Monday, April 23, 2018

Review of MAZINGER Z: INFINITY: Charismatic Comeback

April 22, 2018

In 1978, kids all over the country became glued to their TV sets every day at 6 pm to watch their favorite Japanese animated robot shows on Channel 7. Monday was "Mekanda Robot," Tuesday was "Daimos," Wednesday was "Mazinger Z," Thursday was "UFO Grendizer," and Friday was "Voltes V." 

We knew all all the characters of each show, their backstories, their enemies, and their detailed mythologies by heart. We even sang along to their opening and closing theme songs, even if we had no idea what those lyrics meant. We wanted to buy their robot toys and collect all their various merchandise, no matter what they cost our parents. 

It was a major pop phenomenon among the youth of that day. However, it was one that ended badly. Suddenly one day, all of these of shows were pulled off the TV screen by then President Marcos because they supposedly promoted "excessive violence." For a lot of kids, this was how they discovered what Martial Law actually was. 

Anyhow, 40 years later which is this year, the trailer for a film sequel of "Mazinger Z" appeared online, and loyal fans rejoiced with excitement. "Mazinger Z" was the oldest one from that group of robot shows. It was the first robot that had a human pilot in it. The anime TV series first aired in Japan in December 1972.  In fact "UFO Grendizer" was already a spin-off of "Mazinger Z." There was another spin-off called "Great Mazinger" but I never saw that one anymore. 

The events of this new feature film happen about 10 years after a great war where the  Mazingers defeated the monster robots of Dr. Hell, resulting in peace. Koji Kabuto was now a scientist into photon research. Sayaka Yumi had already taken over the reins left by her father as the Director of the Photon Power Lab. No, they did not get married yet. The original Mazinger Z robot was now just a display in a museum. 

One day, Koji discovered a life form inside a gigantic robot relic called Infinity found buried under Mt. Fuji. The android being, a young girl with short blue hair calling herself Lisa, would prove a vital factor when a revitalized Dr. Hell relaunches a new attack of another legion of giant robots in order to gain possession of the Infinity. The whole world depended on Koji and Mazinger Z to save humanity for certain destruction.

There was certainly a lot of nostalgia for fans of the original series. It was very good to see Koji Kabuto again, older now and more mature. still with his wild mane of black hair and sideburns pointing forwards. Despite being a Director now, Sayaka seemed to be more concerned about getting married to Koji than anything else. We do not even see her pilot Aphrodite A at all, which was rather disappointing. (However, they did feature a quartet of female robots also with robot boobs called the Mazin-girls.)

Sayaka's father Prof. Gennosuke Yumi is now the Prime Minister of Japan.  Out of the three professors who assisted Prof. Yumi before, we now only see Drs. Sewashi and Nossori, no more Dr. Morimori. Koji's younger brother Shiro is now another fighter pilot.  We also see former bullies Boss, Mucha and Nuke (with his runny nose), who now run a ramen restaurant, and their comical scrap metal robot Boss Borot.  The pilot of Great Mazinger Tetsuya Tsurugi is now married to fellow pilot (of Venus A) Jun Hono, who was now pregnant with their first child.

The antagonists are also older in terms of looks, but their distinctive faces were still very recognizable. Dr. Hell still had his purple face skin, grey long hair and beard. Baron Ashura still had his half male-half female dual face. Count Brocken still had his severed head separate from his body. Some of the fighting mechanical beasts look familiar though I am not a fanatic enough to recall any of their names.

Beyond the nostalgia, the film was not entirely engaging when it comes to telling its story. It lost me here and there, especially as far as the Lisa angle is concerned, which was surprisingly esoteric and whimsical. I cannot confidently say that I understood anything Lisa was saying or doing. It was very interesting subplot, and there were very artsy images in this part of the story, but honestly, a lot of the fancy jargon was just flying above my head. 

Of course, there is the mecha granddaddy Mazinger Z himself. He was still the main reason to see this film and relive one's childhood memories. Koji's red hovercraft docked at its crown. His yellow eyes and its laser rays. Those two pointed spikes on each side of his head, with its freezing beams. His grilled mouth and its hurricane blasts. The angulated red V across his chest and its Breast Fire. His Jet Scrander wings. The photon rockets on his feet. The missiles he can launch from his elbows, fingers and belly. And of course his signature attack move, the Rocket Punch. Relishing his majestic comeback on that big screen forty years after I last saw him made this film worth watching for this old fan. 7/10. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review of GHOST STORIES: Of British Brand

April 19, 2018

It used to be that the only foreign movies we get to watch in local theaters are Hollywood blockbusters. It is indeed very welcome that we are now getting to watch more films of all kinds from different parts of the world, even if they did not have big name stars in them. This film is in English, not from the USA, but from the UK, starring British actors we are not so familiar with. We are so used to how Hollywood does horror, it would be good to go see this to see the style of horror from the other side of the Atlantic. 

Prof. Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), who hosted a TV show debunking supernatural phenomena, was given a challenge to investigate three cases where there appeared to be no rational explanation. Night watchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), hyper teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and wealthy financier Matt Priddle (Martin Freeman) all tell Goodman their spooky tales of the unknown. Can the skeptical Goodman figure out the logic behind each case, or would the whole puzzle consume him instead? 

British critics were all praises for this film. It was a throwback to classic horror portmanteau or anthology films, very popular in Britain from the 1940s to the 1970s. It turned out that this film was actually based on a successful play written by the same writer-director team of Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. Having watched the film now, I am actually very curious as to how this story can effectively be staged as a play. I hope it can be staged here locally, as I have yet to see a full-length horror play.

I confess that I am only familiar with American and Asian horror films. For these reasons, I felt the horror aspect of "Ghost Stories" was rather tame in comparison. The style of horror here was more subdued and suggestive, than in your face. It was more about the buildup of tension and atmosphere than the actual scare. How the story wrapped up in the end was a surreal surprise that could be quite baffling at first viewing, only to be figured out as more thought was given to it afterwards (if you cared to do so, that is). 

For me, the first episode was very well-acted by Paul Whitehouse as the spooked guard Tony. Alex Lawther was too shrill and over-the-top in his performance as Simon, maybe it was supposed to be comedic? Martin Freeman is fresh from an international box-office hit "Black Panther" which accounts for his strong screen presence, even if his role of Matt was a bit too stiff. Lead actor Andy Nyman felt like the supporting actor to all his other co-stars. 

I could not fault viewers who would call this film boring. It can be, as the storytelling was slow and quiet. The scenes were too dimly lit most of the time. There were no remarkable frightening moments or images to make it memorable. This horror film may have worked well in Britain because of nostalgic reasons, but it may not work particularly well in other parts of the world, where flashy techniques of horror are more favored over subtle ones. Still, I thought it still was worth watching, at least as an exposure to the British style of horror. Like British comedy, it is an acquired taste. 6/10.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review of THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Prickly Portrait of Poverty

April 18, 2018

"The Florida Project" made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year and gained critical acclaim. I first heard about the film during the awards season when one of its actors Willem Dafoe earned nominations for Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globes, SAG, BAFTA and the Oscars. Given its indie nature and mostly unknown cast, I was surprised that it actually got a commercial release in local cinemas.

This film brings us into a segment of America we do not see. It paints an ironic picture of kids growing up in poverty while living in a cheap Florida motel, practically next door to Walt Disney World. Moonee is a precocious six-year old girl who played all day long with her friends. She gets into all sorts of trouble with her naughty antics, mostly because she was unsupervised by her potty-mouthed, pothead young mother Hailey.

It is never comfortable to watch how delinquent kids become the way they are. Here, you can still see the sweetness and innocence of Moonee, yet because of her mother's negligence, she already has a rude attitude and vulgar language at her tender age. Hailey clearly loves Moonee, but she was so consumed with the misery of her own existence that she cannot teach her daughter the right things. 

This is one mother-daughter portrait that was sad, sorry, unhealthy and unpretty, but the actresses who played them both gave unforgivingly honest breakthrough performances in their feature film debuts. Moonee is played by 7-year old Brooklynn Prince. Hailey is played by 24 year-old Bria Vinante. Their chemistry together was so natural and unaffected, which made the tragedy of their situation even more difficult to watch. Their portrayals were so real, such that you'd want to intervene and rescue them both out their dead-end lives.

Willem Dafoe played Bobby Hicks, the manager of the Magic Castle, the motel where Hailey and Moonee lived. He did not only take care of the property, but he also showed concern for his tenants, especially the children. He understood how difficult life was for his tenants, that he made special arrangements in order to accommodate their deficiencies. Dafoe gave Hicks a heart of gold that made him a hero to admire despite his personal faults.

Writer-director Sean Baker told his story mostly from the point of view of Moonee. This gave the film a certain whimsical vibe and sense of humor that made the serious topics tackled more bearable to sit through its 111 minute running time. The film understood the special psychology children possessed to protect themselves and escape from the harshness of reality. I certainly needed that buffer of a child's levity to appreciate this film more, ultimately making it more unforgettable. 7/10. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of NEVER NOT LOVE YOU: Evolving Emotions

April 17, 2018

Gio is a freelance graphic artist, a 25-year old Amboy who lived the bohemian lifestyle, with his cigarettes, tattoos and motorcycle. Joanne is a province lass who took her office work in the big city very seriously, eyeing to be a brand manager within five years. Of course, one day they meet and fall in love. However, later on their fairy tale relationship face real-life challenges of limited finances, career decisions, and time apart. Will Gio and Joanne get to fulfill their promise of forever?

This is the first movie of the very popular JaDine love team that I had seen, out of the five they have done together so far. You can sense their easy chemistry together, how comfortable they were with each other.  It was skillful how they transitioned from the giddy sweetness of their carefree courtship to the more sedate maturity of their troubled married life. They repeatedly profess their love to each other, but even the way they said these words delicately evolved with their varying emotions. 

James Reid's effortless hip vibe worked well for him. His performance was rather hampered by his inability deliver his Filipino lines smoothly, but this limitation was still within his character. The British accent he gained later in the film was a nicely done with subtlety. Since he is supposed to be a gifted artist, I felt they should have given him better looking tattoo designs than the ugly ones we see on his arms.

Nadine Lustre fared better in the acting department with her expressive face very effectively conveying all the emotions her character went through even without words. Her scene on the bed as she shed mixed tears of sadness and happiness was so excellent essayed by her. I could feel her intense conflict of emotions in London by her body language alone. I could not judge how well she delivered those lines in the Sambal dialect, but she did sound very relaxed, not forced. 

One reason I felt compelled to watch this film was when I learned that Nadine's character Joanne hailed from Iba, Zambales, which is my mother's hometown, hence my personal interest in the place. However, despite all the time and budget the production spent showcasing London and its tourist landmarks, they did not even show anything identifiable about Iba at all in any of the scenes supposedly set there. Yes, I was disappointed about this, but I also have to confess that I am not aware if that lake or that straw field was actually in the outskirts of Iba.

The situations in this film are not exactly fresh. We have seen many iterations of this story of an idyllic relationship encountering career bumps along the way, with various results. Writer-director Antonette Jadaone gave it her own brand of romance and tempered it with realism. While the scene onscreen shows one thing, the ending director Jadaone gave her film felt open to me, we the audience provide our own interpretation of what was going to happen next. I liked it that way. 7/10. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of RAMPAGE: Barrage of Behemoth Beasts

April 16, 2018

Watching the trailer of "Rampage" does not really leave much more to expect. Again we have this generation's favorite summer blockbuster hero Dwayne Johnson (who seems to be in every Hollywood action extravaganza these days) save the city from the attack of his old pet, a giant albino gorilla. I already sense an old familiar merry mix-up of rehashed "Planet of the Apes" and "King Kong" themes that was not really too promising. 

A major rogue genetic editing experiment by the greedy Wyden siblings of the Energyne company went seriously wrong in outer space. Three capsules containing pathogenic specimens landed in three sites across the US. One landed in the Florida Everglades among alligators. One landed in the Wyoming outback among wolves. One landed in the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary, the home of George, an extraordinary albino gorilla who had been taught to communicate by signing by his trainer Davis Okoye. The exposed animals rapidly grew in size, strength and speed at unprecedented rates. 

Ok, it was not just an ape that became gigantic and went on a wild rampage in the city. There was also a humongous wolf and a colossal gator, both of whom grew to even be much bigger and more vicious than old George. Triple the monster beasts mean triple the destructive forces, and triple the brainless violent entertainment. The whole US army with its whole arsenal could not contain the whole amuck disaster, but apparently a single superhuman primatologist can. 

To add further to the brainless factor, the acting was all so over-the-top comical. We know that Dwayne Johnson can probably do this genre blindfolded already, and he was so in the zone the whole way. His interactions with the white ape George can be quite funny with the occasional vulgarity. Naomi Harris did not really need her Oscar-nominated acting chops (for "Moonlight" in 2016) to play the role of geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell whose brilliant work with Energyne had been misappropriated for evil. 

Jeffrey Dean Morgan played a cool government agent Harvey Russell with a cowboy drawl and attitude. Malin Ã…kerman was really an outrageous caricature of a ruthless and heartless businesswoman Claire Wyden. I loved the way she met her end in a completely overblown dramatic death scene, even if the size proportions seemed wrong. Jake Lacy was silly the whole way with his portrayal of Claire's idiotic brother Brett.  

This film is director Brad Peyton's third adventure film with Dwayne Johnson. "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" (2012) also had giant animals and "San Andreas" (2015) had massive urban destruction. I guess it was just a bright idea for them to merge the two themes into one. There was something so pristinely mindless about the whole premise, that it actually works within its shallow aims. The whole slambang riot third act was a lot of fun to watch even in all its artificial CGI glory. 6/10. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review of A QUIET PLACE: Silence as Sanctuary

April 15, 2018

Horror had long been the genre of choice of several B-movie filmmakers who simply rehashed familiar tropes and redid the same old scare techniques to make a quick buck. In recent years though, there had been horror films that had effectively captured general mainstream approval with their uncommon themes and excellent execution, like "The Babadook" (2014), "Don't Breathe" (2016) and "Get Out" (2017). This year, "A Quiet Place" joins that exclusive shortlist. 

In the recent future, man had been decimated by an unknown threat that attacked anything that produced loud sounds. The Abbott family (engineer father Lee, his doctor wife Evelyn and their kids the deaf Regan, asthmatic Marcus and playful Beau) had so far survived the carnage around them by living in silence. But as the pregnant Evelyn was about to give birth to their next child, they need all their wits and ability to live another day.

The horror of this film is dependent on silence. At the beginning of this film, we had no idea what had happened to the world, why it had been laid to waste with only few surviving stragglers. We just knew they needed to keep quiet, or else ...? We did know yet why at that time. Then suddenly, just when we hear the first major noise created by a character, we will all be shocked and aghast with the sheer ferocity of what happens next. 

From that scene forward, the audience themselves will feel compelled to watch the rest of the film in rapt silence in vicarious cooperation for the welfare of the poor characters on the big screen. No slurping of drinks, chomping popcorn or chips, senseless chatter or squeaking seats can be heard during the duration of this film. Being immersed in the intensely quiet situations onscreen, the audience react to the various jump scares in muted pained whimpers, instead of screams.

This is the first time I've seen John Krasinski as director (only his third feature film) or dramatic actor (I've known him more as a comedian). Emily Blunt's talents as a dramatic actress are well known and with all only her expressive face, she had all our hearts palpitating in those scenes before and during her childbirth. I had just seen deaf teen actress Millicent Simmonds recently in the film "Wonderstruck." Here, she also played her headstrong character with confidence and spirit.

Such was the skill of director John Krasinski in creating the atmosphere of his story and developing audience empathy for his characters, with a bare minimum of dialog. Yes, the Abbotts also make a lot of bad decisions here, just as we see in many horror flicks in the past. There were also some head-scratching illogical moments, particularly in that grain silo that seemed to have preferential forces of gravity. However, we are all so caught up in their excruciating predicament, we hardly thought much about these little questionable details as we grit our teeth and kept our fingers crossed for their survival. 8/10. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review of PACIFIC RIM UPRISING: Jaegers in Jeopardy

March 31, 2018

The first "Pacific Rim" film (MY REVIEW), which directed by the 2018 Oscar Best Director Guillermo del Toro, was screened in 2013. I actually liked it despite having apprehensions about it before watching it. This sequel, directed by Steven S. de Knight in his feature film debut, also had not-so-good reviews coming out before it was released in local theaters today. Again despite these "warnings", we still went on to watch it, knowing it will probably still be a lot of fun. 

This sequel takes place 10 years after the Kaiju War of the first film. The lead character is Jake Pentecost, the son of the big hero of the first film, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). After a botched illegal transaction with Jaeger spare parts, Jake was forced to return to the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) as a Jaeger trainer, alongside his former partner Nate Lambert. Amara Namani, a teenage orphan who built a scrappy little Jaeger of her own, was recruited to be one of their trainees. 

From the get-go, it was clear that this film was going to be high-energy and over-the-top, peppered with corny and cheesy lines of dialogue. Once you accept that vibe, then you're good to go and you will enjoy the rest of the film. Don't expect anything serious or deep, this is simply one fun and bumpy ride. No thinking or logic is necessary, no matter how many pseudo-scientific lines they throw at us. 

John Boyega shows us a lighter side to him as Jake Pentecost, compared than the one we first knew him for, as Finn in the new Star Wars series. I had a good laugh with the way he delivered that "inspirational" speech to his trainees. Scott Eastwood played Nate Lambert, who was generally second fiddle to Jake in the film, but he also had his own heroic moments. Cailee Spaeny played Amara, who joins a slew of other sassy kiddie-young teen sidekicks from other recent action films.

Reprising her role from the previous film is Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, who has now been promoted to be the General Secretary of the PPDC. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play their old comic-relief nerdy scientists, Dr. Newton Geiszler and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb respectively, but this time, their characters have more screen time and plot surprises. 

To make the big Chinese market happy, Jing Tian is here again in a marked role as Liwen Shao, whose company had developed drones or remote-controlled Jaegers. Jing had been the major Chinese character in Hollywood films in the past two years, with roles in "The Great Wall" and "Kong: Skull Island". I first saw her five years ago in Chinese films like "Special ID" (MY REVIEW) and "Police Story 2013" (MY REVIEW). 

The Jaeger vs. Kaiju action is fast and frenetic, mercurial and messy. The buildings and infrastructure of Tokyo were all at their destructive mercy. This final battle is really the meat of the whole film, and it only happens in the third act. All the fighting is done in broad daylight so we can see the action (and the CGI) clearly, unlike the nighttime rainy fights in the last film. 

Overall though, the first film was still much better than this one, storywise and cinematically.  For this shallower sequel, you could actually skip the first 80 minutes and just catch the last 30 minutes for the fights. 6/10. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review of UNSANE: Stalker Stress Supreme

March 28, 2018

The main conceit of this latest film directed by Steven Soderbergh was that it was shot in 4K resolution (4000 pixels horizontally) entirely using an iPhone 7 Plus using an app called FiLMiC Pro. Because there were no bulky cameras used, the whole shoot only took two weeks to finish. This is a big deal because it may change the way films are made in the future. I felt the need to actually catch this in a movie house to see how a video taken by a phone will look like projected on a big screen. 

Sawyer Valentini moved to Philadelphia to live her life over after being stalked by a persistent suitor David Strine in her former Boston home. One day, she sought help for her troubled psyche from the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. However, after signing some forms, she realized that she was being admitted as a patient against her will. To compound her woes, Sawyer saw her old stalker David working in that facility as a pharmacist under the name George Shaw. Was this really happening, or was she just dreaming it all up?

I had never seen the series "The Crown" before, so this is the first time I had seen Claire Foy act. She was thoroughly convincing as Sawyer, in such a way that you do not know if she is really crazy or not. I think she was helped by the crazy, harrowing script written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, with all its exasperating questions which could really drive anyone mad if they were in Sawyer's position. You will understand why the title is purposefully "Unsane" (or "of questionable sanity") rather than "Insane" (or "totally nuts"). I thought this was a sensational performance by Foy, on the same level as Daniel Kaluuya's breakthrough in "Get Out."

Not exactly a diss, but it seemed everyone else in the cast was directed to act like awkward amateur actors in a homemade or student film project. 

As mild-mannered George Shaw, Joshua Leonard, who is still best known as one of the ill-fated filmmakers in "The Blair Witch Project" (Myrick and Sanchez, 1999), kept us guessing if he is really a bad guy or not. Similarly of nebulous nature was Joey Pharoah's portrayal of Nate Hoffman, a helpful fellow patient whom Sawyer befriended. Juno Temple was over-the-top as quarrelsome fellow patient, Violet. Amy Irving (and her unmistakable curls) was delivering her lines in a highly artificial manner as Sawyer's mom Angela. Soderbergh pal Matt Damon surprised us again with yet another cameo appearance.

The whole film had a very low budget and indie vibe to it in terms of its cinematography. There were scenes which were rather dark and seedy looking. This raw look actually helped in making the whole experience watching this film more compelling and disturbing. You will soon forget that an iPhone was used at all and get absorbed into the very effective suspense and drama of the story, as expertly cooked up by the masterful editing and direction of Steven Soderbergh, plot holes notwithstanding. 8/10. 

Review of MARY MAGDALENE: Defining the Distaff Disciple

March 27, 2018

Mary Magdalene is one of the more mysterious characters in the New Testament. Who was she really? As a child, I remembered her being called a sinner (maybe an adulterer or a prostitute) who repented and followed Jesus. In 2003, Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" became very controversial because it propagated the story of Mary Magdalene being the "Sacred Feminine," with whom Jesus actually had a bloodline (the Merovingian dynasty of France). I was nervous when I saw that there was new film out about her, nervous about how they were going to portray her.

Mary of Magdala was a very calm and capable woman, with her own independent mind. When she refused to marry a certain neighbor, even her family thought she was possessed by evil spirits. Eventually, she was entranced by the teachings of then popular rabbi Jesus. She decided to leave her family to become one of His apostles during His travelling ministry, all the way to His Resurrection.

Rooney Mara very well-portrayed the strong will and free spirit of this new Mary Magdalene this film wanted to reintroduce and redefine to the public. Her Mary was not afraid to speak her mind and even debate with the apostles, notably Peter. Despite this, one still feels that Mara was not given too much to do or pushed to do more as the title character. 

On the other hand, Joaquin Phoenix seemed to be miscast as Jesus, since he looked very much older than 33 (Phoenix is now 43 years old, and looked more grizzled than his actual age.) That age issue aside though, he played an unsmiling, miserable Jesus, not really a charismatic portrayal that should be expected of a Christ.

Aside from her family backstory, the writers Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett also had to whip up a couple of special "feminist" circumstances (not seen anywhere in the Gospels) where Mary's presence as a woman apostle would play a key role. They also worked in a scene where Mary Magdalene spoke with Mother Mary (played by Irit Sheleg). They tweaked the story of the miraculous raising Lazarus from the dead, as well as how the Lord's Prayer was taught. 

The script never really suggested there was something more intimate between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Nothing as scandalous as "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Scorsese, 1988) for sure. However, those lingering gazes and facial touching, while not overtly romantic, were still rather uncomfortable to watch at first. It is probably the same as how Jesus would be close to Peter or the other male apostles, but Mary being a female apostle gave an unfamiliar vibe.  

Starting from the scene when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the focus of the film shifted to Him -- getting angry at the Temple, His Last Supper, His arrest in the Garden, His death of the Cross -- as Mary Magdalene was relegated only as a silent witness on the side. People wanting to learn more about Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection would be disappointed. There would only be some informative text flashed about her status in the Catholic Church before the closing credits.

Two of the apostles also take up some of Mary's screen time. Peter was portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Oscar nominee for "12 Years a Slave," 2013) to be not only clueless of Jesus' true philosophy, but also very insecure and even envious of the attention Jesus gave Mary. Judas was played with so much youthful charm and idealism by Tahar Rahim (lead actor from "A Prophet," 2009), such that we can actually sympathize with his disillusion and consequent betrayal of his Master. 

This is only Australian director Garth Davis' second feature film after his directorial debut "Lion" got nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture in 2016. The serene musical score was the last opus of the late Swedish composer Johann Johannson. I was actually grateful to see another film tackle the story of Jesus Christ's passion and death in a more restrained manner, after that extremely violent version Mel Gibson had in "The Passion of the Christ" (2004). However, these do not entirely soften the disappointment that the focus on Mary Magdalene was not as intensive as I was hoping for. 7/10. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review of I KILL GIANTS: Self-Absorbed Substitution

March 27, 2018

The poster showed central image of a young girl bravely facing off with a huge giant in front of her. There's a blurb about this film being "from the producers of Harry Potter" (turned out this only referred to one person - Chris Columbus) and that this was based on an acclaimed graphic novel. For those unfamiliar with the original source material like me, everything about this poster would seem to tell us that this was one thrilling adventure film. Don't get too excited though, it isn't one.

Barbara Thorson is one troubled teenage misfit. She had withdrawn from her own family and her classmates from middle school, making her easy target for bullies. Nevertheless, she would rather spend her time doing serious research on how to best capture and kill the giant she believes will attack her town. Those who care for her try their best to reach out to her; but can they figure out how they can best rescue Barbara from her weird obsessions?

Madison Wolfe is a 15-year old actress whom I last saw as the demon-possessed daughter in "The Conjuring 2" (James Wan, 2016). Here she is again, this time in a challenging lead role, battling more inner demons in her head. This was an unenviably difficult role which Wolfe bravely took on, even if this was a deeply damaged girl she had to play. This character will get on your nerves and try your patience even if you were just watching her. 

Quirky young actress Imogen Poots played Barbara's elder sister Karen, who had to stand in as head of the family. Zoe Saldana played the new school psychologist Mrs. Molle, who noticed Barbara's peculiarities early on and persisted in her desire to help despite numerous rude rejections. Sydney Wade played the new neighbor from England Sophia, who was able to gain Barbara's trust but still had not the maturity to handle it. Of course, there had to be that ugly bully girl to make life even more difficult for Barbara. This was Taylor, played with supreme contempt by Rory Jackson. 

This film reminded me a lot about "A Monster Calls" (J.A.Bayona, 2016) (MY REVIEW). They basically had the same plot about a disturbed child who retreated to a world of fighting monsters to protect himself from a painful reality. In fact, the monster in both films even looked sort of alike, the way this giant also seemed to be made from scrap pieces of wood. It has to be noted though that the graphic series "I Kill Giants" by Joe Kelly (and his artist Ken Niimura) first came out in 2008, while the novel "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness (and his illustrator Jim Kay) only came out in 2011. 

As you can surmise by now, this is a serious dramatic film, not an adventure film. This was not an easy watch for me, especially the first two acts, though its cinematography is consistently breathtaking. Barbara was a sassy, unpleasant girl who answered back, and even hit back, to those whom she thought were against her. Barbara was one really messed up character and it was not easy to like her or to root for her, even if you felt sorry for her. By the final third though, this film by Anders Walter (Academy Award winner for his short film "Helium" i 2013) finally gets engaging, with its heart and message crystal clear. 6/10.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Review of WONDERSTRUCK: Marvel at the Museum

March 25, 2108

There was practically no advertising for this film, so I was surprised to see it so quietly released in cinemas this week at all. It turns out that this film had some big names attached to it, like actress Julianne Moore (Oscar Best Actress for "Still Alice" 2014) and director Todd Haynes ("Carol" 2015, "Far From Heaven" 2002). It made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year and reportedly earned a three minute standing ovation during its premiere there. This promised to be a good film to catch.

Once upon a time, two young deaf kids ran away from home to look for an absent parent in New York City. One was in 1927, when Rose ran away from her father's home in New Jersey to find the famous actress Lillian Mayhew, the mother she idolized from afar and missed. The other was in 1977, when Ben ran away from his recently departed mother's home in Minnesota to find the father he never knew.

Director Todd Haynes told his story (script by Brian Selznick adapting his own 2011 book) with alternating scenes from both eras. The 1927 scenes were in black and white and silent. The 1977 scenes were in color and with sound. It was like watching two different movies, with their respective rich production designs and musical score distinctive for each decade. In both stories, the kids eventually find their way into the American Museum of Natural History, where the connection between the two threads will be finally revealed.

It was the performances of the two kids that carried the film. Rose was played by Millicent Simmond, a 14-year old deaf actress. Simmonds impressed me in this her film debut with her strong screen presence and confidence. Ben was played by Oakes Fegley, a 13-year old actor whom we last saw in the lead role of Pete in "Pete's Dragon" (2016). Fegley was feisty and spirited, convincing as a country boy who dared to face the unknown. Veteran actress and four-time Todd Haynes muse Julianne Moore played a key role in each of the two kids' stories. 

Of course, the fact that the kids were deaf made it necessary that some lines needed to be written to be read by the person they were talking to and vice versa, so that device did take some toll on the flow of the film. Sometimes it was not easy to read the penmanship being flashed on the screen, but we can just surmise the messages based on context. 

This film may not be for everybody. The pace of the first two acts can feel dragging at certain points especially with the silence. Sometimes the events seem to fall unbelievably into place so neatly by pure luck and serendipity.  However, eventually the magical whimsy of the final act, unexpectedly executed with stop-motion animation, made the patience of those who stay up to that point all worth their while. That was such a poignant ending which will stick with you as you leave the theater. 7/10.