Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review of VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS: Visionary and Vibrant

July 23, 2017





Aside from his action classics "Nikita" (1990) and "Leon: The Professional" (1994), French director Luc Besson is also known for his stylish science fiction films like "The Fifth Element" (1997) and "Lucy" (2014). This time around, he chose to bring to life a French science-fiction comics series "Valerian and Laureline" (published from 1967- 2010). 

Beginning in 1975, people from Earth started a space station Alpha to coexist and cooperate in mutual exchange of knowledge. With the succeeding years and centuries, beings from other planets joined in, until this space station housed most of the known interplanetary races of the whole universe, making Alpha the titular "City of a Thousand Planet". The main story is set in the 28th century.

Successful with their latest mission, human police agent Major Valerian and his partner Sgt. Laureline have brought back into Alpha a rare and invaluable little creature called a "Converter". While they were there, their superior officer Commander Filitt  was abducted by a group of human-like creatures with pearly complexion (whom Valerian had previously seen in a vivid dream). Valerian and Laureline, who had earlier been tasked to secure the Commander, go in hot pursuit, even into dangerous red zone, to bring him back.

I recognized Dane DeHaan from his role as Harry Osborne in Andrew Garfield's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2". Delevingne I knew as a model before, but this is the first time I've seen her act in a major role. Frankly, it took some time for me to accept them as heroes Valerian and Laureline because of their juvenile and petty behavior when they were first introduced. The dialog between these two really verged on B-flick cheesy, campy and corny. DeHaan also did not have the wow-factor star power Taron Egerton or Tom Holland had in their big time lead debuts.

Clive Owen was not exactly subtle in his portrayal of Commander Filitt. Ethan Hawke had fun playing a naughty pimp in the red-light district Paradise Alley. Sam Spruell did not really look that convincing as General Okto-Bar, but that helped add some suspense. Chinese-Canadian actor Kris Wu, formerly of South Korean pop group EXO, had a notable role as Capt. Neza, close aide of the General. 

The most remarkable supporting performance was that by pop superstar Rihanna, who played a shape-shifting alien entertainer named Bubbles. At first I thought all she would do was that pole-dancing song number done for Valerian's entertainment. However, her character would go on to do more significant scenes after that, making this a key role.

The best thing about this film are its spectacular visuals. I marveled at the richly inventive futuristic graphic designs that I saw flood the screen during its entire 137 minutes running time. These include the unique alien creatures of all shapes and sizes (from cute to monstrous), the ultra-high technological advances in gadgets and weaponry, the absurdly over-the-top costumes and makeup of the various characters, and the colorful kaleidoscopic sights of alien planets and cities. 

The trailer was not too flattering in my opinion. I definitely liked the whole film better, and I am glad I did not let the trailer discourage me from watching. The plot may have plenty of cliches and the bad guy may have been obvious from the get go, but overall, the film was very entertaining. The artistic vision of its highly creative artists and artisans are to be highly commended for the brand new world they whipped up for us from their imagination.  7/10.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Flashback: Review of DED NA SI LOLO: Funeral Foibles

November 13, 2009



For the weekend of November 13-15, 2009, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (or PETA) will be showing three acclaimed Filipino indie films in a three day series called "C Mo Si Direk".  The three directors are Maryo J. delos Reyes ("Kamoteng Kahoy" starring Gloria Romero), Joel Lamangan ("Fuschia" also starring Gloria Romero) and Soxie Topacio ("Ded na si Lolo").

Of the three, the one the really caught my attention was the one shown tonight, Soxie Topacio's "Ded Na Si Lolo".  Honestly, I wanted to watch it because it had been given the honor to be our country's representative to the Oscar Awards for this year.  The choice seemed too unlikely, so that I simply needed to watch and judge it for myself.

The PETA theater is so near where I work, but I never really had the chance to see anything there yet.  Tonight was the first formal event I attended there, and I hope only the first among many more to come.  The entrance of P200 may be a bit expensive for a local indie film showing, but the promised chance to hear the director and cast in an open forum after the show seemed worth the price of admission.

The affair was opened by PETA President Ms. Cecilia "CB" Garrucho.  She was a memory from my childhood as the emcee of "Tele Aralan ng Kakayahan." She introduced director and writer Mr. Soxie Topacio, again familiar in my childhood memory as cast member of the TV sitcom "Duplex."  He told of how close to his heart this movie was as these were his own experiences growing up, so close that he was able to write the script in three days!


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The movie is about how a family of five adult siblings coped with the death and the wake of their father, as simple as that.  But within that bare context, Mr. Topacio was able inject very familiar Filipino situations that make us laugh out loud, and tug some heartstrings in the process.  A central theme element is the depiction of various irrational superstitions that surround death, the wake and the funeral.  It also tackles uniquely Filipino practices during the wake, including the gambling operations (saklaan).  The inter-family conflicts among the siblings are also very well-limned and very realistic.  As it is sharp, the words of the script were really very witty.  

It is very obvious that the movie also succeeds because of the excellent cast.  Mr. Topacio himself acknowledged that the secret of this movie's success is that he was able to get the actors he wanted.  The siblings were played by veteran performers Dick Israel, Elizabeth Oropesa, Gina Alajar, Roderick Paulate, and Manilyn Reynes.  

Paulate, as expected with his flamboyant role as the gay son Junie, steals all his scenes, even when he does not have dialog.  They play their comically-melodramatic roles with gusto and fun.  Their interactions are quite carefree and natural, in both funny and dramatic situations.  Another stand-out performance is by the child BJ Forbes who plays the grandchild Bobet from whose eyes this story is told.  The scene where he recalls his fond memories of grandfather was silently touching.

I am glad I watched this movie.  I think it would be a good movie for competition abroad because of its perfect rendering of the Filipino ways, very "masang Pinoy" indeed.  I was hoping they would show the subtitled version today, but they didn't. I wanted to see how the humorous Filipino dialog would come out in English, how much nuance could be lost. I am concerned that a foreign audience might treat the whole movie as an inside joke that they do not get. 

Last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to a movie about death customs as well -- "Departures" from Japan.  But certainly, as the quietness of that movie made it uniquely Japanese, the noise and festivity of "Ded Na Si Lolo" makes it uniquely Pinoy.  I believe it deserves its shot at the big prize.  As part of its effort to raise funds for its Oscar campaign, this movie will get another theatrical run this December.  Do try to catch this and support this very Filipino film to win the elusive Oscar.



Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of DUNKIRK: Surrounded and Shellshocked

July 20, 2017




In the final week of May7, 1940, soldiers from Great Britain (as well as France and other Allies) were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, surrounded on all sides by land and air by the Nazi Germans. The film recounts the experiences of various soldiers caught in that desperate situation, as well as the valiant efforts taken by the British to evacuate its soldiers out of there. 

When I read that the director of this World War II movie is Christopher Nolan, I was curious at how he would make a film that dealt with a real historical event (the 1940 Dunkirk Evacuation in this case) and give it its trademark Nolan style. Knowing how Nolan tells stories, I was not expecting it to be told in a straightforward manner.

Form the start, it was clear that it won't be. The story will be told from three vantage points and from three different time frames. First, there was a scene showing a half-mile-long jetty on the beach serving as an evacuation dock for long lines of British soldiers, all 400,000 of them. This part was called "The Mole" with an indication that this had been going on for one week already. 

The second part of the story called "The Sea" told of civilian boats conscripted to sail to Dunkirk to aide in the evacuation efforts. This part started one day ago. The third part of the story called "The Air" told a small squad of Spitfire jets sent to deter the German air attacks. This part started just one hour ago. 

Nolan told these three parts one at a time, weaving them all together into one exciting cohesive narrative until all three parts converged into each other at the end. We will be introduced to a few remarkable survivors and victims in each part for us to immerse into the unspeakable trauma of their wartime experience. The film is rated PG, so I'm glad I did not have to see the explicit gore of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Hacksaw Ridge." But, mind you, the viewing is no less harrowing.

The actors playing the young soldiers and other young men involved in the rescue were mostly new and unknown talents, chosen by Nolan to reflect the youth and inexperience of the real Dunkirk soldiers. 

For "The Mole," we follow the efforts of a British Army private Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead. It was remarkable to recognize One Direction member Harry Styles as Alex, another private who was with Tommy in his plight. Commander Bolton, the highest officer in charge of evacuation at the Mole, is played with nobility by Kenneth Branagh.

For "The Sea," we meet an idealistic young man who helped his dad sail their boat, Peter Dawson played by Tom Glynn-Carney. He has a younger brother George, played by Barry Keoghan. Their father was played by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance in an impressively restrained show of civic duty. Cillian Murphy was also there on the Moonstone as a severely traumatized soldier the Dawsons rescued. 

For "The Air", the pilots are shown wearing their headgear and goggles the whole time, so I did not recognize who they were until they eventually removed their headgear. Jack Lowden played the pilot Collins who was forced to crashland into the sea. There was one Spitfire that was able to stay on air to shoot down enemy planes to the end, and the pilot was revealed to Tom Hardy, in a most dramatically heroic scene. 

Hans Zimmer's musical score, with those bass vibrations, heart beats and clock ticks, was soaring and unnerving when the scene called for it. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography was excellent in all three realms of beach, water and sky. This film is also a big success on the sound effects editing and mixing aspects, all the realistic explosions had me feeling shellshocked as well. 

As Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone won their Best Director Oscars for their war films, this may well be the film which will finally bring Christopher Nolan his first Oscar directorial nomination, and perhaps also the win. With "Dunkirk", the Oscar race for this year has truly begun. 9/10. 


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review of KITA KITA: Bubbly and Bittersweet

July 19, 2017



The setting is picturesque Saporro, Japan. A pretty Filipina named Lea works there as a tourist guide. She had been engaged to marry a Japanese boy for five years but that did not pan out. One day, in a moment of extreme stress, Lea suddenly lost her vision. 

Enter her next-door neighbor, a homely but funny Filipino guy named Tonyo. Despite her constant rebuffs on account of her blindness, Tonyo wins Lea's confidence over with his friendliness and sense of humor, eventually encouraging her out of her shell.

Alessandra de Rossi is really very much at home in these offbeat roles in indie films. She has such a natural performance style that is refreshing to watch. Her character Lea is so kind and generous, but she really had it very tough when she lost her fiance and her vision one after the other. De Rossi captured this bitterness and wariness so well, such that Lea's gradual opening up to Tonyo's offer of friendship was such a delight to witness.

Empoy Marquez had been a familiar comic face on various TV shows, yet honestly I never knew his name until promotion for this movie came out. He started his career when he was a finalist on a Mr. Suave look-alike contest on the "Magandang Tanghali Bayan" noontime show way back 2003. With his winning and affectionate performance here in "Kita Kita" as Tonyo, I look forward for Marquez to turn over a fresh new leaf in his career. 

This film written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo is definitely not the typical rom-com. Having Empoy Marquez as a leading man alone already sets it apart from others. It was this unlikely pairing of De Rossi and Marquez that made this movie work so well to engage its viewers to laugh and cry. His plain looks and her blindness made a strong statement about discovering another person from what's inside him foremost. It tells how the physical appearance is not really important when it comes to finding genuine love. Co-producer Piolo Pascual was wise not to take on Tonyo's role himself.

Like most local films shot abroad, we will be taken on a virtual tour of Saporro's many tourist destinations. The Japanese milieu adds an element of charm and mystique. KZ Tandingan's heartfelt rendition of Air Supply's song "Two Less Lonely People in the World" enhanced the romantic mood. The effervescent chemistry between de Rossi and Marquez, however quirky and odd they may look together, is palpably sincere and lovingly infectious. 

The confessional denouement may feel a little contrived and its revelations may feel a little uncomfortable, but seeing events unfold from another perspective gives Lea and Tonyo's love story the bubbly thrill of serendipity and a surreal taste of rich bittersweet. 8/10.


TOFARM 2017: Review of HIGH TIDE: Children and Clams

July 18, 2017




The awards ceremony of the 2nd ToFarm Film Festival was held last Sunday night. The winner for Best Picture was this film "High Tide" directed by Tara Illenberger. This film also took home three more awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing and a Special Jury Prize for its three child actors for Best Performance as an Ensemble. Honestly, the title and the unknown cast did not appeal to me at first. But the accolades won made it a must-see before the festival ended today.

Laila and Dayday are the daughters of Tibor, who works in a fishpond and Ligaya, the best laundrywoman in their place. Unyok, a boy who lived next door with his Auntie Mercy, is mute following the trauma of losing both his parents in the last super-typhoon that hit their island three years before. The three kids help their parents earn money by picking up clams on the beach to sell to a restaurant. 

One day after Christmas, Ligaya was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy and required surgery at the cost of P15,000. As Tibor went around trying to raise the money by borrowing from friends and pawning valuables, he still came up short. Desperate to have their mother be released from the hospital, the three kids hatched their own plan to help contribute to the fund -- as risky and foolhardy as this plan may be. 

The time setting is December of 2016. The tide levels published in the calendars have now become unreliable. I assume the location is a small rural seaside town in Iloilo because of the characteristic lilting accent of the Ilonggo language, the main language used for the film. Further clues that the town location was Dumangas, Iloilo would be the generous product placement of Nitz Bakery (where Auntie Mercy worked) and the casting of its real-life town mayor Onal Golez as Manuel Deles (the owner of the fishpond where Tibor worked).

Forrest Kyle Buscato (as Unyok), Riena Christal Shin (as Laila) and Christine Mary Demaisip (as Dayday) are obviously raw acting talents, and their inexperience would show in some scenes. However, in the scenes that matter, all three children were able to deliver performances that audiences could emotionally connect with. Of the three, it was the youngest one Demaisip who made the biggest impact with her delightfully natural scene-stealing performance. I was relieved to see in the closing credits, that the kids all had a stand-in, as they figured in some dangerous scenes. 

Actor Arthur Solinap does not really look like blue collar worker, but he totally immersed in his character Tibor's occupation, literally wallowing in the mud, to convince us he can be one. In their scenes together, Solinap possessed a chemistry with the two girls playing his daughters. Dalin Sarmiento played Ligaya, always the calm and patient mother, ever smiling when doing chores and washing clothes. It seems no one ever gets cross in this film! 

The audience favorite was Sunshine Teodoro who played the sweet Auntie Mercy. She provided the comic relief, as some light jokes were made about her weight (the flattened bread) and figure (the thickened stick figure). According to the closing credits, Nathan Sotto played two characters: Unyok's father Berto, and also Uncle (Auntie Mercy's husband who was not seen for most of the film because he was a lighthouse keeper). I thought those two guys were played by two different actors because they looked different.

For its nature advocacy, there are multiple mentions about the value of mangrove forests for the ecology of the islands. One of the settings, Isla Dula Dula (or Vanishing Island), as shown by a beautiful overhead drone shot, is practically one big mangrove jungle. The Mayora (Joan Paulette Mary Libo-on) conducts a free mass wedding in their town every Christmas, and the couples have to plant mangrove in return. There was even a part where there was a short instructional about how to plant mangrove seedlings. 

While the film was a simple, realistic and engaging family drama, I'm not sure how it adhered to the agricultural theme of the ToFarm Filmfest, but I'm thinking maybe it was the mangrove aspect that tied it in. Anyhow, the lush cinematography of the mangrove island showed both beauty and peril. The suspenseful editing of the boat scene was heart-stopping. Tara Illenberger was a noted Film Editor first, before she embarked on a writing and directing career as well.  She was quite eloquent in this her latest one, both in story and in imagery. 6/10.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review of WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: Purified Purpose

July 16, 2017



This is the third of the "Planet of the Apes" reboot series that started auspiciously with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011) (MY REVIEW), and its even better sequel "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) (MY REVIEW). The series recounts the effects of a viral-based anti-Alzheimer's drug which enhanced the intelligence of apes, but was fatal to humans, causing a pandemic called Simian Flu. Under the leadership of Caesar, the apes bond together and create a colony of their own in direct conflict against the surviving humans who want to eradicate them. 

In this installment, Caesar is seeking personal vendetta against a ruthless human soldier called Colonel who had killed off Caesar's wife and son, as well as captured his posse of apes into slavery to build a wall around their encampment area. En route to the Colonel's base, Caesar picks up a little orphan human girl Nova and a delightful zoo chimpanzee called Bad Ape. Caesar and his cohort have to figure out a plan to rescue their comrades and destroy their human tormentors. 

Be ready to keep your eyes on the screen to read. Among the apes, only Caesar talked clearly and consistently. Maurice (Karin Konoval) spoke very sparingly. Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) spoke in a slow comical drawl. Most of ape conversations were in sign language, so you need to read subtitles to know what is being said and what is going on. You may miss an important detail if you glance away at the wrong times.

This is the movie that should really put ends to any doubt that, motion capture notwithstanding, Andy Serkis needs to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. He carried the whole film from beginning to end. His screen presence is magnetic and commanding. Whenever he spoke, we would listen to his authoritative voice. The final scenes may drip with melodrama, however, Serkis's performance as Caesar remained unscathed by this.

Woody Harrelson can really get under your skin playing such a sick, slimy and despicable character as the Colonel. His character went through his own hell, and what we see is a sorry by-product of his hate. Represented by the Colonel, humans are only antagonists in this story. Unlike the first two films where there are several good human characters to redeem our kind, here there is only one left -- a kind, innocent, but mute girl Nova (Amiah Miller), upon whom the fate of humanity rests. 

The first two films have been nominated for an Oscar in Visual Effects. I think they should win it already with this third one. Their motion capture of the actor's facial acting for the various apes is impeccable. Aside from Caesar, Maurice and Bad Ape, outstanding also were the actors playing the turncoat Red a.k.a. Donkey (Ty Olson), the traitor albino Winter (Alecks Paunovic), and the loyal reliable Rocket (Terry Notary).

However, another technical aspect I noted to be extraordinary in this third episode is the Musical Score by Michael Giacchino. The film has a lot of silent scenes and the musical score is instrumental in bringing out the emotion of these scenes. The best sequence for me is the lilting score that accompanied the exciting escape scene. Appropriately, there is also a soaring score accompanying a biblically-inspired scene echoing the book of Exodus.

The title says war, but actually the only big battle scene came only at the final thirty minutes of the movie. The first two hours only served to slowly build up on Caesar's internal rage until he got to confront the Colonel and finally vent his revenge.  When the time came for the actual big final face to face encounter between the two foes, there was absolutely no dialogue. Only their faces and the music delivered the intense drama. 

This film is very good, especially because of Andy Serkis' memorable central performance as Caesar. But to be totally honest, because of the sometimes unbearably slow pacing, lack of action and deafening silences. I enjoyed the first two films of this reboot series (Rise and Dawn) far more than this one. 7/10.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review of WISH UPON: Perks for a Price

July 15, 2017




Because of her father's job as a junkman, Clare Shannon was not a popular girl at school. One day, while going through the trash of an old mansion, her father Jonathan recovered an antique heptagonal box with ancient Chinese characters carved on it and gave it to Clare. Since then, Clare realized that everything she was wishing for while holding the box was coming a reality. However, Clare would soon also realize that just as one wish came true, someone related to her would die a gruesome death. 

We saw child actress Joey King grow up on the screen in films like "Ramona and Beezus" (2010), "The Conjuring" (2013) and "White House Down" (2013) and "Independence Day: Resurgence" (2016), usually playing plucky spirited young girls. In this latest film, she is already 18 years old. I thought she was able to handle this lead role of Clare as a bullied, broken, confused teenager convincingly, even if her character was made to do very petty wishes and stupid decisions (like most teenage horror movie characters do). 

In an interesting bit of casting, 90s film heartthrob Ryan Phillippe played Clare's slovenly blue collar dad Jonathan. He gets to show off his saxophone playing here in a weird side story that never prospered. Even more interesting was the casting of 80s buxom bombshell Sherilyn Fenn as a frumpy, lonely neighborhood widow Ms. Deluca. Her contrived death scene was one case of prolonging the inevitable.

The Chinese angle we see in many Hollywood films lately is very much played up here. Clare is studying Mandarin in school, so she knew how to read basic Chinese and even knew how to text in Chinese on her phone. The wish box had mysterious Chinese characters on it, so they had a Chinese girl Gina (Alice Lee) to help Clare interpret the ancient text. Of course, Gina had to have all sorts of odd Chinese knickknacks in her apartment, one of which will figure in another long-winded death scene.

What might get Asian viewers excited is that this is one of the rare times that Hollywood chose an Asian boy to be the Caucasian lead character's knight-in-shining-armor (on a skateboard). However, even though the character Ryan Hui is supposed to Chinese, he is played by Korean actor Ki Hong Lee (whom we have seen before as Minho in "Maze Runner"). While his character Ryan is supposed to be a high school student, actor Ki is already 30 years old in real life. 

The horror in this film is all about the "Final Destination" style slow-cook, graphically violent death scenes. Their long set up already pretty much tells us how the victims were going to die (though they can still make you squirm and cover your eyes, mind you), making the actual death anti-climactic. Director John R. Leonetti (who previously directed "Butterfly Effect 2" and "Annabelle") tried to pump up the suspense one time by having two precarious situations happening at the same time to keep the audience guessing. 

This is basically a typical teenage high-school bullying drama. All the elements are there. Of course, there's going to be a mean girl bully Darcie (Josephine Langford). Of course, there's going to be a handsome jock crush Paul (Mitchell Slaggert). Of course, there are a couple of loyal girlfriends Meredith and June (Sidney Park and Shannon Purser). It works mainly because of Joey King's involving performance as Clare. 

Too bad though that Leonetti had not been more imaginative telling us about the box. The history of the box in China could have been explored more visually than just reading it off an article on the internet. It was unconvincing how they were able to trace the owners of the box in the US.  Being the central character of horror in this film, the box deserved a better introduction and development. 5/10.


Friday, July 14, 2017

TOFARM 2017: Review of SINANDOMENG: Faith and Fidelity to the Farm

July 13, 2017




Sinandomeng is a special rice variant marked by white and long grains which has a soft, slightly chewy consistency when cooked. Even if this film is about rice farmers, the title does not refer to the rice variant specifically at all. In a witty play on words, it about the loyalty and closeness of central character Sinang to her father Domeng.

Mang Domeng and his wife Marta had three daughters. The eldest Dory and youngest Betchay had husbands who went abroad to work and lived in different houses within the same neighborhood. The middle daughter Arsenia, nicknamed Sinang, stayed to care for her parents, especially since Mang Domeng had suffered a stroke that rendered him wheelchair-bound. Her husband Fabian is one of the few men who stayed to be a farmer.

One day on his 56th birthday, Fabian suddenly fell dead while plowing their field with their faithful carabao Pogi. Real estate developers promptly talked to the sisters to offer them P4.5M. each for their share of the farmlands. Dory and Betchay were eager to sell. However, Sinang felt she owed it to her father and herself to hold on to the rice fields which she held dear since her childhood and their family's main source of income for generations.

Sue Prado, a kayumanggi earth goddess personified, was the perfect choice to play the strong-willed and fiercely loyal Sinang. Her face reflected her strength of character as Sinang goes against her mother and sister's wishes. Her scenes at the farm never looked artificial. She had me convinced that she was indeed a farmer. During those uncomfortable encounters with the sleazy Augusto (Anjo Padilla) kept making naughty passes at her, Prado's Sinang remained unflustered, confident and dignified. She should be a leading candidate for Best Actress in this festival.

Lou Veloso could not move or talk as the invalid Domeng, so he had to rely on his reliable and versatile facial expressions to act out his thoughts. Lui Quiambao-Manansala played a old mother who had retained her sense of humor despite their misfortunes. In smaller roles are Star Orjaliza, who played the elder sister Dory and Gab Pangilinan, who played the youngest sister Betchay. Julio Diaz had a short appearance in the beginning of the film as Fabian, who also suffered from a ruptured aneurysm like the actor.

This film was written and directed by Byron Bryant. Despite a story that had a sudden death in the very beginning, the treatment by Bryant was actually with a sense of humor. I cannot say it was an outright comedy, but several scenes made me smile or laugh. Morbid as it was, the way the family learned about the death in itself had the audience in stitches.

The whole film had a very old-fashioned rustic appeal. You really see how a rice farmer lives -- rising up early, plowing the field, fixing the irrigation, buying the seeds, the planting of seedlings, all done by Sinang and her daughters. The tagline seen in the poster ("Farming is feminine") is a clue that the film is telling us that, with a singular focus, females are capable successfully handle a farm. 

Further adding to the nostalgic appeal of this film is the presence of the Sama-Sama Salo-Salo Singing Troupe who provided a lot of the folk music and songs in this film's soundtrack. Their version of "Sa Lumang Simbahan" meant a lot during the wake and funeral scenes. At the end, they also accompanied Sinang's daughters as they sang folk songs to their grandfather like "Ang Pipit" and "Sinisinta Kita" both of which were so gratifying to hear.

This film is a simple, straight-forward, unadulterated story about a farmer, making it a perfect fit for the agricultural overall theme of the ToFarm Film Fest. Even if the cinematography may be grainy or unfocused or dark at times or the loud background noise may overpower the dialog, the positivity, optimism and overall good vibes of this movie makes it a pleasant rare bird among indie films. 6/10. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

TOFARM 2017: Review of INSTALADO: Futuristic Farm Fable

July 13, 2017


The ToFarm Film Festival was launched last year to "showcase the lives, journeys, aspirations, trials and tribulations" of farmers. Its mission is to "stimulate the agriculture community with the help of the film medium to promote awareness of the life of Filipino farmers." The festival director is esteemed film director Maryo J. delos Reyes.

I completely missed the first ToFarm Film Festival held July 13-19, 2016. The film "Paglipay," about Aeta villagers in Zambales who made a living by kaingin farming on Mt. Pinatubo, won Best Picture, Best Director (for Zig Dulay), Best Actor (for Gabby Cabalic), Best Supporting Actress (for Anna Luna), and People's Choice. 

Fortunately, "Paglipay" and "Pauwi Na" (another multi-awarded entry) are among the films chosen for the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino to be shown this August, so I hope I can watch those two films by then.

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The story of "Instalado" is set in the farming town of Porac, Pampanga in the near future. There is now an advanced technology where an entire four-year college course is simply "installed" in the brain of an individual in a matter of four hours. Many people were availing of this easy form of "education", the high price notwithstanding. On the other hand, teachers and professors are protesting how this system only favored the rich and privileged.

After having been installed with no less than four college courses, Arnel Balajadia returned to their hometown driving a red BMW convertible. In order to earn his own money for his own installation, Arnel's childhood friend Victor Maniago chose to leave his father's farm and worked like a servant in Arnel's home in order to earn money for his own installation.  

We also meet Danny Tua, a 15-year old boy who had his installation with 8 diploma courses done just 4 years before. Despite his wealth and position as the chief executive of the marketing firm hired by a new all-Filipino installation firm, Danny does not seem happy being pressured to be the breadwinner of their family, losing his childhood in the process.

Pinoy Big Brother graduate and #Hastag McCoy de Leon is starring in his first film in the lead role of Victor. We see him wash a carabao, chop vegetables, wipe vomit off the floor and several other mundane chores that he probably never ever did in real life. He knows he does not really look like his parents nor his kid brother here, but he still gave the role his all, and we appreciate the effort.

Jun-jun Quintana plays Arnel, Victor's successful friend and master. The role required him to act basically as a spoiled rich boy, so this was probably not so much of a challenge for this young actor who already has an Urian award for Best Supporting Actor (for "Philippino Story", 2013). His best scene would be one of his first, the one where he confronts his old professor who flunked him before.

Francis Magundayao plays Danny. He is only 18, so he is not much older than his character who just had his 15th birthday. He had the private angst and depression part of the teenager Danny nailed. However, as the CEO of his marketing firm, he still looked like he lacked confidence. Maybe he was supposed to look awkward to highlight the discomfiting reversed situation where the boss is the youngest person in the conference room.

Archie Adamos had a marked role as Prof. Gener Taruc, a professor who was against installation but was offered a free installation himself. 13-year old Barbara Miguel (Best Actress winner at the 2013 Harlem International Filmfest for the Cinemalaya film "Nuwebe") had a winning performance as Danny's childhood friend Shamila, a Muslim girl who also yearned to have installation herself. 

The plot is very intriguing and provocative. You will think about the story long after you've seen the film. This type of education is very convenient, isn't it? Four hours vs. four years is no contest. Furthermore, the technology aspect does not seem to be too far-fetched to become reality in the future. However, writer-director Jason Paul Laxamana is careful to present both sides of the coin. Theoretical knowledge does not equal personality, ethics, manners and respect. 

At first glance, this science-fiction theme seemed unrelated to the festival theme of agriculture. However, Laxamana was able to weave farming in a significant side plot to make it fit. It was interesting to hear progress in political geography with terms like "State of Cagayan Valley" or "Mabalacat City" mentioned. There are also droll futuristic props like hologram cell phones and plastic-looking peso bills. This audacious and imaginative storyline makes this film definitely stand out from the other more down-to-earth entries of this festival. 7/10.

Review of DEAD AWAKE: Strangled in Sleep

July 13, 2017


Beth Bowman is a young woman who experiences sleep paralysis. She had consulted several specialists about it, but she continues to suffer from it.  One day, after telling her twin sister Kate about her problem, Beth mysteriously died in her sleep. Kate took it upon herself to investigate why her sister died, because even she is beginning to have the sleep related visions her sister described.

Sleep paralysis is a real natural phenomenon that happens during falling asleep or awakening when when the person feels unable to move even if they are awake. They may see or feel hallucinations but are unable to react, hence becoming a frightening experience. The body becomes immobile during REM sleep, so you will feel paralyzed if you are awakened before the REM cycle is completed.

This horror film plays up on the sleep paralysis phenomenon, particularly one of its older names -- the "Old Hag Syndrome". Victims tell of an ugly old woman pinning them down while they struggle to breathe as she sits heavily on their chest. The writers spin the legend off into literal dimensions, including the suggestion that the old hag experience can be transmitted from one victim to another by mere belief in it.

Jocelin Donahue has had a long 10-year career as an actress but nothing really stands out in her filmography. She did win a Best Actress award at Screamfest Horror Film Festival for her lead role in "The House of the Devil" (2009). In "Dead Awake," Donahue tackled a challenging dual role in this film and I thought she did well. She was able to portray a weak troubled Beth side by side a stronger confident Kate, no mean acting feat. 

There were two names I recognized in the cast. One is Jesse Bradford who was cast as Evan, Beth's painter boyfriend who helps Kate in her investigation. Bradford was actually in a lot of prominent films in the 1990s and 2000s. The last time I saw him was as the lead in "The Echo" (2008), Hollywood's version of the Filipino horror film "Sigaw" (2004). He has eschewed his clean-cut, boy-next-door for a long-haired, scruffy artist look in this film.

The other familiar face in the cast is Lori Petty. She will be remembered more for her earlier films like "Point Break" (1991) and especially "A League of Their Own" (1992) than anything she did after those two roles. Here she plays Dr. Sykes, the no-nonsense, all scientific sleep specialist, who dismisses all the horror stories Kate tells her.

The worst casting in this film though was for the key role of Dr. Hassan Davies, who is another sleep specialist who subscribed to the supernatural nature of sleep paralysis based on his case studies. The actor cast, Jesse Borrego, looked unkempt and sinister, most unconvincing as a sleep doctor. I wonder how a sensible woman like Kate would even consider talking to or trusting such a creepy-looking man.

When they show the grotesque face of the old hag so clearly on the screen, it loses something. In things like this, less is more -- less exposure, more scary. Even if the horror aspect is off, at least the suspense thriller aspect of this Philip Guzman film still works. Even if the topic is about sleep, it is not really the total snoozer you may expect it to be. 4/10.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING: Schoolboy Spidey

July 10, 2017



Spider-Man, a superhero created for Marvel Comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, was first portrayed on screen in a 12-minute short film by Donald Glut in 1969. Nicholas Hammond played Spider-Man in a TV series in the US, scenes of which were reedited and released for the big screen outside the US in 1977, with sequels in 1978 and 1981.

Toby Maguire became the definitive film Spider-Man when he starred in the Sam Raimi trilogy first released in 2002, with sequels in 2004 and 2007. Andrew Garfield had a go at the character for two films in 2012 and 2014, in a reboot series called "The Amazing Spider-Man" directed by Marc Webb. There was also supposed to have been a third film for him, but never pushed through.

In February of 2015, Sony Pictures granted Marvel Studios the rights to have Spider-Man appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Tom Holland debuted as Spider-Man in "Captain America: Civil War" followed by his own series of films. However, Sony Pictures will continue to own and have final creative control over Spider-Man, the character and his films.

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Peter Parker is 14 going on 15 years old, a high school sophomore and member of their school's academic decathlon team. He already had his spider powers when we first see him, and Tony Stark has taken him under his wing. Stark provided him a high tech costume with A.I., fitted with multiple modes of web-shooting, but he told Peter that he is not yet ready to become a full-fledged Avenger.

Adrian Toomes was the owner of a salvage business who was able to get some alien technology from the ruins of the Battle of New York (from the first Avengers film). He had been developing and selling these weapons in the black market for eight years. One night, Spider-Man foils a robbery attempt at a bank with crooks who used these advanced weapons. Parker felt he should track down and nab the source of these weapons to prove to Stark that he was worthy to be an Avenger.

21- year old Tom Holland may not exactly look like a 15 year old anymore, but he can sound like one and can act like one. His Spider-Man is the most childish of the actors, and that is how it should be if we stay close to how the comics originally described him (even though this film pretty much changed the details of Spidey's backstory by making Iron Man an integral part of it). I still cannot say that he had bettered Tobey Maguire's iconic portrayal, but Holland comes pretty close. His subsequent sequels will tell. 

In keeping with the times, this new Peter Parker was given a group of multi-racial group of friends. His crush Liz (Laura Harrier) is African-American. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is Filipino-American. His school nemesis Flash (Tony Revolori) is Latino. There is even a new MJ (Zendaya) in his circle, though her full name is Michelle, not Mary Jane. 

Furthermore, Aunt May is now a younger, more attractive woman in the person of Marisa Tomei. It comes a shock to those who were used to seeing Aunt May as a much older woman (like Rosemary Harris for Tobey Maguire, or Sally Field for Andrew Garfield). I think Tomei's casting can be good to inject more fun and energy into the Peter Parker part of the story. It will still need some getting used to though. 

Michael Keaton can really do these intense characters very well. We've seen and loved him as "Batman" (1989). There was his close brush with Oscar with "Birdman" (2014) which I thought he should have won for Best Actor. Here, not only was Keaton's Vulture given bigger and stronger alien-technology enhanced wings than he had in the comics, his Adrian Toomes was also given a surprisingly great dramatic story arc.

Overall, I thought this Jon Watts' film is a very good franchise reboot. Spider-Man is finally brought into the MCU via Tony Stark, who also gave him an all-new, multi-functional costume with a sexy A.I. voice Peter calls Karen (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Its two major action scenes at the Washington Monument and the Staten Island ferry were both very well-executed. I liked the unexpected cameos of Chris Evans and especially Gwyneth Paltrow. 

It was OK with me that we did not have to see the actual radioactive spider bite or the death of Uncle Ben again. It is assumed we know those details already, and that is cool. I liked that Peter Parker was shown as a smart student, capable of giving quick correct answers to challenging quiz questions. I liked his cooperative interaction with his BFF Ned, who might awkward to watch at first, but he really grows on you as the film progresses. 

I liked that they used an updated version of the classic Spider-Man theme to accompany the opening credits. Since this is a Marvel movie, there are two extra scenes after the movie. There one in the middle of the closing credits, possibly hinting on a Sinister Six in the sequel. And there is that one at the very end of all the credits that teaches the lesson of patience, and gullibility. Had a good laugh with that second one!

I liked it that Tom Holland's Spidey was shown to be still unsure and unadept of all his powers and abilities, just like a fledgling teenage superhero is expected to be. I feel a Harry Potter-like series to come where Spidey develops these abilities to their fullest potential as he goes from one year to the next in high school. Looking forward to more of his web-slinging adventures to come! 8/10.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review of KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD: Reimagined Royal

July 4, 2017



King Arthur is a very popular legendary character in many films. They came in different forms like elaborate costume drama like "Knights of the Round Table" (1953), Disney animation like "The Sword in the Stone" (1963), a romantic musical like "Camelot" (1967) and even high farce like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975). 

In 2004, there was a film called "King Arthur" by Antoine Fuqua that presented Arthur (played by Clive Owen) as a Roman officer, supposedly a more accurate historical interpretation of Arthurian legends. Only this year, the latest "Transformers" movie by Michael Bay called "The Last Knight" also prominently featured King Arthur as one angle in its convoluted plot. In the same summer, director Guy Ritchie also released his newest, most fantastical re-imagining of King Arthur.

Briton king Uther Pendragon killed the sorcerer Mordred and saves Camelot. However, Uther's own brother Vortigern treacherously usurps his throne. Before he was killed, Uther was able to put his son Arthur on a boat and the baby boy survived the massacre on his family. He was brought up in a brothel among whores and he grew up a streetsmart urchin. 

When he was already a strapping young man, Arthur was somehow able to pull a magic sword out of a stone, signifying that he was the "born king" of Britain. Feeling threatened, Vortigern orders Arthur's arrest and execution. A mysterious woman calling herself the Mage calls on her magical powers to make sure Arthur achieves his destiny.

Guy Ritchie's young Arthur with his cohorts reminded me of the ruffians in Ritchie's previous films like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) or "Snatch" (2000). Those scenes of the gang in the brothel went on and on with rapid-fire, smart-alecky dialogue which frankly just went over my head, just like they did in the two previous films mentioned. I got a sense of what was happening, but not exactly what they were saying.

The whole movie really reminded me of the period sets and visual effects used in the HBO TV series "Game of Thrones". All those castles, courtyards, cobblestone streets, even the brothel, as well as the forests and the lakes, all looked like they could have been locations of the acclaimed TV series. In one key fight scene, Vortigern's henchmen, the Blacklegs wore capes and masks when they ganged up on Arthur, and looked like they were the Sons of the Harpy when they ganged up on Danaerys in GOT. The presence of Aiden Gillen (who was Petyr Baelish or Littlefinger on GOT) added to the unavoidable comparison.

Charlie Hunnam would not really be the first actor I would think of to portray King Arthur. While he did relatively well as the wisecracking scoundrel Arthur in the beginning, he felt lacking in regal presence as the King Arthur himself. He did not possess the kingly charisma that could convincingly lead a revolution and reunite a kingdom, a quality that his co-stars Eric Bana and Jude Law had.

Veteran actors like Bana (as the noble Uther), Law (who played Vortigern with evil relish), Gillen (as Goosefat Bill), and Djimon Hounsou (as as the loyal Bedivere) all do well in their respective roles as expected. Caught David Beckham in there as the soldier who ordered "stupid" Arthur to pull the sword out of the stone. 

Among all this testosterone, there were some female parts of note. Astrid Berges-Frisbey had a rather feeble screen presence as the supposedly powerful Mage. Faring better was Jacqui Ainsley as the ethereal Lady of the Lake, with the beautiful watery visual effect enhancing her appearance. Annabelle Wallis was the bold beautiful spy, maid Maggie.

The critics have not been kind to this film so I watched it with low expectations. I thought it was not really as dismal as the initial reviews would have you believe. Interesting how Arthurian characters like Uther, Mordred, Tristan, Percival, etc. had different backstories going for them that what we know. This was just like how Guy Ritchie played with the Sherlock Holmes canon. Curious that Merlin did not show up. Guinevere and Lancelot were not even mentioned yet. Maybe they are planning for sequels? I'm game for that just to see where else Ritchie takes the legend.  6/10. 


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review of THE LOST CITY OF Z: Enigmatic Expedition

July 3, 2017



There have been a number of period films about Caucasian exploration in the Amazon wilderness. A couple of them have remarkable credentials. "The Mission" (Roland Joffe, UK, 1986) about Jesuit missionaries working among the natives in the year 1750. This won the Palm D'Or in Cannes and an Oscar for Best Cinematography. "Embrace of the Serpent" (Ciro Guerra, Colombia, 2016) is about a native shaman and his travels with a German in 1909 and then an American in 1940. This won the Art Cinema Award at the Director's Fortnight in Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. 

This new film written and directed by James Gray (based on the non-fiction novel of David Grann) follows the adventures of British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett, who in 1906 went on an expedition to South America to survey the border conflict between Brazil and Bolivia. With his crew composed of Henry Costin, Arthur Manley and their native guide Tadjui, Fawcett was successful against all the odds they faced. 

Before they left, Fawcett found some pieces of pottery in the middle of the forest which he considered as proof of a hidden city of advanced culture as hinted by his guide, which he called Z (pronounced as "Zed"). Even as he faced disbelief back in Britain, and encountered strain in his relationships with his wife Nina and eldest son Jack, the search for this Lost City of Z would be his obsession for the remainder of his life.

Charlie Hunnam had been in show business since he was 17 years old getting his first break in 1999 on British TV in a show called "Queer as Folk". He then transitioned to films, getting supporting roles in acclaimed films like "Cold Mountain" (2003) and "Children of Men" (2006). I first knew him when he played the lead in "Pacific Rim" (2013). He also played the title role of "King Arthur" this year, but I have yet to see that one. 

Hunnam is an unexpected choice to play Percy Fawcett for me as I thought he might not be mature enough to play such a serious role. I was wrong. He was totally convincing in his underplayed but sincere performance. He had me rooting for him to succeed in his quest, especially in that scene when he stood firm on his beliefs in the face of ridicule among the fuddy-duddy members of Royal Geographical Society.

Sienna Miller did very well as Fawcett's supportive wife Nina, who was projected to be a feminist of sorts. The scene where she argued that she wanted to go with her husband on his trip may have been a stretch, but Miller was certainly passionate. It was a surprise to see Tom Holland here as the grown-up eldest son Jack Fawcett. Holland, of course, is on the cusp of box-office superstardom for his coming Spider-Man reboot.

Robert Pattinson was quite low-key as he hid behind his thick bushy beard throughout this film playing Fawcett's knowledgeable aide-de-camp and friend Henry Costin. On the other hand, Angus Macfadyen memorably played James Murray, a more senior explorer and biologist proved to be more of a liability than an asset to Fawcett's team, in a most annoying and contemptible egotistical portrayal. It was good to see Ian McDiarmid (best known as Palpatine in "Star Wars" saga) as one of the RGS gentlemen, Sir George Goldie.

Overall, director Gray's approach in telling this story totally immersed me in its fascinating subject matter. It is interesting to see a period film that commented on the inner workings of a supposedly scientific society in Britain during the early 20th century and their high-handed attitudes towards indigenous people in places they "discover" even at that time in history. Those last fifteen minutes of the Fawcett father and son expedition (down to the torch-lit ending I did not see coming) was gripping and surreal. 7/10.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Review of OVERDRIVE: Motoring Mayhem

July 1, 2017



The ads of this French action movie emphasizes that this film was written by the same team that wrote "2 Fast 2 Furious" (2003). That would be the pair of Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who were also responsible for other box-office winners like "3:10 to Yuma" (2007) and "Wanted" (2009). The poster also claims that this from the producer of "Taken," but the name of Luc Besson was NOT among the producers. However, the director of first "Taken" (2008), Pierre Morel, was indeed one of the producers here. 

Half-brothers Andrew and Garrett Foster both love fast expensive luxury cars, and they work together to steal them, and they do it very well indeed. They are in Marseilles, France to steal a rare 1937 Bugatti and succeeded. But they were eventually caught by the owner, who was a local billionaire gangster Jacomo Morier. At gunpoint, the brothers volunteer to steal the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO from Morier's business nemesis, Max Klemp. 

Because of the gorgeous cars on display in this film, you cannot help but think of the "Fast and Furious" films. The stunts is "Overdrive" are very exciting, but they never quite attain the levels of impossible that the crazy car stunts of "F&F" reach. The car stunts all look practical, not CG, which made them really breathtaking. The best ones were their first heist with the Bugatti, and then the climactic chase around the zigzagging alpine roads. I don't know if that bridge scene had CG help or not, but that was heart-stopping. I did note a scene with very fake-looking "flames". 

Scott Eastwood plays the older brother Andrew. While he does have his iconic father's looks (there were scenes which he had that classic Clint Eastwood squint), his acting chops still look unconvincing in many scenes. In fact, newcomer Freddie Thorp (who does not even have a Wikipedia page of his own yet), because of his character Garrett's more outgoing and gregarious nature, outshines Eastwood in a lot of scenes. 

The ladies Ana de Armas (as computer whiz and Andrew's girlfriend Stephanie) and Gaia Weiss (as ace pickpocket Devin) were definitely welcome eye-candy in this macho production. If you'd like to know, yes, the two do have a scene wearing two-piece bikinis. However, more than that, they do figure in some impressive action stunts of their own. 

As the rival gang leaders, Simon Abkarian (as Jacomo Morier) and Clemens Schick (as Max Klemp) both radiate ruthlessness and heartlessness, even with their cold hard faces alone. Rapper Kaaris makes in intimidating presence as Morier's right hand man, Frank. Abraham Belaga plays Morier's cousin Laurent with some wry dark humor about him.

The intentions of this film are obviously not too high. They just go for shallow adrenaline thrills and it does very well in that regard. However to be fair, the story is not as linear as we would think. In fact, there are some neat unexpected twists and turns in the plot that made the story development very interesting. I would not think too hard about them though. Granted that the dialog can be cheesy, and the brothers have incredible skills and luck, overall, I still found this film definitely fun to watch and entertaining. 6/10.