Friday, January 13, 2017

Review of PATRIOTS DAY: Boston Brave

January 12, 2017

This film was called "Patriots Day" because it was on this holiday that the Boston Marathon is held, and on a particularly fateful one in 2013, a deadly bombing marred the festivities. For us on this side of the world, all we know just the basic facts. Bombs were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon causing multiple casualties and deaths. It turns out that there was so much more about that event to tell.

Before Patriots Day, we get to meet the various characters who would get involved in the drama of the coming events. The role of the several policemen was obvious. There were a couple of suspicious looking guys you immediately recognize as the bombers. You can surmise that maybe the others would be the victims. However as the film went along, there were some characters introduced would not even be in the vicinity of the bombs at all. That was part of the engaging appeal of this narrative style -- how these various pieces of the puzzle fit into the story.

Mark Wahlberg can really play these working class heroes very well. It is quite apparent that Wahlberg's character Officer Tommy Saunders is not based on a real person, because no person with that name was shown in the montage of survivors shown at the end. In fact, he is the lead actor yet he plays a fictional character, which was odd for a true-to-life film. I don't know why there was a big focus on his bad knee as it did not really matter in the whole scheme of things.

JK Simmons, John Goodman and Kevin Bacon play the other true-to-life officials in this drama, leading the efforts to get to the bottom of things. These veteran actors know this territory like the back of their hands. Alex Wolff and Georgian actor Themo Melikidze play the Tsarnaev brothers. These two actors eerily looking like the real bombers, it was uncanny. A surprise was the hardly-recognizable Melissa Benoist plays Katherine Russell, the wife of the elder Tsarnaev brother. No trace at all of how we know her as Supergirl on TV. Her highlight was that high-tension interrogation scene with an intense female officer played by Khandi Alexander. 

Director Peter Berg shows the brutality of the bombs in terms of blood and injuries, just enough to make you flinch away. He then pays tribute to the quick response of the police and paramedics. The area was secured and the ambulances were bringing victims to the hospital within an incredible five minutes after the blast. Berg makes full use of the suspense during the investigation phase of the various cooperating agencies, with the analysis of the various CCTV footage from the stores around the explosion site. 

I never knew that the two suspects hijacked the Mercedes SUV of Chinese immigrant Dun Meng as their getaway car. I also did not know that there was a major gunfights with bombs thrown right there on a street in Boston between the police and the two terrorists. I did not know that the Mayor of Boston actually shut down the whole city keeping everyone indoors during the manhunt. These were the aspects were the most exciting part of the film, building up to the cornering of the bomber who was hiding inside a tarped rowboat, the conclusion I knew from before.

My thoughts raced to another Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg disaster film that I just watched recently -- "Deepwater Horizon." I thought this one would be similar in the sense that there is going to be one destructive explosion at one point and Wahlberg gets to play the hero to save the day. However, I was wrong to judge this new one too quickly. There was so much more in store for us who do not know the complete story. The whole story about the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath turned out to be very rich, tense, exciting, dramatic and emotional.  7/10. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review of LA LA LAND: Dreams and Disenchantments

January 11, 2017

This is one of the most acclaimed films for the awards season of 2016. It had been topping various critics lists for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress and even most of the technical awards, like Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Musical Score and even Original Song. During the Golden Globe Awards given out just two days ago, it won all seven of its seven nominations. I am very excited to watch this.

The trailers of this original musical film have been truly mesmerizing. There was one with a beautiful song sung by Ryan Gosling, and then one with a another beautiful song sung by Emma Stone. Still I had no idea what the story was going to be about, except that it was probably going to be a love story, and with the images you see, you get the feeling that this was going to be really good. Great trailers really tease like this -- they get you very interested in a film, without giving the whole story away. 

We get a song and dance number about "Another Day in the Sun" right off the bat at the opening scene set in a traffic jam along an LA freeway. Mia Dolan is an aspiring actress and writer, who works as a barista in a cafe inside the Warner Brothers lot. Sebastian Wilder is all about jazz, being a down-an-out but talented jazz pianist and jazz memorabilia collector. After a rough start, the two eventually fall in love. Their relationship would face challenges as their respective careers each get opportunities to prosper.

The basic love story may be very simple, but the script of director Damien Chazelle was written so richly in both humor and emotion. As we have seen in his previous critically-acclaimed film "Whiplash," Chazelle's love for jazz music is still very much evident here. The jazzy musical score by Justin Hurwitz can very moody yet invigorating at the same time, and I am not exactly a fan of this musical genre. There was a throwback feel in the dancing scenes (by choreographer Mandy Moore) like it was one of those 1950s musicals, with tap-dancing in "A Lovely Night" and ballroom dancing in "Planetarium."

Emma Stone imbues her Mia with just the right amount of quirkiness and verve. She is able to make us feel for her with her face and eyes alone, from that first humorous audition scene, that scene in the concert of "The Messengers" band, right up to that final closeup of hers. Her singing voice is airy and light, just right for the songs given her to sing, especially her musical highlight "The Fools Who Dream" in her second audition scene.

Ryan Gosling charmingly brings the frustrated serious jazz artist Sebastian to life. He certainly looked really fantastic in those intense piano playing scenes. Co-star pianist John Legend (as Seb's friend Keith) remarked in an interview that he was jealous how Gosling became so good in piano in such a short time. Gosling carried himself off like Gene Kelly in those romantic dance scenes. He gets to sing the award-winning song "City of Stars" which can seriously give you last song syndrome. Multi-talented guy indeed.

Stone and Gosling had been together onscreen before in "Crazy Stupid Love" (2011) and "Gangster Squad" (2013), and the chemistry between them was simply electric this third time around. This whole film depended on their romantic chemistry to work and fortunately it did so wonderfully. It is difficult to imagine the original casting choices of Miles Teller and Emma Watson as Seb and Mia because of their younger ages and still unproven chemistry

At first, the title sounded so odd for me. But after watching, you'd realize that it not only refers to Los Angeles the setting, but also to the dreams of the characters detached from tough realities of show business. Chazelle did well to create a nostalgic classic feel even with a current story line, with a refreshing lack of sex and violence and the spectacular use of the CinemaScope lens system (which had its heyday in the 50s and 60s). The dramatic contrast of "what is" and "what could have been" was eloquently addressed in a sparkling montage with the smoldering backdrop of "Mia and Sebastian's Theme". 

Admittedly there were some cliched situations in the story, but I thought these were forgivable in the overall view. The look and the music were really what made this film special. I really liked it a lot, and I am ready to watch it all over again. This is indeed a serious contender for the Best Picture Oscar 2016 and I am looking forward to its win. 9/10. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

My Yearend Roundup: The BEST FILIPINO FILMS of 2016 That I Have Seen

January 9, 2017

For the year 2016, I was able to watch 28 Filipino films (up from 17 in 2015).  However, it had not been easy for me to catch the difficult screening schedules of the various indie film fests this year. I totally missed the CineFilipino in March, the Sinag Maynila in April and the ToFarm in July. I saw only 1 out of the 6 entries in the World Premieres in June; 4 out of 9 in the Cinemalaya in August; only 3 out of 8 entries from the QCinema in October; only 2 out of 7 entries in the CinemaOne Originals in November; and 4 out of the 8 entries from the December MMFF. (There are a couple of films in this year-end list which had their premieres in 2015 film festivals, but I only caught their commercial runs in 2016, and these are noted accordingly.)

Honorable Mentions:

15. Malinak Ya Labi (My Full Review) - directed by Jose Abdel Langit

14. Echorsis (My Full Review) - directed by Lemuel Lorca

13. Saving Sally (My Full Review) - directed by Avid Liongoren

12. Women of the Weeping River (My Full Review) - directed by Sheron R. Dayoc

11. Tandem (My Full Review) - directed by King Palisoc 
(** premiered at the MMFF New Wave 2015, but I caught its commercial run in 2016)

Counting down my Top 10 Filipino Films of 2016 that I have seen:

10. Hinulid (My Full Review)

What we saw on that big screen was a complex masterpiece of abstract film art. Nothing was simple about this film, everything seemed on an otherworldly plane, only occasionally resting on solid ground for us to get our bearings straight. The whole film felt like a vivid dream floating in the subconscious of a mother struggling to deal with the death of her only beloved son. Spoken in Ms. Nora Aunor's native Bikol language, the whole script by director Kristian Sendon Cordero was written like poetry. It sounded like poetry the way the lines were delivered in very deliberate and measured manner. There was never a shallow line, as everything seemed to have a deeper meaning.

9. Die Beautiful (My Full Review)

Writer-director Jun Robles Lana tried to stuff all the issues faced by transgenders from as children, teenagers and adults. These include father conflicts, sibling apathy, sexual assault, shallow relationships, child adoption, and plastic surgery. In addition, there loads and loads of hilarious inside stories behind gay beauty pageants. To top it all off, there were those scenes featuring the fantastic makeup sessions of Paolo Ballesteros as his famous viral photos of celebrity transformations come alive. His Angelina, Julia, Britney, Mariah, and Regine are all so vividly recognizable and gorgeous. 

8. Ma' Rosa (My Full Review)

The story about corrupt policemen and drug addicts may be old-hat, but the performances were not.  Jaclyn Jose won Best Actress at Cannes with such a controlled performance. There was no big, typically award-bait hysterical scene. In fact, her best scenes were wordless. Ms. Jose imbued these seemingly ordinary scenes with uncommonly deep and passionate underlying emotion so well-communicated by her eyes. She raised the commonplace and prosaic to a higher level, and with her, up went the rest of the film. The well-chosen images of Brillante Mendoza realistically establish the squalor, the apathy, the greed and the desperation in which his film was set and where his characters wallow.

7. Seklusyon (My Full Review)

Eric Matti deserved his Best Director award, his second in a row after last year's "Honor Thy Father". He created the perfect atmosphere of dread and demonic presence with the impressive and award-winning cinematography and production design. Anton Santamaria's award-winning script did waver a bit at certain points when it comes to story telling. Even without its supernatural elements though, this film's cautionary message about false prophets and how they work insidiously within our midst is always pertinent among the common masses easily swayed by superstition and fanaticism.

6. Tuos (My Full Review)

The complex script about the challenge of preservation of traditional beliefs and practices in the modern times by Denise O'Hara was written in proud Kinaray-A tongue of Antique. There were segments in the film when reality dissolved into animated fantasy in order to bring the epic poetry being sung to life. It was too bad that Ms. Nora Aunor could not sing these verses herself. Anyhow, the vocal performance of Ms. Bayang Barrios in the soundtrack was truly haunting. Director Roderick Cabrido has succeeded to create a film of vibrant visual beauty and rare cultural depth. 

5. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (My Full Review)

This film is 8-hours long. As with the previous Lav Diaz films I have seen, I thought the main story of this film could have been told in maybe a couple of hours, even with all those separate threads. Apparently, merely telling the story is not what Diaz had in mind. We spent interminable minutes were spent simply staring at an injured Simoun trying to get up, or Isagani meditating on a cliffside, or Oryang searching through debris in a pond, or Karyo's non-stop coughing fits, or Hule crawling in the mud (a most beautiful scene for which Ms. Africa should be cited for an award), or Basilio's fruitless digging (even Diaz forgot about him when the film ended). What I am sure of though is that I have witnessed a film masterpiece unfolding brimming with symbolism I am unable to grasp all at once. 

4. Pamilia Ordinario (My Full Review)

Director Eduardo Roy Jr. creates a masterpiece of cinema verite with this feature. All the while as we watch these two foolishly callow kids trying to survive on the tough streets, we feel we are right there with them, inhaling the same grime and stench and rugby with them. The starkly realistic performances of Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in their breakthrough roles as Aries and Jane actually look like the street urchins we see on the grimy sidewalks everyday. It was as if they were not acting at all. The film is a sobering look at the plight of teenage parents on the streets. We know there are quite a number of youth out there on the real streets in the same exact boat as Aries and Jane. In this movie though, we won't be able to look away.

3. Ignacio de Loyola (My Full Review)

Writer-director Paolo Dy had written an excellent distillation of life highlights based on the autobiography of the saint himself. The first half may feel slow on the build up, but it escalated its pace steadily and surely. By the second half that detailed his spiritual transformation, the words were so beautifully written and so inspirational to listen to. You may worry a religious film like this may be boring, but this was not. It was engaging, and got better as the film went on. Dy did very well for his ambitious directorial debut for a film of such epic scope. His telling of this sprawling story managed to be generally clear in its focus. The second half is very wordy and philosophical, but Dy was able to execute and present this part in a fascinating manner, which was a very pleasant surprise. 

2. Ang Babaeng Humayo (My Full Review)

This was a more accessible Lav Diaz work being just under four hours. It had a clear-cut and concrete story line about social injustice, the initial premise of which was inspired by Leo Tolstoi's short story entitled "God Sees the Truth But Waits". I think this film could probably have gone on for a few more hours if Diaz wanted to since there could still be some issues to explore, but he chose not to anymore. This story could have been done as an outright revenge thriller, but in Lav Diaz's hands it became film art.  Ms. Charo Santos as the tomboyish Renata clearly channeled the iconic action star Fernando Poe Jr., which was quite delightful to watch. John Lloyd Cruz's performance as the damaged transgender Hollanda was truly riveting. 

And my #1 Filipino movie of 2016 is... (** premiered in QCinema Filmfest 2015, but I only caught its commercial run in 2016)

1. Anino sa Likod ng Buwan (My Full Review)

The year is 1993, in a place called Marag Valley, where there was a civil war between soldiers and militant rebels. Nardo and wife Emma are among those forcefully uprooted from their homes and brought to live in another place by the military. However, they eventually met and made friends with a genial soldier named Joel. One night marked by a lunar eclipse, Joel visited Nardo and Emma. They start by playing card games. As the night progressed, the visit eventually progresses to comparing notes and surprise revelations, leading to philosophical discussions about the armed conflict, charismatic leaders, their friendship and sex. 

Writer-director Jun Robles Lana reaches an artistic peak with "Anino." The three play poker in the first act, foreshadowing the element of cunning and strategy which will be expertly unfolded in the course of the film. The notorious 15-minute sex scene may seem gratuitous, yet it was also symbolically necessary on hindsight. Despite the uncommercial look and language, the audience will definitely be riveted into this tale of charades and conspiracy within this triumvirate of flawed and duplicitous characters. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review of PASSENGERS: Expediency and Ethics

January 8, 2016

There are 5000 people from planet Earth hibernating on board the spaceship called the Avalon. They are going to wake up in 120 years on another planet, a utopia colony called Homestead II. Thirty years in its journey, the Avalon collides with a comet in its path. The damage causes a system malfunction causing one unfortunate passenger, engineer Jim Preston, to wake up 90 years ahead of schedule. A year later, by circumstances of a different nature, a writer Aurora Lane also wakes up.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are proven lead actors who have massive box-office hits under their respective belts. There is no doubt about their charisma as movie stars. Here in "Passengers," they have the unenviable task of carrying the whole movie practically all by themselves as they are the only people awake on board a spaceship headed for doom. We have seen this space castaway scenario very recently in films like "Gravity" and "The Martian" so this is not really a film concept anymore.

What made "Passengers" unique was the remarkable production design of a futuristically-designed spacecraft which floats through space like a intergalactic self-contained cruise ship with all the luxury comforts on board, all at a push of a button. The hologram hostesses were mouthing pre-recorded lines but were also seemingly capable of answering questions when asked. The congenial android bartender Arthur (played by Michael Sheen) would seem to be a good adviser and listener, and a source of gossip.

As in previous sci-fi films, there will be physics majors who may be watching out for scientific accuracy. While I am not that nitpicky about the science, the scene which made me think is when the ship lost gravity and the whole swimming pool contents floated out as one big blob of water with the person swimming trapped inside unable to break through to the surface and breathe. I have no idea if that is actually what happens or not, but anyhow that scene looked fantastic!

The film as whole had a languid pace and a lot of talking. It may feel too slow and dragging at certain points. The final act was exciting to watch, even though it can be predictable and annoyingly too conveniently good to be true. The ethical dilemmas encountered by the characters were excruciating to contemplate upon. Frankly, it is just the good will and charm of the two lead stars that keep the audience interest going until the end. 7/10. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review of SING: The Concert's the Charm!

January 6, 2017

The Moon Theater owned by koala Buster Moon is facing financial troubles. To save the theater, Buster thought of a singing competition. Because of a major clerical error on the amount of prize money on the fliers, the contest attracted a huge number of auditionees representing various musical genres. From the auditions, Buster chose a varied cast of talented performers. 

Rosita is a housewife sow who is chosen to sing and dance in a number with the flamboyant boar Gunther. Mike is a gambling street musician mouse who sang jazz standards. Johnny is a gangster-in-training gorilla who sang with silky smooth soul. Ash is a rock princess porcupine who broke up with her less-talented and two-timing boyfriend to perform solo. Meena is a timid elephant Meena who had a voice like a diva, but suffered from crippling stage fright.

This new film from Illumination gives us yet another world of anthromorphic animals, like "Kung Fu Panda 3", "Angry Birds Movie" and "Zootopia" did earlier this year. Compared to the quality of the illustrations in similarly 3D computer animated "Zootopia," the artwork of "Sing" was rather more simplistic and less textured. Anyhow, there were impressive work on the background artwork on the theater and the stage. That squid tank scene was spectacular to behold.

Matthew McConaughey was an optimistic shyster businessman as Buster, but too bad we only heard a brief hint of him singing a Carly Rae Jepsen ditty. Reese Witherspoon played Rosita as a harried but efficient mother of 25 piglets, with her rhythm hidden by her fastidiousness. Seth McFarlane had the tough guy attitude we knew about his as raunchy teddy bear Ted, but I was pleasantly surprised by his slick Sinatra vocals. 

Taron Egerton never gave us a clue in his breakout film "Kingsman" that he can sing like Sam Smith and Elton John -- amazing singing voice really! I was also unaware that Scarlett Johannson can also sing so well, and with that sexy rock growl to boot. 2010 American Idol reject-turned-2015 Grammy Best New Artist nominee Tori Kelly was another welcome discovery for me with her powerful rendition of soul classics. 

Jennifer Hudson had a small but remarkable role as the singing voice of Nana Noodleman, the glorious black sheep diva who inspired Buster to develop a lifelong love for theater. Ms. Nana's speaking voice was done by Jennifer Saunders, who did not get to sing here even if she already showed off her singing talent as the evil Fairy Godmother in "Shrek 2". Veteran actor John C. Reilly took on a smaller role as Eddie, Nana's grandson and Buster's business partner, also non-singing, even if he already showed that he can sing in "Chicago". 

Despite all these good things about the film, I did not really like a big part of it. I don't really mind the childish foolishness for which Illumination films are known for. But there were a lot of mean-spirited crime going on throughout the first two-thirds-- fraud and racketeering, bank robbery, casino cheating, thuggery and gangsterism -- unpleasant fare for me in a Rated G animated film. I did not like this aspect of the film.

Frankly, I only truly loved the film during its final one third -- the concluding concert! Those song numbers were really very well-executed and this part certainly saved the whole film for me, making everything else worthwhile. Rosita and Gunter's "Shake It Off" was so delightful, with her cute piglets and romantic aftermath. Johnny's "I'm Still Standing" was electrifying and that moment with his Dad was precious. Meena's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" left me breathless in awe, I wanted to stand up and applaud. Really, for that concert scene alone -- bravo!  7/10. 

MMFF 2016: Review of SAVING SALLY: Freedom from the Friendzone

January 7, 2017

The last animated film that I recall from the MMFF was "RPG Metanoia" back in 2010 and that was very good. For being a live-action animated film, it was no big surprise that "Saving Sally" was met with much excitement and anticipation when it was announced as one of the entries in the current Metro Manila Filmfest. 

"Saving Sally" is a labor of love 10 years in the making in terms of filming by director Avid Liongoren, but the concept by writer Charlene Sawit began 5 years earlier in 2000. Funding and technical problems hounded the film until a grant from the French government resuscitated the project. There was also French technical assistance in the sound department, but everything else (including the 2D animation) was all Filipino.

Marky is an amateur comic book writer-artist. He is head over heels in love with the eccentric techie beauty Sally. However, she is in love with a hunky older man, Nick, whom Marky called "The Dick". Pushed into the dreaded friend-zone, Marky continues to pine for Sally's affection by constantly being there for her, especially when she needed to be saved from her physically abusive parents. 

Marky sees everyone whom he does not like as monsters, which of course includes Nick, which is drawn as a pea-brained musclebound cyclops. There were lots of hidden pop references in the background, not everything I could catch in one sitting. Batibot and Sandara Park were the most obvious ones. All those still drawings by Marky's hand all looked so cool in their distinctive style. I want to see and read a copy of the "Book of Sad" that Marky gave Sally, and that wonderful pop-up "Book of Happy" given by Sally in return.

The most magical moment of animation for me was in that scene when Sally inadvertently uncovers the wall where Marky posted all his drawings of Sally. The interaction of the individual drawings with the live actors in that scene was just enthralling, beautiful and moving in its sweet and emotionally-rich execution. 

Enzo Marcos channels his inner Jesse Eisenberg or Joseph Gordon Levitt in his portrayal of the talented, earnest but painfully shy geek Marky. Rhian Ramos is gorgeous as Sally even if she tried to look butch and nerdy. TJ Trinidad was so slimy and vain as Nick. I wish he did not have to say those bad words though, not cool. I really liked the portrayal of Carme Sanchez as Marky's delightfully supportive mom. 

The story is a simple teenage romance. The poster did say it was a "very typical love story." It is really the radical and humorous artwork that sets this film apart from the others of the same genre. The quality of Filipino animation is still in progress, and "Saving Sally" is a step in the right direction. The major characters spoke in English which was refreshing for a Filipino film, with the supporting characters occasionally piping in a line in Filipino to remind us that this is still a Filipino film after all. 7/10. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review of COLLATERAL BEAUTY: Connecting with Catharsis

January 5, 2017

This film had been receiving very bad reviews since it was shown Stateside last month. It was notoriously the worst opening weekend box office performance of any Will Smith film. However, when I got to the mall this afternoon, this was the only film that fit my limited schedule, so reluctantly I went in to give it a chance.

Howard Inlet is a very successful New York advertising executive. When a tragedy struck his family two years ago, he could not accept his loss, and withdrew from usual routines, much to the dismay of his close friends and colleagues, Whit, Claire and Simon. When Howard wrote and sent complaint letters to his core essentials of Love, Time and Death, he actually gets a personal response from each of them in the form of Aimee as Love, Raffi as Time and Brigitte as Death.

OK, the script by Adam Loeb can be preposterous with so many improbabilities and cliches. The very title itself sounds so pretentious. On top of that, I am not exactly a Will Smith fan by any means. But for some odd reason and much to my own surprise, I was actually moved to misty-eyed sentimentality by this film, cheesy words and contrived situations notwithstanding. If you watch this without the jaded cynicism we generally have against dramas like this, I believe you can connect with its message.

Will Smith played Howard stoically and seriously down to that very emotional twisty ending. Aside from worrying about Howard and their company, Howard's friends were also worried about their own personal problems. Kate Winslet was very earnest as Claire, who was also worried about her biological clock. Ed Norton played the guilty philanderier Whit, who was worried about his relationship with his daughter. Michael Pena was the secretly suffering Simon, who was worried about leaving his family penniless.

I really, really liked Helen Mirren's whimsical portrayal of Bridget/Death. She was so funny in her delivery of lines and as scene-stealing as her character was. In contrast, Keira Knightley's melodramatic portrayal of Aimee/Love tended to be so maudlin. However, her second scene with Howard had so much punch, I wanted to memorize that killer line of hers word for word. The only new name in the main cast for me was Jacob Latimore who played Raffi/Time like a young streetwise punk. He had too much anger and angst going on though.

I guess you also have to be in the proper state of mind to appreciate the lines of dialogue, which may sound eloquent, well-conceived for some, but which admittedly may, at the same time, also sound corny and presumptuous for others.The "angels" are another potential source of ridicule if you consider them the wrong way, instead of a source of inspiration as the filmmakers intended. I might have been in just the right mood when I watched it then. I actually liked this film, despite all the negative press about it. 7/10.