Thursday, July 30, 2015


July 30, 2015

After four years, superstar Tom Cruise and his crew comes up with yet another episode in the "Mission:Impossible" film saga. I thought it would be tough to come up with something to top "M:I Ghost Protocol" (My Review). That 2011 film directed by Brad Bird was simply too awesome, and so far my favorite of the whole series. This new one may have just matched that awesomeness.

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. 

Tom Cruise is visibly older now, but he can still pull this Ethan Hunt character off so well. He has got his strong action star charisma going on with the bravado he displayed in those death-defying stunts he did reportedly without a double for this film. His mad plane-hanging stunt that we see in the trailer happens before the opening credits, so do not come in late. His car and motorcycle driving skills were so fantastic in those breathtaking chase scenes. He was said to have had training to hold his breath for up to six minutes to be able to do that long thrilling underwater sequence.

As the lead female in the cast, Rebecca Ferguson nailed the role of Ilsa Faust. (Her name was presumably a reference to Ingrid Bergman's character Ilsa Lund in "Casablanca", a major setting in this film.) She was the one character who had that subtle air of duplicity that makes you doubt whether you'd trust her or not. Her character was the key game changer in the story of this film, and Ms. Ferguson does not disappoint in this pivotal role. She had us on the edge of our seats in those spectacular action scenes of hers, especially that that incredibly vicious knife fight at the end. 

The ensemble work of the cast behind Cruise and Ferguson was impeccable. Simon Pegg was perfectly droll as tech whiz Benji Dunn. This guy's comic timing was so daft, I loved it. Sean Harris was positively creepy as the villain Lane, so sinister without the excessive hysterics. Jeremy Renner (as Brandt) is at his deadpan best, as usual. Ving Rhames (as Stickell), Alec Baldwin (as Hunley) and Simon McBurney (as British agent Attlee) were all on point in their portrayals of spies of various abilities and loyalties. 

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 Cruise driving a 2016 BMW, and the very exciting multiple motorcycle chase scene on a zigzagging road.

Perhaps having a new director for every film in this series has kept this franchise from becoming stale. After illustrious names like Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird at the helm previously, Christopher McQuarrie (who first gained fame as the Oscar-winning writer of "The Usual Suspects") writes and confidently directs "M:I Rogue Nation" as excellent cinematic entertainment with just the perfect mix of non-stop action, political intrigue, technological savvy and witty humor. No matter how ridiculous the situations may get, they are made so crazy good, we will buy them no matter what. 9/10.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Review of MR. HOLMES: Masterful McKellen

July 25, 2015

It is 1947. Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes was 93 years old, and had long already retired from solving cases. He was living in a remote English village where he tends some colonies of bees. Advanced in age and weak in memory, Holmes had a housekeeper Mrs. Munro who had a smart and spirited son named Roger to keep him company. Holmes' peace of mind was constantly bothered by incomplete recollections of a case involving Mr. and Mrs. Kelmot. This was about an overbearing husband who wanted Holmes to shadow his lonely and depressed wife. This was Holmes' last case before he retired, and his bothered conscience pushes him to write his own version of the story.

Sir Ian McKellen gives us a master class in film acting as Mr. Holmes. The physical transformation was so impressive. His aging makeup was very realistic as well as his subtle portrayal of impending dementia. His sharpness of mind was never in question, though there were already difficulties in motor capacities. Everything was portrayed with the dignity this iconic character deserved, despite lines which tend to break the myths about him (like about his deerstalker cap and his pipe). McKellen exuded the confidence and astuteness we expect from this ace sleuth.

Laura Linney was practically unrecognizable as the middle-aged widow Mrs. Munro, a proud working woman, not entirely amused by Holmes' eccentric habits. Her character though was not as well-written as that of her son Roger, played by young Milo Parker. Roger was Holmes' constant aide and apprentice, a grandson he never had. Parker, whom I recently saw in a sci-fi thriller "Robot Overlords," gave an impressively restrained performance, holding his own in intense scenes with his more senior and Oscar-nominated co-stars, McKellen and Linney.

This is a very British film in language and in gentility. As directed by Bill Condon, the film was told with a slow and sedate pace, which was just appropriate for its geriatric main character. While the case of the Kelmots was interesting, it was deeply psychological, not action-packed at all. The intervening scenes about Holmes' trip to Japan were beautifully shot (especially the one set in Hiroshima), but these may not be entirely necessary for story progression in the final analysis. These aspects may not sit well for those who prefer the faster pace of the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes or TV's Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes. 

However, despite the seeming lack of a more exciting climax, the script by Mitch Cullin (adapted from his own novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind") sizzled with wit and pathos. The writing was simply so elegant, and these words were complemented by beautifully composed scenes, with striking cinematography, costumes and production design. While Holmes was demystified here, they did not miss out on showing Holmes' deductive process step by step, an interesting staple in all Sherlock Holmes films. Overall though, it is really Ian McKellen's magnificent and flawless performance that makes this film a must-see. 8/10.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review of SOUTHPAW: Gripping Gyllenhaal

July 23, 2015

Billy Hope is the light heavyweight champion of the world with a 43-0 record. One day, as a result of his uncontrollable violent temper, tragedy after tragedy hits him and his family until he is left with nothing -- not his fortune, not his career, not his family. Despondent and desperate to get his life back, Billy swallows his pride and seeks the assistance of trainer Tick Wills to train him back to fighting form.

"Southpaw" is an acting showcase for its lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Last year in the film "Nightcrawler", Gyllenhaal gave us all the creeps with his very realistic portrayal of sociopathic pseudo-video journalist Louis Bloom. He was overlooked at the Oscars of the Best Actor nomination he clearly deserved. With this meaty role, Gyllenhaal set out to prove that that his transformative performance last year was not a fluke at all.

His performance here as Billy Hope is another triumph of his very serious and committed method acting style. Here, Gyllenhaal again undergoes a total physical transformation into a grizzled prizefighter with a buff hardened physique, scarred face and swollen eye. We feel every ache of his weary body as he shuffles in his gait. His speech is already slurred with probable nerve damage. We see and sense the ravages of his vicious sport on him.

He captured the character of an impulsive man who was not too savvy in life, and easily driven to violently angry tendencies. As Billy's world collapses around him, Gyllenhaal brings us all down to his hell with him. We totally see the unravelling of a man until a mere shadow of him remained. Then we would witness how he humbles himself as he tries to bring the shattered pieces of his life back together again. This was in addition to all the pounding he had in the boxing ring itself. This was truly an acting tour de force by Gyllenhaal which simply cannot be ignored.

The actors in supporting roles all share in Gyllenhaal's shine. Despite her name being so prominent in the poster, Rachel McAdams appeared on screen only for a very short time. In that limited time, we clearly see the effect of her strong character Maureen on her husband Billy. Bespectacled little Oona Laurence plays their spirited daughter Leila. Gyllenhaal and Laurence share some pretty intense emotional scenes together.

Forest Whitaker plays Tick Wills, the tough disciplinarian of a trainer whom Billy chose to bring him back on track. I like how they even include Whitaker's left eye into the story. Curtis "50 Cent" Smith plays Billy's fair-weather manager Jordan Mains. He really radiates a sleazy vibe with his flashy smile and shiny suits.

Director Antoine Fuqua effectively wrung all the right emotions out of this story. The storytelling is well-paced and the camera work is compelling. The fight scenes were well-choreographed and executed on screen -- very brutal, bloody, all with high tension. The first person point of view during the fights puts you right in the midst of all the action.

The musical score contributes so much to the drama of this film. This is also the last film James Horner scored before his untimely demise in a plane crash recently. We also hear Eminem rap in the soundtrack. It is interesting to note that Eminem was actually the original choice to play Billy Hope.

Boxing is a common sport tackled in movies because of its inherent drama. This is why we may feel we have seen this story In "Southpaw" told in another way before. However, the grippingly honest acting of Jake Gyllenhaal definitely set this film apart from others. Just as Robert de Niro is the main reason to watch "Raging Bull", Jake Gyllenhaal is the main reason to watch "Southpaw."  8/10.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review of TED 2: Original vs. Sequel

July 23, 2015

"Ted 2" assumes you had already seen "Ted" (2012). It starts right into the action, without reminding us what the first movie was all about. You may not fully appreciate "Ted 2" without first watching "Ted". However, having seen "Ted" first will also show you the deficiencies of this sequel.

The first "Ted" was told like a bedtime story about a Christmas wish which came true. John Bennett, an ignored little boy from Boston, wished his new teddy bear will become his best friend. The morning after, the bear actually came alive and they become "thunder buddies for life". Years later, Ted, with his dirty mouth and nutty misadventures with weed and the ladies, comes between the relationship of John and his long-time girlfriend Lori. Meanwhile, a creepy obsessed fanatic named Donny wants Ted for himself and his son. 

The sequel is set six years after the events of the first film. It tells of Ted settling down with his white-trash girlfriend from the first film. Their efforts to adopt a child lead them into a legal nightmare, with Ted is proclaimed to be merely as "property," not a real person with rights. John, with the help of a young pro-bono (and of course pretty) lawyer Samantha Jackson, try to prove Ted's personhood in court. Meanwhile, the same creepy obsessed fanatic named Donny still had more evil plans against Ted.

The first Ted had a lot of swearing, drug use, and offensive racist or misogynistic jokes, all told in the brash yet light-hearted Seth MacFarlane style. It actually had a very engaging story of friendship to tell. Marky Mark Wahlberg (as the adult John) really had a great connection with Ted in their scenes. The cute novelty of the animated teddy bear itself was adorable, despite his faults. While watching that film, we all wished we had a Ted of our own, a less id-driven version though. The scenes of 80s nostalgia were also fun, particularly those about Flash Gordon and its lead star Sam Jones. The presence of Mila Kunis (as Lori) was a big plus in the film. The dramatic chase scene at Fenway Park was both heartstopping and heartbreaking.

The second Ted also had a lot of swearing, drug use, offensive jokes, and Sam Jones too. However, the novelty factor of the first film is definitely not there anymore. All the weed smoking and Sam Jones jokes really got stretched out a lot and bogged the film down. Amanda Seyfried (as their lawyer) is spunky, but she had little chemistry with Wahlberg and Ted, unlike Kunis before her. The first quarter of the film had funny celebrity cameos
and one big LOL scene involving John and a cabinet full of vials of a particular body fluid which was hilariously disgusting. After that though, the laughs were few and far between. A climactic scene at the end involving an old Tiffany hit song will not mean anything for people who had not seen the first film. Even Morgan Freeman's guest appearance felt wasted.

The raunchy and irreverent humor of Seth MacFarlane is really the polarizing issue here. I enjoyed the first "Ted" and even the much-maligned "A Million Ways to Die in the West". This is despite the fact that I do not really approve of excessive vulgarity of language and drug use in films. It's hard to explain what was it about Seth MacFarlane's brand of comedy that I like, but perhaps it is that undeniable good nature that shines through his crass jokes. For "Ted 2" though, I felt this was an unnecessary sequel with an execution so lazy and heavy-handed such that it sapped out most the charm and cleverness that made the first film the big success it was. 

"Ted": 7/10, "Ted 2": 4/10. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

I Review Three Films from EIGA SAI 2015

July 17, 2015

EIGA SAI is the yearly the Japanese film festival presented by the Japan Foundation in cooperation with the Embassy of Japan. (Here were my reviews of previous Eiga Sai film festivals I was able to attend the last three years: 20142013, and 2012.)

This year is already the 17th year of the festival and it is once again held for FREE at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall.  The theme this year is “Tasteful Japan” as it features many films about Japan cuisine as featured in films released last year, 2014. Ten films were featured this year, and I was able to watch three of them.

1. Thermae Romae II 
(Terumae Romae II)

A baths architect from ancient Rome named Lucius. Given several challenges by the emperor, he gained perfect inspiration via his accidental time-travels to present day Japan, including heated spas, wooden bathtubs or water parks for children. At the same time though, Lucius gets involved in political intrigue involving the emperor's pacifist stand, the senators who want to continue Rome's expansion and the man chosen by the emperor to succeed him. 

This is a sequel to a hit comedy film released in 2012, based on a hit manga.I have not seen the first Thermae Romae film, so this one was really very funny and original for me. Although the premise of time travel through the water was in itself preposterous, this film never took itself seriously and was just having a lot of fun. I know it may offend some people, but I found the part where Lucius thought slaves were the mechanisms behind the modern baths, like the massage chairs, toilet air vents or the bubble machine. They covered a lot of bathing issues too. I cannot imagine what other bath jokes they did in the first film -- have to see that too. 

The Roman-inspired sets and the cast of thousands was very impressive for a comedy film. Tall and well-built Abe Hiroshi played Lucius as the deadpan straight guy so well, with his various facial expressions for awe and amazement. Aya Ueto was very cute as the modern Japanese history buff girl who helps Lucius out of tight spots. It was funny how Lucius could not take the hint that she likes him. For foreigners, it was very good exposure to Japanese bathing culture. We also got a peek behind the scenes of Sumo wrestling as well. As directed by Hideki Takeuchi, this film was both interesting and hilarious, though the action did tend to bog down when politics gets in the way. 7/10.

2, Wood Job! 
((Ujjobu) Kamisari nânâ nichijô)

Hirano is a slacker did not pass his university entrance examinations. Drunk and despondent, he sees a pretty girl on the cover of a magazine about forestry, and impulsively takes the next train going to that very training facility for foresters hoping to meet her. His soft city ways did not match the hard life in the countryside and forests, especially since he had to live with a tough macho lumberjack mentor. Eventually he does get to meet the girl in the magazine, who turns out to be a local school teacher. When the time comes that Hirano could go back to the city, what will he decide to do?

Frankly, this film was pleasant and funny, but it is just OK for me. The story was predictable from the beginning. Director Shinobu Yaguchi is known for his big 2001 hit "Waterboys" about teenage boys taking up synchronized swimming, I had seen another film of his, "Happy Flight" (2008), which was a very funny film all about the ins and outs of airline industry. "Wood Job" is a mix of those two films, a comedy about a nobody becoming somebody set within a very in-depth depiction of the forestry industry in rural Japan. 

Like "Happy Flight" it was very interesting to see the life and training to become a good lumberjack and the pride they had for their work. I liked the cultural education as well about how they live in the countryside and their traditions. The lead actor Shota Sometani can be charming at times. But a lot of times, he can be pretty annoying too. No doubt though that a pretty girl like Masami Nagasawa can lure this city boy to venture to the countryside. The film has the right heart, but it was occasionally messy in the delivery of its story. I will confess that it was quite difficult to watch actual trees being cut down in the course of this film, particularly that majestic old tree in the climactic festival scene. 6/10.

3. A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story 
(Bushi no kondate)

In the 18th century in feudal Japan, there were samurai families whose sole duty was to be chefs to the ruling class. The Funaki family was such a family. Yasunobu Funaki was training to be a warrior when he was forced to train as samurai chef instead when his eldest brother died. His father, the head chef Dennai Funaki, pleads with Haru, the young handmaid and talented cook of a high-ranking concubine, to marry his son and teach him how to cook well.

I was absolutely riveted to the film by director Yuzo Asahara from the first frame to the last, the two hour plus running time hardly bothered me. Occasionally the pace of the film will dip, especially when political intrigue entered the scene in the second act. However, the whole time the glorious Aya Ueto was there on the screen as Haru, she was totally mesmerizing. I believed her mastery in the kitchen, her feisty spirit, her loyalty and nobility to family and duty. Kengo Kôra was also very good as Yasunobu, the conflicted son and husband, warrior and cook. Their chemistry really came to fore in the final act when only hearts of stone would not be moved. Toshiyuki Nishida and Kimiko Yo also deserve special mention with their dignified portrayal of Yasunobu's honorable parents, Dennai and Mitsu Funaki. 

I have to say this is one of the most beautiful Japanese films I have ever seen. The cinematography was so vibrant, clean and flawless. The whole look of the film with its tempered color palette exuded elegance and old time charm and esthetics. The production design and costume design were so meticulous with intricate period detail. The numerous scenes showing the exotic culinary offerings of Japan, specifically the Kaga cuisine that the Funaki family actively preserved and promoted, were very delectable and mouthwatering. As with other Japanese films, the details about their unique cultural heritage, like respect of duty, honor and filial piety, were so vividly portrayed. Though I am not sure about their accuracy, but the English subtitles read like poetry to me. 9/10.


The run of the Eiga Sai film festival in Shangri-La Mall ends on Sunday, July 19. After that, these films will have showings in Abreeza Mall Cinema 2 in Davao City (from July 24-26), the UP Film Institute (from Aug. 12-15) and finally in Ayala Center Cinema 4 in Cebu City (from Aug. 19-23).

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review of ANT-MAN: Miniature Marvel

July 17, 2015

I was not really aware of a Marvel character named Ant-Man until recently when articles and trailers about this film began coming out. I was not really that excited until I learned that he was actually one of the original Avengers, then that really got my interest piqued to go watch this one and learn about this previously unfamiliar superhero.

Hank Pym was a noted scientist who discovered how to reduce the distance between atoms, enabling objects to be shrunk. Pym suppressed his discovery because of its dangers, which led to the death of his wife. Obsessed, 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.

I did not know anything about the Ant-Man, his origin and abilities going in, but this film made me a new fan of this cool superhero. Director Peyton Reed only had mostly comedies like "Bring It On" (2000), "Down with Love" (2003) and "The Break-Up" (2006) in his resume. But with his first foray into the superhero genre, he totally made "Ant-Man" an exciting and riveting film that holds your attention from beginning to end with its excellent action and crackling humor. Reed took over from original director/scriptwriter Edward Wright, who dropped out of the project citing creative differences with Disney. 

For me, the casting of 46 year old Paul Rudd in the lead role came totally from left field. Since his breakthrough role as Josh in "Clueless" (1995), Rudd was only relegated playing mainly supporting roles in small unmemorable comedies. However, like his "Parks and Recreation" co-star Chris Pratt's success as Peter Quill/Star Lord before him, Rudd actually fit right into character as Scott Lang. Rudd had that good-boy charm which was able to make us sympathetic to this small-time crook desperately wanting to do good for the sake of his daughter Cassie (played by Abby Ryder Fortson). 

Evangeline Lilly proved that the action skills she showed as the elf Tauriel in the last two Hobbit films were no fluke. Her Hope van Dyne is fierce with attitude, with toned arms and shoulders to boot. I do take exception to her annoying hairstyle that was reminiscent of that worn by Dallas Bryce Howard on "Jurassic World". What's up with that "Dora"-do with the bangs and Hollywood nowadays?

The role of Hank Pym could have been dry and didactic in the hands of another actor, but Michael Douglas really made this character vital and interesting. His sense of humor was on point. His was the character that was connected with everyone else being the original Ant-Man, and he had excellent working chemistry with everyone: Scott, Hope and villain Darren Cross (played by Corey Stoll).

Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian and rapper T.I. played a comical trio of petty crooks with whom Scott hung around. They provide additional humor to the proceedings, especially when things get serious towards the climax. Bobby Cannavale played a clueless cop Paxton who is now the new husband of Scott's ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer), and step father to Cassie. His character made Scott's life considerably more complicated.

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. 

Aside from mentions of Stark, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, there were also two scenes in the end credits (one mid-credit, and another one at the very end) which reveal how Ant-Man will fit into the current Marvel Cinematic Universe situation. Unlike the rather disappointing, heavy-handed "Avengers: Age of Ultron" right before it, "Ant-Man" was entertaining beyond my expectations. Marvel does it again!  9/10.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review of MAGIC MIKE XXL: Rough and Raunchy

July 16, 2015

The first "Magic Mike" film shown three years ago was big hit (My Review). It was probably mainly because of the novelty factor, to have mainstream actors act as male strippers, baring their bodies while dancing lasciviously in front of screaming female audiences. Because of the financial windfall, a sequel was shot and released this year.

This sequel can be summarized in one sentence. Three years after the events in the first film, Mike (Channing Tatum) and his stripper pals make a road trip to a stripper's convention in Myrtle Beach for a final hurrah performance. On that flimsy skeleton, the writers just conveniently placed stopovers at a rowdy strip club run by the sassy Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the nice house of wealthy matron Nancy (Andie Macdowell), aside from the climactic convention itself at the end. The dull conversations between characters along the way led absolutely nowhere.

If the story in first film was already so thin, there was even less story here in the second one. At least in the first film, there was somehow a story of how Mike wanted to end his dancing career by going into a business of his own. There was a subplot about teenager Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and how stripping got him into bad dangerous habits. The absence of Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey (as the owner of Xquisite Strip Club in Tampa) in this sequel was quite noticeable.  

I could not really say much about the dance routines, except that they seem to be quite rough for the female customers. The guys were not simply dancing on a stage or giving regular lap dances only. These ladies were being flipped over and around a lot with crotches being shoved into their faces during these dances. For me, these lady patrons actually looked demeaned. Do ladies actually enjoy this type of over-the-top rough and raunchy type of "entertainment" as shown in this film? I would even call those scenes misogynistic.

Channing Tatum's real-life past as a teenage stripper is quite evident although his present age of 35 is quite evident already. Beyond that, there is nothing much else to say about it. Joe Manganiello and Matt Bomer fans will be happier since their characters Richie and Ken finally do get to deliver more lines and have longer solo dances here. Adam Rodriguez and Michael Strahan added to the racial mix as Tito and Augustus, respectively. Oldest cast member Kevin Nash was still a very awkward sight to see on that stage.

I guess the reviews about the actors, the dance routines and the film itself may be very different for another reviewer who is more within this film's chosen demographic. For me, I felt this film did not aim to transcend beyond its limited target audience and was merely content with making its old fans happy again with minimal effort. 3/10.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review of MINIONS: Cuteness Alone Can't Cut It

July 11, 2015

Since the first "Despicable Me" film (2010) and more in its 2013 sequel, those cute little yellow sidekicks constantly stole the thunder from under the lead character Gru. This was reminiscent of how the cute side characters like Puss N' Boots or the Penguins stole scenes in "Shrek" and "Madagascar" respectively, and got their own solo movies. It certainly was not a surprise that these Minions got their own solo project also.

This film was a prequel that spanned from the beginning of time on earth. Minions existed even before the first land creatures crawled out of the water. Since then, they would follow the most evil creature around like the T-Rex, probably for commensal reasons. Eventually they moved on to serving evil men, Dracula and Napoleon among them.

Because of their klutzy nature, they could not stay too long under one master. They all just retreated into their own snow-covered community, becoming very bored. So one day, a tall long-faced Minion named Kevin thought of venturing out to look for a master for them. For his quest, he had with him Stuart, a guitar-playing, single-eyed Minion and Bob, an adorably short Minion with mismatched-colored eyes and a teddy bear.

The trio trek all over the world, finding their way to Orlando, Florida in the year 1968 for Villain Con. There they meet the super-villainess Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who just so happened to be looking for new henchmen. With hi-tech hippie age weaponry provided by her husband Herb (voiced by Jon Hamm), Scarlet sends the three Minions to steal Queen Elizabeth's crown for her. Will the Minions be able to pull off their big heist?

Despite some dips in the momentum, most of the film was action-packed and crazy fun. I especially liked the cultural references given the time period in the late 1968, as I am sure most adults will be. The Sydney Opera House under construction, the shows being shown on the black-and-white TV, the Abbey Road reference (although the crossing happened in 1969) -- I enjoyed these little tidbits of nostalgia the film provides. I also liked the musical soundtrack and how it complements the period when this film was set.

The story went in all directions in a rather scatterbrain way. It is also ironic and actually disturbing how a kiddie movie seemingly targeted for very young audiences had very dark and negative humor, like a bank robbery with kid accomplices or torturing Minions in a dungeon. That they made it look "cute" is not enough to erase the bad taste in the mouth. There were also some risque humor in the mix. Really, having a Minion wear a thong?!

I did not really like the character of Scarlet Overkill too much with her over-hysterical personality. (Sandra Bullock's voice work was only at her best during her "Bedtime Story" scene.) Her husband Herb was a lot cooler, making him the more interesting villain. 

All this prequel was riding on was the popularity of the cute yellow Minions. For me, they were hilarious as the sidekick of Gru in the "Despicable Me" films. Unfortunately, for the Minions to carry one whole film with cuteness alone does not cut it. Hearing their gibberish language for an entire hour and a half can be tiresome. In fact, I felt I was relieved to finally see the boy Gru at the end. (That is not really a spoiler, isn't it? You knew he would be in there somehow.) Gru and the Minions are a great comedy team TOGETHER, not apart. 

The little kids around me were quiet most of the film, only laughing briefly during the slapstick scenes. When I discussed this film with my own kids after we watched it, they also expressed that they found the film underwhelming and disappointing as a whole. So I conclude that it was not only because of my age that I found it so. 6/10.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

WPFF 2015: Review of AN KUBO SA KAWAYANAN: Her House as Her Husband

July 6, 2015

Winding up this week is the 2015 2nd World Premieres Film Festival. Among the entries in the Filipino New Cinema category, it was this "An Kubo sa Kawayanan," a film in Bicolano language (subtitled in English) by Alvin Yapan that won several major awards, namely: Best Film; Best Actress (Mercedes Cabral); Best Editing (Benjamin Tolentino); and Best Cinematography (Ronald Rebotica). It has also gotten numerous perfect ratings and rave reviews among online film buffs. 

Therefore, if there was only one movie I could catch in this whole festival, it should be this one. There were only four screenings of this film. There should have been a showing in SM North (the only venue convenient for me) last June 29 at 3 pm. This was the best schedule for me so I cut my work hours early to reach this screening, only to find out that "Kubo" had been replaced by another film! I thought I could never catch it anymore as the other schedules could not fit mine. 

Today, it had another screening at SM North at 7 pm. When this day began, I never really planned to catch it.  Fortunately, fates and circumstances aligned so my schedule cleared up and the traffic that evening was unusually light because students had early dismissal because of a typhoon. So against all odds, I was finally able to catch this special film before the festival winds up tomorrow.


"An Kubo sa Kawayanan" literally means "A Hut in the Bamboo Grove." The film is set in a remote village in Bicol with a river running through it. There lives a reserved young lady skilled in the dying craft of callado embroidery named Michelle in her little bamboo hut. People try to convince her to leave for the big city but she rebuffs their invitations. Michelle feels completely secure and content in her little house. She feels this house talks to her and plays hide-and-seek mind games with her. The house is her friend and partner.

The awards for Best Cinematography and Best Editing were well-deserved as we are regaled by some of the most beautiful nature shots we have seen in a film with the most innovative camera angles. The most memorable ones for me are those close macro shots of insects, the nice angle on that handsome carabao, and that novel point of view shot on that bamboo pole being unloaded off the river. The editing work on the embroidery sequence in the beginning with shots all in macro was very striking, as was the editing work on the tinikling dance sequence of the kids which was very thrilling.

This is a completely arthouse type of cinema where plot is secondary to the images it presents onscreen. The only other Alvin Yapan film I have seen was "Mga Anino ng Kahapon" and that definitely had an interesting plot told in with so much restraint that it was suspenseful. "Kubo" is totally different in pace, tone and look. 

Mercedes Cabral is really right in her element in these quirky indie films. The camera took its time following her around as her character Michelle does mundane stuff, like looking all over the house for missing scissors, or lighting her lamp at night, or winding up her radio to play, or tying a beetle with a string to play with it. Much time was also spent on showing us Michelle's sexually-charged dreams, which may actually be subliminal messages from her jealous House.

My favorite scene was that where Michelle was being shot and interviewed by a young Manila-based filmmaker named Larry (RK Bagatsing), recreating scenes we have already seen of her embroidering and dialog we have heard earlier in the film with her boyfriend Gary (Marc Felix). That was for me the key scene that made this film so fresh, unique and different. That was the one scene from the whole film that really drew an audible reaction from the other audience members that night when I watched. At the same time, those scenes were an insightful commentary about indie filmmakers. 

Another interesting storytelling touch I liked very much was how we see and hear Michelle talking, and then her lips stop moving and still we hear her unspoken thoughts. The effect was diverting and at times, a source of subtle humor.

Overall, this film will totally appeal to serious cineastes because of its cinematic beauty. Mainstream audiences may likely give this one a pass. I confess that I am still in the process of learning to appreciate art films. I am still one of those give value to story and plot when I go watch a film. While I fully recognize the free verse poetry of this film, I was waiting in vain for a plot twist to happen to make the static story move. 

I do understand though that story is not the point of this film, but it is the symbolic meaning of its images. We have to extract meaning from the visually lyrical poem that we just watched. I thought of it as an allegory about Filipinos (Michelle) and the Philippines (her House) -- that we should not abandon our home country. Is that what Yapan meant to tell us? I do not know. The true meaning is not explicitly spelled out. You give it your meaning. That is the art in films like this. 7/10.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review of TERMINATOR GENISYS: Inconsistent But Still Impelling

July 5, 2015

"The Terminator" (1984) is one of the best futuristic action films of the 1980s. Its sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) was even better with its Oscar-awards winning technical aspects. That is why even after two more not-so-good sequels, the franchise name is still strong enough to eke out a reboot thirty years after the first film.

The first part of the film echoes the first film very closely. The artificial intelligence Skynet is controlling the world, developing killer cyborgs called Terminators to eradicate humanity. John Connor leads the human resistance against Skynet, and they were actually winning. Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to the year 1984 to kill John's mother, Sarah Connor, before John even existed. John sends his most trusted soldier Kyle Reese back to protect his mother. 

However, when Kyle meets Sarah, she was not the helpless waitress he was expecting. It turns out that the fabric of time had been altered so that since the age of 9, Sarah had been raised and trained in warfare by her own reprogrammed guardian Terminator, whom she lovingly called Pops. After defeating a T-1000 sent from the future to kill him. Kyle, together with Sarah and Pops, teleport to the year 2017, a year he heard in random clips of memory he had of his childhood. Their aim was to locate John Connor and destroy Skynet even before it gets launched.

The first part of this film was fun to watch for those of us who had seen the first film. We see the young Arnold T-800 teleport to earth, the punks, the department store, and the images of the first movie come flashing right back. We hear Sarah say, "Come with me if you want to live" again, and of course, Schwarzenegger will say, "I'll be back!"

Problems of logic start to crop up when we begin to hear about time travel issues which the writers explain with pseudo-physics jargon. I suggest to just sit back and stop analyzing these probable plot holes and errors which are really bound to crop up whenever time travel is used as a device in films.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was so good to see as Pops. His presence in this film prevents it from being forgettable. He is so iconic an actor that despite some cheesy lines he was made to deliver here, he remains to be cool and hip, old but not obsolete (in his own words). Only Schwarzenegger can pull off this role of the Terminator. No one could ever replace him in a future reboot and succeed. 

If you have seen the first two films, then you can see some obvious problems with the casting of the rebooted Sarah and Kyle. 

As a Game of Thrones fan, I was excited to see the Khaleesi Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. However, while her acting was OK, her screen presence as action heroine is lacking. This is especially since they had already altered her history that she had already been training for battle since she was nine years old. Then by the time Kyle sees her, she should already have looked as buff as Linda Hamilton circa T2, shouldn't she? Ms. Clarke's arms do not have the muscular definition to convince us that she can even carry, much less fire, such high-power weaponry.

Jai Courtney, what can I say? I felt like he was miscast as John McClane's son Jack in "A Good Day to Die Hard" (2013). Now in this film, Courtney felt wrong as Kyle Reese. The Kyle we knew from the first film portrayed by the intense Michael Biehn was nothing like how Courtney played Kyle here. There was no connection, as if they were different people altogether. However, those viewers watching this film as their first Terminator film will probably find Courtney OK as well. Although, there is no real romantic spark that credibly developed between Courtney and Clarke at all.

Oddly, even if the CG technology for films should be much more advanced now, the breakthrough special visual effects of "Terminator 2" remain to be more impressive and memorable. The shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 we see here is basically the same as what we saw back in 1991. Only this time T-1000 was portrayed by Korean actor Lee Byung-hun, instead of Robert Patrick.

So, overlooking these inconsistencies with the original films and the time travel illogicalities aside, "Terminator Genisys" is actually a fun and exciting futuristic sci-fi action film. The time-jumping storyline was actually not hard to follow if you just simply accept the premises they throw at you. Schwarzenegger is there to hold the whole thing together so the whole film still comes out in one entertaining piece for most audiences. An extra scene in the middle of the end credits actually promise another sequel. 7/10.