Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Delightful Old World Charmer

April 27, 2014

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the latest quirky masterpiece of young acclaimed writer-director Wes Anderson. Since his breakthrough writing and directing "Rushmore" in 1998, his every output had been highly anticipated, admired and discussed. "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001), "the Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2010) and "Moonrise Kingdom" (2013) have all been nominated for Oscar honors. His films are all marked with wry humor and out-of-the-box imagery, making them enjoyable and memorable.

His latest film "The Grand Budapest Hotel" brings us to quaint and exotic Eastern Europe in the 1930s. The hotel was in its heyday as the hangout of the rich and famous, under the efficient management of its charming concierge, M. Gustave H. When one of his favorite guests, Madame D., was suddenly murdered, Gustave becomes implicated when the Madame bequeaths a precious painting to him, to the dismay of her family. What follows is a merry and witty romp as Gustave sought to prove his innocence with the help of his loyal protégé, the young lobby boy named Zero.

This fanciful story was told as a story written by an old author in the 1980s, describing a night in his youth when he spent with the elderly Zero Moustafa, the owner of the hotel when it was way past its prime in the late 1960s. It was then that Zero related how the Grand Budapest came to be in his possession. I thought this layered story-telling style of a tale within a tale within a tale is totally delightful and inspired.

Old European charm and gentility is stamped all over this film. The production design should be commended for those beautiful sets. The candy-colored hotel and the grand mansion of Madame D. were both designed and decorated so deliciously intricate and ornate. The period costumes were amazing in their detail and sense of humor. The actions sequences were done like they were silent movies from the 1920s -- totally fun.

M. Gustave is played by the multi-faceted Ralph Fiennes, whose comic timing was surprisingly sharp and flawless. The rest of the cast was an eclectic mix of Oscar-caliber actors, winners and nominees all. The elder Zero was played by F. Murray Abraham, whom I had not seen in a mainstream movie since he won the Oscar Best Actor in "Amadeus" (1984). We also see Adrian Brody, Tilda Swinton, Soarsie Ronan, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and Owen Wilson. This all-star cast were all on point in their portrayals of their smaller but marked roles.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film. It is delightful. It is charming. It is the most fun I have had watching a Wes Anderson film since "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." I am definitely looking forward to his next eccentric project. 9/10.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review of TRANSCENDENCE: Unrealized Potentials

April 24, 2014

The brilliant Artificial Intelligence-scientist Dr. Will Caster was shot with a bullet laced with a radioactive poison.  As Dr. Will slowly dies, his wife Evelyn hits upon the idea of uploading the contents of his brain as digital data into the Internet. He has achieved his dream of "transcendence" -- an all-powerful super-computer with his brilliant mind. Dr. Will was then able to build his own advanced research complex where he basically played God.  When this reached a point when he was already controlling human wills, Evelyn herself began to question the soundness and morality of Will's radical concepts.

Johnny Depp is prominently billed as the lead actor in this film as Dr. Will Caster.  However in actuality, he is not actually present as a flesh and blood human character for the majority of the film. Most of his screen time was a disembodied face on a computer screen, which of course limits his acting options.  His casting though brings some good will and humanity into a character which would have come across as totally evil and egomaniacal if done by another actor.  Depp is coming from two box office disappointments, namely "Dark Shadows" and "The Lone Ranger".  I do not think this film will be his redemption.

Rebecca Hall has an unconventional smart beauty which makes her convincing as Evelyn Caster, a computer scientist who was completely devoted to her husband.  It is her conflict of trust and loyalty which is the main heart of the film. Paul Bettany is again in one of those offbeat roles of his, this time as Max Waters, the Caster's best friend and colleague with conflicting ethical concerns.  Morgan Freeman is also here as a more senior AI scientist working with the FBI.  Cillian Murphy is wasted in a non-consequential role as an FBI agent investigating Caster's case.

The concept behind "Transcendence" is admirably complex as it delves into prickly issues of man vs. machine and the controversial ethics of artificial intelligence.  However, the execution of the ambitious script by Jack Paglen is affected somewhat from the direction of first-time director Wally Pfister.  Pfister was the long-time cinematographer of ace director Christopher Nolan. Pfister's outstanding eye for beautiful imagery is obviously apparent.  But the way Pfister told the story is much too slow and lethargic for me.

I was very interested with the story, the science and the ethical issues involved.  I was intrigued with the medical miracles that AI could do, and hoped they can be possible in real life, without the consequences in the film.  However I was bored by the lifeless build up en route to the final conflict. There was so much tedious exposition in computer jargon that tend not to make complete sense to most laymen. I imagine this film could have been done a lot better in more experienced hands.  The potential for greatness was definitely there. Unfortunately, this was not completely realized in the final product. 5/10.

Review of A HAUNTED HOUSE 2: Just Dumb, Not Funny

April 24, 2014

I have not seen the first "A Haunted House" film, but after sitting through this dreadful sequel I don't think I would like to.  Why this trashy unpleasant film was released on Easter weekend is beyond me.

There is no coherent story.  Upon getting over an ex-girlfriend who got possessed by evil spirits, Malcolm hooks up and moves in with a new girl Megan and her two kids.  What follows is an embarrassing mishmash of scenes from recent big hits in the horror genre, "Sinister", "Insidious" and "The Conjuring," as Malcolm continues to be terrorized by demonic events.  

Marlon Wayans plays Malcolm in the most irritating and annoying manner, with his non-stop loud screaming and nonsensical ranting.  He has a prolonged, uncomfortable and unfunny sex sequence where Marlon gets it on with a doll that looks like the diabolical Annabelle from "The Conjuring".  More awful jokes of such sick sexual nature would recur through the rest of the film.

You go into a spoof film like this to have a shallow laugh out of jokes inspired by your favorite horror films. However, within the first few minutes, you already get the feeling that this film will not entertain you at all.  In fact, it could even be quite boring, with very long humorless scenes that overstay their welcome. There are many scenes which would offend pet lovers, Catholics, Mexicans, women, and practically everyone else.  

I found it interesting only when it tries to recreate a recognizable scene from those modern horror classics, like the group hanging from "Sinister" or the "Hide and Clap" game from "The Conjuring".  But unfortunately, I wind up disappointed because its spoofing just falls terribly flat.  I would have had a good time if a film was dumb and funny, but this film is just plain dumb, not funny. 1/10.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review of HEAVEN IS FOR REAL: Inspirational Easter Reflection

April 19, 2014

"Heaven is for Real" is a rare mainstream film in these increasingly materialistic times.  The timing for its theatrical release right on the feast of Easter is perfect. 

The story is based on true events, as related in a best-selling 2010 book of the same title, written by its main character, Todd Burpo. Todd is hard-working Christian pastor who lives and serves in a small town in Nebraska with his young wife Sonja and two small kids, Cassie and Colton.  

One day, four-year old Colton survives a very critical illness.  Upon full recovery, Colton begins to relate that he has been to heaven, and actually sat on Jesus' lap. When the public gets wind of these stories though, they were met with derision and disdain. Todd Burpo had to conquer his own personal doubts, on top of his growing financial woes, familial stress and professional credibility.

The cast is effectively led by Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo and Kelly Reilly as his wife. Kinnear delivers a touching performance of the good pastor who has to face the doubting public as he grapples with his own personal and spiritual issues. Creditable supporting work were provided by Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale as neighbors and close friends of the Burpo family.  I am sure everyone will be totally charmed and enchanted by the adorable little Connor Corum as Colton. His very natural and unaffected performance makes the whole film work.

The title and its trailer does not hide what this movie is all about.  This film is about a matter of Christian religious faith thus defining its target audience.  This Christian virtue of Faith is about accepting mysteries and miracles which could not be proven or explained by the limits of human intelligence. As it was depicted in the film, this type of topic will be met with a lot of negative skepticism, especially that it is about the son of a poor Christian pastor who wrote the book on which this film is based.  There will always be those who feel that there is a burden of proof on the believer. But of course, believers will feel that they do not need to prove anything since their Faith alone suffices.

For me, I thought this film succeeded in inspiring people to reflect on their own lives, as well as on their lives after death.  I do not think this is necessarily only for the Christian faithful, but it can be for everyone whose mind is open to ideas of a spiritual aspect in human existence. The cinematic elements of cinematography, editing, production design and musical score may have been simple, but the delivery of its message is nevertheless emotionally powerful. Despite some small logical lapses in story-telling, this film by Director Randall Wallace remains poignant and thought-provoking, without being too overtly sentimental or dogmatic. 

The MTRCB rated this G, but I thought this is more of PG territory as many of the film's discussions about life and death, scenes of dying, as well as occasional light naughty humor, may not be appropriate for very young children. 7/10.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review of RIO 2: Vibrant Avian Entertainment

April 15, 2014

"Rio 2" takes Blu and Jewel, now parents of three young ones, from the comforts of Rio de Janeiro, deep into the tropical rain forests of the Amazon River.  There, Jewel gets reunited with her kin and old friends, and the kids all get excited with their new jungle experience.  However, purely city-bred Blu, ever dependent on his fanny pack and trusty GPS, had the most difficult time fitting in. But true to his dictum of "Happy wife, happy life", Blu still gives it a valiant effort.

Jesse Eisenberg totally transforms himself here as the voice of Blu.  It can be argued that this actor seems to be the playing the same person in all of his movies.   Even if Blu was also neurotic and insecure like many of his characters in the past, he managed not to sound like the usual Jesse Eisenberg we know from his other film roles.

Anne Hathaway voiced Blu's wife Jewel.  Her character was rather standard, not too much of a departure from what she does.  More distinctive voice work were that of Andy Garcia as Jewel's father, the formidably regal Eduardo, and that of Bruno Mars as the suave, crested lover-bird Roberto. There was also a more minor auntie macaw character played by Ms. Rita Moreno.  Too bad we did not get to hear her sing more.

One subplot involved illegal loggers intent on clearing the rain forest of precious lumber. Blu's human friends Linda and Tulio try to stop them, but were obviously outnumbered.  This angle provided the film with its serious moments of environmental concern.  The scene showing the raped forest as a bare, cleared-out brown wasteland was a tear-jerker. Of course, this has been a common theme in several films set in the wilderness, like "Avatar" or the latest animated incarnation of "Tarzan".

The other subplot was a vengeful cockatoo named Nigel, who has lost his ability to fly from an accident in the first "Rio" film because of Blu.  His henchmen included a dancing anteater named Charlie and an infatuated pink poisonous frog named Gabi.  Nigel and Gabi, despite being the antagonists, provide the film with two of the more memorable song numbers.  Gabi (voiced by Kristen Chenowith) shone with a bittersweet love song entitled "Poisonous Love". Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement) had a riotous take on the disco classic "I Will Survive".

The animation was very vivid and colorful. The nature scenes with the rain forest and the birds and creatures that inhabit it were so vital and alive.  The renditions of the animals were all delightfully cute for the younger audiences.  Aside from the birds, anteater and frog, we also see capybara (which I did not imagine could be so cute), porcupine, monkeys, snakes, piranha and turtles (who were into Capoeira, slow motion, of course).

The rich and happy culture of Brazil were in full display in this film.  The film opens with a sequence of huge New Year's Eve party right on Ipanema Beach.  There would be auditions (held by birds voiced by and Jamie Foxx) for a Carnival show, which would set the scene for various entertaining musical numbers.  There is also a thrilling football match between blue vs. red macaws which was excellently executed.  

I did not get to watch the first Rio film, but my kids did, and they wanted to watch this sequel. Upon watching this, this film talks about a whole different adventure with the lead blue spix macaw characters. The few flashback references from the first film seemed adequately clear enough for those for which Rio 2 is the first Rio film they will see.  I did not have to know much about the first film to enjoy this one. And enjoy it I did, very much. 7/10.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review of LONG WEEKEND: Friday the 13th Goes Thai

April 12, 2014

Horror films from Thailand have really found their way into our cinemas.  I have taken note of them since I was scared by Thai horror classics like "The Eye" and "Shutter," which really have memorably innovative scare techniques.  More recently, "Pee Mak" found a lot of fans with its charismatic cast and hilarious version of an old Thai ghost story.  This latest one "Long Weekend," is not as good as these first three films, however it is better than clunkers like "Second Sight" shown in theaters just last week.

"Long Weekend" is about a group of teenagers who decide to take an overnight thrill-seeking adventure at a remote island notorious for a bloody "Devouring Ghost" feast celebration mishap on a Friday the 13th years back which resulted in many deaths.  When the boys play a cruel prank on a classmate who came along uninvited, sinister events begin to unravel, turning what was supposed to be a weekend of fun into a weekend of death.

It starts with an episode from the childhood of central characters which establish their relationship, the odd Thongsook (a special boy who can see ghosts) and the curious Nam (the pretty girl he loved).  I liked how the director Taweewat Wantha would transition scenes from past to present.  These shifts would prove important in the course of the film. The actor and actress who played Thongsook and Nam have a nice chemistry going for them.   

When they reach the island, there is not really too much that is new about this horror film. You have probably seen one familiar scary bit from one previous horror film or the other all spliced into this one.  You want ghosts, they got it.  You want gore, they got it.  It also has this juvenile sense of humor that keeps everything light without being absurdly slapstick.  This is reminiscent of various local or Western smorgasbord teen horror film where we enjoy watching a cast of young good-looking young actors embark on a trip which would scare them out of their wits. 5/10.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Review of HAUNT: Frustratingly Mediocre

April 11, 2014

"Haunt" is about the house where the Morello family once lived. Dr. Janet Morello (Jacki Weaver) was a pediatrician. When they moved in though, their three teenage kids all suffer terrible unexpected deaths. Later, even her husband Franklin also fell dead, leaving Janet alone to deal with her broken life.  

However, how could there be a horror movie if there was no foolhardy family who was still brave (or desperate) enough to live in that house despite its sinister past? Enter the Asher family, a couple who happened to also have three teenage kids, exactly like those of the Morellos. It did not take long though that strange things begin to happen to the new tenants.

The focus of this story was the middle son, 18 year-old Evan (Harrison Gilbertson). One night, he met a pretty but mysterious girl Sam (Liana Liberato) whom he saw crying in the woods outside their house. The two became closer as they try to communicate with the spirits living inside the house with an old microphone set. Of course, their interaction with the ghosts did not stop there.

The presence of two-time Oscar Best Supporting Actress nominee Jacki Weaver gives the cast some credibility. She has this unusual distinct face whom you can't shake off once you've seen it. The young lead cast, Gilbertson and Liberato, also did very well despite the offbeat love story they were made to portray. The girl Liana Liberato should really get a better break already than small films like this. She had already proven her acting chops years back in the harrowing child molestation drama "Trust". 1980s film fans may also recognize Ione Skye of "River's Edge" and "Say Anything" fame. She plays Mrs. Asher here, though she was not really made to do too much.

I really liked the way this movie started. It boasts of excellent cinematography and imaginative special effects. The set-up and the pace of story-telling was effectively tense and creepy. However, as the story was reaching its climax though, it felt like its inspiration simply gave up and the film just went nowhere. The back story given for the events were terribly plain and unsatisfying, no thrills about it. 

Overall, this film was a big disappointment. While the opening sequences promised another excellent haunted house movie, the ending scenes were frustratingly mediocre, such a waste of its story potential and its talented cast. 4/10.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review of SON OF GOD: Bound to Be a Lenten Habit

April 3, 2014

Being Catholics living in a predominantly Catholic country, we Filipinos know the story of Jesus passion and death very very well. We recall these sorrowful events every year since our childhood during the yearly Lenten rituals we perform and Lenten movies we watch. Owing to its simple, audience-friendly, homespun style, this latest film about Jesus entitled "Son of God" is bound to join the list of classic religious films the whole family can watch and meditate on during the seasons of Lent and Easter.

"Son of God" covers everything from the Annunciation, the Birth in Bethlehem, His ministry, passion, death and resurrection, and the beginning of the early Church with Paul and Ananias. Initially it would play like a documentary, with a narrator telling the story in between scenes. But starting from scenes with the adult Jesus, narrations were not needed anymore. Towards the end though, narrations were needed again to tell the stories about the early fathers of the Church.

The actors were all unknown to me, no big stars here. The casting and acting was predictable. The good characters look and act kindly. The bad characters look and act evil. All the events happen more or less in the order we know it. We hear most of the verses we expect to hear. They may not be said in the same context as it was in the Bible, but the effect is generally the same. Yet, despite being so familiar, it still remains compelling to watch.

Jesus is played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. He has a calm and gentle face, with smiling eyes. From the first time we see him at his Baptism at the Jordan, to his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Morgado's portrayal of Jesus, while in no way as intense as Robert Powell's or James Caviezel's, is still very much on point. He should be favorably appreciated by the faithful. He plays Jesus with kindness, humility and dignity.

It turns out that the actress who plays the older Mother Mary is Roma Downey, who was in the inspirational TV series "Touched by an Angel" and one of the producers (along with her husband Mark Burnett of "Survivor" fame) of the History Channel TV miniseries "The Bible" from which this movie was derived. She was very effective in her portrayal of the Lord's suffering mother during the scourging at the pillar, the way of the Cross to Calvary. Her Mary will move us to tears.

I believe this movie will be a Holy Week staple from this year onwards for my family and for many other Catholic families. This is the version of Jesus' life and death most of us know by heart. The good intentions of this film's makers radiate through and touch the viewers. This version is safe, straightforward and uncontroversial, with violence mercifully muted for younger viewers. This film may be judged as plain in the artistic sense, but artistry is probably not as much its intention as it is to inspire. 8/10.