Wednesday, July 31, 2013

SANA DATI: Time-Warped Singularity

July 31, 2013




The poster of "Sana Dati" suggests that this is a love story. I am not much of a romance film watcher, but so far, this is one of the entries in this year's Cinemalaya Film Festival that is gaining the most awards buzz. Hence, I made time to watch it today.

The story revolves around Andrea (Lovi Poe) on her wedding day to Robert (TJ Trinidad). When videographer Dennis (Paulo Avelino) interviews the bride about her pre-nuptial thoughts, events from the past about another man Andrew (Benjamin Alves) begin to resurface, threatening the very special event meant to happen that day.

On the purely visual level, I have to say that "Sana Dati" is a very cleanly-executed Filipino indie film. Among the few local indies I have had the chance to watch, I am going to call this the neatest one in the technical standpoint. 

The camera work is breathtakingly beautiful. The lighting, the colors, the camera angles, all flawlessly artistic. This is likely going to be a leading contender in the Best Cinematography category during awards season. 

The script by Ramon Ukit is uncommonly erudite for a local film. We hear quotes from Mexican poetry. We hear references to concepts in quantum physics. This is clearly not a banal screenplay. The plotting is smart. The symbolism is profound. The humor is welcome. The tension is unbearable. The ending is not predictable.

The acting style was restrained while deeply emotional. No hysteria. You see their pain and yearning in the eyes. Lovi Poe is achingly elegant in her confusion. TJ Trinidad is turbulently steadfast in his stress. Paulo Avelino is cryptically laconic in his mystery. Benjamin Alves is hauntingly ideal in his memory.  

The editing of the inter-crossing flashback and fast-forward of story sequences can get confusing. Our appreciation of time is lost at times. You will wonder how long certain events are happening. I sort of feel this seemingly distorted sense of time could have been done on purpose though, given the context of the film's conflicts.

Director Jerrold Tarog tells his story not so much in flashy action, but more in sensitive conversations among the characters. It is visually dazzling, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally connecting. Overall, I think this is one unique Filipino film worthy of our admiration and support. 8/10.


Monday, July 29, 2013

EKSTRA: An Excellent Paradox!

July 29, 2013




I had the opportunity to attend the Gala Premiere of "Ekstra" last night at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines during the Cinemalaya Film Festival.  It was a full house despite the heavy rains and floods.  The film was introduced no less than by the director Jeffrey Jeturian and the producer Atty. Joji Alonso.

The occasion was made more special by the glorious presence of the star Gov. Vilma Santos (accompanied by husband Sen. Ralph Recto and her sons).  The predominantly Vilmanian audience filled the theater with claps and cheers whenever their idol looked up and waved at them before the movie, as well as during the numerous hilarious one-liners by the Star of All Seasons in the movie itself.  That additional dimension made it a very memorable film watching experience for me.  It felt like we were watching a play.

"Ekstra" is a very entertaining film that brings us into the world of a bit player or "ekstra" in the punishing world of television soap operas, where hectic daily shooting deadlines are the norm. This was not only a glimpse for the audience, but more of an immersion. We get an in-depth, no-holds-barred, brutally frank expose on how bit players are treated on and off the set of a location shoot.

Loida Malabanan has been a bit player for many years already.  This job, however unstable, had enabled her to get her daughter through college even as a single mother, albeit barely. 

Here, we follow Loida on one particularly eventful day when she was called to a remote location shoot in a Batangas farm for a hit nightly TV soap opera entitled "Nauna Kang Naging Akin". The production seems to be behind schedule, needing to shoot so many sequences to air that very night, making the director, and everyone else in the crew, super-stressed.

Through Loida, we see every indignity bit players had to endure in order to earn their seemingly measly living. They have no privacy, not enough food nor rest while on the set. They were at the constant beck, call and mercy of the director. the assistant director, the casting director. They had to wait for long periods of time under harsh conditions inflicted by weather, technical difficulties, and the inconsiderate diva behavior of the lead stars.

It was such an inspired idea to get a star of the highest caliber to play one of these unsung heroes of the show business. The fact that is was no less than Ms. Vilma Santos herself playing the lead role of Loida Malabanan makes this film so much more meaningful and special. If the lead was played by a lesser star, it would not have made an impression of such great impact as this film did.

Ms. Vilma Santos is the heart and soul of this film, and she was such a paradox in this role. She portrays her role in the most natural and realistic way, yet we know the character was so NOT her. Ms. Vilma was already the lead star in her very first film, "Trudis Liit"!  Incredibly, she was able to successfully dim her megawatt star power to appear inferior in stature to stars like Marian Rivera and Piolo Pascual who were the lead stars of the soap being shot, yet Ms. Vilma still manages to outshine them all.  Her most effective scenes had no spoken lines at all.

Ms. Cherie Gil was so deliciously campy good in her villainous Dona Beatriz character. Tart Carlos, more popularly known for her role as the ditsy maid Doris on TV's "Be Careful With My Heart," has a marked role playing Venus, Loida's friend and co-extra, where her skills in comedy shone. Musical director Vincent de Jesus was very effective as the harried and hassled assistant director, scrambling to accomplish all the orders of the impatient director Marlon Rivera.

This was such a revealing and informative movie for me, to see what really happens behind those neat and glamorous programs we see on night after night on our TV screens. We never would have imagined that there is much chaos and exploitation before those final edits were reached. We have never seen these things behind the scenes depicted so honestly on screen. This could as well have been a documentary to further the cause of fair treatment of bit players. It is a position statement as much as it was entertainment.

Like "Babae sa Septic Tank" (an insider look into indie film making) last year, "Ekstra" is a definite must-see for all film fans to understand more in depth on how their beloved celluloid industry works.  This is excellent work by Director Jeffrey Jeturian. An indie 9/10.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

THE WOLVERINE: Angst and Rage Personified

July 25, 2013




"The Wolverine" begins with a scene at the end of World War II with the bombing of Nagasaki.  Under such harsh circumstances, Logan (Hugh Jackman) strikes a friendship with a Japanese soldier, Yashida (Ken Yamamura).  

Fast forward to the present time, Yashida (now played by Haruhito Yamanouchi), now the taipan of a big business enterprise, summons Logan to Japan to say his parting words as he lay dying on his amazing futuristic deathbed.  When he gets there though, Logan got more than what he bargained for, as his very immortality lay on the line.

Hugh Jackman is the perfect Wolverine.  By now, we all know looks the part and acts the part from previous X-Men films, and this film is no different.  Logan will experience something new in this film that challenged him like nothing before, and Jackman was more than able to project that challenge.  We will feel his pain.  He carried this heavy film like no other actor could.

Logan will have two Japanese ladies behind him. First is Mariko (the beautiful Tao Okamoto), the statuesque granddaughter and future heir of the Yashida fortune.  Second is Yukio (the anime-cute Rila Fukushima), a quirky red-haired ward of Yashida who was also a very able sword fighter. Both ladies performed very well in their respective roles.

There is only one other mutant in this mix -- the sinister Viper with her lick of deadly poison.  The actress who plays her, Svetlana Khodchenkova, knew no subtlety though.  She was too over-the-top, with all her exaggerated actions and facial expressions.

This film is a very heavy drama with occasional bursts of spectacular action. Some fans looking forward to nonstop slash fights may be disappointed.  The best fight scene was that breath-taking one on the roof of the bullet train, and that happens in the first hour.  I also enjoyed all the well-orchestrated Japanese-style sword fights and archery scenes, but these were fewer than I expected.  The final battle with the Silver Samurai was also very thrilling, but the way that fight ended I felt was wanting in punch.

Save for a brief scene about a bath and another in a love hotel lobby, there was absolutely no relief from the overwhelming angst that pervades this movie.  Everybody was frowning, scowling or angry almost the whole time.  And this film lasts for more than two hours.  Some viewers may find all this rage too much to take.  Viewers who are queasy may find this film too bloody.  There was even a scene of "open heart surgery", though I was amused with the medical inaccuracy shown there.

I found this a very well-made film by Director James Mangold. I liked the intense Wolverine it painted. I liked the Japanese setting and cultural references.  I liked the artsy scenes featuring Famke Janssen as Jean Grey.  I really like the extra scene during the final credits. Now that was a most uplifting moment and a really exciting preview of things to come.  That was the only scene where a hint of a smile even crossed Logan's face.

However, as a whole the tone may have been too turgid and intense to be considered entertaining. Fans should go watch it as it is a very good film, but do not expect it to be as commercial as the other X-Men films for the average moviegoers. 7/10.

GROWN UPS 2: What Happened to Adam Sandler?

July 25, 2013



I did not get to watch the first "Grown Ups" in 2010, but I knew it was a successful comedy at the box office back then. This sequel, a first for star Adam Sandler, actually beat "Pacific Rim" at the box office in their first week of release.  The trailer for "Grown Ups 2" that I saw was funny so I guess the whole movie would be as well. That is not exactly what happened.

"Grown Ups 2" has Lenny (Adam Sandler) coming back to live in the old suburban community where he grew up. So in that way, he gets to spend more time with his old buddies in a way Adam Sandler famously does -- stupidly. 

There is no plot to talk about. We follow Lenny and his gang, namely Eric (Kevin James), Kurt (Chris Rock) and Marcus (David Spade) in their raunchy and rowdy shenanigans at the neighborhood K-Mart, at their old swimming hole now claimed by bratty frat boys, and finally at a wild 1980s themed party in Lenny's house. 

We meet their respective wives (Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph) and kids, as well as various strange schoolmates (the drunk bus driver, the bald guy, the cross-eyed guy, the maniacal cop, the guy who got stuck selling ice cream, the gym teacher who wears short shorts), along the way. Everything felt so random, lazily put-together episodes. 

The kind of humor is also so random, anything goes. There was animal humor about a wayward stag that entered Lenny's house. (This CG animal must have eaten up the bulk of this film's budget.) There was a lot of body function humor, including one about a burp-sneeze-fart combination which they repeated ad nauseam. There was also a lot of green humor, ranging from boob jokes to gay jokes. Unfortunately, there was more misses than hits. The LOLs were few and far between. I do feel the best funny parts were already in the trailer!

I must say that Shaquille O'Neal was actually hilarious in his role as a gentle giant cop. He did not come off as annoying, as compared to the other odd people in town, especially his unfunny brother whose whole family keeps says "Whaaaat?". 

Taylor Lautner seemed to have lost some of his Twilight muscle mass when surrounded by those bulkier frat boys. Was he really the one doing all those backflips and flying kicks, or were those special effects (yeah, right)? He too was funny, perhaps unintentionally, with all his hyper-macho posturing.

I did enjoy the hip music, colorful costumes and pop references at the 80s party, even if that ended in a poorly choreographed free-for-all brawl scene. It was also good to see Ms. Georgia Engel on the big screen as Eric's mom, as sweet as I remember her on "The Love Boat". 

The most disappointing element in this film is Adam Sandler himself. He was so laid back here, he actually looked lazy on screen. I do not know what happened to this guy. Many of his movies were so hilarious and had a delightful charm about them, like "Billy Madison", "Happy Gilmore", "Wedding Singer", "50 First Dates". I even liked "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," offensive as that one may be. But here, he is not even trying to do anything, and it obviously shows. A lot of his jokes were falling flat, compared to the others in the cast.

So, in short, while there are good and funny parts, the whole is not satisfactory. Everyone will find a little something to enjoy, but they maybe not be enough for your money's worth. 3/10.


Monday, July 22, 2013

MAN OF TAI CHI: Keanu Reeves Directs!

July 22, 2013



The titular "Man of Tai Chi" refers to Tiger Chen, a dutiful son and student who wanted to show the world that the peaceful martial art form of Tai Chi is not simply for show, but also an effective form for combat. When ruthless underground fight club promoter Keanu Reeves witnesses Tiger's innocence behind his awesome skills, he knew he had the perfect star for his evil show -- someone ripe for corruption into the dark side.

This film is as much about the meditative philosophy of Tai Chi as it was about the exciting fight scenes. The story had promise.  I liked that the film dealt on cultural preservation and loyalty to one's master. Unfortunately, this film had quite a number of negatives that weigh it down. 

The main protagonist Tiger Chen simply did not have enough charisma for the big screen. He comes alive only during the fight scenes, which were very very good and authentic.   But in every other non-fighting scene though, he does not. He only had one expression on his face, the one with knit eyebrows. They just knit a little tighter together to denote his evil phase.  This lack of acting skill limited the film considerably.

As an actor, Keanu Reeves was rather one-note as the antagonist. His climactic fight scene with Tiger was rightfully exciting, but Keanu himself looked awkward, especially with his kicking. For a very bankable A-list star earlier in his career in the 1990s, his career as an actor seemed to have stalled.  I do not remember watching a film of his since "The Lake House" and that was back in 2006.

I was surprised that Keanu chose this martial arts genre to be his directorial debut. As director, his execution of the story is OK.  I am sure a film in three languages (English, Mandarin and Cantonese) is not exactly easy to manage  But overall, the directorial technique was basic, not yet distinctive. That said, I am looking forward to seeing more of Keanu Reeves as director.  

All I can say is that this could have been a much better film if the casting of the lead was better. But I guess it would not be easy to find an excellent tai chi fighter, who also looked good on screen, and acted proficiently well. Well, as things go in the movie business, they can always remake this film when they do find such a man. 4/10.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

TURBO: "Cars" for Even Younger Kids

July 21, 2013



The trailer of this new Dreamworks animated film did not really make me interested to watch because I thought the whole racing snail story would be corny. However, my kids insisted and there were some favorable initial reviews, so I reluctantly gave it a go and hoped to be pleasantly surprised.

"Turbo" is about Theo, a garden snail obsessed about car racing and being fast. He accidentally ingests nitrous oxide and develops amazing race car powers. A luckless taco shop owner Tito picks Theo up for his hobby of racing snails, and discovers Theo's incredible speedy abilities. Eventually, Theo (now re-named Turbo) actually qualifies to race against his racing idol, the five-time champion Guy Gagne, in the Indianapolis 500. Can this phenomenal little snail now finally fulfill his dream of winning a big league car race?

The topic of car racing had already been tackled very well in Pixar's "Cars". If "Cars" was for kids, "Turbo" is targeted for even younger kids. More than just the car racing, the side story about the deserted mini-mall in Van Nuys, California where Tito's taco shop is located, was also obviously inspired by the town of Radiator Springs in "Cars." 

The scenes showing how Theo was inspired to keep reaching for his dreams from a French champion on a TV monitor was reminiscent of "Ratatouille."  The scenes showing how Theo got his powers, with the nerve axons and red blood cells being chemically revitalized, was straight out of "Spider- Man". 

I did not really get the whole snails working together to gather tomatoes thing. It might have worked in "A Bug's Life", but I did not know snails ever worked like ants. I could imagine how encountering a huge army of snails in a small tomato patch like that would probably look pretty scary in real life.

On the positive side, "Turbo" manages to tell a good story about brotherly support in the parallel stories of Theo and his brother Chet, and Tito and his brother Anton. One brother is the whimsical dreamer, while the other is the more grounded practical one. They may see things differently, but in the end, brotherly love would prevail.

Of course, the showcase of the whole film is still the big race. We all root for the underdog, don't we?  The execution of the race sequence was thrilling and exciting, especially the final laps. While the climactic moment in "Cars" is still better, but this one in "Turbo" still manages to hold its own with its unique "Tuck and Roll" charm.

As a whole though, I found the film's pace leading to the climactic race quite slow for a movie about speed. I was disappointed about how the Guy Gagne character was developed as a stereotype, when it could have been more original. The voice work was by big stars like Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti and Samuel L. Jackson. They were all okay, but nothing really distinct and memorable stood out.

Kids will surely enjoy this cute little film delightful. Parents will just have to summon their inner child out in order to enjoy it with them. 6/10.


Friday, July 19, 2013

TUHOG: Three Lives on a Stick

July 19, 2013



"Tuhog" presents us with an unusual situation. A major bus accident along Commonwealth Avenue (but of course!) freakishly lanced together the bodies of three random people (hence the literal title). As their doctors try to save their lives, we get acquainted with each of these three victims and what led them to be on the bus on that fateful day.

Tonio (Leo Martinez) is a recently retired employee, whose eccentricities are getting on the nerves of his wife (Carla Martinez) and his disrespectful children. Fortunately, he still gets his support from his group of friends with whom he plays poker. One day, he suddenly decides to invest his entire retirement pay to build up his own dream bakery, perfecting his own special pan de sal.

Fiesta (Eugene Domingo) leads a life not as happy as her name would seem to imply. She is a tough-as-nails bus conductor, having a reputation as a terror among the drivers. But behind the tough exterior, she has a big problem dealing with her alcoholic father (Noel Trinidad). When the young newly-hired bus driver Nato (Jake Cuenca) signifies his love for her, she did not know what hit her.

Caloy (Enchong Dee) is a student who is in a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Angel (Empress Schuck), now working in Dumaguete. While he eagerly awaits the semestral break when they would reunite and finally lose their virginity together (in his own words), he could hardly keep his jealous thoughts nor his raging libido in check.

The script (by Jinky Laurel and director Veronica Velasco) was quite interesting the way they weaved the stories together with those intersecting situations told from three different points of view. The editing is critical in a film like this, and I thought it was done pretty well. 

There were some parts during the individual stories which tended to be repetitive, could have been shortened a little to pick up some pace. 

Medical accuracy could be shaky. They did try to explain some issues, albeit in highly simplified terms. In reality though, assuming the victims actually survived and could still talk after a terrible accident like that, they should have been immediately rushed to a better-equipped tertiary medical facility. But I'd give them a pass for artistic license in this aspect.

I was a bit bothered by the mystical beggar boy (Maliksi Morales), who also connected the three main characters. What did his presence really mean to say? I guess that is one of those things which the audience can think and discuss about after watching the film.

The actors were all quite into their characters. Leo Martinez is right in his comedic element as he deals with senior citizen issues. Enchong Dee tackles a more daring role here with some pretty risqué bed-shaking scenes. Jake Cuenca does well in his conflicted character, but his chemistry with Eugene is tenuous at best. Noel Trinidad's portrayal is spot on and moving, as usual for this dependable actor. I enjoyed the cameos of PETA actors Vincent de Jesus (as bus company operator) and especially Meann Espinosa (as a nutty professor).

But the real center of the movie belongs to Ms. Eugene Domingo. She holds the whole story together. Her performance as Fiesta ran the gamut of emotions, from simple girlish joy to complicated mental torment. You will take her seriously here. Black comedy becomes her.

Overall, this is a different kind of Filipino movie that tries something innovative. The material is not common nor commercial, especially for a Star Cinema production.  Fortunately, the featured stars could really perk up interest among viewers. The story was carefully thought out and plotted. The execution by the director was meticulous which was impressive for a complex script like this one. Filipinos should support local films like this.  Highly recommended! 8/10.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

ODD THOMAS and the Army of Death: An Unexpectedly Fun Thriller!

July 18, 2013



This movie was a total surprise, and a good one at that.  I had no idea what this was going to be a very entertaining movie. It is locally released as "Odd Thomas and the Army of Death" with a terrible-looking poster showing an ugly spider-like demon crawling in a graveyard.  I even had no idea who the actors were.  I had pretty low expectations going in.

"Odd Thomas" is the actual real name of the lead character, a short-order cook who can see ghosts. These ghosts usually go to him to bring their killers to justice. One day, he notes a strange-looking man he calls Fungus Bob because of his weird hairpiece. This man had multiple "death demons" called Bodachs crawling all over him. 

Based on his previous encounters with such demons, this unusual appearance of numerous Bodachs warned Odd of an impending disastrous event which could cost many lives in their quiet small town. Odd races against time to try to investigate, figure out and stop this catastrophe from happening.

Odd Thomas is played by Aaron Yelchin. This is the actor we best know as Chekov in the new "Star Trek" films. He gets to play the lead character here and he does very well indeed. His wry style of humor and good guy vibe worked very well for him in essaying the story's protagonist with special powers. 

Odd's girlfriend Stormy (a cute name only a hot girl like her can pull off) is played by pretty Addison Timlin. I have not seen her in anything before this film, but I hope to see more of her in the future. She is strong-willed and sassy, a perfect partner for our hero. Addison and Aaron have good screen chemistry together.

Screen veteran Willem Dafoe plays Odd's father. He is a no-nonsense Chief Porter, head of the police department in their community of Pico Mundo. Arnold Vosloo of the "Mummy" films had a cameo paying a ghost with a severed hand and stupid sense of fun. The rest of the supporting cast are not really familiar names but they do their roles well.

However from the get-go, despite the no-star cast and non-existent publicity, this movie entertained me with the charismatic lead actors, the quirky yet likable characters, the stylized computer-generated visual effects, fast and light pace of storytelling and its morbidly dark sense of humor. 

Director Stephen Sommers, who had brought us films like "The Mummy" and "Van Helsing" before, succeeds again in making these films with macabre themes very entertaining for the mainstream audiences. His interpretation of Dean Koontz' best-selling novel is truly excellent, even if this obviously had a lower budget than his previous films.  This is deserving of more hype than the other higher profile projects out there. Highly recommended! 8/10.



Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE LONE RANGER: Overlong and Overstuffed

July 17, 2013



Watching this movie is a gamble because the critics and US ticket receipts have already condemned this to be a bad movie as well as a box- office flop. The trailer was not really too convincing for me as well.

But there are very big names behind this movie -- Disney, 
Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbisnki, Johnny Depp, Hans Zimmer, among others -- all of whom have a Hollywood pedigree you cannot just deny. 

"The Lone Ranger" was the story of how idealistic young lawyer John Reid got exposed to the "real" wild wild West, and how he was influenced by a quirky renegade Comanche named Tonto to become the titular masked vigilante.

The story was actually good and even substantive, dealing with important issues like white man's greed leading to genocide of Native American tribes. It also had neat little twists and turns in the plot that were not predictable.

However for me, the way it was told by Director Gore Verbinski was too long-winded and snail-paced. OK, there were some very exciting moments here and there (namely at the beginning and towards the end), and those were the best parts of the film. But it cannot be denied that there were times when the momentum would slow down so much and dip to boring levels. There were supposedly funny gimmicks that simply fall flat, like those inexplicable vicious rabbits.

From the very start, the carnival museum scene employed as the framing device, was already dragging and too weird. That is not good when your film has a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Johnny Depp's Oscar-nominated antics as Captain John Sparrow did not translate well in the character of Tonto. Many of his deadpan one- liners were only mildly funny at best, since Tonto was not exactly a visually flamboyant personality. However, seeing him feed a stuffed crow with peanuts, or put his head in a birdcage, or carry a parasol in the desert was downright UN-funny for me. It even felt demeaning to the character.

It was also strange how poor Armie Hammer, who gets to play the title role as the Lone Ranger, actually felt more like the side kick here. Of course, Depp was the star and you feel it! This story revolved around Tonto, going all the way back from his childhood to his old age. The way the character of John Reid was written, he was never truly fully in control of his own actions throughout the film. Hammer was a striking Lone Ranger, looking good in his mask, ranger hat and riding on Silver, but even his iconic pose and line got a solid knock from Tonto.

Overall, watching "The Lone Ranger" is not a total loss. Those extravagant train stunts were very exciting to watch. Although you would wonder if those were physically possible in the real world, you will enjoy the way these elaborately choreographed stunts were executed and edited. Hearing the familiar "Lone Ranger Theme" (actually the "William Tell Overture") still makes the scenes it accompanies more exciting.


It is just the over-indulgent style of story-telling resulted in an over-long and over-stuffed pie that was not too easy to eat and digest. 5/10

Sunday, July 14, 2013

AFTERSHOCK: From Rom-Com to Disaster to Horror

July 14, 2013




The title "Aftershock" alone will make you expect it is about an earthquake. However, for the first thirty minutes or so, you are only uselessly following a group of three friends and ladies they pick up as they go around scenic Valparaiso in Chile, you'd think you were in a wrong rom-com movie. 

However, this earthquake does come when you least expect it. Then, the disaster movie goes into another radically different territory. It becomes a schlock-y horror film, where all the characters get killed off one by one in a way more grisly than the one before. This film does not shy away from blood or bad logic, folks!

With a story line like this, it really caters to a very limited audience - those who like to see the worst of human nature come out after a natural calamity. Fans of gore and sadism though may actually enjoy watching this awful film. I am giving it a star only for its final scene, which was well-shot, even though I totally saw it coming. 1/10.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

THE "BEFORE" SERIES: The Ballad of Jesse and Celine

July 13, 2013

I have heard about this movie series for a very long time, and I know it has a multitude of devoted fans. I do not exactly like watching romance movies, so I did not really feel the need to watch this. However, with the coming release of the third installment this month, and all the fervid anticipation for it, I finally relented and watched the first film, and then unexpectedly, the saga of Jessie and Celine actually got me hooked.  



BEFORE SUNRISE

An American guy Jesse meets a French girl Celine on a train from Budapest to Paris, and hit if off, having a great conversation going between them. When Jesse had to get off at Vienna to catch a plane to the States early next morning, he suddenly asks Celine if she would join him in his last night in Europe so they can continue their talking. Celine impulsively agrees, and the two talk about life and love all night long, meeting some odd characters along the way, until the sunrise broke and they had to go their own ways, vowing to meet up again in that same train station after six months.

I have to admit it was not too easy for me to get into it at the start. However, maybe the charm of Celine and Jesse, thanks to the very realistic performances of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, drew me in and got me listening to their endless stream of conversation. The refreshing spontaneity of Celine as portrayed by Delpy had me beguiled. She is completely believable as a girl Jesse fell completely in love at first sight with.

Kudos to the script by Director Richard Linklater for the natural flow and glow of words and ideas that people can relate to, succeeding to rivet the attention of even the most jaded of viewers to a movie that is nothing else but conversation between two people. The final scene of goodbye at the train station was very effective as a cliffhanger of sorts. Now I know why people were so excited when "Before Sunset" was released in 2004, nine years after the first film. 7/10



BEFORE SUNSET

I just finished watching "Before Sunrise" and I am glad I do not have to wait nine years to find out what happened to the love story of Celine and Jesse in "Before Sunset".

Jesse is now a successful author after he wrote a novel about his very special encounter with Celine we all watched in "Before Sunrise." He was doing a book tour in Europe and the last stop happened to be Paris. It just so happened that the book signing was a bookshop which was also Celine's favorite. 

Of course they meet, and then went around Paris the rest of the afternoon until Jesse's plane will be leaving at sunset. As with the first film, we see them talking about how their lives went since that fateful day in Vienna years back. 

Julie Delpy (as Celine) did not age too much, but Ethan Hawke (as Jesse) looked significantly older. But the years did not diminish their chemistry with each other. The script by Richard Linklater this time was shorter, more sober, with deeper issues and mature emotion now, compared to the first one which was generally lighter, whimsical, with palpable youthful vibrancy. The transition over the years was perfectly reflected in the words they spoke. Again, we are drawn deep into their conversations and their sentiments, until that open, puzzling yet charming final scene. 8/10




BEFORE MIDNIGHT

I watched "Before Midnight" almost right after I watched "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." The effect of seeing Jesse and Celine almost two decades after that fateful initial train ride to Vienna is just so strong. I can just imagine the experience for those who had seen the three films in real time, like reuniting with old friends after every nine years.

In "Before Midnight," Jesse and Celine are now living together with 7-year old twin daughters. They are spending a long vacation in rustic Greece with Jesse's writer friends, and they are at the tail end of that holiday. 

At this point in their lives, Jesse (looking so much older than his 41 years) is saddled with guilt because he wants to spend more time with his son who lives with his mom in Chicago. Celine on the other hand is deciding whether to get back into the work force with an offer she calls her "dream job.'

The couple were given a free night to spend at a seaside hotel on their last night. And, as the previous two movies went, Jesse and Celine did a lot of talking in this film. But the talk here was definitely more mature, going from funny to poignant to painful, and every word felt so true.

Couples who watch this together will most likely re-examine their own relationships. I am pretty sure many of the things you will hear spoken between Jesse and Celine you have heard in your own conversations with your spouse, specially those who have been married for more than ten years or so. You may even want to watch this by yourself first so you can reflect on your own marriage. The message is so direct to the point and frank, it can be so uncomfortable to hear in its familiarity.

The ending again is so open. The audience is invited to give their own ending, as before. Director and head writer Richard Linklater succeeds once again in bringing our old friends back to us, as charming and as vital as ever. Ethan Hawke and especially the luminous Julie Delpy shine and enthrall us like always with their natural and realistic performances, this time with raw and devastating honesty. 

Will this be the last chapter of their love story? I guess we just have to wait nine more years. 9/10


Friday, July 12, 2013

THE NUMBERS STATION: Do Not Let the Dull Title Deter You

July 12, 2013




This is another one of those quiet movies with an uninteresting title that wallow in obscurity, undeservedly. 

"The Numbers Station" refers to a remote un-mapped location where secret encoders broadcast missions in highly secret numeric ciphers. After a flubbed mission and a severe attack of conscience, hit man Emerson (John Cusack) gets reassigned to provide security to Katherine (Malin Akerman), one such code broadcaster. One day, their base gets compromised and Emerson and Katherine to promptly contain the problem before the false codes achieve their misguided missions.

John Cusack plays the cool-as-nails but conscience-stricken Emerson very well, both in the action scenes and the quiet scenes. His character is the heart of the film and he carried the role with dignity. Malin Ackerson did well as the traditional damsel in distress, but to her credit, her character did not just sit there waiting for things to happen. 

I liked the tight and exciting pace of the story unfolding within the limited confines of the isolated numbers station. The emotional upheaval within the heart of a supposedly jaded killer was also well-told. This suspenseful and thoughtful film is recommended for viewers who like a neat claustrophobic thriller. Do not let the dull title deter you.  7/10.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

PACIFIC RIM: Not a "Transformers" Clone, It Was Better.

July 11, 2013



I was so ready not to like "Pacific Rim". It seemed just like another one of those giant robot movies that are just all noise and explosions, nothing else. Fortunately though, it was a good thing that this was the only movie about to start when I got to the mall this morning. It turns out that this is so much better than the "Transformers" clone I was afraid it would be.

"Pacific Rim" takes place in the near future, and the world is under attack from gigantic monsters coming from beneath the depths of the Pacific Ocean, called Kaiju. Manila was one of the cities mentioned to have been attacked by the \destructive Kaiju.

As the tagline tells us, "to fight the monsters, we created monsters." These are in the form of so-called giant mechanical fighting soldiers called Jaegers, controlled by the skills of human controllers.  The team dedicated to fighting these destructive creatures are based in Hong Kong. The soldiers were all hot-headed and macho heroic types, led by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The scientists were portrayed as nerdy and caricature-ish comic relief, led by Dr. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day). 

The central character is Raleigh Becket, who had previously retired from the Jaegers when his brother and partner died in battle. He was portrayed by Charlie Hunnam, who was not too familiar to me, just another generic blonde Hollywood hunk actor. His face could have been interchangeable with any of the other Caucasian fighters in there, not too distinct.

The lead female character is Mako Mori, an aspiring Jaeger fighter, with a painful past. She is portrayed by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, who we should remember was nominated for Best Supporting Actress back in 2006 for her role in "Babel". Here, she appeared to be confused on how to properly portray her role, so she did not come across too strongly as her character should have been.

Despite these casting and characterization flaws though, the movie as a whole still turned out very well. Director Guillermo del Toro faced such a challenge to execute a script that dangerously flirted with disaster, deriving obvious inspirations with not only "Transformers," but also "Godzilla", "Real Steel", "Armageddon," and even "Voltes V."!  He succeeded to create within this borrowed material enough heart to make audiences root for the good guys and care if they save the planet or not. 

When I was watching as the movie went along, it did matter too much anymore that the acting was not too good, or that the scenes looked familiar, or that the lines get corny. The movie was actually engrossing and entertaining. The special effects of the monster battles on both land and sea were of epic proportions. The whole thing worked overall, and that is what matters in the end. 7/10.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I Review Three Films from EIGA SAI 2013

July 7, 2013




The annual Eiga Sai Japanese Film Festival is once again being presented by the Japan Foundation Manila, in cooperation with the Embassy of Japan, Shangri-La Plaza, and the Film Development Council of the Philippines, from July 4 to 14, 2013, at Cinema 2 of the Shang Cineplex.  These films are, as always, open to the public for free.  You just need to be willing to line up, sometimes a full hour or more, to catch the film you like.  

Here are my personal reviews of three films included this year's line-up of the Eiga Sai that I have seen:

ABOUT HER BROTHER ("OTOTO")

In "About Her Brother," Kohoru, a pretty young lady who works in the local pharmacy of her mother in a Tokyo suburb, is talking about her Uncle Tetsuro, her mother's younger brother, who is the family black sheep, for being a loser and a drunk. Her mother, the long-suffering Mrs. Ginko Takano, is the only family member who remained sympathetic to Tetsuro despite all the trouble and humiliation he has caused them.

The movie is two-hours long and slow to unfold despite the predictable story. The first part showing the shameful callous idiocy of Tetsuro was very difficult to watch. His foolishness at Kohoru's wedding and the huge unpaid debt he has incurred will make you feel so indignant. Yet, by the last thirty minutes, you would not be able to control your tears as those last heart-rending scenes squeeze them out of you.

This film's success I attribute solely to the sublime performance of Ms. Sayuri Yoshinaga as Ginko. Despite the movie being told in Kohoru's point of view, it is Ginko's quiet dignity and selflessness is the elegant heart and soul of this film. What Ginko goes through in this movie for her younger brother is harrowing and difficult, and many people now may not understand why she did what she did. But Ms. Yoshinaga's Ginko was so real. We feel her as our own mother.

This is a rare movie that tells about an older sister-younger brother relationship. I hope to see director Yoji Yamada's other films about Japanese family life. My introduction to Japanese film was a movie about a Japanese family, Ozu's fascinating "Tokyo Story". The emotions "About Her Brother" evokes in its final quarter somewhat reminded me of Ozu's work. The beautiful Asian sense of self-sacrifice in the name of family was showcased in its restrained nobility. 7/10



CONFESSIONS ("KOKUHAKU")

"Confessions" is about Ms. Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), a young school teacher who plots and executes an elaborate plot to exact revenge on two of her juvenile delinquent students who were responsible for the sad death of her four year old daughter. 

This horror story happened in a seemingly "regular" school, where your own children are in right now. How are you to know if there are mentally-unstable schoolmates roaming around plotting the most evil of schemes for the most nebulous reasons? This is the main reason why this film is so unsettling and discomforting.

The film also makes a convincing case against the Juvenile Law of the Penal Code stating that those 14 years old and younger are not liable for their crimes and cannot be punished for them. 

The film is highly stylized with liberal use of visual effects and computer imagery. It is also very graphically violent and shirked not from generously splattering blood in its depiction of the various deaths that occur in the film. 

The performance of Ms. Takako Matsu in the lead role of Ms. Moriguchi is so quiet and restrained, which makes her seem even more sinister, even as you can completely see where she is coming from. The creepy portrayals of the two troubled boys by young actors Yukito Nishii and Kaoru Fujiwara are very vexing in their realism. 

"Confessions" is a different kind of Japanese horror film especially since it has nothing supernatural going on in it. This is one film that is so difficult to watch because you get the feeling that this can happen in real life. It is a film that can make you lose faith in the future of humanity. 

Yet, despite it being so dark, so disturbing, so demoralizing and so depraved, Director Tetsuya Nakashima tells the story in a riveting way that you will be mesmerized to follow it all the way to the bitter end. 7/10



PARADE ("PAREDO")

"Parade" is a strange film about five young people, male and female, who share an apartment but hardly knew each other. One girl is obsessed with her eyebrows and her TV soap-opera actor boyfriend. One girl watches rape videos to relax. One guy is a yuppie who likes to run. One guy is a lazy bum student. The newest guy is a meddlesome blond- haired male prostitute. 

In the two hours of this film, we simply watch these five people go in and out of their apartment, getting involved with their neighbors, their lovers, their curiosities about each other, and a serial killer on the loose in the park. The movie just jumps from one character to the other dealing with random mundane events in their lives. I do not really see a distinct unifying plot. It is all so "stream of consciousness"-like, definitely not for everybody.

I guess it is all about how you cannot judge a book by its cover -- how even the most sensible-looking or the most attractive of people have their own share of ugly secrets hidden in their closets. The young actors all did their best in their unusual roles. Unfortunately, everything in the script of director Isao Yukisada felt contrived and unnatural. It did not exactly fly for me. 5/10


Saturday, July 6, 2013

DESPICABLE ME 2: Lovable and Funny as Ever, But ...

July 6, 2013



The first "Despicable Me" back in 2010 was an unexpected heartwarming surprise for me. I did not think I would like that film because of the strange-looking artwork of the unorthodox characters. But the main story of the film, about how a super-villain named Gru, who wanted to steal the Moon, reformed to become a dedicated family man to three orphaned girls Margo, Edith and Agnes, was its best feature.  My review of the first DM was posted HERE.

This story of this sequel is about the reformed Gru (still voiced by Steve Carell) being recruited by the Anti-Villain League to be their secret agent.  His mission is to discover and apprehend an evil criminal who had developed a toxin which can turn any living being into destructive purple hairy monsters upon injection. 

While this mission was going on, Gru was also having difficulty admitting his romantic feelings for kooky partner Lucy (Kristen Wiig), as well as trying to break up another romance budding between his eldest daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) and her dashing Latino admirer, who was the son of the man Gru suspects to be the diabolical El Macho.

For me, the story is not really much to be excited too much about this time, unlike the first one which was totally original and endearing. The first film was already perfect as it was as a stand-alone film. I actually thought and even hoped back then that there would be no more sequels to that one. But you know Hollywood, they will try and squeeze out whatever they can from a successful franchise like this one.

The star of this film is the vibrant and colorful artwork. We watched this film in 3D and it was awesome, absolutely worth the extra money it cost. The face of Gru himself alone, with that pointy nose of his, is made for 3D.  The 3D animation was breath-taking in so many of the far-out action scenes, especially those where there was a speeding submarine underwater, the car hurtling out of the mall window, a jelly gun battle of epic proportions, an exploding volcano, up to the Minions antics during the final credits.  

I have to say liked the first film better than this one. This sequel, while still lovable and enjoyable as ever, focused more on the relationship between Gru and Lucy.  It had little of those delightful encounters between Gru and his daughters which made the first film uniquely appealing.  I wanted to see more of cute little Agnes most of all.  While she had her little touching moment at the end, it was just too short to make too much of an impact.  

But make no mistake, definitely, this is one very funny and entertaining film for the whole family.  Fans of those naughty little yellow Minions will rejoice as they have practically half of the movie running time dedicated to them, and there are so many more of them here.  Fans of good 3D effects will really find this film so cool.  I just missed some of the heart that made the first installment more than special.  7/10.



Friday, July 5, 2013

THE BLING RING: Celebrity Worship Gone Wild!

July 5, 2013


THE FILM

Based on real-life events recounted by Ms. Nancy Jo Sales in her 2010 Vanity Fair magazine article, "The Bling Ring" is about a group of five high-school students in Los Angeles who thought it was cool to break into houses of celebrities in order to steal their high-end signature clothes, shoes and accessories. 

We witness their escapades as the gang raided the closets of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan, among the notable names in their hit list, helping themselves to their Channels, Louboutins, and Rolexes. That went on gleefully for them, until the long arm of the law finally caught up with their shenanigans.

Emma Watson (best known as Hermione in the Harry Potter films) is the most famous name in the young cast. However, her character Nicki is ironically NOT the ringleader of the gang. She does have some memorable scenes of her own, mostly with her flaky New Age mother (played by the funny Leslie Mann). Emma's acting as a spoiled, somewhat delusional Valley Girl is so realistically annoying. She did have a brief scene showing us her pole dancing skills.

The real leaders of the gang were Rebecca (Katie Chang) and her new found kindred spirit Marc (Israel Broussard). Rebecca was so cool and nonchalant about her kleptomaniac tendencies borne out of celebrity worship and fashion passion, especially for her idol Lindsay Lohan. Marc was just a new kid in school trying to fit in when he got caught up in Rebecca's naughty games. We do not see much of Rebecca's back story and how she became like this, and that is a pity since she was very much the reason why her friends did these crimes.

My complaint about this movie was that the robbery scenes were basically very repetitive. The first break-into Paris Hilton's house was very interesting and exciting for many of us in the audience who, tough as it may to admit, are also curious about what this heiress got in her walk- in closets. However, with the following ones breaking into Megan Fox's, or Rachel Bilson's or Orlando Bloom's, all the time exclaiming at the various treasures they see, then celebrating their caper at the clubs with their cellphone selfies, drugs and alcohol, it just became tedious already. 

At least in the Audina Patridge break-in, Coppola gave us a nice long bird's eye view from afar, watching Rebecca and Marc run around the house. There were also some uncomfortable scenes like Nicki's sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) playing with a gun in Megan Fox's bedroom, or Chloe's (Claire Julien) car accident when driving drunk, that broke the monotony of the robbery scenes. At the same time, these scenes are consistent in showing the rash idiocy of these vapid youths. 

The scenes after the trial were quite meaningful. The scene of Nicki being interviewed for being the cell mate of a notorious celebrity was hilarious. There was also a quiet scene with Marc where it was very scary to imagine what would happen next to him. Count on Sofia Coppola to come up with these open endings (remember "Lost In Translation"?)

Overall, Director Sofia Coppola presents to us a very disturbing cautionary story about teenagers of today. This would be how these young people obsess about the fashion, possessions and lifestyle of various celebrities they see everyday on TV and online. This is celebrity obsession gone wild. 6/10.


THE BOOK

After watching the film, I felt compelled to read the book that Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales wrote to expand on her original 2010 article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" on which the film was based on.

Being a longer account of the crimes, we learn more details about the five members of the Bling Ring here.  We realize that Sofia Coppola had actually changed the names of the real perpetrators for their parallel characters in the film.  

The real Rebecca is Rachel Lee, a daughter of two well-to-do North Korean immigrants, now separated.  Her mother runs Kumon schools in LA and her pony-tailed dad is a businessman in Vegas.  She was apparently very shy in real life and was not willing to grant interviews after the arrests.  So that explains why the movie did not have much about her and her motivations for the crimes she masterminded.

The real Marc is Nick Prugo.  His story is more or less the spine of the movie screenplay, as the details of his life were mostly left as is.  He was the one most willing to spill the beans about their crimes, despite (or could it be because of) the advice of his attorney.  As presented in the film, he was a friendless new student, transferred to Indian Hills because of frequent absences in his old school.  He was really always reluctant and anxious about the crimes, but could not say no to Rachel because he dreaded to lose her friendship which he values.  He was outed to be gay later in the book, but this was only suggested in the film.

The real Nicki is Alexis Neiers.  She is a self-declared "indigo child", a Valley Girl who lived with and was home-schooled by her New Age mother, Andrea.  Alexis had a younger sister Gabrielle, and a "sort of adopted" sister Tess Taylor.  Called Sam in the film, Tess is a Playboy Cyber-bunny who was never implicated in any of the cases.  Alexis had a media blitz after she was charged, and even had a reality tv series with her sisters.  She was really in jail at the same time a celebrity they robbed was, as the film says Nicki was.  No wonder Emma Watson wanted to play this quirky role, even if she is not the central character.

The real Chloe is Courtney Ames, an long time friend of Rachel's.  It was through Courtney (and her waitressing at various bars) that the Bling Ring got connected to the fence Johnny Ajar, who was her boyfriend, as well another guy, a bouncer named Roy Lopez (could he be Fili-Am since he was supposed to be a member of a so-called "Pinnoy Gang"?).  The book interestingly mentioned that Courtney had no sense of smell.  Strange detail.

Another gang member named Diana Tamayo, apparently an illegal Mexican migrant, and supposedly a student leader at school and scholar, seemed to have been totally left off by Coppola in her script. 

As a whole though, the writing style of the book was rather uneven, just  like how a conversation might randomly go from one gossipy detail to another.  There are times when you get to the latter half of the book when you will feel that she was already gossiping too much though.  The accounts felt very repetitive already, like you've read the same things over and over.  I admittedly had some degree of disconnect already when Sales was describing showbiz events that occurred after the year 2000.

Aside from describing the crimes and what items have been stolen, the criminals and their version of what transpired, the celebrity victims and their careers, their lawyers and their eccentricities, etc. in more detail, the book also allowed Nancy Jo to vent about her thoughts regarding the culture of fame and celebrity among impressionable teens of today.  

We get a lot of juicy pop culture trivia along the way about various celebrities through the years.  We get comparisons of what successful pop music, movies and TV shows before and during the 1980s when celebrities began their brainwashing of the collective mind of the youth.  A lot of Gen-X and Gen Y's can find Sales dissertation about the popular culture they grew up very interesting reading.  Even if we did not ever reach the levels of sick obsession the Bling Ring did, we all know and recognize who and what she was talking about.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN: An Entertaining "Die Hard" in the White House

July 4, 2013




At first, I did not want to watch "White House Down" anymore, since we just had one "Die Hard at the White House" movie earlier this year called "Olympus Has Fallen" (MY REVIEW). However, my curiosity to compare these two similarly-themed films got the better of me, so on this Fourth of July (coincidentally), I went and checked it out. And what do you know, I was actually more entertained by this one.

"White House Down" is about a day when a group of disgruntled ex- servicemen with big grudges against the government attacks the White House, aiming to capture the peace-loving President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) alive in order to launch nuclear attacks to various targets all over the world. 

Of course, it just so happened that Afghanistan veteran John Cale (Channing Tatum) was in the White House that very day with his precocious political video blogger daughter Emily (Joey King), joining a White House tour. He was the one variable the bad guys did not count on when planning their violent takeover.

Initially I thought that the choice of Jamie Foxx as the President of the USA was all wrong, given his background in low-brow comedy. While watching though, Foxx and his great comedic timing is the ingredient that makes this film work so well. Channing Tatum continues his streak of high profile roles, and he does a good Bruce Willis impression in this one. The chemistry between these two guys kept the action going and the audience rooting for them, despite some pretty preposterous situations they got themselves into.

As for the veteran supporting cast, Maggie Gyllenhaal does well as a dedicated Secret Service Agent, as do James Woods as the Head of the Secret Service and Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the House. Nicolas Wright, the guy who played the White House tour guide Donnie, is very funny.  But young Joey King makes a positive impression as Emily Cale, John's gutsy pre- teen daughter. She has a vibrant and expressive face that hopefully graces more films in the future.

Director Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012") does what he does best, delivering an explosive and exciting film that audiences will enjoy watching. The exposition at the beginning took its time, at times even looking like a White House tour video. But when the action started, it never let up. 

Certain plot details might be illogical, shallow or even cheesy, but this does not purport itself to be a serious film. It has an undeniable sense of humor that "Olympus Has Fallen" does not, making this the more entertaining film of the two. You will definitely have more of a good time watching "White House Down." 7/10.


Haunted Motel: Another Re-Titled Generic B Horror Flick

July 4, 2013




This film was originally entitled "No Tell Motel," then was re-titled "Haunted Motel" when it was shown in local theaters. This actually was already a warning that this is going to be one lousy horror film. I should have taken that warning.

"Haunted Motel" starts with a tragic accident when a little girl was suddenly run over by a speeding car. Her shocked parents could do nothing but helplessly wail by the roadside in front of their motel (called the Round the Bend Motel). This scene shot in dramatic sepia is the best of the whole film (worth a star on its own). Everything else fell to pieces after that.

Several years later, a group of five young people meet a car accident and were forced to spend the night at an abandoned roadside motel. And, as all horror films of this type go, we see the members of the group get killed off one by one, apparently by a ghostly little girl. Of course, the explanations come at the end, but by that time, you don't even care if you completely get it or not.

During all this time, we get a convoluted and confusing sequence of inexplicable events, told with absolutely no sense of dread or terror at all. Even the ghostly little Angela looked so pasty and fake, you don't really get scared by her. All the characters (a drug addict, a masochist, a rapist, a pregnant teen and her clueless friend) were very thanklessly unlikable, and the unfamiliar actors portraying them did not exactly rise above mediocrity of the material.

This is a generic B-horror film all the way. No redeeming factors either in the story, technical or in the acting departments. This is tolerable only if you have nothing else to watch, but keep your expectations really low. 2/10