Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: Smashing Showdown!

April 28, 2016

In reviewing "Avengers: Age of Ultron" last year, I asked if we were already reaching the saturation point for superhero films. Obviously, the answer is no. This year is big on continuing superhero sagas which eventually lead to several spin-offs and solo starrers for its characters. For DC, "Batman v Superman" introduced a new Batman and debuted Wonder Woman. In Marvel, this film "Civil War" promises to do just that as well, introducing a new Spider-Man and debuting Black Panther. The hype and anticipation leading up to its opening day yesterday was just so crazy high!

Because of the rising number of human collateral damage when superheroes fight (particularly in Sokovia as we saw in the last Avengers movie), the United Nations had drafted a so-called Sokovia Accord to monitor and regulate superhuman activities. While a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (Iron Man) agreed with this issue of an oversight committee to assure accountability, Steve Rogers (Captain America) did not, as he wanted the Avengers to remain free of interference when and where they decide to render their super services. The rest of the Avengers pick their sides, eventually resulting in the monumental faceoff which the title promises.

So in terms of plot, it seems this had something in common with the recent "Batman v Superman" of DC -- the prickly issue of the danger superheroes pose to the human population they purport to help and the internal disagreement among the superheroes themselves about this very issue. However, in "Civil War", there are more layers which were offered in its complex story. Family and vengeance, in particular, became the motivation of more than one character. Add to this the spectacular introduction of new characters Spider-Man and Black Panther, so there were slight detours to give some background about them.

The fight scenes were incredibly executed in such a speeded-up frenetic way, it was impossible not to feel breathless. Some shaky-cam scenes may cause dizziness. The important element of humor is not forgotten, as Ant-Man and Spider-Man adequately tickled our funny bones with their impertinent wisecracks. As fans were expecting, Marvel gives us TWO extra scenes, one within and another one all the way after all the closing credits had rolled up. There were so many intersecting story threads being woven in, but only occasionally did this bog down the momentum of this 2-1/2 hour long film.

Veteran actors Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), and Paul Bettany (Vision) all really embodied their characters so well as expected to portray their respective characters. We got to see more of the newer actors like Anthony Mackie (as Falcon), Elizabeth Olsen (as Scarlet Witch), Emily VanCamp (as Sharon Carter) and especially Sebastian Stan (as the deeply scarred and conflicted Winter Soldier Bucky at the center of many revenge storylines here). 

Making a smashing debut as a very young Spider-Man is Tom Holland. This 19-year old actor/dancer, who got his showbiz debut on the West End in "Billy Elliot" in 2008, looked better here onscreen than in any of his pictures I see of him online.  His childish, chatty, smart-alecky portrayal of our friendly neighborhood webslinger will definitely whet everyone's appetite to go see the reboot film "Spider-Man: Homecoming" set for release in July 2017. On the side we will also meet a newly-envisioned Aunt May which will surprise you.

A more serious and dignified yet similarly auspicious debut was that of Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther, Prince T'Challa of Wakanda. I honestly do not know much about this superhero but seeing what this character can do here in this film also makes us look forward to the Black Panther solo movie scheduled in 2018. He has this unique form and skill of ferocious hand-to-hand combat fighting is very exciting to watch.

Despite Cap's name in the title, it did not really feel like a Captain America film because Iron Man almost shared equal screen time. In fact all of the other heroes were featured significantly in their own smaller way, having their own big moments. It was really a wonder how directors Anthony and Joe Russo managed to squeeze everyone in yet not leaving anyone feeling underused.  With "Civil War," Marvel holds its ground convincingly and stays on top of the superhero film game. 9/10.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL: Ponderous Powers

April 25, 2016

"Midnight Special" has been receiving critical acclaim since its debut as a film in competition at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February this year (the same festival where Filipino film "Hele sa Himalang Hapis" won its Silver Bear). This week, it was released locally in only five movie houses (none of which were in an SM nor Ayala Mall).

Alton is a boy who was being worshipped by a Texas cult because of special powers he possessed. One night, he was spirited away by his biological father Roy in order to bring him to a specific place in Florida on a specific date for a big event Alton had previously prophesied. The FBI was also on their trail because Alton's prophesies coincided with top secret government data encoded in satellites.

The sci-fi plot is very intriguing, infused with the excitement of a chase and emotion of a family drama. It took time to get to the meat of the story though. I did not immediately understand what was going on at first and I almost gave up. However, when you do get the drift of the story, you will get drawn into the plight of this father, his special son and their quest to reach their destination against all odds.

Michael Shannon was also Nichols' star in "Take Shelter", where he played a mentally-disturbed man who wanted to save his family from a coming storm. In "Midnight", Shannon played Roy, a father who, despite all the danger, wanted nothing else but to conduct his son safely to where he needed to go. Shannon already earned an Oscar nomination for his work in "Revolutionary Road" before, and it was evident here the intensity of his acting.

Joel Edgerton, who is one of the better character actors of this present generation, played Roy's old friend, who helps him with his mission. Kirsten Dunst also makes a limited appearance as Alton's mother. Adam Driver, whom we now know better as Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars film, plays a sympathetic FBI agent. However above all of them, we witness a riveting performance by the child actor Jaeden Lieberher, who played a most difficult role as Alton, the innocent child whose powers possessed and overwhelmed him. 

Director Jeff Nichols continues to earn critical acclaim with his every project. Most recently, there were "Take Shelter" (2011) and "Mud" (2012) before this present one. In common with these three films is a flawed and troubled male central character. There were children involved in the drama in these three films. Sadly, "Midnight Special" is only the first Nichols film I had seen. It had gotten me curious to watch his previous films as well. 

This film is not exactly mainstream. It could have given some Spielbergian elements, but it did not go that way. The premise was so good, but there seemed to be a lot of questions that crop up as the ending approached. It is a film that makes us pause to contemplate about the plot (and its probable holes) after watching it. The acting by the cast is very good despite some unclear and ponderous storytelling, and it made a strong case for me to stay with the film to the very end. 6/10. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review of BASTILLE DAY: Imposing and Intimidating Idris Elba

April 23, 2016

Idris Elba has been in big Marvel films like "Thor" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron", but I don't really know how he looked like without the Heimdall costume. He had a performance last year in the film "Beasts of No Nation" which triggered controversy when he was not nominated for an Oscar, but this was not shown locally. Just this year, he had been in two films, "Zootopia" and "The Jungle Book." However in both films, we only hear his deep imposing voice. With this film "Bastille Day," we finally see Idris Elba as a modern day action hero, not far from the news that he is being touted to be the next James Bond. 

Michael Mason is a skillful American thief in Paris. One day, he steals a bag from a distraught girl on the street named Zoe. After getting her cell phone and seeing nothing else of apparent value in the bag, he throws it into a garbage dump. This one seemingly innocent act led to a tragedy killing four people, triggering mass paranoia and discontent in the City of Lights. CIA operative Sean Briar goes over and beyond his assignment to get to Mason and secure him before the French Police do, uncovering an insidiously complex plot which will come to pass on Bastille Day. 

Idris Elba is as imposing and impressive as his voice was. When asked why he ran away, Mason quipped, "Don't you see how you look like?" Elba's Briar was big, macho, tough and scary, anyone would have tried to run if he comes to get him. As an agent, Briar was an independent-minded and reckless rouge to the chagrin of his CIA bosses, but to the delight of the audience. If this was a preview of how he would be as James Bond, it makes us all eager to see how Elba will transform the iconic role as his own.

Richard Madden is more known to many as the ill-fated Robb Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones". After he bid the TV series goodbye via a bloody Red Wedding, he went on to be Prince Charming in the live action version of "Cinderella." Physically, Madden looked like a scared boy when placed side by side with the intimidating Idris Elba, which made him just right for the role of the unfortunate Mason, a guy who just so happened to steal the wrong bag. I liked the chemistry that was built between the two characters.

I was floored by the action sequences of this film, so raw with bone-crunching realism. I liked that the chase and fight scenes were not too obviously choreographed. That chase scene on the rooftops would have been flawless parkour stunts in another film. But here it was shaky and so uncertain that it created so much tension, so much better. The execution of the many twists and turns of the story was very effectively done, such that we never would have seen the climax miles away. I would not mind a sequel as the ending seemed to suggest. 8/10.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Review of THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR: Visual Vitality

April 14, 2016

This film is the second film following "Snow White and the Huntsman", a surprise hit movie in 2012. Oddly though, in this installment, the lead character Snow White is not in the title. In fact, Kristen Stewart was totally out of the cast of this picture!

This new film starts as a prequel to the events before the first film. The Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) had a younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt). When Freya suffered a personal tragedy, her wrath brought forth her innate power as Ice Queen. She established her realm in the cold north, creating a personal army of huntsmen from children kidnapped from villages she conquered. Of these kids, the best warriors turned out to be Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Going against the strict rule set by Freya, the two fall dangerously into love. From there, the film fast-forwards to events that happen after the first film ended to test if their love can indeed conquer all.

Because of the Ice Queen scenes, the beginning of the film felt like the live version of another Disney film, "Frozen"! In fact, you will get a sense of a lot of bits and pieces of several of these medieval films ("Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" come to mind) and TV programs ("Game of Thrones" and the Unsullied army) while watching it. (Actually, Filipino viewers may also find that the scene where Freya built an ice wall between Eric and Sara will remind them of the plywood wall dropped between two popular lovers on a local TV noontime show. Haha!)

Chris Hemsworth has been elevated to be the sole title character upon which this franchise was built around. He looks good in his Huntsman costume and his swashbuckling action scenes. He had scenes where he was smiling and playing it cute, which was a departure from the usual intense look on his face in most of his films. The chemistry between his Eric and Jessica Chastain's Sara was not immediate, but it grew on you as the film progressed. Chastain is really a strong actress and held her own ground in this busy film.

Charlize Theron did not appear until after the second hour of the film already. Even then, she totally owned all her scenes as the flamboyant Ravenna because of her statuesque beauty, enhanced by her extravagant gowns and very strong screen presence. Emily Blunt underplays her icy role of Freya in perfect contrast to Theron's fiery performance. Blunt's character is the emotional center of this film and she succeeds to make us feel for her when she buckles at Ravenna's return.

What delighted me most about this film were the dwarves. The male dwarves Nion (whom we met previously in the first film) and his half-brother Gryff, played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon.  In their quest to retrieve the Magic Mirror, they meet a couple of female dwarves, the aggressive Bromwyn and the sweet Doreena, played by Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach. They provide the comic relief very effectively and I enjoyed watching their lively interactions with Eric.

The film looks very rich and opulent. No surprise that the director was Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the second unit director and Oscar-nominated Visual Effects man for "Snow White and the Huntsman." Being his first feature film, the film may feel a bit uneven as a whole. However, the ravishing visual effects are really front and center here (though a bit overboard with the VFX on the Ravenna scenes). Though the script and story may not have been too clever or original, I thought "Huntsman" was an entertaining action-fantasy buoyed by its actors' charisma and lavish visuals. 6/10. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review of ECHORSIS: Gay and Guileless

April 13, 2016

Christopher "Kristoff" de Villa (John Lapus) was a closet homosexual with ultra-conservative parents. When he met and fell hard for Carlo (Alex Medina), his swagger and sweet talk, Kristoff left his home to shack up with his new boyfriend. Carlo's ulterior motive though was to milk Kristoff to financially support his coming wedding. This drives Kristoff to declare a curse upon Carlo. When Carlo suddenly got possessed by a gay demon, his childhood friend Fr. Nick (Kean Cipriano), a trained exorcist, was called in to help. Fr. Nick however had his own demons to fight.

By this time, we are already very familiar with John Lapus and his flamboyantly gay characters in numerous films. He dials it down a bit for this one since he was supposed to be a virgin gay guy in the closet. In any case, he is really a very funny actor, especially in scenes with his wacky close friends, Menchu, Cheng and Dra. Vida (played by Nico Antonio, Bekimon and the 2013 Super Sireyna winner Francine Garcia).  He also gets to be serious in his scenes with his intolerant parents played by Odette Khan and Menggie Cobarrubias.

Alex Medina was always in character as a slacker who knew he had this appeal with the third sex. They cannot resist his languid gaze and shamelessly takes advantage of them. He seemed like he has been doing this all his life. His most hilarious scenes were those when he was possessed by the gay demon. When the priest asked him who he was and he answered, "Thank you for that wonderful question." LOL! My favorite joke of the film. Medina had the showiest role in the film and he goes to town with it. He had a scene where his head turned 360 degrees, you just have to see the crazy way they did it at their budget. 

Since he was playing a priest, an exorcist as that, Kean Cipriano was serious most of the time here, except maybe for that gyrating "7 Deadly Sins" nightmare that he had. He had to underplay his part and he does well in it, being consistent and sincere in his characterization. In several of Cipriano's scenes, director Lemuel Lorca pays tribute to "The Exorcist" (Friedkin, 1973) recreating some iconic scenes, like the priest at the foggy gate, and of course, the exorcism of the young girl (played by Kiray Celis). The film pokes at the attitudes of Catholic priests against gays in Cipriano's scenes with senior priest Fr. Mar (Ces Aldaba).

A film that tackles homosexual issues is not exactly mainstream. However, the comedy-horror approach of this film might just make it click. Ever since its hilarious trailers came out in social media, this film has generated audience buzz. (I have to say though that the trailer revealed a bit too much. It practically told the whole story already and contained a lot of the funniest jokes.) Anyhow, the light-hearted spin on this controversial subject matter made this accessible and entertaining for most audiences, with most of the jokes hitting their mark. Uncomfortable to watch at times, but yes, it works. This is funny stuff. 7/10.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of WHISTLEBLOWER: Fiction From Facts

April 12, 2016

More than ever these days, a new Nora Aunor film is always an event. Local cinephiles will watch it, no matter what. Her latest film in local theaters this week is a collaboration with prolific indie director Adolf Alix, the political drama "Whistleblower."

Zeny Roblado (Nora Aunor), an accountant was rescued by the NBI when she was illegally detained by her boss Lorna Valera (Cherrie Pie Picache). Roblado revealed that Valera's "business" were bogus NGOs which siphoned huge amounts of money from the government only to wind up in the greedy hands of politicians and Valera herself. As Roblado blows the whistle in Senate hearings, the lives of everyone involved in the drama are put through a dangerous wringer.

The movie lasted less than an hour and a half only. The first hour are all familiar events played out like they did on television in the past two years. We were just treated to the sight of these esteemed local actors reinterpreting these events for us again. There was absolutely no doubt that Picache was channeling a certain Madam we all recognize because of the daily showing of her face in the news. The last thirty minutes or so deviated from fact into fiction, seemingly in a hurry to wind things down, yet still end in an open manner. 

What made this film more interesting than the news was because director Alix did not shirk from showing the story we do not see in the news -- the intense political machinations behind the scenes everyone suspected but no one actually documented. Laurice Guillen, herself an award-winning actress, slyly played a corrupt senator who knew how to clean up her tracks. Ricky Davao, Yul Servo, Celeste Legaspi and purposely (?) hammy Lloyd Sammartino played her fellow Senators. Theater veteran Leo Rialp played her seemingly noble collaborator in Congress. 

Of course, we know Ms. Nora Aunor can play any underdog, disheveled, unkempt, mousy character with her eyes closed, and the Zeny character was again all of these. Admittedly, La Aunor was as good as always, but this role did not exactly look like a big challenge for her talents. On the other hand, she owned this role so deeply that it looked so deceptively and effortlessly easy. Her fellow whistleblowers were played by Ina Feleo and Bernardo Bernardo. Zeny's family members were played by Anita Linda and Carlo Aquino. All of them are also recognized for their acting excellence. 

The third angle of this triumvirate is the reporter character played by Angelica Panganiban. She played this role straightforwardly and was not exactly given any moment to shine until the final act when she realizes that her life was also in grave danger. Too bad this aspect was not more thoroughly explored. 

In the end, there was a sense of hurry which made the film feel incomplete. For such a short running time, there were so many interesting angles that had been squeezed in but were not fully developed. You somehow feel that there were opportunities which were opened but were ultimately wasted. As an acting showcase, again we are seeing the best actors here, most of them award-winning. In all the rush of the storytelling though, these actors were hardly given adequate scenes for their talents to be highlighted, Nora Aunor included. 6/10.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE: Claustrophobic to Crazy

April 9, 2016

The title of this new thriller is very distinctly familiar. "Cloverfield" was a well-received but notoriously shaky found-footage type of monster film back in 2008. At first, I did not really plan to watch this one because I was averse to watching extremely shaky-cam films like the first one was. However, because of an assurance that it was not going to be shaky, I decided to go check it out.

One day, Michelle got into a vehicular accident and woke up in an enclosed room, with an injured leg and in chains.  An elder man Howard came in to tell her that she is now in a bunker he built under his farm and that he had actually rescued her from what could be an alien attack on the world outside. Michelle struggles to process whether Howard was really her savior or was he just a psychopath holding her captive?

The way director Dan Trachtenberg (in his feature film debut) told the story. You will definitely be puzzled as Michelle was as to the status of her current situation. Can this guy Howard be trusted or not? On one side, we see Howard as a kindly reliable father-type ready with food, supplies and entertainment. On the other side, we also get the sense that Howard had something sinister under his sleeve. We are kept on edge the whole time. The suspense created was very effective.

As Michelle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead succeeds in getting us to root for her to make the right decisions. This is the first time I got to see her in a lead role, although she had been in a number of B-horror films like "The Ring Two", "Final Destination 3", and "The Thing." John Goodman is a tried and true veteran character actor and he further proves his versatility here with his double-edged character Howard. 

The less said about the final act the better. It will be polarizing -- either you will enjoy it or you totally hate it. It was so outrageously out-of-this-world, yet with just that subtle sense of humor which kept it grounded. I viewed this film without a nitpicking mind, so I actually found that ending wild and exciting. However, I also got a sense of anti-climax with that ending. This was especially because it came from left field, following the suffocating claustrophobia of the first two acts. 8/10. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016): Danger and Delight Delivered

April 8, 2016

When I went to watch the live-action/ computer graphic remake of The Jungle Book, I barely remember the original 1967 animated feature. I just remember the characters the man-cub Mowgli, the black panther Bagheera, the bear Baloo, the tiger Shere Khan, the python Kaa and how they looked. However, the story though was sketchy already. 

Mowgli was a boy who was raised by wolves in the jungle when he was abandoned there. When Mowgli's safety was threatened by man-hating tiger Shere Khan, his black panther mentor Bagheera decides to bring him to the safety of the man-village. Separated en route, Mowgli had to face dangers of the jungle himself, like being hypnotized by python Kaa, kidnapped by a giant Orangutan King Louie and exploited by a lazy bear Baloo.

Being animated, I recall the 1967 to be very cute, light-hearted and funny. There were some scary moments, particularly the Kaa scene, but you never really get the sense that Mowgli was in any true danger. However, in this new, darker PG-rated version, that sense of danger was very real. Animals here get hurt. Animals here can actually die. 

Shere Khan, as muscularly voiced by Idris Elba, was very intense. This tiger was ugly, merciless and vicious. Kaa, with the lilting yet creepy voice of Scarlett Johansson, was indeed mesmerizing in a sinister way. King Louie was seen here a monstrous giant of an orangutan called a Gigantopithecus. He was given a more imposing and formidable air by the voice of Christopher Walken.

You can also identify the good guys by their friendly voices. The wise and caring Bagheera was given dignity and class by the voice of Ben Kingsley. Mowgli's loyal and compassionate mother wolf Raksha is gentle and maternally caring by Lupita Nyong'o. Best of all was the laid-back and down-to-earth charm of Bill Murray voice behind the beloved loafer bear Baloo. He even gets to sing the classic Oscar-winning song from the first film, "The Bare Necessities," complete with the iconic river floating scene.

I was very impressed with the child actor Neel Sethi who totally nailed his movie debut with a spirited and affecting performance as Mowgli. This is despite the fact that he was the only true living thing in most parts of this film. Sethi was able to effectively convey emotions even when he was acting with imaginary animals in front of a green screen the whole time. 

This new version of "The Jungle Book" with its expanded vision and advanced technology gives us Rudyard Kipling's stories with modern concerns highlighted. While there are familiar elements from the first movie, this one shows us a lot of new things. We see the majestic Elephants in a new, more reverent light. We meet new animal friends like Ikki the Porcupine (voiced by the recently departed Gary Shandling). We learn how Mowgli was left alone in the jungle. We get an entirely new and definitely more exciting climactic confrontation between Mowgli and his tormentor Shere Khan. 

At first, I thought this was an unnecessary remake. I was wrong. This film definitely made the timeless story more compelling and vital, both visually and emotionally. Director Jon Favreau did this one right. 8/10.