Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Yearend Roundup: The TOP 25 BEST MOVIES of 2015 That I Have Seen

December 22, 2015

According to my record, I had written 127 movie reviews this year (down from 157 last year). Sadly, only 11 of these are Filipino films (down from 25 last year), the rest are foreign films. I will not be able to watch any Metro Manila Film Festival entries until January because of prior travel plans, so I will be releasing my list earlier than usual.

My movie reviews are still being picked up and posted on ABS-CBNNews.com. As of this writing, a total of 301 (up 121 from last year's total of 180) of my reviews have made it on the pages of the most popular news website and FB site both locally and internationally.

For this list, I had not included the 10 reviews written about films which had been released in 2014 or earlier, but I had only seen in 2014. These were mostly the Oscar-winning films released in December 2014, but only hit local theaters in 2015.

Potential Oscar-winning films of this year which will only be shown next year locally are also not included here, like "Spotlight," "Carol," The Revenant," "The Big Short," "Brooklyn", "The Hateful Eight", etc...


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

25 Predestination (MY REVIEW)
24 Bambanti (MY REVIEW)
23 Crimson Peak (MY REVIEW)
22 Baka Siguro Yata (MY REVIEW)
21 Avengers: Age of Ultron (MY REVIEW)

20 Everest (MY REVIEW)
19 Spy (MY REVIEW)
18 Kid Kulafu (MY REVIEW)
17 Straight Outta Compton (MY REVIEW)
16 Creed (MY REVIEW)

15 Sicario (MY REVIEW)
14 Bridge of Spies (MY REVIEW)
13 The Water Diviner (MY REVIEW)
12 Paddington (MY REVIEW)
11 Apocalypse Child (MY REVIEW)

Counting down the 10 best films I have seen this year:


10 MANANG BIRING (MY REVIEW)

Manang Biring has been diagnosed to have breast cancer, stage IV, and had been given only six months or so to live. One day, she receives a letter from her long-estranged daughter Nita stating her plan to visit her mother on Christmas Day that year. Funds drained by chemotherapy, Biring, together with her wacky friends Eva and Terrence, concoct the wildest plans to be able to prepare the best Christmas reunion party. Biring did these things even when knew she may not even live to see that day.

I really enjoyed this film from beginning to end. There was not a dull moment even if the topic should have been very depressing. Writer-director Carlo Joseph Papa has triumphed with his concept and his delivery in rotoscopic animation. That scene at the nightclub was psychedelia in monochrome, enhanced by the award-winning musical score. The ending sequence kept me at the edge of my seat, until that final scene and word made me gasp and catch my breath.



9 THE LITTLE PRINCE (MY REVIEW)

The beloved characters of de Saint-Exupery were not the main characters of this film. The central story was about a little 9-year old girl who led a regimented life set by her domineering mother. The girl got curious with the eccentric old man who lived next door who was trying to get his dilapidated old airplane to fly again. The old man told her stories about an Aviator and his friendship with Little Prince, which inspired the girl to break free from the strict schedules that controlled her life.


The fantastic artwork is its best feature of this special film. The delicate figures in the actual Little Prince vignettes are the most beautifully-crafted of all. Those little wood and paper hand-crafted figurines were so exquisitely brought to life. Even quiet scenes like the prince's scarf blowing in the wind or the little fox curled up with the prince were among the most memorably moving for me.



8 CINDERELLA (MY REVIEW)

The script written by Chris Weitz faithfully follows the well-known animated Disney version of the tale released in 1950. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, there was very minimal re-imagining done here. This film is so unabashedly targeted for the ladies and girls of the romantic type. This is a major big-production chick flick that goes all out for the all the sweet and thrilling moments it can squeeze out of the story. The charisma and chemistry of the young leads were more than sufficient to achieve this end.

The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is so vibrant with a bright color palette that pops out of the screen. The production design of Daniel Ferretti was so opulent and grandiose in scale. The costumes of Sandy Powell were so richly designed and meticulously detailed. The musical score by Patrick Doyle envelops the film and brings us to a fairytale time and land. The visual effects of the magical transformation of pumpkin and animals to the coach, horses and staff were delightfully done in grand fashion (with the ever-quirky Helena Bonham-Carter as Fairy Godmother)



7 ANT-MAN (MY REVIEW)

Scientist Hank Pym discovered how to reduce the distance between atoms, enabling objects to be shrunk, but suppressed it. His protege Darren Cross eventually develops his own shrinking technology but with less than noble purposes in mind. In order to prevent potential disaster, Pym decided to recruit Scott Lang, an electronics engineer turned petty burglar, to steal Cross' Yellowjacket project. To be able to achieve this mission, Pym, along with his daughter Hope van Dyne, trained Lang to become a micro-superhero who can communicate and command ants to do his bidding -- the Ant-Man.


The technical aspects of this film were top rate, particularly the amazing visual effects. I really liked the scenes of Ant-Man interacting with the different types of ants. The fight scene of Ant-Man vs. a special guest Avenger was also very well-executed. Those scenes in little Cassie's room where there was a carpeted play area with a toy Thomas train running on its tracks was way better than how it looked in the trailer. The expert film editing was seamless even as scenes (and the sizes of the characters) were shifting so quickly. 


6 KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (MY REVIEW)

When Eggsy was a toddler, his father was killed in the line of work. He was given a special medal by a well-dressed gentleman, telling him that he can call when he is in trouble. Seventeen years later, growing up in a rough London suburb, Eggsy got himself thrown in jail after engaging police in a backwards car chase. He calls the number behind the medal, and in comes the dapper Harry Hart to the rescue. Knowing Eggsy's wasted talents in gymnastics and academics, Harry brings him to try out for a vacancy in his ultra-secret spy organization, the Kingsmen.


This is a very entertaining, visually stimulating film. The production design, with all those gadgetry and weaponry, is very inventive and eye-catching. The musical score is pulsating and exciting. The action sequences were really relentlessly bloody, with various body parts getting impaled, sliced off or blowing up. Yet, this was all done with typically British wry humor and aristocratic class. The biggest surprise is the breakthrough star-making performance of Taron Egerton as Eggsy. 


5 MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (MY REVIEW)

Ethan Hunt and his IMF team come face to face with the Syndicate, a rogue terrorist operation led by the chillingly ruthless Solomon Lane. Equal to IMF in talent and resources, the Syndicate sends the mysterious female agent Ilsa Faust to obtain highly secure computer files from a highly secure location. The IMF team though gets caught right in the thick of this complex web that again brings them around the world from the US to Cuba, Austria, Morocco and England. Meanwhile, they also grapple with CIA head Alan Hunley who would like nothing but to see IMF dissolved. 

All those complex action sequences were executed faultlessly. The brilliant cinematography, fast-paced editing and the driving musical score (which had elements of the iconic M:I theme mixed with strains from "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot") all contributed to the success of these scenes. Among the memorable sequences for which this film will be remembered are the opera house assassination attempt scene, the underwater data card-switching scene, the car chase scene through the narrow streets with Tom Cruise driving a 2016 BMW, and the very exciting multiple motorcycle chase scene on a zigzagging road.



4 HENERAL LUNA (MY REVIEW)

Even from his intense penetrating gaze and formidable mustache in the poster alone, you already know John Arcilla will be excellent in this film. His comic timing was impeccable. It was a most vibrant performance of a most vivid man, making him really loom larger than life. He was over-the-top in his explosiveness, just the way Tarog wanted him to be. The way he was built up, we were ready for that climactic assassination scene, however outrageous the savagery. 

This film will also grab you with its gorgeous cinematography. The images on the big screen had such vivid colors and innovative camera angles. The period production design and the costume design were meticulous in detail. During a beautifully-edited flashback sequence, there was a stylized scene about Rizal's execution that was so uniquely and hauntingly rendered. There are most gruesome and graphic special effects showing the violent brutality of warfare which will shock you. That reference to the Juan Luna's painting masterpiece "Spoliarium" towards the end was both poignant and ingenious.



3 MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (MY REVIEW)

In the massive Citadel, a skull mask-wearing tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules, cruelly withholding precious water from his impoverished subjects. Mad Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) has been captured to become a blood donor for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe's War Boys. Elsewhere, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a female War-Rig driver, helps Joe's five wives escape to the fabled "Green Place" of her childhood. Nux, with Max still attached to him, joins Joe and the other War Boys to pursue Furiosa. This chase leads to a major explosive battle-royale in the desert, one that would cause an upheaval of the balance of power in the outback. 


The screenplay by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris was rich and complex, with deep emotional moments. The cinematography of John Seale, with his orange-tinged day scenes and yellowish-hued night scenes, was breathtaking to behold. The magnificent action sequences with 90% actual (not CG!) vehicular stunts with gigantic monster trucks were so perfectly planned and executed. These were edited with precision by Margaret Sixel, with awesome sound mixing to boot. I thought the eye-popping 3D effects for those exhilarating car chase scenes are very much worth the extra in ticket price.


2 STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (MY REVIEW)

Two young people from widely disparate backgrounds, Rey and Finn, serendipitously got together and embarked on a mission to bring a roly-poly BB-8 droid with vital information on the location of Luke Skywalker to the Resistance.  On this fateful quest, the Millennium Falcon will fly again, long-estranged partners will reunite, another father and a son will confront each other, another Death Star will get stormed and another climactic light-saber battle will ensue between good and evil Force.

This new Star Wars installment was one exhilarating and entertaining epic. As can be anticipated, the technical aspects were absolutely astounding -- the sweeping cinematography, the fantastic visual effects, the grand musical score and the heart-pounding sound effects. All my high expectations were met. Admittedly, the plot contained several familiar elements seemingly rehashed from the previous films especially Episode 4, but it is all about innovative spins, and director J.J. Abrams is a master of spin. This Episode 7 is as much a reboot as it was a sequel, a very spectacular and jubilant one at that. 



1 THE MARTIAN (MY REVIEW)

Mark Watney is an astronaut member of NASA's Ares III mission to Mars. After a freak accident in a Martian storm, Mark gets knocked out cold and was left behind as dead in the emergency evacuation of his crew off the planet. As it turned out, Mark was still alive. Left to survive on his own resourcefulness, skills and expertise in Botany, Mark had to keep himself alive while waiting for NASA back home to make contact with him and perhaps send a mission to rescue him off Mars.

The scientific principles may not be fully understandable to laymen or even be completely accurate for scientists, but they all seemed logical, and that is what's essential in good science fiction. Various jargon in rocket science and astrodynamics were used, which may literally fly above our heads, but these did not really hamper enjoyment of the film. No matter how complicated the science involved in the situations we see onscreen, writer Drew Goddard (adapting from the 2011 novel of Andrew Weir) and veteran director Ridley Scott made the proceedings very engaging and easy to follow.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: Exhilarating, Entertaining, Epic

December 16, 2015




This must be the most awaited film for the whole year. "Star Wars" has got to be the most beloved of all film franchises. Reception for prequel Episodes 1-3 may not have been very positive, yet the anticipation for this new film still ran really high. Fans were trying to get to watch it as early as possible. Social media is filled with all sorts of excited expectations. These fans were serious, even threatening to "unfriend" those who would post spoilers about the plot. Many have even reviewed all the previous films to get themselves ready.

I was fortunate to have been able to catch a special advance screening at the newly-inaugurated Dolby Atmos Cinema 5 of Gateway Mall in the Araneta Center. Dolby Atmos is a sound system that promises to surround the theater with 360 degrees of prime-quality sound. As they say, at the heart of great cinema is great sound. Because of its expected excellence in sound mixing, I believe that this new Star Wars film should certainly a very good film to try out this premium sonic experience in movie watching.

The moment the familiar first frame with the words "Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." came on screen, the audience erupted in excited applause. The narrative text tells us the setting as usual. The last jedi Luke Skywalker is missing. The Rebel Alliance is now known as the Resistance, under the leadership of General Leia Organa. The Empire is now known as the First Order, under the Supreme Leader Snoke and Commander Kylo Ren. Both factions want to be the one to find Skywalker first.

Meanwhile, two young people from widely disparate backgrounds, Rey and Finn, serendipitously got together and embarked on a mission to bring a roly-poly BB-8 droid with vital information on the location of Luke Skywalker to the Resistance.  On this fateful quest, the Millennium Falcon will fly again, long-estranged partners will reunite, another father and a son will confront each other, another Death Star will get stormed and another climactic light-saber battle will ensue between good and evil Force.

It was so good to see the old gang together again a little over 30 years after "Return of the Jedi". Harrison Ford was still the scruffy, wisecracking scoundrel Han Solo. Carrie Fisher has abandoned her iconic cinnamon buns and princess garb for a style more fitting for a military general rank that Leia now holds. Unlike his human friends, the loyal giant Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca looked ageless, maintaining his shiny brown fur and strong howling growls. C3PO was still as amusing as ever, as R2D2 was still as lovable. The fans in the audience could not help but burst into nostalgic applause when these beloved characters (including Luke's blue lightsaber) appeared on screen for the first time. 

When I first saw the new cast in the trailers, I was not so sure I will like them. But as this film went along, they turned out to be likeable after all and their stories were engaging. Daisy Ridley played spunky scavenger Rey. John Boyega played conflicted Stormtrooper Finn. Oscar Isaac played cocky ace pilot Poe Dameron.  Adam Driver played the masked and dangerous Kylo Ren. At first, it felt as if Luke, Leia, Han and Darth Vader were reborn in these new characters to continue the ongoing story. However, there were surprises as to how their characters developed which will make the next installments essential viewing.

I have to make special mention of my favorite new computer-generated character Maz Kanata, played by Lupita Nyong'o. This was a bespectacled old lady who ran another one of those seedy bars you expect to see in a Star Wars movie. I liked the way this character was introduced and developed in the short time she was onscreen. I hope to see more of her in the coming films. 

Overall, this new Star Wars installment was one exhilarating and entertaining epic. As can be anticipated, the technical aspects were absolutely astounding -- the sweeping cinematography, the fantastic visual effects, the grand musical score and the heart-pounding sound effects (the Dolby Atmos was worth it!). All my high expectations were met. Admittedly, the plot contained several familiar elements seemingly rehashed from the previous films especially Episode 4, but it is all about innovative spins, and director J.J. Abrams is a master of spin. This Episode 7 is as much a reboot as it was a sequel, a very spectacular and jubilant one at that. 10/10. 


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review of THE 33: Distress and Deliverance

December 15, 2015



"The 33" is a dramatic film about the mining accident in the San Jose Mines in Chile where 33 miners were trapped in a mine chamber 700 meters underground, with food only enough for three days.  Led by natural leader Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) and mine foreman Don Lucho Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips), the miners struggle to survive despite their very limited resources and various interpersonal conflicts. As their relatives and friends anxiously gather above to keep vigil, Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) and Engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), with international efforts led by American Jeff Hart (James Brolin), desperately work against time to rescue them.

Working on a script by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen was able to tell this harrowing tale of human survival in a most engaging manner. The material could have been very unwieldy, with stories of 33 men which she could have chosen from. The filmmakers developed a scenario, a bit cheesy but effective nonetheless, where most of the main characters and their personalities could be introduced to us without lengthening the film unnecessarily. The mine accident happens within the first fifteen minutes, and the rest of the 2-hour film would concentrate on the survival efforts below and the rescue efforts above. 

The ensemble cast led by Banderas and Santoro did well, but it was a bit awkward to hear everybody speaking in stilted-sounding English with a Spanish accents. I guess that this choice was made for wider audience reach.  I wish they subtitled those scenes where Spanish was actually used though. Casting non-Latinos as Chileans was a rather odd decision. Anyhow, I did not recognize Juliette Binoche as the strong female character Maria Segovia, a role which was originally supposed to have been played by a true Latin beauty, Jennifer Lopez. Familiar American character actor Bob Gunton was cast as Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, which was distracting. 

The dreary topic may not appeal to all audiences, but this film had a lot of positive points going for it. The camera angles and editing made for exciting viewing, despite the fact we already have an idea how this story would turn out. There was an unexpectedly bright and joyous dream sequence which broke the dark monotony of the mines scenes at just the right time. There was an emotional song entitled "Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life)" powerfully sung by Chilean "NCIS" actress Cote de Pablo in a particularly moving sequence.  It was interesting to learn certain cultural details incorporated into the story, including the issues with Bolivians and the media. The final tribute to the real 33 before the closing credits was a very nice touch. 7/10.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA: Wrath of a Whale

December 10, 2015




"In the Heart of the Sea" the film is based on a nonfiction book of the same title written by Nathaniel Philbrick in 2000. The book recounted the sinking of an American whaleship from Nantucket called the Essex after it was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820, and their 90 harrowing days at sea on their rowboats before they were rescued. Philbrick used Essex cabin boy Thomas Nickerson's account to write his book, along with that of the first mate Owen Chase, who became the central character of the film.

The film framed the main shipwreck story with a fictional story of author Herman Melville interviewing its own version Thomas Nickerson, an old man permanently scarred by his harrowing experience as a cabin boy on the Essex. Melville would then eventually use the information he gathered from this interview to write his timeless 1851 classic "Moby Dick." In reality, it was Owen Chase's 1821 published account that inspired Melville to write "Moby Dick", not Nickerson's (which was only found in 1960, authenticated in 1980 and finally published in 1984). 

Chris Hemsworth was very well cast as Owen Chase. His towering height and magnetic screen presence served well for Hemsworth to be convincing as the fearless hero, capable whaler and honorable ship official. You can appreciate his commitment to his craft when you see him lose actual body heft in the course of this film to make the months lost at sea as realistic as possible. After his turns as the Huntsman to Kristen Stewart's Snow White and this one, it would seem Hemsworth also fits perfectly as hero in period films, in addition to that god from Asgard. 

Benjamin Walker effectively played Captain George Pollard, Jr., a man named captain of the Essex by nepotism and not by actual worth. I recognized actor Walker as the same guy who played Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Hunter in a 2012 graphic novel fantasy film. Pollard's competition for authority against the alpha-male Chase was interesting at the start but this conflict lost steam towards the end without another climactic confrontation.

Tom Holland (the actor already announced to be the new Spider-Man) played young Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy and youngest member of the Essex crew. Cillian Murphy was Matthew Joy, as a crew member caught in a difficult dilemma because of a morally-challenging order by his captain. In the framing sequences, Ben Whishaw played Herman Melville, while the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson played the old Thomas Nickerson with Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark in "Game of Thrones") playing the loyal Mrs. Nickerson.

It has been some time already since director Ron Howard had Oscar-caliber epic films like "Apollo 13" (1995) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). This new one may get awards attention for him, but chances for nominations would be higher in the technical aspects of visual effects, cinematography, costumes and makeup. On the negative side, the staticness of the storytelling narrative scenes and the redundant shipwreck survival scenes took too much time and may feel boring for some.

The scenes with the whales were the definite highlights of this film. That long sequence depicting the capture of a whale up to those graphic scenes of harvesting the blubber out from a whale carcass were very memorable. The ferocity of that great white whale was frighteningly real even if it were only computer-generated. The way Howard executed those scenes of those majestic creatures of the ocean, you will feel and understand the whale's anger against the man's cruel invasion into their territory. 7/10.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review of CREED: Resurrecting Rocky

December 10, 2015




Back in 1976, a little film about a poor boxer overcoming the odds to become a champ became one of that year's highest-grossing films. "Rocky" even ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Director (for John G. Avildsen). Since then, the character of Rocky Balboa has figured in six more films, and this present one is the seventh. But here in this new one, Rocky is not the lead character anymore as star Sylvester Stallone concedes to his age and turns over his gloves to a new hero.

The "Creed" in the title refers to Adonis "Donnie" Creed, illegitimate son of boxing legend and Rocky's nemesis-turned-best friend Apollo Creed. Against the wishes of his adoptive mother and Apollo Creed's wife, Mary Anne , Donnie seeks out Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia to train him to be a prizefighter. Right before a critical fight against the current champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (played by real life pro boxer Tony Bellew), Donnie finds out about Rocky own fight against a threat of another kind. The two would help each other face their respective fights.

Michael B. Jordan (NOT the basketball icon) proves that he is really one of the most promising actors of this generation as he embodies the rebellious and cocky Donnie Creed. After several years on TV, he first gained critical attention in a 2013 indie film about racial violence "Fruitvale Station", also directed by his director in this film Ryan Coogler. Since then, he had been in a raunchy comedy "That Awkward Moment" (with other up and comers Zac Efron and Miles Teller) and a (disastrous) Marvel superhero flick "Fantastic Four". But here as the titular "Creed" we really see the genre he is really good at -- drama. 

Sylvester Stallone was very likable here as the aging Rocky. He has gone full circle from the first Rocky film. Rocky Balboa was was his big Hollywood breakthrough role and it got him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor to boot. Since then, Stallone would become a huge action superstar in various roles which did not really require him to show any form of heartfelt dramatic acting. As of now, this role in "Creed" had already won Stallone a Best Supporting Actor citation from the National Board of Review, as well as a Golden Globe nomination. Can his first Oscar finally be within reach?

A promising new beauty and talent, Tessa Thompson played Bianca, Donnie's spunky musician neighbor and love interest. She registers strongly on screen, effortlessly natural and had very good chemistry with Jordan. Phylicia Rashad played Mary Anne Creed much like she played Claire Huxtable years ago.

Being a sports film, it treads very familiar themes -- the desire, the intense training, conflicts, the final climactic match and its aftermath. However, director Ryan Coogler ups the ante from previous Rocky films by giving us spectacular cinematography from inside the boxing ring and around the City of Brotherly Love, as well as excitingly-edited and brutally-choreographed fight scenes. The epilogue filmed on the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made iconic in the first Rocky film, was lovingly executed, promising the fortuitous birth of a whole new franchise. 8/10.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review of SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015): Inadequate Iteration

December 9, 2015



The Hollywood film "Secret in Their Eyes" is a remake of "The Secret in Their Eyes" ("El secreto de sus ojos"), an Argentinian film directed by Juan José Campanella which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 2009. This was a rare instance when a mainstream crime thriller won this particular Oscar usually given to arthouse films. Although we are wary about American remakes of foreign-language films, the powerhouse casting of three Oscar-caliber actors in this one makes a compelling reason to check it out.

In the original film, retired detective Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darin) visits his old friend Judge Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil) to tell her about his plans to write a novel about the brutal Liliana Coloto rape-murder case which both of them handled 25 years before. This case had no closure because the suspected murderer Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) never faced justice because of his role as an informer for government intelligence. 

In this remake set in Los Angeles, ex-FBI counterterrorism agent Ray Karsten (Chiwetel Ejiofor) visits his old friend, newly-elected District Attorney Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman) to tell her that he had finally located the suspect of a 13-year old cold case involving the rape and murder of a teenage girl. The prime suspect Marzin (Joe Cole) never faced justice because of his role as an informer about terrorist activities in a Moslem mosque. 

The new film recreates a lot of the original scenes which were interesting to note for those who have seen both films. There was a climactic chase scene inside a soccer stadium which was translocated inside the Dodger Stadium in the new film, even including the part when the suspect gets chased into the men's room. The interrogation scene, complete with the revealing blouse of the female agent, was just as intense, although the American version was of course more modest about revealing a certain body part. Not only big scenes, but even smaller details were remade, like the part where a dog was kicked. 

A major twist in the new film was the inclusion of a third major character, Karsten's co-agent and investigator Jessica Cobb, played by a completely deglamorized, make-up free Julia Roberts. Roberts figures in the most dramatically-charged moments of this film and it is certainly good to see her back in form, especially after a long absence from the movie scene, her last film being "August Osage County" two years ago. A certain bitter scene of hers had pain so deep everyone could feel it. 

Nicole Kidman felt miscast as Claire. Her character never felt as integral as it should have been. The attraction between Claire and Karsten, an important element in the original, was never convincing here. Chiwetel Ejiofor did well in his central role as Karsten, but may have been a little overeager in certain scenes. As for Joe Cole as Marzin, practically nothing he said was clearly understandable because of his strange garbled accent.

Director Billy Ray gave the story development a very slow pace, the thrill hardly building up. While the Julia Roberts twist was a good one, the use of a comic book (instead of letters) as a plot device was rather lame and the extraneous Hollywood ending (with perfect closure) seemed unnecessary . Audiences expecting an acting extravaganza given the stellar cast will mostly be disappointed. This film is not bad (especially for those who have not seen the original), but it is also nothing much to get excited about. The original film remains to be superior to this remake. 6/10.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review of POINT BREAK (2015): Exciting Extremes

December 6, 2015




Back in 1991, there was a film called "Point Break" about a young FBI agent named Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) who infiltrates a bank-robbing group of surfers led by a guy named Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). As wild as that synopsis sounds, this was a actually a very good action film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 17 years before her Best Director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker."  This new film is a remake that shares the same plot elements. However, everything in the plot was expanded and levelled up many times over. 

Before, Johnny Utah's athletic background was just his stint as quarterback back in college. He still needed to take surfing lessons in order to build up his cover for his mission. The Johnny Utah now was a hotshot motocross stuntman with a past troubled by guilt. Conveniently for this case, he just so happened to also know how to surf, skydive, snowboard, rock climb, what have you. 

Before, Bodhi and his gang were just crazy surfer dudes robbing banks to send a message about beating the system that killed the human spirit. Now, they were philosophical multi-athletes of the highest order who were trying to complete a legendary list of tasks called Ozaki-8. This was a fictional series of eight extreme challenges which honor the forces of nature and "give back" to the earth, the completion of which ultimately led to nirvana. 

There were several smaller details reminiscent of the first film. The robbers would wear masks of US presidents on their heists -- Reagan and company before, Obama and company now. There was a bloody gunfight somewhere in the middle, though the original one was more graphic. There was a scene where Utah would shoot his gun into the air in frustration after a moment of hesitation. There was a scene where Utah would allow Bodhi to catch the ultimate big wave. 

One of the obvious difference between the 1991 and the 2015 version is the sense of humor. This remake takes itself so seriously In 1991, the humor was mainly because of Gary Busey's wisecracking and riotous performance as Utah's senior partner Angelo Pappas. Ray Winstone, while efficient as ever, played a considerably toned-down and straightforward version of Pappas.  As the only female in the cast, Teresa Palmer was sexy as Samsara, but she did not have the spunk that made Lori Petty's Tyler memorable in the first one. 

Another factor against this remake is the lack of star power in its largely-unknown cast. Luke Bracey took over for Keanu Reeves, while Edgar Ramirez took over for Patrick Swayze. At the time when the first Point Break came out, Reeves and Swayze were already big stars and their star power really propelled the film's wide appeal. In this new film, the leads were both new actors. I felt Bracey did not have star charisma. Ramirez in particular was hardly distinguishable from the other members of his gang, with their similar-looking dark beards.

Director Ericson Core made the most of all those extreme sports scenes set on water, air and mountains in the most exotic locations to even exceed the breathtaking factor of those we have seen before in previous James Bond or Mission Impossible films. That awesome gearless rock climb on the cliff face of Angel Falls in Venezuela will keep you on the edge the whole time. These exciting adrenaline-infused scenes were the clear highlights of this movie. Even if the story that strung those scenes together though was rather unconvincing, for this film, action is the point. 7/10. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Review of THE LITTLE PRINCE: Exquisitely Essential

December 4, 2015




I remember the book "The Little Prince" from my younger days. I admit I was not really a total devotee of this story like some people I know. I found it interesting but I did not remember much about it after reading. I know some fans can recite quotable quotes from this book by heart. My interest in the book was revived last year when I watched a play by Tanghalang Pilipino entitled "Prinsipe Munti" (MY REVIEW). Watching this play as an adult made me realize how profound the messages of the author Antoine de Saint-Exupery really were. 

This year, an animated version of this story by a French production company makes it to our local theaters. The beloved characters of de Saint-Exupery were not the main characters of this film. The central story was about a little 9-year old girl who led a regimented life set by her domineering mother. The girl got curious with the eccentric old man who lived next door who was trying to get his dilapidated old airplane to fly again. The old man told her stories about an Aviator and his friendship with Little Prince, which inspired the girl to break free from the strict schedules that controlled her life.

The fantastic artwork is its best feature of this special film. The delicate figures in the actual Little Prince vignettes are the most beautifully-crafted of all. Those little wood and paper hand-crafted figurines were so exquisitely brought to life. Even quiet scenes like the prince's scarf blowing in the wind or the little fox curled up with the prince were among the most memorably moving for me.

It is just a pity that these whimsical parts were not the whole film. The artwork for the little girl and mother scenes were more conventional and familiar. These scenes were all in drab greys and black to starkly contrast it with the magical world of the Little Prince. The action-adventure scenes of the girl were exciting and lively, just right to entertain the younger members of the audience who may find the poetic and philosophical parts of the film too slow for their short attention span or too deep for their limited understanding. I did like the blurring of lines between reality and fantasy which I thought added an interesting dimension to the storytelling.

The voice cast is stellar, with Jeff Bridges as the Aviator, Rachel McAdams as the Mother, Paul Rudd as Mr. Prince, James Franco as the Fox, Marion Cotillard as the Rose, Benicio del Toro as the Snake, Paul Giamatti, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort and Albert Brooks as the various people the little heroes meet on their adventures. Mackenzie Foy ("Interstellar" and "The Conjuring") gives the Little Girl spunk and spirit. Riley Osborne gave the Little Prince a gentle ethereal voice that will tug at your heartstrings.

Being a European film, fans of Disney-Pixar or Dreamworks animated features may find the stop-motion animation and slow pace of the storytelling something to get used to at first. However, I trust that the beauty of the art and animation will eventually draw even the most cynical fan in. I do not like some of the scenes with Little Girl and Mother or with the Old Aviator because they may send wrong signals to young audiences. Otherwise, "The Little Prince" is a must-see film for its remarkable artistry as an animated feature film. 9/10. 



Monday, November 30, 2015

Review of THE GOOD DINOSAUR: Sentimental but (Occasionally) Scary

November 29, 2015




At first, I was not entirely convinced by the first trailer of this animated film since it seemed too cutesy and juvenile. However, when I found out it was a Pixar film, then it automatically became a must-see film. The Pixar signature promises a storyline which would appeal to both kids and adults, as well as spectacularly innovative animation techniques.

"The Good Dinosaur" assumed that the giant space rock which was supposed to have wiped out the dinosaurs missed the earth completely. This enabled an imaginary world where dinosaurs of all kinds to continued to co-exist along with more modern creatures like birds, mammals and yes, humans. The dinosaurs had agriculture and spoke English, while humans walked on all fours and howled like dogs.

The title character is Arlo, a young Apatosaurus born as a runt. Awkward and cowardly, he was hard-pressed to put his "mark" on the family wall. One day, while chasing a pesky grain thief (a human caveboy), Arlo fell into the big river and got swept off faraway downstream. Arlo and his human pet (whom he called Spot) had the adventure of their lives trying to get back home.

The first act of the film had a definite "Lion King" vibe. Although, he was a farmer and not a king, the character of the Arlo's father (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) possessed the same majesty and dignity (and fate) as King Mufasa. The father and son scene with the green fireflies was magically executed.  As voiced by child actor Raymond Ochoa, Arlo himself can be a bit too cute for comfort. However, as a young dinosaur faced with the awesome dangers of Mother Nature herself, his naivety and helplessness are understandable. 

Along the way, Arlo and Spot (who was unbelievably agile and fearless for a human boy) encountered a mixed bag of other dinosaur characters in Act 2, Some were bizarre, like the Styracosaurus with the various creatures nesting on his horns. Some were dangerous like the sly and vicious Pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (voiced by Steve Zahn) and the Velociraptor cattle rustlers. The additional dimension in the rendering of the characters made them even scarier. The quick jump-scare editing made the events shocking for very young children. I thought these were some of the most savagely violent scenes I have seen in a supposedly "kiddy" film. 

Arlo also meet some giant Tyrannosauruses but ironically, they turn out to be the most delightful characters in the film. Grizzled macho square-jawed cowboy Butch (looks like Jack Palance and voiced by Sam Elliott) and his two children Nash and Ramsey (voiced by Anna Paquin) became unexpected allies. Throw all reason to the wind and just enjoy their fun and spirited interactions with Arlo and with each other. 

Adults may judge the storyline of self-discovery, family and friendship to be too familiar and predictable. But admit it, Disney-Pixar really knows how to milk sentimental emotions about those topics. Those realistic teardrops from the characters' eyes can really get your eyes to well up also. However, as a visual spectacle, this Pixar film definitely does not disappoint. The background scenery of mountains, forests, rivers, waterfalls, and prairies was all very very realistic. It was as if the animated characters were superimposed on real life film footage of magnificent yet dangerous Mother Nature -- truly amazing and powerful to appreciate on the big screen. 8/10. 


Friday, November 27, 2015

Review of VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN: Meticulous and Messy

November 26, 2015




When I saw that they were going to show a film called "Victor Frankenstein" this week, I was puzzled. Why do they keep making movies about Frankenstein and his monster? I bet Mary Shelley never imagined that her book, one of the earliest examples of science fiction, will continually inspire movie makers from the silent era to the present day. Frankenstein films have traditionally been in the horror genre, but there were also those in other genres like comedy and animation. "I, Frankenstein" from the graphic novel of the same title was just last year.

"Victor Frankenstein" is told in the point of view of Frankenstein's aide Igor. He started off as a mousy deformed nameless clown at a circus who had a fascination with human anatomy and the lovely girl on the trapeze, Lorelei. One night, medical student Victor Frankenstein notices the hunchback's uncanny medical knowledge and skill, and spirits him away to be his assistant, giving him the name Igor. Frankenstein would then reveal the experiment we all know him for -- the reanimation of a dead body by the power of electricity. Faced with his master's mad ambition and personal demons, Igor struggles in a dilemma between debt of gratitude and freedom to live his own life. 

Visually, this film cannot be faulted. The cinematography was adequately done to achieve the dark and dank gothic mood with its generally muted color palette. The period sets and production design were very meticulous in their authentic-looking messiness in the circus, workshop, hospital and castle. The costumes of Lorelei are the only bright colors we see on screen, symbolizing her positive role in the story. 

The special visual effects for the two grotesque Frankenstein monsters when they came to life were very realistically done. The second monster in particular was a nostalgic throwback to the early Frankenstein monster design in the early films with the flat head, visible sutures and screws on the sides of the neck. Of course, the computer-generated effects brought the entire scene alive with electric tension and action. I believe monster fans will not be disappointed with the reanimation scenes.

Having James McAvoy on board as title character Victor Frankenstein gave this mad heretical scientist main character a peculiar charm and goodwill. A reliable actor, McAvoy was able connect with the emotional motivations behind the obsession of the character and convey this with intense conviction. 

As Igor, Daniel Radcliffe adds yet another oddball loner character to his post-Harry Potter acting resume. Why his circus colleagues hated him for his medical knowledge was never made clear. It was the brotherly relationship between Igor and Frankenstein that sets this film apart from the other Frankenstein films that came before by giving it an underlying human soul. Interesting to note that the Igor character did not appear in Mary Shelley's novel, and was just an addition in films in the 1930s. 

The way Police Inspector Turpin was portrayed by Andrew Scott gave the film a sort of Sherlock Holmes vibe. When I first saw the inspector with this astute deducting skills and sidekick Alistair (Callum Turner) with his bowler hat, I thought they actually had merged Holmes and Watson into this film (they did not). Jessica Brown Findlay as Lorelei was a welcome vision of beauty and grace amidst all the ugly and depraved that dominated the screen. The ever-elegant Charles Dance had a strong cameo as Victor's father.

For me the detail that derailed this film's good intentions was the addition of an effeminately bratty aristocrat Finnegan as Frankenstein's benefactor with evil ulterior motives. As played by actor Freddie Fox, he stuck out like a squeaky white mouse from his very first scene. I thought that his appearance distracted from the proceedings. For me, the presence of Finnegan and his henchmen there helping Frankenstein during his climactic moment of reanimation greatly diluted the drama of that pivotal scene. Nothing rang true about this miscast portrayal.

Overall, "Victor Frankenstein" is not as dreary as you'd initially imagine. Director Paul McGuigan was creative with the technical aspects of the film, though his pacing may drag at certain points. The lead actors did their best with the overwrought material they had. Apart from the Victor-Igor bromance though, there was not really anything more substantial that this film could add to the already overdone Frankenstein legend. 6/10. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review of THE VISIT: Aggravating and Annoying

November 24, 2015




Thanks to one excellent film in 1999 called "The Sixth Sense," I began to look forward to watching every film by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. However, with every new film of his that came out in subsequent years, nothing more would match the incredible experience that "The Sixth Sense" was. 

By the time, he came out with the truly wretched "Lady in the Water" (2006), everything went downhill. Even if he tried big-budget productions like "The Last Airbender" (2010) and "After Earth" (2013), both turned out to be big duds as well. When I heard that he would have a new movie this year, I did not expect too much anymore. But, I had to watch it to give him another chance to redeem his reputation.

Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) were a couple of tween kids who were sent by their mother (Kathryn Hahn) to their grandparents place in the countryside while she was on vacation with her boyfriend. However, the longer the kids stay with their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie), the more bizarre the behaviors of their elderly folks get.

For me, the main problem for this film was that the two grandchildren were so unlikeable. Both had such annoying bratty personalities such that watching them was painful. I thought choosing to portray the kids this repellent way was unwise because there was absolutely no one to root for in this film. Those rapping scenes were atrocious! At least, the actors who portrayed the grandparents did well to be creepy to keep the suspense up.

The big reveal that came at the end flew in from completely out of left field. I thought that it was implausible, unrealistic, or maybe just too lazy. The potential of the story may have been there, but the execution was truly aggravating. Ultimately, this was another pitifully terrible disappointment on Shyamalan's resume. 3/10.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2: Revolution and Romance

November 19, 2015




So, another hugely popular young adult series has come to an end. Like the "Harry Potter" and the "Twilight Saga", the "Hunger Games" franchise also chose to divide the final book, "Mockingjay", into two films. When I saw Part 1 of "Mockingjay" last year, I thought it lacked substance to stand alone on its own. However, now that I have seen Part 2, I understand why they could not have just made it as one single big movie.

After the long introduction to the action that is Part 1, Part 2 begins where it left off. Katniss is dead set on killing President Snow. Peeta is slowly recovering from the brainwashing he suffered by the guys in the Capitol. Gale is wasting no time in trying to win Katniss back. The three of them are members of a team sent by President Coin to storm the Capitol and kill President Snow. However, their mission is beset with dangerous and elaborate booby traps, as only the best Gamemakers of the Capitol can concoct.

Being their fourth film already together, Jennifer Lawrence (as Katniss), Josh Hutcherson (as Peeta), Liam Hemsworth (as Gale), Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch), Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (as Caesar) and Donald Sutherland (as grand old President Snow) have really settled and fit their respective characters like a glove by this time. With Jennifer Lawrence there portraying her, every rash act of Katniss becomes heroic somehow. She gets the audience to actually root for this indecisive, foolhardy character.

Julianne Moore (as Coin) and Natalie Dormer (as Cressida) had to contend with distractingly bad hairstyles but they do get their jobs done right. It was good to see and hear the departed Philip Seymour Hoffman one last time as Plutarch, though his screen time here was very short. It was good to see the other victors like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Annie (Stef Dawson), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone), though their screen time was also very brief. It was great to see Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie in a small scene as Commander Lyme. 

"Mockingjay Part 2" is a very long movie and it can feel like it. It was more than 2 hours (137 minutes to be exact) of war, politics, and yes, the love triangle. There are actually no more Hunger Games to show in this one, but the Capitol itself was turned into one large-scale Hunger Games arena when Katniss and company encounter the "pods" (which were spectacularly violent land mines). I actually do not recall that there were oil tsunamis or mutant monsters underground in the books, but these were the most shocking and thrilling parts of this film. Without these, the younger members of the audience may doze off with all the talking scenes. 7/10.




Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Cinema One 2015: Review of MANANG BIRING: Maternal Moxie

November 18, 2015




Of all the films in competition in this year's Cinema One Originals Filmfest, "Manang Biring" is the most distinctive one because it is presented in black-and-white animation format. The reviews have been very positive from the get go, culminating in its nabbing of the coveted Best Picture trophy come award night. I was fortunately able to watch this film on the very last day of the festival when the Best Picture winner was given a special screening schedule in all the participating theaters.

Manang Biring (Erlinda Villalobos) has been diagnosed to have breast cancer, stage IV, and had been given only six months or so to live. One day, she receives a letter from her long-estranged daughter Nita (Cherry Pie Picache, in a cameo role) stating her plan to visit her mother on Christmas Day that year. Funds drained by chemotherapy, Biring, together with her wacky friends, Eva (Mailes Kanapi) and Terrence (Alchris Galura), concoct the wildest plans to be able to prepare the best Christmas reunion party. Biring did these things even when knew she may not even live to see that day.

Erlinda Villalobos was such a joy to watch as Manang Biring. This indie character actress finally gets to play a lead title character and she gives this dream role her all. Even when her face was rendered in animated lines, her emotions still richly shine through.  Her deadpan delivery of hilarious cantankerous punchlines during her witty repartee with various oddball characters was delightful. That bold bath scene was heart-rending. When I saw in the closing credits that Villalobos also played another character, I smiled in admiration because I did not realize it when I watched that fun scene. I am wondering why she was not awarded the Best Actress award for this wonderful effort. This is a role of a lifetime.

Mailes Kanapi was again at her quirky best playing Eva. Quirky is an adjective I will always associate with Ms. Kanapi. Every performance of hers is a signature performance that only she can deliver in that particular way. Despite the disparity in their ages, there is so much genuine chemistry of friendship between Biring and Eva, it was so much fun to watch them interact together. Her best scene was the scene inside the coffeeshop when Biring fainted. Even if the topic of that scene was not pleasant, Kanapi never failed to liven things up. Good to see Kanapi nominated for Best Supporting Actress, although she did not win.

I really enjoyed this film from beginning to end. There was not a dull moment even if the topic should have been very depressing. Writer-director Carlo Joseph Papa has triumphed with his concept and his delivery. The animation was done in a style where the animated moving lines were seemingly superimposed on the film with the actual actors acting. That scene at the nightclub was psychedelia in monochrome, enhanced by the award-winning musical score. The ending sequence kept me at the edge of me seat, until that final scene and word made me gasp and catch my breath.

Although I was not entirely amused or in favor with those criminal activities that she foolishly got herself mixed into, Biring (as played by Ms. Villalobos) was a character so endearing and likeable, with a deep maternal yearning that drove her to do whatever it takes to stage the perfect reunion with her daughter.  I can clearly see how this film won the Best Picture award at the filmfest, but why not Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress as well? 9/10. 

Cinema One 2015: Review of MISS BULALACAO: Essence and Enigma

November 17, 2015




"Miss Bulalacao" is set in Punta de Bulalacao, Isla de Panamao (which is now known as the island province of Biliran, in the Visayas). It tells us about Dodong (Russ Ligtas), a 15-year old gay boy who inexplicably got pregnant after he saw bright lights from the sky. We also meet his womanizing father Poldo (Ferdinand Mesias), his long-suffering stepmother Lisa (Chai Fonacier), the parish priest (Mon Confiado) and the rich matrons Mercy (Tessie Tomas) and Marlina (Nanette Inventor) and how they react to this incredible event.

You can compare the acting of the mainstream and the indie actors here. Tomas and Inventor tend to be over-the-top and exaggerated.  Ligtas and Fonacier were awkward and very raw, very realistic. Russ Ligtas was nominated for Best Actor for this breakthrough performance. Chai Fonacier in fact was named Best Supporting Actress during the awards night. It would not even seem Fonacier was acting, as it was so real. Her highlight would be that scene when she was packing her clothes while thinking of leaving her husband. Beside her, Ferdinand Mesias seemed miscast as Poldo since he did not really look like a poor native islander like Fonacier did.

The script was the accorded the Best Screenplay award. It was definitely thought-provoking with a subtle ironic sense of humor. A male bearing a child in his abdomen for nine months without a uterus is of course a scientific impossibility, but such artistic license is what made this film interesting in the first place. 

My one comment is the seemingly unbelievable social reaction to this "miracle". Everyone was so nonchalant, as if this was the most normal thing to happen. I would have expected a massive "Himala"-like reaction, especially among superstitious folk. No media coverage (mainstream or online) -- really? Is that even possible these days? Nonetheless, I do respect the director's decision to keep the exposition simple. Personally, I also found the religion aspect rather disturbing. Parodying the Catholic religion is a very familiar theme running in many local indie films, so I was not surprised that the story would go that way.

Written and directed by Ara Chawdhury, "Miss Bulalacao" is a charming slice of life film about the quaint and rustic life on a remote island province. It was an entertaining peek into the less-complicated lives of the simple townsfolk. The grainy look of the film complements this. This was the first indie film I have seen completely in Cebuano language (with English subtitles). I had seen Pampango, Ilocano and Bacolod indie films in just this past year. It is so good to see authentic regional cinema alive and kicking all over the country. 6/10.