Friday, February 23, 2018

Review of THE SHAPE OF WATER: Comfort from a Creature

February 22, 2018




This was the film I was most excited to see for this Oscar season. "The Shape of Water" led all contenders for the Oscar with 13 nominations in the following categories: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Film Editing and Cinematography. Critics Choice gave it 14 nominations. BAFTA gave it 12. Definitely, this is a must-see film.

It was the early 1960s in Baltimore. Elisa Esposito was a janitor at a government research laboratory. She was mute because of a neck injury she sustained as a child. She led a lonely life, with only her two close friends: Giles (an old gentleman who lived next door) and Zelda (her outspoken co-worker). One day, Col. Richard Strickland brought to the lab a humanoid water creature captured from a river in South America. Saddened by the harsh treatment it got from Strickland, Elisa formed a friendship with the creature, a bond that eventually developed into love. 

Director Guillermo del Toro had long been associated with creature or monster films, like  "Hellboy" (2004), "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) and animated TV series "Trollhunters" (2016). "Pan's Labyrinth" was del Toro's first brush with Oscar, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film as well as Best Original Screenplay. He won neither back then, but this year he is poised to win the big prize. For "The Shape of Water," Del Toro had already won Best Director at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Critics Choice and the Director's Guild. The Oscar is clearly not far behind. 

The original score by Alexandre Desplat had already won in the Golden Globes and the Hollywood Music in Media awards. 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, dispelling any hint of disgust which may interfere with that image of pure love. The use of vintage love songs in the soundtrack likewise worked to achieve this idyllic atmosphere. 

Sally Hawkins had an innocent type of beauty which worked to her favor as the lonely and vulnerable Elisa. Her inability to speak made her role more challenging by forcing her to rely more on facial expressions and sign/body language alone to get her emotions across. She did enough to deserve an Oscar nomination. It certainly was not easy to create romantic chemistry with a likewise mute green amphibious creature (played by del Toro staple actor Doug Jones in a prosthetic body suit) like sweet Hawkins gloriously did here. 

The actors who played her two close friends also get nominated for Oscars in their supporting roles. Richard Jenkins owned his meaty role as Giles, Elisa's fellow lonely soul who loved cats, art, old movies, and pies. Octavia Spencer did not have much to do except to be Elisa's literally supportive friend Zelda. One would wonder what Oscar spell she cast to nab her third nomination for an unremarkable role as this one. Her previous nominations for "The Help" (2011, for which she won) and "Hidden Figures" (2016) were more deserved than this one. 

Michael Shannon played the alpha-male Colonel Strickland, who had a disturbing streak of violence in him. Michael Stuhlbarg marked a great year in his career last year by having been cast in three films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  Fans loved his role as Elio's supportive father in "Call Me By Your Name." He played a New York Times editor in "The Post." He had a marked role in "The Shape of Water" as Dr. Hoffstetler, a scientist with an ulterior motive and a desire to keep the asset alive. The Cold War espionage aspect gave the story more grit, but I thought those scenes of explicit violence did not fit right. 

However, I just wished del Toro could have just kept to the wholesome fairy tale spirit of this tale, without the Rated R sex. In the beginning montage alone depicting Elisa's daily routine, there was an unexpected scene of Hawkins fully nude, then later getting herself off in the bathtub. Even Strickland's wife showed her breasts before a brutish bed scene. I did not really see why del Toro had to be so frank about sex at all. Was it to give a different spin from "Beauty and the Beast" whose basic plot it shared? The film would have had a more widespread appeal without them. 

Being the film with the most number of nominations, will "The Shape of Water" go all the way and win the Oscar for Best Picture? It won "The Golden Lion" at the 2017 Venice Film Festival where it debuted. It won the Critics Choice award for Best Picture. It also won the Producers Guild award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture. Best Director may already be a lock for Guillermo del Toro, but I am betting that another film will win Best Picture. 6/10. 


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Review of THE POST: A Pressing Predicament

February 21, 2018



There had been a number of newspaper-based historical drama films which had been critically-acclaimed in the past years.  "All the President's Men" (Allan Pakula,1976) dealt with a couple of reporters from the Washington Post investigating the Watergate scandal.  "Zodiac" (David Fincher, 2007) was about the reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle investigating the Zodiac serial killer. "Spotlight" (Tom McCarthy, 2015) finally brought home the Oscar for Best Picture, telling a story about reporters from the Boston Globe investigating child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. 

"The Post" (Steven Spielberg, 2017) joins this illustrious list. This new film follows management and editors of the Washington Post (again) as they decide whether to publish (or not) the very controversial Pentagon Papers (a study about the US involvement in the Vietnam War). These top secret documents had initially been exposed by their rival New York Times, which led them to major legal entanglements with the government. Should the Washington Post follow suit and risk their already unstable financial conditions?

For the editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, they should just go ahead and publish their story, as freedom of the press should always be upheld. He had long been waiting for a story like this to boost the status of his paper. However, the final publication decision lay on the current owner and publisher of the Washington Post, the gentle and unconfident Katharine Graham. Ms. Graham had inherited her position following the death of her husband Philip in 1963, and was then the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. She had usually deferred to the decisions of the men around her. However, for this sensitive decision of great national, moral and financial significance, it was all up to her.

Tom Hanks played Ben Bradlee, who led the male-dominated newsroom of the Washington Post. Hanks is really a very comfortable actor in films like this, never felt like he was acting at all. Bob Odenkirk played Post national editor Ben Bagdikian who was able to track down the source of the leak. His showcase scene was when he was all jumpy and excited at the payphone as he learned some vital information. Tracy Letts was Fritz Beebe, Bradley Whitford was Arthur Parsons -- both holding influential positions at the Post but each with contrasting viewpoints.

Aside from Best Picture, the only other Oscar nomination nabbed by "The Post" is Best Actress for no less than Meryl Streep, her 21st Oscar nomination for acting overall. This was not a bombastic role like Miranda Priestly or Margaret Thatcher or Julia Child or Florence Foster Jenkins. Even if I did not know who the real Katherine Graham was, I can feel that this was a quiet performance of gracefully nuanced detail about a self-doubting woman who had to deal with tough issues of gender politics and press integrity. This role may not win her the Oscar, but this was yet another realistic portrayal that seems so natural for Streep. 

Other important supporting actors were Bruce Greenwood (who played embattled US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who commissioned the Vietnam study in the first place), Matthew Rhys (who played the disillusioned military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, the source of the leak) and "Call Me By Your Name" actor Michael Stuhlbarg (who played newsman A.M. Rosenthal from the New York Times which first broke the story). Sarah Paulson played Ben Bradlee's wife Toni, who made him realize some matters he had failed to see because of his hunger for sensational news. 

Even if I did not know anything about this controversy, nor any of the personalities involved, 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. 

The release of this film now in the face of various issues of governmental control versus freedom of the press are very much in the news. When you learned at the end about how Nixon actually barred reporters from newspapers he considered offensive from covering him at the White House, a very current event of similar nature immediately came to mind. Such was the ever-volatile relationship between government and the press back then, and still is, apparently, up to now. 8/10. 


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of BLACK PANTHER: Empowered Ebony

February 18, 2018



This newest Marvel film told the legend about one of the new heroes I first met in "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) -- the prince, later king, of Wakanda, T'Challa, and his superhero persona, the Black Panther. I never knew about this character before, and Chadwick Boseman gave this black superhero an electrifying debut. It was apparent from that point that the Black Panther was going to get a proper origins movie of its own, and now here it is -- a critical and commercial success in its first week out. 

Following the assassination of his father T'Chaka, T'Challa returned to his home in Wakanda to be crowned king in the presence of his family, significant other Nakia and the rest of his country. However, when a serious threat to the throne was posed by Eric "Killmonger" Stevens, a cocky American challenger with royal Wakandan blood in his veins, a long-kept secret about the former king is revealed, and the call for sharing Wakanda's secret wealth and technology with the world is renewed.

The whole look of imaginary country Wakanda is a result of meticulous visual effects work, a result of the fertile imaginations of its artistic creators. From the cliffs and waterfalls of its ritual arena, to its wide open fields where the giant rhinoceroses roam, to its modern city skyline with its sophisticated train system and its futuristic interior designs (yet fully retaining its ethnic flavor), the special effects to create all those diverse landscapes of the country "hidden in plain sight" looked very realistic and inviting to go visit.  

Another very remarkable aspect of the film is the role of women. Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) was an undercover spy sent by Wakanda to international missions. T'Challa's younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is already quite the technical wizard at 16 years of age, in the same fashion as Q was for James Bond. Even though her gadgets are very high-tech, she makes sure it carried a distinctly African design. The Secret Service bodyguards of T'Challa is an all-female group called the Dora Milaje, led by the amazonic Okoye (Danai Gurira). Of course, the former queen and T'Challa's mother Remonda is impressive just because she is played by ever-elegant Angela Bassett.

I may be in the minority but I found the supporting male actors and their characters more interesting than lead actor Chadwick Boseman and his portrayal of T'Challa. Boseman was not in anyway bad, mind you, but the others seemed to have better screen presence. There was the magnetic Michael B. Jordan and his powerful portrayal of the main antagonist, Killmonger. Jordan had been the star of director Ryan Coogler's two previous films before this, "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and "Creed" (2015), so they know each other very well indeed.  Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (as spiritual leader Zuri), Oscar nominee (for "Get Out") Daniel Kaluuya (as T'Challa's warrior friend W'kabi) and Winston Duke (as rival Jabari warlord M'baku) also made very strong impressions. 

This film was a gloriously rich celebration of African culture, with several tribal influences seen in the costume design (by 2-time Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter), production design (by Hannah Beachler), musical score (by Ludwig Göransson, with a soundtrack featuring songs by hip-hop star Kendrick Lamarr!) and choreography (by percussionist Jabari Exum). This resplendent cultural color and pride brought about by all these potential award winning technical artists were what made this film stand out above all Marvel Cinematic Universe films, not really its superhero aspects. 8/10. 


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review of SIN ISLAND: Temptation, Tryst, Terror

February 16, 2018




There is really a fascination about mistresses in Filipino films. Usually, filmmakers use this topic for titillating sexy dramas. I guess that is what mistresses are for, aren't they? "No Other Woman" (2011), "My Neighbor's Wife" (2011), "A Secret Affair" (2012), "The Mistress" (2012), the list goes on and on, and so is the unfortunate impression that this is already an accepted practice (especially when even public figures are not shy about their mistresses anymore). Here is another one to add to that list.

David Santiago is a hotshot photographer for fashion and weddings. His beautiful bride Kanika (where did that name come from?) is an airline stewardess. A business misfortune sidelines David for two years when he did nothing but wallow in his misery while his wife brought home the bacon. When David noticed Kanika enjoying the flirting moves of her macho pilot Stephen, he took off on a solo getaway to the island resort of Sinilaban, or "Sin Island" for short. He would not stay solo for long.

Xian Lim totally shed off his wholesome image for this project as his character David engaged in steamy sex scenes with two sexy women. While he shows off his torso, he remained shyer than his co-stars as he would keep himself covered under the sheets. The acting is adequate, though there could still room for further emotional breakdown. David really does some pretty stupid things, and we see the cluelessness in Lim's face. He has broken off his long-time love team with the ever-virginal Kim Chiu just in time to do this "mature" role, so let's see where this move will take his career from now on. 

Coleen Garcia already shed her sweet image a while back when she did the sexy telenovela "Pasion de Amor" (2015-16). She also starred in sexy dramas like "#Y"(2014), "Friends with Benefits" (2015) and "Love Me Tomorrow" (2016) -- all under the direction of Gino M. Santos, also the director of "Sin Island". Here, she get romanced (separately) by both her husband and her pilot, including a scene where she got naked while making out in a dark hallway in a hotel. Her acting was also just right, but a more mature actress could have limned something more out of those heated confrontation scenes. 

Nathalie Hart is Tasha, an uninhibited woman whom we first see doing her yoga poses on the beach -- in the nude. Hart's career took off only two years ago when she began doing daring roles in indie films like "Siphayo" (with Luis Alandy and Joem Bascon) and "Tisay" (with JC de Vera). My first time to see her was in Cinema One Originals 2017 entry, "Historiographika Errata" (MY REVIEW) where she again engaged in torrid sex scenes with Jess Mendoza and Rafa Siguion-Reyna. She is bold alright, no qualms in showing her breasts and her buttocks in broad daylight. Her Tasha is loud, florid, fearless, tactless and crazy -- red flags from the get-go. 

As was obvious from the trailer, the best part of this film is its lush cinematography by Mycko David, with those creative camera angles and effective use of lighting to showcase the beautiful houses, offices, beaches, faces and bodies in order to enhance the sexy mood. 

I do not really know what to make about the odd decision to use KZ Tandingan's sultry version of Imelda Papin's "Isang Linggong Pag-ibig" to accompany the main sex scene. I thought it was more distractingly funny. The song was too campy to be sexy at all.



***** Spoiler Alert



The script (interestingly credited to be written by Jancy E. Nicolas, based on the original screenplay by Keiko A. Aquino) started promisingly as it tackled the roots of adultery. However, towards the third act, it makes a sudden unexpected turn into "Fatal Attraction" territory. This reference was all too obvious for those who knew that 1987 classic film about the horrific consequences of infidelity, it can't be missed -- down to that final knife battle and killer who refused to die. 5/10. 


Friday, February 16, 2018

Review of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: Calling for Closure

February 16, 2018




This film has such a long unwieldy title which may puzzle moviegoers. However, with all the critical acclaim this film received since its debut, as well as all the awards and citations it had gained over the past three months, this is a film that simply cannot be ignored. It had just gained 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Actress, two Supporting Actors, Original Score and Film Editing.

It had been seven months since Angela Hayes had been raped and murdered. Up to now, there had yet been no leads on the perpetrator of the crime. Desperate and angry, her mother Mildred 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.

The search for elusive justice can sometimes lead people to do the craziest things, and Mildred Hayes really went the whole nine yards on this. Frances McDormand really squeezed everything out of this character, there is really nothing any other actress could have done for this role to make it better. People who have seen McDormand act know how deadpan her face can be, yet it was always a wonder how it could be so effectively expressive at the same time -- it was amazing to watch. She is my bet to win Best Actress come Oscar time this year, her second since winning for "Fargo" in 1996. 

I have to admit that Sam Rockwell is not an actor I liked. This was ever since I saw him give a lousy lead performance in that terrible mess of a film called "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (2005). When I recognized him in this as the racist, impulsive, over-the-top violent policeman Jason Dixon, I was prepared to hate his character all the way. However, Rockwell actually had me changing my mind about him, the way he rode the wave of this character's interesting and eventful arc. I can't believe I am saying this, but I think he might just go home with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year.

Woody Harrelson played the embattled though well-loved Police Chief Willoughby. He knew Rockwell had the showier role, so Harrelson had the right sense to play his character with restraint and composure. This made his character very enigmatic and sympathetic. This wise approach also led to his surprise third Oscar nomination for his supporting performance here. His previous Oscar nominations were for Best Actor in "The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996) and Best Supporting Actor in "The Messenger" (2010). 

I had heard of Martin McDonagh before as a playwright. I had seen a locally staged and adapted production of one of his plays entitled "The Pilllowman" (MY REVIEW). That play tackled a very disturbing topic about child murders.  in 2009, I had also seen one of McDonagh's previous films called "In Bruges" (MY REVIEW). These works, including this new one, really affirmed Martin McDonagh's skill with black comedy. 

How 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 you could not stop watching them wreak hate on that screen. 

Out of the seven Oscar nominations it earned. I am betting on "Three Billboards" to win at least four. Martin McDonagh should win the Oscar for Original Screenplay, especially since it was very surprising that he was snubbed for Best Director. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell should win for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively, like they won the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards. And so far, I am betting on "Three Billboards" to win the biggest Oscar prize -- Best Picture! 9/10. 



Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review of DARKEST HOUR: Channeling Churchill

February 15, 2018




I knew Winston Churchill only as Great Britain's Prime Minister during World War II, the contemporary of FDR of the United States and Adolph Hitler of Nazi Germany. Maybe I know a quote of his about "blood, sweat and tears." However, apart from those shallow pieces of knowledge, I do not know much anymore about the person he was nor his exact achievements during the war. Getting to know this historical personality through this film would serve as the impetus to make me read more about him afterwards, as it usually happens to me for other historical films I watched before. 

The story of "Darkest Hour" begins in May 1940 when then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlaine was forced to resign by the British Parliament for perceived incompetence regarding national security against Nazi Germany. Despite his unpopularity because of his abrasive personality and seemingly reckless decisions, Winston Churchill was still named as the new Prime Minister. The rest of the film recounts his contentious relationship with his War Cabinet which includes pro-peace Viscount Halifax, and Churchill's decisions during  the Dunkirk siege.

So, thank to the coincidence that Christopher Nolan's film "Dunkirk" was released just about six months ago so we are already familiar with what happened on the battle front. "Darkest Hour" tells us what was happening in the War Room back in London that led to what happened on that beach in Dunkirk. 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 film had been nominated for six Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Cinematography, Production Design, Makeup and Costumes. The absence of a Best Director nomination for Joe Wright does not bode to well for its chances for Best Picture. These technical citations for historical realism are in stark contrast to the other nominees for more fantastical subject matter. Acting of supporting actors like Kristin Scott-Thomas (as Churchill's wife Clementine) and Ben Mendelsohn (as King George VI) had also been cited by other awards bodies. 

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. As I had confessed earlier, I had no idea about how he acted or how he spoke in real life, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his impersonation. I was actually very surprised with some bombastic behavior and pronouncements shown in some scenes. However, it was the intensity and sincerity of Oldman's performance rang truest in those passionate speeches he delivered and quiet personal moments he shared.

Of course, since the real Gary Oldman does not look a thing like Winston Churchill, a major part of his winning performance was thanks to his meticulous make-up team. Honestly though, do you know Gary Oldman really looks like? This actor is a true chameleon, he can really disappear into any character he played, be it Sid Vicious ("Sid and Nancy,"1986), Lee Harvey Oswald ("JFK," 1991), Count Dracula ("Bram Stoker's Dracula," 1992), Ludwig Van Beethoven ("Immortal Beloved," 1994), Sirius Black ("Harry Potter" films, 2004-11) or George Smiley ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," 2011). 

His performance in "Darkest Hour" was certainly his master work as actor. There was practically nothing left of Oldman in his portrayal of Churchill. Following the Golden Globes, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild trophies he had already won, Oldman is practically a sure lock as Best Actor come Oscar time. This Oscar is not just in recognition for this one truly remarkable performance of his, but will also be a lifetime achievement award for his career as a movie actor as well. 7/10. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review of ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE TWO WORLDS: Defending the Deeds of the Dead

February 11, 2018




I was not actually planning to watch this Korean film since I had not heard about it before. That was the case until I saw ads that it will actually have screenings in 4DX! Now that caught my attention as 4DX are usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. I thought that was convincing enough a reason to go catch its release in local theaters. As of this writing, this film had just overtaken "Ode to My Father" (MY REVIEW), and is now the second biggest Korean box office hit OF ALL TIME!

A fireman named Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun) died a heroic death in the line of his duty. A head guardian of the afterlife, Gang-rim (Ha Jung-woo), and his two assistants Haewonmak (Ju Ji-hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-gi) escort the soul of Ja-hong in the world beyond. They will have to defend Ja-hong in front of the gods heading the seven hells, namely Murder, Indolence, Deceit, Injustice, Betrayal, Violence and Filial Impiety. Only if he can pass these trials in all these courts can his soul be reincarnated.

I had seen the lead actors in at least one previous film before. Ha Jung-woo also played the lead in "Tunnel" (MY REVIEW) and "The Handmaiden". His portrayal of Gang-rim was noble, fair and willing to go against the rules. Cha Tae-hyun was most famous for "My Sassy Girl" (MY REVIEW). His portrayal of Ja-hong never gave away how the story was going to go. Ju Ji-hoon was in "Asura: The City of Darkness." His character here had a gangster-like vibe to him. Kim Hyang-gi is only 17 years old, but she held her own as Ja-hong's kind and empathetic guardian. 


As far as tear-jerking drama is concerned, Korean filmmakers really know how to hit that sensitive spot. Whenever Ye Soo-jung (as Ja-hong's mute Mother) was on the screen, get your hankies ready. Do Kyung -soo, who was so good in "My Annoying Brother" (MY REVIEW), also had dramatic moments as the guilt- tormented soldier Won Il-byung. There is also a touch of humor in the characters of two persistent prosecutors against Ja-hong, played by veteran actors Oh Dal-su and Lim Won-hee. 

The whole film was a visual effects extravaganza, though some effects were better than others. The various courts of hell were set in various fantastical landscapes which presented a particular challenge for Kim. Murder was in a volcano. Indolence was in a waterfall, Deceit was in a forest. Injustice was on a glacier. Betrayal was in a heavenly passage. Violence was in a sink hole. Filial impiety was in a desert. Kim and the guardians also had to fight with "hell ghouls" unleashed by a vengeful spirit which crossed over in both reality and the afterlife. There were really a lot of exciting action sequences worthy of a 4DX platform (though I only watched in regular 2D).

I found the concept of the afterlife presented by this film to be very interesting. I do not know how much of this was based on actual Korean folklore and how much was just from the imagination of  Joo Ho-min who created the webcomic upon which writer-director Kim Yong-hwa based his script. It says that we have committed some variation of all of these seven crimes in different levels of severity, and we have guardians to help us argue our cases before the gods of the underworld. It was an idea that was as innovative as it was also quite thought-provoking. 

On the debit side, the film tried to squeeze in too many subplots in its 140 minutes such that there are parts that may feel confusing and long. Nevertheless, I'm still looking forward to its coming sequel to be subtitled "The Last 49 Days." 7/10. 




Saturday, February 10, 2018

Review of MEET ME IN ST. GALLEN: Three Tries

February 9, 2018





Spring Productions founded by actor Piolo Pascual had its first feature film back in 2009 with "Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme" (Joyce Bernal). Last year 2017 was a big year for them as they released three films -- "Northern Lights" (Dondon Santos), "Last Night" (Joyce Bernal) and most memorably "Kita Kita" (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo), which went on to become the highest grossing Filipino indie film. 

"Meet Me in St. Gallen," written and directed by Irene Villamor, is Spring's first film out this new year. It is practically a two-hander about a couple of millennials, Celeste Francisco (played by Bela Padilla) and Jesse Abaya (played by Carlo Aquino). Their story actually only happens in three days, but these three days are spread out in the course of six years. 

Day 1, Celeste and Jesse meet for the first time in a coffee shop one stormy night. graphic artist Celeste just had an argument with her demanding boss. Medicine student Jesse just got a dressing down from his parents (cameos by Noni Buencamino and Lilet Esteban) for choosing his rock band over taking his studies seriously. They talk about destiny, compromise and sacrifice. They mutually decide to end the night with kiss and that was it.

Day 2 happens four years later when Celeste and Jesse ran into each other in another coffee shop. She was now an emerging multi-media artist who just debuted her first public art exhibit. He had shifted the focus of his medical studies from humans to animals (I know who owns that pet shop for real.). They talk about their dreams, solitude and loneliness. The night ended a major leap further than how it ended before, but again, that's it. 

Day 3 happens two more years later. It was a cold and snowy Christmas Day, and Celeste is now based in St. Gallen in Switzerland (a curious choice of location!). Suddenly, Jesse shows up without any prior warning to surprise her. Will they hit it off great again in their conversations and end another major leap further than their last night together?

At first glance, the script of writer and director Irene Villamor seemed to be just a series of random thoughts and topics with no clear direction where these conversations were leading to. However, looking back after the ending, they actually did. She only gave us three days to know these two characters, with no clarity of why no one thought of following up in between those fateful meetings. But in the end, it turned out to be enough after all. 

Bela Padilla is such an honest actress. It never seemed like she was ever acting. Everything was so natural and free-flowing with her. Carlo Aquino had always been a very sensitive actor since we knew him as a child. Because of their absorbing screen presence and charisma as a couple, we actually hang on to every word they were saying to each other, long and winding as they were. We wanted them to end up together.

"Meet Me in St. Gallen" is like the whole "Before" trilogy by Richard Linklater condensed into one film, where each episode is one day.  It follows pretty much the current trend of local indie romance films which use the conversations between two people to show the development of their relationship. The result can only be two ways -- happy or sad -- and that is for the audience to find out by hanging on to the very end. But by and large, its success clearly hung on the relatability of its script and the sincerity of its actors -- and this one had both winning ingredients. 8/10. 



Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review of I. TONYA: Sleaze on Skates

February 5, 2018


Tonya Harding was a very familiar name in figure skating back in the 1990s. In a sport where the athletes were usually sweet and elegant, Harding came across as brusque and rough. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan was inescapable in the news, especially when her name was implicated on an actual physical assault on Kerrigan. Because this dealt with a relatively recent tabloid-fare sports scandal, this film should be interesting to watch. The three Oscar nominations it earned gave it an extra push up. 

The film tells the story of how Tonya Harding began her ice skating career as a child of four being pressed by her abusive mother LaVona Golden to train under coach Diane Rawlinson. As she grew up, her excellent powerful skating skills were recognized in nationwide competitions, but her "white trash" demeanor made her unpopular with the judges and fans. 

As a teen, she married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) 3 years her senior, also socially backward, with a streak of violence. Despite being the first female figure skater to stick two triple axels in competition, Tonya's Olympic skating career was inconsistent. This led Gillooly to seek out more "innovative" ways to spook her closest competition, Nancy Kerrigan, but as the world now knew, things go out of hand. 

Since I have only seen Tonya Harding on the ice and on the news, I am not sure how accurate Margo Robbie's portrayal of her was. It felt like a caricature, but very well done, done with tongue securely in cheek. It was a fierce transformative performance, obviously totally out of Robbie's comfort zone, yet so convincingly done, both on at home and on the ice. She had the unenviable task of trying to make the audience take her side despite her character's uncouth personality and unpopular reputation, and she succeeds. Hers was an surprise Oscar Best Actress nomination, but this was fully deserved.

Alison Janney delivered a most unnerving portrayal of LaVona Golden, Tonya's foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, slave-driving mother from hell. She pushed her daughter to athletic perfection by fair means or foul, just like J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher character from "Whiplash" (2014), which incidentally won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year. Janney was so memorably hateful as LaVona, from her first scene to her last. She had already won the Golden Globe and the SAG in that category, she is the frontrunner in the Oscar race for Supporting Actress and rightly so.

The film as directed by Craig Gillespie presented Tonya's story by way of a documentary style where characters were telling their stories in their own words. The storytelling went back and forth in time with the characters occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly. The skating scenes were integrated very well with the story, all done with suspense and thrill. The editing by Tatiana Riegel was remarkable for its smooth execution, winning the Editors Guild award for Comedy, as well as an Oscar nomination. 

"I, Tonya" shows us what happens to someone without class in a sport that demands class. It tells us that Tonya's social class should not have mattered in her sport, only her athletic excellence. In this regard, the film's exaggerated comical portrayal of the so-called "white trash" social stratum can sometimes feel ironic. Because of its over-the-top approach to the story, one can also never be too sure of its historical accuracy as a biopic. Anyhow, as a whole, this movie is an eye-opening and entertaining peek inside the supposedly graceful world of ice skating through the troubled life of one of its least graceful personalities. 8/10. 

Review of FIFTY SHADES FREED: Flimsy Finale

February 7, 2018



In 2015, the first film (MY REVIEW) introduced us to the kinky couple of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Just last year, the second film (MY REVIEW) had Ana learning more about Christian and his past. Now, barely a year later, the third and final film in the Fifty Shades series based on the books by E.L. James has been released as well. 

Anastasia and Christian are now married. Being married to a controlling billionaire, Ana felt stifled by Christian's rules and security, but she enjoyed defying him to make her point felt. Their European honeymoon was interrupted by news of a fire set inside Christian's office building. Much later, Ana herself was assaulted in their own condo by an intruder who turned out to be her ex-boss Eric Hyde. Aside from trying to figure out why Hyde hated Grey with a passion, the newlyweds also try to deal with an unexpected guest. 

Since this film was shot back to back with the second film by director James Foley, it looked and felt just like it. There was not much improvement to be expected in the acting of Dakota Johnson and Jaime Dornan, though they did seem to be more relaxed already by now. Eric Johnson was one-dimensional in his portrayal of token antagonist Jack Hyde. The rest of the cast may be good-looking but were similarly bland, from Brant Daugherty (as Ana's stiff bodyguard Sawyer) to Arielle Kebbel (as the flirty architect Gia Matteo). 

The cinematography was still lush and vibrant, showing the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous Greys (their vacations, their houses, their cars), as well as what happens in their bedrooms. The sexy scenes were not as instrumental to the story anymore as they were in the first two films. These gratuitous scenes basically became fillers to stretch out a lame revenge crime story into 105 minutes. 

The best aspect of all the Fifty Shades films remains to be its musical soundtrack. There is nothing that immediately stood out as strongly as "Love Me Like You Do" or "Earned It" did from the first film, or "I Don't Wanna Live Forever" from the second film. However, "For You" by Rita Ora (who played as Christian's sister Mia) and Liam Payne, and "Capital Letters" by Hailee Steinfeld are definitely ear candy that deserve to be radio hits as well. We also get to see and hear Jaime Dornan sing "Maybe I'm Amazed" while playing the piano -- not bad. 

The paper-thin story actually centered around dreary side character Eric Hyde and his vindictiveness, than about Christian Grey and his BDSM obsession. There was clearly nothing more to tell about Grey anymore here. We see only Christian's petulant immaturity when dealing with adult relationship issues. While Ana had the more interesting story to tell, Niall Leonard's script can occasionally make her come across as flighty and annoying. Anyhow, at least we can see that these two really deserve each other! 4/10. 


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Review of A BETTER TOMORROW 2018: Fraternal Friction

February 7, 2018





In 1986, the original "A Better Tomorrow" film, written and directed by John Woo, was a landmark action film. It is recognized as the template for the so-called "heroic bloodshed" type of films where the scenes of violence are imbued with the spirit of honor and brotherhood. Other famous films like "The Killer" (1989), "Hard Boiled" (1992), and even American films like those of Quentin Tarantino or Luc Besson.

"A Better Tomorrow" launched Chou Yun Fat to superstardom, not only in Hong Kong, but also internationally. Chou did not even play either of the two brothers who were the main characters (played by Ti Lung as elder Ho and Leslie Cheung as younger Kit). However, it was Chou's magnetic charismatic performance as the trenchcoat-wearing Mark, the best friend of the elder brother, that fans of the film will always remember about it. 

"A Better Tomorrow" had been remade in 2010 in Korea, directed by Song Hae-sung and starring Joo Jin-mo and Kim Kang-woo as the two brothers and Song Seung-heon as the best friend. John Woo himself was the Executive Producer. This year, there is yet another remake, this time from China, directed by Ding Sheng, starring Wang Kai and Ma Tianyu as the two brothers and Darren Wang as the best friend, also named Mark. 

The basic story followed the original movie closely. Kai, the elder of the Zhou brothers, had been involved in smuggling abroad in Japan. Kai's best friend is the reckless but fiercely loyal Mark. Chao, the younger brother, idolized Kai, thinking he is working abroad as a seaman. By the time Kai returned to their seaside hometown of Qingdao, Chao is already an idealistic policeman. One day, Kai's criminal activities caught up with him, and this put him directly at odds with his brother. 

There were scenes which were obviously recreations of the first film but tweaked accordingly to more current styles, notably Kai's arrest scene and Mark's revenge killing spree scene. There were some changes in details. Ho's original syndicate dealt with counterfeiting, for Kai, it was smuggling. When he tried to turn over a new leaf, Ho drove taxis in the first film, while Kai sold seafood in the second. The whole ending sequence of the remake though is a major departure from the former.

Wang Kai portrayed Kai as a noble and humble man, even if he led a life of crime. He had a quiet intensity and deep sense of loyalty that makes him a character you'd root for. Ma Tianyu as Chou looked much younger than his actual age of 31. He played the hotshot cop with brashness and cockiness. Darren Wang's portrayal of Mark as a carefree impulsive rascal can be very charming yet badass. Wang had the unenviable job of trying to fill Chou Yun Fat's shoes in this role, and he managed to give the role his own spin. 

Jackie, the girlfriend of the younger brother, was a ditzy cello player in the first film (even with scenes of slapstick comedy). In the second film, she is Lulu, a sober, responsible nurse. The father in the first film was aware of his eldest son's crimes, but in the remake, the father had dementia. Every time the scene featured the Zhou patriarch, those emotional scenes were effectively tear-jerking. As for the villain, the shy apprentice-turned-ruthless boss Cang in the new film basically had the same character arc as Shing in the first film, though the original actor Waise Lee was more sinister than Ailei Yu was in the new one. 

The action scenes were entertaining to watch with their bone-crunching execution. The most memorable ones were those fight scenes with the Chinese opera going on in the background. There is another big gunfight scene with some geisha dancers downstairs adding some interest.  On the other hand, I thought the film had too many melodramatic interludes of seagulls flying over the ocean scored with generic sounding Oriental music.. 

There were nice references to the old film, like the matchstick Chou Yun Fat held in his mouth, and there was even a scene where we see the original 1986 movie poster. Despite all the nifty updating that Ding Sheng and crew did though, I am still not convinced that they they really needed to remake such an iconic film. If this remake gets the new generation to look back and check out the 1986 original, then that would be its best tribute. 7/10.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review of WINCHESTER: Guns, Guilt and Ghosts

February 1, 2018




I have heard about the Winchester Mystery House located in San Jose, California known for its unorthodox architecture and its ghost stories. However, I had never had the chance to visit this place during the times I visited the West Coast in previous years. Even if there was zero buzz about this film, I welcomed the chance to get a peek inside the house. When I heard that Helen Mirren was the main star, I was sold. 

The year was 1906 in San Jose, California. San Francisco-based psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) was called in by the lawyers of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess the mental health of their CEO, Mrs. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). She had been obsessed about constantly building new rooms and sections to her house with no clear reasons, which caused concern among the members of her board. 

Upon visiting her house, Dr. Price began seeing frightful visions. At first, he thought that these were just illusions from his addiction to laudanum. However, when Ms. Sarah's grandson Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), son of her niece Marian (Sarah Snook), was showing signs of possession by an evil spirit, Dr. Price needed to get his act together to help the Winchesters figure out how to fight back against the violently disturbed spirit of Cpl. Benjamin Block (Eamon Farren) who was determined to exact his revenge.

Despite the American topic, this was actually an Australian production. The film was written and directed by Austrailian identical twins Peter and Michael Spierig, billed together as "The Spierig Brothers." I did not recognize the name right away, but I realized that I had seen one of their films before, "Predestination" (2015) which I liked (MY REVIEW). Just last year, they directed the 8th installment of the "Saw" franchise called "Jigsaw" which I was not able to see. Majority of the cast was also Australian, like Clarke, Snook and Farren, along with Angus Sampson (as Ms. Sarah's helper) and Laura Brent (as Ruby, Eric's wife).

Helen Mirren seemed to be having a lot of fun wearing her oppressively black widow's gown and veil, which she wore for the entire length of this movie. Her acting was on the hammy side and was actually quite amusing to watch. She somehow gave the impression that she was not taking this project too seriously, and that may be a good thing in this case. She knows her character had some over-the-top lines and scenes, so she wisely played her with tongue-in-cheek.

I know Jason Clarke mostly for his macho action films, like "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) (MY REVIEW), "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) (MY REVIEW) and "Everest" (2015) (MY REVIEW). Him getting jumpy, startled and freaked out as the tormented Dr. Price in this film must have been quite a fun change of pace for him. It was his character who went through a more complete story arc in film, and he did deliver, acting-wise. There was a remarkable detail in Dr. Price's life that was a nice little twist in the film which I appreciated. 

The only other film I saw Sarah Snook in was "Predestination". She was just limited to playing the concerned mother. Viewers of the rebooted "Twin Peaks" last year will recognize Eamon Farren. His character Block was given quite a back story behind his vengeful anger. Of course, Angus Sampson was the comic relief for all the "Insidious" films. Here, all he did nothing much but to hammer doors shut with 13 pieces of nails.

It did not have the Hollywood polish in terms of its cinematography and special effects. The scenes which were set at night or in darkness were too dark and were difficult to watch. The horror visual effects were quite basic, not up to present standards.  A lot of the scares were jump scares brought about by sudden jolts of a ghostly face or a sudden blast of sound. While certain aspects of the story were interesting, the pacing of the storytelling was rather slow and tedious at parts. 5/10. 


Review of PADDINGTON 2: Earnest and Endearing

February 1, 2018




I was introduced to the quintessentially British bear Paddington in his first film back in 2015 (MY REVIEW). I loved that film and in fact it was one of my top 20 films of 2015. I was surprised but happy that they produced a sequel about our favorite teddy bear. This sequel was again directed and co-written by Paul King. For the local prints, Xian Lim had again been tapped to dub over the original vocals of Ben Whishaw. 

This time around, Paddington wanted to buy a gift for his Aunt Lucy for the occasion of her 100th birthday. He saw a charming pop-up book showing various London tourist spots in an antique shop and thought his Aunt Lucy will love it. However, when the store was burglarized and that book was stolen, Paddington was wrongly accused, apprehended and jailed for this crime. While Paddington tries his best to get through life in prison, the Brown family do their best to gather evidence to prove that their bear's innocence.

Among the noted British actors supporting Paddington in this sequel is Hugh Grant playing Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissistic actor who lived right across the Brown's house. Despite him going against Paddington, Grant made me laugh with his various eccentric actor idiosyncrasies and his donning of his old costumes. Another new face is Brendan Gleeson who played Knuckles McGinty, the cook of the prison who took a fancy to Paddington's marmalade recipe and becomes his friend. 

Reprising their roles from the first film were: Sally Hawkins, who was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in "The Shape of Water," was a gentle peaceful presence, reprising her role as Mrs. Mary Brown. Hugh Bonneville plays her straitlaced husband, Henry. Jim Broadbent also returns as the owner of the antique shop, Mr. Gruber. Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon lend their voices to Paddington's dearest Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo. 

Through all his naive misadventures in this film, Paddington remains as endearing a bear as ever. One of the funniest scenes in the film was that one about the red sock getting mixed up in the washing machine where all the black and white striped jailbird uniforms were loaded with hilarious results. Only a kind and sweet cutie pie like Paddington can tame the most hardened criminals like he did here. Those climactic action scenes by the CG Paddington had on the train were also executed in the most fun and exciting manner. They were thrilling without becoming too seriously scary but certainly not too kiddie or safe. 8/10.


Review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: Exhilarating Entertainer!

January 31, 2018




I know the name P. T. Barnum, but I did not know anything about the kind of man he was, nor what the story was behind the circus that bore his name. When I heard about this movie that was going to tell about Barnum's life and career, I thought that should be interesting. The fact that this was a musical with original songs and starred Hugh Jackman in the lead role made everything even more exciting.

Phineas Barnum was a very poor boy growing up. Despite all odds, he was able to marry Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), the daughter of one of his tailor father's rich clients. Even if his wife and two daughters seemed to be contented with the modest life they had, Phineas himself was obsessed with his dream of transcending his station in life. Phineas began with a wax museum of the strange and the macabre, but his idea really hit its stride when he developed a show that featured "freaks" as the main stars. But even then, Phineas wanted much more, and that was when success began to unravel.

Despite better known for this tough and violent action persona as the Wolverine, Hugh Jackman had been an acclaimed musical theater star first before he became a big movie star. Starring as Jean Valjean in the movie version of "Les Miserables" (Tom Hooper, 2012) (MY REVIEW), Jackman's musical talent became more widely known and appreciated by the non-theatergoing public. 

As P.T. Barnum, Jackman was obviously too old to have been realistic as the young impoverished Phineas, and this was distracting at the start. However, he would eventually grow into the role so well, such that this age disparity would later not matter. He displayed musical versatility, performing songs like "A Million Dreams," (with Williams and daughters), "The Other Side" (with Efron) and "From Now On" (on his own) with flair and heart.

Zac Efron played Philip Carlyle, a playwright from a rich family whom Barnum convinced to join his circus show to give it more "class". Carlyle was romantically attracted to trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya), whose race and class was unfavorable to his family. It was good to see Efron back to the type of role he was first known for as a singer and dancer. You can still see some of his "High School Musical" dance moves here. His featured number with Zendaya with the song "Rewrite the Stars" as they took to the air on ropes was a romantic and dramatic spectacle thrilling to behold on the big screen.

Nine of the songs in the film's soundtrack were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the same duo won an Oscar for "La La Land" and a Tony for "Dear Evan Hansen." I am surprised that of all the melodic and powerful songs in the film, the only film  being cited for awards is "This is Me" (not Demi Lovato's similarly titled anthem from "Camp Rock" of course). That song and its message is strong and positive, and the performance of Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz the Bearded Lady was mindblowing. But the other songs were also so very good, just one musical highlight after the other. From the bombast of the title song to the intimacy of "Tightrope", it is not fair that only one song gets all the attention.

For me, the song that mesmerized me the most is Jenny Lind's absolutely riveting rendition of the song "Never Enough" during her first concert in New York City. Performed with gorgeous elegance by Rebecca Ferguson mouthing vocals recorded by Loren Allred (a finalist on Team Adam of the The Voice Season 3), I was staring at the screen slack-jawed the whole time she was singing, and I wanted to give her a standing ovation right there and then. OK, Allred's singing vocals was not exactly the soprano Jenny Lind's real voice was supposed to be, but I was taken with the whole illusion of that scene.

I am sure there was a lot of cinematic license taken by writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (of "Gods and Monsters" fame) and first-time feature film director Michael Gracey to tell P.T. Barnum's story. He was made to look as sympathetic a hero as possible, making others (like the theater critic Mr. Bennett and opera star Ms. Lind) look worse than they actually were. Anyhow, we cannot really expect historical accuracy here, they never claimed it.;

Too bad the art direction and costumes were totally snubbed at the Oscars. I thought they did well to create a realistic period setting and lavish spectacle of a show with all the flashy colors and over-the-top designs. I admit I am biased when it comes to musical films like this. I really liked this film a lot and I am definitely going to watch this again (and again). 9/10.