Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE: Lunacy, Loss, League

March 28, 2016

This is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films for this year. These are two very iconic superheros from the DC Universe, each with their own sets of successful solo movies, who are joining forces for this one big film. The trailers promised a spectacular action-packed superhero flick, who is the DC fan who wouldn't be excited?

Batman sees Superman's godlike powers as displayed in the destructive battle in Metropolis as a threat to humanity. The eccentric magnate Lex Luthor also seeks to destroy Superman so he goes through great lengths to obtain Kryptonian technology to destroy him. Superman was forced to defend himself, his loved ones and his honor as he is attacked and provoked on all sides. As a monumental battle to the death ensues between the two heroes, Luthor unleashes his Kryptonian monster Doomsday to seal his lunatic megalomaniac ambition. 

The climactic fight scenes were really the centerpiece of this film. Zac Snyder fulfills high audience expectations for those last thirty minutes of pure super-mayhem. When Wonder Woman entered the action, wow! This guest appearance should really have been a surprise, instead of being revealed in the trailers. However, the two-hour long story that led up to these fights could have been more substantial, especially about Superman's side of the story, which was under-developed. 

This is more of a Batman film than a Superman film. The story starts with Batman's traumatic childhood memories. Despite initial apprehensions about Ben Affleck being totally wrong as Bruce Wayne, he actually pulls off the Bat-angst creditably well. Henry Cavill was the same dark Superman we saw in "Man of Steel". His motivations and decisions here were not too clearly defined and at times, uncharacteristic. We understand where Batman was coming from, but not Superman. All he wants is to just stop Batman's vigilantism in Gotham and he wants to destroy the Bat? 

Some story points were too weird. Why is Lex Luthor acting that way? Jesse Eisenberg plays him more like the Joker or the Riddler than the Luthor we know from before. Why was Lois Lane behaving that way? Where is the confident Lois in the comics? Amy Adams played her so weakly, a damsel-in-distress here many times by her own fault. The most head-scratching moment for me was the reason why the Batman v Superman fight broke up was the mention of a woman's name. Really now?

Overall, I was entertained by this film, despite its shortcomings in storytelling. That moment with Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) and the glass of Granny's Peach Tea was very effective in its ominous tension. A most exciting moment was that email with the files depicting future superhuman colleagues was so exciting to see. The foundations are clearly being laid for a Justice League movie and I am really looking forward to that one. The concluding act was steeped in drama and emotion. 8/10.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review of HELE SA HIWAGANG HAPIS: Art is Freedom

March 28, 2016

Director Lav Diaz has been responsible for many critically-acclaimed but mainstream-unaccessible glacial-paced very long films. His longest masterpiece was the 11-hour long " Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" (Evolution Of A Filipino Family, 2004). His films have not been shown in regular cinema houses, only in film festivals for critics and cinephiles, until recently. Personally, I have seen two Lav Diaz films: the four-hour long "Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan" (2013) (MY REVIEW) and the five-hour long "Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon" (2014) (MY REVIEW).

This latest film "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" (A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016) is eight hours long. It has recently been awarded the Silver Bear in this year's Berlinale, courtesy of a board of jurors headed by no less than Meryl Streep. Adding to its mainstream appeal is the casting of very popular male superstars in the lead roles, Piolo Pascual and John Lloyd Cruz. That this film even got a regular theatrical run is a miracle fulfilled in itself. Even if they sell the ticket at P410 each, a movie house can only show this film once every day, and surely we cannot expect many takers of this challenge. Kudos to those cinemas who had decided to provide local cinephiles the chance to watch this film on the big screen.

Lav Diaz films are not easy to summarize in a few sentences because of their complex interwoven plots. This one is no different. Right off the bat in the beginning of the film, Jose Rizal is executed in Bagumbayan. An idealistic young poet Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) and his disgruntled doctor friend Basilio (Sid Lucero) plot to seek revenge on a sociopathic madman sowing societal discord, Simoun (Piolo Pascual). These characters from Rizal's "El Filibusterismo" basically co-existed at the same era with their author. This part followed the story of last chapters of the Fili itself about Simoun's flight to Padre Florentino (Menggie Cobarrubias) for his final confession.

Meanwhile, an invalid Andres Bonifacio has disappeared in Mt. Buntis in Cavite. Fearing the worst, his wife Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio) goes into the mountain to look for him. Going up with Oryang were Aling Hule (Susan Africa), a mother from Nasugbu whose two kids were killed by Spaniards; Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra da Rossi), a two-faced beauty from Silang who was the mistress of the Spanish captain-general; and Karyo (Joel Saracho), a sickly old man who was rejected from joining the rebel army.

There is also a bizarre fantasy component in the story as there were three neighing tikbalang who interfered with the humans in the forest. There was a gregarious male one (Bernardo Bernardo), a provocative female one carrying a puppy (Cherie Gil) and the blunt androgynous one (Angel Aquino). There was also a strange religious fanaticism component, with Sebastian Caneo (Ronnie Lazaro), the head of the "Colorum" cult of white-shirts, and his captive "Birhen Maria" (Sheen Garcia). These two aspects provide interesting spice (as well as maddening confusion) to the proceedings of other two threads.

As with the previous Lav Diaz films I have seen, I thought the main story of this film could have been told in maybe a couple of hours, even with all those separate threads. Apparently, merely telling the story is not what Diaz had in mind. He wanted the audience to patiently experience the seemingly endless and even pointless trekking of the characters in the wilderness. The camera would focus statically on some bushes for what seems to be ten minutes or even longer before characters came into view, and would even linger a bit longer on an empty scene even after the characters had already left -- signature Lav Diaz.

We spent interminable minutes were spent simply staring at an injured Simoun trying to get up, or Isagani meditating on a cliffside, or Oryang searching through debris in a pond, or Karyo's non-stop coughing fits, or Hule crawling in the mud (a most beautiful scene for which Ms. Africa should be cited for an award), or Basilio's fruitless digging (even Diaz forgot about him when the film ended). Sitting through that prolonged party sequence in the forest (with endless carousing, eating and dancing) was an extreme test of endurance in itself. That part actually united ALL the characters of the film together in one scene, but all of that seemingly led to absolutely nothing, which was truly exasperating. 

Because of its clear storyline, I found the El Fili thread the most interesting part of the film. The film only began to come alive for me with those scenes showing Isagani's initial discourse with Basilio. Another vital scene showed Simoun conversing with the Spanish Capitan-General (Bart Guingona) in English.  I felt that part where we hear Simoun's confession to Padre Florentino could have been a stronger impactful ending for the film, but Diaz had other ideas.

The recitation of Rizal's "Mi Ultimo Adios" by Simoun (in Spanish) and Isagani (in magnificent Tagalog) was the centerpiece scene of the whole film.  Following closely in second was that scene where the two discuss Art in relation to Freedom. While their style of acting still reflect their mainstream stardom when compared to the other character actors around them, Pascual and Cruz have certainly outdone themselves in those two special scenes upon which the most important messages of the film were delivered.

This long-winded, immersive style of this film is definitely not for everybody. The 8-hour running time alone would already discourage a lot of audiences. I watched it in SM Sta. Mesa yesterday. The screening started at 1 pm. There was a single 15-minute break at about 5:15 pm. The film ended at 9:15 pm. We were only about 20 hardy souls who took the "Hele Challenge" that Easter Sunday. 

I cannot say that I fully understood all the scenes. I do not know the reason why Quiroge's women were flashily-dressed transgenders nor why they were not given better Fukienese language coaches. I do not know why Simoun's torso had to be in full display as he lay gasping in bed prior to his confession. His abdominal gunshot wound was inexplicably not seen there anymore though. The black and white cinematography of Larry Manda was excellent, but I don't know why the quality of lighting was inconsistent such that several scenes were almost in complete darkness. 

What I am sure of though is that I have witnessed a film masterpiece unfolding brimming with symbolism I am unable to grasp all at once. It is too big and complex for complete digestion. I do welcome more opportunities to watch more films like this in the future. I want to be awed once again with such magnetic visual poetry. Such was its mesmerizing effect that I was transfixed for eight hours without nodding off, even at its slowest moments. Its bleak message about the identity of Filipinos as a people should inspire the youth to go and realize that elusive ideal. 8/10.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of ALLEGIANT: Numbing Narratives

March 14, 2016

I had rated the first two films in the Divergent series favorably. The first film "Divergent", I rated a 7/10, noting that it was a good film interpretation of a not-very-good book (MY REVIEW). The second film "Insurgent", I actually rated even higher at 8/10, calling it a satisfying and spectacular sequel (MY REVIEW). After watching this third film though, I'd advise fans not to expect too much.

Angry mobs rule in Chicago as the factions have dissipated after the death of Jeanine in the last film. Four,Tris and friends decide they do not like this system so they climbed out of the city walls to seek the truth on the other side. Outside, they were brought into an oasis in the irradiated landscape called the Bureau of Genetic Warfare, under the leadership of David. There, they learn about how their history. Tests reveal that only Tris possessed the genetic purity required to restore the social condition that existed before the purge. When he was assigned to the rough Fringe though, Four discovers that things outside were not as ideal as they thought they were.

The production design and visual effects were at par with the previous two films as they impressively created the new contrasting environments outside the wall -- the sterile Bureau and the barren Fringe. However, beyond these technical aspects, there was little else to love about this latest episode in the saga. I felt that the story was too overstuffed with political and sociological details that did not translate too well to the film medium. The storytelling felt slow and turgid. Events may be confusing if you miss out on something important mentioned in some boring conversation you tuned out of earlier.

Shailene Woodley remains to be the best actress among the young stars as Tris because of her intensity, but she certainly had her share of dull scenes. Theo James looked like he had but one stern expression on his face throughout as Four. Ansel Elgort appeared as ill-at-ease as ever as Tris' brother Caleb. Miles Teller had very embarrassing lines to deliver as the impertinent Peter. 

Among the senior actors, Naomi Watts looked miscast as Evelyn, leader of the Factionless. Her son Four even looked to be the same age as her. Octavia Spencer looked unconvincing as the leader of the Allegiants who broke away from Evelyn's leadership. Jeff Daniels gave a dignified performance as David, though the story arc of his character is simply overdone and too familiar already. 

Overall, I felt that this film simply could not tell its overblown story effectively nor engagingly. The issues about the genetically "pure" vs. "damaged" were too vague or nonsensical to hold one's interest in the unfolding events. Just when you thought the whole story had come to an end with this episode, David ominously appears in the final frame to open the doors for the next film in the series entitled "Ascendant" coming to cinemas by June next year. Even now though, I feel this story had already gone on too long. 5/10.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Review of KUNG FU PANDA 3: Charged with Cuteness

March 9, 2016

Following where "Kung Fu Panda 2" left off, this third and final episode of this action-comedy franchise has Po finally meeting his long-lost biological father Li Shan. He gets brought back to the secret Panda mountain hideout to discover his true nature. Meanwhile, an evil spirit warrior Kai steals the chi of several other spirit warriors (including that of Master Oogway himself) to return and conquer the mortal world. Can Po and his friends discover their "chi" in time to defeat Kai?

The first two Kung Fu Panda films were both animated action-comedy gems which had delightfully entertained us. Being the third installment, we expected and we received more of the same kind of elegant explosive action and rapidfire wholesome comedy. The best fight scene comes at the very beginning between Master Oogway and Kai in the spirit world. We get the same beautifully-conceptualized historical flashback scenes rendered in watercolor and mixed media. Most importantly, we get to learn some vital positive messages about family, friendship, virtue and life for kids of all ages.

I must say though that after the very intense and mature "Kung Fu Panda 2", "Kung Fu Panda 3", while still excellent, paled just a bit because of its relatively thin and shallow basic story. The climactic battle was too played for too much cute and comedy than I would have liked. That big fight was very skewed in terms of fight skills, yet it still went the predictable way. That whole sequence about Po being with his fellow pandas was a treasure trove of adorable black and white fur. However, those scenes (with them chomping down dumplings and rolling down hills) were more endearing foolishness than kung fu. 

Jack Black of course was always on point in his voice work as Po. It was all his show from beginning to end and he was energetically engaging the whole time. Dustin Hoffman was really cute as Shifu and his self-doubt and insecurities. Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan were still there as the voices of the Furious Five, but we barely hear anything substantial or distinct from them. Esteemed character actors Bryan Cranston and J.K. Simmons provide the voices for Li Shan and Kai respectively, further lending additional prestige to the star-studded cast. 

"Kung Fu Panda 3" still strikes that perfect balance of depth and froth that made this animated franchise beloved by viewers of all ages. While I personally thought the kiddie aspects predominated this one, as a whole, this film was really entertaining and enjoyable to watch as ever. (PS: Those little baby pandas are simply too lovable to resist.) 8/10.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review of LONDON HAS FALLEN: Bodyguard Bravado

March 8, 2016

Three years ago, Antoine Fuqua had a film entitled "Olympus Has Fallen" which introduced us to the charmed duo of US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his very capable chief of security Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). In that film, Banning single-handedly outwitted and disposed all the bad guys, averted a nuclear attack against the US in the nick of time, and rescued the President from certain death. It was a fantastic adrenaline rush of a film that was a surprise hit at the box office despite receiving mixed review from the critics.

In the sequel "London Has Fallen," President Asher is again in dire peril and Banning is left single-handedly protecting him. This time, their enemies have a bigger playground -- the whole city of London. The setting was the funeral of the British Prime Minister where all the leaders of the world have come to pay their respects. A Middle Eastern terrorist launches a major catastrophic attack against everyone in attendance. Every leader there dies, except (no surprise, of course) the eternally lucky US President Asher, thanks to his never-say-die bodyguard Banning.

There were a number of scenes when either Asher or Banning should have already lost their lives, but miraculously don't. However, the script made sure they would always escape by the skin of their teeth, or that the enemy will inexplicably tarry with the killing blow and give them a chance to fire back. The suspense the director creates in these scenes is so maddeningly manipulative in its sheer predictability. And these are by no means spoilers for a formulaic film like this. 

Like the first film, the American patriotic fervor is stoked here with appropriate imagery and words. The key American leaders were all so well-cast. Aaron Eckhart, with his chiseled countenance and cleft chin, makes President Asher a handsome martyr whose broadcasted torture can certainly inspire tears from his people the world over, especially among his countrymen. As Vice President Trumbull, Morgan Freeman can read the phonebook and make it sound deeply inspirational. Of course, we all know what Gerard Butler can do as an action hero. Despite the fearless and superhuman things we see him do here, Butler still manages to convince us that he really can do these deeds of derring-do and save the day.

Just like the first film, writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt again cook up a suspenseful yarn with the same impossible hi-jinks that made their original one a hit. Replacing Fuqua as director is Iranian Babak Najafi in his big Hollywood debut. Everyone's focus will be on that initial attack, and Najafi was able to deliver a solid, heart-stopping sequence of shocking terrorism, albeit being over-the-top with unconvincing special effects. After that initial salvo though, the rest of the film becomes a prolonged (and even repetitive) series of car chases and gun battles we have already seen before. Everything builds up to a conclusion we all knew would happen right from the start. 5/10.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Review of THE PROGRAM: Discredited and Disgraced

March 7, 2016

When I went to watch this film, I had no idea that this would be about Lance Armstrong. I only had a cursory knowledge of who Lance Armstrong was. He was an American cycling hero who survived testicular cancer then went on to win the gruelling Tour de France cycling race an incredible seven years in a row. I also knew about his fall from grace as evidence of his use of performance-enhancing drugs came out and he got stripped of all his titles.

Because of my ignorance, I admit feeling sorry for Armstrong for suffering such major loss. "The Program" tells us there is nothing to pity him for. Lance Armstrong was an absolutely arrogant and horribly hateful person who purposefully fooled the whole world about his "heroism". This film was so directly one-dimensional about its message such that no other conclusion could be arrived at except for that very negative one. Director Stephen Frears ("The Queen," "Dangerous Liaisons") made sure of that.

In the credits, it was revealed that the screenplay of this film was based on the book entitled "Seven Deadly Sins" written by David Walsh. In this film, Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) was played like a martyr. He was Armstrong's nemesis, the journalist who suspected Armstrong's drug use from his very first Tour de France win, and never stopped trying to prove that he was right. No wonder the whole film had a disturbingly one-sided point of view. Even sports physician Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet with an Italian accent) was painted like a sleazy nefarious drug kingpin here, with no sense of medical ethics whatsoever.

Ben Foster was solid in portraying Lance Armstrong as a the big bad villain. This intense actor really got into the skin of his character. He will definitely make you hate him here. I really felt like I was watching the real Armstrong -- flesh, blood and erythropoietin. Directed to portray a character who seemingly had no human side to root for, Foster's Armstrong was indeed cold-blooded and ruthless. 

On a more positive note, character actor Jesse Plemons gave a remarkable performance as Floyd Landis, a younger member of Armstrong's team who got swept up into the "program". His scenes of conflict as a member of the Mennonite religious community of Farmerville, Pennsylvania and the sport he loved added some point of interest in the film. 

While the reenacted scenes of the cycling races merged with actual race footage were thrilling, it was very disappointing to see the "professional" monkey business that happen behind the scenes at these prestigious sporting events. Instead of sports being inspirational, this film shows us the flipside where extreme pride and greed wreak havoc on men's lives. The deception is dastardly and demoralizing. 7/10.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review of QUEEN OF THE DESERT: Safe and Sterile

March 5, 2016

The title, poster or the names in the cast did not entirely convince me that I should go see this film. However, I noted the name of the director Werner Herzog on the poster and that caught my attention. I recognized the name as a legendary one in German cinema, especially during the 1970s and 80s. I have never seen a Herzog film before, so I felt compelled to watch this one. 

"Queen of the Desert" is about Gertrude Bell, known as an adventurer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, writer and political attaché for the British Empire in the early years of the twentieth century. She was an independent-minded aristocratic British lady who greatly admired the nomadic way of life of the Bedouins of the Arabian deserts. Because of this fascination, she made it her lifelong calling to experience their rich cultures, language and politics first hand. 

Nicole Kidman gets to play Ms. Bell from teen (!) to mature woman, so you can already imagine how credibility was being strained in the first few scenes. I don't know why Nicole looked so thin and fragile in this film, such that it was also a challenge to believe that she could survive the rigors of difficult desert life with such an air of delicate glamour about her. Despite these limitations, Ms. Kidman was able to carry the film with the grace and dignity as would be expected of an actress of her caliber.

We spent a long time at the start getting to know her first great love, Henry Cadogan (a very charming James Franco), a character whom we do not see anymore after the 40 minute mark. The next hour, we will meet the next man she let into her life, the unhappily married Charles Doughty-Wylie (a rather uncharismatic Damian Lewis). We also see Ms. Bell's encounters with a very young T.E. Lawrence (a giddy Robert Pattinson), as well as a young boy sheik who wanted Bell in his harem.

This was a typical biopic, cherry-picking "film-worthy" episodes of Ms. Bell's life to show in chronological order, with convenient labels to denote the time and place of subsequent scenes. There was no sense of adventure as everything felt like very sterile and safe melodrama. There was not enough tension in those scenes that should have been very tense. The whole film ended weakly on a mere prediction of hers which would eventually became a reality. Sadly, it never got to show how that prediction was actually realized. 

This film never really let me feel what was it about the Bedouin lifestyle that attracted Ms. Bell to forsake the comforts of her station in life and follow them. The pace of the storytelling was as languid as a hot day in the desert. I do not think this was in vintage Werner Herzog style, which was very disappointing. The name of Gertrude Bell carried with it many titles, I felt it was unfortunate of this movie to focus more about the various men in Ms. Bell's life, rather than detail her political and historical achievements which felt rushed in treatment. 5/10.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review of ZOOTOPIA: Furry Fuzz

March 2, 2016

When I first saw the trailers of this film, it did not really interest me. All I saw was just another cutesy films with anthropomorphic animals led by a fox, but nothing more about the plot was revealed. Because of consistently good word of mouth and the availability of time, I was finally able to catch this latest output of the Walt Disney Studio. 

Zootopia is set in a city where mammals of all species stood on two feet, behaved and spoke like human beings, and lived in harmony with each other whatever the species. The lead character is Judy Hopps, an idealistic rabbit who wanted to be a police officer but was stuck by her gruff water buffalo boss Chief Bogo. When she volunteered to take on the case of a missing otter florist, Mr. Otterton, she conscripts the reluctant help of a wily salesman fox named Nick Wilde. The complex plot they uncover threatens to rip the very foundation of peace upon which Zootopia rests.

I am not proud to confess that this is the first time I took note of the name Ginnifer Goodwin, who was credited as being the voice of Officer Judy Hopps. It turns out she has been in show business for more than 10 years now, making her film debut in the Julia Roberts' film "Mona Lisa Smile." She is currently playing Mary Margaret Blanchard / Snow White on the TV series "Once Upon a Time." Her voice is cute and delightful, brimming with the eager enthusiasm her earnest character had. 

The rest of the voices were more familiar names. Nick Wilde was voiced by Jason Bateman. The deep baritone of the macho Chief Bogo belonged to none other than the imposing Idris Elba. J.K. Simmons gave the voice for Mayor Lionheart. Octavia Spencer had a gentle turn as the voice of Mrs. Otterton. Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong) was the voice of Yax, that fly-infested yak yoga receptionist at the nudist spa (yes, they went there!) A big surprise for me was the acknowledgement of Shakira as the voice of the sexy pop singer Gazelle. Also doing remarkable voice work was comedian Jenny Slate as the sweet overworked sheep Vice Mayor Ms. Bellwether.

The whole crime and detective plot came as a complete surprise to me and I really liked it. The artwork detailing all those different mammals, common and rare were so meticulous and complex. The Disney type of comedy here is refreshing and fun as only Disney delivers. My favorite parts were those in the Department of Mammal Vehicles manned by the most unlikely mammals, and that one where the mob godfather was played by another unlikely mammal. It was so much fun to watch those scenes, so I will not spoil your surprise. 

The plot tackles the very serious topic of discrimination. In this case of Zootopia, it is not about race or gender, but about the biological difference between the predators and the prey type of mammals. I found it very smart how that sensitive topic was brought into this story as an important lesson to impart to the young audience in such an entertaining manner. 8/10.