Friday, November 28, 2014

Review of YOU'RE NOT YOU: Slow Torture of ALS

November 27, 2014

Kate is a woman who has it all. She is beautiful, wealthy, a talented pianist, and had a loving husband. Bec is a young woman who seemed to have everything going against her. She is an irresponsible college student, always drunk, sleeps around, a failed musician. 

But one fateful day, Kate was diagnosed with the debilitating neurologic disease called ALS, which left her progressively helpless with her personal care. When she was choosing her caretaker, Kate saw something in the mess that is Bec.  From an awkward start, these two women, who are polar opposites of each other, get along, bonded and helped each other get through the kinks in their lives. 

When ALS was mentioned as the diagnosis, you knew then where this film is headed. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and its devastating degenerative consequences, has been in the news very much this year because of the viral Ice Bucket Challenge. There will be no big surprises as to what will happen during the course of the story up to the end. 

However, what will keep you glued to the screen are the performances of the two lead actresses: Hilary Swank as Kate, and Emmy Rossum as Bec. 

I have not seen Hilary Swank for a long time already since her two Oscar Best Actress wins in the previous decade for "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) and "Million Dollar Baby" (2004). This film is somewhat reminiscent of the second film where she played a female boxer who had a spinal cord injury that made her quadriplegic. 

Here in "You're Not You," the progress of the neurologic disorder is gradual, so Swank brought us on that slow, torturous tour of how it is like to have your body deteriorate even as your brain remains completely lucid. Her character Kate remained so magnanimous throughout her ordeal, making her character likable and sympathetic, even if we do not understand much of what she was saying anymore.

I have not seen Emmy Rossum in another role since her breakthrough as the ingenue Christine in the film version of the Broadway musical "The Phantom of the Opera" (2004). Her brash and slovenly character here is so different from the meek, refined Christine in Phantom. This effectively shows the wide range Ms. Rossum has gained over the years. Those who miss her singing voice will also get to hear it again here.

Here, we will also see the various reactions of different people around Kate and Bec about their unusual arrangement and friendship -- their parents, the men in their lives, their friends -- which kept things interesting. You will reflect about your own reactions if one of your loved ones should get this difficult affliction. On Kate's side, Josh Duhamel plays her controlling husband Evan. Frances Fisher plays her mother. Ali Larter and Andrea Savage play her fair-weather friends. On Bec's side, we have Marcia Gay Harden who plays her cold but concerned mother. Julian McMahon plays her sleazy professor she fools around with. Jason Ritter plays her dorky but persistent suitor.

This film may be hard to swallow in several parts because of the intensity of the depressing dramatic situations. The psychological reactions of the characters do not seem too typical, which is also good as they gave the material some unexpected surprises, though some do not feel realistic. However, the central performances of Swank and Rossum were so effective that empathetic audiences will be moved, maybe even to tears. 7/10.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Review of THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1: Unnecessarily Elaborate Set-Up

November 23, 2014

With the first two parts of the Hunger Games films doing so well critically and in the box office, anticipation for the concluding installment was very high. Following the path previously set by the Harry Potter and Twilight Saga franchises, the producers also decided to divide the last book in the series, Mockingjay, into two parts. Now that I have seen the first part, I thought this decision may have been misguided.

This film begins right where the previous one stopped where Katniss wakes up in District 13 where she was taken by rebels after she destroyed the Quarter Quell arena with her arrow. Katniss becomes the symbol of the rebellion by appearing in incendiary promotional advertisements, but Katniss was angry with them because they left her partner Peeta behind at the Capitol. Backed with the technical knowhow of Beetee, President Coin of District 13 sends a covert mission led by Gale to rescue Peeta and the other Victors from their captivity. 

Jennifer Lawrence is far and away the best performer in this film. Her face is really rich in unspoken emotions. Josh Hutcherson gets to flex some of his acting muscles more in this one as the brainwashed Peeta Mellark. It was good to see old characters played by Woody Harrelson, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Jeffrey Wright and Sam Claflin, though their roles were very limited here. New to the cast, acclaimed actress Julianne Moore is rather one-note in her performance as President Coin.  

The best moments of this film for me actually had to do with music. The first would be that sublime moment where Katniss sang the haunting tune called "The Hanging Tree." The next one would already be during the closing credits when the incredible new song of Lorde "Yellow Flicker Beat" was played. 

Overall though, I felt disappointed that this film cannot stand on its own. Unlike the action-packed first two films, this one was just a lot of slow talky scenes which the talented actors cannot do much about to make them any more exciting. That one awesome scene where Katniss shot down a plane with an arrow was even already shown in trailers. No other action sequence matched that one. This whole film clearly served nothing but to just set-up for the big concluding episode to be shown next year. 

There were a lot of scenes which were unnecessarily prolonged just to pad up the running time. The scenes showing the destruction of District 12 were actually shown twice. The escape to the underground bomb shelter scenes were extended too long. I thought judicious editing could have made these scenes tighter, so that the whole story could have been told in one big spectacular film. Judging from what happened to this one, dividing the last book into two parts may have just succeeded to make the last two films two incomplete films.

Anyway as US box office receipts come in making "Mockingjay Part 1" earn the biggest domestic opening weekend this year ($123M!), I'm sure fans will still all watch this whatever critics and other people say. And definitely, we will all be hanging on for one more year for that explosive Part 2 to come along and blow us away.  5/10.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

CinemaOne 2014: Review of THAT THING CALLED TADHANA: Where Broken Hearts Go

November 19, 2014

Last year, the only film I got to see at the Cinema One Film Festival was "Shift" a romantic comedy set in the world of call center agents. As luck would have it, I would again get to catch another romantic comedy in this year's 10th incarnation of C1 Originals. This film comes well recommended, having won the Audience Choice award and the Best Actress in the awards night last Sunday. (It was just too bad that I would not be able to catch the Best Picture winner, "Violator" by Dodo Dayao anymore since it was given an unholy 10:30 pm slot on the last day. Let's hope it gets a regular run.)

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 in Manila, a random trip to Baguio City, and a breathtaking sojourn in Sagada. Does destiny have something up its sleeve for them?

This is another one of those "maindie" films, an indie film that looks mainstream. The story of this film is a very familiar, very basic rom-com staple plot we see in many mainstream flicks. The director Antoinette Jadaone just had two consecutive hit mainstream movies released before this one "Beauty in a Bottle" and "Relaks, It's Just Pag-ibig". Angelica Panganiban and JM de Guzman are popular mainstream film stars.  

The success of this film is in the very engaging performances of  its stars. Their delivery of their lines are so effortlessly natural. The chemistry they had with each other was so sweet and electric. That moment when they were singing a sappy Whitney Houston song was memorably hilarious despite its backstory. That bus stopover scene where Mace would relate everything Anthony said to an event with her ex was so well-played out. 

JM de Guzman has a good boy-next-door appeal, which was why we were surprised with his recent personal problems. It is fortunate that he seemed to have overcome these issues because he is a very good young actor. I only knew him for heavy dramatic roles on TV, but he was quite the ideal choice for Anthony here. He had a kind face that Mace (and the audience in general) knew she could trust. Loved that scene where he was deciding whether to put his arms around Mace or not.

But honestly, 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. All that discussion about the merits of John Lloyd Cruz as the perfect leading man is simply so precious, knowing their personal relationship off-screen.  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 (although I still have not seen Sharmaine Buencamino's much-talked about performance in "Lorna" yet).

Likely, that is why it won the Audience Choice award. Unlike most indies, this one had wide mainstream audience appeal. It was only during really long quiet moments in the middle or in the expletive-riddled dialog (though cute the way Angelica delivers them) did it feel like an indie film. The story is completely relatable and brought to life with pithy witty words and delightful disarming performances. I do not really watch rom-coms, Pinoy or foreign, but this one was very good.  I think I want a sequel. 9/10.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CinemaOne 2014: Review of ESPRIT DE CORPS: Intense Interrogation

November 18, 2014

It was quite obvious from some posters and the trailer (with the actors in various states of undress) that this film had a gay theme. However, "Esprit" had just copped two major awards last Sunday: Best Director and Best Actor, and that was reason enough to catch it.

C/Maj Mac Favila is the S3 (operations officer) of the Corp of Cadets in St. Michaels, an exclusive Catholic boys school. C/Pvt Abel Sarmiento and C/Pvt Cain Fujioka are both aspiring for Favila's prestigious position, with the power and popularity it brings. However, the one-on-one interrogations of Favila with the cadets took extremely unconventional detours for him to determine who among the two was the right candidate for the job.

This film throws us back to the time when there was still CAT in high school, during the officers training course. As someone who underwent that course myself back in high school, the military jargon (S3, poop sheets, military discipline, the commands, the demerits, the punishments, etc...) we encountered back then all came back to me, with good and bad memories.  There were also references to other Martial Law-era pop culture, like the Marcoses and Bagong Lipunan, to Japayukis, to Voltes V (the TV series and the movie) that we all remember.

The film took a turn to the uncomfortable when the dark gay elements took over.  I can't say I did not expect it.  I just did not expect it to be so disturbing.

Since I only saw two films, it is hard for me to comment if Kanakan Balintagos (formerly known as Auraeus Solito) truly deserved to win Best Director. I do know that I liked how the camera was in constant motion around the characters, giving it a sense of dynamism and energy. I liked the theatrical style of the screenplay with the fast exchange of words, and the way the director told the story out of order for the best effect. 

An exception would be the swimming scene in the middle of the film which felt extraneous and gratuitous. It was not realistic, nor did it really advance the plot in anyway. The wargames was supposed to be climactic, but it was not executed too well.

I thought Sandino Martin did well in the lead role as Abel. His role was difficult physically as well as emotionally during his intense interrogation scenes. I thought it was Best Actor caliber performance. In the role of Mac Favila, JC Santos also did creditably well in his complex, conflicted character. Santos was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though arguably his role is actually co-lead.  Their chemistry sparked some serious sexual tension that the film required to succeed.

Lharby Policarpio played the very competitive Cain, who was willing to do whatever it takes to get his rank. It is good they put in a scene explaining the reason why he got that unrealistically negative name. This character had less subtlety than the other two, so he did not show much range. Garry Lim essayed an uncharacteristically sleazy role as the Commandant. The beautiful Sue Prado had a puzzling wordless cameo which revealed her bountiful assets and more.

The story is solid and well-told, though the unsettling details involved are not for everybody. Conservatives may not approve of the graphic sexuality displayed. Although sex is an essential part of the story, these scenes could have been done in a more subtle, less blatant way for wider audience appeal. However, the director decided to push the envelope, and the actors were likewise daring, and for thus this film had been amply rewarded. 6/10.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of NIGHTCRAWLER: Sociopathic Greed

November 17, 2014

Louis Bloom is a street-smart petty thief who stumbled into another way of earning more money. He would prowl the streets at night in the quest of some lurid or bloody crime or accident scene to film, with the main purpose of selling this footage to a news station for broadcast (also known as a "nightcrawler"). In order to one-up his competition, Bloom would not be too shy to do something underhanded in order to get the best scoops or shots. KWLA station news manager Nina Romina falls for Bloom's sensational video stylings and uses his graphic videos to push her low-rating station up in the network wars.

One day, being at the right place at the right time, Bloom was able to shoot video footage of a violent triple murder in a supposedly safe and affluent L.A. suburban neighborhood even before the police arrive on the scene. Aside from upping his price and his name, this event also pushes Bloom's brand of unethical media manipulation to more despicable levels.

This film is a total showcase for actor Jake Gyllenhaal to fully show off his commitment to method acting.  His Louis Bloom is downright creepy and disgusting. His physical transformation is remarkable. Thin, gaunt and slouched, there was definitely no dashing and heroic "Prince of Persia" Jake here. From his work in "Zodiac", "Brokeback Mountain", "Prisoners" and "Enemy", we already know that Gyllenhaal is a serious film actor. He hits his peak transformative performance with this sick role. I will not be surprised if Gyllenhaal earns his second Oscar nomination with this disturbing portrayal upon which this whole film depended on.

The supporting cast does efficient work as well. Rene Russo plays Nina. It was very good to see the glamorous star from the 80s and 90s back in a substantial role worthy of her beauty and talent. Bill Paxton, another star from the 80s and 90s, has a smaller but marked role as Joe Loder, a veteran nightcrawler who was Bloom's main competitor. British indie film actor Riz Ahmed gets his Hollywood debut here playing Rick, the clueless guy Bloom takes on as an employee. He basically represented what all of us in the audience felt like watching the contemptible Bloom and his unmitigated greed so close up. 

Writer Dan Gilroy does pretty good work for his first directorial job for a feature film, realizing his own vision for an original screenplay he himself wrote. He was able to effectively work in a sense of black comedic commentary on the current cutthoat state of network news. He was able to create much thrilling suspense in the action scenes in the second half of the film that kept us at the edge of our seats. 

But this film is really all about Jake Gyllenhaal and his loathsome portrayal of Louie Bloom, which will be henceforth entrenched in the list of the most morally reprehensible characters in movie history. 8/10.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Review of WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD: Lurid Melodrama

November 15, 2014

Kat's mom, Eve Connor, was an elegant woman who did not relish her married domesticity over the years, becoming miserable and unstable. When Kat was 17-years old, Eve suddenly just disappeared from their house without a trace. Her dad Brock was devastated and distraught. Kat though moved on quite easily with her raging hormones. love affairs and college. When Kat comes home from college on a break though, unsettled issues about her mom's disappearance simply refused to die down. 

American indie film director Greg Araki directed this film with his own screenplay adapted from the novel by Laura Kasischke. The story is a strange mishmash of various genres, from family drama to police drama, to teenage angst drama. There is a heavy dose of sexuality here, with lead star Shailene Woodley actually having nude scenes. 

Woodley carries the film well as the central character Kat. Earlier this year, she just broke through into mainstream consciousness in two big hit films, as heroine Tris in "Divergent" and as Hazel in "The Fault in Our Stars". She plays another teenager here, but with different adventures, mostly of the sexual kind. Her daring was quite unexpected for a serious young lead actress in this day, unlike the 80s or 90s. 

Solid and sexy as Woodley was though, she was still upstaged by Eva Green playing her disturbed mother, Eve. This vitally sensual woman simply has a commanding screen presence that her other co-stars in any film would find hard to match. From "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Casino Royale", then recently in "300: Rise of an Empire" or "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For", Eva Green always ends up as the star audiences will remember most.

The male actors play support to the ladies here. Playing the father Brock is the charismatic and reliable actor mostly known for his TV work, Chris Meloni. During the flashback scenes, Meloni and his toupee provided that little touch of humor this film needed. Thomas Jane plays the macho cop assigned to the Connor case, who gets a little to much involved. Shiloh Fernandez plays the libidinous boy next door who got Kat started on her sexual escapades, among other people.

For me, this film was two different films each of which could stand on their own, but these two are connected with a tenuous and awkward bond. One was about Kat and her issues.  One was about Eve and her issues. Together though, the totality of the film comes across as an uneven and lurid family melodrama that is not exactly easy to digest. 6/10.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review of WINTER SLEEP: Eloquent Confrontations

November 13, 2014

Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a wealthy man, a former actor who now runs a hotel in Cappadocia. He also writes a column for the local newspaper, and is researching for his planned book about the history of Turkish theater. Nihal (Melisa Sözen) is his beautiful and much younger wife. Necla (Demet Akbag) is his divorced sister. 

Also involved  the family of Aydin's poor tenants who could not pay their rent for several months already. The friendly and gregarious Hamdi appeals for compassion, while his older brother, the impetuous jobless ex-con Ismail and his sullen young son Illyas, could not hide their contempt for their landlord. 

This film is about the various conversations and confrontations between these people. These may begin as abstract debates about not resisting evil or boredom or donations, yet they all end up being very personal. There is no real plot, just a lot of seemingly random dialogue.  Although, there are arguments that seemed endless and repetitive, these confrontations were eloquently written with very meaningful words for both sides of the issue. These long talky scenes were riveting despite their length and you hang on to every word they were saying as they drip with wisdom, wit, bitterness and sarcasm. The performances of these fine actors of these flawed characters were faultless and so natural in the delivery of their complex lines.

The cinematography of this film is so amazingly beautiful as it magically captured the unique topography of Cappadocia during the wintertime. There were several picture-perfect and haunting scenes throughout, specially those about the Anatolian horse, the cemetery, the train tracks, the tree with the birds, the rabbit in the brush, the town, the hotel -- all covered with pristine snow. The close-ups of the actors were all so perfectly framed to achieve maximal drama. The use of mirrors to vary the camera shots were very good. 

I admit that the 3-hour and 16-minute length of this film can be felt. However, you do not really mind this time running as you listen to intellectually-stimulating emotionally-rich conversation. This film is a masterpiece of world cinema by acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, truly worthy of its Palme d'Or during the Cannes Film Festival this summer. This should be a shoo-in to at least be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. 9/10.

Review of HORNS: Escalating Bizarreness

November 13, 2014

The film choices of Daniel Radcliffe after Harry Potter are always a curiosity. Maybe tired of the media circus around Harry, he seems to be more drawn into these small non-mainstream type films. The last one I watched was "Woman in Black" which is quite a good atmospheric horror film. And now comes this weird one called "Horns."

Ig Perrish and Merrin Williams were a perfect young couple in love, sweethearts since childhood. One day, Merrin was found dead in the forest, and Ig becomes the prime suspect. As the whole town, including his family and friends, turns on Ig, he began to notice horns growing out of this temples. People around him lose all self-control and become totally id driven and brutally honest. But despite these disturbing occurrences, Ig remained determined to get to the bottom of Merrin's brutal murder.

Daniel Radcliffe's multi-faceted performance is probably the only thing that keeps this over-the-top movie together. The rest of the cast, even Juno Temple as Merrin, did not really do anything memorable with their roles. Everyone seemed to be playing it too high-strung or too low-key, maybe that was the director's intention to keep the proceedings interesting. The eventual antagonist was particularly weak, with their final "battle" not too impressive despite the special effects, not exactly Grand Guignol.

"Horns" is one of those films you cannot categorize. It has elements of love story, crime drama, satanic horror and dark comedy. Director Alexandre Aja uses a lot of flashbacks to tell stories about the Ig's childhood with his gang and his relationship with Merrin. When the horns grow out of Ig's head, the film takes on a totally bizarre character that defies definition. The strangeness escalates further when flames, snakes, and even a pitchfork gets into the scene. It had an interesting first half, but unfortunately the second half becomes downright absurd. 5/10.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reviewing Three Films from QCinema: LEVIATHAN, IDA, TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT

Noveember 12, 2014

Last week, the QCinema Film Festival was held in the Trinoma. QCinema is the official film festival of Quezon City, the City of Stars. Aside from local indie films, this festival also featured several acclaimed foreign language films. I went to catch these three films because they were already announced as their country's official entries to the race for Best Foreign Language Film in the next Oscars. Furthermore, they are actually touted to be those most likely named as nominees and even the possible winner.

(dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

Kolya is a regular man who lived in a small seaside Russian town with his younger second wife Lilya and a teenage son from his first marriage Roma. He was being evicted out of his home by the mayor. He enlisted the legal assistance of a junior army buddy Dmitry, who has since become a hotshot lawyer in Moscow. However, as Kolya becomes the unfortunate victim more and more, both in the political and domestic fronts, Dmitry's arrival may actually have brought Kolya more harm than good.

The events in the story could in fact have happened anywhere else in the world. The political corruption aspect of this film (about how the powerful had the poor under their thumbs) has been tackled many times in many films. The family problems tackled in the film (poverty, rebellion, betrayal) are also really nothing new. The whole film felt like a Filipino film, even complete with a religion sermon at the end. All the characters in this film are flawed and not easy to like or relate to.

Maybe I was expecting too much because of the hype, or maybe the story is just too familiar for me, but this did not exactly feel too impressed by this film. It was only OK, not that special. Honestly, the film felt like two separate films with an awkward transition in the middle.  A major character in the first half even totally disappeared in the second half unmentioned. As with many European films, the pace of the storytelling was very slow, with very little happening in many scenes. There was a climactic twist of sorts, but it was not as big or surprising as I was expecting. I was disappointed, but hey, I read that this is the film most favored to win the Oscar. 6/10.

2. IDA 
(dir: Paweł Pawlikowski, Poland)

Set in the 1960s in Poland, Anna was a young novitiate nun. Before she takes her final vows, she was required to reconnect with her only living relative, a worldly jaded judge, Wanda. Wanda takes Anna out to discover the truth about a dark family tragedy that happened during World War II.

The film is short and quiet. The story is deceptively simple. The actresses were both very good in their roles. The title role is the young nun played by Agata Trzebuchowska. She mainly plays it shy and innocent the whole film with hardly any dialog. But the more challenging role of the judge was played by Agata Kulesza, and she delivers a very passionate performance. The controversial endings for both women will be topics for discussion after watching the film.

The main conceit of this film though is its spectacularly sharp and stark black-and-white cinematography. Every frame it seems is worthy of being a picture postcard in its eloquence and beauty, even with its bleakness and shadows. There are shots where the main subject is off-center, yet they still looked so very good. 7/10.

(dir: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

Set in modern day in the town of Liege, Sandra had a prolonged leave from work due to severe depression. Management realized they could do the job without her. When she recovered from this illness, Sandra learned she will be fired from her job depending on a vote by her co-workers. Sandra only has two days to convince at least nine co-workers to vote of her to stay over the 1000 Euro bonus management is offering them.

This is a very real-looking contemporary film about a very mundane topic. You can imagine Sandra going around house to house in order to personally talk to 16 people, so things do get repetitive. Some will side with her and some will rebuff her appeal because they need the bonus. Certain people will have some additional drama over the others. It all boiled down to that critical final vote at the end to see if Sandra stays or gets fired.

The main shining point about this film is the very realistic performance of Marion Cotillard as Sandra. Plain, frail and totally deglamorized, she looked like any regular woman desperate to keep her job. Her character's depression would invade her being during this very stressful and trying times, and Ms. Cotillard nails those delicate moments with devastating honesty. 7/10. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review of STONEHEARST ASYLUM: Gothic Madhouse

November 10, 2014

Stonehearst Asylum was an institution for the mentally ill in Victorian era England. It was run by the stern and unconventional Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) when young Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) went there seeking further clinical experience to be an "alienist" (the archaic term for psychiatrist). However, as he got to know the patients better, particularly the elegant Mrs. Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), Newgate discovered that there was something seriously wrong afoot in the asylum. Newgate had to figure out quickly what was going on as his very life also lay on the line.

Jim Sturgess is quite a versatile actor in the few films I have seen him in. From a nobleman in "The Other Boleyn Girl" to a card shark in "21" then to a hopeless romantic in "Upside Down" to his multiple roles on "Cloud Atlas", this guy is a chameleon. I did not even recognize him at all in this role, with all the facial hair he was sporting. He played the perfect doctor here, effectively projecting kindness, compassion and the will to be of help and service despite all odds and threats. 

Kate Beckinsale first gained wide attention in "Pearl Harbor" back in 2001. She never really became a superstar even if she starred and is remembered for supernatural action films like "Van Helsing" and "Underworld". Her character Eliza is purposely written to be mysterious here, and she did well enough in it just by looking too ironically beautiful and well-dressed to be an asylum patient.

Ben Kingsley always had that ability to act like his character is teetering between sanity and madness, and he does so very well again here, with stone-faced glee. He can really command the screen whenever he is on. Other respected veteran actors Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson are also in there, both also playing doctors, but sadly, with so much shorter screen time than we would like them to have. 

Sophie Kennedy Clark plays a playful young nurse Millie who provides some humor in the tense proceedings in the first half. If you only knew David Thewlis as the kind werewolf professor Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films, you've got another thing coming here with his mad, over-the-top performance as the asylum groundskeeper Mickey Finn.

"Stonehearst Asylum" is a gorgeous period film with meticulous production design and richly detailed costumes. Director Brad Anderson creates a dark Gothic mood perfect for the delivery of this crazy and twisted story written by Joe Gangemi, based on a short story by master of classic suspense himself, Edgar Allan Poe entitled "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether". The topnotch British cast make up for whatever the script and direction may have lacked. Despite the drab title and weak promotional push, fans of gothic romance and mystery will enjoy every twist and turn this dark yet entertaining film had to reveal. 7/10.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review of BIG HERO 6: Disneyfied Marvel Anime

 November 7, 2014

The city is San Fransokyo, a cosmopolitan hybrid between San Francisco and Tokyo. Hiro Tadashi is a bored child prodigy who graduated high school at 13, and whiles his time making fighter robots. His brother Tadashi is in college under esteemed pioneer Robert Callaghan, working on his own project -- a big white inflatable robot nurse named Baymax.

After Hiro develops a highly original, versatile and powerful mind- controlled microbot technology, Callaghan invites him into his program as well. However, that same fateful night, a big explosive fire breaks out at the school building with a tragic aftermath which flipped Hiro's world over. 

With Baymax as his invaluable robot sidekick, Hiro would discover that there was something more behind that fire. Hiro uses his technological genius to upgrade the abilities of Baymax, along with four of his brothers' nerdy inventor friends -- Gogo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi and Fred -- to from a group of six superheroes who sought to apprehend and unmask the man in the Kabuki mask behind the whole thing.

It was only after the film that I found out that Big Hero 6 was actually a group of superheroes from Marvel Comics back in the late 1990s. This is the first Disney animated film that featured Marvel comic characters since the former acquired the latter in 2009. Disney was given license to change the appearances of the characters for the film version, Disneyfying them so to speak.

While watching the film, I got the vibes of "The Incredibles", "Scooby Doo" and various Japanese robot anime. There were even parallels with Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon," especially with the designs of the main human characters. The sequence where the heroes learn how to fly has already been done in various similar films over and over. But this film did have its own memorable moments, mostly thanks to that gentle giant marshmallow of a robot, Baymax.

Even if his name sounds rather clunky, Baymax is really a wonder to watch. His face is nothing more than a two black dots connected by a line. However he can still manage to convey so much with those. The way he walks, the way he falls, the way he squeezes into tight spots, all so adorable. A lot of the credit goes to his animators who were successful to create a genuinely cute character who is not annoying (Olaf anyone?). The spot-on voice acting of Scott Adsit lent Baymax his kind, nurturing and compassionate character. 

If not for Baymax, this whole film would be a generic superhero cartoon with little much to remember it by. We did not really know much the other four members of the team except that they were friends and classmates of Tadashi who had invented some awesome stuff. Hiro is the usual spirited Disney boy hero, but for a change this hero was no fool or weakling. His supreme intellect and engineering skills set him apart, but he seems too perfect.

However, these may all be just nitpicking because as a whole the film was very entertaining and enjoyable for the whole family. The animated special effects were imaginatively conceived, fantastically executed and great to watch. The humor appeals to both little kids and their parents. As a sucker for films featuring brothers, I loved that the story between Hiro and Tadashi which was so touchingly told. I also liked the East-West mix in the artwork.

Since this is technically a Disney-Marvel film, do wait for an important extra scene after ALL the end credits roll. It is worth the long wait. This short scene features a cameo from a guy we see in cameos from most all Marvel films (I'm sure you know who I am talking about). This tells us that a sequel is afoot, and you're sure we will be looking out for that. 8/10.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of INTERSTELLAR: Top Notch Sci-Fi with a Big Heart

November 7, 2014

The Earth in the near future is a shell of what it used to be. The plant life is dying from a deadly blight. The very soil that used to sustain it is destroying it. There are some underground efforts headed by Prof. Brand (Michael Caine) dubbed Lazarus to find an alternative world to settle in somewhere out there in the vast reaches of space. Three such potential worlds have been found beyond a black hole near Saturn.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a retired NASA engineer who had been chosen to pilot the spacecraft to further investigate these alternative planets. 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.

As with his other projects, Nolan works with some of the best technical talents, many of whom are award-winners in their fields. Everyone on this team are guaranteed at least Oscar nominations for their work in this film, and they may in fact all actually win.

Film editor Lee Smith, sound engineers Gregg Landaker and Gary Rizzo and musical scorer Hans Zimmer together effectively create excitement and drama. The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema is breathtaking especially in those wide landscape shots, both on earth and on those other planets. The visual effects are innovative as ever, particularly in the third act where a whole new dimension of space and time was created. 

Production designer Nathan Crowley had some nifty ideas for his futuristic props. The circular design of the mother ship Endurance was beautiful in its symmetry. The block designs of the robotic sidekicks TARS and CASE are in no way similar those in Star Wars. 

Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of acting excellence which was just capped by an Oscar earlier this year. Michael Caine was very good as expected. However, there was this final speech of his that sounded too garbled to be understood well, and it contained an important plot point. Anne Hathaway's role is a bit of a puzzle for me. While she actually managed to be credible as a scientist, she had a rather cheesy monologue that seemed out of place when it was delivered.

Three talented actresses portray the character of Murphy Cooper at different ages: Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain  and Ellen Burstyn. Foy goes way beyond what she was required to do in her two previous hit films, namely the "Breaking Dawn" films and "The Conjuring". Chastain is such a riveting presence as ever, and it was good to see her again after her long break after "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Mama.". Oscar-winner Burstyn's singular big scene made me tear up.

In the second hour of this almost three-hour long exhilarating ride, I was surprised to see a special, heretofore uncredited, big name guest star portray one of the pioneer Lazarus astronauts, Dr. Mann. This was more than a mere cameo appearance, as his character had a critical role to play in one of the many twisting episodes of this story.

From "Memento", then "The Prestige", his "Batman" films to "Inception", Nolan had gone for the extremes in terms of plot development. His work is not always easily comprehended on first watch. They are thought-provoking and demanding in terms of a viewer's patience, concentration and post-viewing rumination. "Interstellar" joins this remarkable list. This film definitely has the Oscar Best Picture prize well in sight. 10/10.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review of ONE CHANCE: Endearingly Triumphant

November 6, 2014

When I read that "One Chance" was going to be the life story of "Britain's Got Talent" winner Paul Potts. I knew I wanted to see it for sheer pop culture curiosity. However, I was not sure it was going to be any good. This is especially since I had heard nothing about this film at all until I saw that it was going to be shown in movie theaters this week.

We follow the life of Paul, a bullied overweight loner since childhood whose only dream in life was to sing opera. But growing up in a small town in Wales where the main industry was steel works, he did not get much support, except from his loyal mother. 

In the course of this film, we see him meet a wonderful woman by text whom he eventually marries. At the same time, we also see him repeatedly choke in singing and totally lose confidence about his abilities. Of course, we know this story will culminate in his memorable audition on Britain's Got Talent" that would enrapture Simon Cowell, the other judges and the rest of the world.

Honestly I was expecting this film to be mundane predictable biopic following the unexpected rise of a loser to becoming a winner and star. However, surprise, surprise. This turned out to be one very delightful and entertaining inspirational film which would appeal to most audiences, not only Paul Potts fans. The cast was so endearing and winsome, they simply drew us into the film and made us care for the story and characters, familiar as they were.

I have not really known of either of the lead actors before watching this film, but the film's success was because of their charisma. James Corden got the child-like innocence and charming dorkishness of Paul down pat. We can't help but identify with his struggles, groan at his bad decisions and root for him to go for his dream. I am now a fan of Alexandra Roach, who gave an utterly amazing heart-tugging performance of Paul's compassionate wife, Julz. Her hypnotizing big eyes radiates goodness and kindness. The two of them have such rich, sweet and believable chemistry between them. 

Julie Walters is such a chameleon in her roles. As Paul's ever-supportive yet oddball mother Yvonne, she is so natural and effortless. Colm Meaney is just right to play Paul's gruff and skeptical father Roland. Mackenzie Crook plays Paul's offbeat boss Braddon. While the character seems too batty to be a real person, he provides the comic relief to lighten up the mood. The British sense of humor in this film is just so quirky and fun, with a lot of naughty or cheesy one-liners.

The first thirty minutes were positively glorious. My smile would not leave my face as the unfolding story made me feel very happy. The script was so witty and funny even as there were not so good things happening. The energy tended to bog in the middle third with the series of misfortunes which befell Paul. But that was necessary in order to make the triumphant third act more exciting and moving. That uplifting climax still worked even if we already knew it. A minor disappointment is that I did not see the real Paul Potts in it.

This film directed by David Frankel (who also directed "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Marley & Me") is recommended not only for people who love to sing, but for all who trying to reach a seemingly impossible dream. 7/10

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review of JOHN WICK: Keanu Returns with a Vengeance

November 5, 2014

The career of Keanu Reeves seemed to have taken a nosedive after the huge success of the "Matrix" films. We would be hard put to name even one film after that. Last year, he directed a martial arts film called "Man of Tai Chi", where he played antagonist to a less than charismatic leading man. That did not fly too high, except perhaps for some serious action fans. Reeves began this year auspiciously with "47 Ronin". And now, the buzz for this action film "John Wick" was simply too high to ignore. 

John Wick is a notoriously ruthless hit man, now retired. He is still very depressed about his wife's death from cancer. One day, a group of crazy thugs break into John's house, rough him up and steal his Mustang. However, they made the mistake of destroying his wife's one most precious posthumous gift to him. That final straw sends John on a deadly revenge rampage against this gang, the very gang for which he served years ago.

For their first directorial effort, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who were the stunt coordinators in the iconic "Matrix" films, make a spectacular debut. Their action sequences were fast-clipped, very exciting and relentlessly brutal. They knew how to make the stunts look good. Be it gunplay, knife-play or martial arts, Keanu Reeves made a perfect action hero. That breathtaking sequence alone when Reeves fought, stabbed and shot his way through a nightclub is already worth the price of admission.

Of course, a lot of this film's success came because of Reeves' excellence in the frenetic action scenes. However, he also connected in those scenes which required him to do some dramatic acting. In this film, we will remember fondly his devotion to his wife, which Reeves was able to project very well without words. He was sincerely moving in those touching scenes which will definitely register especially with his loyal female fans. 

The main antagonist mob boss Viggo Tarasov (yes, Russian again) is played by Michael Nyqvist, the actor who played the lead role of Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" films.  "Game of Thrones" fans will relish the rascally presence of Alfie Allen in another crazed role as Viggo's idiotic son Iosef, which was reminiscent of his Theon Greyjoy character in GoT. 

I finally see Adrianne Palicki closer in action as skilled assassin Ms. Perkins. I first heard about this actress when she was cast as Wonder Woman in a failed TV pilot in 2011 (which I did not get to see). She is quite good here in her action scenes. Her final scene is memorably haunting. David Patrick Kelly's clean-up guy character Charlie is an interesting humorous touch. Willem Dafoe and Dean Winters are their old reliable selves here.

The simplistic plot may be ripped off the plots of many other old-fashioned B-action films which still get produced to this day. But the hype for this film is justified. This is a very good action film for those who like non-stop gunfire, bloodshed, fights with an ever-escalating body count. Hardcore fans of action will enjoy the adrenaline rush. More significantly, hopefully this film will mark Keanu Reeves return into the Hollywood A-list where he rightfully belongs. 7/10.