Monday, February 27, 2017

Review of RAILROAD TIGERS: Homespun Heroics

February 23, 2017




We just watched a new Jackie Chan movie just about ten days ago entitled "Kung Fu Yoga" (MY REVIEW), and now here comes another new Jackie Chan movie in the cinemas. Fans of Jackie Chan really can't get enough of him. He is not running out of viable film projects even if he is already in his 60s. 

The setting is 1941 during the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. Railroad worker Ma Yuan and his group of village folk friends daringly undertake to complete the unfinished mission of a young Chinese soldier who was killed. Using nothing else but their wits, they plan to blow up a critically important bridge which serves as the passage for Japanese weapons and ammunition to reach their frontlines. 

Jackie Chan plays Ma Yuan, the oldest and the leader of the rebel group. This is more of an ensemble film so there was not much chance for Jackie to showcase his martial arts skills and stunts here. Jackie's son Jaycee Chan got significant exposure as Rui Ge, the driver of the trains. Actors Wang Kai, who played a sharpshooting ex-bodyguard Fan; and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, who played main antagonist Yamaguchi, both cut dashing figures and had a strong screen presences. Ex-EXO member Huang Zitao, who played the young tailor Da Hai, also got to figure in some gunfights and even sing.

There were very many other minor characters so it can get confusing because we barely know anything about them except their distinctive faces. But anyhow it is sufficient to simply know distinguish the good guys and the bad guys to enjoy the film. 

I liked the historical setting of the film with its admirable show of unselfish patriotism among the Chinese characters. The Japanese soldiers were all portrayed as one-dimensional sadistic buffoons, and were made the butt of a lot of crazy violent jokes. Only Jackie Chan can get away with that sort of dark comedy. 

I liked the elaborate action sequences in the film, like that one where Ma and Rui were rescued from their cage, and of course, that whole final train heist sequence with all the tanks and bombs, even though there were obvious computer-generated effects. I liked some of the great-looking locations, especially the riverside scene with those picturesque tall grasses, which were used to best effect. I also liked the animated cards used to introduce characters, set up situations and illustrate elaborate plans. 

The print I saw in the movie house was dubbed in English, so a lot of humor got lost. I suppose there was supposed to have been Chinese dialog and Japanese dialog leading to misunderstandings due to lousy translators. However, since we hear both sides speaking in English, it did not make much sense that they were not getting what the other said, so these jokes failed to fly. 

Director Ding Sheng was also Jackie Chan's director in the sober "Police Story 2013" (MY REVIEW), which I thought was excellent. For this one though, I personally felt it was a pity that they had to resort to cheap childish comedy cliches which diffused the dramatic tension in the action scenes. Ding did not even spare the climactic fight scenes from juvenile foolishness, which I thought was a bad idea. I am okay with the lighthearted treatment of "Tigers," but Ding should have reined in the slapstick. 6/10. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

How I Would Rank This Year's OSCAR BEST PICTURE NOMINEES (2017) & MY OSCAR BETS

February 26, 2017

With the Oscar Awards coming tomorrow February 27, morning Manila time, it is time for me now to make my fearless Oscar predictions.  Here is how I would rank this year's 9 nominees for Oscar Best Picture based on my own opinions when I first saw these films.  



1. LA LA LAND: 9/10

14 nominations: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Cinematography, Costume and Make Up, Film Editing, Art Direction, Musical Score, Original Song (2 nods), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.

Mia Dolan is an aspiring actress and writer, who works as a barista in a cafe inside the Warner Brothers lot. Sebastian Wilder is all about jazz, being a down-an-out but talented jazz pianist and jazz memorabilia collector. After a rough start, the two eventually fall in love. Their relationship would face challenges as their respective careers each get opportunities to prosper.

The look and the music were really what made this film special. I really liked it a lot, and I was ready to watch it all over again (which I did). I am looking forward to its win as Best Picture. (MY FULL REVIEW)


2. ARRIVAL 8/10

8 nominations: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing

One day, twelve unusual bowl-shaped alien spacecraft appeared in different locations all across the planet. One of them hovered over Montana in the USA near a military camp where linguistics professor Louise Banks was brought in to try and establish communication with the two "heptapod" creatures on board. Louise decodes the strange, seemingly random circular "messages" the aliens send. Meanwhile, Louise is also being unsettled by dreams with her and her daughter.

Its non-linear storytelling, glacial pace, moody look and breathy soundscape may not be for everyone, but I thought its important message about communication that transcends space and time is well worth the 2-hours it takes to watch this film. (MY FULL REVIEW)



3. HIDDEN FIGURES 8/10

3 nominations: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress

It was 1961 and Segregation was still the norm. Three African American women, math prodigy Katherine Goble and her friends Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, bucked the system and got jobs in a research division for NASA. Goble eventually got assigned to compute rocket flight trajectories for the Space Task Group.

This is currently the biggest box-office hit among the nine Best Picture nominees. It is a more traditionally-executed mainstream feature that is easy for audiences from all walks of life to understand and appreciate. The story being told is very interesting (history of the space race) and inspirational (race and gender-wise). (MY FULL REVIEW)


4. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 8/10

6 nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay

Lee Chandler was a reclusive, ill-tempered man who worked as a janitor in an apartment building. He was called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea because his brother Joe had a heart attack and died. Lee was unsettled when he was named as guardian of Joe's teenage son, Patrick.  Lee still could not bear living back in Manchester because of a major family tragedy that haunted and scarred him forever.

This film about the life of a major loser is very depressing and gloomy. The story did not really have a big emotional climax before it ended. The pace was slow and even-keeled. Many people may find this film pointless and boring.  But for me, it cast a mesmerizing spell that engaged me to the very end. (MY FULL REVIEW)


5. FENCES 7/10

4 nominations: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress,Adapted Screenplay

The setting is Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Garbage man Troy Maxson is married for 18 years to his self-sacrificing wife Rose. They have a teenage son together named Cory with whom Troy is constantly at odds. Their marriage itself will later be threatened by a dark secret that cannot be kept hidden anymore.

The awesome acting of the cast is really the best aspect of this film. Denzel Washington became Troy Maxson, embracing all his character's sins and flaws, no matter how despicable. Davis matches Washington's passion scene for scene that they're together. You can sense the theater roots of this film when you hear the overly colorful language and the loud acting styles, but the cast manages to make it all feel so real and relatable. (MY FULL REVIEW)



6. LION 7/10

6 nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Music (Original Score)

Little Indian boy Saroo was looking for his brother Guddu at a busy train station. Unexpectedly, the empty train he boarded began to move and he was not able to get off until it stopped on the other side of the country in Calcutta. Saroo was taken in by an orphanage and was adopted by Australian couple John and Sue Bierly. Twenty years later, Saroo searches for his roots.

The first part of this movie was sweeping and epic, taking us on a train trip across India. The performance of the little child actor Sunny Pawar as young Saroo was so affecting. With his innocent face and imploring eyes, we all wanted to reach out across the screen to help him out. The second half of the movie with Dev Patel as adult Saroo was more confined and sedate, since most of the action happened while he was surfing the net. The conclusion, while expected, was built up very well for full emotional effect. (MY FULL REVIEW)


7. HACKSAW RIDGE 7/10

6 nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing

Desmond Doss was not a typical soldier. Being a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to handle a rifle or train on Saturdays. Anyhow, he persisted with his military training despite the bullying of his superiors and fellow trainees. He served as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.  

The second half was an immersive viewing experience right in the middle of the war zone. These scenes were graphically bloody, brutal and horrifying to watch. Recall that Normandy Landing scene from "Saving Private Ryan" and extend it for 30 minutes, and then some more. It was breathtakingly excessive violence in true Mel Gibson style. (MY FULL REVIEW)



8. HELL OR HIGH WATER 7/10

4 nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Film Editing

Serious and pensive Toby Howard and his reckless ex-con brother Tanner launch into a spree of bank robberies, mainly branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. They launder the money at a casino outside the state in order to get a check to be used in paying off the bank mortgage of their family ranch. Meanwhile, senior Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton is hot on their trail, hoping to catch them before his retirement.

Writer Taylor Sheridan's script for "Hell" is very cleverly plotted with a lot of interesting details given for each of the main characters. Overall, the film is really very well done, but I think though it is best watched without knowing that it is an Oscar Best Picture nominee. (MY FULL REVIEW)


9. MOONLIGHT 6/10

8 nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music (Original Score)

The story about a boy Chiron growing up in a tough neighborhood in Miami with his drug-addicted mother Paula and his close friend Kevin. His life story was told in three chapters: as a young boy nicknamed Little, as a teenager under his own name Chiron, and as a hardened drug-dealer code-named Black. 

While I was watching the movie, I confess that was not really impressed with the story and the technical aspects. However as I was reflecting on the film while writing this review, I am eventually seeing several reasons why people may like this, realizing in retrospect that this story was actually well-told. (MY FULL REVIEW)


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

My bets for each of the other categories:

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Nominees: ; Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic; Denzel Washington, Fences

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Emma Stone, La La Land
Nominees: Isabelle Huppert, Elle; Ruth Negga, Loving; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins (My Review)

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Nominees: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water; Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Dev Patel, Lion; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Viola Davis, Fences
Nominees: Naomie Harris, Moonlight; Nicole Kidman, Lion; Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures; Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: Zootopia
Nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings (My Review); Moana (My Review); My Life as a Zucchini; The Red Turtle

CINEMATOGRAPHY: La La Land
Nominees: Arrival; Lion; Moonlight; Silence

COSTUME DESIGN: La La Land
Nominees: Allied (My Review), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (My Review); Florence Foster Jenkins; Jackie 

DIRECTING: La La Land
Nominees: Arrival; Hacksaw Ridge; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

FILM EDITING: La La Land
Nominees: Arrival; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Moonlight

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Salesman (My Review)
Nominees: Land of Mine, A Man Called Ove, Tanna, Toni Erdmann

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: Star Trek Beyond (My Review)
Nominees: A Man Called Ove; Suicide Squad (My Review)

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE): La La Land
Nominees: Jackie; Lion; Moonlight; Passengers (My Review)

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG): "City Of Stars" from La La Land
Nominees: "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" from La La Land; "Can’t Stop The Feeling" from Trolls (My Review); "The Empty Chair" from Jim: The James Foley Story; "How Far I’ll Go" from Moana

PRODUCTION DESIGN: La La Land
Nominees: Arrival; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Hail, Caesar!; ; Passengers

SOUND EDITING: Hacksaw Ridge
Nominees: Arrival; Deepwater Horizon (My Review); La La Land; Sully (My Review)

SOUND MIXING: Arrival
Nominees: Hacksaw Ridge; La La Land; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (My Review); 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

VISUAL EFFECTS: The Jungle Book (My Review)
Nominees: Deepwater Horizon; Doctor Strange (My Review); Kubo and the Two Strings; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY): Arrival
Nominees: Fences; Hidden Figures; Lion; Moonlight

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY): Manchester by the Sea
Nominees: Hell or High Water; La La Land; The Lobster; 20th Century Women

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

POST- OSCAR SHOW UPDATE: 


Acting awardees Ali, Stone, Davis and Affleck pose with their Oscars.
(Photo credit: USA Today)

Of these predictions of mine, i got 13 correct out of 20.

MY CORRECT PREDICTIONS:

Best Supporting Actor: MAHERSHALA ALI
Best Supporting Actress: VIOLA DAVIS
Best Foreign Language Film: THE SALESMAN from Iran
Best Animated Feature: ZOOTOPIA
Best Production Design: LA LA LAND
Best Visual Effects: JUNGLE BOOK
Best Cinematography: LA LA LAND
Best Musical Score: LA LA LAND
Best Original Song: CITY OF STARS
Best Original Screenplay: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Best Director: DAMIEN CHAZELLE
Best Actor: CASEY AFFLECK
Best Actress: EMMA STONE

MY WRONG PREDICTIONS:

Best Makeup: SUICIDE SQUAD (Who would have guessed this?!)
Best Costume: FANTASTIC BEASTS (OK. But I preferred an "Allied" surprise.)
Best Sound Editing: ARRIVAL
Best Sound Mixing: HACKSAW RIDGE (Got the two films right, but in wrong categories!)
Best Film Editing: HACKSAW RIDGE (Those intense graphic battle scenes!)
Best Adapted Screenplay: MOONLIGHT (OK. But I still think "Arrival" is better.)


And, after another unreal Steve Harvey-Pia Wurtzbach moment...

Best Picture: MOONLIGHT! (I could not have called it more wrong. Haha!)



Review of MOONLIGHT: Defined by Drugs

February 2017





The story about a boy Chiron growing up in a tough neighborhood in Miami with his drug-addicted mother Paula and his close friend Kevin. His life story was told in three chapters: as a young boy nicknamed Little, as a teenager under his own name Chiron, and as a hardened drug-dealer code-named Black. 

The synopsis did not interest me. The topic felt too familiar. However, because of its buzz as an Oscar contender, I still went ahead to give it a chance. It earned 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. At the 74th Golden Globe Awards, the film won Best Motion Picture – Drama, and that meant something.

Upon watching it with all these big expectations, the film for me was good but I could not really call it spectacular. I do not get all the awards attention it is getting. Maybe it is simply the subject matter that did not really appeal to me at all. The cinematography, editing and musical score were nominated, but these seemed basic and unremarkable to me. 

The actors who played Chiron especially as child and teenager were very raw and realistic. They looked like actual kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and seemed like they were not actors at all. I really liked the child actor Alex Hibbert most of all. He conveyed very well the innocence, the wariness, the vulnerability and the disillusionment of a child in his situation. Ashton Sanders had the tough job of portraying Chiron in his tumultuous adolescence. Trevante Rhodes in the role of adult Chiron had the easiest role of the three.

The character of Chiron's best friend Kevin is very interesting guy as written, mysterious as to his real motivations behind his support. He was also played by three actors in different ages in each of the three parts, all with different challenges, just like the three actors portraying Chiron. These actors were Jaden Piner as Child Kevin, Jharrel Jerome as Teen Kevin and André Holland as Adult Kevin.

Mahershala Ali was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of Juan, a character from the first chapter of the film only and he is actually buzzed to win. I felt his performance did not really demand much intensity nor depth at first, until he came up with that quietly emotional final scene of his around his dinner table. Ali's kind face, pithy lines and warm chemistry with the Hibbert made him come across convincingly as the ideal father figure to a misguided boy.

Naomie Harris has a much showier role as Chiron's flawed mother Paula whom we descend into the hell of drug addiction. Harris was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts here. She is very good in her portrayal, but for me, there is nothing much she added to this common character of a selfish druggie mother. 

While I was watching the movie, I confess that was not really very impressed with the story the technical aspects. As I was reflecting on the film while writing this review, I am eventually realizing several reasons why people may like this. I see in retrospect that this story of how a man is shaped by the people around him while growing up was actually well-told. However, the topics tackled did not interest me. 6/10.

Review of FENCES: Faults of a Father

February 2017



"Fences" was first a play written back in 1983 by American playwright August Wilson. During its Broadway debut in 1987, it won the Tony Award for Best Play, Best Director, Best Actor (James Earl Jones) and Best Actress in a Featured Role (Mary Alice). It had a very successful revival in 2010, which earned 10 Tony nominations, and won three for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Denzel Washington), and Best Actress in a Play (Viola Davis).

Denzel Washington directs himself and his theater co-star Davis in this feature film version of this play.  Mykelti Williamson, Stephen Henderson, and Russell Hornsby also reprise their roles from the 2010 production. It has since earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Davis), and Best Adapted Screenplay (posthumously for August Wilson). 

Most of the awards it had taken home to date belong to its two stars. Washington had won the SAG for Best Actor, and is thus in tight contention for the Oscar also. Davis had so far won the Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA, and Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress, and is already considered a lock to win the Oscar as well in her category.

The setting is Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Garbage man Troy Maxson is married for 18 years to his self-sacrificing wife Rose. They have a teenage son together named Cory with whom Troy is constantly at odds. Troy was blocking Cory's football career because he was himself a frustrated baseball player in his youth. Their marriage itself will later be threatened by a dark secret that cannot be kept hidden anymore.

The titular "Fence" literally refers to the fence Troy had long been working on in his backyard to keep the devil out of his house. But as the film went on, you can sense so many symbolic fences being built by the characters to form their own little enclosures around them both to keep certain things out and to keep certain things in. 

Denzel Washington became Troy Maxson, embracing all his character's sins and flaws, no matter how despicable these were. Washington delivers his over-the-top lines with such natural verve, no artificiality. Washington's acting style here is directly in contrast with that of his main Oscar rival Casey Affleck in "Manhattan by the Sea". Affleck's attack is purely internal as his character puts on a cool front. On the other hand, Washington's acting is overt but you can still feel his pain inside.

Viola Davis is clearly not Supporting Actress here as her Oscar nomination and other awards labelled her. She should really contending for Best Actress as her character Rose is onscreen practically the same amount of time as Troy. The film talks about their lives as husband and wife. Davis matches Washington's passion scene for scene that they're together. Even her quieter moments brim with deep emotion. We love her Rose as much as we hate Washington's Troy. 

The awesome acting of the cast is really the best aspect of this film. You can sense the theater roots of this film when you hear the overly colorful language and loud acting, but the cast still manages to make it feel so real and relatable. 7/10. 


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review of RINGS: Summoned by Samara

February 22, 2017



The original 1998 Japanese horror film "Ringu,"directed by Hideo Nakata, adapted from the novel Ring by Kôji Suzuki, became a pop culture phenomenon. Its main character, the vengeful ghost Sadako, with her long black hair covering her face as she crawled out of a well on video and out of the TV to kill her victims, became a cult icon recognized, feared and parodied to this day. 

In 2002, Hollywood produced its own version of this film, called "The Ring" directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts. For this American version, the name Sadako became Samara Morgan, which, for me, lost some horror points already. But the critics and public loved it. For the 2005 sequel, "The Ring Two", they even got Hideo Nakata himself to direct, but the reviews were considerably poorer. 

I was very surprised to learn that after 12 years, there will be yet another Ring sequel this year called "Rings." I then learned that this film was supposed to have been released way back September 2015, but its showing had been pushed back three times until it ended up only being released this month. That did not sound too promising, but I wanted to see where they were taking this mythology.

Julia is alarmed that her boyfriend Holt had not been calling her from his college. When she went to look for him, she discovered that he had taken part in an experiment conducted by his professor about watching a certain cursed videotape which threatened to kill the watcher after seven days if he was not able to make a copy and make another person look at it. Since Holt's seven days was already running out, Julia decides to watch the video for herself to save him, putting herself next on the line to be killed unless she finds a way to break Samara's curse.

There are no A-list actors on the cast. Do not expect too much acting-wise. Matilda Lutz cannot convince us that her character Julia was that brave to do the things she did, like enter an empty tomb, or go down an abandoned flooded church basement, or confront the suspected killer all by herself. As Holt, male lead Alex Roe was just Julia's pretty consort, nothing more than that. He played the loyal boyfriend but was not really there in much of Julia's daring investigative escapades. 

One of the only two actors whose names I recognized is Johnny Galecki who played Holt's Biology professor Gabriel Brown. He is a egotistical jerk who started that video experiment among his students to save his own hide in the guise of scientific inquiry. Imagine him as his "Big Bang Theory" character Leonard, only totally and seriously demented. 

The other is Vincent D'Onofrio who played the role of the burly blind man at the cemetery, Galen Burke, who seemed to know a lot about Samara but is not letting on. Being blind, there was a time there when this character was involved in a suspenseful situation very much like that in "Don't Breathe" (2016).

Spanish director F. Javier Gutierrez stuck to the muted palette with that distinctive bluish green filter pervading the screen. Samara's horror is not scary like before anymore, since we already know what she does when she comes out of that well. Gutierrez had to come up with other ways to scare us, mainly by jump scares with startling sound cues. With the update in technology, Samara can now reside in an mp3 file. Copying and sharing does not seem too difficult anymore as well.


I do not get the reason why Julia was different from the other people who watched the video. Why was she the one who seemed to have been specifically chosen by Samara to liberate her? Why was Julia the one who received additional images in the video she copied, providing her several clues as to where Samara was buried? If the reason was mentioned, I did not catch it. 

I think fans of the original Ring will still find that this sequel stayed loyal to the lore, further unearthing another angle to explore, that of Samara's real parents. This may be interesting for the duration of the film, but will ultimately be forgettable in the long run. Just like the VHS tape which she originally inhabited, I think Samara/ Sadako already had her time to scare us fifteen years or so ago. Any more efforts to exhume her, like this one, will just prove needless and unproductive. 4/10. 


Friday, February 24, 2017

Review of HIDDEN FIGURES: Inspirational Intellect and Integrity

February 2017


"Hidden Figures" is a film that recounts the largely-unheralded contributions of African-American women at the NASA at the height of the space race in the 1960s. It was directed and co-written by Theodore Melfi based on Margot Lee Shetterly's biographical book of the same title. It has been nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Spencer. Its chances to win Best Picture is boosted by its strong box-office showing and its SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture

It was 1961 and Segregation was still the norm. Three African American women, math prodigy Katherine Goble and her friends Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, bucked the system and got jobs in a research division for NASA. Goble eventually got assigned to compute rocket flight trajectories for the Space Task Group, where she worked hard to gain the confidence of her boss Al Harrison. Meanwhile, Jackson pursued an engineering degree and Vaughan figured out the complex IBM computer systems. 

Taraji P. Henson leads the cast as Katherine Goble, a mathematician who proved that sheer talent can still shine through serious adversity with dedication and hard work. Ms. Goble had to work under oppressive conditions and attitudes, including having to run 20 minutes to a colored bathroom all the way on the other side of the complex just to use the toilet. Henson gave such a powerful and empowering performance here. I was surprised was snubbed for Best Actress consideration at the Oscars. 

Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (for "The Help") did get Oscar notice again this year. Her turn as Dorothy Vaughan, a responsible secretary taking on supervisorial duties, had sass and vigor, but for me, this is a performance typical of her. Janelle Monáe played Mary Jackson as a pretty and perky woman who aspired to become an engineer despite it being a white male dominated career option. 

It was good to see Kevin Costner in the role of Space Task Group director Al Harrison (a fictional composite character, not an actual person) who did not allow race to get in the way of recognizing ability and effort. His scene with the "colored bathroom" sign packed a big statement. Jim Parsons basically played head engineer Paul Stafford as his signature snooty Big Bang Theory character Sheldon Cooper. 

A very mature-looking Kirsten Dunst played the icy cold office supervisor Vivian Mitchell. Glen Powell played a very charismatic and young-looking pioneer astronaut John Glenn. Current Best Supporting Actor favorite Mahershala Ali (for "Moonlight") is also here as Katherine's suitor, mild-mannered soldier Jim Johnson.

"Hidden Figures" is currently the biggest box-office hit among the nine Best Picture nominees. It is a more traditionally-executed mainstream feature that is easy for audiences from all walks of life to understand and appreciate. The story being told is very interesting (I enjoy watching well-told historical films) and inspirational (race-wise and gender-wise). The story-telling style is conventional but engaging. The ensemble award it received from SAG is a surprise but well-deserved. But saying that it will parlay that big SAG win to a Best Picture award over "La La Land" may be too much to wish for. 8/10. 


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of HACKSAW RIDGE: Steadfast Savior

February 23, 2017




"Hacksaw Ridge" is what American GIs called Maeda Escarpment, a steep cliff with a ragged edge found on Okinawa Island. This place was also the battlefield on which combat medic Desmond Doss displayed an uncommon valor and service above and beyond his duty. The feature film based on this episode of wartime heroism is directed by Mel Gibson and written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. It earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Andrew Garfield. 

Desmond Doss was not a typical soldier. Being a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to handle a rifle or train on Saturdays. Anyhow, he persisted with his military training despite the bullying of his superiors and fellow trainees. He served as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.  After a particularly bloody encounter, Doss heard the anguish of his injured comrade and decided to run back to find them. One by one, he carried them out of the battlefield to the edge of the cliff and rappelled them down to safety in their base below. For saving 75 soldiers this way, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor.

With his gangly frame and uncommon facial features, probably the same features which had him cast as Spider Man, Andrew Garfield was a very good choice to play an outsider, someone who marched to a different beat. For this film, he projects an awkward vibe that you may feel when you meet someone extremely religious. He had grit and sincerity in those battlefield scenes, even though his character looked like he had a charmed life. That scene when he was swatting grenades in mid-air was unreal.

Among the supporting actors, Hugo Weaving stood out as Desmond's father Tom Doss, who was scarred by his own wartime experience. I thought that performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination in itself, but it was not to be. Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn and Luke Bracey play some of his army comrades, who were at first against Doss, but later learned to respect him for his unconventional brand of courage. Teresa Palmer plays his nurse sweetheart and later, his supportive wife. 

This is Mel Gibson's directorial comeback since "The Passion of the Christ" (2004) and "Apocalypto" (2006), and it was amply rewarded with an Oscar nomination. It felt like Gibson directed two films here. The first half was a story of how a simple country boy found his lady love and fought for his religious beliefs. The second half was an immersive viewing experience right in the middle of the war zone. These scenes were graphically bloody, brutally gory and horrifying to watch. I could not watch it straight on for the entire duration of those gun battles. Recall that Normandy Landing scene from "Saving Private Ryan" and extend it for 30 minutes, and then some more. It was breathtakingly excessive violence in true Mel Gibson style. 7/10. 



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review of HELL OR HIGH WATER: Bandit Brothers

February 2017




Of all the nominees for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, I would say that David Mackenzie's crime heist drama "Hell or High Water" is the most unlikely one. It is very laid back, not a typical Oscar bait film. But when the nominations were announced, here it is now competing for Best Picture. It is also up for three more Oscars:  Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan) and Best Film Editing.

Serious and pensive Toby Howard and his reckless ex-con brother Tanner launch into a spree of bank robberies, mainly branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. They launder the money at a casino outside the state in order to get a check to be used in paying off the bank mortgage of their family ranch. Meanwhile, senior Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton is hot on their trail, hoping to catch them before his retirement.

Chris Pine played Toby, the sensible brother who wished to protect the future of his two sons. Ben Foster played crazy older brother Tanner who simply had a death wish. I have to say the casting is predictable. While Pine is known for playing heroes ("Star Trek" or "The Finest Hours") in his previous films, Foster is already known for playing crazies ("The Program" or "Inferno"). The whole film would have been more interesting if these two actors were cast against type where each played the other brother.

This is already Oscar nomination #7 for veteran actor Jeff Bridges.  Three were for Best Actor and four were for Best Supporting Actor. He already won a Best Actor Oscar for "Crazy Heart" (2009), with noms for "Starman" (1984) and the remake of "True Grit" (2010). His first nomination for Best Supporting Actor came with his first major film role in "The Last Picture Show" (1971), followed by similar nods for "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" (1974), "The Contender" (2000), and now this one for "Hell and High Water." I liked his performance and I want him to win, but admittedly I think he could already do this familiar role blindfolded.

Writer Taylor Sheridan first earned awards notice with his excellent script for "Sicario" (2015). Sheridan's script for "Hell" is very cleverly plotted with a lot of interesting details given for each of the main characters. Overall, the film is really very well done, but I think though it is best watched without knowing that it is an Oscar Best Picture nominee. If you watch it with preset expectations, it may underwhelm you. I am surmising that it was so honored by Oscar is because its plot is like a modern-day throwback to Westerns of old, and I guess the Academy likes their Westerns represented among the best of the year. 7/10. 


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review of LION: Longing of the Lost

February 2017


Australian commercial and TV director Garth Davis made an auspicious feature film debut last year with "Lion", a film which has now earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies, based on the autobiographical book "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose). It had already won for Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTAs.

Little Indian boy Saroo was looking for his brother Guddu at a busy train station. Unexpectedly, the empty train he boarded began to move and he was not able to get off until it stopped on the other side of the country in Calcutta. Unfortunately, Saroo cannot name his hometown properly; so he was taken in by an orphanage.

Eventually, Saroo was adopted by Australian couple John and Sue Bierly. Twenty years later at the university in Melbourne, Saroo was inspired to undertake a search for his roots. Using his vague memories and the almighty internet, particularly Google Earth, he embarks on a long-distance quest for the family he had left behind in India. 

I would think that Dev Patel should really have been considered for Best Actor instead of Supporting. He is the title character! (You will learn why at the end of the film.) Of course, one can argue that youngster Sunny Pawar could have been the lead actor since he carried the more challenging first half of the story. I personally think that Pawar should have been cited instead of Patel when we are only going to base this on difficulty of the role.

Nicole Kidman is fortunate to have been cited for a rather small role as Saroo's adoptive mother Sue. The Bierlys adopted another Indian child after Saroo who was considerably more of a handful and a troublemaker, and this expanded her role a little more. However Sue makes a revelation of such nobility and humanity that was the highlight of that remarkable woman, as well Kidman's. 


The first part of this movie was sweeping and epic, taking us on a train trip across India. The performance of the little child actor Sunny Pawar as young Saroo was so affecting. With his innocent face and imploring eyes, we all wanted to reach out across the screen to help him out. The second half of the movie with Dev Patel as adult Saroo was more confined and sedate, since most of the action happened while he was surfing the net. The conclusion, while expected, was built up very well for full emotional effect. 7/10.




Friday, February 17, 2017

Review of I'M DRUNK, I LOVE YOU: Frustrating Friendship; + Review of Short Film ANGELITO

February 16, 2017



The movie, from the TBA (Tuko, Buchi Boy and Artikulo Uno) group and directed by JP Habac, is indeed a love story. The story is about film student Dio (Paulo Avelino) and his female best friend, a social work major boyishly named Carson (Maja Salvador). Carson had been carrying a torch for Dio for the past seven years that they had known each other and played acoustic music together. However, Dio did not treat her anything more than a good friend. Now that both of them are graduating already, will something finally happen?

As with most of his previous work, Paulo Avelino tends to underplay his part, relying mostly on his face to convey his emotion. He is not averse to playing jerks before, and here he is playing another one. Maja Salvador attacks her role with more energy, but she can tend to go too manic when she is playing drunk. Her confession scene was simply too heartbreaking. We all felt for her deeply at that moment, and were all in bated breath in that scene to see what happens next.

Dominic Roco plays Carson's gay best friend Jason Ty. His role is mainly for comic relief with his sassy one-liners, but he also gets to figure in some of his own memorable moments. Jasmine Curtis-Smith as Dio's classy vegan friend Pathy mainly serves the purpose of being the center of Carson's jealousy and target of her sharp tongue. There are also cameos by Jim Paredes as Dio's dad, and Ms. Irma Adlawan as Carson's mom.

Aside from the script and the acting, a big plus about this film is that it features songs with poetic lyrics from artists like Juan Miguel Severo, Kai Honasan, Ebe Dancel, Bullet Dumas, The Out of Body Special, Ang Bandang Shirley, Parokya ni Edgar, among others. A good part of the film was set during the beach-side Daluyon Music Festival in La Union which gave ample time to play these emo love songs to express the underlying thoughts and feelings in various scenes.

It was like the viral Jollibee commercial "Vow" all over again, only this one is feature film length with genders reversed. The friendzone is really one murky prison full of anguished "hugot" and "feels", a pit of quicksand where frustrations of unrequited love mire the unfortunate victim. I may not agree with drowning out the bitterness with alcohol (especially while wearing the sablay!), but I concede that people have been resorting to the bottle for years to numb the cutting pain. 

The timing of the story on graduation day is critical in signaling the transition from callow youth to mature adult, a queasy uncertainty millennials can identify with and Gen-X'ers can look back on, fondly or otherwise. In Dio and Carson's case, they have been delaying the inevitable, maxing out on the MRR (Maximum Residency Rule) of UP, finishing their respective courses in seven years instead of four. Eventually though, we all need to grow up and make that jump.  7/10.


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

Confession time: I decided to watch "I'm Drunk, I Love You" only because it was going to be accompanied by this short film also from TBA which would bridge "Heneral Luna" with its next chapter, "Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral". 

Review of ANGELITO:

This 20-minute long short film shows characters we had previously met from the first film -- journalist Joven Fernando (Arron Villaflor) and the two Bernal brothers, Manuel (Art Acuna) and Jose (Alex Medina) -- on the run following the assassination of Luna, being hunted by the soldiers under Gen. Gregorio del Pilar. The Angelito in the title refers the youngest Bernal brother played by child actor Tomas Santos. 

If this film was made to make us excited about the upcoming film about Gregorio del Pilar, it worked. Even if this was just a short film, the production values were that of a feature film. It had excellent direction by Jerrold Tarog, and high quality cinematography, film editing, period costumes and production, as well as acting. The open ending definitely whetted my appetite to go see "Goyo," even if nary the shadow of lead actor Paulo Avelino as Goyo was even seen in this short.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review of ARRIVAL: Arbitration with Aliens

February 15, 2017


"Arrival" is nominated eight times in this year's Oscar Awards, including nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is a science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director who had previously impressed with films like "Prisoners" (2013) and "Sicario" (2015). Screen writer Eric Heisserer takes a big leap up from his previous output in horror flicks like "Lights Out" (2016) and "The Thing" (2011) to create an enigmatic script based on a 1998 sci-fi short story by Ted Chiang entitled "Story of Your Life".

One day, twelve unusual bowl-shaped alien spacecraft appeared in different locations all across the planet. One of them hovered over Montana in the USA near a military camp where linguistics professor Louise Banks was brought in by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to try and establish communication with the two "heptapod" creatures on board. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise decodes the strange, seemingly random circular "messages" the aliens send. Meanwhile, Louise is also being unsettled by dreams of uncertain meaning featuring her and her daughter.

It is to the credit of this film that it pursues an uncommon path when it comes to alien visitors to Earth-- not as an action film (like "Independence Day") or a kids film (like "E.T."). "Arrival" is a very sober and thought-provoking film about establishing understanding - not only with the aliens, but among countries of the world, and also within one's self. The lead character is in fact a linguist, not really a hero we would expect in a sci-fi film with aliens, but she is a hero who embodies the main points of this special film.

It is very surprising indeed that for a film nominated for eight Oscar awards, the central performance of Amy Adams as Louise was the one overlooked.  Adams had been nominated for Oscar five times before, mostly for supporting roles in films like "Junebug" (2006), "Doubt" (2008), "The Fighter" (2010) and "The Master" (2012). When she was finally nominated for Best Actress in "American Hustle" (2013), she was not really the main character. But here in "Arrival," Adams is front and center with a restrained, low-key but emotionally-charged performance. 


The production design is very unusual as well as mind-boggling. The vertical orientation of those salad bowl space craft was a haunting sight as they hover. I was actually waiting for some moment of unity from these spaceship, but nothing like that really happens. The appearance of the heptapod alien creatures were also of strange design that do not really suggest intelligence or benevolence. We were not really given much information about their physiology or motivations, which was a pity.

The pictographic circular heptapod "statements" were an innovative idea of written language, even if they did look like stains left by coffee mugs on a table. My only problem there is that we do not really get a deeper insight as to how Louise managed to be able to read them with certainty, without actual scientific validation. She started with a white board and pen, which looked pitifully low-tech given the circumstances. Next thing, she already see her with a tablet that had software with various heptapod symbols she could click on, but we were not told how she came up with how these could be connected into a circle statement the aliens could comprehend.

Overall I still did like this film for the important message it was telling us -- the importance of communication through space and time. Its non-linear storytelling, glacial pace, moody look and breathy soundscape may not be for everyone, but I thought this message is well worth the 2-hours it takes to watch this film. However it cannot be denied that there were a lot of questions raised, foremost of which was the nebulous connection of Louise's alien interactions to her visions, as well as her mysterious critical phone call. Answers will not be immediately evident by the end of the film. These questions will challenge the viewers to think and discuss further after the film trying to unravel them. 8/10.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: Sad and Scarred

February 2017



"Manchester by the Sea" is one of the most acclaimed films of 2016 that received six Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Affleck), Best Supporting Actor (Hedges), Best Supporting Actress (Williams) and Best Original Screenplay. Casey Affleck is the odds-on favorite to win the big prize this year, after his wins in the Golden Globes and the BAFTA. The only major award Affleck missed out to win was the SAG which went to Denzel Washington.

Lee Chandler was a reclusive, ill-tempered man who worked as a janitor in an apartment building. He was called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea because his brother Joe had a heart attack and died. Lee was unsettled when he was named as guardian of Joe's teenage son, Patrick.  Lee still could not bear living back in Manchester because of a major family tragedy that haunted and scarred him forever.

Casey Affleck's multi-awarded lead acting in this film was actually more subtle than showy. Lee Chandler was not really an expressive guy. He was an introverted everyman who did not really express himself well. Affleck had to convey his emotions succinctly and quietly. He was outstanding in his ordinariness. This low-key performance was really in direct contrast with the style of his main rival for the Best Actor prize this year, Denzel Washington, who had a much more flamboyant role in "Fences".

Michelle Williams played Lee's ex-wife Randi. Since their estrangement, she has since moved on, while he has not. Williams was only in a few scenes, but she made the most of them. Her main highlight was a scene when she spoke with Lee on the street about their tough events around their separation. There was a restrained elegance there that certainly merited her awards consideration.

The third member of the cast nominated for an acting Oscar is 20-year old Lucas Hedges in the role of Lee's 16-year old nephew Patrick. Hedges also had a tough role to play, having lost a father, and now struggling to live with an unstable uncle he barely knew. Hedges did well in his difficult role, even though I thought there were moments of awkwardness. He should count himself lucky to simply be in a nomination shortlist that includes Jeff Bridges.

This film about the life of a major loser is very depressing and gloomy. The story did not really have a big emotional climax before it ended. The pace was slow and even-keeled. The most heartbreaking scene happened in a devastating flashback. Many people may find this film pointless and boring.  But for me, it cast a mesmerizing spell that engaged me to the very end. 8/10.