Monday, February 29, 2016

Review of GODS OF EGYPT: Flashy but Flat

February 26, 2016




Ancient Egypt was ruled by giant gods who lived among the mortals. The King of Egypt then, Osiris, intended to crown his son Horus as his successor. However, his envious brother Set wanted the throne for himself. A mortal petty thief named Bek gets involved in this godly battle when Bek's skills were able to recover something vital Horus had lost.  In return, Bek wanted Osiris to help him reunite with his great love, Zaya.


We should not really expect any depth from its storyline nor acclaimed acting from its stars. There was clearly no attempt to be realistic as cast of the film were not Egyptian or do they even remotely look like Egyptians. Horus was played by Danish actor. Set was played by a Scottish actor. Bek, Zaya, Ra, and Osiris were played by Australian actors. Hathor was played by a French actress. Even all of those extras in the crowd do not look Egyptian. I guess we are just expected to accept it as is.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau might have been an ideal choice to play Jamie Lannister on "Game of Thrones." However as the lead character Horus, I do not know why but I felt he was terribly miscast, and that was not only because he is not Egyptian. He tries hard, but his acting looked awkward and uncomfortable in most of his scenes. His costumes did not look good or fit well on him. He did not look godlike nor heroic nor romantic in all those scenes that required these qualities. 

Gerard Butler seemed to be doing a King Leonidas ("300") retread as the antagonistic god of the afterlife, Set. Butler was swarthy and gruff, as any good villain would be expected to look and act. Butler looked good in his costume, was very comfortable in his acting and was obviously enjoying himself in his role, in contrast to the seeming discomfort manifested by Coster-Waldau.

Surfer boy-looking Brenton Thwaites and voluptuous Courtney Eaton looked pretty good together as Bek and Zaya, the mortals caught up in godly conflict. Thwaite's acting was shallow here, not like when we first saw him in "The Giver." Beautiful French actress Elodie Yung played gorgeous goddess of love Hathor with a wry sense of humor. Chadwick Boseman played the god of wisdom, Thoth, in full camp fashion. I liked that scene where they showed how Thoth only trusted himself. Good to see 80s Australian star Bryan Brown in his short appearance as King Osiris in the first few minutes of this film.

I don't think I have seen Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush since his appearance in "The King's Speech". I was surprised to see him in this film as Horus' venerable grandfather Ra. There was no subtlely in the acting of Rush here as he was uncharacteristically florid and even hammy in his approach. 

As you can see from its blindingly dazzling poster and trailers, this film sells itself as a computer-graphics extravaganza, nothing more. The costumes, makeup and hairstyling and production design were certainly ostentatious. The visual effects were not always neat and tended to be over the top and obvious, such as it would appear on a video game rather than a feature film. This was especially true with the animal forms of each god and the booby-trapped temples and tombs Bek had to raid. I liked how they made the gods giants beside mere mortals. Those scorpions looked terrible though. 

Overall, this is mindless entertainment targeting mainly young viewers of the videogame generation. This was all visual spectacle with little substance, fun (and funny) to watch but ultimately forgettable. 5/10. 


Sunday, February 28, 2016

How I Would Rank This Year's OSCAR BEST PICTURE NOMINEES (2016)

February 28, 2016

With the Oscar Awards coming tomorrow February 29, morning Manila time, it is time for me now to make my fearless Oscar predictions.  Here is how I would rank this year's 8 nominees for Oscar Best Picture based on my own opinions when I first saw these films.  


1. THE REVENANT 10/10

In the 1820s, on one most unfortunate expedition in the dead of winter in the mountain wilderness, American frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass faced multiple attacks from nature and from fellow man, leaving him severely broken in body but his will pushes him to rise and fight back. Leonardo DiCaprio obviously went beyond the limits of human endurance and comfort to portray the torturous experience of Hugh Glass. Director Alejandro Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki treated us to a gloriously moving photography of Mother Nature at its grandest and at its most perilous. (My Full Review)

"The Revenant" is nominated for 11 other Oscars.  Leonardo diCaprio is bound to win Best Actor finally. I am rooting for this film to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Makeup and Hairstyling and Visual Effects (for that incredible bear attack scene). It is also cited for Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Editing, Production Design, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.


2. THE MARTIAN 10/10

Mark Watney is an astronaut member of NASA's Ares III mission to Mars. After a freak accident in a Martian storm, Mark gets knocked out cold and was left behind as dead in the emergency evacuation of his crew off the planet. As it turned out, Mark was still alive. Left to survive on his own resourcefulness, skills and expertise in Botany, Mark had to keep himself alive while waiting for NASA back home to make contact with him and perhaps send a mission to rescue him off Mars. Matt Damon was practically a one-man show here. He was responsible for keeping audiences engaged what could have been a boring 2-1/2 hour film of solitude. (My Full Review)

"The Martian" is nominated for 6 other Oscars: Actor (Matt Damon), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Production Design and the category for which I am betting for it to win: Best Adapted Screenplay for Drew Goddard's engaging adaptation of Alex Weir's hit sci-fi novel.



3. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD 9/10

In the massive Citadel, a skull mask-wearing tyrant Immortan Joe rules, cruelly withholding precious water from his impoverished subjects. Mad Max Rockatansky has been captured to become a blood donor for Nux, one of Joe's War Boys. Elsewhere, Imperator Furiosa, a female War-Rig driver, helps Joe's five wives escape to the fabled "Green Place" of her childhood. Nux, with Max still attached to him, joins Joe and the other War Boys to pursue Furiosa. This chase leads to a major explosive battle-royale in the desert, one that would cause an upheaval of the balance of power in the outback. Director George Miller was able to mine cinematic beauty from the vicious violence and badass brutality amidst the dirty and dusty dystopian setting. (My Full Review)

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is nominated for 9 more Oscars: Director, Cinematography, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, and the three categories I am betting for it to win: Film Editing (Margaret Sixel), Costume Design and Production Design


4. SPOTLIGHT 9/10

A group of newspapermen from the Boston Globe display their remarkable tenacity and boldness in researching, writing and publishing this contemptible scandal of child-molesting Catholic priests and its cover-up to the public. Their fluid ensemble acting was amazing to witness on that screen. While only Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams earned Oscar nods as supporting performers, but really it was a grand team effort to pull this through. director Tom McCarthy managed to wrestle the contentiously difficult material of "Spotlight" and translate it into a vivid, engaging and very thrilling film. (My Full Review)

"Spotlight" is nominated for 5 other Oscars: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing. I think its best chances to win would be in Best Original Screenplay for Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy.


5. ROOM 8/10

There were only two characters: a long-haired 5-year old boy Jack and his young mother Joy, who kept Jack trapped inside a small room with only a skylight for him to see the sky outside. However, when stick with it, you will be rewarded with an unexpected turn of events that will teach you the virtue of not judging a film from its first five minutes. The real situation of mother and son that reveals itself will be beyond your wildest expectations. (My Full Review)

"Room" is nominated for 3 other Oscars: Best Director (Lenny Abrahamson), Adapted Screenplay (Emma Donoghue) and its best bet for a statuette: Best Actress for Brie Larson


6. BRIDGE OF SPIES 8/10

In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, James B. Donovan, a top-notch insurance lawyer based in New York City, was conscripted by the US government to perform a thankless duty-- to defend Rudolf Abel, an elderly Russian artist accused to be a spy. Public disdain did not stop Donovan from fighting for the rights of his client. He even agreed to go on his own private capacity to negotiate a trade of prisoners in East Berlin -- Abel in exchange for two young Americans caught in the crossfire. (My Full Review)

"Bridge of Spies" is nominated for 5 other Oscars: Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Production Design. Rylance would have been a good bet to win, however, he is up against a big name star Sylvester Stallone. 


7. THE BIG SHORT 7/10

This film followed the interconnecting individual stories of a few maverick financial gamblers as they made unusual, high risk yet critical investments in the housing sector which would eventually lead to the US financial crisis of 2007. Screenwriter/director Adam McKay tried his best to explain all the financial gobbledygook involved in this technically-complex story. Frankly though, it was still difficult for me to get through a huge part of the film precisely because of those finance jargon. (My Full Review)

"The Big Short" is nominated for four other Oscars: Best Director (Adam McKay), Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing. I do not see it will win anything.

8. BROOKLYN 7/10

In 1952, Eilis Lacey, a young woman from a small Irish town, bravely accepts the opportunity to travel and try her luck in Brooklyn in New York City, where a lot of Irish folk have migrated to seek greener pastures. She will have to choose between two countries and two men. Saoirse Ronan played Ellis with so much elegance and grace, an uplifting performance of a role which may be seem so ordinary in the hands of a lesser actress. (My Full Review)

"Brooklyn" is nominated for two other Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress for Ms. Ronan. I am afraid this film will also be going home empty-handed.

*******************

My bets for the other categories:

Best Supporting Actor: SYLVESTER STALLONE ("Creed") (My Full Review)

Best Supporting Actress: ALICIA VIKANDER ("The Danish Girl") (My Full Review)

Best Animated Feature: "INSIDE OUT" (My Full Review)

Its nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category shows how highly regarded this Pixar film is . Its accompanying animated short SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM should also be a cinch in winning the Oscar for Short Film (Animated).

Best Sound Effects / Sound Mixing: "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS" (My Full Review)

Best Foreign Language Film: "SON OF SAUL" (Hungary)

Best Music (Original Score): ENNIO MORRICONE ("The Hateful Eight")

Best Music (Original Song): 

I like "EARNED IT" by The Weeknd to win, but being from "Fifty Shades of Grey" (My Full Review) will work against it. I see a close fight between "The Writing on the Wall" by Sam Smith from the latest James Bond film "Spectre" (My Full Review) and "'Til It Happens to You" by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga from the documentary film on sexual assault "The Hunting Ground." Sam Smith may have won the Golden Globe, but I think Lady Gaga may have the upper hand here in Oscar.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review of TANDEM: Bedevilled Brothers

February 23, 2016




"Tandem" was first shown in local theaters during the MMFF 2015 New Wave, the week before the MMFF proper. Because of the hectic holiday schedule and the limited movie houses showing this film, I was not able to see it despite its good word of mouth and it being Rated A by the Film Evaluation Board. I did not have to wait too long for this film to have a regular theater run just last week. My work schedule in the past few days was so toxic and topsy-turvy. Fortunately, I finally got to watch it today on its last day.

The word "tandem" has earned an unsavory meaning in the Philippine setting as it has been applied to criminals who work in pairs riding on motorcycles doing a variety of crimes from the petty, like bag snatching, to the heinous, like assassinations. Brothers Roman (Nico Antonio) and Rex (JM de Guzman) thrive on such criminal activity. 

Having served time before and expecting a new child with his wife Che (Rochelle Pangilinan), Roman tended to be more cautious and low-key. Younger brother Rex though is rash and impetuous, whether he is riding his motorcycle or his girlfriend Nadine (Elora Espano). Desperation for money, crooked cops (Allan Paule and Paolo O'Hara) and botched jobs lead the two brothers to a critical and deadly point of no return.

JM de Guzman is really a very intense young actor. It is his character and his foolhardy decisions that makes this movie move forward. This film shows us another aspect to his repertoire, in very sharp contrast to his box-office hit "That Thing Called Tadhana". "Tandem" is as dark as "Tadhana" was whimsical, and de Guzman nailed them both. I am not surprised that de Guzman tied for Best Actor (with Francisco Quinto for "Ari: My Life with a King") when the festival awards were given out.

Nico Antonio has that kind of sadsack face that makes you sympathize with him despite some pretty despicable things he is doing onscreen. I had seen him before playing petty criminals in indie films like "Posas" (2012) and "Red" (2014), so he is right at home with his role here. He had rich chemistry with his co-stars, not only with JM de Guzman as his brother, but also with Rochelle Panganiban, who was a refreshing presence as his pregnant wife Che. Those tender scenes when Roman was apologizing to Che in his unique way were quite touching.

Granted the storyline may sound familiar and may have been done some other ways before, the script of Zig Marasigan, while slow to build up at first, was engaging and riveting to the end. Director King Palisoc, with the help of film editor Benjamin Tolentino, had assembled a suspenseful crime thriller over an underlying drama of the human condition in the slums of Manila. 8/10.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review of THE BOY: Porcelain Poltergeist

February 23, 2016





There was a little horror movie with no big stars that debuted in local theaters last January 27. I did not have the opportunity to watch it back then, and did not think much about missing it. However, three weeks later, "The Boy" is still showing in theaters while the higher profile it opened with had already been pulled out. Since it was the only film starting when I got to the mall, I chose to watch it and see what was behind its staying power during a time when a most small films usually only had a single week to prove itself.

A young American woman Greta accepts a job as a nanny for a well-to-do elderly British couple, the Heelshires. However, she was surprised to discover that the boy Brahms whom she had been hired to nanny for was actually a porcelain doll. He was curiously being treated like a real child, even with a list of rules Greta had to follow.  One day, Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire go away for a long trip, leaving Greta and Brahms alone in the old mansion.  From then on, Greta's amusement with her "easy" job slowly turned into fear as strange, creepy things begin happening to her, seemingly caused by the inanimate Brahms.

The success of this movie really fell on the shoulders of its lead actress Lauren Cohan. As Greta, she had to emote mostly by herself as supernatural events were happening around her. Of course, she will do all the typical things horror movie heroines get to do -- like taking a languid shower, going to check up on a noise in the attic, go outdoors in the dark, etc... However, she generally did not come across as annoying, as most others do. Cohan had enough class not to appear stupid when Greta started to take Brahms' rules seriously. I guess Ms. Cohan had a lot of practice dealing with monsters as Maggie on the hit TV series "The Walking Dead."

The rest of the supporting cast basically play one-dimensional characters around Greta. Rupert Evans played Malcolm, the guy who delivered groceries to the mansion who inevitably falls in love in Greta (but of course!). Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle played the creepy Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire with much heart. Ben Robson played Greta's brutish partner Cole, whose abuse drove her to seek this job far away from home.

This is the fourth horror film in a row for director William Brent Bell, the first one he did not write himself. Of his three previous films, B-grade all, I had only seen "The Devil Inside" (my review HERE), a film which most critics hated. "The Boy" was an out-of-the-box script written by Stacey Menear on which Bell applied his B-horror film expertise, coming up with something so crazy yet strangely entertaining in its own way. That sick ending was certainly twisted in more ways than one. 6/10.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Review of JOY: Melodrama About a Mop

February 22, 2016



"Joy" is yet another collaboration of writer/director David O. Russell with two of his favorite actors: Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. First, they got together on "Silver Linings Playbook" in 2012, then again in "American Hustle" in 2013. Both of these projects were showered with Oscar nominations, 8 for "Playbook" and 10 for "Hustle", both with nods for Russell, Lawrence and Cooper. Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Lead Actress in "Playbook". 

In contrast, the Oscar prospects of Russell's newest film "Joy" have been limited to just one nomination-- Jennifer Lawrence for Best Lead Actress. Gone was his remarkable achievement of earning nominations in all four acting categories as well as in the top five categories achieved by "Playbook" and "Hustle". This dearth of nominations warned me that I should not really expect too much for this one, despite the fine pedigree it possessed.

Joy is a big dreamer since she was a little girl. However, her real life is anything but a dream as she remained mired in poverty, a failed marriage and divorced parents. One day, she gets an inspiration to invent a self-wringing mop. Getting her idea off the ground though was a nightmarish maze of contracts and debts. Her fortunes seemed to turn though when she gets the opportunity to market her mop on the home tv shopping network. Could this be Joy's way out of the deep hole she has been in her whole adult life?

Jennifer Lawrence is still the best aspect of this film, and really did her best to lift and carry this film through. However she unfortunately had to contend with such limiting and joyless material. Bradley Cooper played Neil Walker, a home TV shopping executive who took a chance on Joy's idea. However, the way their screen partnership here was written in a way that fails to take advantage of their proven chemistry with each other. 

Robert de Niro played yet another eccentric dad Rudy in another typical performance. He was competent as could be expected, but not outstanding. The charmless character of the half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) was especially annoying, as was the aimlessly weird characterization of Joy's mother Terry (Virginia Madsen). Having Diane Ladd to play Joy's grandmother was totally wasted.

At least Isabella Rosselini provided some strength of character as Trudy, Rudy's wealthy girlfriend and Joy's investor. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez played Joy's ex-husband and best friend Tony. Too bad we do not really get to know either of these two characters better. They could have dropped some unnecessarily long scenes to spend more time on these two more interesting characters. 

The main problem of this film was that it revolved around the lead character's problem about her innovative MOP! You really feel the stretching done to make such a simple plot into its two-hour running time. There were so many subplots inserted in to prolong and complicate matters. The slowness of the build-up suddenly switched into overdrive towards the end. The final twenty minutes crammed in so many other matters in such a haphazardly rapid manner, rushing through her actual financial ascent. 

The direction of Russell was not so astute this time, resulting in an uncharacteristically messy, uninspirational production. 5/10.



Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review of ROOM: Claustrophobic and Captivating

February 18, 2016




I knew nothing about the plot of this film when I went to watch it. I only knew that its lead actress Brie Larson had been nominated for Best Actress in practically every award-giving body. In fact, she had already won the major ones, including the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Actress, the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Julianne Moore won all these last year and went home with the Oscar. In the same way, we can say that the Academy Award for Best Actress is already Brie Larson's to lose. 

When the film began, I thought I would not be able to get through it. The set is very claustrophobic -- just a small room which was so cramped and untidy that you can practically smell its stench. There were only two characters in there. There was an annoying 5-year old boy Jack, who looked like a girl with his very long hair. He lives with his young mother Joy, who seemed to be such an irresponsible mom, keeping Jack trapped inside that room with only a skylight for him to see the sky outside. 

However, when stick with it, you will be rewarded with an unexpected turn of events that will teach you the virtue of not judging a film from its first five minutes. The real situation of mother and son that reveals itself will be beyond your wildest expectations. 

The challenge of Brie Larson is the portrayal of young woman with a very unusually traumatic situation. Larson gave a vividly internal performance that effectively conveyed all the pent-up pain, anger and frustration of this girl who had her youth stolen from her. While all the nominees in the Oscar race for Best Actress this year quietly shone without hysterics in their respective parts, I think it is the rawness and naturalness of Larson's performance in such a unique role that gave her the edge. 

I really felt that the child actor who played Jack, Jacob Tremblay, should have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. He was at first being pushed in the Supporting category when it was obvious that he was the co-lead. At first, his acting can be construed as painfully annoying, yes. However, when you realize the real situation they were in, you'd really be very impressed with how this very young actor could have portrayed such a difficult role. Because of his tender age, raw and natural is the only way he could go, and he nailed it.

Director Lenny Abrahamson deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Director for simply being able to unravel the story with such gripping subtlety, based on the screenplay (also Oscar-nominated) by Emma Donoghue as adapted from her own 2010 book with the same one-word title. Despite its simple and unassuming title, "Room" actually tackles very complex emotions. It is a riveting drama about a family's liberation from a real-life nightmare and the struggle to move on from its ghosts. 8/10


Friday, February 12, 2016

Review of DEADPOOL: Rapidfire, Raunchy and Rip-Roaring

February 12, 2016




I confess I only knew about Deadpool when I saw the trailers for this film last year. This trailer promised graphic violence and a naughty sense of humor (so evident in that cheeky poster!) that was very interesting. When the film was rated R-16 for its local showing this week, I knew this film was going to far exceed the typical Marvel superhero fare which had previously been rated PG, or even G, despite the violence and language in them. I am not a fan of Ryan Reynolds, but for this film I was willing to endure him to see what all this rabid anticipation was all about. 

Deadpool was a mutant superhero who was invincible as he can heal himself even of the most injuries. He was a quick wit, a sarcastic sense of humor and a rapidfire foul mouth. Behind his red mask is Wade Wilson, a professional urban mercenary stricken with Stage 4 cancer. He was recruited to undergo a radical treatment regimen to treat his cancer. Little did he know that the regimen involved extreme torture under the hands of the ruthless insensate Ajax (an intense Ed Skrein) and his sexy super-minion Angel Dust (a hefty Gina Carano). While this did give him superhuman abilities, his face and skin were majorly disfigured in the process. 

We also meet the various important people in Wade's life.There are his pretty and similarly quick-witted girlfriend Vanessa (lovely Morena Baccarin), his elderly female black cokehead roommate Blind Al (a delightful unexpected role for veteran Leslie Uggams), his bartender best friend Weasel (a dweebish T.J. MIller) and his comic relief taxi driver Gopinder (Karan Soni). Also in the mix are a couple of X-Men mutant guest stars, the gentlemanly metallic giant Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapičić) and the atomically explosive young heroine with the long and cool monicker, Negatronic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). 

Finally, Ryan Reynolds finds the role that is a perfect fit for him. He was on point as Deadpool, cool, relaxed, funny, coming across very positively (despite his potty mouth). That Deadpool is able to break the fourth wall and directly address the audience added so much to his charismatic appeal. For his whole career, he had been flitting around in forgettable rom-coms, never really connecting memorably with anything he had done before. His first foray in being a superhero was the critical and box-office disaster that was "Green Lantern." 

I really liked all those numerous witty and comical pop references, which surprisingly even included DC Comics with a Batman and Robin joke. As Deadpool, Reynolds was actually able to poke fun at himself and his acting style or lack thereof. There was also that scene where he said he did not want a green animated costume (we all know what he is referring to, right?). Both these hilarious zingers really had me in stitches. It may take a second or third viewing to catch all of them, as most of the lines in the script probably had one. 

Taking a cue from one of the reasons for the huge success of "Guardians of the Galaxy," the unlikely retro pop hit soundtrack will give you pleasant surprises, from "Angel in the Morning" by Juice Newton over the wacky opening credits, to "You're the Inspiration" by Chicago, from "Careless Whisper" by Wham! to "Shoop" by Salt-N-Pepa as the credits scrolled up. 

There were no ordinary fight scenes in this film. All of them really featured incredibly hardcore violence, with no qualms about showing splattering blood and broken bones and dead bodies. Swords, daggers, bullets will be seen penetrating bodies and exploding heads. Those cars crashing and motorcycles flipping over were executed in a most no-holds-barred style, you would feel your stomach lift up like you were in a roller coaster ride.  

Apart from the unbridled violence and the "F" word and raunchy jokes galore, parents who plan to sneak their pre-teen kids into the moviehouse should also know that there will be sexy scenes here between Wade and Vanessa, although these were done via a humorous montage. There will be some brief but full-on nudity of the dancing girls in a strip club as well. (Do not miss that quick cameo of the DJ in that strip joint though). 

Vulgar as it may be, this film will be a guilty pleasure for most. The humor was vibrant and wicked, never falling flat. I enjoyed myself the whole time laughing at all those little jokes of all colors in practically every scene. (This was despite my aversion to hearing profanity -- the sheer frequency of those F bombs probably made me immune to it already after the first few.) The breakneck action scenes were literally breathtaking. There were just the right number of tender scenes and cheesy love songs to temper the testosterone overload. That extra teaser scene at the very end of the closing credits will make you smile.  "Deadpool" is definitely fun adult entertainment at its rip-roaring best. 9/10.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review of SPOTLIGHT: Controversial Crusade

February 11, 2016




Initially, I feared that maybe "Spotlight" may not be shown in local theaters. This would be despite all its acclaim and awards buzz it has been receiving, not the least of which are the 6 Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing) for which it had been nominated. The film painted the Catholic Church in a very bad light so it was highly probable that there would be a lobby to ban the showing of this controversial film. But fortunately that was not the case, it was shown locally after all (rated appropriately as R-16), opening on an Ash Wednesday of all days. 

While the underlying issue in "Spotlight" was about child-molesting Catholic priests and how the all-powerful hierarchy (both religious and legal) was covering up for them, but this was not exactly what the film was about. The main focus is really on a group of newspapermen from the Boston Globe called "Spotlight" and their remarkable tenacity and boldness in researching, writing and publishing this contemptible scandal to the public.

This film had won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and rightly so. Their fluid ensemble acting was amazing to witness on that screen. While only Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams earned Oscar nods as supporting performers, but really it was a grand team effort to pull this through. Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci also turn in admirable work as usual of them. There were no scenes with excessive histrionics, no illnesses, no physical deformities, no deaths or any other highlight that shouts "great acting". Instead, the performances of all these actors were simply able to realistically convey the passion, anger, and frustration experienced by intrepid investigative reporters in the line of their duty. 

Aside from the acting, the film is a director's showcase. Directing a film involves the formation of an artistic vision based on the script on hand, then guiding the cast and crew into realizing that vision. For a film like this which is all complex talk, it is up to the director to create excitement and tension as he controls those critical aspects of pacing, sequencing and editing. In the hands of a lesser director, this could well have been a boring and uninteresting. However, director Tom McCarthy managed to wrestle the contentiously difficult material of "Spotlight" and translate it into a vivid, engaging and very thrilling film. 9/10.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Review of THE DANISH GIRL: Acceptance and Abnegation

February 5, 2016




You can already get a hint of the story of "The Danish Girl" from its poster. Oscar Best Actor last year, Eddie Redmayne, is donning women's clothes playing a transgender woman.  I will admit the topic is not exactly my cup of tea. However, its four Oscar nominations (including another Best Actor nod for Redmayne) compelled me to go see it as well.

It was the roaring 1920s in Copenhagen, Denmark. Artists Einar and Gerda Wegener were a young married couple very much in love. Einar is acclaimed for his landscapes, while Gerda is struggling to get her portraiture gain recognition. One day, Gerda asks her husband to pose for a painting of a ballerina she was trying to finish. Wearing the lady's shoes and touching her clothes awoke a long-repressed second person within Einar, a woman he identifies as Lili. Lili would eventually take over as Einar's dominant persona, impelling him to undergo very risky sex reassignment surgeries.

The lead role of Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe is predictably an acting showcase for the actor chosen to play him / her. While the LGBTs of the world would have wanted a real transsexual actress to portray their icon, the filmmakers chose Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne had that effeminate manner down pat as Einar Wegener. Up to that exact moment when Einar was naked in front of that mirror and Lili took over, Redmayne was very affecting and brave. He was able to convey Einar's confusion and struggle to regain control very effectively, until he finally gave in to the overwhelming compulsion. I may be in the minority, but I felt he was not that convincing anymore when he was already Lili Elbe, drastic weight loss and sweet shy smile notwithstanding.

I did admire more the performance of Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener. She took the lead in their relationship until Lili came out and Gerda had to yield. She sacrificed her own happiness and endured suffering for her love. I had admired Vikander since I saw her in "A Royal Wedding". Her role here in "The Danish Girl" can arguably be considered as a co-lead. Until the Oscar nominations came out, it was not sure for which film (this or the futuristic "Ex-Machina") or which acting category (lead or supporting) she would be cited. I think she was a very good chance of winning Best Supporting Actress for this film. 2015 was a banner year for Vikander, and I am looking forward to seeing this talented actress more challenging roles.

This is a very niche film. Perhaps only a limited number of people may be open-minded enough to watch this because of its controversial topic of transgenderism, still very uncomfortable or even unacceptable for a lot of people. It has been almost a hundred years since the events depicted in this film, transsexuals are now bravely declaring their choice. Sex reassignment surgery is an acknowledged medical procedure. However, they are still fighting discrimination from the society they move around in. 

Definitely, this was a technically beautiful film in terms of cinematography, set design (those paintings!), and costumes. The first half of the movie was so good, with all the best scenes of the film. However, for me, during the parts when Lili goes for her surgeries, the pace of the storytelling of director Tom Hooper (best known for his Oscar-winning direction of "The King's Speech") became rather random and episodic. The film began to lag and feel long. The second half fizzled unfortunately, instead of lifting off from the momentum of the excellent first half.  7/10. 





Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES: Gentility and Gore

February 5, 2016




The title of this film alone is such a striking oxymoron I simply had to go watch it. I first heard of this title as a book when "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" film came out in 2012. These two best-selling genre-mixing novels were written by the same author, Seth Grahame-Smith. I liked Lincoln-Vampire mashup, so this one should be good too.

Like, the original classic by Jane Austen, this story is set in England in the early 19th century. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five unmarried daughters. Their new neighbor, the rich and eligible Mr. Bingley immediately got smitten with Jane, the eldest and prettiest sister. However, the even richer Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley's aloof friend, immediately got into conflict with the second-eldest and more head-strong sister, Elizabeth.

In this twisted version though, the whole romantic comedy of manners is told in the background of a rising zombie apocalypse threatening to overrun the entirety of England. Therefore, the Bennet girls had all gone to China to train to be skillful fighters to protect their town against the zombie menace. 

"Pride and Prejudice" described the class struggles in the name of romance so well that even with absurd elements like a zombie invasion, it remains to be so good, and delightful to watch. The witty exchange of words is timeless, just as sharp now as it was back then. I have seen the previous film version starring Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden as Elizabeth and Darcy. To be fair, the new young actors in this version certainly did very well in their portrayal of the reluctant lovers as well. 

Lily James was a feisty, strong and kickass Elizabeth Bennet. Sam Riley had the arrogant and mysterious air required for the role of Mr. Darcy. You can really feel the romantic chemistry between these two even when they were antagonistic with each other. Jack Huston was convincing as Mr. Wickham, a military man whom Elizabeth admired but with whom Darcy was at odds. Bella Heathcote and Douglas Booth make a very handsome couple as Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley. Matt Smith is a constant scene-stealer as the awkwardly hilarious pastor, Mr. Collins. 

A couple of Game of Thrones actors shine in smaller roles. Charles Dance plays against his usual tough-guy stance this time. As the good-hearted and progressive patriarch Mr. Bennet. Dance was actually delightful and smiling. Lena Headey is very much in her element as the imposing Lady Catherine de Bourgh, eyepatch and all. The development of her character in the story though leaves something to be desired.

Cinematography, production design, costumes, makeup and visual effects were all meticulously well-done.  It was just too bad that the screen in the cinema where i watched was so dimly lit, so I could hardly see what was happening in those dark scenes. I liked the paper cutout style animation that accompanied the opening credits. By the way, there will be a short extra scene in the middle of the closing credits, so do not leave right away.

As a whole, I liked this unlikely mix of gentility and gore by director Burr Steers, who also wrote the adapted screenplay from both Grahame-Smith and Austen herself. As these two genres are diametrically opposed to each other, many purists may not like the combination. Personally, I thought it was all ingenious and very entertaining, though I was expecting more from the zombie aspect of the project. Classics fans should not worry because Jane Austen's witticism certainly survives the zombie onslaught here. 8/10. 


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review of THE REVENANT: Brutal, Bloody, Breathtaking, Beautiful

February 3, 2016




I did not know what the word "Revenant" meant before I watched the film. It turned out to be a very good decision not to look it up first. Because of my ignorance, I entered the cinema without any idea what kind of movie I will be watching, save for what I saw in the vague early teasers. (I carefully avoided any other trailers after the first one.) Because of the awards buzz, I knew I should keep an eye on Leonardo DiCaprio as he is poised to win his first Oscar for Best Actor. As it turned out, this film is not just DiCaprio's performance. It is way,way more than that.

"The Revenant" is a film based on the real-life experience of American frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass in 1820s. On this one most unfortunate expedition in the dead of winter in the mountain wilderness, Glass faced multiple attacks from nature and from fellow man, leaving him severely broken in body but his will pushes him to rise and fight back. That is as much as I could give without spoiling the whole experience for you. 

I know, that synopsis makes the film sound oh so bleak and dismal. It definitely was a difficult film to watch because of those intensely violent encounters with a variety of crude weaponry which adds to the brutality. The film's biggest and most memorable centerpiece scene (which will forever be its trademark) depicted an animal attack that looked so real you'd gape in awe and wonder how this truly barbaric scene was even possible. That scene should seal the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

However, beyond the profound violence, director Alejandro Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki treated us to a gloriously moving photography of Mother Nature at its grandest and at its most perilous. The achievement is more remarkable with the knowledge that everything had been shot in natural light, and supposedly in sequence (!). I am betting on both Inarritu and Lubezki to duplicate their Oscar wins from their magnificent (in a totally different way) masterpiece last year, "Birdman."

Leonardo DiCaprio obviously went beyond the limits of human endurance and comfort to portray the torturous experience of Hugh Glass. He was actually there going in and out of the freezing waters of those rivers. He was actually stripped down in the snow and hid himself inside an animal carcass. This is unprecedented dedication from an A-list star that deserves to be rewarded. DiCaprio had been nominated four times before ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Aviator," "Blood Diamond," "The Wolf of Wall Street"). As he had already won most of the pre-Oscar awards of this season, like the Golden Globe and the SAG, it looks like this fifth nomination is the charm for Oscar, and this would not be just for sentimental reasons. 

Playing DiCaprio's main antagonist is versatile star Tom Hardy. This actor is a chameleon as he can disappear fully into the characters he is playing, and you cannot always recognize him. His John Fitzgerald here was another one of those total transformations. His name was not always mentioned among those considered for Best Supporting Actor, so I was happy that he finally gets his first ever Oscar nomination for this role. Despite his tendency to mumble his lines in many of his roles (this one included), Tom Hardy is indeed an actor to reckon with. With another big film of his being considered for Best Picture, "Mad Max: Fury Road", 2015 was indeed a banner year in Hardy's career.

"The Revenant" is nominated for 12 Academy Awards this year. Aside from Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Director and Cinematography, it also earned deserved nods in a slew of technical categories (Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects). I don't know why the haunting musical score of Ryuichi Sakamoto was unjustly snubbed. Admittedly though, the missing citation for its Screenplay is understandable as some situations were too physically unrealistic for a man with Glass' severe injuries.

The beauty of the visual and visceral masterpiece that is "The Revenant" deserves to be seen on the big screen (or better yet, on an IMAX screen). Even at least once if extreme violence makes you uneasy. Amidst all that grit, grime, blood, treachery and vengeance, there was a redemptive spirituality that managed to shine through it all. 10/10.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review of FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS: Shifting Storylines

February 2, 2016



Jake Davis was a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who had to raise his young daughter Katie on his own. However, his challenge was made more difficult by a debilitating neurologic disorder, worsening financial woes and intrusive wealthy in-laws. 

20 or so years later, Katie Davis is working as a social worker helping kids with problems. Behind her dedication to her wards and her cheerful disposition, she is afflicted with a shameful addiction. When she meets aspiring writer Cameron, has Katie finally found the love she had long denied herself?

he list of actors was very impressive, with no less than five Oscar winners and nominees among them: Russell Crowe of course is in the lead role as Jake Davis. Jane Fonda, Octavia Spencer, Janet McTeer and Quvenzhané Wallis play minor characters who could have been played by any character actor, to be completely honest. Admittedly though, their names do lend a certain prestige to this project.

Russell Crowe is really very good as a dramatic actor, especially in those solitary contemplative moments of his. Those scenes depicting Jake's seizures were realistically played. I must admit some of those supposedly "cute" moments of child talk with his daughter could be cringe-worthy. To her credit, the 11 year old Kylie Rogers played young Katie very well. It was a delight to watch her refreshingly natural performance. 

It was hard for me to separate Amanda Seyfried from her virginal ingenue roles in "Les Miserables" and "Mamma Mia". She played her flawed character well, managing to elicit audience sympathy no matter how disgusting her condition was. Aaron Paul takes a break from his tough guy image ("Breaking Bad" and "Need for Speed") to play a romantic character and did very well in his gentle role. 

Italian director Gabriele Muccino employed a technique of telling the parallel stories of the child and adult Katie Davis flashing forwards and back in time. This could be confusing at first but you will get the drift. The more difficult issue for me was the rather schizophrenic nature of the script. The child Katie story, which we see prominently in the poster, had a story with general appeal. However, the adult Katie story unexpectedly had very disturbing aspects which may disappoint, or even turn off, those who thought this was a wholesome family drama. 6/10.