Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review of THE REMAINING: Christian Horror

September 30, 2014

It was the wedding day of Dan and Skylar. Their best friends were all there: the best man Jack, the maid of honor Allison, and the photographer Tommy. Everything was going on perfectly until suddenly, a lot of people suddenly dropped to the floor dead. This was followed by a series of disasters of such magnitude the world had yet not known until that time, killing even more people. 

All five friends survive and seek shelter with other survivors in a church. There they begin to realize what this major worldwide catastrophe was actually the Rapture as described in Biblical prophecy. As they eventually realize the true meaning of these events, important spiritual decisions between survival or salvation will have to be made. 

The cast lists unfamiliar young actors like Johnny Pacar, Shaun SiposBryan Dechar, Alexa Pena-VegaItalia Ricci and Liz E. Morgan portraying the lead roles. They were an attractive lot, and they did relatively well in the acting department given the limited dimensions of their characters, especially Pacar (as Tommy) and Ricci (as Allison) who had a little romantic subplot written for them.

Writer/director Casey La Scala did well in telling the story at a fast clip. The atmosphere of suspense and tension were effectively developed. The violent visual effects were passable given the limited budget. I thought La Scala did well not to blatantly show those creatures which snatched people off to the sky (though this might disappoint hardcore horror fans). The shaky camera work did make me dizzy a bit, so I could not keep my eyes on the screen all the time.

Though it was not obvious from the title nor the trailer, this film is actually a vehicle for Christian preaching. The message was not subtle. It is out there for the audience to listen to and reflect on. I do not think I have seen such a horror film with an overtly religious intent. For me, I did not mind it. However, if you are one of those who do not like religion mixed with their film entertainment, this will not be for you. 4/10.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of DEMENTIA: Precarious Memories

September 26, 2014

Mara Fabre (Nora Aunor) has been diagnosed with early stage dementia. She was brought back to her remote hometown in Batanes by her cousin Elaine (Bing Loyzaga) 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?

The script was written by Renei Dimla from a story by Jun Lana. The back story behind the ghostly apparitions was well-told, albeit using a convenient device to tell the whole tale. I liked the subtlety the script used to deal with Mara's immediate past before dementia, with a short but telling scene with Elaine's husband Rommel (Yul Servo) and the thought-provoking epilogue scene. Yet at the same time I was wished for more details. I liked those unique props like the stone with a hole, the jigsaw puzzle, and the Ivatan grass raincoat.

Despite its good points, "Dementia" also utilized many familiar Pinoy horror film staples -- the classic white lady, the empty rooms lit by candles, scratching on the floor, the cemetery scene, the loud swelling instrumental and even choral music to emphasize a scary moment. It also had a scene with the over-used Asian ghostly image of a female in white crawling towards the victim at one point, which I wished it won't but did.

As always though, Nora Aunor can elevate any script to a higher level. She was mostly quiet here because of her mental disability, but her screen presence was really riveting despite her limited lines. As we all know, her eyes and her face speak eloquently by themselves.

Of the supporting cast, Chynna Ortaleza was surreally affecting as the disturbed Olivia, especially in those scenes before she was a ghost. Jasmin Curtis-Smith stands out as Rachel, Elaine's spoiled American-raised daughter, who also later shared Mara's ghostly visions. Althea Vega was effectively cast as a young Nora Aunor. The similarity of their vocal quality was uncanny.

Percival Intalan, in his directorial debut, made full advantage of the mysteriousness of his Batanes setting to tell the story in "Dementia". The old stone houses, the regular interruption of electricity service by 9 pm, the isolation from neighbors, the windswept violent coastline and precarious cliffs -- all were perfect to build up the tension and suspense necessary for a film like this succeed.

"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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review of THE BABADOOK: Unexpected Horror Gem

September 23, 2014

This had happened to me two other times before. The first time was with "The Sixth Sense." The second time was with "What Lies Beneath." And this afternoon, it happened again with "The Babadook." Each of these times, I was practically the only person in the whole orchestra section of the movie theater. You can imagine, it was not only the movie onscreen I was focusing on, but I was also very wary about the dark quiet emptiness around me. But hey, don't knock it. Watching a horror movie this way is the best, since the whole experience is in more dimensions than 3D.

At first I was not thinking of watching "The Babadook." The title sounded corny. There were no known actors. The trailer was dull and unpromising. Everything about it screamed bad B-movie. Surprisingly though, when initial reviews were coming out, they were all very positive. In fact, there were even respected critics who rated it a 5/5,  very rare in the horror genre. With these excellent endorsements, I was compelled to go watch it in order to see what the fuss is all about.

Amelia is a young widow with a seven year-old son, Samuel. Her husband Oskar died violently while he was taking her to the hospital to give birth. The sweet and kind Amelia, who works as a caretaker in a nursing home, is not really moving on well from her traumatic experience, and her special child Samuel's excessive hyperactivity and monster phobia is aggravating her woes.

One day, Samuel picks out a new book off his shelf called "Mr. Babbadook". As Amelia began to read this hard-bound pop-up book, she realizes that this had disturbing images and even more disturbing words. From that moment on, "Mr. Babadook" with his top hat, overcoat, shadowy form and long sharp fingers, would insidiously insinuate itself into the lives of mother and child, until all hell literally breaks loose in their household.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent was lucky that the two actors who played mother and child, Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel, captured her vision perfectly. Davis was subtle and convincing in her dramatic transformation from mild-mannered nurse to a raving virago. Despite his gentle age, Wiseman was able to portray Samuel's difficult behavioral condition and his efforts to protect his mother at all costs. 

I totally see what the critics loved about this film, It was a throwback to simpler times when there were limited special effects and effective scares were dependent on the skill of the director to create these creepy moments. Whoever designed the Babadook pop-up book deserves praise because it really looked so unnerving, especially in its second incarnation. More than just the technical matters of film-making though, the director succeeds in setting up and elaborating the problematic relationship between mother and child and that was essential to make the whole film work.

During the parts when the Babadook was already exerting his negative influence on the family, the tension developed was very thick and the suspense can be unbearably uncomfortable. It was not really about scaring the audience scream silly, This film will make you reflect about the true nature of the sinister Babadook and what it represents. While it does not totally shake off its B-movie feel, especially with the awkwardly puzzling ending with the bowl of worms, but this humble Australian film definitely achieves its objectives as horror-drama with sterling results. 7/10.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review of MULA SA KUNG ANO ANG NOON: Cataclysmic Memories

September 21, 2014

Last 9/11, I got to watch my very first Lav Diaz film, the celebrated four-hour film "Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan" ("Norte: The End of History"). Due to the rarity of his films being shown, I never thought I would ever get to see another one.  Most unexpectedly though, today, I received an invitation to an event commemorating of the lessons of Martial Law in the Philippines, sponsored by SM Lifestyle Entertainment through SM Cinema. I was then able to experience my second Lav Diaz film, the film that recently won the Golden Leopard at the Locano Film Festival, "Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon" ("From What Is Before").

The film starts in 1970 in a remote unnamed Filipino village. We follow the lives of its inhabitants. Sito Almazan (Perry Dizon) was a ranch hand who gets sacked from his work when three cows were butchered during his watch. Hakob (Reynan Abcede) 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 (Hazel Orencio) is a woman who had dedicated her life to taking care of her physically and mentally disabled sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel). Tony (Roeder Camanag) is the local wine-maker who intrudes on the sisters' lives in more ways than one. Heding (Angelina Kanapi) is an out-of-towner who settled in the village as a busybody peddler, not only of house wares, but also malicious rumors.

For the next five and a half hours, we witness their lives unfold and hear their secrets told as mysterious events were happening all over town. Lav Diaz takes his time with his settings, the camera capturing the scene from an empty landscape upon which a small human figure will appear in the distance, walking to the foreground until he exits in a close-up. We will have many scenes like this throughout the film.  Diaz's camera also likes to linger a inordinately long time on his characters as they go about their mundane chores and habits. We will see Sito warding off evil spirits as he walks through the woods, Hakob saving up for a trip to see his parents in Palawan, Pacita giving her sister a sponge bath, Joselina with her repetitive physical tics and facial contortions, Heding invading the privacy of homes. 

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 story telling. 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. That climactic scene where we hear the reading of the Declaration of Martial Law was so well-timed. Humor broke the maudlin mood in the most unexpected ways.

However, the last twenty minutes or so of "Mula" was very puzzling for me. I felt the film already had a beautifully emotional ending as we witnessed a funeral pyre catch fire and waited until its flames eventually die out and it floats out of the screen. The voice over narration summed up everything very well. But instead of ending there, we are brought to yet another scene which I felt just went nowhere. I did not get why Lav Diaz decided to end the film that way it did, making the final payback not too satisfying.

Many of the actors in "Mula" were also seen in "Norte", Perry Dizon played Sid Lucero's mentor in "Norte". Here in "Mula", Dizon is Sito, the central character who survives everything thrown at him and swears never to leave his hometown no matter what. Hazel Orencia played Angeli Bayani's loyal sister-in-law in "Norte". Here in "Mula", she had to essay a more difficult role as Pacita, a tortured woman who had to sacrifice her whole life to take care of her invalid sister. This stirring portrayal already earned her the Boccalino de Oro Independent Critics Award for Best Actress award in Locarno.  Angelina Kanapi again plays Heding as an annoying offbeat comic-relief role that will surprise us all. It was her character that got the most audience reaction.

Roeder Camanag is disgusting as Tony, the drunk wine-maker. Joel Saracho is very earnest as Fr. Guido, the dedicated parish priest. Ian Lomongo is chilling as Lt. Perdido, the military commander assigned to set up camp in their village. Young Reynan Abcede is only in his first screen role and he gets great exposure here as Hakob. (Ironically, he was not allowed to watch this screening because it was Rated R-16. He was asked to step out of the theater when the movie started to play, despite pleas from his co-stars.)

The town is very much a character in this film-- its desolation, its poverty, its being at the mercy of the elements. The whole film was practically shot in inclement weather. You can hear and see the wind howling. You can hear and see the rain falling. You can feel the chill in the air. There was mud everywhere. As big strong waves splash all around the sacred rock formation called "Wrecked Face of the Virgin" with great power, this dangerously picturesque locale is a perfect sacrificial altar. Lav Diaz intelligently captures the drama of the location in impeccable black and white, which made details stand out. Shooting this place in color would have come off as drab.

If "Norte" at four hours was not for everyone, "Mula" at five and a half hours is more so. The investment of this length of time for a single film will be too much for most audiences. It remains an acquired taste, even for me. Watching "Norte" first ten days ago prepared me for the Lav Diaz style of film-making. However I cannot really say that I am used to his long slow epic approach. "Mula" had a more languid pacing and had so many extraneous scenes which I felt did not exactly further the progress of storytelling. Serious international cinephiles have already accorded "Mula" their highest accolades, so there is undoubtedly a rare quality in here that will reward viewers if they decide to take on the full challenge of this moving artwork. I still have a lot to learn from films like this. 7/10.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review of A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES: Throwback Noir

September 20, 2014

The book series by Lawrence Block upon which the lead character Matt Scudder was derived began in 1976. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is based on the 10th book of the Scudder series with the same title, published in 1992. 

An ex-cop haunted by guilt, Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) now operates as an "unlicensed" private detective. One day in 1999, he was hired by a wealthy young man Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) to track down two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who kidnapped and killed his wife Carrie. Scudder gets himself caught in a dark web of drug traffickers, psychotic serial killers and lonely denizens in the underbelly of New York City.

Lately, Liam Neeson is more known for his high-adrenaline action films like "Taken" and "Taken 2". He takes a departure from that type of hi- octane explosive vehicle to take on a more calculated, old-fashioned film noir in this one. Nevertheless, Neeson plays a character who is no less bad-ass, very much an action hero. Yet, his serious dramatic acting skills get to shine here, more than his brawn. He certainly portrayed this role with credibility and charisma. 

Aside from Neeson, there were some supporting characters that will capture your sympathy. There was James Loogan, the cemetery caretaker who loved pigeons, played so creepily well by Olafur Darri Olafsson. There was Howie, the addict who wants to but can't quit his drug habit, disarmingly played by Eric Nelsen. And finally, there was TJ, a homeless orphan who idolizes the likes of Spade and Marlowe, played with sensitivity, humor and heart by the young Brian "Astro" Bradley.

The storytelling by writer/director Scott Frank is very laid back and even contemplative in pace, with artistic cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. The opening scene alone was a sensual slow-motion close-up flesh-on-white sequence with the real context only appearing at its end. There was also a scene of a young girl in a bright red hooded jacket crossing the street with her dog that was beautifully sinister.

This may disorient and even disappoint those fans who were expecting another "Taken" retread. Even the detective work is a throwback to the old school -- no hi-tech CSI stuff here. You get the same chilling vibe as other grisly crime thrillers like "Se7en" or "Zodiac" because this one also does not scrimp on the gore. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" may be less intellectual than those two mentioned, but Liam Neeson's engagingly on-point lead performance manages to lift it above the average crime drama film. 7/10.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review of THE MAZE RUNNER: "Lord of the Flies" Updated

September 19, 2014

After the current trend set by films like "Hunger Games", "Divergent", and "The Giver", "The Maze Runner" is yet another film derived from a young-adult post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. The book was written by James Dashner, published in October 2007, followed by two sequels in its trilogy: "The Scorch Trials" and "The Death Cure". I haven't read the books yet, so I will just be judging the film as it is.

The film starts with a boy who wakes up in a rapidly-rising elevator, which opened in an outdoor camp of teenage boys called the Glade. The boy eventually recalls that his name was Thomas, but nothing else from his past. The Glade was surrounded by a giant maze which the other boys had been trying to figure out for the three years that they have been placed there. To make matters more complicated, the maze changes its configuration every night. Furthermore, unseen deadly spider-like creatures called "Grievers" stalk within the maze. So far, the boys learn to co-exist peacefully with the maze and each other. That is, until Thomas arrives.

The confined situation of the teenage boys trying to survive with each other in the Glade without any adult supervision is very much reminiscent of a much earlier young adult classic novel (by William Golding, 1954) and its film versions (1963 and 1990), "Lord of the Flies." We also see here the usual ingredients in this genre: the enclosed arena, the stringent rules, the unknown outer limits, rebelling against establishment. 

I did not know ANY of the lead actors by name, uncommon for summer blockbusters. There may be familiar faces but they were not household names. The lead actor Dylan O'Brien does well in his role as Thomas. He was able to get us rooting for him, with just the right touch of mystery. I was glad to see an Asian actor Ki Hong Lee in a major role as the original runner Minho. I just don't know if his book character was as non-proactive as it was portrayed on screen. Will Poulter's unusual facial features and expressions make him effective as antagonist Gally.

I have to say though that the action sequences were done quite well. The running within the maze scenes were all quite exciting and very entertaining to watch. However, after all the excellent suspense and tension built up in the first two-thirds of the film, the hanging ending could be quite a big disappointment. 

Nothing really gets explained clearly. Why are these boys really brought into the Glade? Were they really ever supposed to get out of there? What does the unexpected arrival of a girl named Teresa in the Glade signify? Who is this "Big Brother"-like lady in a white coat, Ava Paige? Who is Thomas, really? "The Maze Runner" felt like an incomplete film. This does make the sequels essential for those who are interested enough to see the whole story through. 

Honestly, after the excellence of the "Hunger Games" film franchise with its fiery lead star Jennifer Lawrence, all of these similar genre films that followed its lead already pale in comparison. There are just too many of them are being made into films almost simultaneously. For me at this point in time, "The Maze Runner" just felt like yet another young adult dystopian film too many. 6/10.

Friday, September 12, 2014


September 12, 2014

Finally! Today, I can now say that I have seen a Lav Diaz film. 

Since his multi-awarded "Batang West Side" in 2001, Mr. Diaz has built a name directing artistic opuses that run much much longer than usual feature films, usually more than five hours. His longest was "Evolution of a Filipino Family" in 2004, which clocked at a whopping 11 and a half hours! Running for about 4 hours, "Norte" is fondly referred to as Mr. Diaz's "short" film, and therefore the most accessible of all his films.

"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. These events happened in just in the first hour, the rest of the next three hours follows what happens to each of these three characters following that cruelly fateful day.

I will not pretend and say that I did not feel the four hours. I did feel the length of the film with those static shots that seemed to be showing nothing in particular or the very slow telling of events with several details that seemed like they would have been edited out in usual film. However, each of these scenes would usually precede a scene of big importance, building up the suspense very effectively.

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. He had so many highlights --  the drinking session with friends, the prayer meeting, the scene with the dog Yumi. "Norte" is Fabian's story. It was his actions that mess the other characters' lives around. For a super-complex character like Fabian, the four hours was not even enough to get to know his innermost core that drove him to do the things he did. Fabian is a big question mark up to his very last scene.

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. Her scenes with Archie Alemania are tearjerkers even without any words nor music to build up the moment. Her back was even turned to us, yet their love was so deeply felt by us. There was also that ominous scene with her kids over a ledge. All she did was take a step backward, and we feel so many mixed emotions at that moment. Such artistry by the director and actor!

Archie Alemania's character development was rather straight-forward and he played the character Joaquin very sympathetically. Mae Paner plays the usurer Magda, such a hateful character you will feel her effect even if she was only seen in the first hour. Soliman Cruz plays the prison bully Wakwak, another hateful character seen in the third hour. That scene where he was singing "O Holy Night" was so insidiously sinister. Angelina Kanapi gives another strange off-beat portrayal as Fabian's cloying sister Hoda.

This 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. 

The Urian-winning script of Rody Vera may have been inspired by Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", but this film was unmistakably Filipino in character. We complain that there is no character development in mainstream film. There is no shortage of that here. We will get to see how the events shaped Fabian, Joaquin and Eliza as they were caught in their consequences. 

This rare commercial run could be your best chance to watch a Lav Diaz film and immerse yourself in the work of a director whose name is already being lined up with the esteemed National Artists for film Brocka and Bernal. 9/10.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of THE PRINCE: Anemic Action

September 11, 2014

"The Prince" is a deceptive film. It had an intriguing title and well-known actors in its cast. It looked like it would be a solid action film. As the film began, the opening credits looked very good as well and smartly conceptualized. Unfortunately, these did not deliver on their promise.

Paul (Jason Patric) loses contact with his daughter Beth while was in college. It appears she had fallen into bad company and was heavy into the drugs habit. Paul just so happened to be a former topnotch assassin with incredible skills to kill. While on his mission to rescue Beth, Paul single-handedly routs the entire drug organization of New Orleans, which turned out to be led by Omar (Bruce Willis), a man with a major score to settle with Paul.

The action sequences in this film were so basic, with nary any imagination put into them. They had little to no intensity nor excitement, since the protagonist just was conveniently too perfectly superhuman or lucky. 

So if the success of this film all depended on the charisma of the protagonist, then Jason Patric simply does not have it. In fact, he never had "IT" throughout his career. He was already in lead roles back in the 1990s (albeit in unfortunate films like "Speed 2: Cruise Control") but he never did catch on as a major star. Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis and even Jason Statham have done this very same story before, and all with better results than this.

John Cusack had very little to do as Sam, Paul's friend. 50 Cent was at least more interesting as a cool drug lord named "The Pharmacy." Korean superstar Rain wasted his martial arts talents as Omar's right-hand man Mark. Jessica Lowndes was just annoying as Beth's addict friend Angela. Gia Mantegna was one-note throughout her performance as drugged-out Beth.

Overall, this film is just an anemic cousin of films like "Die Hard" or "Taken" but with none of its excitement and entertainment value. Even in a B-film like this, Jason Patric fails yet again the lead actor. At the end of this film, I never even caught who or what the titular "Prince" was. 2/10.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review of IF I STAY: All Cried Out

September 5, 2014

The cello is my favorite musical instrument. One of my favorite movies of all time is the Japanese Oscar Best Foreign Language film winner "Departures" and a cello played a prominent part in that one. "If I Stay" is another film in which a cello takes center stage, and I would not miss it even for that reason alone.

"If I Stay" is a dramatic film about a shy cello-playing teenager named Mia Hall. She has cool supportive parents, who were once in the punk scene. Her boyfriend Adam is the front man of an up-and-coming rock band. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly with her. She is awaiting for her acceptance letter from the Julliard School. Then one beautiful winter day, a tragic car accident happens.

I was looking forward to good cello music, and this film did not disappoint. The cello-playing scene on their first date and those of Mia auditioning by video and again in San Francisco were breathtaking. As it turns out though, the cello music is not the only thing good about this film.

This film is a tearjerker of the highest order. The script was written in very emotional language by Shauna Cross, based on a best-selling novel by Gayle Forman. I have not read the book yet so I cannot comment how the film interpreted it. The cast, though mostly not very well-known, does very well in bringing this script to life.

Chloe Grace Moretz is really a phenomenal young actress to watch. She first gained attention as the ultra-violent It Girl, the best part of the "Kick Ass" films. Now more grown-up as Mia, Moretz provides this role the grace and elegance. A lesser actress may have made those death scenes mawkish and those romance scenes cheesy.  Her impassioned performance alone makes this film worth watching.

Jamie Blackley was fine as Mia's boyfriend Adam. Too bad his chemistry with Moretz was not entirely convincing. Their intimate love scenes were especially awkward to watch. However, I do like the actors who played Mia's too-good-to-be-true parents Denny and Kat, Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos. That New Year's Day scene in the kitchen where Kat was drying the dishes that Mia washed was especially well-written and well- acted out. 

I had seen Liana Liberato before in her intense film debut as a victim of child rape in the devastatingly chilling "Truth." She also did well here in a much smaller role as Mia's loyal friend Kim. The other strong supporting role is that of Mia's loving grandfather played by Stacy Keach. Remarkably, I think this is the first time I had seen perennial movie bad guy Keach in a role that left him so emotionally raw.

The storytelling, with its weaving in and out of past and present events, was very well-edited together. However, the pace taken by Director RJ Custer can feel very slow and repetitive at certain times in the middle, which made me look at my watch a few times. 

Overall though, it was effective in its intention as a tear-jerking romantic film.  Its picture-perfect cinematography and moody music make sure of that. I found the issues in this film more relatable than those in another recent young-adult weeper, "The Fault in Our Stars". Get ready to have your tear glands wrung out with the many touching scenes in this film. In fact by the final scene, I actually felt all cried out. 7/10

Review of THE GIVER: Essential Humanity

August 4, 2014

It was only a year ago that I had read the book by Lois Lowry, which was written a little more than twenty years ago. With the popularity of dystopian movies made from young adult novels like "Hunger Games" and "Divergent", it is only now that "The Giver" was also made into a film.

I read this book because it was the required reading of my son in sixth grade and I would like to also read what my kids are made to read. While I felt that this book was too mature for my son's grade level, I found it very interesting as it presents the reader a utopian society in the future -- a society of artificially-engineered peace and strict rules -- no memory, no grey areas, no emotions. 

In that world, when a kid reaches 12 years old, they are assigned the occupation which they will be performing for the rest of their lives. For Jonas though, because of his ability to "see beyond", he was specially chosen to be the Recipient of Memories. As his job title indicated, he will be receiving the memories (which had been denied the rest of the populace) from the previous Recipient of Memories, henceforth now called The Giver.

While the movie sticks pretty much to the story of the book, there were some significant changes. In the film, the age of assignment was upped from 12 in the book to a more mature 18. This of course conveniently gave leeway for a possible love angle among the characters which did not happen in the book. However, this also made his decisions and actions more reasonable than it felt while reading the book.

The other significant change involved the ending. The book had a very vague sudden ending in which it was not even clear what the fate of Jonas was. There was nothing unclear about the ending in the film. In fact, the events following the supposed ending of the book were all laid out and expanded in detail. I personally felt there was too much detail given in this regard. A little mystery could have been left open for the viewers to ponder on.

The look of the film though is outstanding. It started in stark black and white, slowly gaining in color as Jonas learned more about what real life was all about. The futuristic set -- the island nestled in the clouds, the dwelling places, the bicycles, the nursery, the ceremonial hall, the costumes -- all looked so good and ideal as they should. 

The senior cast was very impressive with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges leading it. Streep does as only Streep can in the role of the all- knowing, all-powerful Chief Elder, who controlled everything in their utopia. Bridges is especially outstanding as he conveyed the painful responsibility and abject loneliness of being the Giver very well. His knowledge was his torture. Alexander Skarsgard effectively projected naivete in his role as Jonas' Nurturer father. Seeing Katie Holmes again is a pleasant surprise as she plays Jonas' stern mother.

Brenton Thwaites does very well in the lead role of 18 year-old Jonas, even if in reality he is already 25. He has an expressive face that effectively showed various emotions derived from the various memories he was being shown. You do get the impression though that everything happened too quickly for him, but that is the fault of the storytelling by director Philip Noyce, and not the actor himself. It would have been better if Jonas' awakening happened more subtly than the abrupt way it was shown here. 

Pretty Odeya Rush is very good as Jonas' school friend Fiona. She was able to portray the confusion her character felt as Jonas' shared with her the new truths he is learning each day. Watch out for a short cameo by pop singer Taylor Swift, whom I did not immediately recognize. Her performance though was not really too remarkable.

Overall, this was a very well-made film. The cinematography is so clean and crisp, both in black and white, and in color. The musical score is appropriately haunting. That beautiful song playing over the closing credits by OneRepublic is exceptional.  Entitled "Ordinary Human", I look forward to it being nominated for Best Original Song come Oscar time.

It may be perceived to be underwhelming compared to the more action-packed dystopian young adult films so popular nowadays. However, it is really unfair to compare them that way. First, you can see how "The Giver" has inspired these new generation YA books in terms of story. Furthermore, "The Giver" has a more mature and serious message to its audience -- about the very essence of human existence. 7/10

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST: Good-Natured Western Spoof

September 4, 2014

I have not seen much of "American Dad" or "Family Guy" animated series which he created for television. I also have not seen his first major foray into the silver screen, as the voice of Mark Wahlberg's libidinous teddy bear "Ted". With this his latest project, comic Seth McFarlane makes his debut as a bonafide leading man in a motion picture.

"A Million Ways to Die in the West" is about Albert Stark (Mc Farlane), a genteel sheep farmer who is not cut out for the rough and violent life in the American West in 1882. After his lady love Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for a rich mustache salon owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert meets and falls in love with the skilled gunslinger Anna (Charlize Theron). Unfortunately, Anna just happened to be the wife of the notorious outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson).

Be forewarned that this film has a tendency to go overboard with the disgusting toilet humor, gory violent humor and gross-out sexual humor, all of which I believe are trademarks of the McFarlane style. Despite its shallow, low-brow, raunchy brand of comedy, I have to say that this film still remains to be really funny in a most charming way. I think it has its talented cast to thank for pulling this feat off. 

McFarlane's clean cut looks and awkward charm are perfect for fish-out-of-water Albert. Charlize Theron is gorgeous here as Anna, the windswept outdoorsy look becomes her. The two of them had an effective chemistry going for them. Neil Patrick Harris is as irritatingly funny as his arrogant mustache. Liam Neeson was so sinister and mean, which makes his scene with a daisy simply hilarious. In addition, there is chameleon-like Giovanni Ribisi and the irrepressible Sarah Silverman gleefully playing the ironic Christian couple -- the shy virgin Edward and the hard-working whore Ruth.

The cinematography capturing the breathtaking vistas of the New Mexico desert was noteworthy in its brilliance. The country-style musical scoring had a sense of humor. That square dance number to the song about mustaches was rollicking fun. The costume designs and production design was meticulous for its period, even though many parts of the script's language was not. 

The screenplay had so many potentially offensive references which fly fast and furious in the witty repartee, but the cast's amiability and bright smiles somehow make them forgivable in the name of a good time. Watch out for a couple of unexpected cameo appearances of characters from other films ("Back to the Future" and "Django Unchained") which add to the fun mix. Overall, I had a really chuckling good time with this good-natured satire of the Western genre. 6/10.