Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Yearend Roundup: The TOP 20 BEST MOVIES of 2013 That I Have Seen

December 31, 2013

According to my record, I had written 151 movie reviews this year.  That is a big increase from the 84 I wrote last year.  I have been more aware of schedules of local indie film festivals which really made a big impact in 2013.  Several local films made it into my top list this year.

This year marks a milestone for my blogging because my movie reviews are now being picked up and posted on ABS-CBNNews.com! As of this writing, a total of 58 of my reviews have made it on the pages of the most popular local news website.  Among my most read reviews published on ABS-CBNNews.com were those of "The Conjuring" (LINK) and "10,000 Hours" (LINK).

For this list, I had not included the 23 articles written about films which had been released in 2012 or earlier, but I had only seen in 2013. These were mostly the Oscar winning films released in December 2012, but only hit local theaters in 2013. 

Potential Oscar-winning films of this year which will only be shown in January 2014 locally are also not included here, like "American Hustle," "12 Years a Slave," "Her," "Nebraska," etc...

Honorable Mentions (11-20)

20. Now You See Me (Full review)

19. Mga Anino ng Kahapon (Full review, ABS-CBN)

18. Tuhog (Full review, ABS-CBN)

17. Sana Dati (Full review, ABS-CBN)

16. Before Midnight (Full review)

15. Man of Steel (Full review)

14, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (Full review)

13. Frozen (Full review, ABS-CBN)

12. The Conjuring (Full review, ABS-CBN)

11. Ekstra (Full review, ABS-CBN)

Here are the 10 Best Films of 2013 that I have seen and written about:

10.  Ilo Ilo (Full review, ABS-CBN)

To help with the household chores and to take care of son Jiale, a middle-class Singaporean couple decide to hire a maid from the Philippines, Teresa (Angeli Bayani). It was a huge challenge for Terry to get integrated into the family system and into Jiale's troubled life, but she eventually does. But as the Lims (Yeo Yan Yan and Tian Wen Chen) experience escalating monetary woes, they need to make an important decision about Terry.

The actors were all subdued in their acting, which makes the performances so realistic.  You can feel that the intentions of the film and its director Anthony Chen were only modest, but the sincerity is very palpable, and that is what makes the film connect so well with its audiences. 9/10.

9.  Oblivion (my full review)

The setting is the future after aliens have destroyed the Earth. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a technician who fixes drones or "Wall- E"-like flying robot police gofers of that time.  A female crew member of a pod that crash-landed named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and a band of human rebels (led by Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gives Jack an insight on his real nature

Writer-director Joseph Kosinski really had a good story and he tells it very well indeed. He knows how to maximize the talents of his crew to create this audacious yet reflective sci-fi masterpiece. 9/10.

8.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Full review, ABS-CBN)

In celebration of the 75th year of the Hunger Games, previous Victors (one male and one female) from each District to fight in another games to the death called the Quarter Quell. Being the only female Victor of District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was an automatic contestant, and the odds were stacked against her favor. How will the results of this special edition of the Hunger Games affect the revolution already catching fire outside the Capitol walls? 

This film tackles serious political topics very well, simplified for its young target audience, but not in a way that insults more mature viewers. This is a perfectly-made bridging film by director Francis Lawrence.  It stands very well on its own merits, as much as it guarantees that the next two films in the franchise will be blockbusters. 9/10.

7.  10,000 Hours (Full review, ABS-CBN)

As his warrant of arrest was being served, Sen. Gabriel Alcaraz (Robin Padilla) was able to elude authorities led by Gen. Dante Cristobal (Michael de Mesa) with the help of an aggressive news reporter Maya Limchauco (Bela Padilla). He manages to make his way to Amsterdam to hide out, but back home, his wife Anna (Mylene Dizon) and children bear the consequential backlash of his controversial escape. The title "10,000 Hours" refers to the number of hours Alcaraz was on the lam.  

This was a very well-crafted Filipino film of a quality that is rarely seen.  The technical aspect was flawless, impressively by an almost all-female behind-the-scenes crew.  Bb. Joyce Bernal assuredly assembles and delivers to us a final product of such fine quality that elevates her craft high and above all the rom-coms she is more known for. 9/10.

6.  The Great Gatsby (Full review)

A man named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo di Caprio) moves heaven and earth, building his immense wealth from practically nothing, to be with Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the woman he adored.  Unfortunately, Daisy had married wealthy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) because she believed rich girls cannot marry poor boys.

This film is a vast improvement over the 1974 film. The use of flashbacks in this current version to show us more about the history of Gatsby as a boy and young man was really helpful to understand where he was coming from. You will really notice director Baz Luhrmann's touch in the lavish and opulent parties that Gatsby held in his West Egg mansion and in the musical soundtrack department. 9/10.

5.  Rush (Full review, ABS-CBN)

During the 1976 F1 season, the very serious Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) was leading all the way on total points until a devastating event threatened not only his crown, but his life. Can Niki summon enough will to fight the mortal odds and recover in order to race to the finish, or will the charismatic James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) just be handed the cup of his dreams on a silver platter?

Even if I did not know Lauda and Hunt, I was drawn into their story complete with all the ingredients of epic action, drama, and romance. Director Ron Howard does not lose control of his material as everything fell in its right place in the gripping final cut of the film. 9/10.

4.  On The Job (Full review)

Mario (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson) are convicts who are being sneaked out of prison and hired as hitmen by a powerful highly-connected syndicate. After they bungle a job to execute a policeman, the secure web of protection around them begin to unravel as an idealistic NBI lawyer Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual) and a maverick but sincere policeman PO1 Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez) threaten to throw this assassination ring wide open up to its highest levels.

The technical aspects of the film are outstanding, particularly the cinematography and the film editing.  The atmosphere created by director Erik Matti was very tense and exciting. The suspense was heart-pounding as the pace is frenetic, and you would not know what will happen with succeeding scenes.  This film is NOT predictable. 9/10.

3.  Badil (Full review, ABS-CBN)

In a small island barangay in Samar on the day before local elections, Mang Ponso (Dick Israel) is working hard to ensure his candidate, the incumbent Mayor Del Mundo, wins by making sure their sworn supporters vote as they promise.  Because of Ponso's physical disabilities brought about by a recent stroke, his eldest son Lando (Jhong Hilario) has to fill in his father's duties, exposing him to the seedy underbelly of local grassroots politics, where MONEY does all the talking.

The script of Rody Vera was so well-written, so gritty, down-to-earth, natural, and educational as well. Director Chito Rono proves that even with a limited budget of P1.5M from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, one can create a film with beautiful cinematography, exciting editing, artistic depth and national significance. Now that is a true Master. 9/10.

2.  Star Trek Into Darkness (Full review)

The key scenes between Kirk and Spock were essayed so well by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. I enjoyed the interaction and the cooperation among the crew, each with their own talents. Simon Pegg (as Scotty) and Karl Urban (as Dr. Bones) particularly stand out. The antagonist is a super- soldier first known as Harrison. Upcoming actor Benjamin Cumberbatch portrays this super-villain with amazing screen presence and convincing menace. 

Director JJ Abrams has come up with a movie that will satisfy both old and new fans of this revered franchise. It covers all aspects of the Star Trek that makes it the long-lasting popular favorite that it is: the teamwork, the adventure, the action, the drama, and yes, the humor, all are still definitely there. 10/10.

1.  Gravity (Full review, ABS-CBN)

"Gravity" tells of the unenviable situation experienced by medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her astronaut mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) when an accidental disaster caused by a shower of satellite debris destroys their space station, leaving them floating in deep space.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has created a masterpiece that knows when to move for excitement and when to stop for meditation. We enjoy the breathtaking ride through the dangerous outer frontiers. We also get to look inwards to the essence of our own minuscule humanity in stark contrast to the vastness of the universe. We will feel agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time while Stone and Kowalski struggle to keep themselves alive. 10/10.


 * My Top 10 of 2012 is posted HERE.

** My Top 10 of 2011 is posted HERE.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review of 10,000 HOURS: Extraordinary Technical Excellence

December 28, 2013

I only had a fleeting glimpse of a TV ad of "10,000 Hours" and those few seconds were enough to convince that I had to watch this film.  The quality of the cinematography was unlike any Filipino film I had seen before.  The whole film more than fulfills its promise.

Philippine Senator Gabriel Molino Alcaraz (Robin Padilla) is about to spill the beans on a pork barrel scam that reaches all the way to the presidency of Genoviva Martinez Obrero (Bibeth Orteza).  Instead, he gets implicated in the murder of an NBI director who was his friend.  

As his warrant of arrest was being served, Alcaraz was able to elude authorities led by Gen. Dante Cristobal (Michael de Mesa) with the help of an aggressive news reporter Maya Limchauco (Bela Padilla). He manages to make his way to Amsterdam to hide out and to search for a long-lost witness Salvador Jago (Pen Medina) who could clear his name.  

Back in the country though, his wife Anna (Mylene Dizon) and children bear the consequential backlash of his controversial escape.  

The title "10,000 Hours" refers to the number of hours Alcaraz was on the lam.  The plot was obviously inspired by recent real-life political events.  However, the film ends with a statement that the events depicted in the film are entirely fictional.

Robin Padilla was entirely in his element as the lawmaker on the run from the law.  His acting here was very subdued as the entire treatment of the film required.  We see a different Robin here. As he shucks his trademark denims for smart winter wear, and he sports a fresh demeanor free from his old acting tics. His execution of the action scenes were skilled and realistic.  Robin dominates this film with his unfading screen presence and charisma.

The other members of the cast do very well in their supporting roles.  Standing out were Mylene Dizon as the brave wife who later reaches her breaking point, Cholo Barreto as the eldest son Benjo who had to bear the brunt of the family shame, Carla Humphries as the Amsterdam contact Isabelle, Michael de Mesa as the old friend turned pursuer, and Pen Medina as the former police asset turned vital witness.

Bela Padilla plays the lady reporter Maya, who had her own ulterior motives for helping the senator. Despite her beauty, I felt she was not able to project enough maturity to be believable as her character. Maybe an actress a little older than Bela could have tackled this critical role better.  Her interaction with her goofy cameraman Jerome (Ketchup Eusebio) also could have been better.

I felt "10,000 Hours" was a very well-crafted Filipino film of a quality that is rarely seen.  The technical aspect was flawless, impressively by an almost all-female behind-the-scenes crew. The screenplay written by Ryllah Epifania Berico and Keiko Aquino was practically perfect as it neatly told a story that spanned nearly three decades interconnecting multiple generations of characters.

The  imported-looking photography of the film by Marissa Floreindo was resplendent, both in the local and the Amsterdam locations.  The film editing by Marya Ignacio was exciting and tense.  The music by Teresa Barrozo added much to the suspenseful atmosphere of the film. Director Bb. Joyce Bernal assuredly assembles and delivers to us a final product of such fine quality that elevates her craft high and above all the rom-coms she is more known for.

It fully deserves the A-rating given by the Film Evaluation Board.  I wish more people would watch movies like this, so that more of them could be made.  9/10.

Review of BOY GOLDEN: Campy and Violent, But Earnest

December 26, 2013

When I first saw the poster of "Boy Golden" with lead actor Jeorge ER Ejercito sporting that ridiculously fake-looking mustache and beard, it actually discouraged me from watching this. But when I saw that this was directed by Chito S. Rono (whose last work "Badil" was excellent), I decided to give it a chance.  This is the first film I watched for this year's Metro Manila Film Festival.

"Boy Golden" is the story of a real-life gangster from the 1960s named Arturo Porcuna. Porcuna, alias Anino, was the head of the notorious Bahala Na Gang. After his release from jail, now using the monicker Boy Golden, he is hot on the trail of the rival gang leader Tony Razon (John Estrada) who was responsible for killing his family and the rape/murder of his sister Baby. With his wealthy benefactor Atty. Dante Sagalongos (Eddie Garcia) and a feisty sexy dancer in distress Marla De Guzman (KC Concepcion) behind him, Boy Golden plots and executes his revenge on Razon, but not without his own losses.

As with his previous MMFF entries as Asiong Salonga and as Emilio Aguinaldo, the problem with the films of Gov. Jeorge Ejercito is himself. He does not really project well as an action star because of his benign visage and un-athletic physique. He also has a rather unrealistic style of acting which tends to go over- the-top. Director Rono was somehow able to down the camp in his acting. Ejercito is lucky that the over-all quality of this film and how technically meticulous it was somehow makes up for his deficiencies as lead star.

Again as before, the veteran supporting cast does more memorable work than the lead.

Eddie Garcia has that easy-going style that made him a popular character actor all these years. He had to endure a particularly harrowing torture scene, surely very difficult for someone of his advanced age. John Estrada we know can play a good villain as from his TV work, and he projects that same sinister charisma here. He has limited screen time though.

Gloria Sevilla (as the gun-toting Aling Puring), Baron Geisler (as the "Twilight"-like Datu Putla), Leo Martinez (as stereotypical Chinaman Mr. Ho), Roi Vinzons (as reckless Alias Tekla) and Dick Israel (as doomed but dignified Boy Bungal) all have their moments of note, as well as hammy melodrama, as members of Razon's gang. .

Special mention has to go to Ms. KC Concepcion for bravely tackling her very daring role as Marla D. It was very daring not only superficially (she had to wear tight, cleavage-baring costumes the whole time), but also physically (she had many intense fight sequences) and emotionally (she actually had to convince us she falls in love with Boy Golden). She is really a striking gorgeous presence here, and commands attention in all the scenes she was in. She may be a contender for Best Actress for this festival.

I have to commend the production designer who really took pains to recreate the 1960s in the houses, the streets, the cars, the costumes and make-up. These sets and little details all brought us back in time. The blood effects did not look very real though. The cinematography was clean, with inventive camera angles. The action sequences were well-executed, even with parkour sequences on rooftops, but these tended to be too long.

The story-telling felt over-stretched though to achieve an "epic" feel, when it could have been more compact. There were parts towards the end that felt bloated and preachy. Less could have been more. I did appreciate the awkward attempts at kitschy humor (like the dancing to Elvis songs among others) to break the film's violent core. That said though, I felt the classification of R-13 was too generous. Given the film's depiction of criminal gang activity with all the attendant blood, gore and violence. I thought an R-16 was more appropriate. 

"Boy Golden" is generally well-made gangster movie, but it is not without its flaws. It may be campy and violent, but it was certainly an earnest effort by its cast and crew. 6/10.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review of THE ACT OF KILLING: Murder They Said

December 22, 2013

The Cinemanila International Film Festival has the noble aim of bringing World Cinema to the Philippines and Philippine Cinema to the World. On this its 15th year, the festival is exclusively held at the new SM Aura. Aside from the films in competition, there are also features from World Cinema and South East Asian cinema, including up to seven contenders in the Oscar Best Foreign Film shortlist.

The Danish documentary film "The Act of Killing" is one of the films in the World Cinema category. It is directed by American director Josh Oppenheimer, who had immersed himself in this project for a decade. The final product is nothing less than bizarre.

In the 1960s, Indonesian death squads carried out mass executions mainly of ethnic Chinese immigrants assumed to be communists. In this unbelievable documentary, Oppenheimer was actually able to cajole these real-life killers to talk about and even act out their killing sprees in the guise of a whimsical film project.

Underneath the seemingly innocuous song and dance numbers and the cross- dressing, we vicariously relive the murderous acts as the perpetrators themselves describe and reenact these chilling scenes of murder as they happened years ago.

Strangely, there might be some humor to be felt as these amateur "actors" awkwardly act in front of the camera, talking about their Hollywood pegs. These death squad people relate their heinous deeds lightly and nonchalantly, as if these were totally regular events. However, you are always jolted by the fact that hey, these people actually did these harrowing acts -- stranglings, decapitations, immolations, and more -- for real!

For this unique conceit alone, "The Act of Killing" is an achievement in film making. It was able to permanently record and recreate a most infamous period in Indonesia's recent history with the full cooperation of the very men who were responsible for the reprehensible and cruel acts that marred that time. I am not sure if this type of work is unprecedented, but it is a definitely ground-breaking achievement. The medium of film was created for this. 7/10.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review of PARKLAND: Collateral Damage

December 20, 2013

This film "Parkland" was made with a color palette purposefully muted to mesh seamlessly with actual news reels about that fateful day of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. That was the day an assassin's bullet killed beloved US President John F. Kennedy. The title Parkland refers to the name of the hospital where the fallen president was brought for emergency treatment.  

This film though was unlike the other films we might have already seen about the Kennedy Assassination. This is definitely not another "JFK" that offers more conspiracy theories. In fact, this movie is not even directly about JFK himself, nor Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby, who were the major players in this real-life drama. "Parkland" interweaves for us the stories of various individuals who were indirectly dragged into the tragic mess of that day by sheer chance or coincidence.

Abraham Zapruder is a name we always hear when the topic is about the JFK assassination. Of course, his iconic film clip that graphically shows how the fatal bullet hit JFK during his motorcade. But we do not know or see Zapruder himself until this film. As portrayed by Paul Giamatti, his performance was topnotch and stirring as he grappled with the unwanted responsibility of having captured the moment of JFK's death on film.

Forrest Sorrels is a veteran member of the Secret Service who is devastated that his perfect record of protecting his 'Man" had just been broken on that day. Billy Bob Thornton portrays this character with utmost respect and dignity. We also meet other SS men like Roy Kellerman (Tom Welling), with their touching display of utmost loyalty to their fallen leader.

Dr. Charles Jim Carrico was the emergency room-resident on duty that fateful day. Having Zac Efron portray this character was initially distracting because of his star wattage. However, Efron played it very cool despite his character not knowing fully what to do, and being drenched with presidential blood. Colin Hanks played the attending consultant Dr. Matthew Perry, though his screen presence paled beside Efron's. Marcia Gay Harden plays a methodical ER nurse.

James Hosty is an FBI agent who had been investigating about Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the assassination. However, unfortunately he never really thought Oswald could kill JFK. He was played by Ron Livingstone as this person wracked by guilt and conscience as his superiors do not disguise their dismay for his lack of foresight.

Robert Oswald is the brother of Lee Harvey who was ashamed about the role his brother played in American History. James Badge Dale played this character with his internal conflicts out on his sleeve. The Oswald matriarch Margeruite, though, was convincingly played by Jacki Weaver perfectly off - kilter.

The whole film, with its production design so meticulously faithful to that period, looked like a documentary the way it was handled by new director Peter Landesman. This approach may be considered dry or boring for people who are not familiar about these events or these personalities.   But for history buffs, baby boomers and Gen X'ers, the novel point of view presented by this film about a very infamous historical incident is very interesting and absorbing.   7/10.

Review of MGA ANINO NG KAHAPON: Beyond Stereotypes

December 19, 2013

Showing in Glorietta 4 Cinema 1 and Megamall Cinema 7 this week is the Metro Manila Film Festival New Wave 2013.  This 4-year old indie film festival, a prelude to the long-running local Christmas tradition of MMFF, runs from December 18 to 24. Tickets are priced at only P100 each.  There are five official entries this year.

"Mga Anino ng Kahapon" (English title: "Shadows of the Past") is one of them. It has already been Rated A by the Cinema Evaluation Board, giving it advanced buzz.  It tackles the very heavy topic of schizophrenia.  You have to prepare yourself to be immersed into multiple perspectives of this maligned psychiatric condition.

Ed and Irene are both nurses, married with a young son, Brian.  Not long after Ed leaves to work in Dubai, Irene begins to have various progressively strange behaviors, ranging from paranoia about home security to entertaining "house guests" that only she can see.  As Irene's condition worsens, her entire family is thrown into a shambles as bad memories from her past, as well as Ed's life, add further pain and drama to what she is going through.

Ms. Agot Isidro, we have always recognized to be an excellent dramatic actress in her roles on television.  In this role, she portrayed descent into madness of this wife and mother with delicacy and subtlety.  We never really know when she is in a lucid state of mind or not.  She certainly did not go all "Sisa" on us.  This is a most riveting performance that should merit serious awards consideration.

TJ Trinidad, I took notice of his acting talent when I saw "The Road," and then in "Sana Dati." Here, TJ was again on top of his game, despite the fact that he does not really look like a financially-challenged nurse.  As the long-suffering husband of Irene, TJ  effectively showed the valiant effort of his character to remain sane for the sake of his family, no matter how frustrating that could be.

Special mention has to go to Carlo Cruz, who played Ed's younger brother Carlo.  He had his own important moments in this film.  Two of these were among the most memorable in the entire film  -- the one where he was eating breakfast with Irene, and another one about his girlfriend Cathy.

I have to say though that viewing this film was not as morbid as the synopsis would have you expect. Director Alvin Yapan, who also wrote the screenplay, tackled this with dignity and restraint, and also with a sense of humor.  The sense of suspense hanging throughout the film was gripping, you would not know what to expect next. The photography was excellently dramatic, with some intense close-ups loaded with meaning.  Aside from schizophrenia, the story touched also on various local issues as diverse as OFWs to Martial Law.

This is a small movie for a seemingly limited audience, but its message, though depressing, is socially-relevant and deserves to be tackled in film and widely seen.    The problems with schizophrenia patients were vividly shown here, and people need to know these things in order to empathize with them and their families. There is no stereotype here, just a real and compassionate portrayal of a debilitating and much stigmatized mental condition.  8/10

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reviews of THE HOBBIT1 and 2: How to Fight a Dragon

December 15, 2013

THE HOBBIT 1: An Unexpected Journey

I did not watch this film when it was first shown last year. Honestly, the Hobbits were not exactly my favorite among the characters of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. So why was I going to watch a long three-hour movie all about a Hobbit?! However, now that there is buzz about the second film being shown in cinemas this week, I have decided to watch this first film finally in order to watch its well-reviewed sequel.

It turns out "The Hobbit" is really about only ONE Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Aside from the Grey Wizard Gandalf, the rest of the characters going on the titular "Unexpected Journey" are actually Dwarfs. The journey was made to help the Dwarf warrior Thorin recover the lost Dwarf Kingdom Erebor from under the control of the dragon Smaug (that is the name in the sequel's title). 

On this journey, they will encounter Goblins and Orcs who will imperil them in various spectacular elaborately-executed, yet obviously computer generated battles scenarios. Every member of the quest group seemed to have charmed lives the way they escape even the most precarious and deadly situations. These action scenes were fun to watch in their video-game-like presentations, though they went on a tad too long.

There will also be quiet scenes, and these were actually more effective. Gandalf will have an audience of Lady Galadriel in Riverdell. And in the best part of the film, Bilbo will encounter Gollum, and we will witness how the Hobbit gains possession of Gollum's "preciousssss" Ring. This was THE big moment of the whole film though it only comes after the second hour already, when you may already be zoned off since nothing of any big significance happened before this iconic scene.

This first film really just prepared us for this second film when they will actually encounter Smaug. OK, now I am ready to watch Part II. 7/10.


THE HOBBIT 2:  The Desolation of Smaug

I'm glad I was able to watch the first Hobbit film before watching this film. This sequel did not really go into much detail in reviewing the past episode for the benefit of those who missed it. Though you may eventually pick the story up if you were astute, but those with less concentration may get lost. 

"The Desolation of Smaug" picks up from the first film.  While Gandalf (Ian Mc Kellen) went looking for the Necromancer in Dor Guldur, our titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the 13 Dwarfs led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor. Along the way, they encounter deadly Orcs, Giant Spiders and Elves who give them a harrowing time. With the help of Bard (Luke Evans), a human from Laketown, they reach their destination and encounter Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon that had taken over the Dwarfs' old realm.

Again like the first film, there are several memorable action sequences that make this a film to enjoy and remember. That scene with the vicious Giant Spiders will chill your spine, though it admittedly was too long for comfort. Then there was that entertaining and breathtaking sequence where the Dwarfs were escaping in wooden barrels down a river while being attacked by Orcs, as the elegant Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and she-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) come to their aid with their awesomely graceful archery and fighting skills.

If the highlight of the first film was the encounter of Bilbo and Gollum, in this film it was the encounter of Bilbo and the dragon Smaug The special visual effect that was Smaug was very convincing that this was a living breathing beast. Its voice, lent by the versatile Benjamin Cumberbatch, is tauntingly sinister and evil. That entire last hour with Smaug as the Dwarfs were doing all they can within their ingenuity and ability to kill him was worth the price of admission in itself. (On retrospect though, all of this fighting had actually been all for naught, since the dwarves knew very well what was needed to kill the dragon, and they do not have that particular weapon with them.) 

The story telling of Peter Jackson dragged or stretched on a lot of occasions during the film, but you will eventually get your bearings straight when the next scene comes on. Editing could have been more judicious. A romance angle was introduced by Jackson where there was none in the book, which though not really necessary, was not distracting at all from the main story. Cinematography was topnotch as production design was spectacular, though the CGI can be overwhelming.  The ending comes just when you are whetted up for a big fight scene.  We will really have to catch that final film in the trilogy to see that monumental battle come to life. 8/10.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review of FROZEN: Icy Sentimentality

December 10, 2013

The latest Disney opus "Frozen" is based on the Hans Christian Andersen's complex tale entitled "The Snow Queen." 

In this dark story, two close friends named Kai and Gerda were separated when splinters of an enchanted troll mirror enters Kai's eyes and heart and makes him hate everything around him. The Snow Queen kisses the boy, making him forget Gerda and his family, and takes him to her frozen palace. Gerda risks all odds to locate Kai and when she finds him, her warm tears of love melts the shards of mirror from Kai's heart and eyes, and releases him from the Snow Queen's spell.

"Frozen" is nothing like this story at all. From the original, we only get the ice palace, someone's heart getting frozen and needing true love to be saved. The story spun from these elements is a wholly original tale about two royal sisters. One, Elsa, had a wonderful but dangerous power to create ice and wintry weather. The other one, Anna, being normal, had been kept in the dark about her sister's power following a near-tragic accident, so the two had been estranged since childhood. 

Several years later, at Elsa's coronation day as Queen, Anna meets and was swept off her feet by the charming Prince Hans.  However, Elsa suddenly had to flee her kingdom when her powers were inadvertently revealed to the public during the ceremony. Anna goes out to search for her sister. Along the way, she meets a kind ice-maker Kristoff, his hardy reindeer Sven, and a talking snowman named Olaf who join her on her quest. Can Anna find her sister, mend their relationship, discover true love in time, and save their kingdom from the eternal winter that envelops it?

The visuals of the wintry wonderland where this animated film is set were fantastically rendered. That part where Elsa was building her palace of ice was a most wondrous and spectacular scene that will inspire awe. On the debit side however, delightful as how his character may have been written, I did not like the way they drew the face of Olaf the snowman. (Truth to tell, when I first saw Olaf and his corny goofy look in the trailer, I almost did not want to watch the whole film.) 

Aside from the visuals, the aural experience in this film is likewise grand. The song that accompanied Elsa's emancipation entitled "Let It Go" was breathtaking as sung by the incomparable Idina Menzel. This was easily the best and most memorable song of the film. Many of the songs, like Anna's "For the First Time in Forever", were Broadway-esque, sweeping and romantic. The Trolls (who raised Kristoff) and Olaf have featured quirky songs of their own. Though cute, these songs seemed melodically out of place from the other songs.

The fact that this film had two female heroines will make this film appeal more to the young female demographic. The story line of sisterly love and devotion is also a novel approach that makes this production stand out from the other Disney classics. Elsa is an incredible character with a unique and interesting predicament because of the powers she possessed. It would have been better I think if the film centered more on Elsa than on Anna.  8/10.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review of ENDER'S GAME: Twisted Education

December 8, 2013

"Ender's Game" is a science-fiction film about kids being recruited to be soldiers to fight aliens who threaten to destroy humanity.  Andrew Wiggin (nicknamed Ender) was the youngest of three siblings, an elder brother Peter who hates him and a sister Valentine who is very devoted to him.   Ender was recruited by Coronel Graff when he was observed to have the requisite temperament and leadership potential.  He defied all the odds stacked against him by his wits and cunning, and finally being able to successfully destroy his targets in the ultimate simulation test.  But he finds out that he has done more than the game he thought he was playing.

Lead star Asa Butterfield has grown up taller since his role two years ago in the Oscar-nominated film Hugo under Martin Scorsese.  It is impressive that he has these two big films in a row, both with him playing the title role.  He is obviously older than the book Ender (by 10 years!), but he was still able to show the vulnerability of this character underneath his military tactical genius.  

The rest of the cast are an impressive mix of Academy-Award winning or nominated actors. Harrison Ford (nominated for Witness in 1986) energetically plays gruff Coronel Graff.  Viola Davis (nominated for The Help in 2011) plays Graff's assistant Maj. Gwen Anderson. Hailee Steinfeld (nominated for True Grit in 2010) plays Ender's training pal Petra.  Abigail Breslin (nominated for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006) plays Ender's loving sister Valentine.  And finally Ben Kingsley (won for Gandhi in 1982) plays Mazer Rackham, savior of the human race in the second alien attack, who also became Ender's mentor.

This film is based on the first novel of what would be a series of five books by Orson Scott Card, aimed for the teenage-young adult crowd. The book contained a lot of psychological analysis of children and violence that underlie the action, which the movie cannot possibly completely convey.  

The book also had much younger characters than what was shown onscreen, like Ender was supposed to have been six years old only. The film nevertheless was a faithful enough adaptation, albeit rushed in parts in the name of cinematic license.   It was able to bring to life the action in the training hall and the zero-gravity simulation rooms that would of course rely on the reader's imagination in the book.

The film's casting of short and hook-nosed Moises Arias as Bonzo Madrid is also puzzling, since the book describes Ender's tormentor in Battle School to be "tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender lips that hinted at refinement."  Arias is nothing like that physically at all, but the contrast of his Bonzo with Asa's Ender was strikingly ironic.

I found it strange that a movie about a devastating alien race never actually shows anything scary about these monsters or what they were supposed to have destroyed on Earth in the past.  Instead we see a seemingly gentle and graceful leaf-like insect creature, so as the audience, we are not completely convinced about Ender's mission or Graff's true intentions. 

So, "Ender's Game" is good enough as a sci-fi movie with young adult characters in the lead. For me though, the whole film, even with its spectacular special effects, feels strangely generic, and an amalgam of various similar movies in the past.  Maybe I am just not its proper target demographic. 6/10.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Review of HOURS: Fine Final Showcase for Paul Walker the Actor

December 6, 2013

I will admit that I would probably not have watched this movie if Paul Walker had not tragically passed away last Sunday. Prior to this, I only knew about Walker from the "Fast and Furious" films. This quiet little film certainly introduced me to a whole new and better Paul Walker.

"Hours" is about Nolan Hayes. His wife Abby was rushed into a hospital because of premature labor minutes before Super-Hurricane Katrina hit their city. Difficulties pile up on Nolan as the hospital is evacuated, but he could not leave because his newborn daughter is hooked on a ventilator while in an incubator. Nolan had to deal the power outage, malfunctioning battery, food shortage, violent looters, and abject loneliness as he is trapped in desperate isolation.

The production values of this film are obviously low budget, with a mediocre supporting cast and a script that tended to be melodramatic. But there is no denying "Hours" is an incredible one-man show for Paul Walker, the Actor. Very few actors have attempted this sort of project where basically there is only one character. Tom Hanks did it in "Cast Away" and Sandra Bullock did it in "Gravity", and now this project for Walker. 

I have to say that Walker surpassed my expectations and actually pulled it off very well with a very memorable performance. You can feel his frustration and his desperation as the hours pass hopelessly and endlessly. The tears that rolled down his face all look like they came from very deep emotions welling within him. The final scene was a thing of absolute beauty which alone elevates the entire film to a higher level. 

With this film, we will see the breadth and depth of Walker's true acting talent, now lost in that horrific car crash. Fortunately, he was still able to release this one special film to forever remind us of his abilities which we will now be missing. 6/10.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review of ILO ILO: Sincerely Authentic

December 7, 2013

This film "Ilo Ilo" put Singapore on the map of world cinema when it won the Camera D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Finally, it is now being shown here in the country where the titular place name originates.

We do not even hear the word "Ilo Ilo" mentioned during the film's 99-minute running time, though we do hear the maid Terry speak in the Ilonggo dialect of Iloilo province when she makes a long-distance phone call back home. I doubt if non-Filipinos will recognize that little linguistic detail, so they might wonder about the English title. The Mandarin title of this film is actually "Father, Mother Not At Home." This was exactly what the movie was all about.

We meet a middle-class Singaporean family, the Lims, feeling the crunch of the Asian Economic Crisis during the late 1990s. The father has lost his job in sales and has to make do by accepting a more menial job. The mother is pregnant with their second child, and has a thankless clerical job, typing letters for employees about to lose their jobs. The son Jiale is a naughty little rascal who is obsessed with the lottery, his Tamagotchi and getting himself sent to the Principal's office.

To help with the household chores and to take care of Jiale, the couple decide to hire a maid from the Philippines, Teresa. It was a huge challenge for Terry to get integrated into the family system and into Jiale's troubled life, but she eventually does. But as the Lims continued to experience escalating monetary woes, they need to make an important decision about Terry.

This is actually a simple story of a family going through rough financial times and their relationship with their helper. We usually see this type of story from the point of view of the helper, but this time we see the employer's perspective. 

The actors who play Lim family are very real in their roles. Tian Wen Chen essays the down-on-his-luck father role with just the right amount of humor. Yeo Yan Yan portrays the frustrations of her character with her life, her husband AND her son very well.  Her inner conflicts when she sees Jiale bonding with his Auntie Terry were eloquently reflected on her face. The child actor who plays Jiale is quite the natural in his portrayal.  It was surprising to find out later that this was his first ever film role, maybe that is why it was bereft of artificiality.

As for Terry, we don't really know who she was before she came here. She has several skills like cutting hair or driving, but what exactly did she do for a living before going to Singapore? We will also not know what will happen to her after her last scene. Teresa was not really the main character here but she was the important catalyst for the family's story to be more interesting. Filipina actress Angeli Bayani hits the right notes in this role, perfectly mixing her character's timidity and subservience with loyalty and dignity.

Director Anthony Chen toned down everything in his treatment of this story, the script of which he himself wrote based from his own memories about his childhood and his Filipina yaya (or baby sitter). The colors were muted to almost a pale sepia.  There were no scenes of exaggerated melodrama, no over-the-top shouting nor crying, which makes the emotions so authentic.  The actors were all subdued in their acting, which makes the performances so realistic.  You can feel that the intentions of the film were only modest, but the sincerity is very palpable, and that is what makes the film connect so well with its audiences. 9/10.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review of BYZANTIUM: Bloody, Sexy, Cool

November 29, 2013

It may not seem like it by the Greek-sounding title, but "Byzantium" actually tells us a story about British vampires spanning two centuries. It is based on the play by Moira Buffini, who also wrote the adapted screenplay.

The Byzantium in the title is the name of a rundown resort in the English coastline where a couple of 200-year old female vampires (who call themselves soucriants), the gorgeous harlot Clara and her daughter Eleanor, seek refuge, hiding from those who seek to destroy them. For their sustenance, Clara sticks to her skills in the world's oldest profession, while Eleanor mercifully visits nursing homes. 

When Eleanor tells her incredible life story to her new friend Frank, he could not help but share her writings to others. Alerted to their whereabouts, the all-male vampire fraternity that Clara defied in the past would come back to exact their revenge.

This is a film that stars Gemma Arterton and that was enough reason for me to catch this otherwise unheralded film. This beautiful actress shows us yet another facet of her gem-like talent, this time as the mother vampire Clara. Her character here is willful, headstrong and violent, and Ms. Arterton certainly bought on that fire and passion in her performance.

Saoirse Ronan is really the go-to girl nowadays for these unusual teenage girl characters -- from "Atonement" to "The Lovely Bones", "Hanna", "The Host", and now here in "Byzantium", as the eternal 16-year old Eleanor. She has her trademark cerebral attack to her role, with quiet dignity and poetic musings. Her subdued performance plays in perfect sharp contrast with the vibrant Arterton.  Ronan has good chemistry with Caleb Landry Jones as her sickly friend Frank.

The other surprise in the credits of this film is that the director is none other than Neil Jordan. In 1994, it was also Jordan who gave us THE vampire film of that decade, "Interview with a Vampire." "Interview," based on the book by Anne Rice, arguably remains to be the better film. But "Byzantium" definitely has a distinct charm of its own, with its brighter color palette (especially the reds), with inventive special effects, and of course, the two vital female leads. 

My main problem with this film would be its slow pace, taking almost two hours to tell its story. This could make less interested viewers lose their patience.  Otherwise, this is a lush production with sweeping images and high quality production values, which will appeal to most audiences, especially to fans of vampire lore.  6/10.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review of AS I LAY DYING: Mortal Ruminations

November 27, 2013

"As I Lay Dying" is not an easy sell as a commercial film. The title already intimates that it will be a depressing story about Death. It is based on the novel of an author, who, while being a Nobel Laureate, is not really known for being very easy to read -- William Faulkner. Hence, we can expect a film that is similarly hard to watch. Upon giving it a go, I am not wrong on both counts. But I was pleasantly surprised that I actually liked it.

This film is about the Bundrens, a poor but proud rural family from the boondocks of Mississippi. The mother Addie (Beth Grant) dies at the beginning of the film. Her husband Anse and their five children bring her coffin a long distance to Addie's hometown to be buried, in order to fulfill a dying wish. Along their long trip, we will get to know each character better as each one has his own little story to tell.

This is one very slow film which will strain the patience of the most moviegoers. The contemplative script is full of deep monologues as each character tells his version of life. It certainly reflects the style that Faulkner is famous for -- his stream of consciousness writing style as well as the multiple narrators. 

This is the directorial debut of hard-working star James Franco, who has certainly gone a long way from when we first knew him as Harry Osborne in "Spider Man." He also wrote the adapted screenplay, bravely tackling a difficult source novel.  He actually succeeds to interpret it very well for the big screen. Once you get the drift of this languid storytelling style, and his attention-grabbing split screen technique, you will be mesmerized and drawn in, despite the inherent bleakness of the plot. The imagery he used is compelling, as the grand country vistas contrast with intimate personal moments. 

Easily the best performer in the cast is Tim Blake Nelson as the stubborn and irascible patriarch of the brood, Anse. He has most realistic portrayal with that hot-potato drawl of his, uttering the most maddening of pronouncements. There is actually humor to be found in all his unpleasantness.

The five Bundren children and the actors who play them, namely Cash (Jim Parrack), Darl (James Franco), Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly) and little Vardaman (Brady Permenter), all have their moments. While Darl seemed to be the most centered of all the characters, ironically, it was James Franco who seemed to lack something in his portrayal. Maybe it is because we expect the most from him.

This film is not for everyone because of its glacial pace and dark brooding subject matter. But with the proper attitude and frame of mind, you may actually find this a fascinating rumination about life and mortality, as you immerse yourself in this grim slice of rural American life in the 1920s. 7/10.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE: Glorious Blaze!

November 21, 2013

The first movie in the Hunger Games series was very well made. It was generally faithful to the Suzanne Collins book on which it was based. The actors chosen for the cast were all very good in portraying the characters, vividly bringing the book to life. I rated that first film a 8/10 (my review was posted HERE).  I was really looking forward to this sequel which tackles the second book in the series.

From Gary Ross who did very well in the first film as director and writer, this sequel (up to the next two films in the series) is now in different hands.  The new director is Francis Lawrence, whom I do not know much about. The script this time was adapted by 2 Academy Award-winning writers, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (LIttle Miss Sunshine).  There was some apprehension as to how the book will be translated on screen.

After watching the film, there was certainly nothing to worry about after all. While some parts of this film may feel like a retread of the first film, that is how the second book was really  written as well. This second installment managed to even up the ante, coming up with a film that excellently captured the escalating political turmoil among the Districts in Panem and how Katniss becomes its fiery symbol.  The story was told so fluidly that you do not feel that two and a half hours had gone by.

The story picks up from the first film, where Katniss and Peeta return to their homes in decrepit District 12. Katniss's unprecedented act of near-suicide during the last Hunger Games had been seen by several citizens as an act of defiance against the government. Alarmed by this development, the threatened President Snow hatches a plan to kill Katniss before she causes more unrest all over his domain.

In celebration of the 75th year of the Hunger Games, previous Victors (one male and one female) from each District to fight in another games to the death called the Quarter Quell. Being the only female Victor of District 12, Katniss was an automatic contestant, and the odds were stacked against her favor. To her surprise, she has new allies and they seem to be supporting her. How will the results of this special edition of the Hunger Games affect the revolution already catching fire outside the Capitol walls? 

Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast as Katniss Everdeen. She is really one awesome actress, burning the big screen with her emotion, making it impossible to resist empathizing with her. Even in that simple scene during the Victors Tour in District 11, home of the fallen tribute Rue, Katniss' short heartfelt speech can make you teary-eyed as Jennifer delivers it. Her character can be maddening with her seeming indecision between her two consorts, but Jennifer rises above that sappy love triangle cliché. Her graceful action prowess was on full display in that archery exhibition in the training room.

The other members of the cast from the last film steps up their performances for this film. Josh Hutcherson improves on his rather cheesy performance in the first film with a stronger one here as Peeta Mellark, Katniss' games partner. Liam Hemsworth has more screen time as Gale Hawthorne, Katniss' close friend who loves her.

Woody Harrelson was perfect as their mentor and former District 12 victor Haymitch Abernathy. Elizabeth Banks succeeded to emotionally shine through her outlandish costumes and makeup as tributes escort Effie Trinket. Stanley Tucci was over-the-top in a good way, as over-the-top emcee Caesar.  
Lenny Kravitz appears in a short but markedly powerful portrayal of Katniss' stylist Cinna.

The new members of the cast also inhabited their roles like well-fit shoes. Donald Sutherland was formidable as President Snow needed to be. Phillip Seymour Hoffman had the requisite sneakiness and sinisterness as new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee.

Sam Claflin is not exactly the charismatic District 4 victor Finnick Odair I had in mind when I was reading the books, but he did alright. Jena Malone was better as sassy and rebellious District 7 victor Johanna Mason.  Jeffrey Wright does creditably well as the quiet but ingenious District 3 victor Beetee.

The special visual effects of this film were amazingly conceived and executed. The Victors Chariot Parade was grandiose in its scale. The Games arena itself, with its tropical rain forest setting, was so realistically harsh with its various 
booby traps which ranged from poisonous fog, the vicious baboons, the confounding jabberjays, among others.  

The costumes of Katniss make amazing statements in the book. I was really looking forward to how these special gowns were to be shown on screen, and I must say, they were worth the expectations. The other technical aspects such as cinematography, editing, production design and sound were all top-notch as well.

This film tackles serious political topics very well, simplified for its young target audience, but not in a way that insults more mature viewers. The Hunger Games is in a class of its own when in comes to excellence among all these young adult series that came or are coming out now -- a clear notch above all the rest.  Fans of the books will not be disappointed.  

This is a perfectly-made bridging film.  It stands very well on its own merits, as much as it guarantees that the next two films in the franchise will be blockbusters.  9/10

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review of THE COUNSELOR: A Ponderous Puzzler

November 15, 2013

When I first heard about this film and its pedigreed credentials: Director Ridley Scott, starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, I was excited to see it. However, because of the very poor reviews and box office performance Stateside, I have tempered my expectations before I went to see it. And so should you.

"The Counselor" refers to the nameless character played by Michael Fassbender. He appears to be a very successful lawyer, happily engaged to a gorgeous, church-going girl (Penelope Cruz). However, for some reason this film never really completely discloses, he still felt the need to get himself involved with a Mexican drug cartel, peppered with colorful characters, like the wild-haired Reiner (Javier Bardem), his slinky girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and the urban cowboy Westray (Brad Pitt). Will the Counselor get away with both the girl and cash?

When I saw in the opening credits that the script was by Cormac McCarthy, who also wrote "No Country for Old Men" (which I did not exactly like), I braced myself for one puzzling and boring ride.

It was, for the most part.  However,there were those pockets of incredible tension and violence involving necks which you will not soon forget. 

Michael Fassbender was okay as the titular Counselor, but there was nothing about his character which was fully-explored. He is obviously greedy enough to risk everything he had to get himself involved in nefarious criminal activities despite everything he already had, but we do not see exactly why. So we end up not caring at all about him. We actually see other characters counsel him, than him counseling others.

Cameron Diaz's femme fatale character Malkina was unexpectedly well- developed. She is certainly no dumb blond bimbo here. Her scenes though were the most perplexing as to where she was coming from. She has a scene on the windshield of a luxury car that was as head-scratching as it was sensually acrobatic.

Javier Bardem is really very comfortable playing these cool criminal types. Penelope Cruz is too good to be true. I expected more out of these two actors and their characters than what ended up in the final edit we saw, which was disappointing.  

I found the character of Brad Pitt the most interesting one of all. Every time Westray was on the screen, the story perks up and even the long conversations he has with the Counselor actually made sense. Too bad Pitt was only in about a third of the film or less.

"The Counselor" comes across as a slick action-filled crime caper film at first glance. However as you watch it, you will realize that it was actually mostly long-winded, unrealistically philosophical conversations and monologues from the most unlikely of characters. I think the main problem is the turgid and generally lifeless script which the talents of the director nor the actors could save. 4/10