Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review of ENEMY: Of Doppelgangers and Spiders

July 31, 2014

Adam Bell is a lonely history professor in a Toronto university with a boring repetitive routine in life. Each day after school, he goes home and gets visits from his girlfriend. One day, he was watching a movie and was surprised to see an actor there named Daniel Saint Claire who looked exactly like him. This leads Adam on a obsessive quest to seek out his doppelganger, drawing him into a swirling vortex of his own psychological delusions.

"Enemy," as envisioned and directed by Denis Villenueve, is not an easy movie to watch. It is very very quiet and unfolds very very slowly. Its running time is only an hour and a half, but it feels interminable due to its glacial pace. There is a lot of strange imagery, particularly a recurring reference to spiders and women, which will make many a viewer scratch his head in bewilderment.

However, I have to say it is riveting. You will want to know how Adam confronts his double and if he can figure out his confusion. You will want to know how the teacher's girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) and the actor's pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) figure into this complex web. The ever-enigmatic Isabella Rosselini even makes a crucial appearance as Adam's mother. The build-up during the last fifteen minutes was intense and puzzling at the same time. It all builds up to a final scene that will make you exclaim "WTH was that?!"

Jake Gyllenhaal is an A-list actor with big commercial films like "Prince of Persia" and "Love and Other Drugs". However, he also has some serious and more cerebral film projects, such as "Brokeback Mountain" (where he was nominated for an Oscar) and just last year "Prisoners" (also directed by Villeneuve). Here in "Enemy", Gyllenhaal again impresses us with a sublime double performance as the mousy teacher Adam and the cocky actor Daniel, upon which the entire drama of the film revolves.

This is again one of those films which most audiences will find weird and baffling. If you are patient enough to reach the end, you will either hate yourself for wasting 90 minutes of your life, or you will be intrigued enough to contemplate on the film's deeper messages and symbolisms. The quote at the beginning of the film is a challenge to the viewer, "Chaos is order yet undeciphered." Will you be able to figure out what this conundrum of a film is about? 6/10.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review of SHE'S DATING THE GANGSTER: Charm and Chemistry

July 29, 2014

Kenji de los Reyes is one of the passengers of a plane that crashed en route to Bicol. His son Kenneth, a rebellious teenager who just wished his dad dead the night before, wants to go there to look for him. Kelay is a kooky girl who also wants to look for Mr. delos Reyes because she wants to reunite him with his first love, her aunt Athena, who is on her death bed with dilated cardiomyopathy.

As typical local rom-coms go, Kenneth and Kelay start out hating each others guts. As circumstances forced to them to take a long road trip to Bicol together, Kenneth gets to know his "gangster" dad more and the pivotal role Athena played in his father's life.

This film is by now a certified blockbuster about to run on its third week, and for good reason, it is very good as far as local mainstream films go. A big part of its success is the superb casting of today's most popular teen love team, Daniel Padilla and Kathryn Bernardo, both as Kenneth and Kelay of the present day, and Kenji and Athena of a generation ago.

It was also an inspired casting coup to get the biggest love team twenty years ago, Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta to play the senior Kenji and Athena. As much as I wanted to hide the fact that Ms. Zulueta is in this film, the film's opening credits did keep her special participation a secret, so I wrote it here too.  I think they should have hidden this little casting gem secret as long as they could for better effect.

Both sets of actors have so much positive chemistry with each other that it radiates through the screen into the movie theater. They do not even have to speak to titillate their rapt audiences. The best scenes of the film did not have words: Daniel riding to school on his skateboard, Kathryn smiling with her new haircut, Richard carrying Dawn from the wheelchair to the bench, Dawn radiantly coming into view from the bedroom. 

Director Cathy Garcia-Molina knows how to use the best assets of her actors to convey the most emotion, even without words. Ms. Molina is best known for her Sarah Geronimo-John Lloyd Cruz trilogy (which I confess that I have not watched), so her skill with what clicks in a Pinoy rom-com is unquestionable. 

The script is written by Carmi Raymundo, who had collaborated with Ms. Molina several times before. She had adapted the story from the best-selling novel of the same title originally published on Wattpad written by Bianca B. Bernardino. Of course, as with other such hit rom-coms there are plenty of sweet quotable quotes. The most memorable of them would probably be, "When I say I can't breathe, it means I love you."

The noisy parts of the film are the parts I did not like too much, such as the maid with the siren-like voice or that cringe-worthy "sexy love" basketball cheering routine. I understand though that these are there for comic relief and would play better for the younger female members of the audience. There were also that thing about the pager mix-up at the very outset of the story that I cannot understand. 

However, those little negatives aside, it was really those moments when  sincere heartfelt emotions shine through, and there were many, which can transcend age and gender barriers and resonate for audiences of all generations to appreciate, be moved to tears and applaud. 7/10.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review of BLACK BUTLER: Whimsical Japanese "Faust"

July 29, 2014

"Black Butler" is a popular Japanese manga series that my daughter and friends liked very much.  So when a movie version came out exclusive in SM Cinemas this week, they were all excited to go see it.  I have not read Yana Toboso's manga "Kuroshitsuji" yet, so I felt I needed to see the film first myself before she does to see if it is okay for her age group. The local film classification board had rated it R-13, but they had not been entirely consistent the way they classify films per appropriate age.

The beginning narration sets "Black Butler" in a near future time, when the world was divided into East and West.  The West was headed by a Queen who has "watchdogs" to keep her enemies at check. In such a world, a "Demon's Curse" killer is going around assassinating diplomats by some sort of gruesome instant mummification process. Alarmed, the Queen chooses an orphaned 17-year old toy company magnate, Earl Genpo Kiyoharu, as her "watchdog" to get to the bottom of this matter.

The young Earl is actually a girl Shiori pretending to be a boy in order to secretly exact revenge on her parents' killers. She has under his service a butler of many skills, Sebastian, who does whatever his young master wills him to. It turns out that Sebastian's talents are because of his demonic nature, for which the Earl will have to pay for with her soul.

I learned that this film had made major changes from its source because the Kiyoharu in the manga is a 13-year old boy. Making Kiyoharu a teenage girl also made it possible for a love angle to develop between master and servant, which of course was not present at all in the manga. The original setting should have been Victorian England, but all we see here are the Victorian-looking Genpo Manor and its beautifully-manicured and colorful gardens.

The opening sequence alone where Sebastian takes on an entire warehouse full of gangsters only with his butter knife sets the fantastical and whimsical tone for the whole film. There would be a number of fight scenes, murder scenes, death scenes, as well as scenes of drug abuse, and the disturbing demonic subplot, which would automatically make this film rated R-16 in my book. In between these violent scenes though, the film's momentum dips a lot with long talky explanatory scenes.

The lead actors playing Sebastian and Kiyoharu are both with that androgynous-look which seems to be the current rage among the younger generation.  Hiro Mizushima looks like he is enjoying his black coattails and cool tricks and stunts as Sebastian.  Ayame Goriki does not really look convincing as the boy Kiyoharu, but she looks cute with her eyepatch and one blue eye. She gives her character the necessary angst. There was even more campy acting from the actors playing the unnaturally clumsy maid Rin (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Kiyoharu's unnaturally sweet guardian, his Aunt Hanae (Yuka). All the one-dimensional villains they faced also come from the same school of exaggerated histrionic acting.

Overall, this is a confused film with a rather convoluted plot which did not have a clear direction that it wanted to take. If we were to only judge it with this film, it does make me wonder what those fans of the original manga loved in it.  This film alone is occasionally entertaining anyway but it most probably could have been done or adapted much better than what came out now. 4/10.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review of HERCULES: A Sword-and Sandal "A-Team"

July 28, 2014

In this latest film with the Greek hero in the title, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is shown to be a mercenary for hire, who uses his mythic demigod origins and legendary "labors" to advertise himself. He has with him his band of cohorts, the loyal Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the mad fighter Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the Amazon archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the young storyteller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) and the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane).

Using his beautiful daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) as emissary, the king of Thrace, Cotys (John Hurt), hires Hercules to beef up his army against the attacks of vicious centaurs led by Rhesus (Tobias Santellman). However, ulterior motives and political ambitions are soon revealed such that Hercules had to dig deep into himself in order to break free of the nightmares that haunt him and draw out the real hero in him.

When I saw the trailer with the hydra, boar and lion, I thought this Hercules film would be tackling the legendary labors of this Greek hero. So despite the fact that I found Dwayne Johnson's Hercules hairstyle very awkward-looking, we still went to watch it, in 3D no less. I was disappointed that this "labors" sequence would be over and done with in the first few minutes of the film. The rest of the film was just like a "sword- and-sandal" version of the "A-Team" as Hercules and his merry men fight their way to earn their weight in gold. I had not read the graphic novel by Steve Moore on which this film was based, "Hercules: The Thracian Wars," so I had no prior inkling as to what this film would be about.

Despite the story, the action sequences were quite good though. There was that very long battle sequence with graphic close-up violence which looked more realistic than the stylized battles in the "300" films. Director Brett Ratner is known for his action films (like "Rush Hour" and "X-Men: The Last Stand") and his skills show in these big exciting scenes. The 3D effects were also very good and worth its extra price, with all the arrows, spears and debris hurtling out at us as we watched. The cinematography, film- and sound-editing and visual effects were also well-done. 

Dwayne Johnson could not seem to get himself into the period. Even if he is wearing those ancient warrior costumes, he speaks and acts as if he was in the present day. You can't deny his good-guy charisma though. Of his partners, Ian McShane stands out as the prophet Amphiaraus. He figures in the single LOL-moment in the film, which was really came at the most welcome moment to break the grim monotony. It was good to see Joseph Fiennes back on the big screen after a long absence, albeit for a short role. He plays King Eurystheus of Greece, with whom Hercules had a major falling out.

In the technical aspects, this is still better than the Kellan Lutz film "Legend of Hercules" we saw earlier this year. Overall, mindless popcorn that it is, "Hercules" was still an entertaining action film aimed to get our adrenaline going. And that it does. 6/10.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review of UNDER THE SKIN: Bizarrely Mesmerizing

July 24, 2014

From the beginning shot of this film depicting lights and eclipses, we will already see that this will not be just another run-of-the-mill motion picture. When we see a nude Scarlett Johansson for the first time in that pristine white room, we definitely know we are in for a different sort of ride. 

A woman drives around Scotland in her van. She strikes up conversations with various men she picks up along the way. She will seduce them into coming with her and they follow her into her black void of a house. However, as this woman encounters more men, she will also realize and discover new things about herself.

Despite the presence of a big name star Scarlett Johansson, this is not a mainstream film. The techniques are unmistakably art-house, with long stretches of silence, of Johansson just driving around, of random people just going about their daily routines. It is said that to be realistic, the film makers shot Johansson picking up real men off the street (not actors) and interviewed them without a script as they were driving around. Their thick Scottish accents may be unintelligible.

Many audiences may just dismiss this as a aimless waste of 100 minutes, since on paper, the plot seems to be simple enough for a single "X-Files" episode. However, serious cinephiles will be enraptured by the film's bizarre cinematographic beauty, deeper symbolic meaning and recall films by hallowed directors like Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch. 

There are carefully orchestrated shots of seduction, very effective (of course with Johansson in various stages of undress) and mysterious (with that pitch black shiny room and that eerie piercing music by Mica Levi). There was a scene with a couple, their baby and their dog on an isolated windswept beach which will disturb you. There was a scene involving a man with a disfigured face which will haunt you.

"Under the Skin" is a unique artistic movie experience which will polarize audiences. Director Jonathan Glazer (whose last feature film "Birth" was released ten years ago) has created a bleak masterpiece which will visually mesmerize and thematically baffle his viewers. So, are you seduced to take up this challenge? 7/10.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review of GRAVES: Zombie Twist

July 22, 2014

A man wakes up in what looks like an open grave site, atop a huge pile of corpses. He does not remember his name or how he got there. He joins a group of other survivors, all of whom were in various stages of memory loss and violent paranoia.  Who is he, the hero or the villain? Who is that Chinese lady who rescued him from the pit? Why are there dead people all around them? Why are there zombies going after them?

This film was released in the US as "Open Grave," but for some reason, local distributors chose to cut that title to a single word "Graves." Newspaper ads made it look like it was going to be just a another B-horror film. That was unfortunate because as it turned out, it wasn't. Yes, there were zombies in there and there was gore, but "Graves" was more than that. It will make you think and try to figure out along with all the characters who they really were and what the heck was going on around them.

There was only one recognizable actor and that is Sharlto Copley, whom I first knew of in the excellent alien invasion film "District 9" and most recently as the errant king in "Maleficent." He gives the ideal face for the lead character John/Jonah -- a face you cannot trust. However, he still manages to make us empathize with him in his journey of discovery as to who he really was and his exact role in the calamity that has transpired. The other actors are mostly unknown, but they do lend credible support, particularly Erin Richards, who played the lead female character Sharon.

Fans of the zombie sub-genre will like "Graves" because it gives yet another new twist and viewpoint to the familiar story line.  The special effects and the make-up were very believable. You will see some elements common with other successful zombie films such as "28 Days Later" or "World War Z", but "Graves" has its own surprises up its sleeve. 5/10.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review of JERSEY BOYS: Enduring Pop Classics

July 18, 2014

"Jersey Boys" brings us all back to the early 1960s, young Francis Castelluccio, a hairdresser's apprentice with a unique high falsetto singing voice, takes on the name Frankie Valli. Together with a couple of petty criminals named Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, they would sing in small gigs around town, going nowhere, except in jail when caught. When they meet a talented singer-songwriter named Bob Gaudio, they called themselves the Four Seasons and started a hot streak of Number One hits on the radio. However, their connections to the mob and loan sharks lead to strains within the group and their families.

I have not seen the successful stage musical version yet. It was hard to imagine that this film gets its origins from a successful original Broadway musical. Director Clint Eastwood takes things a little too seriously. The storytelling actually lacked substantial excitement and humor, until the parts when they actually sing those unforgettable Number One hit songs such as "Sherry" (Aug. 1962), "Big Girls Don't Cry" (Oct. 1962) and "Walk Like a Man" (Jan. 1963). It is evident that it was the timeless music of the Four Seasons that keep this rather heavy-handed biopic afloat.

There was a significant bit of anachronism when they played "My Eyes Adored You" (a solo #1 hit for Valli in 1975) before we see Valli perform his first solo hit, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (#2 in 1967). It was also odd to hear that the producers at that time in the psychadelic late 1960s considered the very pop and catchy "Can't" (complete with a big band horn section) to be an "experimental" song that was unlikely to be a hit. 

The only actor I recognized was Christopher Walken, who seemed to have enjoyed his role as a mob boss with a heart of gold. The four lead actors were unknown to me. They were supposed to have sung these songs themselves, which was very impressive. 

The actor who played Frankie Valli is John Lloyd Young, who actually won a Tony for this same role in Broadway. His singing voice is unmistakably similar in quality to Valli's, and his singing scenes were glorious. However, he did look a bit old to play a 16-year old at the start, and looked too self-conscious onscreen during the dramatic scenes.

Doing better were the other three guys in the group. I liked the way Eastwood made them relate the story to the audience while they were still in the scene, breaking the fourth wall. Vincent Piazza did not originate from the stage version, but he really radiated a sense of danger as the rouge Tommy. Michael Lomenda had his musical and serio-comic moments as the deep-voiced Nick. However, the most potent screen charisma was from Erich Bergen as the wholesome Bob. 

I was surprised that the local Film Classification Board rated this film as PG when there are a lot of profanity, suggestions of drug abuse and scenes of sexual nature. I brought my kids in to watch, and there were naughty scenes that were really awkward, notably that of Bob's "Christmas gift". I belatedly found out that the US had rated this film with an R.

However, it is the music that will remain to be the most memorable aspect of "Jersey Boys". Their final performance of "Who Loves You" (#3 in 1975) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 1990 was electric (despite the iffy aging make-up). I wanted to stand up and cheer. I positively loved the scene at the end credits set to the tune of "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" (#1 in 1976), which looked like an actual stage curtain call. These vibrant moments certainly buoyed up the whole film and left a good lasting impression and last song syndrome, not only for me and my wife, but even for my kids. 7/10

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Simian Supremacy

July 14, 2014

I went to watch this film with very high expectations. There was so much acclaim in all these initial reviews that have come out. Everyone extols it as THE best film of this summer. My sons and I went to watch it even if the only screening we can watch at that time was in more expensive 3D. This 3D turned out to be unnecessary, but this film is deserving of all its advanced praise.

The story of "Dawn" picks up ten years after the events of the first film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Simian flu we saw developed and spread in the first film has now all but decimated most of the human population. In the forests, the mutant apes have established their own system, led by the alpha male ape Caesar.

When a group of survivors enter the forest in order to reactivate an old dam for their energy needs, they meet the apes' wrath. There arose a battle of loyalty, trust and betrayal in both the human and the ape organizations, escalating into a deadly battle royale in the post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco.

For a summer blockbuster rich in computer-generated visual effects, "Dawn" is actually a very serious film. The first two acts had more words (many of them written in subtitles) than action, and may make some of the younger viewers impatient. The final act is an action spectacle that will undoubtedly be long remembered for its graphic yet epic images of ape vs. human warfare.

This sequel is really more about the apes than the humans. The humans were delimited to playing one-dimensional characters with hardly any back story. The lead human character Malcolm, who was assigned to lead the dam repairs, was played by Jason Clarke. He went on his mission with his doctor second wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The leader of the human settlement is Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman. You will hate him for what he is saying, but upon reflection, that is really typical human behavior that he represents.

But the apes were a different matter. They were all so well-delineated. Each face was different and all so expressive. The actors behind each ape deserve special mention for managing to evoke emotion from beneath make-up and motion capture technology. Tony Kebbel was effectively tragic as the tortured Koba. That scene where he points to his scars and saying "human work!" is heartbreaking. Karin Konoval (a female!) is a calming presence as the intellectual orangutan Maurice. Nick Thurston captured the inner turmoil of Caesar's eldest son Blue Eyes. Above all, there was the amazing Andy Serkis as Caesar, the quintessential leader of the apes. This is indeed an award-deserving performance.

That is not to say that this film was absolutely perfect. There were some aspects which puzzled me. There seems to be so much more being written in the subtitles than what the apes were signing or gesturing on screen. The seriously dilapidated dam seemed to have been repaired so quickly, and the antibiotic given Caesar's dying wife seemed to have worked miraculously overnight. I know that that scene where Caesar was back in the house of his old friend and trainer Will (James Franco) was nice and sentimental. But it strains logic that a long-abandoned video camera would still have two bars in its battery life. In the bigger scheme of things though, these are minor quibbles.

You should go into this film NOT as you would go into a typical summer blockbuster film. You should have a proper frame of mind before you watch this. This film is not fun, entertaining, nor uplifting. Instead this is dark, thought-provoking and disturbing. There is no denying though that this film is a technological triumph in the area of visual effects, sound effects, film editing, musical scoring, cinematography and its effective direction under Matt Reeves. 9/10.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review of KAMKAM: Slumming in the Slums

July 11, 2014

This film was Rated A by the local Cinema Evaluation Board, and that distinction made me curious to see it. "Kamkam" (with English title of "Greed") turned out to be another social commentary film about the sadly corrupted lives of slum dwellers in the city.

Johnny (Allen Dizon) is the crime lord in Sitio Cam-cam, a neighborhood of illegal settlers. Salud (Jean Garcia) is his first wife for 22 years and they have three daughters. She is a barangay councilor, and the same time, in charge of the illegal gambling collections. Evelyn (Sunshine Dizon) is his second wife for 20 years, and they have a son Lennon and a daughter Yoko. She is in charge of the illegal water and electricity collections. Everyone lived swimmingly well together in the same area, including Johnny's permissive mother Ditas (Elizabeth Oropesa) and his gay right-hand man Arthur (Jaime Pebangco).

That is, until that day when Johnny brought home a much younger third wife, the sexy ex-club waitress Shane (Jackie Rice). When she starts to encroach on the businesses of the other two wives, trouble begins to brew in Johnny's little harem. This domestic squabble takes place just when the City Mayor has ordered the demolition of the entire Sitio Cam- Cam to give way to Korean business investors.

The script of Jerry Gracio tries to include all the current problems that exist within local urban poor communities into his story. The director Joel Lamangan makes sure we hear current events, like the PDAF Scam of Janet Napoles from incidental radio broadcasts we hear in the background. The setting is very authentic as the audience can immerse into the slum community themselves with the green garbage-filled esteros and the narrow alleyways filled with drunkards, drug addicts and derelict kids. We also get exposed to political realities in the scenes involving the barangay officials and the police officers.

Allen Dizon does creditably well in the lead role, though it still lacks some depth.  He can be tough as a notorious criminal, yet he is still respectful and gentle with his ladies.  Jean Garcia does her subdued best as she is known for, though she was the one given the chance to create a scandalous public scene, which seemed rather unlikely for her character. Sunshine Dizon has a little sub-story about her character's involvement in a religious cult that gave her a little more acting moments. Jackie Rice pales in comparison with these two more experienced ladies in the acting department. Elizabeth Oropesa steals her scenes by her mere presence. Jaime Pebangco makes his loyal and blindly supportive character very interesting. The young actors who play the kids (Joyce Ching, Hiro Peralta, Lucho Ayala) were all quite a good-looking bunch, but were still a bit self-conscious when they act.

"Kamkam" does not really show anything we do not already know. As it brings us inside this world of the slums, something about it somehow lacks grit and genuineness.  We still feel we are on the outside looking in, as it does not really draw us into complete immersion as other rawer and more intense indie films have done before. 

That said, I still think this is nonetheless still worth the time to watch it. It is like some sort of Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern" set in a Manila slum area, with a bag of ingredients for "bistek Tagalog" replacing the red lantern as the symbol as to with which wife the husband will spend the night. 6/10.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review of BEGIN AGAIN: Musical Serendipity

July 10, 2014

Dan used to be an maverick indie record producer and family man, but time and luck turned against him in both aspects of his life. Greta is an idealistic singer-songwriter whose musician boyfriend Dave goes astray when he gets entangled with the trappings of commercial fame. 

Dan and Greta meet each other at the very depth of their depression. But this fortuitous meeting would bring about a chain of events which may lead to a mutual reversal of fortunes for these two free-spirited individuals. Will these lost stars align once again with their collaboration? 

The story really brings to mind Irish writer- director John Carney's breakthrough 2006 indie film, the delicately authentic "Once." That was also about musicians who led sad lives until they meet and click musically. The storytelling was propelled by the beautiful songs they sing. In "Begin Again" though, Carney's first Hollywood film, the setting is moved from suburban Ireland to New York City, and the cast is upgraded to A-list stars.

Mark Ruffalo perfectly captures the broken character of Dan with his gruff exterior and deep-set cynicism. However, he has this goofy charm that makes you actually root for him to dig himself out of his hole. He seems to have genuine chemistry with all his co-stars, a rare quality for an actor.

Keira Knightley started so well in her acting career, but lately her talent has not been given the right roles to shine. Greta is such an awesome character for Keira, who I am sure no one even thought could sing so well. Everything she sings here I liked and I would like to hear over and over -- beautiful songs all.

Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine plays the erring boyfriend Dave quite well considering this is his first major movie role. His singing was of course effortlessly good in very catchy songs like the centerpiece tune "Lost Stars", which is this film's answer to "Falling Slowly" from "Once", and certainly a contender for Oscar Best Song as well.

James Corden plays Greta's best friend in New York Steve. He is a very nice guy, providing comic relief very subtly. Catherine Keener made the most of her little screen time as Dan's ex-wife Miriam. Hailee Steinfeld plays Dan's daughter Violet. She would have an emotional moment in one of the song recording sessions that is very memorable. Cee-Lo Green has a marked cameo as one of Dan's former successful talents.

Like "Once", "Begin Again" is a film that is simply so refreshing and delightful midst all the big and noisy summer blockbusters. The story does not seem so original, that is true. However, the effective cast and the beautiful musical soundtrack both uplift the common story into a much higher level. If the songs appeal to you and speak to you, then you will love this movie. I definitely did. 9/10.

Monday, July 7, 2014

I Review Three Films from EIGA SAI 2014

July 7, 2014

It is that time of year again when Japanese films are being shown in the Shangri-La Mall FOR FREE.  This much-awaited annual event is the EIGA SAI.  This year the theme is Family. Screenings will also be held in Davao City and Cebu City from July 25 to August 10. 

Here are my review of three films in the festival that I have seen:

(Kirishima, bukatsu yamerutteyo)

 "The Kirishima Thing" comes well-recommended with its major 2013 Japan Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director among others. This the reason why I chose to watch it first among the festival entries.

Kirishima is the star volleyball player and most popular guy of a certain high school. One day he mysteriously just quit the team and disappeared. Understandably, his teammates in the volleyball team and his close friends Hiroki and girl friend Risa, are all greatly affected by his sudden absence. This film also follows all the other kids in school (such as the film nerd and the band saxophonist girl) and how Kirishima's disappearance also affected them indirectly.

It was interesting to see the interactions of the attractive young actors like Ai Hashimoto, Mizuki Yamamoto, Suzuka Ohgo and Masahiro Higashide, who were all very natural in their acting. However, there is hardly a coherent story line that the film follows. We know one student had a crush on another one, and there was a lot of staring and longing that did not lead anywhere. I cannot see a definite point of the film as a whole. It felt like just going on and on without a clear message that it wanted to convey. Maybe there is no message nor story, just a documentation of what happened and nothing more. 5/10.

(Ookami kodomo no Ame to Yuki) 

Hana meets a quiet loner in the university and they fall in love. He reveals that he is half-Wolf, but she accepts him anyway. They have two children together -- the spirited girl Yuki and the serious boy Ame. But as tragedy struck, Hana had overcome great odds to move to the remote countryside and raise their two kids by herself, just as they were both already showing their human-wolf duality.

The animation is really a thing of beauty with its fine lines and gentle details. The dialogues were very well-written and were delivered with much distinct personality by the voice actors. Mamoru Hosoda told his story of maternal sacrifice in a very slow and moving way, as only Japanese can do so well. It was able to establish an emotional connection with the audience from beginning to end. Watching this film is a beautiful and gratifying experience. 9/10.

(Soshite chichi ni naru) 

We have seen many films delve on the topic of babies being switched at birth. Most of these, the story would revolve around the fortune of the kids. For a change, "Like Father, Like Son" is about the parents, particularly the fathers.

Ryoko and Midori Nonomiya are a well-to-do couple who had a sweet 6-year old son, Keita. Yukari and Yudai Saiki are a lower middle-class couple with a spirited 6-year old son, Ryusei. One day, they get news that a nurse had switched their sons with each another one at the hospital. With that shocking revelation, both families undergo an emotional ordeal in deciding how to settle their big problem in the best possible way for everyone concerned.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda decides to tell the story from the point of view of Ryoko, a driven man at work who was disappointed that his son Keita was not as competitive nor independent as he wanted. When he gets the chance to be father to Ryusei as well, Ryoko discovers that his concept of fatherhood might not be as ideal as he thought.

Koreeda sets the contrasting dichotomy a bit too sharply. The Nonomiya home is sedate, quiet, and darkly lit. The Saiki home is messy, noisy and brightly lit. Ryoko (Masaharu Fukuyama) is handsome and smartly- dressed, but he is serious and haughty. Yukari (Riri Furanki) is homely and shoddily-dressed, but he is cheerful and kind. Which kind of father do you think the boys will prefer?

The important message of this film will definitely resonate with all fathers who watch this film. Fathers will reflect on their own parenting style and on what kind of father he had been. This film deserves all the praise heaped upon it. It is about time fatherhood is discussed very well in a film. 8/10.


The schedules of the films to be shown in Manila, Davao and Cebu are detailed HERE.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review of THE ROVER: Strong and Silent Type

July 6, 2014

The story of "The Rover" is set in Australia, ten years after a cataclysmic event they call "The Collapse." Eric is a farmer whose car gets stolen by three hoodlums. For some mysterious reason only he knows, he is hellbent in getting his car back from them at all costs. In his quest, Eric meets Ray, the injured younger brother of one of the thieves. He helps Ray get medical help and later brings him along with him on his grim road trip in search of his precious car.

Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson had been thoroughly immersed for their roles as Erik and Ray, respectively. They both looked like they have not taken a shower for a month, disheveled and smelly, with flies flying around them. Pearce plays a strong silent type of man, so he relies on his expressive face to deliver his message, and he does so effectively. Pattinson is so far removed from his Edward Cullen persona. He is riveting as the simpleton Ray, and he is completely transformed with his character's little tics and mannerisms.

It was practically a silent film written and directed by David Michôd. There was hardly any dialogue. If there was, it would be in a slurred garbled heavy Australian accent which you can hardly understand. The dialogue is not really essential in this film as well as the actions speak louder than words. However, you can pick up some quotable quotes along the way. A particularly haunting line for me is "You should not forget about a life you have taken away. It is the price you pay for taking it."

The musical soundtrack is as strange and quirky as the story. Hearing Robert Pattinson singing along to Keri Hilson's "Pretty Girl Rock", with those catchy lyrics "Don't hate me 'coz I'm beautiful" is probably the only moment of pure ironic humor in the whole film. The stark photography of the bleak Australian outback is very much complementary to the spirit of the film, as well as the perfectly chaotic production design.

"The Rover" is not an easy film to sit through. It is dusty and dirty throughout its one hour and forty minute running time. It is relentlessly bleak and graphically violent. This is definitely not mainstream stuff, but for serious art film lovers, there is a lot of artistic aspects that can be appreciated. 6/10.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review of CHEF: Sweet and Familiar

July 5, 2014

Carl Casper is a passionate chef at a fancy restaurant, but a failure as a family man. An unceremonious altercation with an online food critic was a cruel twist in Carl's fate. Fortunately, he gets an opportunity which could reestablish his career, as well get his family back together again. Will Carl be able to make the most out of his second chance at success?

Writer-Director Jon Favreau also stars in the lead role, and he was able to portray the gruff Carl with a big heart and that makes us root for him. The jokes were not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but were at least delightful. This humor is basically because of Favreau's great chemistry with John Leguizamo, who played Martin, Carl's assistant chef. Leguizamo brings an infectious energy to his role, making it more memorable than it was on paper. Young Emjay Anthony plays Carl's sensitive son Percy with unusual maturity for a boy his age. 

A look at the poster will show that there are many big name stars in this film. However, they were in much smaller roles, probably just lending their star power to bolster this film's chances at the box office. Sofia Vergara plays Inez, Carl's estranged wife. Robert Downey Jr. plays Marvin, a rich eccentric Miami businessman, who used to be married to Inez. Dustin Hoffman plays the owner of the restaurant for whom Carl cooked for the past ten years. Scarlett Johansson plays Molly, the bistro hostess whom Carl fancies. Oliver Platt plays the vicious food critic Ramsey Michel whom Carl hates.

I must say though that all those lovingly-shot close-ups of food preparation were so beautiful. They were the best scenes in this film. Seeing those tender barbecued slabs of meat and those tasty Cubano sandwiches made my mouth water. Foodies will love this film. Music, particularly energetic Cuban beats, was also a prominent feature of this film, though those long concert scenes could have been shortened. The road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin en route to LA looked like a lot of fun. The influence of Twitter is also well-demonstrated here, almost too well. It felt like watching an advertisement for that social networking site.

We get the sense that Favreau wanted to send a message to the critics of his previous films, probably the Iron Man franchise. He was apparently saying that he was not in complete artistic control in those films and the harsh words of the critics hurt him. This film was his special way of starting over by getting back to his indie film roots.

If not for its generous sprinkling of bad language, "Chef" could honestly have been a Disney Original Movie for TV. This was supposed to be light and fluffy family fare, but I thought that it was tad overdone in terms of its two-hour running  time. But as a whole, the meal Favreau prepared for us in "Chef" was sweet and familiar, with just a hint of spice. It was warm-hearted and made with positive intentions, so it will be a pleasant viewing experience for most audiences. 7/10.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review of DELIVER US FROM EVIL: "Se7en" Meets "The Exorcist"

July 3, 2014

In a seedy New York apartment, a family is terrorized by strange noises from their basement. In the Bronx Zoo, a woman throws her baby into the lions enclosure.  Ralph Sarchie is the policeman who was investigating this series of peculiar phenomena. A renegade priest involved with one of the victims, Fr. Mendoza, suggests that these events show signs of "primary evil," but Sarchie cannot accept this supernatural explanation. One day, Sarchie's own wife and daughter mysteriously disappear. Despite his resistance, he had to join forces with the priest in order to try and exorcise the demon before it is too late to save his family.

The cool and gritty cop Sarchie is played very well by Eric Bana. You sense his inner conflicts as he struggles to balance his professional life with his own domestic problems. It is very good to see Bana again in a meaty role of an ex-Catholic cop with family issues, a "radar" for the bizarre and a violent past. I have not seen him in a remarkable lead performance since his excellent turns in "Troy" and "Munich".

The acting of the rest of the cast is generally solid. Edgar Ramirez was mostly effective as the thoroughly hip Fr. Ramirez, and he has good chemistry with Bana. Joel McHale spins some welcome humor as he plays Sarchie's wise-cracking partner Butler. Sean Harris, who plays the sinister-looking house painter Santino involved in these strange events, was aided by gruesome prosthetics in his performance. Olivia Munn does well in her dramatic scenes as Sarchie's neglected wife. Lulu Wilson, the child actress who played their daughter Christina, can get annoying.

The scares here were mainly because of the disturbing and gory images of death it shows in many scenes. There are some effective scares which will make you jump from your seat, particularly with animals. The film approaches two hours in length and does lose some steam in the middle somewhat. There are even instances during the climactic battle itself that went on a bit too long, with Eric Bana only on the sidelines.

Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson had been more successful with his previous horror films like "Sinister" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose". Because "Deliver" uses a lot of disgusting imagery, I can feel a heavy influence of the 1995 David Fincher film starring Brad Pitt of similar style, "Se7en". The soundtrack uses a lot of classic rock riffs to create an eerie atmosphere, making me recall the 1998 Gregory Hoblit film "Fallen" with Denzel Washington. Overall though, despite its meandering storytelling, I still believe "Deliver Us From Evil" is a good enough horror thriller in its own right. 6/10.