Friday, August 30, 2013

ON THE JOB: Eloquence in Violence

August 30, 2013

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.  "Tatang" Mario is set for retirement since he is to be released from prison already, while young Daniel is his apprentice and heir-apparent in his deadly job.

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.

"On the Job" is a gritty, honest, no-holds-barred Filipino film.  The script by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti fearlessly traces the operations of this gun-for-hire business from the lowly trainees to the gunmen to the middlemen (Vivian Velez) to the connections inside the prison (William Martinez) to the police protectors (Lito Pimentel) to the higher echelons of the military.

We also get a peek into the family lives of these men. Mario has a wife (Angel Aquino) who is cuckolding him and a daughter (Empress Schuck) in law school.  Francis is married to the daughter (Shaina Magdayao) of a lawmaker (Michael de Mesa) who is the pawn of a corrupt general (Leo Martinez).  Joaquin has been at odds with his boss, stuck at being PO1 even after 30 years of service, with a harried wife (Rosanna Roces) and a drug pusher son (JM de Guzman).

The theme and the style is indie but the stars are big names.  It may be considered distracting for indie purists, but this stunt casting of actors against type was actually part of the appeal of this film for the general movie going public.

I have to admit though that among the talented cast, the most difficult to accept was Gerald Anderson.  This was not only because his attractive mestizo looks made him an unlikely hitman (they should not be too conspicuous, should they?). But it was also because he had to act side by side with the flawless Joel Torre.  Torre was a man possessed in this role as the senior assassin.  He was never out of character up to the very end, always very believable and realistic.  He was able to convey ruthlessness and fatherliness with the same face.

Piolo Pascual postured artificially a lot in the start, which made his characterization unconvincing at first.  However when he got into the groove of his character, especially in the second half, he will get us over on his side.

Joey Marquez was a puzzling choice of an actor for a character in this film.  When I first saw the teasers, I thought he was badly miscast in this role as a cop.  But as I was watching the film, I realized the wisdom of his casting.  He was key in providing the moments which served to lighten the intense mood this film creates.

The technical aspects of the film are outstanding, particularly the cinematography and the film editing.  The atmosphere created was very tense and exciting.  Those parallel foot chase scenes in the streets of Manila, with parts involving the Light Rail Transit System, was so well shot, very thrilling. 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.

Despite being a very well-made film, there are some cons I noted, but these were relatively minor issues only. I have already mentioned how the casting of Anderson stretched believability.  His character of Daniel had too little background story behind him, just a deluded mother and a ex-girlfriend (Dawn Jimenez). Unlike the other main characters, so we do not really know enough about Daniel to care more about him.  Also, the addition of what seemed to be unnecessary sex scenes for both Anderson and Pascual sort of derailed from the story a bit, without really adding any development to their characters.

Director Erik Matti has certainly come a long way from his directorial debut in "Scorpio Nights 2" and his various fantasy films.  With OTJ, Matti assembled an amazing all Filipino cast and crew, and successfully crafted a film of international quality. Its world premiere at the Directors' Fortnight at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and subsequent distribution deals in North America, Europe and Australia are evidences of its worldwide appeal. 

This is as timely as the present headlines.  You will understand why fugitives and whistle-blowers are morbidly obsessed about their security.  This film is a social exposé as much as it is an excellent action-drama film.  It lives up to its hype, guys.  This is a must-see Filipino film. 9/10.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

PEE MAK: More Funny than Scary!

August 29, 2013

Pee Mak came home from the battlefield with his four soldier friends, namely Puak (with the winged victory hairstyle), Ter (with the glasses), Shin (with the bun) and Aey (with the mustache). They were met by his beautiful wife Nak with their newborn baby boy. However, it did not take long for his four friends to notice something strange about Nak. This leads to a merry comedy of errors and terrors, Thai style.

Being in a foreign language and in set in the past, I am sure a lot of the nuances are lost in translation. However visual horror and slapstick comedy is universal. While "Pee Mak" is also a horror film, the more commercial and memorable aspect of this film is actually its comedy. The horror takes a back seat to the comedy here. 

You just simply have to watch and enjoy those hilarious sequences of the silly gang at the dinner table, playing charades, in the haunted house of the amusement park, the boat on the river and in the Buddhist temple with the monk! These scenes were laugh-out-loud funny beyond words! Don't miss those extra scenes during the end credits as well.

A deglamorized Thai/German actor/model Mario Maurer (as Mak) and the four actors playing his zany friends indeed have great comic chemistry and timing together. They were such a delight playing cartoonish nincompoops and stupid idiots as they were terrorized by the ghostly presence around them. 

Thai/Belgian actress/model Daveeka Hoorne also has her dramatic moments as Nak, as her character was mainly the straight man of this farce. I am sure she had a difficult time keeping a straight face in front of all that ridiculous foolishness around her.

I think the only other Thai movie I have seen before was the thrilling and haunting horror film "Shutter" (2004). After I watched "Pee Mak," I discovered that these two films were actually directed by the same man, Banjong Pisanthanakun. "Shutter" was his directorial debut, "Pee Mak" is his latest and biggest hit.  It is reportedly the highest grossing Thai film currently, now grossing more than 1B Baht worldwide (mostly in Asia). 

I am sure Filipino film fans will have a good time watching "Pee Mak". The inane comedy/horror genre is also very popular here, and the slapstick faces and routines will be familiar. I am sure we can even think up of specific local comedians who can play these crazy roles. What "Pee Mak" adds is the exotic Thai cultural setting that gives it that unique mystic feel that adds to the eerie nature of the basic story. This is more fun than scary, very entertaining! 7/10.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

KICK-ASS 1 and 2: Graphically Violent Kids!

August 28, 2013

KICK-ASS 1 (2010)

I never got to watch "Kick-Ass" when it was first released in 2010. Now with the sequel in local theaters this week, several people recommend that I should probably watch this first installment first before I watch Part 2. So I did.

I did not know exactly what this film was about so I was surprised when this film and its sequel had posters of what looked like kid superheroes, yet the rating is R-16! Now that I have finished watching Part 1, the answer is very clear.

"Kick Ass" tells the story of Dave Lizewsky, a nerdy guy who decide that he wanted to be a real superhero like those in the comic books he loves to read. He buys himself a dorky green uniform and tries to fight petty criminals around town as Kick Ass. Unfortunately he had absolutely no fighting skills.

However, his exploits apparently inspired a ultra-war-freak father-daughter team,, Damon and Mindy Macready, to don superhero uniforms themselves as Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Can these new superheroes stand up to the very real threat of the evil crime boss Frank D'Amico, his son Chris (who also took on a superhero persona Red Mist) and their entire gangster organization?

While Aaron Johnson does well as the titular character Dave/Kick Ass, the more memorable actor and character in this whole film is Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl. It was disconcerting to see a real 11-year old girl do all the killing Hit Girl did because this film did NOT sugarcoat any violence. THIS IS GRAPHIC STUFF! OK, it is CG but still very bloody graphic. However for some perverse underlying reason, Hit Girl was great movie character!

This movie sets up Part 2 very well, and yes, I am now quite excited to watch it as well. Now I know exactly what I am getting into. I am eager to see how the lessons Kick Ass and Hit Girl learned about being heroes here in Part 1 will affect their characters in Part 2. I am also itching to see how Red Mist steps up his game to be a worthy adversary.  7/10.


KICK-ASS 2 (2013)

The first "Kick-Ass" literally kicked ass because of its revolutionary R-rated violence in a movie with very young characters. It was very shocking yes, but it also had heart and laughs with it that made it the hit it was.

This second "Kick-Ass" shows our heroes Kick Ass and Hit Girl grown up a few years. Hit Girl had been forbidden by her strict guardian from being a superhero anymore. Now partner-less, Kick Ass joins a vigilante group of hero wannabes led by Captain Stars and Stripes. Red Mist becomes more insane, collects his own set of super villains and calls himself a monicker so filthy even his lieutenant (John Leguizamo) cannot say it.

Aaron Johnson does not really look like a teenager here anymore. He still acts more like a sidekick than a title character, and that may really be how it is. We get to see more interaction between his character Dave and his dad (Garrett M. Brown) here, and Aaron delivers in that aspect.

Jim Carrey, I did not immediately recognize to be Captain Stars and Stripes. If not for the posters, I would not have. He was actually very good in this film, and his character is bad-ass. His relationship with his dad gets explored here a little more so there is a little more drama in his character than in the first movie.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is really crazy in this film, vicious yet hilarious as Chris D'Amico, madly wanting to avenge his father's death. I do not think it is easy to achieve that balance, so it is impressive. We see only a suggestion of what he can do in the first film, but he goes full blast with his insanity in this one.

Chloe Grace Moretz has certainly grown up to be one pretty lady in this film. She was indeed the star of the first film, and I'd say, she is still very much the star of this one as well.  The screen lights up whenever she is onscreen. She was spectacular not only in her fight scenes as the awesome Hit Girl, but also as Mindy Macready, who was tormented by the mean girls at school.

Being the sequel, we are not really surprised anymore as to what this franchise will give us. The fight scenes seem to be more graphic and bloody than the first. The seriously ultra-violent killing machine, the macho Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), made sure of that. However, the shock factor is clearly diminished already, and this sequel just goes through basically the same motions. But the entertainment value of the first film is still very much there. 6/10.

Monday, August 26, 2013

PLANES: Aero-Dynamic!

August 26, 2013

I had no plans to watch  "Planes". The posters were so much like desperate copies of "Cars" and what's worse, the initial reviews were not too good.  I confess I had relented grudgingly when my kids insisted to watch it today, feeling this will not be worth the expensive ticket prices. But you know what, during and after the film, my kids and I all agree that this surprisingly turned out to be one of the best animated films we have watched this year, if not the very best!

From the very start, "Planes" proudly announces that it is indeed part of the world of "Cars," which means that this film is actually a spin-off.  The animation style of the characters in "Planes" was that of "Cars" with those characteristic eyes and old-fashioned charm.  Notably though, the name of Pixar, the studio who originated "Cars," is not seen anymore.

The lead plane character is Dusty Crophopper, a lowly crop duster, who loved to fly fast and fancy, pushing his engine to its very extreme limits. Determined to be more than what he is made to be, Dusty aspires to qualify and win the prestigious "Wings Across the World" international aviation race which flies from New York, across the freezing Atlantic, through the treacherous Himalayas, across the monsoons of the Pacific and back.

This "unlikely hero taking on an impossible race" story is already an oft-repeated theme in several animated films. In fact, just earlier this year, we just saw this very same story in "Turbo", a snail who wanted to race with cars.  But unlike these others, there was something special about "Planes."

I think it was the very good nature of Dusty that made the difference. He was humble, helpful, and friendly throughout the race.  We will all cheer him through all the difficulties he had to get over in order to remain in contention for the big title, given his inherent limitations.   Not only his determination, but more importantly, his kindness will earn him his just rewards at the end, in more ways than one.

Despite many commonalities with other films, "Planes" managed NOT to feel like an exact copy of anything. It was actually very refreshing and enjoyable to watch even for adults.

The aviation terminology (from Dottie, Dusty's talented plane mechanic) and air force jargon (from Skipper, Dusty's old-timer fighter jet coach) are very interesting to hear.  I'd like to buy the DVD just so i can run those lines by me again and read more about them.

The side plot about the hopeless romantic Mexican plane "El Chupacabra" and his crush on the icy "Rochelle" from Canada is funny without distracting from the main story.  There is another subplot about Skipper and his war records on the USN aircraft carrier Flyhausen which may be of interest to the older audiences.

The voices may not be so distinctive, but the voice actors, led by Dane Cook for Dusty, do their jobs well. The other voice actors were Teri Hatcher as Dottie, Stacy Keach as Skipper, Julia Louise Dreyfuss as Rochelle, and John Cleese as the haughty British plane called Bulldog.  "Top Gun" actors Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer also contribute their voices to a couple of fighter jets called Echo and Bravo.

The numerous aerial sequences were breathtakingly executed and edited all the way up to the finish line. The musical scores were also exhilarating during the scenes, making them all the more exciting to watch. These scenes definitely overshot my very low expectations by nautical miles.

As of now, there is now a sequel in pre-production called "Planes: Fire and Rescue", which sounds like it is veering away from the tired race format (hopefully), so that should be something to look forward to in the summer of 2014.  8/10

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: CITY OF BONES: Interesting New Myths

August 25, 2013

"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is about a typical New York girl named Clary Fray.  After her mother Jocelyn was abducted in a most violent way by demonic creatures, a Shadowhunter (or demon warrior), a tattooed Goth boy named Jace, helps Clary and brings her to their Institute for refuge and training. It turns out that Clary was in fact a Shadowhunter as well, and a very powerful one at that.

Wait a minute, didn't that backgrounder on the central character sound very familiar. It should! The story is almost exactly like that of Harry Potter, a boy who suddenly discovers he is a powerful warlock, who had to be taken to Hogwarts for training. This same line was also taken by Percy Jackson, a boy who suddenly discovers he is a demigod son of the god Poseidon, who had to be taken to Camp Half-Blood for training. 

Similar to the other successful young adult series "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games", we also have a love triangle here, involving Clary, her fellow Shadowhunter Jace, and her human best friend Simon. To be fair though, as was revealed in this first film, this Mortal Instruments series throws an interesting wrench into the mix to complicate the triangle.

The fantasy world it creates its own mythology of an alternate dimension inhabited by angels and demons, with vampires and werewolves on the side. Of course, there is also an ultimate evil being. As Voldemort was to Harry Potter, or Kronos to Percy Jackson, here the super villain is Valentine, a Shadowhunter who turned to the dark side.

The adventure in this first book/movie is the search of a certain Mortal Cup, one of three Mortal Instruments, bequeathed to the first Shadowhunter by the Angel Raziel. Valentine, of course, has his own nefarious plot why he wants to gather all three Mortal Instruments into his possession.

Lily Collins plays Clary. I must say her thick eyebrows bothered me since she played Snow White in "Mirror, Mirror," and same here. However, as the movie progressed she was able to get me on her side as far as her quest for her mother and the Mortal Cup. However, like Bella in "Twilight," I will never understand this girly romantic indecision.

Jamie Campbell Bower graduates from his minor vampire character in the last Twilight films to play the lead male character here, Jace. In my opinion, his appearance looks a little scary, hardly shedding his pale Volturi look, looking more like a drug addict than a hero.  But I would guess he is really supposed to project that bad boy vibe that good girls can't resist.

Robert Sheehan plays the third angle of the triangle as Simon. He is convincing as a nerdy good boy, unfortunately friend-zoned by the girl he loves. Cheesy as that scene was when he confesses his love to Clary, I have to say that Sheehan played that realization very well.

My biggest disappointment was how Valentine was presented in this film. Instead of the big bad villain he was supposed to be, he turned out to be rather lame after all the way he acted here. This role was performed by an acclaimed actor Jonathan Rhys Meyer, but I felt he was totally wrong for it physically. Meyer did not have enough commanding presence nor negative charisma to be truly terrifying.

Overall, this really is not a bad film. The pace set by Director Harald Zwart is decently fast. The cinematography and musical scoring were well done. The CG special effects were okay, but could be better by today's standards. The mythology though can be very interesting. You will want to read the book to get more details that could not have been squeezed into the film's two- hour running time. 

So despite the derivative nature of the story line, squirmy love triangle angle and the weak portrayal of the main villain (in this film at least), this world created by author Cassandra Clare is quite engaging and compelling.  I can say that I am still actually curious to watch for the next films in the series for further developments in the story and, hopefully, improvements in their execution. 6/10.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER: Oscars in the Bag!

August 23, 2013

"The Butler" tells us the life story of Cecil Gaines, from his childhood on a Southern cotton plantation in the 1920s all the way up to Barack Obama's proclamation as US President. In between, Gaines was a silent witness to the inner workings of the White House as one of its butlers, from the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.

We actually see more of his personal life. His wife Gloria enjoyed smoking and alcohol and partying. They had two sons. The eldest Louis becomes an activist for black rights. The younger son Charlie becomes a soldier in Vietnam. Through their lives, we see an abbreviated history of the civil rights movement during the 1960s and onwards.  It sounds a bit like "Forrest Gump" but here, Cecil Gaines was more of a bystander, never an active participants in these events. That passive nature of the lead character may be where the main fault of this film lies.

The story has been told in many films before, but this one has a unique point of view. However, the main conceit of this movie, as its poster proudly announces, is its all-star cast. A lot of critics decry the use of the most unlikely actors to portray peripheral characters, such as the US Presidents. But for me, these made the film more special to watch, in spite of the fact that these guests were onscreen for barely a few fleeting minutes.

Consider these cameos:  Playing the Presidents were Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schrieber as LBJ, Jon Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan, with Jane Fonda as Nancy.  From his cotton plantation days, Mariah Carey plays Cecil's mother, Vanessa Redgrave plays the matriarch who trains Cecil to serve in the house and Alex Pettyfer plays their abusive and ruthless white taskmaster.  I personally did not think having these unexpected star appearances in any way detracted from the story telling.

Playing bigger supporting roles were Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House butlers, and Terrence Howard plays a philandering neighbor. David Oyelowo plays their eldest son Louis with the striking Yaya Alafia as his activist girlfriend.  Elijah Kelly plays the younger son Charlie.

Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey play the central roles of Cecil and Gloria Gaines. They will age several years and we will see the passage of time through their makeup and costumes. Their acting will definitely earn them nominations come awards season. Forest talks mainly with his uniquely soulful eyes in this quiet and dignified role. Oprah completely and effectively owns all of her scenes as she struggles to stand by her man. It may as well be her Oscar already, as early as now.  When I saw Harvey Weinstein's name in the final credits, that Oscar is not a far-fetched possibility.  7/10.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

R.I.P.D.: MiB Turns Ghostbusters!

August 22, 2013

"R.I.P.D." means "Rest in Peace Department, a limbo dimension where dead law enforcers help catch renegade ghosts that still roam the earth doing dastardly deeds. 

This is where the soul of Officer Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) went after he was treacherously gunned down dead by his corrupt partner Officer Hayes (Kevin Bacon). Nick was partnered with crusty old-timer Officer Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges) to track down a heist of gold bars, which turned out to have a connection with the living world as well.

The execution of this film is very reminiscent of "Men In Black," only replacing aliens with so-called "deados" (dead people still existing as monsters in the world). The computer-imagery of these "deados" even have the same look and texture used for MiB aliens, down to their grotesque faces and 3D constitutions. Even the firearms of our RIPD guys are too similar to those in MiB.

Speaking of references to previous films, "Ghost" ( the classic 1990 Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore-Whoopi Goldberg film) also comes to mind because of the story line that dealt with Nick's wife Julia (Stephanie Szostak). The similarity is just too strong to ignore.

I don't know what is wrong, but Ryan Reynolds looked totally flat and lifeless as Nick. The ghost of his previous miscasting as "Green Lantern" haunts him here. If his Green Lantern was over-hyper, his Nick was over-dry. Reynolds' blandness was the reason why his co-stars walk all over him here, despite him being the central character. 

Jeff Bridges literally chews Reynolds up with his over-the-top semi-"True Grit" performance as Roy. The best moments of the film are because of Bridges's spirited portrayal of the veteran old-school lawman. Furthermore, there was barely any chemistry between Reynolds and Bridges even as the movie progressed, which is always unfortunate. 

As the villain of the film, Kevin Bacon did not really do anything new here. It is his typical Bacon villain performance we have all seen before in films from "The River Wild" to "X-Men First Class".  Yet despite this, he still managed to project better screen presence than Reynolds.

I found the deadpan character of Mary Louise Parker as Proctor, the commanding officer of RIPD's Boston division, quite delightful actually. This is the second consecutive movie this year after "RED 2" where Parker stands out with a quirky performance.

There are occasional funny parts, yes, but these are few and far between. For me, there was only genuine LOL scene, and that was when we first see how regular people see Nick and Roy as:  Nick as an elderly Asian guy, and Roy as ... I'll leave that for you to find out when you do watch, as that was the best scene in the film and I do not want to spoil that for you. Of course, that happened in the first half of the film. There was nothing much memorable after that.

Overall, this is an average action comedy with special CG effects.  However, the faults of this movie are so patently obvious even for the casual movie fan, even if you watch with low expectations. 4/10.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

THE INTERNSHIP: A Trip to Googleplex

August 15, 2013

"The Internship" is a story about Billy McMahon and Nick Campbell, two watch salesmen in their 40s who lose their jobs because their boss suddenly decides to shut down their dwindling business. Out of desperation, they try out and (inexplicably) get accepted into the coveted internship program at Google. 

As the obvious outcasts among the much younger computer geek majority, the two guys struggle with their group of other misfits to snag those elusive job slots over all the other candidates.

The story of misfits trying to fit into an establishment and succeed is so familiar. This story was just recently tackled in animated form in Pixar's "Monsters University." This movie follows that tried and true formula to the letter, from being put down hard at the start to winning big at the end against all odds.

Here though, the setting just shifted from a university campus to the Google Headquarters in California, and that was THE one interesting aspect of this film. If those were the real perks of actual Google staff (unlimited free food, nap pods, etc.), then we would all like to work there! Many people criticize this film for being a big 2-hour advertisement for the Google Corporation. However, without this innovative setting, the rest of the film would just not stand up.

A lot is riding on the comedic talents and good will of the two main stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson (who had previously paired up in the very successful "Wedding Crashers"). They are credible as good guys, yes, and they have good chemistry together as Billy and Nick. However, sadly for me, they could not rise above the mediocre material they had to contend with. Their jabbering sales pitches frequently come across as annoying rather than charming. I would not buy anything from loud and smart-alecky salesmen like them.

An interesting detail for the Filipino audience is the presence of a Fil-Am character named Yo-Yo Santos, played by Fil-Am actor Tobit Raphael. A sheltered kid home-schooled by a domineering mom, Yo-Yo is one of misfits who was forced to team up with Billy and Nick. Tobit did well enough for his first big role in a major movie, although his part is memorable only for nervously picking his eyebrows and an "impressive recovery time" during their wild night at a bar with sexy ladies.

Overall, you get an uneven film. Only the setting is original, but mostly, this is just an average garden-variety feel-good comedy, with some raunchy scenes. You will smile more than laugh out loud. Nevertheless, the final outcome can still spark a happy feeling, however predictable it may be.  5/10.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

THE CONJURING: Intensely Malevolent!

August 13, 2013

This movie was set in 1971, when Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters moved into a rundown country house in an isolated area in Rhode Island. Almost immediately, strange events begin to happen to them. The ghostly manifestations started benignly, with creaky opening doors to unexplained bruising. As days passed, the attacks become increasingly violent and physical.

Carolyn desperately sought the help of noted supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. What they discovered in the Perron home is a dark spirit more hateful than anything they have encountered before. They needed to work against time in order to prevent deadly events that happened to previous occupants of this cursed house. In this extraordinary case, the Warrens had to resort to the most extreme measures they know in order to save the tormented family

Unlike other films boasting about being based on a true story, this one actually convinces you that the horrific events shown in it happened in real life. A lot of this was due to the very authentic production design bringing us back to the early 1970s. The musical choices were atmospherically apt and unsettling.

There was also the topnotch acting from the cast, which is unusual for a horror movie. The expertise and compassion of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who played the Warrens, were very realistic. The chemistry between them was palpably sincere. Ron Livingston, Lili Palmer and the five young actresses who play the Perron daughters (among them Joey King of "White House Down" and Mackenzie Foy of "Breaking Dawn") all played naturally well as the victimized family. I would not be surprised if Vera Farmiga and Lili Palmer pick up acting nominations for their performances.

Director James Wan (who had also brought us "Saw" and "Insidious" before) throws every horror gimmick and cliche at us here, but somehow still makes everything felt remarkably fresh and original. There was some welcome humor to lighten some of the intense dread and tension that builds up within the film. The deliberately slow pace felt interminably long in some eerie scenes which will make you squirm in your seats  There are scenes which can make you jump. The editing of the film was very effective in this regard.

As good as this film was, there were some minor things that did not feel right. The haunting poster and even the pre-credits scene will make you expect something, but the rest of the movie was totally about something else. There was a subplot about Ed and Lorraine's daughter which was very well-executed with some of the film's scariest scenes, but this ultimately led nowhere, except maybe a possible sequel, which is something I would look forward to.

Overall, watching this film will really immerse you into the intense malevolence that terrorized the Perron family.  Many creepy images you see will stick with you for a long time.  All the hype was accurate this time. This IS one of the best horror films in recent years.  8/10

Saturday, August 10, 2013


August 10, 2013

This second installment of the Percy Jackson film franchise begins with the story of how the sacrifice of Thalia, demigod daughter of Zeus, gave rise to a tree which provided a protective shield over Camp Half-Blood. When enemies poison this enchanted tree, our demigod hero Percy and his close friends, fellow demigod Annabeth and satyr Grover, embark on a quest to find the legendary Golden Fleece in order to use its healing powers to heal the tree and restore its shield as soon as possible. 

Along with them in this quest is Clarisse, demigod daughter of Ares, and Tyson, the gentle cyclops half-brother of Percy. This adventure not only brings them to Circe's amusement park island, where the Golden Fleece was protected by the vicious cyclops Polyphemus, it will also bring them face to face with the ultimate evil Titan, Kronos himself, who has been resurrected from the depths of Tartarus by his misguided minions.

I really liked the fluid way the story telling in this film flowed. Even young audiences can easily follow the story. However, there are a few head-scratchers may arise when you look back in retrospect, but they did not diminish my enjoyment at all. Audiences who have not read the book will probably enjoy it more since they go in without very big expectations about their favorite parts of the novel.

There are so many elaborate computer-generated effects which looked very good, like the bronze bull that attacked Camp Half-Blood, the colorful stained-glass rendition of the big prophecy involving Percy, the frenetic taxi ride with the Grey Sisters, the graceful Hippocampus creature, the two bickering snakes on the rod on Hermes, the churning belly of Charybdis -- I thought all of these visual effects were done really well.

Logan Lehrmann is really a very good young actor. He can convey his internal conflicts very effectively, and he can also execute some pretty intense action stunts. Alexandra Daddario is a very beautiful Annabeth, though her movie character sort of diminished the strength and daring of her book character. Brandon T. Jackson plays the sidekick Grover with adeptness for physical comedy.

The character of Clarisse was played by slim and pretty actress Leven Rambin. This was pretty much against the way brusque and hefty Clarisse was described in the books. Tyson was played with much charm and sensitivity by Douglas Scott, despite the rather distractingly strange way the CGI of his cyclops eye was achieved. 

Their camp trainers are now portrayed by new actors. The god Dionysus, lovingly called Mr. D, is now played by the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci. The centaur Chiron, previously played by Pierce Brosnan, is now portrayed by Anthony Head. Too bad they had limited screen time.  The part in the book where Chiron was suspected of poisoning Thalia's tree, was fired and replaced, was not even mentioned in the film.

After the movie, my youngest son asked me, "The title is "Sea of Monsters". But why was there only ONE monster?" And as I have already read the book before, I noted that a lot of events and details described in Rick Riordan's book had to be sacrificed or altered for the sake of streamlining this film version. A most glaring omission was the episode in Circe's spa where Percy was turned into a guinea pig.  They also junked that part of the novel about the deadly Hydra, as well as the part about Blackbeard's ship and the Sirens.

Despite these deviations from the original source, the final result by Director Thor Freudenthal (previously known for more kiddie fare like "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and "Hotel for Dogs") is actually a neat, easy to follow, very entertaining adventure film for young and old alike. An enjoyable 7/10, but would have been higher had I not read the book first.

Friday, August 9, 2013

SMURFS 2: Very kiddie!

August 9, 2013

"The Smurfs 2" largely takes place in Paris where the evil mad wizard Gargamel is now an unlikely celebrity performing magic shows at the Opera House. He kidnaps Smurfette on her birthday to get the secret formula on how to turn his new creatures The Naughties (Vexy and Hackus) into true blue Smurfs. 

Of course, Papa Smurf and his gang (Grumpy, Clumsy and Vanity) try to rescue her with the help of their human friends, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays). This time, Patrick's zany step-father Victor (Brendan Gleeson) joins in the adventure.

This film by Sony Pictures, directed by Raja Gosnell, is strictly for the younger kids. My sons aged 11 and 9 did not really want to finish the film anymore. Girls may like it more because it is more about Smurfette and her new found "sister" Vexy.  

There is the requisite lesson about family, and acceptance. This lesson is exemplified here between Papa Smurf and Smurfette, and paralleled by the relationship between Patrick and Victor. The other important lesson is obviously "good triumphs over evil".  In the end, we will see Gargamel and his impertinent cat Azrael (with a much bigger role this time) get their comeuppance, as expected.

The voice acting of Katy Perry as Smurfette is front and center in this film, and she does very well in being cutesy. Christina Ricci matches Katy's sweetness with her spunk in voicing Vexy. Hank Azaria overacts like crazy as Gargamel, but that is as he should do in order to entertain kids. Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays just coast along in their portrayal of their human characters, but Brendan Gleeson is certainly a delightful presence in the film, a jolly old soul.

Everything was done to make this film as visually fun as possible for the young kiddie demographic it targets. The computer-generated effects, like the Ferris Wheel rolling on the streets of Paris, may look crude to adults but it does the job for the enjoyment and glee of small kids. It is just too bad it only has very little to offer the adults who have to bring these kids to the movie house. 4/10 for adults, but definitely much higher for small kids.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


August 7, 2013

The poster proudly headlines two big name senior stars, Robert de Niro and John Travolta, in what looked like an action-themed movie. The casting hold much promise because of this star combination. Now is the film worth their names on the marquee?

"Killing Season" tells the story of Serbian ex-soldier Emil Kovac (John Travolta) who goes to America to seek out Benjamin Ford (Robert de Niro).  Ford who was one of the US soldiers who executed Serbian soldiers back in 1995 when NATO intervened in the Serbian invasion of Bosnia, where Serbians supposedly perpetrated genocide in the name of ethnic cleansing.

This film is basically a revenge tale, but this was hyped up several notches because of the extreme torture scenes the filmmakers want us to see. It becomes a game of alternating one-upmanship on who is torturing who between the two characters, until the climactic confrontation scene.  I have to say I have not seen any of the torture techniques employed here in other films.

Unfortunately, this film is not too good, despite its cast. Or could the problem be BECAUSE of its cast?

Robert de Niro seemed so bored doing the film. His acting was not convincing or as potent than when he was at his prime. He even looked too old to play this character Ford. When I found out that de Niro actually replaced Nicolas Cage for this role, now I understand why this character was written this over-the-top way.

John Travolta was his usual hyper-sinister character we are used to seeing him in when he plays the villain in a movie. His Serbian accent was as thick as his thick goatee-beard, both were atrocious. He was more restrained here when compared to the previous extra-psychotic bad guys he had portrayed before.

I guess this lackluster story and ordinary execution are the reasons why this film is not receiving the attention that an unprecedented de Niro-Travolta pairing deserves. As directed by Mark Steven Johnson (who had previously directed mediocre action films like "Ghost Rider" and "Daredevil"), the events were rather predictable as they unfolded. There could have been more suspense and tension, but that was not the case. What a waste. 4/10.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

RED 2: "Abso-bloody-lutely" Fun Action Film!

August 6, 2013

I have not seen the first RED which was a big hit back in 2010. So I am watching this film totally unfamiliar with what it was all about before. Even then, I thoroughly enjoyed the explosive mix of action and humor that made this film click.

Frank Moses (a retired CIA operative) is trying to live a quiet life with his mousy girlfriend Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), but you know that is not going to happen to a guy who is certified RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous). 

A Wiki-leaks cable would implicate Frank and his kooky partner Marvin (John Malkovich) in a Cold War project called Nightshade, developed by genius scientist Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins). This project involved a portable nuclear explosive, which now Frank had to recover. 

While going all around Moscow, Paris, and London to seek out this weapon of mass destruction , Frank also had to avoid two contracts out to kill him, one by MI6 spy Victoria (Helen Mirren) and another by the vicious Korean hired killer Han (Byung Hun Lee). Frank also encounters an ex- lover Russian spy Katja (Catherine Zeta Jones), who had always been his "kryptonite".

What we get is a very entertaining, high-octane action film. There was frenzied gunfire, exciting car chases, conniving and double crossing -- every element a good spy movie should have. Helen Mirren was so elegant with those firearms. The incredible graceful martial arts skills of Byung-hun Lee was a definite highlight for me.

The sense of humor is insane, especially that of John Malkovich. Everybody plays it tongue-in-cheek through all the violent scenes, including typically serious actors like Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. Mary Louise Parker steals her scenes with her delightful naivety in the light of all the danger around her. 

Above all, Bruce Willis really takes command of this film as Frank Moses. After a disastrous turn in the critically-massacred "A Good Day to Die Hard", this Bruce Willis in "RED 2" is the Bruce Willis we all expect and admire. It does not hurt that he has excellent chemistry with the crazy Malkovich and his "GI Joe" co-star Byung-hun Lee.

The movie does not take itself too seriously and neither should we. We are there to enjoy the awesomely conceptualized and executed action sequences, as impossible or superhuman as they may look. At the same time, we will also enjoy the lightning-fast zingers and humorous banter among these accomplished actors. Director Dean Parisot definitely achieves what he set out to do--an entertaining summer blockbuster film, and that is the most important. 8/10.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

AMOR Y MUERTE: Bold Hysterical Wretch

August 4, 2013

"Amor Y Muerte" is set in the 16th century in Polo, Bulacan, at about the time of Lakandula's revolt in Tondo. A native Tagala named Amor (Althea Vega) is married to a Spanish official named Diego (Markki Stroem). From being completely lusty and free from inhibitions, Amor gets slowly transformed into the sedate, straight-laced Spanish señora her husband wants her to be. 

One day, Diego calls a wild man from the forest named Apitong (Adrian Sebastian) to bring a python to control the rats infesting their house. Apparently, Apitong was Amor's old beau and seeing him again wakes Amor's passion. When Diego was summoned to Manila to help quell Lakandula's rebellion, Amor seizes the opportunity to rekindle her long-repressed carnal desires with Apitong and his loincloth. 

As with all stories about infidelity, we all know already how this will all end.

The actors' wretched acting made watching this supposedly dramatic film inadvertently and excruciatingly funny. The acting from the three leads was embarrassingly amateurish. There was nothing natural about any of them. Everything looked very staged and mechanical.

Given his previous clean-cut image, the bold nudity by Markki Stroem was the unexpected novelty factor used for selling this film. However, he was always so stiff when he was moving. He was very stilted in the delivery of his lines. Neither his Spanish nor this Tagalog with Spanish accent were convincing. He looked completely miscast in his role.

Althea Vega is an exotic morena beauty with a healthy bosom and stern eyebrows, in the lines of Techie Agbayani or Maria Isabel Lopez. Maybe because it is her first major film, everything she did was artificial, exaggerated and hysterical. While those her excessively loud love-making noises may have been indicated in the screenplay, but her unnatural reactions when she sees rats or snakes were out of this world.  

The story is old-hat adultery tale transported to the 16th century. However, they could not even convince us that we were in the 16th century Philippines. The costumes and the make-up could have been a lot better, but I give that pass because of limited budget.  The worst offender in the production design were those scrolls which the priest used for religious teaching. Those were obviously modern-day translucent paper, held by what looked like plastic rods, with text written using markers! 

I would give this production a half-star for its audacity to bring back a lost genre in local movies-- the bold flicks that the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines made "legit" back in the 1980s. Ultimately, "Amor Y Muerte" is simply soft porn flimsily disguised as a historical commentary about the bad effects of Spanish colonization and the Catholic Church on Filipino pre-colonial life and culture. 

Also, an additional half-star goes to the late Amable Quiambao, whose acting was the best of the whole cast (though that is not really saying much). For her quiet role as Amor's Tiya Soledad, a former "katalonan" ("spiritual leader") converted to Catholicism, I believe she is already a lock for a posthumous Best Supporting Actress Award. 1/5.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

BABAGWA: Spun A Bit Too Much Web

August 3, 2013

Stripped down to its basic premise, actually "Babagwa" tells a relatively simple story, about how a group of con artists from Pampanga use Facebook to meet potential "prospects". Once the victim's confidence is earned, they proceed to ask for money which they do not have plans to repay.

Greg (Alex Medina) pretends he is a rich model named Bam Bonifacio to snag his victims with fake shirtless photos on his FB page and smooth talking on the phone. Marney (Joey Paras) is Greg's ruthless gay trainer and partner-in-crime. They were doing swimmingly well until one day, Greg strikes a friendship with his latest prospect, a sexy matron named Daisy (Alma Concepcion), and unexpectedly falls in love with her.

Alex Medina, whom I only knew from TV soap "Ina, Kapatid, Anak", plays the conflicted Greg effectively and bravely, with no qualms about how the director wants him portrayed. This guy has got his Medina acting genes in full display in this intense portrayal. Joey Paras seems to be the same loud gay guy every time I see him, getting typecast in that same florid portrayal. He does deliver a good punchline when he is being cute or funny. Alma Concepcion returns to the big screen after a long absence playing basically a more mature version of her vamp persona from her previous films. Her delivery of some incredibly cheesy romantic lines drew the loudest applause during the film.

When the movie sticks to the story, it is interesting, engaging and exciting. You will get hooked into the web it spins. The climactic confrontation scene between Greg and Marney was explosive and excruciating, an acting highlight in the film.  I liked the way writer/director Jason Paul Laxamana shifts to using another actor (a more mestizo Kiko Matos) and more affluent settings (picturesque river, luxurious condo) whenever Greg is in Bam Bonifacio mode.  On retrospect though after watching the film, I realize this technique may portend about events to come for some more astute audiences.

However, I noted that  Laxamana included so much extraneous scenes seemingly to prolong the running time of what could have been a shorter film. Those numerous raucous nude sex scenes between Greg and his girlfriend Neri, or that sequence where Marney tries to hit on the hunky apartment caretaker may have been funny, but they were far too long while being not really that essential. They could have been shortened or even deleted without affecting the film too adversely.  It is not as if we need more proof what big creeps they are. Haha!

I also felt the ending scene was not very satisfactory given the excellent build up to that moment. Because of obvious clues in the narrative, the whole audience probably already knew what was going to happen, and was just waiting for the way the director was going show it on screen. It could have been edited more tightly so as not to water down the tension and suspense.

Based on the spontaneous loud applause after the screening I watched today at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute, I think this film was an audience favorite. The basic story line is actually quite commercial.  The general moviegoing public will relate to it more than the other entries in the film fest.  In fact, just today, I learned that "Babagwa" was declared the Box Office Hit among the New Breed films, and that comes as no surprise.   6/10.

Friday, August 2, 2013

TRANSIT: And A Child Will Lead Them...

August 2, 2013

"Transit" tells the story of Filipino diaspora in Israel. It specifically deals with one family, siblings working in Tel Aviv. They have expired working visas. They are in hiding.

Janet works as a housekeeper. She has a teenage daughter Yael by a former Israeli boyfriend. Janet's brother Moises works as a caregiver. He has a four-year old son Joshua, whom he has to hide because of a newly-passed Israeli law that seeks to deport children of foreign workers less than five years old. 

The same story is told from five different points of view of five characters. Each episode will add an additional detail and dimension to the story. This innovative technique of story-telling sets this movie apart.

It was also impressive that the Filipino actors all seem to be speaking flawless Hebrew. (I say seem because I have not heard good Hebrew being spoken before in actuality.) However, many conversations where parents speaking Tagalog and their children answering in Hebrew can be disconcerting.

Irma Adlawan was very real in her role as Janet,totally immersed in her role. I hope though that she could try to minimize her "harassed mom" mannerisms, which were very reminiscent of how Ms. Caridad Sanchez did it before. 

Ping Medina was convincing as the proud, paranoid, suspicious, and practical father Moises, who simply wants to keep his child with him in Israel. He did not care whether others called him selfish. His look has matured a lot since I first saw him in another indie film "Numbalikdiwa".

I found the episode with indie princess Mercedes Cabral (as the new arrived Tina) extraneous and not contributory to the main narrative. The momentum of the story actually dipped in this middle episode. I did note that Ms. Cabral could probably play Sen. Nancy Binay in a biopic. 

Jasmine Curtis-Smith is really a very beautiful young actress with no bad angles, even when she was in tears. Not only that, she was able to rise up to the challenge of portraying the conflict of Yael, a teenager who was born and grew up an Israeli, yet struggling to keep the Filipino flame alive in her as her mother wanted.

With due respect to these older actors though, the success of the movie actually hinged on the star-making performance of child actor Marc Justine Angeles as Joshua. He outdid everyone else as far as acting is concerned because he did not seem like he was acting at all. That tense scene where he was willing his "cloak of invisibility" to work was simply amazing in its innocence.

This film is very good in its technical execution. The cinematography was very clean with some breathtaking camera angles in the scenic port city of Jaffa, the historic Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and that scene where Toni Gonzaga makes a cameo appearance as Joshua's estranged mother. The film editing is definitely of awards-caliber as it seamlessly went from one point of view to another.

Admittedly though, the story may be of limited interest to the general public. The story of illegal OFWs may also not be too flattering in the international scene. But the high quality of story-telling and film-making by director Hannah Espia makes this film worth catching. 7/10.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

THE PURGE: Novel Premise Wasted

August 1, 2013

In the year 2022, the US government under its "New Founding Fathers" enact a law enabling an annual event called "The Purge". On that specific 12-hour period in the month of March, from 7 pm to 7 am the following day, vigilantes can legally go around town killing "undesirables" of society.

This film follows the Sandin family, an affluent family living in a huge mansion, on one particular Purge Night.

Father James (Ethan Hawke) is a typical successful businessman, working for a security systems company. Mother Mary (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones) lives the life of a typical rich suburban housewife. Their teenage kids Zoey and Charlie are typically annoying and detached from their parents.

The Sandin house is a fortress of security so no untoward incidents were expected that night.  The problem starts when young Charlie naively lets a certain Bloody Stranger (Edwin Hodge) asking for help to seek refuge in their house. A little while later, a group of masked college-age vigilantes led by their Polite Leader (Rhys Wakefield) goes up to the Sandin house and demands them to hand over Bloody Stranger or else hell will break loose. It does.

The unusual premise of the film will grip you with its seeming inhumanity. Set in the near future, you will get to thinking why a law like this would ever be enacted. Is this a wise law that will actually benefit society? Will the crime rate really decrease with this grisly yearly ritual?

Those moments when you see the Bloody Stranger on the Sandin CCTV monitor, your pulse rate will begin to race. The build up of suspense was excellent right up to the moment when Polite Leader and his group show up at the doorstep. After that, the movie just devolves into another typical film depicting the violent violation of a private home.

Characters will be doing what we, the audience, will think is the most stupid possible option given those situations. Such is the norm in most horror films, isn't it? This film is not immune to those clichés.

Since murder is legal in that world, murders will happen. This film will not shirk from violence, probably to send a message how senseless violence can be. That is it the educated set that seems to promote this culture of violence on Purge Day is an eye-opener in this age where the power of access to social media is already dictating societal norms presently.

I had hoped that there would have been a more detailed depiction of the aftermath of that Purge Day. Those faceless voices, snippets from radio broadcasts, we hear over the closing credits, were haunting and disturbing. But that will be all we get. We want to know more about this new world order. Unfortunately the film makers do not give us more insight to the wider implications of their original idea. 5/10.