Thursday, September 19, 2019

PPP 2019: Review of I'M ELLENYA L.: Viral Vindication

September 19, 2019



As there were three movies about senior citizens in this year's Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino this year ("Lola Igna," "Circa" and "Pagbalik"), there were also three movies about young people ("LSS," "G!" and this one). 

Ellenya L. (Maris Racal) is a pretty and perky 22 year old young woman who is obsessed with her social media popularity. She could not hold a day job, and instead would rather spent her days whipping up fresh content for her Instagram account. While her father Toots (Gio Alvarez) over-indulged his daughter's whims, her strict Grandma Madz (Nova Villa) constantly kept her grounded with her lectures.

At first, things were simpler, with her childhood best friend and neighbor Stephen (Inigo Pascual) patiently helping her with her photos and vlogs. One day, when Ellenya met popular online guru Kyle Quintos (Pat Sugui), he gave her a big break to be a model for an event. Without giving the offer a second thought, Ellenya agreed right away, knowing this was her big break to become the viral influencer she aspired to be.

I knew Maris Racal and Inigo Pascual as TV personalities, but this is the first feature film I had seen them in. The vivacious Racal as Ellenya embodied the current generation of spirited millennials many of whom have the dream of being social media celebrities. On the other hand, the protective Pascual as Stephen balanced Ellenya's reckless daring with his cautious sensibility. They looked good together and had great chemistry as a couple (but of course they did not know it yet at first).

90s teen idol Gio Alvarez, now a hefty 40-something, played Ellenya's delightfully supportive musician father. The jurors awarded Alvarez the Best Supporting Actor award for his breezy performance, his very first acting award ever. Veteran actress Nova Villa played yet another cantankerous grandmother, as she has been usually typecast in playing (as she did in "Miss Granny"). I felt her words of wisdom during Ellenya's crying scene could have been worded better to make for a more poignant effect. 

Pat Sugui and Kat Galang played Kyle and Gerrie, celebrity social media managers whom Ellenya idolized. There were several celebrity cameos to catch to add to the viewing fun. Sue Ramirez played herself as the number one celebrity vlogger client of Kyle. There was a group of "tribesmen" who performed during the main event, and these were actually Joross Gamboa, Ketchup Eusebio, Antonio Aquitania and Vandolph Quizon. 

By keeping everything fun, light and entertaining, director Boy 2 Quizon created an effective cautionary tale about over-obsession with social media among the millennial generation and younger. The climax was a bit too graphic and over-the-top, but if the filmmakers were aiming for a big shock, then they definitely achieved it, and explosively so! Call it disgusting or disturbing, in any case it made a solid memorable impact. That is how a message should be delivered for it to catch the attention of its target audience and make a major impression on them. 7/10. 

PPP 2019: Review of VERDICT: Vivid Vérité

September 18, 2019




The Venice Film Festival 2019 ran from August 27 - September 7, 2019. "Verdict" from the Philippines, by first-time director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, was the only entry in the official selection from Southeast Asia. It also won the Special Jury Prize in the Horizon Section (which ran parallel to the main section competing for the Golden Lion, which won by Todd Phillips' "Joker" this year). 

One night, while Joy and daughter Angel were enjoying a piece of cake, her petty crook husband Dante came home drunk and angry. In no time, he was brutally beating Joy up for no apparent reason. Severely injured, she quickly grabbed Angel and ran off to the safety of the nearby police outpost. From there, this film then followed Joy's quest for justice, step by step in detail, from Dante's arrest all the way to criminal court. 

Watching this film was not easy. Director Raymund Gutierrez's camera was constantly in motion and very shaky. The focus was very tight, with everything shot very up-close, we can practically see every pore on the actors' faces. Immediately, this cinematographic style called to mind that of acclaimed Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. 

As the credits rolled at the end, Mr. Mendoza's name was actually executive producer. It came as no surprise upon later research that Gutierrez learned his directorial ropes under Mendoza. Even the style of acting from his actors was Mendoza-esque -- very gritty and realistic, as if there was no acting at all. 

This role of Joy should be the most intense role Max Eigenmann ever had in her career. Her scenes with the swollen face were painful to watch, it was so ironic the indignities she had to undergo from the various authorities while in that damaged physical situation. She had a scene where the camera was following her as she was walking out on the streets, a scene that called to mind Jaclyn Jose's Cannes-winning final walk in Mendoza's "Ma'Rosa." (I was half-expecting Joy to stop and eat a stick of fish balls herself, which of course she didn't.)

Kristoffer King was a terrifying presence as pathological abuser and liar Dante. King had been mentored by Brillante Mendoza practically his whole career and he is indeed a master of not acting, and just being the character. Here, King's Dante reeked of evil even by just his mere look. Unease was felt even during his quiet moments with his innocent daughter Joy or with his ever-supportive mother (Dolly de Leon).  King's passing last February 23, 2019 marked the loss of one talented young character actor. This was his final feature film role.

As a Filipino, watching this procedural film will make you fraught with frustration at the quality of the justice system expected to uphold our rights and keep us secure. If you are poor, even if you had been so obviously wronged, everyone who was supposed to help you seemed so inefficient and cold -- the barangay officials, the police, the medics, the fiscals, or even the judge. Sadly, you just take it as it is. You simply can't do anything about it. This Santos v Santos case was filed in urban Mandaluyong, and it went like this. How much worse could we expect in rural courts?

The grueling pace of the film felt real time, as slowly as these cases would take in actuality. That immersive nature was why it packed such a mean punch to our guts. 8/10. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

PPP 2019: Review of LOLA IGNA: Cantankerous Centenarian

September 17, 2019




When I first saw the trailer of "Lola Igna" about an ill-mannered, foul-mouthed old woman, I did not think I would like it at all. However, it was directed by Eduardo Roy, Jr., an up and coming name in indie film directing for critically acclaimed films like "Pamilya Ordinaryo" and "F#*@bois." Furthermore, it took home four major awards during the awards night last Sunday, including Best Picture, Screenplay, Musical Score and Actress (for Angie Ferro). Needless to say, it is a must-watch.

Lola Igna (Angie Ferro) is Ignacia Rivera. She is now 118 years old. She lived alone in the hut where she lived with her late husband Carias. Her granddaughter Nida (Maria Isabel Lopez), grandson-in-law Eddie (Jojo Riguerra) and great-grandchild Bok (Royce Cabrera) looked out for her needs. Formerly a busy midwife, Lola's daily routine now merely included going out to the rice fields to scare birds away by shaking a system of ropes with tin cans.

One day, Mayor Gustavo (Soliman Cruz) of her remote agricultural community decided to nominate Lola for the title of "Oldest Living Grandmother" at the "Amazing People of the World" awards. This created a media frenzy which resulted in tourists visiting Lola Igna's house to visit her and take selfies with her, unwanted attention that she detested. One of those city folk who visited Lola was a young man named Tim (Yves Flores), who turned out to be the son of her long-estranged granddaughter Ana (Meryl Soriano).

Completely owning the title character in her first leading role after 60 years in show business, Angie Ferro will grow on you as Lola Igna. Her Lola won't be easy to like at first with her frank cantankerous nature. However, after getting to know her more during the film through the eyes of Tim, her latter scenes will bring you to tears. By the end, you will eventually love this woman as if she was your very own great-grandmother. Yves Flores as Tim also grew a lot in the duration of his bonding with his dear Lola-lola whom he never even knew before. Flores effectively created a character we can all identify with as he brought us along on Tim's arc.

Maria Isabel Lopez and Meryll Soriano may feel miscast as sisters since they are 25 years apart in real life. Casting Jojo Riguerra as Lopez's husband made me imagine a convoluted May-December, sister rivalry story line (which did not materialize). Anyhow, after a while, the casting choices did not matter as everyone gelled together as a screen family. Even the minor characters in the community made their mark, like Peewee O'Hara as the store owner Senya, Joel Saracho as the faith healer Rene, and especially Armand Reyes as the elderly bachelor Gusting.

What we see in the trailer and read in the synopsis is really just the tip of a delightful iceberg. The film began very slowly, familiarizing us with Lola Igna's daily routine upon waking up, from her chamber pot ritual to her fly-infested breakfast. However, once the main story got underway, there was so much more to tell than just Lola's life story. Aside from the evocative drama within her family, the film also comments on rural politics, folk superstitious beliefs, as well as on social media phenomena. It was like an update on "Himala," but lighter, peppered with a generous sense of humor. 

And just when you guess the story is already bound to go one way, writer-director Eduardo Roy, Jr. throws you another curve ball. This bittersweet film is beautiful cinematic storytelling. 8/10.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

PPP 2019: Joint Review of OPEN and CUDDLE WEATHER: Lusting for Life

September 15, 2019

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2019 has 10 films showing (7 official entries and 3 films in the Sandaan Showcase), running from September 13 to 19, 2019. I was only able to watch my first films today, the day of the awards night. I just went to watch what was available during the time I went to the mall this afternoon, and it just so happened to be these two films. Both of them had been rated B by the CEB so it should be okay. Then again, all the PPP official entries had at least been rated a B, so that pretty much evened things out. 

Based on the posters and trailers, these two films dealt with sexual relationships, and should seem to be for mature audiences only. It was surprising to note that they were both been generously rated as R-13 by the MTRCB. (Then again, the MTRCB also rated a film about transgenders trying to get women pregnant as PG!) Now that I have watched both these films, I conclude they should have been rated higher R-16 or even R-18. 

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1. OPEN

Director: Andoy Ranay
Production: T-Rex Entertainment and Black Sheep

Ethan (JC Santos) and Rome (Arci Munoz) had been in a romantic relationship for 14 years and had been living in together for a long time. Everyone around them, especially Rome herself, wondered why Ethan never proposed marriage after all this time. Instead, when he felt that their relationship was already going stale, Ethan suggested to Rome that they should make their relationship an open one, like the one his good friend Archie (Vance Larena) with his fiancee Monique (Ivana Alawi). 

It was hard to watch a person as self-centered and cruel as Ethan exists, manipulating the woman he supposedly loved to agree to an open relationship in the guise of injecting excitement into their union, when in fact it was only to legitimize his ulterior motive of having a sexual affair with his ultra-sexy senior co-worker Erika (played by a very game Ina Raymundo). As if she was not already foolish enough to be forced to agree to this questionable arrangement, Rome actually also forced herself to have sex with a random guy Sam ( a sneaky Micah Munoz) whom she met in a dance club. Did she really have to?

This film depicted a liberal type of modern relationship that allowed extraneous sexual affairs as long as both parties consented to it. I would think that that topic alone should already merit an R-18 rating. Are present morality codes already so lax and permissive so as to allow children as young as 13 to watch a film like this? The character of JC Santos was a very detestable person, and he deserved only one kind of ending. However, director Andoy Ranay took his sweet sadistic time getting to that inevitable conclusion with such a deliberately glacial pace of storytelling. It was truly unbearable to endure that toxicity so long, despite its attractive lead stars. 3/10.


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2. CUDDLE WEATHER

Director: Rod Marmol
Production: Project 8 corner San Joaquin Projects, Inc. and Regal Entertainment

Adela (Sue Ramirez) decided to go into a life of prostitution to help her mother get through their poverty. After 9 years of turning tricks, now earning a minimum of P10K per customer. Just when Adela decided she wanted to turn a new leaf in life, she met a newbie on the prostitution block Ram (RK Bagatsing), who called her his Sempai (or "mentor") and she allowed him to live in her condo as a cuddle buddy (with strict rules) and helped his get started towards a more lucrative career in the sex trade. 

Believe it or not, this a rom-com about prostitutes and their sordid lives, with various scenes of kinky sex (thankfully non-explicit) and a generous helping of sexually-charged language, gets rated a R-13. Times have indeed changed, and it seems that these matters are already allowable for early teens to go watch onscreen. Even if Sue Ramirez and RK Bagatsing were delightful to watch in their characters, it was impossible to ignore the fact that they were portraying hookers who ply sex for money, and thus was not fit for 13 year olds to watch, whatever MTRCB says. 

It is however wise that director Rod Marmol decides to pursue the story as a light-hearted romantic comedy about whores with a heart of gold. The saving grace of this film is really the performances and chemistry of Sue Ramirez (who bravely played against type in this one) and RK Bagatsing who both managed to come across as charming and likable. Alecks Bovick was also good as Adela's mother, while Dexter Doria and Dolly de Leon were funny as Ram's rich matron customers. Nino Muhlach played one of Adela's loyal customers while Mark Anthony Fernandez played a man from Adela's past. Overall, despite the lurid world it depicted and familiar topic, this turned out be to be quite a pleasant watch, thanks to its appealing lead stars. 6/10. 


Saturday, September 14, 2019

Review of IT CHAPTER 2: Confounding Climax

September 13, 2019




"It" (2017) (MY REVIEW) was a topnotch horror film, one of the best films based on a Stephen King novel. That film recounted the harrowing experiences of a gang of Derry, Maine teenagers called "The Losers Club" terrorized by the evil carnivorous clown Pennywise. At the end of that film, they pledged with each other that if ever the evil of Pennywise came back to Derry, they will reunite and fight It together again.

This sequel happened 27 years after the events of the first film. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) remained in Derry to keep watch for Pennywise's return. When such a case came up, he immediately called in his friends, now all working faraway, to come home as they promised. While Stanley (Andy Bean) opted for another way out, everyone else came back all with fuzzy memories about what happened in their past. Mike instructed each one of them to get an artifact from their past in order to use in an old Native American ritual to finish It off once and for all. 

The actors playing the Losers Club as adults carried on the look and behavior of their respective child characters, and this was the best aspect of the film. This was so good when scenes alternated between the adult and child characters, so you can sense the continuity best. James McAvoy was still the stuttering leader Bill (Jaeden Martell) was. Jessica Chastain maintained the mystery that was Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Bill Hader was still the bespectacled smart aleck Richie (Finn Wolfhard) was. James Ransone was still the nervous and excitable Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). Hunky Jay Ryan looked nothing like overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), but we've seen big transformations like this in our own reunions. 

The scenes where the Losers Club were all together as a group were so much better than those scenes where each character was facing various incarnations of It individually. This middle section where they were gathering their tokens from the past each had their own sense of nostalgia, jump scares, ugly monsters and all, but ultimately these scenes did not really contribute much to the main story. In fact, all those scenes could be edited out and the ending would not be affected. Even the scenes involving psychopath Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) could be edited out without affecting the story.

Bill Skargaard was still so creepy good and sinister as Pennywise. However, the CGI of that overlong climax was too over-the-top that it actually reduced the sense of horror for me. I actually cringed at that "major" moment when the Losers were gaining the upper hand against the ultimate Pennywise spider monster. It might have been the way it was written in the book, but it felt corny as the big finale of an epic tale. I wonder if the repeated digs against Bill Denbrough (who was a best-selling mystery novelist who was notorious for his bad endings) was an inside joke about the rather lame ending of this two-episode story. "It Chapter 1" was much better than this "Chapter 2".  6/10. 


Sunday, September 1, 2019

3 Mini-Reviews: GOOD BOYS, ABOVE THE SHADOWS, READY OR NOT

September 1, 2019



GOOD BOYS

Written and directed by Gene Stupnitsky

Max (Jacob Trembley), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon) are the Beanbag Boys, sixth graders and best friends. Max was invited by the cool kids to attend a party where he thinks he could get to kiss his crush. 

However, that same day, Max lost his father's camera drone to a couple of older girls. So the three friends cut school and  try to get the drone back before his father got home, leading them into a series of crazy misadventures that included running across a freeway to buying party drugs from a frat house. 

This was a typical crude raunchy teen comedy, but only this one involved pre-teens which upped the scandal level by a hundred percent more.The basic story of "Good Boys" is actually somewhat like "Superbad" where three friends faced misadventures while they were trying to buy liquor for a party with hot girls.  Seth Rogen, who played a cop in "Superbad," was involved as a producer here. 

I cannot deny that there were silly dumb scenes which made me chuckle, but it was quite unsettling to see sixth graders discuss sex, buy mollies or utter profanity. Even if 12 year old Jacob Tremblay is the veteran among the three (having appeared in acclaimed films like "Room" and "Wonder"), I thought the other two child actors made the stronger impressions. My favorite kid was Keith L. Williams, whose Lucas balanced the morality scale a bit with his sensibility and uprightness. 5/10.


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ABOVE THE SHADOWS

Written and directed by Claudia Myers

When her mother passed away, middle child Holly Jederman (Olivia Thirlby) seemed to have turned invisible from her family and from everyone else. As she owned her invisibility, she became a tabloid photographer because she could stalk celebrities and take pictures of their indiscretions. 

One day, a bouncer of a club actually saw her trying to follow clients, and threw her out. She discovered that the bouncer was Shayne Blackwell (Alan Ritchton), an MMA athlete whose life and career she ruined by one of her scandal photos. 

You need to suspend disbelief while watching this film because for someone who was supposed to be invisible, you can see her right there with her clothes and all. But once you got the drift of what this film was trying to say, this was actually a very thoughtful piece about social withdrawal and loneliness, albeit with a glacial pace. Everyone who had felt being ignored can relate. 

Thirby's scenes with Jim Gaffigan, who played Holly's father Paul, were very moving in execution. One of the notable casting surprises here was Megan Fox, back after a three-year hiatus since she played April O'Neil in the Ninja Turtles films. She played Juliana, an ex-girlfriend who was getting back into Shayne's life the same time Holly came in. 4/10. 


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READY OR NOT

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett

It was the wedding day of Grace, who was marrying into the family of Daniel of the very wealthy Le Domas board-game and sporting goods empire. The newlyweds were just about to enjoy their honeymoon, when they were summoned to the game room for a wedding day tradition their family had been observing for generations. 

In this game, the one who was just married into the family (in this case, Grace) should draw a card out of a mysterious box, then play the game indicated on the card with the family. Grace picked the card which said "Hide and Seek," but the game was definitely not the simple childhood game she was expecting to play. 

I am not a fan of gore, but this movie was a lot of fun. Once the wedding ceremony was over, and the game was afoot, the nail-biting suspense was relentless and blood was splattering all over the place. This one is definitely not for the faint of heart. Dark and violent as it may be, the concept was hilarious and the filmmakers were doing it all tongue-in-cheek which was the right decision. I sensed a lot of Tarantino-esque influence in the execution of those deadly confrontation scenes, right down to that glorious bloodbath of a Grand Guignol ending. 

Samara Weaving as the never-say-die bride Grace was an awesome badass. Always good to see 80s sweetheart Andie MacDowell as she played Becky, Grace's new mother-in-law. Nicky Guadagni was a fearsome vision as the grim-faced ax-wielding Aunt Helene.  8/10. 


Saturday, August 31, 2019

iWant: Review of ABANDONED: Security Scares

August 30, 2019



Simone was a security guard whose record was besmirched when a violent robbery happened at the bank she was guarding. Desperate for a job, she accepted the night shift post to guard a creepy old abandoned building. She had strict instructions to make rounds of the premises every midnight and 3 am just when the ghostly activity is at its height. Meanwhile, Simone grappled with memories of the bank holdup, financial constraints and the strange behavior of her son. 

As writer-director Kip Oebanda wrote it, "Abandoned" did not only apply to the old building Simone was assigned to guard-- a former hospital where kid patients and the nursing staff were reportedly burned to death in a big fire. Simone was abandoned by the American father of RJ who impregnated her as a high school student, leading to her lack of a diploma. Simone abandoned her post for a while to answer a call from RJ just when the bloody robbery happened at the bank, causing her guilt and post-traumatic stress. Simon's psychological makeup was as damaged and unstable as the condemned structure she was supposed to guard. 

Beauty Gonzalez played the lead role of the tormented Simone. Left alone to fend for herself from a very young age as a single mother, Simone was toughened up by her challenging life circumstances. But behind that brave facade, she was full of frustration with the bleakness of her future. While she was probably doing her best in the lead role, Gonzalez did not exactly have a varied palette as an actress. She seemed overwhelmed by the production here like she is overshadowed by co-star Dimples Romana in their hit afternoon TV soap "Kadenang Ginto". On the other hand, that sense of "weakness" may be the rationale for her casting. 

In his first movie role, former Pinoy Big Brother Otso housemate Seth Fedelin actually did well to create the confusing character of RJ. You never really knew what RJ was up to behind his mother's back. Fedelin managed to effectively portray a mysterious character who was apparently a good son at home, but who could possibly be up to no good when he was out of the house, certainly stirring up more stress in Simone's and the viewer's minds. This was a promising film debut for this young actor. 

Successful horror is all about developing the proper atmosphere. The old building was certainly creepy enough in the dark, but the production design people messed it up some more with details to make it look creepier. The cinematography and lighting were just right, not too dark. Then it was up to the director Oebanda to oversee his editing, sound, music and special effects technicians to create the palpable dread and sudden jumps in the final product. Beyond the scares though, Oebanda's twisted script gave the audience a bit more substance to chew on. 6/10.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: Theoretical Tales of Tinseltown

August 29, 2019




Quentin Tarantino's latest opus (and his films are always major cinematic events) is his ode to old Hollywood in the end of the 1960s. Tastes in film and television are changing fast, so many actors from the old system are losing roles to the more current "hipper" crop of actors. The hippies are taking over Los Angeles with their rebellious counterculture. 

In August of 1969, a cult of brainwashed drug addicts called the Charles Manson Family committed a notoriously heinous crime of murdering actress Sharon Tate and her friends. Tarantino decided to set this film to depict that critical time of transition leading up to that fateful night of violence which shocked not only Hollywood, but the whole country.

Rick Dalton used to be a lead star in the TV Western called "Bounty Law" in the 1950s. However, during the 1960s, after his show closed shop, Dalton had been limited to playing the main villain in various TV pilots launching the careers of new action stars. His depression about his sagging career led to alcoholism, which later affected not only his driving record, but his film performances as well.

Leonardo DiCaprio went all-out with his peculiarly eccentric, yet deeply emotional portrayal of Rick Dalton on the wane of his career. The highlight of his performance here was from that sequence when Dalton was shooting the pilot of the TV series "Lancer" where he was playing the "heavy" (the villain). His scenes with 8 year-old child actress Trudi Fraser (played by 10 year-old Julia Butters) and his breakdown scene in the trailer after flubbing a number of lines were of definite Oscar caliber. 

Cliff Booth used to be very active as the stunt double of Rick Dalton in his TV and movie career. However, as the big roles diminished, so did Dalton's need for Booth. Therefore later, Booth would serve as Dalton's driver, bodyguard and best friend. Booth was the one character of this film which was signature Tarantino. He lived alone with his pitbull and rumored to have killed his wife. He was fearless, tactless, reckless.

Brad Pitt went against type to play Cliff Booth, shedding off his glamor boy looks and image, looking older with his sun-damaged skin on face and body, wearing thrift shop clothes. He had to dim down his own megawatt star power to be credible as DiCaprio's inferior, if that's at all possible. It was Booth that had direct interaction with the hippie members of Charles Manson's Family, so Pitt was the one who got to do the film's most tensely suspenseful, breathtakingly violent and darkly hilarious scenes. 

As a whole, there seemed to be no definite unifying plot for the film. Tarantino was expounding on how Hollywood was evolving in the 1960s -- the actors and the films. He was taking his sweet time following three separate stories: Dalton and his plummeting career path, Booth crossing paths with the Family, and a third one following Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie) on a day out to the city to watch her own film "The Wrecking Crew". These three threads only merge together in one extended, super-intense, wildly outrageous sequence of savage events in the last 20 minutes of the film or so. 

For a long 161-minute film like this, there will be those who would not see the point of it all, only seeing disjointed segments that don't come together and feeling how self-indulgent Tarantino was. Regarding that controversial Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) segment, Tarantino was being funny, but I can how the lines Lee was saying can be offensive to loyal fans of the Asian martial arts icon. 

However, if you share Tarantino's love affair with old Hollywood, you will enjoy this long but potent ride, with all the nostalgic pop culture references from that era being dropped left and right for the similarly-inclined audience members to lap up. There were several name actors in cameo roles (like Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, and others) which was also exciting to take note of. The meticulous period production design and energetic musical soundtrack clearly deserve award-consideration. 8/10. 




Review of WEATHERING WITH YOU: Deliverance from the Deluge

August 28, 2019



Back in 2016, the Japanese movie of the year was an animated romantic fantasy drama entitled "Kimi no Na wa"( or "Your Name"). That film, about a teenage boy in Tokyo swapping bodies with a teenage girl in rural Japan, was written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. As of now, "Your Name" is second only to "Spirited Away" in the list of highest grossing Japanese films in Japan and worldwide.

This year 2019, the Japanese movie of the year is yet again another animated romantic fantasy drama, also written and directed by the same man Makoto Shinkai. Thanks to Shinkai's reputation, "Tenki no Ko" (or "Weathering with You") actually passed the record of "Your Name" in box-office receipts in its first three days, and is now in 9th biggest Japanese films of all time only in its first month of release. Critical acclaim has led to it being selected as Japan's submission for Best Foreign Language Film (now to be called Best International Feature Film) at the Oscars this season.

Japan was suffering the longest continuous spell of rain in its history. Hodaka Morishima is a 16 year-old boy who ran away from his home. He struggled to survive in scary Tokyo, until he started working for Keisuke Suga, a writer of sensational subject matter, to whom Hodaka owed his life by rescuing him from a near-accident at sea. Hina Amano is an independent 18 year-old girl who was raising her young brother Nagi on her own after their mother passed away. After going through a mysterious shrine gate on the rooftop of a old rundown building, Hina developed the ability to make the sun shine through the rain.

The constant rain was most probably a metaphor for Hodaka's miserable life, until Hina came along and became the sunshine in his life. The artwork was beautifully conceived and animated to reflect these themes of coming of age, young love and idealistic sacrifice against the harshness of the world around. It was imaginatively executed how raindrops rose like swimming little fish when Hina was around, and how the sun broke through the gloom to provide empowering warmth. The art can make you actually feel the weather and the emotion through the screen, and mind you this was in 2D. Amazing. 

There was violence in this one, more than I remember seeing in "Your Name."Hodaka and Hina had critically dangerous encounters with sleazy gangsters and strict policemen which further pushed their interdependent relationship closer with each other.  I wish there did not have to be a gun in the story, as it felt very much out of place. There was a high-speed chase between a motorbike and the police which was totally improbable, but a lot of fun. 

The specter of "Your Name" can still be felt in this follow-up with its blend of young lovers in a calamitous science fiction situation, infused with Japanese religion and culture. There were also funny and poignant moments involving younger kids and the elderly. What thrilled "Your Name" fans more (and they cheered loudly!) were the unexpected individual cameos of Taki and Mitsuha, now looking more mature and assured, in this world of Hodaka and Hina as well. 8/10. 


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review of THE DIVINE FURY: Fiery Fighting

August 26, 2019




Because of a psychologically-traumatic childhood experience following the death of his father, undefeated mixed martial arts world champion Park Yong-hoo (Park Seo-joon) harbored a deep resentment against God. Every time he would see a crucifix, he would flare up in rage. One night after winning a fight, he suddenly had a disturbing nightmare which left a bleeding wound on the palm of his right hand when he woke up. 

Because medical doctors could not help him about the mysterious wound, Park consulted a local blind shaman, who in turn referred him to a senior Catholic exorcist priest, Fr. Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), currently in Seoul from the Vatican. After Park helped Ahn perform a tough exorcism rite on a powerfully possessed man, Fr. Ahn realized that Park's stigmata actually gave him the power to cast away demons. 

Popular Koreanovela actor Park Seo-joon ("Hwarang","What's Wrong with Secretary Kim") was a charismatic lead actor who held well in the action, horror, as well as the dramatic aspects his character Yong-hoo went through in this film. He has matured much since his first feature film lead role as the foolish police trainee in "Midnight Runners" (2017, also by Kim Joo-hwan). Yes, there were scenes which were obviously put in there to delight and thrill his female fans. He looked good with his leather jacket, his sports car and his cool motorcycle. He was looked dapper and well-groomed even during his most brutal fights. 

Ahn Sung-ki is a veteran actor in Korean cinema, with numerous acting awards won since the 1980s to the present. He gives an empathetic performance here as Fr. Ahn, giving the priest credibility as the Vatican-sanctioned exorcist, and the warmth to be the father figure that Park badly needed. With those harrowing exorcism scenes, this was a physically exhausting role for an actor in his late 60s, and Ahn was giving it his 100%. 

Woo Do-hwan was immersed in Satanistic darkness for this role as Ji-shin, owner of a stylish club called Babylon, who was also the new Dark Bishop, the main conduit who brought the demon via the altar pool in the cellar. His lack of background or motive was glaring. Park Ji-hyun (as Soo-jin, a rich young woman who lived in a posh condo) and child actor Jung Ji-hoon (as Ho-seok, a bullied little boy in an orphanage run by nuns) figured in their respective imaginatively-staged demonic possession sequences. 

Choi Woo-shik makes a special appearance as Fr. Choi. This is interesting because Park Yong-hoo also made a special appearance in Choi's current film "Parasite." We see Choi first as the young exorcist apprentice who was scared out of his wits in his first case. However, we would see him again towards the end tending to an injured Fr. Ahn, and then again at a mid-credits scene which dropped a hint at a sequel entitled "The Green Exorcist" which will feature Fr. Choi. 

I give props to writer-director Kim Joo-hwan for thinking up of an original plot for familiar subject matter like this. There had been numerous films about exorcism over the years from many countries all over the world, and I had seen many of them, particularly Hollywood and Filipino ones. Many still follow the style set by "The Exorcist" more than forty years ago. The traditional Catholic exorcism elements of Latin prayers and holy water are also seen here. 

But this latest Korean iteration managed to find and develop a different angle of depicting battles between man versus devil with more physical excitement. Of course it still had that signature poignance we have come to expect in Korean films. It may feel a bit long at 129 minutes with a slow buildup at the start and stretched out middle act, but the sinister story and some eerie special effects will hold your attention. 6/10. 


Sunday, August 25, 2019

3 Mini-Reviews: THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2, STUBER, UNPLANNED

August 25, 2019


THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2

Director: Thurop Van Orman

When ice cannonballs from Eagle Island landed and caused damage on Piggy Island and Bird Island. King Leonard (Bill Hader) of the Pigs sought to form an alliance with Red (Jason Sudekis) of the Birds to form a team to stop the Eagles' crazy vindictive leader Zeta (Leslie Jones) from launching further attacks. Bomb (Danny McBride), Chuck (Josh Gad) and his engineering genius sister Silver (Rachel Bloom) made up Red's team. Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) initially joined Red's group, but he withdrew at the last minute because of deeply personal reasons. 

This is another one of those movies where the overly-revealing trailer sapped the full enjoyment of the actual film by featuring practically all the best gags. Those hilarious silly moments will still make you chuckle but you've seen them before already so the impact was considerably less funny. The eclectic musical soundtrack went from "Axel F" to "Baby Shark," and old-school pop hits by Bonnie Tyler, Eric Carmen, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Survivor and Europe in between. That breakdance showdown scene was too hilarious. The humor and story may be annoyingly juvenile for adults, but the animation (especially of the hatchlings and piglets) was cute and the voice work of the all-star comedian cast was on point. 6/10. 

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STUBER

Director: Michael Dowse

Stu Prasad (Kumail Nanjiani) was a guy bullied in career and in love. He sidelined as an Uber driver. LAPD detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) finally got a major tip about the whereabouts of the gangster who killed his partner months ago. However, it just so happened that he just had laser surgery on his eyes that morning, so he could barely see anything making driving impossible. So, Vic had no choice but to book an Uber, got Stu, taking the hapless driver along on the wildest ride of his lifetime.

Nanjiani and Bautista were both very likable actors who gave their stereotype characters (mousy Asian driver and buff alpha-male cop) personalities you'd root for. The humor was dry, dark, weird and awkward, but it mostly worked. The two stars gave it their all in those physically comic action sequences in unusual settings, like a male strip club, a vet clinic, a sporting goods store, among others. I was surprised to see in the credits that that was Mira Sorvino who played Vic's superior. Saddled with a nondescript title like "Stuber," I thought this would be a snoozer. However, this one unexpectedly turned out to be quite entertaining and fun. 6/10.

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UNPLANNED

Directors: Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman

When she was in college, Abby Johnson (Ashley Bratcher) volunteered to work for Planned Parenthood in the belief that it aimed to reduce the incidence of abortions. In the following years, Abby rose in the ranks in the PP organization to become a public relations officer to counselor and eventually clinic director. One day, Abby was called to assist an ultrasound-guided abortion. For the first time in her eight years in PP, she witnessed how a fetus got sucked into the doctor's suction tubing. This experience traumatized Abby so much that it led to a major change of heart.

From its opening credits sequence, this film already had the feel of a TV movie with its style of cinematography and music. It started pleasantly with a sweet breakfast scene in the Johnson household. But once Abby was called into the procedure room, the film wasted no time in showing us what it was really all about. What Abby saw on that monitor is more than enough drive home its point that abortion is murder. I do not know if this film's portrayal of Planned Parenthood's evil deception was accurate or not, but it surely worked for their pro-life cause. This film will no doubt be called propaganda, and yes it may be true, but this anti-abortion film is powerfully sobering and disturbing stuff which no one can ignore. 7/10.