Monday, March 19, 2018

Review of TOMB RAIDER: Uneven and Unconvincing

March 19, 2018

I never played the Tomb Raider video game before. So for all intents and purposes, the only Lara Croft I know is the one played by Angelina Jolie in the 2001 film "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider". While the film itself was shaky, I thought it was a very strong portrayal by Jolie, I dare say it was iconic. Jolie felt so right for the role. She's got the look, the moves all down -- it felt as the character was created with her in mind.

That was why when they announced that they were going to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise, I guess they felt had to choose an actress so distinctly different from Jolie to play the lead character. So they chose Alicia Vikander. While I admire, Vikander's chops as an actress in her previous films like "A Royal Affair" and "The Danish Girl", I had my doubts she was right to be the new Lara Croft.

Lara Croft was living a bum's life following the disappearance of her father, adventurer Richard Croft (Dominic West). When she finally was forced to look through her father's things, she discovered his research about Himiko, a legendary Japanese queen who was also a shaman with vital powers. Disobeying his orders to destroy his research, Lara set off to Japan to continue his investigation. Unfortunately, she crossed paths with a sinister expedition looking to use Himiko's power as weaponry, led by the ruthless Matthew Vogel (Walton Goggins). 

From the start of the film, Vikander gives us a very different Lara Croft than how we remember Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft. She was younger, more carefree, her fighting skills still in training. This was why it was really so incredible in the second half of the film when when she suddenly and inexplicably turned into a super-heroic Lara, who can escape from a whole troop of bad guys by running through the wilderness, with both hands were tied together, while seriously injured with a fresh deep wound on her side. 

She is supposed to have been inexperienced and raw, so all her super skills came from seemingly out of nowhere. How did she become an archer with such deadly accuracy? How did she develop her rock climbing skills which allowed her to hang on to holds which were barely there? How was she able to possess the ability to long jump with hardly any room to gain momentum to jump over and clear a gaping chasm where the other side was collapsing dirt? Of course, we are expected to just suspend our disbelief, but this was asking for a bit too much suspending.

Anyhow, everything was so black and white in this film such that there were no real surprises anymore. There is never any sense of danger for Lara Croft at all. She was bound to survive all the challenges thrown at her, while the relentlessly evil Vogel and his henchmen were all doomed for the most gruesome deaths. 

The inspiration from the "Indiana Jones" films were too obvious to ignore, especially with the booby traps and the cursed coffin. This film by Roar Uthaug may be entertaining for younger viewers, but it will feel overly familiar and even cliched for older viewers. Anyhow, this is just the requisite origin film, there will be sequels to follow as hinted. 5/10. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review of THE HURRICANE HEIST: Windswept and Wacky

March 17, 2018

It seems that there should at least be one disaster movie every year, and this year it is this one. These newer ones try to inject elements of other film genres to somehow make them more distinctive, which may or may not succeed.  Last year, they tried to make "Geostorm" also a political thriller, but in vain. This year, the descriptive title itself already tells us that there would be a crime caper somewhere in there. 

The small town of Gulfport, Alabama was going to be hit by Category 5 Hurricane Tammy. Criminals take advantage of this severe weather disturbance to steal trucks full of dollar bills about to be shredded in the Treasury facility nearby. With the wild winds working in their favor, spunky government agent Casey teamed up with a pair of estranged brothers, gung-ho meteorologist Will and drunkard ex-Marine Breeze, to thwart their sneaky heist.

After only seeing his name credited as the antagonistic ape Koba in the rebooted "Planet of the Apes" series, now we actually see the face of British actor Toby Kebbell who played the lead character of Will. This character became a meteorologist as a result of witnessing (as a child) his father die in a destructive hurricane. Reminiscent of a previous disaster film "Twister," Will is also a storm-chaser, as he charges into the eyes of storms with his trusty armored weather-monitoring vehicle to gather data.  

Playing Casey is Maggie Grace, a staple of several B-films like this before, like the "Taken" series, where she played Liam Neeson's daughter. Casey also had a little backstory of her own about a tragic mishap she blamed herself for. She got to figure in a lot of stunts and action scenes here, most notable of which was a hair-raising one where she shot the glass ceiling of a mall wide open so the hurricane sucked out all the bad guys into the grey yonder, while she and partner Will were secured by harnesses. 

The actors playing the criminals were largely of the motley generic sort. However, the misplaced over-the-top glamor of Melissa Bolona (as the hacker girl Sasha) stood out with her one-shoulder green-tinged mini-dress. As absurd as that sounds, it was actually quite a riot to watch her steal her cheesy scenes and hear her deliver her crazy lines. 

Elsewhere among the bad guys is British actor Ben Cross, as the corrupt sheriff who made sure that his town was totally evacuated for the storm so he could execute his evil plans. It is interesting to consider how Cross, who once had a lead role in an Oscar Best Picture winner "Chariots of Fire" early in his career, could wind up playing a two-bit crooked redneck cop in a film like this is.

Director Rob Cohen had directed exhilarating action films before like "The Fast and the Furious" (2001) and "xXx" (2002), so he knew how to milk the excitement out of his material. In fact, it was his connection with these two films that served as the main selling point of this new film. Definitely this is one of those movies that have very shallow reasons for existing, just mindless action and nothing more. You know it is going to be bad, but you might actually get a kick out of watching it. 4/10. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of A WRINKLE IN TIME: Disney Disappointment

March 15, 2018

While the animated films by the Disney Company are generally critically-acclaimed, its live action output could be a hit-or-miss affairs. While there are beloved classics like "Mary Poppins" (1964) and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988), there had also been those which had not been received well, latest of which were "Tomorrowland" (2015) and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" (2017). It was with this caution that we went to watch this latest live-action offering, a feature film version of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 science-fiction novel "A Wrinkle in Time."

Meg Murry was a disturbed 13-year old girl who found it hard to recover from the unexplained disappearance of her father Dr. Alex Murry while studying a method of teleporting through space. One day, Mrs. Whatsit, a gregarious redhead neighbor with outrageous gowns introduced Meg to the platitude-quoting Mrs. Who and the wise motherly Mrs. Which. The three mysterious ladies offer to take Meg, along with her younger brother Charles Wallace and her good friend Calvin, across the universe to rescue her father from the Darkness and bring him back home.

14-year old lead actress Storm Reid was not charismatic enough to make the character of Meg interesting enough or engaging for me. There was also no chemistry between Reid and 15-year old Levi Miller in the role of Calvin. 9-year old Filipino-American child actor Deric McCabe was cute, perky and earnest as Charles Wallace, but he did not look right to be Meg's younger brother, or a child of Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so they snuck in a line saying he was adopted. I guess this is all for an inclusive representation of races in films, which was certainly very apparent in this film.

Oprah Winfrey fit the larger-than-life role of Mrs. Which like a glove, brimming with sincerity and wisdom, even with her over-the-top makeup and costume. Reese Witherspoon, on the other hand, did not look too comfortable in Mrs. Whatsit outlandish outfits. Mindy Kaling's role as Mrs. Who felt under-used and under-exposed. Zach Galifianakis was effortlessly funny in his role as The Happy Medium. Michael Pena was as loud as his multi-colored costume as bad guy mind-controlling bodyguard, Red, so named for the color of his eyes.

Even from its trailer, the most eye-catching aspect of this film was its special visual effects. However, even these spectacular visuals could not lift the whole film out of the boring style of storytelling by director Ava DuVernay. There was no sense of wonder to be had with the very artificial quality of computer-generated effects. Even if Meg was talking to field of floating flowers, or Mrs. Whatsit transformed herself into a flying lettuce leaf carpet, or all those supposedly glorious "tessering" sequences -- sadly, there was just no wow nor magic, even for the kids. 4/10. 

Sinag Manila 2018: Review of MELODRAMA/RANDOM/MELBOURNE: Asian Angst in Australia

March 15, 2018

Director Matthew Victor Pastor could have just rearranged his title to say "Random Melodrama in Melbourne" instead of that slashed version that gave the mistaken impression that this was a series of short films. Maybe it was really that -- a collection of various short video clips haphazardly edited together to make a it a full-length feature film. However, that said, there was absolutely no cohesion among all the elements. T

There was a group of milennials calling themselves the TMD (which stood for Tru Male Dynamics) who produced amateur webcasts about various issues involving Asians in Melbourne, Australia. First, there was a 30+ year old man who was still a virgin, and his lame attempts to pick up girls. The next part was about a man who was jilted by his girlfriend who so happened to be seeing one of the TMD guys. These parts were all in English. In the third part, then a female character spoke in Filipino about how she came to Melbourne back in the 1980s and raised her two daughters. 

Threaded through this barely-there narrative were all these "Cinema-o-Ke" music video scenes with lyrics as subtitles. These videos were mostly by an artist named Fergus Cronkite, and were all preceded by a trigger warning that they may induce real emotions. To be fair, some of the songs were not bad. There were several of these videos, from opening to closing credits. It would help if the lyrics had anything to do with the story. I did not see or hear any connection. (Well, first of all I did not really see a story to begin with.)

In addition, there were scenes of conversations with prostitutes, stalkers, pick-ups, sex in public toilets, assaults, vomit -- all dizzyingly caught on very shaky camera, making the confusing mess even more difficult to watch. None of those flight-of-consciousness scenes led to anything meaningful for me. I could not figure out the purpose of this film nor who its target audience was supposed to be. Whatever, I know this is not for me. 1/10. 

Sinag Manila 2018: Review of EL PESTE: Rapacious as a Rat

March 15, 2018

Abner has been a pest control home-service guy who got called in to control the rat infestation in the house of a married couple. Viola was obviously a battered wife with visible bruises on her face from Day 1. Dodi is a hot-headed PE teacher, always harried and stressed out. Abner eventually falls for the charming and friendly Viola, unmindful of her husband's violent streak. So in order to keep going back to her house, Abner releases new rats with every visit. 

To stretch the thin story out to feature length, there were plenty of repetitive scenes. There were repeated scenes of Abner trying to get an old television to work with whatever junk as antenna. There were repeated scenes of Abner receiving a job order from his kindly boss (played by director Tikoy Aguiluz). There were also repeated scenes of ominous warnings by Abner's friends (like long-haired rocker played by Leon Miguel and the beer-bellied neighbor played by Jim Libiran) about hooking up with a married woman. 

Ubiquitous character actor Mon Confiado got the eccentric, creepy loner vibe down pat for this role of Abner, but just enough charm to catch Viola's fancy. He certainly got the stomach to handle and throw around all those real live rats, something not all actors may be willing to do. His face and eyes here automatically conveyed something cooking inside, despite what may seem to be a calm outward demeanor. He can be campy, at the same time ominous.

I first noticed Alvin Anson as one of the bad guys on "Ang Probinsyano" on TV, and he had the same intense acting style here as Dodi. It was very unexpected to see stage actress and soprano Jean Judith Javier in the daring role of Viola, having seen her portray roles in plays like "Noli Me Tangere" (as Sisa) and "Manhid" (as Dilim). Anyhow, the sex scenes here were mostly loud moans and grunts only, and fully clothed. 

The award-winning production design, by Batch 1 of director Richard V. Somes Production Design Workshop, was very much a character in this film as the actors. The rotting old rat-infested house of Dodi and Viola, with that bedroom where an unstable archaic ceiling fan precariously shaking and twisting overhead, gave the audience an uncomfortable sense of squeamishness, salaciousness and the sinister. 

Press releases revealed that this film had finished shooting four years ago, but only found its proper time to premiere now. The title is not exactly correct Spanish grammar, since the noun "Peste" is feminine, and would require the article "La" not "El". This is yet another film that tackles domestic abuse and infidelity, but it takes a different route to tell the story.  Writer-director Richard Somes employed elements of dark comedy, macabre horror, and steamy 90s-style sexual titillation to give this film its own particularly twisted signature. 5/10. 

Sinag Manila 2018: Review of TALE OF THE LOST BOYS: Serendipitous Soulmate

March 13, 2018

When the Sinag Manila Film Festival awards were announced last night, the big winner was this film by a director who mainly dealt with LGBT issues, Joselito Altarejos. It won Best Picture, Best Screenplay (by May de los Santos), Best Editing by Diego Marx Dobles), as well as the Box Office award. This acclaim made it the film to catch at this festival, a big part of which I missed because it coincided with previously set travel schedules.

A carefree Filipino buy-and-sell guy named Alex went to Taipei to escape some pressing responsibilities back home in Manila. One night, he met and befriended a local bartender named Jerry, a medical student by day, and who just so happened to be gay. The film explored their individual conflicts with their respective parents. 

Jerry felt trapped by his parents expectations for him to return to their aboriginal Atayal village to get married, and serve as a doctor and a tribal chief, like his father. However, Jerry could not simply come out to tell them that he was gay. Alex, on the other hand, had been living a bitter and angry existence his whole life after being abandoned by his parents, both of whom he thought of as dead since his childhood. 

Thankfully, there was no forced romance between Alex and Jerry -- only a deep friendship. Jerry's gayness was just incidental in this case, not really essential. Many pink films would seem to imply that a close friendship between men would eventually lead to a romantic or sexual connection, something that is more of fantasy than reality. Unlike previous Altarejos films, sex was not a main focus at all. There was only one sexual interlude which was not even really necessary, but maybe something his followers expect. 

Oliver Aquino, whom I last saw in Altarejos' previous film, the Cinemalaya 2014 Best Picture "Kasal," played very well as the straight laidback dude Alex with a chronic burning chip on his shoulder that he needed to confront. However, it was Taiwanese actor Ta Su (known on IMDB as Soda Voyu) who made a stronger impression as Jerry, the young tribesman exposed to modern living -- now in a conflict between what is expected of him and what he wants his life to be. 

I had only written about one of director Joselito Altarejos past films and that was "Kasal" -- which won Best Picture at the Cinemalaya 2014. In his new film, already also a Best Picture winner, Altarejos mainly depended on his actors' natural performances and Marya de los Santos' sensitively-written script to develop his characters' personal journeys. Those exchanges of conversation, though lengthy, never became boring. The actors' sincere portrayals and warm rapport overrode the challenge of actors speaking in English instead of their mother tongue. That things between Alex and Jerry were kept platonic made the deeper message of this film remarkably universal.  7/10. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sinag Manila 2018: Review of ABOMINATION: Schizoid Sublimation

March 13, 2018

When I was researching about this film after I watched it earlier today, I was surprised that IMDB had its year of release listed as 2015. It turns out that this entry in the 2018 Sinag Manila Film Festival had actually been released way back three years at the Marché du Film (the business arm of the Cannes Film Festival in France. This year will be the first time it was shown in local screens. 

A girl who called herself Rachel Rivera had been admitted in a hospital. The film would go back and forth in time in which we would learn bits and pieces of her story that consisted of a freak car accident, her father Chris in a coma, her mother Vicky in financial dire straits, her younger brother Jacob with his weird artwork, her best friend Mindy and her strange behavior, her sexual assault at a party. But since Rachel was on an anti-depressant Escitalopram, we were just as lost as she as to which were real and which were imagined.

One unusual feature of this Filipino indie film was that it was set somewhere in suburban USA.  Part of the bizarre production design of the film was that, while it was supposed to have been set in the US, the buildings all looked unmistakably Filipino. One can easily recognize the brick walls of the UP Film Center or the tower of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mary and St. John. You see all these Filipino actors speaking in pure English like they were Americans, with no single mention of them being Filipino at all.

Tippy Dos Santos played a totally whacked-out Rachel, so different from the last time I saw her so sweet and delightful in the musical film "I Do Bidoo Bidoo" (2012). Donning a blonde hairstyle, Dos Santos gave an intense and compelling performance of a physically and emotionally exhausting lead role. She had to keep audiences on their toes as to what her character was really up to, or not up to. She had got to be one of the top choices for Best Actress in the festival. 

Toni Moynihan (previously more well-known as Maritoni Fernandez) played Rachel's problematic mother Vicky, who was at her wit's end as to how to make ends meet as a supermarket clerk, all the while handing an emotionally-disturbed child. The other local theater actors I recognized were Pinky Amador (as a classmate's mom), Paul Holmes and Robbie Zialcita (as doctors), Justine Pena (as a confused girlfriend) and David Bianco (as a sleazy pervert). TV hostess Lexi Schulze played a sympathetic nurse, 

Director Yam Laranas, who had not been heard of lately after his previous horror hits like "Sigaw" (2004) and its Hollywood version "The Shout"(2008) and "The Road" (2011), was still in touch with his ability to keep audiences engaged in his puzzling, non-linear presentation of his story, slowly giving meaningful clues along the way. The line between reality and imagination were certainly effectively blurred to great effect. However, I felt the final exposition may have been a little too generous with the answers, instead of just allowing audiences fill in the blanks.  7/10. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018


March 3, 2018

With the Oscar Awards coming on March 5, Monday morning Manila time, it is time for me now to make my fearless Oscar predictions.  (My Oscar predictions of previous years were posted on these links: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013).

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.


7 Nominations: Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor x 2 nods, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score

Desperate and angry for the lack of resolution of her daughter's rape and murder, Mildred Hayes rented three unused billboards outside their town to express her frustration, calling out police chief Bill Willoughby for his apparent inaction about Angela's case. Mildred's bold move earned the ire of her neighbors, especially the police -- officer Jason Dixon in particular. Mildred did not care and insisted on her call for justice.

How Martin McDonagh wrote and directed his story for the big screen is nothing short of outstanding. A black comedy is not always an easy movie to watch, but the way McDonagh crafted it with all those unexpected twists and turns really drew me in and kept me engaged. That is saying a lot, since ALL the major characters in this film were just so unlikable and unpleasant, no one really that you'd like to meet in real life. However they were all so compellingly portrayed by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell you could not stop watching them wreak hate on that screen. (MY FULL REVIEW)

2. DUNKIRK (9/10)

8 Nominations: Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing

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. From 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. (MY FULL REVIEW)


6 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Original Score

It was the 1950s in London. Reynolds Woodcock is the couturier of the rich and famous ladies. An avowed bachelor and perfectionist, he is deeply loyal to the memory of his departed mother and dependent on his spinster sister Cyril to manage the business side of his fashion label. One day, Reynolds met Alma, a waitress who eventually becomes Reynold's constant inspiration, until a testy kind of love developed between them. Alma decides she needs to do something drastic to make Reynolds realize her value, even if it meant hurting him.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson foisted upon us a problematic relationship, where the toxicity of one's personality could only be countered by a toxicity of a more literal sort. It may not sound so good on paper, but on the screen it was as nail-biting as it was mesmerizing. Whether this is really Daniel Day-Lewis' last film or not, he gave yet another memorable performance here of a man with a difficult and flawed personality. (MY FULL REVIEW)

4. THE POST (8/10)

2 Nominations: Picture, Actress

The management and editors of the Washington Post decide whether to publish (or not) the very controversial Pentagon Papers (a study about the US involvement in the Vietnam War). The current owner and publisher of the Washington Post, the gentle and unconfident Katharine Graham usually deferred to the decisions of the men around her. However, for this big decision of great national, moral and financial significance, it was all up to her.

Steven Spielberg and his cast really had me engaged from beginning to end. For those like me who did not know the outcome, the whole film unfolded like a tightly-wound thriller without any action scenes. It first introduced us to the key personalities, and then proceeded to build up to that critical moment of the all-important decision. The fantastically authentic production design, the exciting editing of the scenes, the urgent musical score (by John Williams) all contributed to the effective storytelling. (MY FULL REVIEW)

5. GET OUT (7/10)

4 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay

Pretty white girl Rose Armitage brings Chris Washington, her black boyfriend of four months, to visit her parents, neurosurgeon Dean and psychotherapist Missy, in their mansion for the weekend. While he was received very well initially, the longer Chris stayed in the Armitage estate, interacted with their mysterious black servants, and met their overly friendly white guests, the more he feels there was something seriously amiss in this awkward situation.

From the moment Chris and Rose arrived at the Armitage house, writer-director Jordan Peele had us in the palm of his hands in his uniquely suspenseful yet engaging manner of discussing the sensitive subject of race. The horror in this film is not supernatural or ghostly. Instead, this is a social horror story built upon very real stereotypes of what whites in the US thought about blacks. (MY FULL REVIEW)

6. DARKEST HOUR (7/10)

6 Nominations: Picture, Actor, Cinematography, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design

In May 1940,  Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlaine as the new Prime Minister of Great Britain despite his unpopularity, abrasive personality and seemingly reckless decisions. Churchill had a contentious relationship with his War Cabinet while making decisions during the Dunkirk siege.

This was a pure political drama, all talk and arguments. It was amazing that director Joe Wright was able to hold our interest for two hours. The success of this film was due in large part to the performance of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. Critics and audiences alike have been unanimous with the praises for his uncanny impersonation. It was the intensity and sincerity of Oldman's performance rang truest in those passionate speeches he delivered and quiet personal moments he shared with his family and countrymen. (MY FULL REVIEW)

7. LADY BIRD (7/10)

5 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay

The year is 2002. Christine "Lady Bird" MacPherson is a high school senior in a Catholic school in Sacramento, California.  Her interests were in the arts and she believed that she has to leave her home town and go to the East Coast to find culture. In between her mother sermonizing and her father losing his job, she spent her senior year joining the theater club, getting romantically involved, and choosing the college she wishes to attend. 

Maybe it is the fact that this film was written by Greta Gerwig as her solo directorial debut that gave it added sheen. But then again, its just that -- a mundane reflection of suburban life in America, this time from a teenager's point of view. It depicts realistic family dynamics between equally headstrong daughter and mother, as astutely portrayed by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf(MY FULL REVIEW)


13 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing

It was the early 1960s in Baltimore. mute and lonely Elisa Esposito was a janitor at a government research laboratory. One day, Col. Richard Strickland brought to the lab a humanoid water creature captured from a river in South America. Elisa formed a friendship with the creature, a bond that eventually developed into love.

The nostalgic score set the tone effectively for a storybook romance, encouraging the audience only to see the beautiful in the female human - male fish creature relationship we see on the screen. The use of vintage love songs in the soundtrack likewise worked to achieve this idyllic atmosphere. But for me, director Guillermo del Toro should have kept the sexual elements in check. (MY FULL REVIEW)


4 Nominations: Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song

In 1983 in a quiet town in Northern Italy, there lived an artistically-inclined 17-year Elio Perlman. One day, his father, a professor of Greco-Roman archeology, welcomed an American graduate student, 24-year old Oliver, into their home as an intern for the summer. The tall, handsome, aloof Oliver wakens an unfamiliar yearning in young Elio. Will Elio be able to reveal his hidden desire to Oliver before the summer ends?

Even with the gorgeous rustic Italian setting and the effective acting of lead star Timothee Chalamet going for it, not to mention all those numerous award nominations, I personally thought that this film was over-hyped. The progression of the storytelling by director Luca Guadagnino was too slow, with repetitive distractions. When that moment of truth came, it came too abruptly and with little sense of romantic thrill in its execution. (MY FULL REVIEW)


My bets to win for each of the other categories:

Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Nominees: Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”, Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”, Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”, Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Nominees: Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”, Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”, Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”, Meryl Streep, “The Post”

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Nominees: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”, Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”, Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”

Nominees: Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”, Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”, Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”, Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: “Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson (MY FULL REVIEW)
Nominees: “The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito, “The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo, “Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha, “Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

CINEMATOGRAPHY: “Blade Runner 2049,” Roger Deakins (MY FULL REVIEW)
Nominees: “Darkest Hour,” Bruno Delbonnel, “Dunkirk,” Hoyte van Hoytema, “Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison, “The Shape of Water,” Dan Laustsen

COSTUME DESIGN: “Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges
Nominees: “Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran, “Darkest Hour,” Jacqueline Durran, “The Shape of Water,” Luis Sequeira, “Victoria and Abdul,” Consolata Boyle

DIRECTING: “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro
Nominees: “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan, “Get Out,” Jordan Peele, “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig, “Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson

FILM EDITING: “Baby Driver,” Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss (MY FULL REVIEW)
Nominees: “Dunkirk,” Lee Smith, “I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel, “The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Jon Gregory

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “The Square” (Sweden)
Nominees: “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile), “The Insult” (Lebanon), “Loveless” (Russia), “On Body and Soul (Hungary)

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: “Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Nominees: “Victoria and Abdul,” Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard, “Wonder,” Arjen Tuiten

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE): “The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat
Nominees: “Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer, “Phantom Thread,” Jonny Greenwood, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” John Williams, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Carter Burwell

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG): “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul (MY FULL REVIEW)
Nominees: "“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige, “Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens, “Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, “Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common

PRODUCTION DESIGN: “The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau
Nominees: “Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer, “Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola, “Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer, “Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis

SOUND EDITING: “Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King
Nominees: “Baby Driver,” Julian Slater, “Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green, “The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

SOUND MIXING: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick (MY FULL REVIEW)
Nominees: “Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin, “Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill, “Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo, “The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern

VISUAL EFFECTS: “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist (MY FULL REVIEW)
Nominees: “Blade Runner 2049,” John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
“Kong: Skull Island,” Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,”  Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY):  “Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory
Nominees: “The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, “Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green, “Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin, “Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY): “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh
Nominees: “The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, “Get Out,” Jordan Peele, “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig, “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Friday, March 2, 2018

Review of RED SPARROW: Spy by Seduction

March 2, 2018

Jennifer Lawrence had been looking for a film to revive her career which seemed to have started to flag after the "Hunger Games" series and her Best Actress Oscar for "Silver Linings Playbook". "Serena" (2014), "Joy" (2015), "Passengers" (2016) and "mother!" (2017) all met critical and commercial resistance. For this year, JLaw hopes to recover her lost momentum as she goes for a sexy secret agent role for a change. 

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) was a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet until a freak accident forced her out of her rising career due to injury. Desperate to be able to keep supporting her ill mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika accepted the sketchy offer of her very own uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a highly-placed Russian spy official, to help them lure a certain subject for an extra-judicial execution. 

She was sent to an academy for Sparrows under the tutelage of the "Matron" (Charlotte Rampling). This was a training ground for select agents who would use their looks and bodies to seduce required information out of targets. Her first case was to make contact with an American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), and coax out of him the identity of the Russian mole he was protecting. 

The film is a long one, 140 minutes -- more than two hours. It took its time to establish Dominika's back story in the first act. It devoted a lot of scenes of her Sparrow training, and these were some of the most interesting, controversial and sensational parts of the film. The rest of the film would be standard double-crossing spy dramatics we are more familiar with, a femme fatale spy is one of the oldest tricks in the book. However,  not without some unexpected nifty twists of its own.

Jennifer Lawrence finally conquered her fear to do film nudity in one very bold scene in front of a room of people, as she taunted a fellow trainee Nikolai (Makar Zaporozhskiy) to have sex with her. I was expecting bone-crushing fight scenes like those we saw in other female spy films like "Salt" or "Atomic Blonde" but there was not much of that here. That does not mean though that this was short on painfully gruesome torture scenes -- both inflicted on, and inflicted by, JLaw. She felt really ice cold here, not easy for us to connect with.

Joel Edgerton played an unconventional movie spy -- a one-dimensional good guy.  There was never a point where you felt Nash would do anything bad to Dominika. Funny how the men (not JLaw) kept on referring to him as handsome, like we need to be convinced. On the other hand, I was more impressed with the characterization of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts of Dominika's Uncle Vanya. You knew the character was bad news, but the actor tries to give him some layers to make that final scene worth your while. Jeremy Irons looked miscast as the Russian General Korchnoi. 

I wish Charlotte Rampling had more to do in the film than in only in those training center scenes. I was hoping that she and/or any of her classmates would figure in actual action somewhere else in the film, but there would be none of that. Mary Louise Parker was as quirky (and spaced out) as ever as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff to a US senator who was not averse to sharing secret data with her lesbian lover who turned out to be another Sparrow Marta (Thekla Reuten)

The storytelling of director Francis Lawrence (best known for having directed JLaw in three out of the four "Hunger Games" films) was not complicated and engaging, but may have occasional drag in certain points in Act 2. It sort of felt like a "Mission Impossible" the way the elements of the complex scheme all fell neatly into place. I think there could have been a more deeply psychological exploration of sexual espionage, as that was its main selling point. The Sparrow academy part could actually have been a whole film in itself, but here, it barely scratched the surface of its cinematic potential. 6/10. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Review of PHANTOM THREAD: Tailored Toxicity

February 2018

Of all the nine nominees for the Best Picture Oscar this year, this was the one that had the least buzz before the fateful announcement last January 23, 2018. The only news I heard about this film was that this was supposedly going to be the last film of its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. But apparently, it was way more than just that. "Phantom Thread" was nominated not only for Best Picture, but also for Best Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Score, and expectedly, Costume Design. 

It was the 1950s in London. Reynolds Woodcock is the couturier of the rich and famous ladies. He is an avowed bachelor, a strict stickler to his daily routines, with an obsessive eye for perfection based on his own high standards. He is deeply loyal to the memory of his departed mother and dependent on his spinster sister Cyril to manage the business side of his fashion label. 

One day, Reynolds met Alma, a tall lissome waitress of uncertain foreign origin in a countryside restaurant. Alma eventually becomes Reynold's constant inspiration, until a testy kind of love developed between them. Reynolds' highbrow fastidiousness and Alma's easygoing simplicity were not a match made in heaven. Alma decides she needs to do something drastic to make Reynolds realize her value, even if it meant hurting him.

Whether this is really Daniel Day-Lewis' last film or not, he gave a memorable performance here of a man with a difficult and flawed personality, the exact sort of character which Oscar loves to reward.  Day-Lewis is the only actor who had won the Best Actor Oscar three times before: "My Left Foot" (1989), "There Will Be Blood" (2007) and "Lincoln" (2012). BAFTA also rewarded him for the same three roles, but added one more Best Actor award for "Gangs of New York" (2002). He may not win this year, but his nomination was very much deserved. Not many actors could pull off playing such an unlikable man like Reynolds Woodcock with so much external charm and internal conflict. 

Alma is played by Vicky Krieps, an Luxembourgian actress in her English language film debut. She had the right look for the part, with a lingering elegance when she wears those beautiful evening gowns, the perfect model and muse. With her delicate restrained portrayal, we felt the frustration of her character as she tried to live with this challenging conundrum of a man whom she loved. She ably provided the stark contrast as required.

Lesley Manville earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for playing Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds' formidbale elder sister whom he cannot live without. She manages all aspects of Reynolds' life to keep his mind clear for his artistry. Each scene with her had considerable tension, especially those with Cyril imposing herself between Reynolds and Alma. It is just too bad that her screen time was not as much than I was expecting.

There are two technical categories which I feel "The Phantom Thread" will really figure in prominently. The original score of Jonny Greenwood is lush orchestral or piano music with a Baroque flavor which pervades every scene. This type of music was something I did not expect from Greenwood, who is better known as the guitarist of Radiohead. As would be expected for a film about couture, the elegant costume designs of Mark Bridges are front and center in every scene. I am betting on Bridges to bring home the Oscar.

Paul Thomas Anderson first gained prominence for writing and directing "Boogie Nights" (1997), and since then, all his films became cinematic events met with critical acclaim: "Magnolia" (1999), "Punch Drunk Love" (2002), "There Will Be Blood" (2007), "The Master" (2012), now this one. He missed a Screenplay nod this year, but he gains his second Best Director nomination. In "Phantom Thread," Anderson foisted upon us a problematic relationship, where the toxicity of one's personality could only be countered by a toxicity of a more literal sort. It may not sound so good on paper, but on the screen it was as nail-biting as it was mesmerizing. That is what a good director can do. 8/10.