangerous mission together. The couple fell in love for real, get married in London, and have a child. However, Max was presented with military intel that threatened their blissful union. Defying his orders, Max is determined to fix the problem in his own way.

The first thing that really strikes you with this film is its glossy and lush cinematography by Don Burgess (Oscar winner for "Forrest Gump" 1994). This is clearly reminiscent of big epic romantic films in the past like "The English Patient". The desert scenes were sweeping and breathtaking, as was the love scene in the car during a sandstorm. The production design (by Gary Freeman) and costume designs (by Joanna Johnston) were also of Oscar-worthy quality and elegance. The lead actors both have qualities of Old Hollywood glamour which completes the film's captivating look of cinematic prestige.

Even now in his 50s, Brad Pitt can still do these romantic lead roles very well. The camera loves his visage and he looked impeccable whatever he was wearing, be it just undershirts or a formal tuxedo or a full uniform. He has been in a couple of other World War II films just recently, "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) and "Fury" (2014), so he fit into this role quite smoothly. He was also able to handle creditably the dramatic requirements of the role, that of a desperate husband who had to secretly find a way to save his marriage and still make everything look normal on the surface. 

Marion Cotillard was gorgeous and vibrant as her character was supposed to be. Her depth as an actress was in full display here in a complex role, enhanced by her fashionable outfits and radiant smile. She owned the Morocco scenes with her magnetic outgoing screen presence. It was too bad that her role somewhat got curtailed when the story moved to London, but her Marianne was clearly the driving inspiration behind Max's every action even if we do not see her on screen. 

Director Robert Zemeckis should be credited for the incredible suspense he had created in the last sequences of this film. He took his time, which had us all hanging on to the edges of our seats as he built-up to the emotional and sentimental climax. This sentimentality was what won Zemeckis the Oscar for "Forrest Gump" (1994) after all. He also used the mirror a lot for many of his scenes, probably hinting on the illusions spies have to create in their line of work, hence some imaginative blocking and camera angles were employed.

Overall, I thought this film was engaging on a visual and emotional level. The beauty of the landscape and the actors will transport you to another place and time as only Hollywood can. This extreme glamour may keep you distant but you will be kept interested and hanging on up to it ultimate resolution. Admittedly, the romance part could have been better built up in the first act especially with Max's cold detached personality making chemistry difficult. Definitely though, the wartime intrigue and mystery investigation give the film the spice and excitement it needs later in the game. 8/10. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of FALLEN: Angelic Archrivals

November 22, 2016

At the beginning of this film, the Fallen are introduced to be a group of angels who did not want to take sides between the rift between God and Lucifer. Following a rebel angel, the Fallen have decided to side with a certain Rebel Angel who embraced the concept of Love instead of Good and Evil. They will remain to be the Fallen until the rebel angel abandons love and takes a side.

After apparently causing a fatal fire in a cabin, Lucinda "Luce" Price was sent  to Sword and Cross Academy, a boarding school for troubled students who could not function in regular schools. When she meets tall and good-looking Daniel Grigori, Luce cannot explain why she seems to know him even if he denies having met her ever before. The school bad boy Cam Briel is also falling for Luce, a match Daniel won't allow. Luce has to make up her mind as the two boys fight over her, revealing their real supernatural selves in the process. 

Ironically for a teen romance, the director chosen was an old veteran, Scott Hicks. In fact, Hicks had been nominated for an Academy Award before for his work on "Shine" (1996), the film that gave Geoffrey Rush his Oscar for Best Actor. For this project, he maximized the foggy and eerie atmosphere of their European castle location to create an ethereal mood of mystery. There isn't really much he could do about the skimpy story he is trying to tell, but he tries his best to sell the slim premise with haunting Gothic imagery.

The main actors were all unknown: Addison Timlin as Luce, Jeremy Irvine as Daniel and Harrison Gilbertson as Cam. They were all beautiful of face, but lacked depth in their acting.They were proficient at least, but none of them really stood out to show any potential as big stars. Supporting actors Lola Kirke (as Penn Lockwood) and Chris Ashby (as Todd Hammond) do so much better because of their naturalness, a welcome contrast from all the pretentious teen angst here. The only known name in the cast, Joely Richardson, lacked subtlety in her portrayal of their Religion teacher Sophia Bliss. 

I think this paranormal love-triangle romance film came out too late, so many years after the "Twilight" saga had already over-saturated the genre. Younger viewers may have a different opinion though, since this is clearly targeted for young adults. I liked how they did the angel wings though, very cool, but the fight scenes in flight were too shot too close-up to see what was going on clearly. The ending was abrupt and very open, so disappointing. This incomplete film was obviously only setting up for a sequel based on the second book in the series by Lauren Kate entitled "Torment", if it gets done at all. It felt more like the pilot episode of a TV series than a feature film. 4/10. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

C1 ORIGINALS 2016: Review of EVERY ROOM IS A PLANET: Amorphous and Atmospheric

November 20, 2016

This is the second competition film I've seen from the currently running Cinema 1 Originals Filmfest.  I catch whatever film is being shown when I can squeeze time to go to the cinema, not exactly the titles I want to catch first or anything. The schedules given to these competition films were very erratic, and mostly at night, so I may not be able to see another one. For this one, I had to line up for more than forty minutes at the severely undermanned Gateway Cinema ticket booth Saturday afternoon to be able to watch.

Yannie was a mentally-unstable girl confined in a mental institution because she thought her husband Alan was abducted by aliens. Elly had sworn to take care of Yannie in Alan's absence, even as he also had a secret romantic longing for her. This seemingly simple plot was expanded into one truly mind-boggling feature film which can challenge your comprehension as well as your patience.

The first feature film by writer-director Malay Javier was the strange X-Files-like alien tale "Hindi Sila Tatanda" (MY REVIEW) which debuted in Cinema 1 Originals two years ago.  For his second Cinema 1 Originals feature film, Javier once again explored a sci-fi theme, which was obvious already in the title. This film actually had binary code sequences all over the screen in many scenes. Supposedly all of these codes actually mean something, so that is cool, though I would really know how to read them.

For each room we see in this movie, there was supposedly a corresponding planet it was supposed to represent. The clue would be in the color grading given each one. Elly's messy condo, where he says he lives "like a pig" had a blue hue, representing Earth. The psychiatrist Dra. Cara's room and love-nest had a reddish hue, which represented Venus. 

The bedroom of Elly's mother supposedly represented Saturn, but I did not notice the rings. Yannie's hospital room was supposed to be the Moon but I did not notice get the satellite reference. If not for that post-screening Q&A session, I would not get all of this interesting detail at all! The additional insight of that filmmaker discussion was vital to further appreciation of this bizarre film.

The aspect which really made this film achieve that out-of-this-world vibe was its background sonic atmosphere. Each room seemed to have its own soundtrack of audible emptiness and freaky feedback. Director Javier revealed that these ambient noises were actually downloaded for free from the NASA website which made available these sound recordings from their outer space probes to various planets! Again, this knowledge did not dawn on me while watching. Knowing this fact was such a geeky bonus.

The quality of the acting was all very low-key and mysterious, in keeping with the weirdness that this project exuded. Rap Fernandez's Elly looked like he was constantly stoned. Valeen Montenegro's Yannie was so fragile, we all want to take care of her. Antoinette Taus' Dr. Cara came on strong and lusty. Quark Henares's Alan looked like he needed the psychiatrist more than his wife. Pinky Amador's Mom looked all zoned out, but is she? All the events happening seemed to be unreal, either the product of a drugged out or disturbed mind.

I cannot say I really liked it, but it was unique and edgy, way out of the usual box. This was the essence of experimental cinema, definitely not for everyone. The audience would have to figure this nebulous abstraction out on their own, no easy answers, no correct answers. Attending the Q&A at the end gave me some revealing inside information about the process behind making a film as strange as this. Probably unfair, but this interesting post-screening session gave the film an additional point in my book. 6/10. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM: Wildlife of the Wizard World

November 19, 2016

2016 is a revival of sorts for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. Just earlier this year, I got the new Harry Potter book, actually the production script of its stage version, for my birthday, which I just finished reading it this week. And now, there is a new film with a title we had first read in the first Harry Potter book "The Sorcerer's Stone". If you recall, one of the required textbooks in the Hogwarts School of Wizardry was entitled "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" written by a certain Newt Scamander.

This new film is about an adventure of the author Newt Scamander before he published his famous book. It was 1926 when Newt arrived in New York carrying his suitcase of magical creatures. One of these creatures escaped and was wreaking havoc in a bank. In his efforts to recover his wayward pet, Newt accidentally switched suitcases with that of Jacob Kowalski, a baker whose loan just got rejected. This led Newt on a big adventure getting his suitcase back as well as the other creatures Kowalski inadvertently released into the city, with the Aurors of the Magical Council of the USA hot in pursuit.

Definitely the titular fantastic beasts in all their computer-generated glory were the main attraction of this film. The first one we saw was the naughty Niffler, a platypus-like creature who loved collecting gems and shiny things and stuffed them into his pouch-like body. There was a giant rhinoceros-like creature called an Erumpent that Newt cornered in snowy and icy Central Park. The CG image was certainly huge, but its appearance was not exactly awe-inspiring. The green lock-picker Bowtruckle and the sloth-like Dougal were cute. The dragon-like Occamy and the eagle-like Thunderbird were the more spectacular creatures.

A significant side story was about Mary Lou Barebone, a lady who used orphan kids to spread her anti-witchcraft advocacy, and her creepy adopted children Creedence and Modesty. I found the extreme darkness of this plot a major downer in the storytelling which I did not really like. The whole business about the Magical Council led by their lady President Seraphina Piquery (Carmen Ejogo) and chief auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) may have had elegant production and costume designs but again, the treatment by director David Yates was too dark for my liking. Another subplot about the rich and powerful Shaw family (led by Jon Voight) did not seem that essential, yet at least. 

For me, the best part of the film was not a wizard or witch, but a No-Maj (that's how a Muggle is called in the US). I enjoyed the way Dan Fogler portrayed Jacob Kowalski. He was funny and charming. His chemistry with sweet mind-reading witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) was delightful. Eddie Redmayne's wide-eyed portrayal of kind magizoologist Newt Scamander, was very sincere. Though not bad, it tended to feel one-note after a while. Katherine Waterston was trapped in the dowdy clothes and dour demeanor of her character, the demoted auror Tina Goldstein, for most of the film. Fortunately she was given a few scenes to smile and shine. 

With a script that was the debut of J.K. Rowling as screenwriter, this film was clearly setting up for more adventures for Newt in the future. In fact, word is it will be a trilogy. Aside from the wondrous wildlife, I enjoyed the references to Hogwarts and hearing those spells again, like "Alohomora" and "Accio", among others. The cameo at the end was a big surprise, if you did not know that there will be a guest appearance by a big movie star.

Though I may not have been all too effusive about this first episode, I am still curious to see where the next story will take Newt and his friends. I am hoping though that the next installment would diffuse at least some of the darkness that kept this film from being as engaging as its trailer promised. 7/10.