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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review of SHIFT: Charming Chemistry

November 12, 2013

There have been so many Filipino films that I have seen this year thanks to the several film festivals that have been held at various malls.  First there was the Cinemalaya, then there was Cine Filipino, then the Directors Series.  This week is the turn of Cinema One Originals.  This film fest of independent films by neophyte filmmakers are being shown from November 11-19, 2013 at the Trinoma, Robinsons Galleria and Glorietta 3.

The film I was able to catch this afternoon was entitled SHIFT.  I had no idea whatsoever what this film was all about, nor do I know who the director or the stars were.  It turned out to be a simple but hip little project which many young people would probably identify with.

"Shift" is set in the ubiquitous world of call centers and its employees.  Estela is a quirky, carefree young lady with red hair.  Trevor is a tall, dark, handsome young guy, and by the way, gay.  Outside work, Estela has a persistent suitor Kevin, while Trevor had an Australian boyfriend.  But at work, the two connect very well with each other with their many things in common.  Question is, will this friendship lead to a real though unconventional love affair?

Estela is played by Yeng Constantino, a rock singer whom I did not know had it in her to be a charming and capable actress.  Trevor is played by Felix Roco, who was also very good in essaying his challenging gay role.  The two had very good chemistry with each other, and this palpable tension between them carried the film through the length of the film.  The delightful supporting role of Alex Medina as Kevin also lent additional texture to the story.

The language used in the film was so young and hip, perfect to convey a story so young and hip. I confess I would not have caught it all without the help of those very well-made subtitles!  I definitely loved the technique where their chat sessions and texting threads were shown onscreen, all complete with subtitles as well.  I liked the cool locations and bohemian set pieces which give this film a bright and sassy color all its own.  The inside look inside the cubicles of call center agents was also very interesting.

Towards the end though, the momentum of the film slows down when the director did not seem to know how the film should end properly.  There was a heartfelt song number by Yeng which while beautifully rendered, unfortunately may bog down the storytelling.  But this was a minor quibble in the greater scheme of things.  The soundtrack in general was outstanding.

The main drawback, I would think, is that the story is so simple that it could have been an episode of a TV drama anthology.  Fortunately, Director Siege Ledesma injects enough personality to lift it up to deserve to be a feature film.  This is a pleasant yet lightweight endeavor, but not bad at all.  7/10.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Review of SAPI: A Jumbled Mess

November 8, 2013

A Brilliante Mendoza movie is an awaited event among Filipino cinephiles. After all, he is the only Filipino film director who had won a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Admittedly though, his films (like Serbis or Kinatay) are not really the easiest ones to understand or like for the casual movie fan. His last film Thy Womb (starring Ms. Nora Aunor) seems to bridge that gap, arty and award-winning, yet still relatively commercially appealing.

It is interesting then to see this current film "Sapi" to see if he will create a film that will bring him into the mainstream consciousness. A good horror film is usually a crowd-pleaser. Unfortunately, it went the opposite way from that. In fact, even Mendoza's most ardent fans will most probably not like this one for various reasons.

Meryll (Meryll Soriano), an SBN producer and her reporter Dennis (Dennis Trillo) air a feature about a demonic possession. Problem is that this sensational footage had been surreptitiously bought from the rival network PBC cameraman Baron (yes, you guessed right, Baron Geisler). Aside from professional sanctions following this serious infraction, Meryll, Dennis and Baron all begin to be tormented by ghostly visions and events. Or are they?

OK, we cannot expect the story of a Brilliante Mendoza film to be told plainly. Yet artistic it may be, the film still needs to tell its story well. The main story about the stealing of footage was unimaginatively plotted. There was absolutely no way Meryll et al. could have gotten away with their unethical actions, and they do not even try. 

Also, how come so many scenes in this film happen without any seeming logical reason. What was the point of that whole scene in the cheap restaurant? Just to have a Mercedes Cabral cameo? What was the point of showing Dennis cruising the streets for a prostitute? Because a Mendoza film is incomplete without a gratuitous sex scene? 

The last hour was a blur of terrible supernatural events which seem to be happening to the guilty trio. Yet confusingly, their lives just go on as if nothing had happened at all to anyone of them. Did anything happen at all?  In Sapi's most memorable scene, Mendoza showed a big horrifying creature coming out from a vulva (shades of the controversial graphic birth scene in Thy Womb but made more shocking).  But in the next scene, everything seemed business as usual with the girl, everything forgotten. Truth to tell, these "horror" scenes were not really scary at all, recurrent thunderbolts of lightning notwithstanding.

So for me, Sapi did not really succeed as a horror film. The social commentary parts about the media war, or even about the garbage and the flooding, were shallow at best. The camera was very shaky (though thankfully not as dizzying as Mendoza's Captive). The cinematography was pale and washed out, since majority of the film occurs in the rain or in the dark. The acting of the cast was compromised by the inexplicable things their characters were made to do. The editing is a jumbled mess of non-sequitur scenes.

I guess there nothing really much that I liked about this film. That said though, I will still be looking forward to the next Brillante Mendoza film.  3/10.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review of BADGES OF FURY: Silly Kung-fu Cops Flick

November 7, 2013

Having Jet Li headlining the cast will really set high expectations for fans of Chinese martial arts movies. However, just in the first few scenes of this particular film, you will already know that you need to tone these expectations down.

There is a series of mysterious deaths in the city. The victims were all young men who strangely die with a silly grin on their faces. The policemen who get assigned to this case were unlikely partners, the young reckless Wang Bu Er (Zhang Wen) and grizzled veteran Huang (Jet Li), under their lady boss Angela (Michelle Chen). Investigation lead them to a young actress Liu Jin Shui (Liu Shishi), who was the girlfriend of all these victims.

Zhang Wen plays the slapstick comic lead role. His character's name "Bu Er" literally means "never second," which is ironic for this bumbling foolish policeman.  Zhang is shameless in some really embarrassing scenes and stupid situations. He does have several exciting fight and chase scenes, but will usually end up bungling everything. This young actor made his mark in several popular television dramas and had won a Best Actor award playing the autistic son of Jet Li in the 2010 dramatic film Ocean Heaven.  Badges of Fury is Zhang's first all-out action film, and I must say, he did quite well with his stunts and wire-work.

Jet Li only plays a supporting straight man to Zhang here. It may disappoint his fans that he appears in only about a third (or less) of this film despite his prominent billing. Li, of course, still rules his scenes, figuring in some exhilarating, though over-exaggerated and obviously CG-aided martial arts fights.

The ladies in the cast are all very easy on the eyes.  Michelle Chen is quite funny in her cute little way, though she was not entirely believable as a senior police officer at all. Liu Shishi plays it serious here as Jin Shui, the lonely girl who seemed to be a curse for the men who fall in love with her, all of them winding up dead.  Sexy Yan Liu plays Liu Shishi's liberated sister Dai Yiyi, whose uses her feminine wiles to seduce men and sell life insurance.

This film is shallow and light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously. There will be scenes that you cannot help but laugh out loud in their craziness. The investigation of the murders has its own nifty twists and turns which can puzzle you. It can be a fun way to spend a lazy hour and a half, if you do not expect very much.  Think of it as a poor cousin to those classic Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow martial arts action/comedies.  4/10.