Monday, July 16, 2018

Review of KICKBOXER: RETALIATION: Forced to Fight

July 15, 2018

Jean Claude Van Damme broke through as a martial arts star in "Bloodsport" (1988). His successful follow-up film was "Kickboxer" (1989), which spawned a franchise that is now on its seventh film. The original series lasted until "Redemption: Kickboxer 5" (1995). Van Damme only played lead character Kurt Sloane in the first and the fourth installment. 

When the series was rebooted last 2016 with "Kickboxer: Vengeance", black-belter martial artist and stuntman Alain Moussi had taken over the role of Kurt Sloane, with Van Damme playing his elderly trainer Master Durand. This present film "Kickboxer: Retaliation" is a sequel that picked up about a year and a half after the events of the previous film. 

Kurt Sloane was kidnapped and incarcerated in Thailand by Thomas Tang Moore, a promoter of illegal fight tournaments. Moore wanted him to fight the gigantic bioengineered champion Mongkut for a purse of $1M. Kurt refused to fight, so Moore had Kurt's wife Liu (Sara Malakul) kidnapped as well to force him to fight. Kurt did not have a choice.

The skeletal plot is just a flimsy excuse to showcase scene after scene of fighting in different martial arts styles. Most of them had the bone-crunching violence fans of fight films look for. The acting of all the actors, even the leads and the veterans, were either hammy or wretched. The cinematography and effects used in certain fight scenes looked cheap and bad, especially that one set on the roof of a speeding train when the fighters had to fall off, or that hall of mirrors scene with the two bikini-clad lady fighters with tattoos that glowed in the dark. 

One big drawback here was that, unlike the charismatic Van Damme, the current lead actor Alain Moussi was not exactly graceful-looking fighter on the big screen. His moves (except maybe his kick and flip jumps in the final fight) looked awkward and tentative, so that it was not convincing even when he had the upper hand in his matches. His opponents, which include Mike Tyson (as scrapper Briggs) and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (as man-mountain Mongkut), looked more formidable in their fights. Dour and humorless, Moussi does not exactly make you want to root for him. 

If the names of 80s stars Jean Claude Van Damme and Christopher Lambert drew you in to watch the film, you'd be disappointed because they had very little screen time. The character of Van Damme was even blinded here, so he did not have a fight scene of significant length at all. 60-year old Lambert played Moore. Perhaps to remind us of his biggest role as Connor McLeod in "Highlander" (1986), Lambert had a brief sword fight scene with Van Damme. 

Despite these bad points, we should recognize that this film was only made for fight fans to whet their adrenaline rush, and nothing much more. For that, it was not a total loss. But honestly, those fights could have been choreographed and executed better. 3/10.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Review of SKYSCRAPER: Action for Acrophobics

July 14, 2018

Dwayne Johnson had consistently been in an action movie every single year since his big screen debut in "The Mummy Returns" (2001). Since "Baywatch" last year, he added executive producer to his credits. This year alone, there had already been two Johnson films in local cinemas: "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" in January, and "Rampage" in April. This month, he has another one -- "Skyscraper." 

Chinese tycoon Zhou Long Ji has built an imposing building "The Pearl" on the banks of Hong Kong harbor. As far as skyscrapers go, it is considered the tallest (at 240 floors, 87 floors higher that the Burj Khalifa), the greenest (energy generated by its own wind turbine at the 200-230th floor + a 30-storey garden from the 100th floor going up), and the safest (top-of-the-line advanced security features with remote access). 

One day, extortionist Kores Botha led his army of terrorists in a massive effort to set the Pearl on fire in order to gain possession of Zhou's computer hard drive. Chief of security Will Sawyer was put in a sore spot because he had exclusive possession of the tablet which can remotely control the security and safety systems of the building. Sawyers wife and fraternal twin kids (one of whom has asthma) just so happened to be trapped on the 204th floor, so he had to go back into the burning building to get them out.

The title and the poster already suggests a mix of "Die Hard" and "The Towering Inferno" with thrilling but impossible action stunts. If you expected that, like me, you won't be mistaken nor disappointed.  With his artificial left leg (result of a botched mission ten years back) and all, Sawyer had to gain access into the Pearl above the fire line on the 96th floor by sheer brute jumping power and adrenaline alone. That scene alone told us that all logic would have to checked at the door, and just sit back and let The Rock regale us with his incredible physical prowess and duct-tape aided survival skills.

Dwayne Johnson played a tough, macho, no-nonsense guy who was driven to go beyond impossible physical limits because of his deep devotion to his family. It was basically a reboot of his characters in "San Andreas" (2015) rescuing his daughter trapped in San Francisco, or even "Rampage" (2018), rescuing his "son," the albino ape, who ran amuck in San Diego. Sawyer's artificial leg situation was an interesting detail, and the prosthesis itself would play a vital role in one of the action scenes. 

I was surprised to see Neve Campbell playing Sawyer's wife army surgeon Sarah. I have not seen Campbell in a movie since her heyday in the late 1990s in "Scream" (1996) and "Wild Things" (1998). She still looks great onscreen now despite the the 20 years that passed since those films. She gets to figure in a few action scenes of her own here (which were kickass) and would play a big role in the film's resolution (uttering a groan-inducing corny line, that referenced her cellphone problem at the start of the film). 

Singaporean actor Chin Han played Zhou had a very dry performance, with no charisma at all. Danish actor Roland Møller played Kores Botha, who was so obviously a bad guy from his very first scene pretending to be a security maintenance guy. Actually the bad guys (played by Pablo Schrieber and Noah Taylor) were all so obvious from the first scene they were introduced, so there were no real surprises when they revealed their real loyalties. Like many current Hollywood films nowadays, the presence of Chinese actors (Byron Mann, Karen Quinlivan) in key support roles was very evident.

The predictable story and cheesy script definitely take a back seat to CG-enhanced (of varying quality) action sequences here. From the introductory scenes at the start, you can clearly see what is in store ahead. Anyhow, I had fun watching the efforts of writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber bringing us through one unbelievable, breathtaking, death-defying scene after the other, with all the intense acrophobic, pyromanic, hall of mirrors thrills he can deliver. 6/10. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review of I LOVE YOU, HATER: Honesty and Humility

July 12, 2018

For the second film in a row, Julia Barretto and Joshua Garcia star in a film that starts with the words "I Love You". This new one is a rom-com too like "To the Stars and Back", and I was curious to see if their performance as a love team here could match that of the first one. I think I had only seen Kris Aquino in her horror films (like "Feng Shui," "Sukob" and "Segunda Mano." I thought it was about time I should see her in something else.

Flamboyant celebrity Youtuber Sasha Imperial launched a big search for a new personal assistant. Big fan Zoey Rivera immediately jumped at the chance to apply for her dream job. Unlucky Joko Macaraeg incidentally got roped into contention for the post as well. Joko fell in love at first sight with the pretty Zoey, but he had to pretend to be gay in order to stay in contention for the very well-paying job which he badly needed to support his financially-strapped family. Sasha will make her final choice in three months. Who will get the job?

The JoshLia love team does it again to successfully stoke romantic thrill and tug at heartstrings. Their chemistry together is no fluke and is a big factor why this film worked. That sentimental sequence of scenes set in Joko's family residence in Paete that featured the local folk art of making taka (paper mache figurines) were sweet proof of that chemistry, cheesy as they may be for others.   

Zoey was so unlikable at the beginning, but my opinion of her steadily changed for the better as the film progressed. This was mainly due to Julia Barretto's effective delineation of her character's arc.  Joshua Garcia was convincing in pretending to be a fabulous gay guy, yet harboring a serious crush on his competitor. He can really work those puppy dog eyes of his to make you root for him, even if he was doing something wrong.

Kris Aquino plays the irrepressible Sasha with her own signature panache. It was as if Kris was just playing herself and her present career as an internet influencer via her magazine videos. Kris was fun as Sasha, what you see is what you get, and so basically we still see Kris Aquino as we know her. However, Sasha was given a home situation which made Kris flex her skills at drama, and she proves that can still deliver well in that aspect.

From the get-go, I got the vibe of "The Devil Wears Prada" with the newly-hired assistants competing with each other, both trying to keep at pace with their temperamental and demanding boss. Also, the familiar trope of a straight guy pretending to be gay to get close to the girl d has also been used in many films before. However the dramatic twists in the story about honesty, the charismatic pair of Joshua and Julia, and the magnetic larger-than life presence of Kris Aquino -- all set this particular film directed by Gisele Andres apart from other derivative rom-coms. 7/10. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review of PAPER YEAR: Muddled Marriage

July 10, 2018

A giddy young couple Dan Delaney and Franny Winters got married in court on a whim. Dan was an actor but had no gigs, so he accepted a job taking care of an actress's swanky LA hills mansion and her two dogs while she was working abroad. Franny got luckier landing a job writing for a TV game show called "Goosed." With their iffy financial situation, reality soon set in as Dan and Franny began to note seemingly irreconcilable differences cropping up between them.

Paper is the traditional gift theme for the first wedding anniversary, hence I believe the title "Paper Year" refers to the first year of marriage. The film wasted no time on introductions. Dan and Franny get married on the the very first scene. The film then spent the next hour and half documenting their first year as husband and wife, in good times and in bad. Unlike most films which show that the happiest year for a married couple is their first year together, this film shows that it may not always necessarily be the case. 

The attractive lead actors, Eve Hewson (as Franny) and Avan Jogia (as Dan), are largely unknown, so they can blend in like any regular folk, making the characters more accessible to the audience. The only name I know from the cast was 90s muse Andie MacDowell who played Franny's mom Joanne. She was only in a few small scenes, and only the one at the end was of any significance. Even if it was good to see MacDowell on the big screen again, Joanne could frankly have been played by any other middle actress.

Writer-director Rebecca Addelman presented the story more in Franny's point of view. We see the vacillations that go on inside Franny's head as she was the one who gets confronted with more dangerous temptations than Dan (whose only dalliance was with pornography and video games). After seeing what may be going on inside a woman's head, men who are insecure with their relationships will cringe watching a film like this. Older viewers may also frown on the seemingly shallow treatment of matrimony.  5/10.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Review of UNCLE DREW: Gaining from the Game

July 7, 2018

Last week, a small comedy film about basketball opened in local cinemas. I probably would have given it a miss, but my son, who is a bigger NBA fan than I am, really wanted to watch it. We were not able to catch it right away, so it was a good thing that it survived the box office competition to run for a second week. This should probably not be a surprise in this basketball-crazy country of ours.

Coach Dax invested his whole life savings on a team to join the Ruckers 50, an annual classic street basketball event held in Harlem that now carried a  hefty $100K first prize. At the last moment, his long-time nemesis Mookie weaseled Dax's whole team, along his loud shopping-crazy girlfriend Jess, out from under him. 

A depressed Dax met Uncle Drew, a legendary ball player back in the 1960s, and convinced him to play for him. Uncle Drew agreed, but only if he could gather his old teammates back together.  Preacher was now a church minister. Lights was legally blind. Boots was confined to a wheelchair for several years. Big Fella was now a karate teacher for little kids. Desperate, Dax had no choice but to put his trust into these old guys. 

The character Uncle Drew originated as a Pepsi commercial back in 2012, when Kyrie Irving was just 19 years old. Now only 26, Irving is still the youngest among the NBA players in the cast. Nate Robinson (Boots) is 33, Chris Webber (Preacher) is 44, Shaquille O'Neal (Big Fella) is 45, and Reggie Miller (Lights) is 51. WNBA star Lisa Leslie (Betty Lou) is also 44. Uncle Drew kept calling Dax "youngblood" but actor Lil' Rey Bowery is actually already 38.

The comedy is typical African-American style humor, generally wholesome probably since this film is aimed for the younger generation. As expected, many jokes centered around the geriatric habits and infirmities, some of which were rehashed. The old age make-up was fine, but those ugly white wigs were pretty funny. There were references only true-blue US basketball fans would get, like why Webber was told "no more timeouts".

Irving's performance was laidback and cool as Uncle Drew. Webber and Leslie (who played husband and wife here) were over-the-top amusing, while Nick Kroll (as Mookie) and Tiffany Haddish (as Jess) were over-the top annoying. Shaq's "acting" was as awkward as ever, which was funny in itself, even if he was just standing still. Bowery's sneaky mention of the film "Get Out" (in which he was also part of the cast) got an LOL out of me.

This film by Charles Stone III followed the template of most underdog sports movies in the past, so you can see how it will end a mile away. However, this film was more about Uncle Drew's philosophy in life and basketball -- trusting your abilities, respecting your teammates and playing for the love the game (not the money). These lessons were delivered loud and clear, while also giving the audience a good fun time. 6/10. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review of THE MAID IN LONDON: Travails of a "TNT"

July 6, 2018

There was not really much hype or promotion about this film before it was released this week. The title made me recall the Jennifer Lopez movie "Maid in Manhattan" (2002), and thought probably this could be a long-delayed Filipino adaptation. Just my luck that this was the only film starting on the time I arrived at the mall, so I decided to give it a try despite my better judgement. The girl at the ticket booth warned me that I was the only one in the theater for that screening. Should I take that as a warning?

Ambitious market vendor Margo (Andi Eigenmann) had to put her big plans on hold when she was forced to marry tricycle driver Ben (Matt Evans). Fast forward to 10 years and two kids later, her family went through one misfortune after the other -- deep debt, illegal recruitment, heart attack, murder, incarceration, and the like. This drove Margo to abject desperation on how to make ends meet for their daily needs, especially with her sickly daughter and invalid father. 

Margo swallowed her pride and fidelity by borrowing a big amount of money from Jayson (Polo Ravales), a wealthy former suitor now also married. This was so that she, along with her friend Faye (Alexis Navarro) can go to London to work as a chambermaid in London, albeit illegally as a tourist without a work permit. However, a sudden confession from her mother Melissa (Rina Reyes) on one of their long-distance phone conversations would turn Margo's tide of fortune in a major way.

Andi Eigenmann tried her best to portray Margo well, but she was limited by the pitiful characterization of her role by the script. Matt Evans was even more unfortunate with all the illogical and stupid things Ben had to do. Polo Ravales was made to dress and act like a young DOM. Rina Reyes was wasted in the way Melissa's most vital scene reduced to a mere voice on the phone! The amateurish acting of the largely unknown supporting actors did not help at all. Very self-conscious, they seem like they were still in need of more acting workshops.

The Maid was not in London until probably an hour and a half after the movie began. Until then, we had to wallow in the detailed depiction of Margo's miserably melodramatic life in Manila as she suffered practically all the typical misfortunes we see in Pinoy films heaped upon her and her family. This part of the film felt tiresome because of its cliched familiarity, and at times even amusing because of its predictability. 

When in London, things became more interesting as we were shown the difficult situation of illegal Filipino workers there. We see how they survive mainly through the kindness and support of fellow Filipinos who were willing to hire them despite having no papers. They simply disappear under the radar, lest they attract the attention of immigration officers and be deported. One really gets the sense of danger they lived every single day.

The quality of the camera work was unrefined in those Manila scenes, as if this was shot back in the 1990s. Even if they were in London, it was odd how the camera work was still looking so shoddy such that the Thames looked as plain as Pasig River. This was so unlike recent films shot abroad like "Meet Me in St. Galen" and "Sid & Aya," and "Never Not Love You" (which was also shot in London), where the foreign cities looked so glamorous.

Despite this being rated PG by the MTRCB, it contained two scenes of sexual assault and one scene of bludgeoning to death with a hammer. I think an R-13 would still be generous.

The extremely maudlin melodrama of the Manila scenes notwithstanding, I thought those eye-opening scenes of TNT (meaning "Tago Nang Tago" or "always hiding", a euphemism for illegal aliens) Filipino OFW's in London saved the film overall. The 11th hour twist in the story, even though how from out-of-the-blue it was, at least gave this nearly 2-1/2 hour film (with story and direction by BL Panganiban) an exciting emotional spark at its climax. 4/10. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review of THE WRITE MOMENT: Fated Feelings

July 3, 2018

"The Write Moment" was first shown in cinemas as an entry to QCinema International Film Festival October of last year. It did not win any awards at the festival, but here it is the first film among the eight entries to be released in a commercial run. Its two stars are both supporting players who never had a lead role ever before this one. So there must be something special in this film for it to be picked up by a distributor.

Dave is an average joe who worked as a scriptwriter and photographer for weddings. One day, he was suddenly dumped by his pretty girlfriend Joyce, for no apparent reason. The poor guy could not move on from his miserable abandonment, so he wrote a full screenplay where he and Joyce wind up happily ever after. After the script was written though, it magically took over from reality and had to be strictly followed to the letter by all involved until its predetermined conclusion.

I first knew of Jerald Napoles as Tolits in PETA's "Rak of Aegis" in its first incarnation before he made a bigger name for himself on TV and film. As Dave, he played basically a similar character -- a guy who may be plain in the looks department, but had a knack for chessy "hugot" (or romantic) lines which girls find irresistible. He was the life of this film and the main reason why it worked.

Valeen Montenegro is a beauty, but  the script did not really allow her to do too much for her character Joyce. After the initial dumping scene, for the rest of the film Joyce was basically acting what Dave had wanted her to do in his script. So it was understandable that she was rather mechanical and lifeless in her portrayal (as you see in the poster), because that is not her will that was being done. 

The idea of its young writer-director Dominic Lim is quite interesting and thought-provoking. Would you like to write the script for your life that was sure to be fulfilled? In case you divert, you'll relive the same moment over and over until the pre-written, predestined event comes to pass. The film actually goes into the darker, twisted (like the Dali-inspired clock used as prop) side of love, but kept it light with witty lines. The promise is there, but you feel something more could have been done. It was fine, but I felt that it did not really gain too much momentum from its potential. 5/10. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review of ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: Size-Shifting Spectacle

June 30, 2018

I rated "Ant-Man" (2015) one of my top 10 films of that year. It was very good beyond my expectations. Scott Lang (imbued by Paul Rudd with his aw-shucks boy-next-door charm) was a thief trained by genius inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his spunky daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) to become Ant-Man, a size-shifting superhero. In the mid-credits scene of that first film, we saw Hope receive her own shrinking suit. So in this sequel, we can finally see her in action as the Wasp.

The events of this film follow those of "Captain America:Civil War" (2016). Scott Lang is under house arrest for joining forces with Captain America in violation of the Sokovia Accords. However, Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne (now already The Wasp) sought Scott's help to re-enter the subatomic quantum realm to search for long-lost Janet van Dyne, who was Hank's wife, Hope's mother and the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer). 

Meanwhile, there were those who interfered with their plans. The Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wanted to hijack Pym's quantum technology to cure her of her ability to phase through objects, an affliction she accidentally gained as a child.  Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) was Hank Pym's assistant back in the day for the Goliath project, until they had a serious falling out and became bitter rivals. A shady gangster Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) was also after this quantum tech for its potential for big bucks in the black market. Federal agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park from "Fresh Off the Boat") wanted to make sure Scott remained strictly under house arrest.  

The supporting characters from the first film were all back, mostly for comic relief. Luis (Michael Pena), Scott's former cellmate, is now his partner in a security systems business. Their wacky minions Dave (Tip "T.I." Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) were also involved in their operations. Scott's ex-wife Maggie and her new husband Paxton were also still in there in more minor capacity. Scott's dear daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston) is still very much the sweet delight of the film.

The size-changing abilities of both Ant-Man and the Wasp were still the main course in terms of the special visual effects of this film. Aside from his ability to shrink, we already saw in "Civil War" that Scott can also grow up into a 65-foot giant. On the other hand, the Wasp had wings on her back and blasters on her hands as additional abilities. Various objects were also shrinking and growing as the heroes willed, from a Hello Kitty toy to various cars to an entire building. A good number of these scenes we have already seen in the trailer, though there were still a lot more action spectacles in store in the full film. Watching in 3D and IMAX is a big plus.

Director Peyton Reed succeeded in making this sequel match or even surpass the already-excellent first film. The script may have been peppered with a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo we cannot hope to comprehend, but nevertheless the plot was well-told in a most engaging manner from beginning to end. Aside from the technically-polished action scenes, the chemistry between Rudd and Lilly, its affable sense of humor, the light yet heartwarming family drama -- all contribute to make a most entertaining totality the whole family will thoroughly enjoy watching. 

Furthermore, there was that fantastic extra scene midway through the closing credits which was such tasty icing on the cake. It actually made me and the audience I was with gasp and erupt in spontaneous applause. 9/10. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review of WALWAL: Familiar Formula

June 28, 2018

I am not exactly sure when this millennial term "walwal" meaning "drink till you drop" began to be in use, but I only learned of it about two years or so ago, and not by personal experience, mind you. I do not exactly like seeing young people drinking alcohol, but I thought I should see this film to get an insight into the mindset of the college students now.

Dondi dela Cruz (Elmo Magalona) is taking up pre-law, following his father's wishes. One day, he was unexpectedly jilted by his girlfriend Carla (Jane de Leon). The suddenness of this breakup, and the harsh reason behind it, is causing him a lot of distress. 

Marco Castillo (Kiko Estrada) is the certified playboy (or in their words, a "f*boy") of the group. One day, he got involved with Trina (Devon Seron), a girl working in a networking company, a relationship which was about to change his womanizing ways. 

Bobby Fernandez (Donny Pangilinan) is a film major who constantly had a Go-Pro in his hand, documenting everything happening around him. One day, he met a cute and kooky classmate Ruby (Kisses Delavin), who turned out to be a serious film nerd like him.

Anthony "Intoy" Marquez (Jerome Ponce) could only study in East Pacific College because he is under a volleyball scholarship. His mother Ramona (Angeli Bayani), once an Urian-nominated actress who starred in bold indie films in her younger days, now ran a carinderia with her three kids from different dads. One day, Intoy asked about his dad.

Among the four guys, Jerome Ponce had the heavier story line to pull off and he did creditably, and he had to share scenes with acting heavyweight Angeli Bayani (who was simply so good as his mother). Elmo Magalona was good, but limited by the uneven way his character was written. Kiko Estrada knew his ace as he mainly played up his rascally good looks, coming across very natural in his "kilig" scenes. Donny Pangilinan tended to look awkward in his scenes, but this did fit his role.

Among the girls, it was Kisses Delavin who stood out with her delightful portrayal of Ruby, an eccentric girl who would rather be weird than boring. I enjoyed the movie trivia Ruby and Bobby were throwing at each other. Devon Seron did her part the best she could, even if her Trina could have been given more dramatically challenging scenes to do. Jane de Leon looked very photogenic in those glamor pictures of Carla that Dondi had on his phone.

Of course, with a title like "Walwal," scenes of teenagers drinking alcohol in a bar (of the rowdy type or the miserable type) were in there. Fortunately, these were not as long or as many as I was dreading, especially since this film was rated PG. There were also scenes with curse words, which unfortunately seem to be normal among the young these days. 

Like "Bagets" did back in 1984, this film cautions its young audience against being impulsive and careless in their decisions and actions. Honestly, the problems encountered by the boys -- taking a course he did not like, being dumped by a girl, getting a girl pregnant, cheating in exams, seeking out an absent father, among others -- had all been previously tackled in any of several local teen films. Even the dialogue in these scenes sound familiar. Really, do we really need to hear another "Sigurado ka bang akin yan?" ("Are you sure that is mine?")

Despite this, senior director Jose Javier Reyes still managed to make the film fresh and current with several imaginative little twists here and there in the storytelling. They all encountered sticky problems, yes, but they do not always get the easy way out, and are forced to learn tough lessons from each other's experiences. The disarming performances of the four lead stars gave the film its own charm and their female fans their thrills. 

As a parent, I was told that these Gen Z kids still need parental support (aside fraternal) despite their seeming over-confidence in themselves, but of course, I already knew that. I just wished they could have shown more about proactive parenting than the typical stereotype parents we were shown here.  7/10. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Review of HOTEL ARTEMIS: Tried to be Tarantino

June 21, 2018

Aside from its MTRCB rating of R-16, I had no idea what this one was about. When I learned that Jodie Foster was in it, I thought I should go check it out. Funny that I should watch"Hotel Artemis" today, June 21, when the film's event started exactly ten years from today. Well despite that coincidence, I hope the anarchic events depicted in the film would never come to pass in real life. 

It is June 21, 2028 and the bloodiest street rioting in US history was happening in the streets of Los Angeles because of a water crisis. That day, a gang of thieves led by Sherman and his brother went awry and they were both injured, with his brother in more critical condition. Sherman makes an urgent call to the Nurse, the elderly woman who ran Hotel Artemis, a membership-only hospital for fixing up injured criminals. 

The Nurse was assisted ably in her operations by her right-hand man Everest. Upon admission, Sherman and his brother were called Waikiki and Honolulu, based on the room they were assigned to.  The other patients there with them included an offensive loudmouth arms dealer code-named Acapulco, a sexy ruthless female assassin code-named Nice. as well as the biggest crime boss in town, the Wolf King, code-named Niagara. 

Written and directed (in his feature debut) by Drew Pearce, "Hotel Artemis" had a vibe of a violent non-superhero crime-noir graphic novel like "Sin City". We are brought into a post-apocalyptic world in the near future, where criminals have established their own exclusive hospital facilities in an old hotel building, with strict rules to follow to keep order and technology advanced enough to 3D print a liver. The set design of the hotel with its sense of decaying Art Deco glamour lent its charm to balance the violence of the story being told. 

The hotel also shared the eccentricity of its manager, the Nurse, played by the ever-reliable Jodie Foster. A family tragedy she could not move on from rendered medic Mrs. Jean Thomas a drunkard, until she was picked by the Wolf King himself to run his hospital for criminals. As the unkempt and haggard Nurse, she needed to be tough, but still she shared a genuine friendship with Everest (Dave Bautista), her trusty assistant, and showed real concern for Morgan (Jenny Slate), the girl who once lived next door to her now a cop.

Emmy award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown played Sherman?Waikiki, while Emmy nominee Brian Tyree Henry played his brother Honolulu. They came up with affecting performances as brothers, though unconvincing as notorious criminals. Female action star (ever since her star turn in "Kingsman: The Secret Service" in 2015) Sofia Boutella was an icily effective femme fatale. Charlie Day was as obnoxious as ever as Acapulco. 

Jeff Goldblum may have had only a short screen time as the Wolf King/Niagara, but his screen charisma was really undeniable. His scenes with Ms. Foster were a dramatic highlight of the whole film. Zachary Quinto had a brooding look that worked in his favor as the insecure crime lord-in-the-making Crosby Franklin, youngest son of the Wolf King, even if he was acting was hammy the whole time. 

The whole concept of the hospital was very interesting. However, unlike "Sin City" this one kept real, and thus does not immediately draw you in. So far only the Nurse, Everest and Nice standout as characters whom I want to see back again in case there is a sequel. There was a part in the middle where the momentum sagged, but once the Wolf King entered the scene, the action never let up to the end. Not bad, but this was Tarantino-lite. 6/10. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of HEREDITARY: Dark and Discombobulating

June 21, 2018

Horror films come in many forms. Over the years, there had been adventure horror films ("Cloverfield," "Anaconda"), comedy horror films ("Scream," "Scary Movie"), religious horror films ("The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby"), crime horror films ("Saw," "Silence of the Lambs"), or science fiction horror films ("Alien," "Life"), among the more common kinds. But once in a rare while you will encounter a horror film that defies any specific form of horror classification. "Hereditary" is one of those. 

Miniature artist Annie Graham lived with her husband Steve and their two kids, teenage son Peter and 13-year old daughter Charlie. Annie was already undergoing a major emotional crisis when her mom Ellen passed away, when another unspeakably shocking death followed within a few days which pushed her into a major breakdown. Annie tried advice from a friendly lady from the grief support group Joan (Anne Dowd) on how to move on, but mysterious events continue to escalate within their household.

As Annie, Toni Collette seethed with with bottled-up anger and frustration for the first half of the film, until she just erupted with pure emotional fire in that dinner table scene. That would remind people that she once had an Oscar acting nomination in 1999 as Cole's mother in "The Sixth Sense." Collette totally dominated this movie with the paranoia and hysteria that ate at her with ghastly consequence. She did have some awkward scenes, like the seance or the fireplace, probably because of how they were written.

The last film I remember Gabriel Byrne in was "The Usual Suspects" and that was way back 1995. He never had another role of consequence after that that is why I did not recognize him at once as Annie's reticent husband Steve. He also did not really do much here though.

I was distracted that the actor playing Peter, Alex Wolff, did not really look like he could be the son of Collette and Byrne. As a teenager consumed by traumatizing guilt, Wolff had a very challenging role to portray, but it tended to be uneven, especially those scenes where he was sobbing. On the other hand, Milly Shapiro, in her film debut, played the withdrawn youngest daughter Charlie. With her unusual facial features, Shapiro was able to effectively project Charlie's troubled soul. 

Annie had a fascinating job making miniature dioramas. That gave a unique set design that felt like their whole house was one of the doll houses Annie was building, like there was some outside sinister force playing them. The cinematography in near pitch black, as well as the unobstrusive musical score, were both very arthouse in approach, but for me, effectively done. I don't know if the sound was purposely toned down to almost whispers, but at times the words were not clear enough to understand.

Despite the effort to create a sense of realism to enhance the dramatic tension, there were a number of scenes that were not logical in reality, like how major accidents were processed by authorities or how severe physical injuries were managed medically. Also, that crazy off-the-wall ending is bound to polarize audiences, definitely not for everybody. I also have a feeling that many may hate it because of its glacial pace and quietness. 

This film written and directed (in his feature debut) by Ari Aster had a dark and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, and this was its most distinctive and unsettling character. The horror was happening in more than one level, and you are never sure where it was coming from until some revelations in the final scenes. Even then, you would still leave the theater boggled about the intense, nightmarish experience you just went through the past 127 minutes. I liked it because I got creeped out. Despite its plot faults, it gets its job done as a horror film for me. 7/10.