Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Yearend Roundup: The TOP 25 BEST MOVIES of 2014 That I Have Seen

December 31, 2014

According to my record, I had written 157 movie reviews this year, just 6 more than last year. Only 25 of these are Filipino films, the rest are foreign films. 

My movie reviews are still being picked up and posted on As of this writing, a total of 180 of my reviews have made it on the pages of the most popular news website and FB site both locally and internationally.

For this list, I had not included the 12 articles written about films which had been released in 2013 or earlier, but I had only seen in 2014. These were mostly the Oscar-winning films released in December 2013, but only hit local theaters in 2014.

Potential Oscar-winning films of this year which will only be shown next year locally are also not included here, like "Birdman," "Into the Woods," The Theory of Everything," "Selma," "Foxcatcher", "The Imitation Game", etc...

Honorable Mentions:

25. Magkakabaung (MY REVIEW)
24. The Judge (MY REVIEW)
23. Mariquina (MY REVIEW)
22. The Book of Life (MY REVIEW)
21. Lucy (MY REVIEW)

20. That Thing Called Tadhana (MY REVIEW)
19. Big Hero 6 (MY REVIEW)
18. Snowpiercer (MY REVIEW)
17. The LEGO Movie (MY REVIEW)
16. Nightcrawler (MY REVIEW)

15. Boyhood (MY REVIEW)
14. Edge of Tomorrow (MY REVIEW)
13. Winter Sleep (MY REVIEW)
12. Barber's Tale (MY REVIEW)
11. Begin Again (MY REVIEW)

Counting down the 10 best films I have seen this year:

10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (MY REVIEW)

Simian flu we saw developed and spread in the first film has now all but decimated most of the human population. In the forests, the mutant apes have established their own system, led by the alpha male ape Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture). When a group of human survivors enter the forest in order to reactivate an old dam for their energy needs, they meet the apes' wrath. There arose a battle of loyalty, trust and betrayal in both the human and the ape organizations, escalating into a deadly battle royale in the post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco.

This film is not fun, entertaining, nor uplifting. Instead this is dark, thought-provoking and disturbing. There is no denying though that this film is a technological triumph in the area of visual effects, sound effects, film editing, musical scoring, cinematography and its effective direction under Matt Reeves. 9/10.

9. How to Train a Dragon 2 (MY REVIEW)

Part 2 happens five years after the events of the first installment. Hiccup is now a young man of 20. He discovers a plot of a scarred renegade named Drago to form a dragon army to control the world. While his father prepares for war, Hiccup decides to seek Drago out in order to settle the matter peacefully. In his quest though, Hiccup chances upon the secret icy lair of the legendary Dragon Rider, who turns out to be Hiccup's long-lost mother Valka.

Writer and director Dean DeBlois successfully tells us a story that is mature with a generally dark mood, with very serious themes of family, loyalty, selflessness and heroism. There will be tears, so get ready for that. For the very young kids, count on Dreamworks to spice things up with some comic moments with foolish kiddie pranks and cute dragon babies though. Overall this is one big emotional roller-coaster ride -- so fun and entertaining, yet complete with important lessons in life for all ages. 9/10.

8. Whiplash (MY REVIEW)

Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is an introverted 19-year old drums major in the Schaefer Conservatory of Music in New York City. He catches the attention of a notoriously hard-driving teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who recruits Andrew to join his studio jazz band. There, Fletcher pushes Andrew to play his drums to perfection using a hard abrasive instruction style, inflicting physical and emotional expected only from military drill sergeants. 

This is certainly not just another "Mr. Holland's Opus" or "Music of the Heart". While this also has student-teacher drama and beautiful music, writer and director Damien Chazelle presents his story in a most unexpectedly disturbing, suspenseful, violent and even horrific way. This extraordinary film is brutally raw and frank, no punches were pulled. You will never hear the words "Good Job" the same way again. Such was its brutal yet exquisite sting. 9/10.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past (MY REVIEW)

Powerful Sentinels from Trask Industries were decimating all the mutants, leaving only a handful of the hardiest ones alive. Logan is sent back twenty years into the past during the inception of the Sentinel program, to stop this project before it destroys the mutant race any more. Young Charles Xavier was up and about but without his powers. Young Eric was incarcerated in a subterranean cell within the Pentagon. Young Raven/Mystique was intent to kill Trask himself before he kills more mutants. Logan must make them all see how their actions now will impact on the very existence of mutants on Earth in the future.

This film had so many characters (even former US President Nixon plays a key part) and so many events shuttling from present to past and back. Despite all the potential plot holes a time-travel storyline can present, Director Bryan Singer still manages to tell his story in one cohesive whole. This is yet another excellent proof that the X-Men film franchise is indeed the best among the Marvel collection. 9/10.

6. Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (MY REVIEW)

"Norte" is set in the northern province of Ilocos Norte. Fabian Viduya (Sid Lucero) was a topnotch law student who quit law school because of his highfalutin philosophical ideas of a society beyond existentialism and anarchy. Joaquin (Archie Alemania) and Eliza (Angeli Bayani) were a poor couple whose dreams of building their own eatery business are dashed when Joaquin suffers a leg injury and they fell deep into debt. After a heinous crime was committed in their small town of La Paz, these lives of these three people intersected and were thrown into a major maelstrom. 

This four-hour long film is not for everyone. Not everyone will have the patience for it. Not everyone will have the time for it. However, for those who do invest their time with this, you will experience the artistic vision upon which Lav Diaz has built his name. The innovative camera angles make mundane household items and rustic scenes look and feel different. 9/10

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (MY REVIEW)

The hotel was in its heyday as the hangout of the rich and famous, under the efficient management of its charming concierge, M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). When one of his favorite guests, Madame D., was suddenly murdered, Gustave becomes implicated when the Madame bequeaths a precious painting to him, to the dismay of her family. What follows is a merry and witty romp as Gustave sought to prove his innocence with the help of his loyal protégé, the young lobby boy named Zero.

This fanciful story was told as a story written by an old author in the 1980s, describing a night in his youth when he spent with the elderly Zero Moustafa, the owner of the hotel when it was way past its prime in the late 1960s. It was then that Zero related how the Grand Budapest came to be in his possession. I thought director Wes Anderson's layered storytelling style of a tale within a tale within a tale, with his trademark wry humor and out-of-the-box imagery, is totally delightful and inspired. 9/10.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy (MY REVIEW)

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a space outlaw, self-dubbed "Starlord". After he steals a precious silver orb, he was arrested and put in prison with others who also want the orb for their own selfish reasons. This orb, which contains a powerful Infinity Stone, draws the attention of vicious psycho villain Ronan (Lee Pace), who desires the Stone's powers for his own evil plans. Peter gathers a group of fellow "loser" inmates, namely Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), a raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper),  and a humanoid tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). They gallantly fight together to save the orb from falling into Ronan's possession. 

This is really an excellent space-age action adventure film that the whole family will enjoy. The humor has several levels for every member of the audience, as jokes went from shallow to sassy to cute to subtle to naughty. That summery soundtrack of 1970s pop hits adds so much to the cheery appeal of this film. Writer James Gunn has certainly stepped up from writing "Scooby-Doo" films to this more complex project, certainly exceeding expectations in this, his first major directorial job. 9/10.

3. Captain America Winter Soldier (MY REVIEW)

The directors Anthony and Joe Russo hit all the right notes in their execution of a complex film.  We do not feel the two-hour plus running time pass us by in this excellent action-packed superhero film. Aside from those big fist fights, gun fights, car chases, it also has piracy on the high seas and gigantic aircraft of mass destruction to add to the mayhem. All of these action scenes were executed perfectly - the stunts, the CG effects, the editing, the set-ups -- no loose ends.  

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was able to smoothly tell us about the Cap and the people he loved, along with the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., the history of HYDRA, the history of Black Widow, the history of the Falcon, all on top of a solid politically-charged thriller of a main story about a deadly S.H.I.E.L.D. project called Operation Insight. Again, all these multi-layered details were all tucked in neatly, with no significant plot holes to ponder about.  10/10.

2. Interstellar (MY REVIEW)

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a retired NASA engineer who had been chosen to pilot the spacecraft to further investigate alternative planets for human habitation. Despite the stiff objections of his spirited 10-year old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), he accepts the mission and lifts off together with his crew of three scientists, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). 

From there, we are brought on an unparalleled adventure of space, time and humanity by a master who is probably the most challenging writer and director in the film industry today, Christopher Nolan. Front and center in this visually spectacular sci-fi film is the timeless bond between a father and his daughter. The poetic story he has written is multi-layered and emotional, despite its scientific jargon and bleak settings. 10/10.

1. Gone Girl (MY REVIEW)

Five years ago, laidback Missourian Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) married beautiful smart New Yorker Amy (Rosamund Pike). On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home to find their living room a big mess and his wife missing. The media hounds and persecutes him as police detectives turn up evidence indicating that Nick killed Amy. Nick denies these allegations, but there seems to be no more way out for him. Or is there?

The storytelling skills of David Fincher were flawless in this film. It kept on surprising the audience up to the very end. His slick and fluid style makes us look beyond certain plot details which may seem questionable or even absurd. He raises serious issues about the intricacies of a married relationship and sensationalization of crime by the media. It will not feel like 149 minutes as the unfolding story mesmerizes you. 10/10.

My Yearend Roundup: The Best FILIPINO Films of 2014 That I Have Seen

December 30, 2014

For the year 2014, I had only been able to watch 25 Filipino films. 9 of them were from the Cinemalaya filmfest in July. I got to watch 2 entries in the CinemaOne Originals festival in December. From the MMFF in December, I got to watch one New Wave and 5 from the Main category. I am most stoked about this year because I finally got to watch a Lav Diaz film -- 2 of them in fact!

Honorable Mentions:

14. Hari Ng Tondo (MY REVIEW) 7/10

13. English Only, Please (MY REVIEW) 7/10

12. Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo (MY REVIEW) 7/10

11. The Janitor (MY REVIEW) 7/10

Counting down my Top 10 Filipino Films of 2014:

10. She's Dating the Gangster (MY REVIEW)

Kenji de los Reyes is one of the passengers of a plane that crashed en route to Bicol. His rebellious son Kenneth wants to go there to look for him. Kelay is a kooky girl who also wants to look for Mr. delos Reyes because she wants to reunite him with his first love, her aunt Athena, who is on her death bed. Kenneth and Kelay start out hating each others guts. As circumstances forced to them to take a long road trip to Bicol together, Kenneth gets to know his "gangster" dad more and the pivotal role Athena played in his father's life.

Director Cathy Garcia-Molina knows how to use the best assets of her actors to convey the most emotion, even without words. Ms. Molina's skill with what clicks in a Pinoy rom-com is unquestionable. The actors do not even have to speak to titillate their rapt audiences. The best scenes of the film did not have words: Daniel riding to school on his skateboard, Kathryn smiling with her new haircut, Richard carrying Dawn from the wheelchair to the bench, Dawn radiantly coming into view from the bedroom. 7/10

9. Mula Sa Kung Ano ang Noon (MY REVIEW)

The film starts in 1970 in a remote unnamed Filipino village. We follow the lives of its inhabitants. Sito Almazan was a ranch hand who gets sacked from his work when three cows were butchered during his watch. Hakob is an 11-year old boy whom Tata Sito adopted as a baby, who accompanies him at work and while hunting an elusive wild dove. Pacita is a woman who had dedicated her life to taking care of her physically and mentally disabled sister. Tony is the local wine-maker who intrudes on the sisters' lives in more ways than one. Heding is an out-of-towner who settled in the village as a busybody peddler, not only of house wares, but also malicious rumors.

I feel the main story could be compressed into a couple of hours, as the last two hours can practically tell the whole story. However, the success of the last two hours is there only because we have three hours before it slowly building up the proper mystic atmosphere and insidious suspense.  Yes, this is Lav Diaz's style of storytelling. The revelations are deliberately slow and unexpected. That is what makes these reveals extra special. If they were told straight-forwardly, then these secrets would not have the impact they had on us who had the patience to sit and stick with it through to the end. 7/10

8. Dagitab (MY REVIEW)

The Tolentinos, Jimmy and Issey, are a middle-aged childless married couple. They are both writers and professors based in the University of the Philippines in Diliman. While Issey was unwittingly dragged into a scandal involving her godson Gab Atienza, Jimmy has found Lorena, his first love who became a rebel in the mountains. Will their marriage withstand these storms that threaten to break it apart?

The acting of veterans Nonie Buencamino and Eula Valdez were flawlessly raw and riveting. When the two of them are together, it felt like they were not acting at all. You can feel the bitterness, loneliness and longing of their characters in their delivery of their crazy-good lines. The cinematography was topnotch. That innovative camera angle used on that scene where Issey and Gab were seen lying down on the beach while the surf came in and out was mesmerizingly artistic and breathtaking. 7/10

7. Dementia (MY REVIEW)

Mara Fabre has been diagnosed with early stage dementia. She was brought back to her remote hometown in Batanes by her cousin Elaine to help her recover her memories. Mara keeps getting visions of a playful little girl or a masked bride, whom she called Olivia. As the Olivia's ghostly games become more sinister, will Mara and Elaine's family be able to escape with their sanity or their lives?

"Dementia" does not have the garish and noisy shock effects that we see in most mainstream Filipino horror films. Instead, its unnerving quietness which effectively communicates a sense of danger, on top of the compelling lead performance of Ms. Nora Aunor, gives this film high marks of cinematic excellence. 8/10

6. Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2 (MY REVIEW)

A Balikbayan aswang Dominic is going against aswang conventions by seeking to turn humans into aswang by feeding them very tasty hotdogs made from human meat. When a plot to spread this deadly hotdog in a huge political gathering was uncovered, Makoy had to accept unexpected assistance to prevent this potential aswang epidemic from happening.

Director Erik Matti successfully maintains the elements that made the first film the success it was. He incorporated more elaborately choreographed wire-work stunts and imaginative visual effects for this sequel. Standing out from among the supporting characters is Lotlot de Leon in a bold, loud and fun characterization of Nieves. 8/10

5. Magkakabaung (MY REVIEW)

The titular "Magkakabaung" is Randy who works minimum wage as a coffin-maker. This was barely enough for bringing up his eight-year old daughter Angeline as a single parent. Because of his neglect brought about by work demands, he inadvertently causes the death of his daughter. This tragedy plunges him into a mire of confusion, guilt and desperation on how to give her a decent burial.

Jason Paul Laxamana is the writer, editor and director of this film. His script in glorious Kapampangan, the local dialect of the province of Pampanga. He really has a knack for writing the most thought-provoking films with excellent complexly plotted stories. Both films had significant social commentary sprinkled all over them without making these messages too overbearing. 8/10

3. Mariquina (MY REVIEW)

1986, Romeo Guevarra was the top notch shoemaker in Marikina. No less than Ms. Imelda Marcos wore his shoes.  He has what seemed to be the perfect life with his simple wife Leonor and spirited daughter Imelda.  When Romeo got involved with a female business partner, the stylish Tess, tensions arise which would break his family apart.

Director Milo Sogueco has transformed the screenplay of Jerrold Tarog into an elegant vision. The cinematography was clear with crisp colors and beautiful camera angles. A paler palette was used to distinguish the flashback scenes, with impressively clean film editing work. 8/10

3. That Thing Called Tadhana (MY REVIEW)

Mace Castillo was desperately trying to deal with her excess luggage at the Rome airport when when a total stranger Anthony Lagdameo gallantly offered to help her out. Both of them are recovering from recent relationship break-ups. That chance meeting led to watching "One More Chance" on the plane, a drunken videoke session singing a Whitney song in Manila, a random trip to Baguio City, and a breathtaking sojourn in Sagada. Does destiny have something up its sleeve for them?

This film belonged to Angelica Panganiban. As Mace, we fall in love with her kooky personality and winning smile. We feel her pain and anger, everything was so real. She wore her heart out on her sleeve with a performance so raw and unpretentious, yet so charming and moving, our Audrey Hepburn. The Best Actress prize she won is not a surprise. 9/10

2. Barber's Tale (MY REVIEW)

The year is 1975. Marilou is the lonely wife of the village barber, Jose Aguallo, who treated her like a doormat. When her husband unexpectedly passes away one night, Marilou decides to continue the family trade. Customers though tend not to trust a female barber. However, when the parish priest Fr. Arturo and the town mayor Alfredo Bartolome become her avowed customers, her new career gets going.

Eugene Domingo tones down her usual hyperactive acting tics several notches in order to achieve the very serious Marilou we see on the big screen. She hardly even smiles in this one nor does she crack a single joke. Her character undergoes major awakenings in her life that makes her grow immensely within the film. Domingo shows us these developments so subtly, yet so effectively. She was really very good, a riveting presence in the entire film. 9/10

1. Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (MY REVIEW)

"Norte" is set in the northern province of Ilocos Norte. Fabian Viduya was a topnotch law student who quit law school because of his highfalutin philosophical ideas of a society beyond existentialism and anarchy. Joaquin and Eliza were a poor couple whose dreams of building their own eatery business are dashed when Joaquin suffers a leg injury and they fell deep into debt. After a heinous crime was committed in their small town of La Paz, these lives of these three people intersected and were thrown into a major maelstrom. 

Sid Lucero got put through the proverbial wringer as an actor for his role as Fabian. You'll admire him. You'll pity him. You'll hate him. You'll fear him. This is such a complex role and Lucero was more than up to the task. Angeli Bayani has taken over roles that would probably been given to a young Ms. Nora Aunor. Even if her character barely spoke, it was her eyes and her face that talked to us. 

This four-hour long film is not for everyone. Not everyone will have the patience for it. Not everyone will have the time for it. However, for those who do invest their time with this, you will experience the artistic vision upon which Lav Diaz has built his name. The innovative camera angles make mundane household items and rustic scenes look and feel different. 9/10

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

MMFF 2014: Review of FENG SHUI 2: Creepy Chinoiserie

December 30, 2014

"Feng Shui" was a most memorable Filipino horror movie which was released ten years ago. That film reenergized the horror genre back then with its original story and innovative scare tactics. It also began Kris Aquino's run as Horror Queen as she followed this film up with "Sukob", "Dalaw" and "Segunda Mano". Her oddly distinct scream is worth millions as these films were all box-office hits.

The original "Feng Shui" is about Joy Ramirez, who found a "bagua", an octagonal Chinese charm with a mirror in the center, which apparently brought extreme luck to its owner.  Joy would soon discover though that its drawback is that people around her who look into its mirror would soon die of a bizarre death associated with the Chinese horoscope animal symbolizing the year he was born in. The most memorable of these deaths was that of the character played by Lotlot de Leon born in the year of the Horse. She fell out of the window and landed to her death on cases of beer -- Red Horse beer!

At the end of that first film, Joy thought she had already broken the "bagua" and the curse. But instead, she (and all of us in the audience) were shocked by a twist no one saw coming. That ending sealed "Feng Shui" as one of the best Filipino horror films of all time.

We see that memorable ending again in the beginning of this sequel. The cursed "bagua" is in the possession of a woman who jumped to her death after seeing her whole family killed. Petty thief Lester Anonuevo (Coco Martin) steals it for a Chinese lady who sought to fight its curse. However, the "bagua" still finds its way to hang above the front door of Lester's house in the slums, where he lived with his drunkard mother (Carmi Martin). From that time on, Lester began to have incredible luck and fortune. However, as we already knew from the last film, people around him also began dying.

It was actually already after the first victim died when we first saw Joy again as the real estate agent who sold Lester's father (Rez Cortez) the townhouse where the first death took place. She saw the "bagua" and again she began seeing the ghosts again and threatens her relationship with new boyfriend Doug (Ian Veneracion). The "bagua" is noted to now be more powerful as two victims at a time are dying. 

Together with Tao temple consultant Hsiu Liao (Joonee Gamboa), Joy needs to join forces with all living former owners of the "bagua", Lester and the greedy rich matron Lilly (Cherrie Pie Picache), to try and destroy the curse all over again together.

Director Chito Rono still succeeds to make us jump or scream quite a number of times as ghostly images suddenly pop out at the most unexpected times. The actors were all competent. Kris Aquino is really in her element in horror films. The chills and thrills with the ghostly Lotus Feet still work. The Chinese rituals and the lines delivered in impeccable Mandarin add to the mysterious exotic appeal. The dark humor, inadvertent or intentional, add to the entertainment value.

Being a sequel though, the originality that made the first "Feng Shui" so different is no longer here. The tried and true formula was just upgraded to dual kills, but there was nothing entirely new anymore. I liked the open ending. Stay tuned for an additional scene in the middle of the end credits that seems to promise another sequel, but of a different dimension. I wonder if they wait another 10 years for that one to materialize? 6/10.

MMFF 2014: Review of ENGLISH ONLY, PLEASE: Love in Any Language

December 29, 2014

Julian Parker is a Fil-am guy from New York who is looking for someone who could translate a bitter letter from English to Filipino. After an exhaustive online search and interview, he decided that spunky English tutor Tere Madlansacay is the best person for the job. 

Julian could not move on from his last Filipina girlfriend Megan who left him to return to Manila. Tere is tired from being a doormat to her jerk ex-boyfriend who merely abuses her cluelessness to his advantage. In between language lessons, Julian and Tere realize they have so much in common that they eventually become good friends. Will love be far behind, or will it be lost in translation?

Thus goes the synopsis of the rom-com which surprised everyone when it won Best Director for Dan Villegas, Best Actor for Derek Ramsay, Best Actress for Jennylyn Mercado, Best Screenplay for Antoinette Jadaone & Anj Pessumal, Best Original Story for Antoinette Jadaone and Dan Villegas and Best Editor for Marya Ignacio. However, ironically, despite winning all these major awards, it only garnered Second Best Picture. However, for a rom-com to win all these awards is a pleasantly unexpected reward to cherish already. These wins are creating a buzz for the improved box office performance that it truly deserves.

I only knew Jennylyn Mercado as a celebrity who had well-publicized love affairs with other actors. However, I confess I am not really familiar with her as an actress.  This is the first movie I have seen her act, and it was definitely a very winning performance indeed. She is very pretty, very charming, and very funny in this role. She threw all caution to the wind, giving her all to make her character Tere stand out from other rom-com leading ladies we have seen before. This was a fresh and very natural performance that carried the whole film. As good as Vina Morales or Kris Aquino were, they did not really play the central character of their respective films. This may have worked in Mercado's favor.

We know Derek Ramsay as a quintessential macho man women fight over in films. He was basically playing his typical macho persona in the first part of the film. However, I think it is the subsequent scenes where Ramsay shows us a part of him we are not so familiar with. There was that vulnerable scene where Julian pours out his frustrations about his ex, and that exquisitely tender scene where Julian confesses how he felt for Tere. This tough guy could actually play it sweet and cute! I believe it may be these uncharacteristic scenes which revealed Ramsay's versatility and range that won him the Best Actor award over more obvious favorites like Robin Padilla or Coco Martin, who basically played within their comfort zones in their entries. 

Antoinette Jadaone is really having one big year this year. "English" is her fourth big film this year following successes of "Beauty in a Bottle", "Relaks, It's Only Pag-ibig", and "A Thing Called Tadhana". She actually rehashed a key event in "Tadhana" here -- the videoke singing session. The song here though is by Roselle Nava, instead of Whitney Houston. The dual awards Jadaone won for the script and story of this film caps off the momentous career achievements she had in 2014.

Another device that reminded me of "Tadhana" were those random cards showing the definitions of various words (like "mot-mot", "kitakits", "taralets", "yi hii" or "chikinini") which helped in adding humor to the proceedings. For instance, "love" was defined as that thing that makes a person "tanga" (or stupid). Like these, "Tadhana" had an animated story about a heart and an arrow that was interspersed in the live action.

Yes, there were some distracting product placements for sponsors like Dunkin Donuts, Apple laptops,  the Block in SM City North EDSA, and even that upcoming Nick Jonas film "Be Careful What You Wish For". Luckily they were few and far between. I am also wondering why the MTRCB rated this film PG when there are scenes suggestive of premarital sex and frank discussions about that topic as well. R-13 (or even 16) would have been more appropriate. 

Director cum cinematographer Dan Villegas tells his story in a very light-hearted manner. That he was able to slowly and surely build up the romantic tension between the two lead characters in such a way to make the audience feel that all important sense of "kilig" (or thrill) between an unlikely pair of actors (not an established rom-com love team) is evidence of his directorial skills.

Villegas is lucky to have two very effective actors, Jennylyn Mercado and Derek Ramsay, who were able to embody the characters so perfectly as they were written. For "English Only, Please", it was the actors' talent, charisma and chemistry that elevated the typical rom-com formula story to a higher level of cinematic entertainment. 7/10.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

MMFF 2014: Review of BONIFACIO: ANG UNANG PANGULO: Igniting Patriotism in the Young

December 28, 2014

A couple of years ago also at the Metro Manila Film Festival, there was a film entitled "El Presidente" which tackled the history of the Philippine Revolution based from the memoirs of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo (MY REVIEW). This year in the same festival comes another film that will show us the other side of this contentious chapter in Philippine history -- the side of Gat. Andres Bonifacio. 

"Bonifacio" starts with a graphic scene showing the execution of the priests Gomez, Zamora and Burgos (Isko Moreno) by garotte. From there the story would shuttle back and forth from present day to past. Historical scenes were shown as students (Daniel Padilla and Jasmine Curtis-Smith) learn more details about the Revolution from an elderly museum curator (Eddie Garcia). We see the essential events as we have learned them from our history textbooks. 

Bonifacio (Robin Padilla) met Rizal (Jericho Rosales) when La Liga Filipina was formed. Bonifacio established the Katipunan when the La Liga was discovered and Rizal arrested. Bonifacio courted and married Gregoria de Jesus (Vina Morales). A staff member of the Diario de Manila, Teodoro Patino, spilled the beans about the Katipunan to his sister, who convinced him to tell the gobernadorcillo. Bonifacio led the ripping of the cedulas at the house of Tandang Sora. 

Bonifacio led the first successful attack of a Spanish garrison. This part showed close-up intense fencing matches which were very well-choreographed, executed and shot.  Bonifacio gets shamed at the Tejeros Convention. That election scene was really a highly dramatic scene of politics that was shot beautifully with an excellent ensemble of character actors. I felt these two segments were the best scenes in the whole film. 

Political intrigues eventually led to Bonifacio's arrest and inglorious death at the hands of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo's men. The story telling in this part about Bonifacio's controversial last days felt rushed. I was expecting more inside stories and revelations than what we already knew from our history textbooks.

Everything was neatly covered in an hour and 40 minutes, a running time just right for the young audiences it targets. Within that time it was even able to include side stories about the marriage proposal to Bonifacio's sister Nonay (Isabel Oli) and the legend of Bernardo Carpio done in animated format and narrated by a very well-modulated Lou Veloso. The framing device of modern-day scenes with students just further defined for whom this film was really meant. It was also there to explain and reiterate why Bonifacio should be recognized as our first President.

Try as he may, Robin Padilla has too iconic a look and swagger to become totally believable as Andres Bonifacio. What acting tics he successfully avoided in last year in his award-winning "10,000 Hours" all came back in this one. He was delivering his lines in a consciously "heroic" way, like his whole script was a declamation piece. He was walking, running and even sitting in that same "heroic" way. It was not bad acting per se, but his style seemed a bit too unnaturally theatrical for the big screen. 

Vina Morales did better as Oryang. Her scenes towards the end when Andres was in prison were done just right, no over-acting. That scene when she sought Aguinaldo's help in vain was heart-wrenching. Too bad they did not show more of her during the Revolution itself. Daniel Padilla has a very limited role, which he played mostly with an unsmiling serious face and demeanor. 

Unfortunately, for more mature viewers who are looking to see more Bonifacio stories they do not yet fully know yet, they may be sorely disappointed. "El Presidente" was bolder in that aspect. Even if that film was clearly biased to favor Aguinaldo, at least it dared to show parts of history beyond what we learn in school. I felt "Bonifacio" played it too safe. In its effort to be accessible and engaging to younger viewers, it missed a chance to show us more lesser-known details about Bonifacio's life, and especially his death. 

Overall, "Bonifacio" is a well-presented, albeit abridged, tableau of events we already know well about the Philippine Revolution by director Enzo Williams. The production design by Roy Lachica were very meticulous to be appropriate for that time in history. The cinematography by Carlo Mendoza is lush with vivid colors and dramatic camera angles and lighting. The images were complemented by a sweeping musical score by Von de Guzman. This moving visual overview should jump start interest in history in the younger generation of Filipinos and ignite their patriotic fervor. 7/10.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

MMFF 2014: Review of KUBOT: THE ASWANG CHRONICLES 2: Hairy Predicaments

December 27, 2014

I have not seen the much-acclaimed 2012 film "Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles". Luckily, that whole film was up on YouTube, and even with the compromised video clarity, I can see why "Tiktik" had achieved a cult status of excellence. The graphic novel look and feel, the over-the-top language, loud rock musical score, nifty special effects and the effective campy combination of action and comedy made it stand out from other Filipino films. No wonder, people were all excited to watch its sequel.

"Kubot" starts exactly where "Tiktik" left off, after Makoy (Dingdong Dantes) and company killed off the Aswang leader and decimated most of his minions. While trying to escape Pulupandan in a bus, they were ambushed by a group of Kubot, led by Veron (Elizabeth Oropesa). These are a variety of female aswang with long, thick mass of powerful hair that they can will to do their commands. Makoy loses his right arm and much more in that unfortunate encounter that caused him to be in a constant mood for revenge.

Jump to two years later, Makoy is staying in with his nosy sister Nieves (Lotlot de Leon) in Manila. She works as a secretary for an OB-Gyne, Dr. Alessandra Baldivia (Isabelle Daza), whom she suspects to be an abortionist. It turns out that the doctor's mysterious nightly appointments were of a totally different, supernatural nature. 

Meanwhile, a Balikbayan aswang Dominic (KC Montero) is going against aswang conventions by seeking to turn humans into aswang by feeding them very tasty hotdogs made from human meat. When a plot to spread this deadly hotdog in a huge political gathering was uncovered, Makoy had to accept unexpected assistance to prevent this potential aswang epidemic from happening.

Dingdong Dantes cuts a very fine form as a brash action hero, very believable. This actor is a very natural and charismatic leading man, even if he takes on arrogant character like Makoy. Joey Marquez is consistent in his sidekick characterization of Nestor from the last film to this one. Isabelle Daza is an icy, classy beauty as we always knew her, but she has an awkward dancing scene that is so pleasantly out-of-character for her, it is delightful. Elizabeth Oropesa and KC Montero are convincing as sinister monsters. 

Standing out from among the supporting characters is Lotlot de Leon in a bold, loud and fun characterization of Nieves. Her memorable brazen declaration of her bravery received a round of applause and laughter from the audience. Also stealing scenes is Ramon Bautista, playing a totally different character in this one, after his previous character Bart died in the first film. Bautista's pairing with Bogart the Explorer as the wacky cop tandem of Justiniani and Macapagal was hilariously annoying even if it took some time away from the main story.

Director Erik Matti successfully maintains the elements that made the first film the success it was. He incorporated more elaborately choreographed wire-work stunts and imaginative visual effects for this sequel. That scene of the kubot Veron sucking someone's life force out and that scene with Dominic eating crows were absolutely exceptional in their execution! That robotic Swiss-knife-like right arm of Makoy was too cool.

Aside from the gore factor, the comedy factor were upped more, which made this one more entertaining. The concept of aswang having a council of elders and alliances were reminiscent of "Twilight", but this was integrated very well into the local context of this story and led to more interesting character interactions. The surprise appearance of an elegant aswang princess at the end promises another installment to look forward to next time. 8/10. 

MMFF 2104: Review of SHAKE, RATTLE & ROLL XV: Horror in a Mall, a Kitchen and a Plane

December 26, 2014

I am a fan of Pinoy horror films, but I honestly have not seen ANY of the past 14 incarnations of the "Shake, Rattle & Roll" film series since it started in 1984. This year, I was not really planning to do so as well. However, due to various conflicts in screening schedules, this was the available film my son chose to watch. So at long last, I finally get to watch an SRR trilogy -- its fifteenth!

1. AHAS (Director: Dondon Santos)

This segment brings to life a popular urban myth about a rich mall owner who had twin daughters, one of whom was a snake. She was kept in the bowels of the mall, and fed on hapless customers trying on clothes in the fitting room.

Erich Gonzales rose to the challenge of playing the twin girls, the normal Sandra and the snake lady Sarah. You have to admire her commitment for having to endure the meticulous body makeup to make her torso look reptilian to fit the long serpentine body suit, a process that reportedly took five hours. JC de Vera lacked screen charisma as Troy, the man whom Sarah was attracted to. Ariel Rivera is his reliable competent self playing Mr. Alegria, the father whose desire for wealth made him dabble in the occult, resulting in the curse that plagues one of his daughters. John Lapuz played an events organizer, flamboyant as ever.

Of course, there was effective suspense and dread at the beginning, because of the camera angles and musical score chosen. But after the whole snake body of Sarah had already been revealed, it was not really scary anymore. When the snake creature loses her human face to become totally CGI, the effect was not better (even if the giant mechanical snake there reportedly cost Regal a fortune). Though probably good enough for local standards, the quality of the special visual effects were not really too impressive. Towards the end, it became more of a dramatic film already, rather than horror. 5/10

2. ULAM (Director: Jerrold Tarog)

After his grandmother's death, Henry brought his wife Aimee and young daughter Julie back to live in their family's old ancestral house. Starting Day 1, it was obvious someone did not want them there as the couple are terrorized by dreams of turning into monsters.

This episode worked because of the effective acting of the two lead actors playing the embattled couple, Dennis Trillo (as Henry) and Carla Abellana (as Aimee). The little girl who played their daughter Julie, Kryshee Grengia, was also very good in projecting fear without overacting. Chanda Romero effortlessly emanates mystery as Aling Lina, the house caretaker and cook who maybe serving them more than just sumptuous meals. Cris Villonco only had a few minutes of screen time as the young Ama Choleng, but she was very memorable with that cameo. John Lapuz makes an appearance again as Aimee's friend.

This segment is the creepiest of the three episodes. The feeling of suspense was relentless up to the very end as the boundaries between reality and fantasy are continually blurred.  The makeup effects were quite good, especially the reptilian and lycan transformations. There was very little reliance on special effects, so the dread was created by an effective play of lights, music and editing. Now that makes an excellent horror film. 8/10.

3. FLIGHT 666 (Director: Percival M. Intalan)

A local flight bound for Zamboanga was hijacked by a disgruntled employee (Bernard Palanca). On top of that, a pregnant passenger (Ria Garcia) gives birth to a devil baby that would terrorize everyone on board, killing them one by one. With dead pilots and a bomb on board, the fate of the wacky passengers all hang on the line.

The cast of this episode is the veritable smorgasbord of actors which Regal Films is very much known for. In the main roles were Matteo Guidicelli who played Dr. Dave and his estranged girlfriend, stewardess Karen. Khalil Ramos played a pop artist, with Kiray Celis as his lascivious stalker fan. Models Daniel Matsunaga and John Spainhour and comedians Arlene Muhlach, Bentong and Joy Viado were also in the mix. Kim Atienza stood out playing basically his know-it-all trivia-spouting self to great comic effect. We also see John Lapuz again as a passenger who slept through the flight.

I believe that in horror films, the best scares are those not seen. When we do not actually see what was attacking the passengers, there was excitement. But when the monster baby is already seen repeatedly jumping on people, there is really not much thrill anymore after the first attack. Ultimately, we are just staying to the end to see who makes it out of the plane alive. We also want to know what happens to John Lapuz's character Iggy after being attacked by three monsters in all three films. 4/10.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

MMFF New Wave 2014: Review of MAGKAKABAUNG: An Accidental Bereavement

December 24, 2014

This year's Metro Manila Film Fest New Wave category had its public viewing a whole week prior to the mainstream category. There are five indie feature films being shown, together with various animated and live action shorts. It was quite inconvenient for us in the North that the festival was only being held in two venues, SM Megamall and at the Glorietta. 

I thought I would not be able to watch a single one because of the difficult schedules and traffic jams of this season. However, on the very last day, I had some last minute Christmas shopping to do in Megamall, so I grabbed that chance to catch a screening. It was just too fortunate for me that the earliest one being shown this day (at 9:40 am) was the very same movie that is consistently topping all the surveys about this festival in terms of excellence.


The titular "Magkakabaung" is Randy who works minimum wage as a coffin-maker. This was barely enough for bringing up his eight-year old daughter Angeline as a single parent. Because of his neglect brought about by work demands, he inadvertently causes the death of his daughter. This tragedy plunges him into a mire of confusion, guilt and desperation on how to give her a decent burial.

Jason Paul Laxamana is the writer, editor and director of this film. His script in glorious Kapampangan, the local dialect of the province of Pampanga. Last year, I was able to see another Laxamana film, "Babagwa," which was about Internet scams. He really has a knack for writing the most thought-provoking films with excellent complexly plotted stories. Both films had significant social commentary sprinkled all over them without making these messages too overbearing.

With that synopsis alone, you know that this is a depressing film to watch. Knowing beforehand that the daughter will die caused me to be on pins and needles the whole time until that fateful moment arrived. I was afraid to see how it would happen. Laxamana played the suspense card so well in this regard. 

We will also see the problems the indigent face when they have an unexpected death in their families. The scenes in the emergency room with those callous nurses and cashier were so irritating, yet we know these things really happen in real life.  The scenes where the unscrupulous funeral parlor owner Mr. Canda and his bone-chilling proposal to a father who just lost his daughter were deeply disturbing. 

The acting style was very realistic. It felt as if you were looking in on the lives of real people, instead of actors playing roles. 

Allen Dizon effectively essayed his difficult role with a depth he is not really known for before. His character was a father who tried so hard yet came up so very short, causing him to lose the daughter who was his whole world. His pain is unbearably palpable for all others father in the audience, like me. Having his own real-life daughter Felixia Crysten Dizon play the unfortunate Angeline definitely pushed the right emotional buttons for Dizon to give the best possible and most convincing portrayal of a devastated bereaved father. This role had already given Dizon Best Actor awards from film festivals in Montreal and Hanoi (where he won over Ralph Fiennes). He is the best bet to win in this MMFF New Wave festival as well.

Emilio Garcia played Mr. Canda with slick sticky sleaze. During his scenes, you'd feel as if you were squirming in those uncomfortable situations yourself. Gladys Reyes, playing Randy's estranged wife Mabel, as always was so effective with her expressive face. That scene when Randy confronts her for leaving him to raise Angeline alone hit so hard. 

Chanel Latorre played a trying-hard dancer who was Randy's much-younger, yet selfish and manipulative girlfriend. Latorre was so effective being an annoying jerk, you'd want to push into the murky water yourself like Randy did. Her name here was Neri, which incidentally was the same name she had in "Babagwa." I wonder if she is supposed to be the same flighty girl in both films, a continuing link in future Laxamana films?

While the story was interesting and the story-telling was engaging, I must confess that I did not have an easy time watching this film. The excessively shaky and shifty handheld cam style that Laxamana employed caused me to have a vertiginous migraine during and well-after the film. This detracted from my full appreciation of this otherwise excellent film. Then again, there are those beautifully poetic scenes of Randy transporting Angeline's corpse on his pedicab along the lahar deserts of Pampanga that are simply captivating. 8/10.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of WOLVES: Trifling Throwback

December 18, 2014

Cayden is a senior in high school and a star football player. He began developing very violent tendencies he cannot control, eventually turning to a wolfman. One night, his parents were mercilessly shredded to death in their house. Confused and guilty, Cayden takes off to escape persecution. 

In a random rough bar, he meets Wild Joe who knew his secret and directs him to a remote town of Lupine Range to know more about his lycan nature. There, Cayden meets his ideal match Angel, as he discovers his real nature and who his real parents were

The two young actors in the lead roles Lucas Till (as Cayden) and Merritt Patterson (as his Angel) were earnest and looked good, but they did not possess enough charismatic intensity to pull their jobs off. Their performances were merely adequate at best. 

Three more senior members of the cast had a lot more in terms of screen presence and acting chops. John Pyper-Ferguson was an over-the-top Wild Joe. Stephen McHattie played the kindly farmer John Tollerman, who takes Caiden in and stood by him during his time of self-discovery. Jason Momoa uses his muscle-bound heft and fierce looks to create the perfect Connor, the alpha wolfman of the town. There should have been more of his character.

This is yet another teenage werewolf movie. However, it does not really add anything new to this often-told horror subgenre. Instead of the CG giant wolves used in the "Twilight" series, the werewolves in this film used old-fashioned makeup to create the lycanthropic illusion. While the effort for detail was admirable, the "wolves" did not look too realistic nor scary for the big screen. 

The script though had surprises along the way. It did not really turn out as predictable as you may think. However, as a whole, this film had an odd throwback feel about it, like this should have been released a few decades ago. 3/5. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review of THE HOMESMAN: A Bleak, Bitter Bounty

December 19, 2014

A homesman is someone tasked to bring people back to their homes. In this film, the people that needed safe transport are three mentally-disturbed women. Mary Bee McCuddy, a plain but hardy 31 year-old spinster, volunteered to bring them. Along the way, she saves a old man Thomas Briggs from being hung by vigilantes and conscripts him to help her with her mission in exchange for saving his life. Together, they gather the three ladies and escort them from Nebraska homes across the dangerous Midwest prairie to a safe haven in Iowa.

Hilary Swank is an actress who had already won a couple of Oscars for playing strong women who had taken on masculine roles in life -- Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry" and Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby". As Mary Bee McCuddy, a pioneer lady who bravely accepts a task only men are expected to do, Swank again goes on the same award-baiting path. The movie worked so well when Swank was onscreen. She was absolutely compelling in this offbeat role as if this was written with her in mind. The movie was not the same when her character was not there.

Tommy Lee Jones donned four hats on this production: producer, writer, director, actor. As writer, he collaborated with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver on this adaptation of a 1988 novel of same title by Glendon Swarthout. This film is only Jones' second directorial effort since his critically-acclaimed debut in "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" back in 2005. As director, he was very generous to his lead female star Swank, and always gave way to let her shine. As actor, he does consistently as he is expected but this role of a grumpy old outlaw seems too familiar for him already. He wisely played Briggs with some self-deprecating humor to break the tendency of the story to become monotonously bleak.

There were some remarkable support from other award-winning or nominated stars in much smaller roles. John Lithgow is his usual capable self playing the Reverend Dowd who reluctantly sends McCuddy off on her task. Hailee Steinfeld plays 16-year old Tabitha Hutchinson to whom Briggs offers a surprising proposal. James Spader, in his usual over-the-top style, plays condescending hotel owner Aloysius Duffy. And last, but definitely not the least, none other than THE Meryl Streep plays perfectly kind and hospitable Altha Carter, who runs the institution in Iowa the women are headed for. These actors appear onscreen for only ten minutes or so, but they leave a lasting impression.

The narrative may have been slow and desolate . However, the unusual situations, disturbing imagery, startling story developments and committed performances by the cast all keep our attention riveted. The cinematography with the muted colors worked well with the windswept landscape of its setting, as much a character in itself. The costumes and production design rang true to its mid-19th century time period. The haunting and unsettling musical score create an atmosphere of bitter emptiness. The insufferably miserable topic is clearly not for everyone. But for those who decide to give it a chance, the rewards will be a satisfying bounty. 7/10.