Friday, September 30, 2016

Review of ANG BABAENG HUMAYO: To Avenge, Artistically

September 30, 2016

"Ang Babaeng Humayo" (English title: The Woman Who Left") opens in theaters this week with much advanced fanfare. This latest film by award-winning Filipino auteur Lav Diaz had just recently (only 20 days ago) won the coveted Golden Lion award for Best Picture at the historically prestigious 73rd Venice International Film Festival. Of course, this award automatically made this film a must-watch. The anticipation of Filipino cineastes for this film is understandably reached a fever-pitch. 

The titular woman is Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos), a former school teacher who had been incarcerated for a crime of murder she never committed. When the real killer Petra (Shamaine Buencamino) unexpectedly confessed to the crime, Horacia was released after serving 30 long years. With her husband dead, son missing and daughter apathetic, Horacia decided to track down and claim revenge on Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa), a spurned former suitor whose hatred made him frame her for the crime all those years ago.

In the process, Horacia relocated herself to Mindoro and reinvented herself as a virtuous church-going owner of a roadside eatery by day, and a tough-talking, street-smart tomboy by night. She made friends with three disparate characters whom she thought could help her with her vengeful quest. Mameng (Jean Judith Javier) was a mentally-disturbed vagrant at the church. Kuba (Nonie Buencamino) was a hunchback balut vendor who also had a violent past. Her most enigmatic new acquaintance was Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), an odd and lonely epileptic transvestite who hated his life. 

This is the first film of Ms. Charo Santos since "Esperanza" back in 1999. This is her first film since she stepped down as chief honcho of the ABS-CBN Corporation. While Ms. Santos transformed herself into a hardened ex-con (with tattoos on her arms!), her regal bearing was still evident in many scenes. Her scenes as the tomboyish Renata clearly channeled the iconic action star Fernando Poe Jr., which was quite delightful to watch. 

This role was also very physically demanding from a woman of her age. She had to squat or kneel down on the floor for a long time then stand up. She also had to pull a much heavier body across the floor and beat up a heavyweight bully. I could feel the strain on her knees and back in these scenes, but Ms. Santos gave it her all. Her distinctive voice over her letter-writing and story-telling scenes do tend to remind us of her long-time stint as the host of "Maalala Mo Kaya" drama anthology on television. 

This film was also a very risky but scene-stealing turn for mainstream actor and box-office king John Lloyd Cruz. Cruz was rather awkward-looking wearing a mini-skirt and shoes with five-inch heels, but his performance as the damaged Hollanda was truly riveting. That sweet and twirly little dance he did on the street was mesmerizing. He was fearlessly unashamed as he portrayed a delicate victim struggling to recover from brutal physical and sexual mauling. He was hilariously off-key as he belted out his version of "Sunrise, Sunset" but he did not care. His final interrogation scene was quiet but intense, as emphasized by the visibly surprised reaction of the lady sitting beside him at the table.

This was a more accessible Lav Diaz work being just under four hours. It had a clear-cut and concrete story line about social injustice, the initial premise of which was inspired by Leo Tolstoi's short story entitled "God Sees the Truth But Waits". Trademark Lav Diaz hallmarks of long cinema were still there to frustrate less patient viewers, like tracking characters as they slowly walk from one point to another, sit immobile on the curbside or aimlessly look through old stuff in the dark -- all of which did not really develop the plot. The black and white can be vividly elegant, but there were also poorly lit scenes we could only guess at what was happening in the shadows. 

I think this film could probably have gone on for a few more hours if Diaz wanted to since there could still be some issues to explore, but he chose not to anymore. The final sequences from the shaky scene of Horacia walking on the beach to the blurred scene of Horacia and Kuba talking on the street, from the somber storytelling session under a waiting shed to those sheets of paper strewn on the streets of Quiapo -- these were all overtly expressive of Lav Diaz as an artist. Audiences are all challenged to think, interpret and analyze why he had to include that scene or why he showed it that way. This story could have been done as an outright revenge thriller, but in Lav Diaz's hands it became film art. 9/10.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of SAUSAGE PARTY: Salacious and Subversive

September 29, 2016

With a poster proudly announcing that this animated film is by the guys who brought us "This is the End" (specifically Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), we automatically know it won't be for kids. We immediately expect what kind of comedy this film will be pushing -- crass, rude, profane, off-color, gross. We know this movie will definitely NOT be for kids. It is not the first CGI-animated film rated R in the US for nothing. You know if you are its target audience or not, so watch this at your own risk.

Once upon a time, the groceries in Shopwell believed that once they get picked up by one of the human customers, they would live happily ever after. Frank the sausage and Brenda the bun looked forward to getting put into that shopping cart and spend eternity together doing more than just touching fingertips. However, they would soon discover the harsh and horrible truth about what really happens to food items after they leave the store. 

The story of the central characters Frank and Brenda (Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig) were on a predictable romance track. More interesting side stories were provided by supporting characters, like insecure dwarf sausage Barry (Michael Cera), Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton) and Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz) representing the Jew and Arab rivalry, a lesbian taco Teresa del Taco (Selma Hayek), Native American Firewater liquor (Bill Hader), a suicidal bottle of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) and a Stephen Hawking-like chewed-up Gum (Scott Underwood). Someone's imagination really went wild here. He was most probably high when he came up with these ideas.

In a clear parody of Disney and Pixar films, the rather sacrilegious opening song "The Great Beyond" was by no less than composer of "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" -- Alan Menken himself! In that song, the various foodstuff were blissfully living their lives in the supermarket shelves waiting earnestly to be bought and brought home by humans, whom they consider their gods. 

This innocent idealism would later be shattered when they reach the kitchen. The film takes a dark and disturbing turn when we get a view of what food items feel when they are being peeled, chopped, cooked and chewed.  Those scenes were not easy to watch, especially that one with those cute little baby carrots (Sugar Lyn Beard). You will never look at a cookbook the same way again after you see that major horrific revelation scene here.

Even if it was expected, I did not like the profanity which was so rampant in this film. There was a dirty word present in almost all the lines, it was already so numbing in its frequency. Every scene with that hateful main villain Douche (Nick Kroll) and store manager Darren (Paul Rudd) was vile and repulsive, especially when Douche was in the open fly of Darren's pants. Like the other Rogen films, there were drug references and scenes aplenty here as well. Of course, James Franco would again voice a drug addict here. And then there was the very violent free-for-all in the supermarket aisles as the food items attacked the humans.

The posters and trailer were selling this as an all-out animated sex comedy. However, those people who only came expecting to see raunchy scenes alone may be disappointed. This animated feature actually tackles a variety of heavy topics like race and religion throughout its 89 minute running time. The outright sex part came only at the last ten minutes, an extended, comically graphic sexual orgy of food items that push the limits of the R rating, certainly not for the prudish nor the squeamish.

Overall, this was not my cup of tea. Some interesting, innovative and inspired moments of out-of-the-box daring comedy all over, but the general flow and spirit of the movie did not really sit well with me. Must be my age. 4/10. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of ANG HAPIS AT HIMAGSIK NI HERMANO PULI: Informative But Inert

September 27, 2016

The name Hermano Puli is familiar to me as a historical figure as a revolutionary against Spanish rule. However, honestly, he was a mere trivial footnote for me. I do not exactly recall who he was, or what he did. I look forward to seeing films like this to learn more about these less prominent personalities in history. 

In addition, this film was chosen as the closing film of the recently concluded Cinemalaya film festival. It was also chosen as one of the candidates for the coveted Philippine representative to be sent for Oscar consideration. These factors amped up my curiosity to see this film during its commercial run this week. 

Apolinario de la Cruz, a.k.a. Hermano Puli, was only 18 years old when he founded the Confradia de San Jose in their hometown of Lukban in the province of Tayabas in 1832. It was an organization of Filipino Catholics who regularly met and listened to Hermano Puli as he preached about Bible-based values. By 1841, with this group's growing popularity among its all-Filipino membership, Spanish authorities suspected sedition and insurgency, and banned it. When Hermano Puli and comrades fought back, the Spaniards resorted to violence to totally dismantle it.

The intentions of the production may have been noble, but the final product turned out weak. I thought the main weakness of the film lay on the uninspiring lead performance turned in by Aljur Abrenica as Hermano Puli. He tried very hard to look and act "good" such that it turned out really unconvincing and hammy. Abrenica's Hermano Puli felt like a patronizing charlatan with his put-on air of holiness, which was unfortunate. In big scenes when the Hermano was rallying his people into action at Isabang on Mt. Banahaw, or even in that simple scene when Puli cried when he was told about his younger brother's death, Abrenica failed to connect with any sincerity.

There were scenes that show Hermano Puli in a bad light. When he was in Manila, he requested for Lina (Louise de los Reyes), a barrio lass who obviously has a crush on him, to go to Manila and do his laundry. He rebuked his cuidado (or caretaker) Octavio San Jorge (Enzo Pineda) with harsh words in a letter from Manila after the former was arrested and whipped. When they captured a local Spanish alcalde mayor, the Hermano allowed his lieutenant Apolonio Juan de la Cruz (Vin Abrenica) to violently dispose of the official as the latter wished. The scene where the Hermano was distributing amulets may have been based on fact, but the way it was shown onscreen was too sudden and unreasonable. His turn to superstition went unexplained.

In addition, there was the portrayal of all the Spanish officials and friars as comical caricatures of pure colonial evil. Markki Stroem played Col. Joaquin Juet as a livid raving madman, demonic eyes, demonic laughter and all. Kiko Matos played alcalde mayor Joaquin Ortega as a lisping and inept fool, as did the actor who played the effeminate gobernadorcillo. The very fake-looking tonsure hairstyle of the friars looked hilarious. I am not sure if the humor in these scenes were intentional on the director's part to liven things up, but for me they felt uncomfortably out of place in a film like this.

It was interesting to learn about these lesser known events in Philippine history, telling in more detail about what could be dismissed in a history textbook in a single sentence. However despite being concise, this film by Gil Portes (who once won Best Director for "Andrea" back in the 1990 MMFF) felt slow and flat. It is not the religious subject that made it tedious, as "Felix Manalo" (with a charismatic Dennis Trillo in the lead) was able to be engaging despite its length. The way this film projected Hermano Puli did not even feel favorable to his memory. Aside from a few memorable lines, it did not inspire above and beyond telling the basic historical information. 4/10.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016): Magnetic Machismo

September 26, 2016

The original Magnificent Seven was an noted 1960 American Western film directed by John Sturges. It was adapted from an acclaimed "Seven Samurai" (1954) by Akira Kurosawa. Transposed to the wild wild American West, from the plot about a ragtag group of seven gunfighters hired by villagers to protect them from bandits down to the number of men who survive at the end of the final battle was basically similar to the Japanese classic. This story device of recruiting various members for a group mission is very familiar in film and television, from "The A-Team" to the "Justice League".

Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen were already stars upon the release of this film, but the other members of the seven, notably Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn, also achieve stardom afterwards. The most memorable aspect of this film, even for those who have not seen it, is the very recognizable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, which had been used to great effect in old Marlboro cigarette commercials since 1963, as well as other films. This score lost the Oscar to "Exodus" that year, but it remains to be iconic to the present time.

It was the 1870s, and Rose Creek was a town in crisis. A ruthless businessman named Bartholomew Bogue wants to buy out everyone in order to gain control of the goldmines in the mountains around the town. The widow of one of Bogue's victims, Emma Cullen, sought to solicit the uncommon killing talent of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm to help them get Bogue out of their town. 

African-American Chisolm gathered himself a group of mercenaries of varied fighting skills to help him with the big and dangerous task at hand. They were: an alcoholic gambler Josh Faraday, a rifle sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, an Asian virtuoso with knives Billy Rocks, a bear-like tracker Jack Horne, a Mexican outlaw Vasquez, and a Comanche archer Red Harvest. Together they go to Rose Creek and prepare the town for battle.

Of course, the gunfights were all still there, but the scale multiplied several times over in terms of human casualty, as well as the variety of the guns and the multiple explosions, thanks to advances in effects technology and a bigger budget. There were several memorable lines from the first film that also made their way into this remake. The part where the group leader said he had been offered a lot of things, "but never everything", and that story about a guy falling down a tall building shouting "so far, so good" immediately come to mind. The humorous scenes about the villagers training for battle were also reprised.

There were some significant differences between the 1960 and 2016 version. In this age of political correctness, the poor and inept Mexican villagers of the first film were now replaced by regular white farmers. The multi-racial composition of the Seven had already been mentioned, however unlikely that such a group could ever band together back then. There was no equivalent of the Horst Buchholz character Chico from the first film, an impetuous and hotheaded young cowboy who will get romantically involved with a village lass. There was also no equivalent of Charles Bronson's character Bernardo who got to have dramatic interactions with the children of the village. 

Denzel Washington was the main star of the film as the deadly serious Sam Chisolm, and he remains a magnetic screen presence as ever. However, several times, Chris Pratt stole the scenes from under Washington with his funny one-liners and energetic action scenes as Josh Faraday. Pratt's final scene was a pure Hollywood concoction. Vincent D'Onofrio was delightful as the good-natured brute Jack Horne. Byung Hun-lee was bad-ass as the dour but lightning-fast knife-wielding Billy Rocks. 

Some of the Seven though were rather underused. Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux was not in too many scenes for a star of his stature, but he made the most of them with his dramatic skills. Alaskan native actor Martin Sensmeier was physically impressive as Red Harvest especially with his bow and arrows, but you wish he had more to do. Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo was rather nondescript as Vasquez and you won't really remember any remarkable scene he did. 

As the bad guy, Peter Sargaard chews up the screen with his smoldering cruelty as Bartholomew Bogue. That said, Eli Wallach's character Calvera in the original film still remains to be scarier as a villain. Incidentally, you may note Matt Bomer's name in the credits, but his character Matthew Cullen can only be seen in the pre-opening credit sequence. If you came in during the credits, you would have missed him completely.

As the only female in a major role in this film, Haley Bennett will definitely catch your attention as Emma Cullen. She was portrayed as a very strong character with initiative and gumption. Thankfully, in contrast with usual Hollywood tradition, there was no unnecessary love angle that developed between her and any of the Seven. Bennett's star is on the rise this 2016 with many other upcoming major movie projects aside from this one, including "The Girl on the Train" with Emily Blunt, "Rules Don't Apply" with Warren Beatty, "Thank You for Your Service" with Miles Teller, and Terrence Malick's "Weightless" with Christian Bale.

This millennial version of "The Magnificent Seven" was well-made Western entertainment, updating a classic film for the current generation. Like "3:10 to Yuma" (2007) and "True Grit" (2010) before it, it seems the only Westerns with a good chance to get good box office lately are remakes. The new musical score (the last for which James Horner is credited as a composer) is obviously inspired by the original, but cannot match it. Hearing the original theme music played over the closing credits was nostalgic and invigorating. Director Antoine Fuqua (reuniting with his "Training Day" actors Washington and Hawke here) injects this modern version with a generous amount of excitement, humor and yes, gleeful unbridled violence. 7/10.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review of BLAIR WITCH: Chilling Cacophony

September 21, 2016

"The Blair Witch Project" (1999) was supposedly the raw film stock shot by students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard who disappeared while shooting a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch in the wilderness of the Black Hills in Maryland in October of 1994. That indie phenomenon by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez was considered a landmark of sorts in the history of film because it started the "found footage" horror genre. 

For me though, watching BWP was one of the worst movie viewing experiences I have ever had. It had such an assaultive level of shakiness in its raw handheld camera work that it was giving me such a bad attack of vertigo right there in the movie house. I could barely look at the screen at all while struggling to keep my stomach contents down. Even then, I still forced myself to stay on to see what happens at the end, only to get that famously unsatisfying abrupt final scene. 

In this direct sequel, we meet James Donahue (James Allen McCune), Heather's younger brother, who stumbled upon a YouTube video about the Blair Witch where he imagined he saw an image of his long-lost sister. Hoping she is still alive, James organized a trip to the forest outside Burkittsville, Maryland, along with his close pal Peter Jones (Brandon Scott), Peter's girlfriend Ashley Bennett (Corbin Reid), and film student Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez) to document their adventure. 

James contacted local yokel Lane (Wes Robinson), the guy who uploaded the video online, who decided to tag along on their trip with his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry). From the very first night, their daring mission turned out to be a foolhardy one as they experienced first hand the very horrors those woods were notorious for, as one by one James and his posse fell victims to the deadly Blair Witch curse.

The unknown actors did well portraying these stock characters we can't really care much about (except maybe slightly for James and Lisa). There was some humor to be gleaned in their exaggerated hammy acting as we see them helplessly hurtle to their ghastly fates. Some of the situations they were put into by the director were so crazy they can be entertaining in a macabre way. 

This sequel is essentially a reboot of the original BWP. The script by Simon Barrett was basically a reworked story line still very much similar to the first film, but expanded to accommodate more scenes of horror and mayhem. I actually liked the "Bermuda Triangle" effect where all sense of time and place and technology were lost. 

 As executed by director Adam Wingard, the horror style was also very reminiscent of the first film with its very shaky camera work, crazy closeups and that cacophonous mix of eerie sound effects to create an atmosphere of fear without seeing an actual ghost or monster. Seeing those trademark "wooden stick figures" hanging around the trees was still as creepy as it was back then. The editing work in the abandoned house was harrowing with some nifty work with shadows. Some gross-out scenes were added in the mix this time, as well as some exasperatingly annoying jump scares. 

For what it is worth, this film should probably be nominated in the Oscar category of Sound Effects Mixing as they must have used every horror film sound effect from wind howling to rain pouring, to animals screeching, to girls screaming, panting and moaning, to bones crunching to body parts being ripped off. The soundtrack worked chilling wonders for me as I still could not look directly at the screen for the most parts because of the extreme shaky cam. At the risk of sounding shallow or irreverent, I actually liked this one better than the first BWP. 7/10.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review of IMPERIUM: Navigating Neo-Nazism

September 18, 2016

After graduating as Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe really gets himself into the strangest and seriously oddball film characters. His first post-HP film was a gothic horror, "The Woman in Black" (2012). After that, he played lead roles in films like "Kill Your Darlings" (2013) to "Horns" (2014) to "Victor Frankenstein" (2015), none of which really hit it big in the box office.  He played supporting roles in bigger hits like "Trainwreck" (2015) and "Now You See Me 2" (2016). Radcliffe returns to the lead in this new one.

When an illegal cache of Cesium goes missing, the FBI was alerted to watch out for terrorist groups who may use the radioactive material to make dirty bombs. Senior agent Angela Zamparo chooses a young idealistic agent Nate Foster to go undercover and infiltrate some local white-supremacist groups who could be planning something explosive for their cause. As the neo-Nazis accept Nate into their subculture, his immersion takes him deep into their lifestyle and philosophy.

Daniel Radcliffe played Nate first as a shy, classical music-loving loner who later had to turn into an intense skinhead racist, channeling Ed Norton, Jr. from "American History X". For the most part, he was quite convincing in his portrayal of both aspects of his character, acting-wise. I liked how he was trying to balance his principles while being undercover in a hateful organization. However physically, it was never realistic that short and scrawny Nate actually spent three years as a Marine in Iraq as he supposedly did. There were times though when his face appeared too suspiciously nervous not to be noticed.

Toni Collette was cool and snappy as Agent Zamparo, Nate's mentor in the undercover business. Seth Numrich was hateful as a young hothead thug Roy.Tracy Letts was so slimy as Dallas Wolf, a man who incites racial hatred via his internet talk show. Chris Sullivan was an imposing presence as the burly and bearded Andrew Blackwell, National Director of the Aryan Alliance. Sam Tramell played Gerry Conway, a genteel family man and engineer with whom Nate developed a deeper friendship, representing the other extreme of the spectrum. 

What was very interesting about this film was its very extensive, documentary-like exposition by writer-director Daniel Ragussis about the range of White Supremacist movement in the United States -- from the neighborhood bullies to the religious fanatics to the organized terrorists. The plot sort of got derailed in the messy final act, but the first hour was very engrossing and fascinating. It shows that terrorism does not always have to come from outside a country's own boundaries. Evil from within the homeland exist, and this film delivers that sobering and disturbing truth with strong impact. 7/10.

Saturday, September 17, 2016


September 16, 2016

There had been so many raunchy comedies about weddings, from "The Wedding Crashers" to "Hangover" to "Bridesmaids" to "The Wedding Ringer". As if this genre had not yet been done to death, here comes another one that makes fun of the sacrament of Matrimony and the madcap circus that usually goes on before and on that fateful date. 

Mike and Dave Stangle are two childish brothers from a well-to-do who rile up all the family parties they attend with their foolish antics. Since their youngest sister Jeanie's wedding day is coming up very soon, their parents order the boys to find themselves respectable good girls to bring as their wedding dates. Since the wedding is to be held in Hawaii, their Internet post about their search for dates immediately goes viral. 

Meanwhile, cheap-dressing and drunkard best friends Tatiana and Alice see the boys interviewed on television and see that this is their big chance to get a Hawaiian vacation for free. They come up with an elaborate plan of deception to snag the boys' attention and succeed to be chosen. However, when they reach Hawaii, it seems these uncouth girls may actually mean more trouble for the wedding than the boys.

So once again, we have annoying drunk or Ecstasy-popping characters going to a wedding, so we brace for the big disaster to come. As expected, this film is a haphazard mishmash of all the raunchy wedding comedies that came before it. Unfortunately, despite having its share of squirmy and uncomfortable moments, this was less funny than the others with many of its jokes falling flat. 

As Dave, Zac Efron could never seem to get away from the juvenile fratboy persona he had been portraying in such films as "That Awkward Moment", "Neighbors" and just recently "Dirty Grandpa". His upcoming film next year is a comedy version of the TV series "Baywatch" which does not sound too promising as well. He needs to start moving forward in his acting career as his face and body may not be enough to keep his popularity afloat.

Adam DeVine is a puzzling comedian. He seems pleasant enough by face, and is really an energetic dynamo on screen. However, he keeps portraying these irresponsible annoying characters, like he did on "Pitch Perfect" and its sequel, and then again here as Mike. I hope he gets the chance to portray other roles in future projects. I actually liked the idea of DeVine and Efron as brothers but their interaction onscreen could have been better executed, as some looked more awkward than funny. 

Despite her Oscar-nominated turn in "Up in the Air," I feel Anna Kendrick has an uncomfortable screen presence in most of her films, including "The Twilight Saga" or "Pitch Perfect". But here as Alice, she felt totally miscast from the get-go with her stringy wig and skanky clothes totally clashing with her seemingly aloof personality. She and Efron do share a moment of romantic magic spark, but all too brief.

Since I do not watch "Parks and Recreation" on TV, I had only seen Aubrey Plaza once before and that was in another raunchy comedy "Bad Grandpa" (the same one with Efron) basically playing the same loose party girl character like Tatiana was in this one. I'd say Plaza's type of comedy is an acquired taste, relying on her pouty badass-girl look to deliver zingers in a cool deadpan manner.

The two most audacious sight gags (that most likely earned this movie an R-18 rating from the local MTRCB) do not even involve these four main characters. A squeaky-voiced actress with the unwieldy name Sugar Lyn Beard plays the role of Jeanie the bride. Her "happy" massage session and her surprising reveal of body hair were bold to say the least! An actress named Alice Wetterland also makes a daring appearance as Mike's nemesis, their lesbian Cousin Terry, who also has a crush on Tatiana.

For those in the mood for a crazy time and game for a little raunchy fun, this film may actually be right up your alley. The goofy goodwill of the two male leads do succeed to hold it up for the most part. The girls are too schizophrenic with their sudden mood and personality swings to be likable. This film has a trailer that practically gives away the whole story, so try not to watch it. Or if you want to save yourself from watching this one in full, maybe the trailer is enough to see the best bits. 5/10.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reveiw of PETE'S DRAGON: Orthodox and Old-Fashioned

September 11, 2016

The original Disney production of "Pete's Dragon" came out in 1977. That film was a musical done with live actors and an animated hand-drawn dragon, in the same style done in "Mary Poppins". It was about a cute, green, pot-bellied dragon named Elliot who rescued an orphan boy named Pete from a cruel hillbilly family intent on enslaving him. Because of the dark story and unmemorable songs, it did not perform too well in the box-office then. It was later hardly heard of ever again unlike most other Disney films. 

This year Disney gives us another film entitled "Pete's Dragon". This film is not exactly a remake. It is not a musical anymore. It was also a combination of live action with animation, but this time, the dragon would be done completely via computer-generated imagery. The only things similar with this new film and the older film are the names of the two main characters, Pete and Elliot. The story though is entirely different.

There was also an orphan named Pete who lived in the deepest part of an American forest wilderness since he was five years old brought up by his gigantic, green, furry friend, a dragon named Elliot. One day when Pete was a wild mountain boy of about 11, Pete was seen by a little girl named Natalie and her forest ranger aunt Grace, who wanted to help the poor little boy. Unfortunately, Elliot inadvertently had a run-in with Natalie's ill-tempered uncle Gavin who wanted to capture the dragon. Will Pete and Elliot ever reunite again?

The portrayal of Pete by child actor Oakes Fegley was quite appealing and endearing. When he was first "rescued" and brought into town, I got reminded of last year's harrowing film "Room," who also had a young long-haired boy experiencing "civilization" for the first time. Bryce Dallas Howard played forest ranger Grace Meacham with much compassion and kindness. Karl Urban was utterly despicable as the unscrupulous and greedy Uncle Gavin. I did not expect to see a leathery Robert Redford in this, but he felt very real as a sincere and loving grandfather. The doll-like Levi Alexander was adorable as 5-year old Pete, especially during his first encounter with Elliot.

Elliot was envisioned and rendered like a giant dog, like a green-furred Scooby Doo. He sounds like a dog with his grunts and whimpers. He even acts like a dog with that "chasing the tail" scene among others. However, I guess this Elliot was designed with young kids in mind. I bet we all wished we had own own soft and fluffy pet Elliot to cuddle into at night. I liked the scenes showing how this Elliot can camouflage and disappear into its background.

From the very beginning, we never really forgot that this was a Disney film. There were several references and similarities to previous recent Disney films like "The Good Dinosaur" and "The Jungle Book". The treatment of this oft-told story by writer-director David Lowery was very safe, wholesome and targeted to very young audiences. Apart from that singularly violent fiery encounter at the bridge, the rest of the film had a languid underwhelming feel about it. The emotions never really swelled towards the end as I was expecting it to. Good for a sentimental throwback vibe, but it felt too old-fashioned for the present day. 6/10.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Review of SULLY: Short and Straightforward

September 9, 2016

Tom Hanks is still one of the busiest senior actors around in Hollywood. Most of his recent films still end up with awards attention, like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011), "Cloud Atlas" (2012), "Captain Phillips" (2013), "Saving Mr. Banks" (2013), and just last year "Bridge of Spies" (2015). This year, he has three films with three distinct flavors. "A Hologram for the King" is a slow and puzzling art film. "Inferno" is the third installment of the popcorn Dan Brown - Robert Langdon film franchise. And then there is this film "Sully," a type which may likely attract Oscar attention again.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways pilot Captain Chelsea "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his first officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) just took off from La Guardia Airport in New York City on a routine domestic flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. A few minutes in midair, the flock of birds flew straight into the path of the airplane, causing both engines to explode and fail.

In the face of certain disaster, Capt. Sully made a decision to land right onto the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survive and the press celebrated this heroic landing "The Miracle on the Hudson." However, amidst the jubilation, Air Safety experts investigate whether Capt. Sully's feat was truly heroic, or was it a foolhardy stunt which actually endangered the lives of everyone on board.

Tom Hanks can really embody these types of characters so well, so cool and collected, so stoic and unflustered. We have seen him in roles like this many times, most recently in "Bridge of Spies." He has been so uniformly consistently good in similar roles like this that they do not make any real solid impact anymore. He is a very good actor no doubt, but incredibly, his last Oscar nomination for Best Actor was way back 2001 for "Cast Away," his last risky performance of note.

The film also celebrates the unprecedented feat of commercial aviation by Capt. Sully, as well as the prompt response of the rescuers from the city of New York. However, the drama and conflict of the film was more about the investigations which came after the landing upon which the career and name of Capt. Sully hung precariously.

Director Clint Eastwood did not waste any time at all with useless diversions, telling the whole story in only a terse yet tense 96 minutes. This extraordinary story was straightforward and simple, and the film was similarly straightforward and simple. This "straight-to-the-point approach" is really the best for true-to-life stories like this. There is no need for extra dramatics in the guise of artistic license. The emergency water landing scenes were harrowing (even if I did not watch this in IMAX). The inclusion of real-life celebrities like Katie Couric and David Letterman added interest. A heartwarming extra scene during the closing credits added gravitas. 7/10.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review of TRAIN TO BUSAN: Undead Unlimited!

September 4, 2016

This new Korean film "Train to Busan" is certainly earning a lot of positive word of mouth since its debut in this year's Cannes Film Festival in its Midnight Screenings section. Unlike other films, this film was actually gaining more cinemas since it opened locally last Wednesday, a sure sign of box-office appeal. In the mall nearest us, this film was not shown among its four cinemas on opening day. By Saturday, there was one cinema showing it and by Sunday there were two cinemas. It was a very animated full house when we watched it earlier today.

The central character is Seok-woo, a man stressed out with problems about his investments business and his divorce.  His 9-year old daughter Su-an, feeling neglected, requests her father to bring her to Busan the next day to see her estranged mother. Seok-woo could not say no.

On the same train to Busan as Seok-woo and Su-an, a lady passenger with a bite wound on her legs, collapses and turns into a zombie. As she bites another person, that next person would also turn into a zombie and so on. Panic ensues on the train, and as everyone eventually discover along the way that the same zombie frenzy was true for the rest of the country. The fight to survive is now on.

This film was one exhilarating roller-coaster ride from beginning to end. The zombies and their attack scenes were very well-executed with a combination of practical and computer-generated effects. These monsters were very fast-moving and relentless in their quest for human flesh. We hear people around us gasp and shriek with shock as we see these zombies pile up in droves and hordes, crash out of windows and barrel through doors. We breathlessly hang on to the edge of our seats the whole ride.

Of course, what Korean film does not have a good dose of melodrama? The father-daughter dynamic between Seok-woo and Su-an is front and center. But aside from them, we also meet a cast of supporting characters on the train whose fates we will be following for the rest of the film. These include a burly man with his pregnant wife, a teenager with his girlfriend and his baseball team, a haughty businessman, two elderly sisters and a homeless man, among others. We get just enough introduction about who they are for us to care about what happens to them.

Gong Woo played the flawed lead character Seok-woo very well. He was able to convincingly portray the development of this uncaring apathetic guy into a hero we could all root for to get through this crisis alive. He was as good in the weepy dramatic scenes as he was in the swashbuckling action scenes. This actor has come a long way since his breakout role as lead star of the TV romantic comedy series "The Coffee Prince" back in 2007.

Kim Su-an is only 10 years old but she had already been acting in films for five years now. She is the dramatic core of this film as the daughter desperately reaching out to her jaded father. As a child actress, she held her own impressively among this cast of veterans with her heartfelt portrayal. Who would have thought that the sad little song she wanted to sing for her father would resonate so much?

Ma Dong-seok is charismatic as Sang-hwa, a devoted husband and selfless fighter. We see him first as some sort of  comic relief only, which made the audience warm up to him. Later, we would discover how much more his character was able to do and give for others, and loved him more. His pregnant wife Seong-kyeong was played by acclaimed Korean indie film actress Jung Yu-mi, conveying strength in her delicate condition. 

Another actor of note is Kim Eui-sung, who was totally hateful in his role as the selfish Yong-suk. In total contrast to Sang-hwa, Yong-suk was a man only thought of himself alone, not caring that he actually put a lot of other characters directly into harm's way.

Ahn So-hee (as Jin-hee) and Choi Woo-shik (as Young-guk) were in there to inject some teenage romantic angst into the film. They were relatively lightweight performers who were probably included just because they looked cool. That scene when Young-guk encounters his baseball teammates-turned-zombies was very well-conceived by the writers. 

People may dismiss as "just" being a zombie film, but it is the drama of human relationships and interactions that rises above the horrific and thrilling carnage. Director Yeon Sang-ho's first two feature-length films ("The King of Pigs" and "The Fake") were both animated films exploring the bleak side of human nature. With his first live action directorial effort, Yeon has created a complete film masterpiece with "Train to Busan." Highly recommended! 10/10. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Review of GODZILLA RESURGENCE: Revitalized Radioactive Reboot

September 3, 2016

The 2014 American film "Godzilla" by Gareth Edwards was the first film which introduced the classic film character of Godzilla to me. I liked that one and rated it a respectable 7/10 (MY REVIEW). Even if I had known about Godzilla since I was a child, I have not actually watched a Japanese Godzilla film in full ever, and longed to see one on the big screen.

This new Japanese film "Shin Gojira" (with the international title: "Godzilla Resurgence") is already the 31st film of the Godzilla franchise. It is the third time Toho Company is rebooting the franchise. When I heard that they were actually going to show this Japanese film in local cinemas, I got excited. I was finally going to see how Japan itself will tell a modern-day story about their iconic Kaiju (or monster). 

The film does not waste any time. It immediately shows a sea monster with a long tail arising from Tokyo Bay, going towards and eventually going on land, wreaking a swathe of death and destruction along in its path. This monster initially began as a giant crawling worm-like creature with small hind legs and red glowing gills. While on land, it would continue to evolve into different phases of development until it eventually becomes the Tyrannosaurus Rex-like creature with the red glowing dorsal spine we are more familiar with.

However, this film was also very much about the human response to this historically unprecedented crisis. It was fascinating to see the Japanese political process in action, with its extreme obsession with proper procedure and honorable decorum even in the face of this deadly disaster. The patriotic attitude of Japan with regards to American interference in the Godzilla issue was also very interesting to witness. It was inevitable that sad parallels were made about the Hiroshima nuclear disaster.

If you are expecting Godzilla to look exactly like a "Jurassic Park"-quality T-Rex, you will be disappointed. In fact, the very first phase of Godzilla that we see had very fake-looking unblinking googly-eyes that looked hilariously cute. Those pine-tree looking "spines" behind its back looked very odd. Even during the middle phase, the close-ups of Godzilla stalking through the streets looked very stiff and awkward, as if a dinosaur doll being made to move around by a child at play. Everything changed by the time Godzilla was bombed and it becomes a nuclear laser-emitting killing machine. The Godzilla in the last hour looked absolutely amazing, right up to the elegant final look.

Hiroki Hasegawa smartly played Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi. Frustrated by how the bureaucracy worked, it was he who gathered some unconventional experts from allied fields to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to their monstrous problem which military forces alone cannot contain. 

Satomi Ishihara sassily played Kayoko Ann Patterson, the Special Envoy for the President of the United States, who also dreamed to be US President someday. Pretty and petite, Ishihara did not seem to look not act right for such an important character. She came across as too juvenile and too frivolous for the position she was supposed to hold.

A notable supporting actress was Mikako Ichikawa, who played the dour but resourceful and intuitive low-ranking Bureaucrat of Ministry of the Environment who came up with key suggestions and discoveries which were initially dismissed, only to be proven true later on. Ichikawa stole her scenes whenever she was own because of her deadpan delivery of her lines, also because she was the only female in these special forces meetings.

The imperfect practical and computer-generated special effects actually gave it a crudely charming throwback look in that uniquely Japanese style. Seeing all those boats, cars and trains being thrown around, piled up and exploding was crazy. The step-by-step detailed procedural of the climactic "Operation Yashiori" attack on Godzilla was very entertaining to watch. That very last frame actually suggests that there might be an interesting sequel. Consider this franchise successfully rebooted. 8/10. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Review of DON'T BREATHE: Superbly Suffocating Suspense

September 1, 2016

Three petty thieves, the reckless Money, his girlfriend Rocky and their best pal Alex, break into the house of an old blind war veteran who just gained a hefty amount of money from a court settlement. Since this house was in an abandoned neighborhood, they thought this victim would be an easy pushover for a big-payoff caper. However, little did they know that when the blind man found out he was being robbed, the tables would majorly turn against the thieves in sick deadly ways they never would have imagined in their wildest nightmares. 

This is again another one of those films which I hope I never saw the trailer. The basic plot of the film was already there as I had described above. You can really see the classic Hitchcock touch in the storytelling approach, with its effective use of close-ups to play up the importance of various objects. There was some similarity to the chilling film "Wait Until Dark," where a blind woman also had a thief break into in her house. Like Audrey Hepburn's Susy, the blind man also turned off the lights to gain the upperhand over the thieves.

However, that synopsis above and the trailer are definitely not the whole story. More startling events happen midway when you least expect it -- events which you would never have guessed would come and twist up the whole proceedings. The lesser you know about the plot the better this film would work, so I will not talk anymore about these other details so you can enjoy this film as much as I did.

As Rocky, Jane Levy effectively played a desperate young woman willing to do anything to get out of her destitute life in Detroit. She is very good with her facial expressions that convey horror and claustrophobia.  Apart from that, she also excelled in the very exhausting physical demands of her role. Levy worked well with director Fede Alvarez, whose last film was also "Evil Dead" back in 2013 like her. In fact, the director of the original "Evil Dead" (1981), Sam Raimi, is also on board now as a producer. However, the horror of "Don't Breathe" is definitely a lot more subtle than the gore-fests of either "Evil Dead".

As the Blind Man, Stephen Lang had a practically wordless role, but he was such a strong presence despite and because of his silence. Even when we do not see him, we definitely feel his fearsome energy. Still sturdy and well-built, at 64 years old with his silvery hair, Lang's Blind Man was a memorably enigmatic and nihilistically perverse screen character. This remarkably powerful and unnerving performance will be the one Lang would long be remembered for in his acting career. 

It can be frustrating to watch a film where all the characters are flawed or downright bad and you do not know whom to root for. This is one of those films, but the way the director Alvarez executed it, it actually made the whole situation of the film better. It was such a breathless experience up to the multiple climaxes Alvarez gave us. You never know when or how it was going to end, and you don't want it to. Save for a sticky question about the main twist (which you may only think about as an afterthought), the plot developments were generally well-thought out and logical. Those jump scares can really startle you out of your seat. This is how suspense should be done. 9/10.