Friday, March 20, 2015

SINAG MAYNILA 2015: Review of BAMBANTI: Anatomy of an Accusation

March 19, 2015

Of all the entries in the current Sinag Maynila film festival, this may be the one least likely to attract attention because of the unfamiliar title. The others all have snappy cool titles, but this one is a real head-scratcher. In fact, if it were not for the fact that it just so happened to be the one showing at the time I was in the mall, I might not watch it at all. If that were the case, it would have been too bad indeed. This film turned out to be a very well-made indie worthy of bigger audiences and even awards.

Bambanti means "scarecrow" in Ilocano. It is also the name of a colorful week-long festival celebrating the bountiful corn and rice harvest in Isabela province held every year. This whole film written and directed by Zig Dulay is delivered in proud Ilocano language, with subtitles in English.

Set in a golden sun-kissed corn field in Isabela, "Bambanti" tells of the story of poor young widow Belyn, who barely made ends meet with her laundry work, and her son Popoy, a smart and spirited kid. When one day Popoy was accused of stealing a gold watch, their already humble existence plunges to even harsher depths.

I have not seen the other films yet, but I feel that Alessandra de Rossi deserves a Best Actress trophy for her work here as Belyn. She had to keep her composure as painful accusations came from others and doubts came from within her own self. This actress has really come a long way in her acting career, now becoming a dependable star in many indie films, giving creditable performances in every film she was in. That scene when Popoy's letter was read to her can melt even the toughest hearts. 

De Rossi's co-star here is another dependable indie film star, no less than Ms. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino. Her role here seemed simple. Her character had to balance her compassion for her sister-in-law Belyn and Popoy with the plight of her own spoiled brat of a daughter, Cristy (played with so much spite by Delphine Buencamino). Ms. Shamaine made it look so effortless.

The most impressive actor here though is the youngest -- Micko Laurente could definitely tug at your heartstrings as Popoy. This little guy was so naturally charming, none of the pretentious sassiness that some child actors have to put on to look cute. His tearful scenes are touching without trying too hard. The delivery of his Ilocano lines were as if this language was his mother tongue. I have seen Laurente act on stage in Tanghalang Pilipino's "Kleptomaniacs". He was very good there, but this film shows that he also registers very strongly on the big screen as well.

Sometimes the simplest stories make the best films. It depends on the way the filmmaker frames this simple story in the most breathtaking images and scenes. Dulay effectively contrasted the way children and adults react to an accusation. Those moments of childhood innocence between Popoy and his sister were priceless. The cinematography of this film is glorious, with camera angles that are very imaginative and compelling and colors that burst through the screen. The symbolic festival dancing scenes were very colorful and enticing. 

Even without seeing the other films, "Bambanti" possess a quality of excellence which will make it a serious contender for awards come awards night. 8/10.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

SINAG MAYNILA 2015: Review of NINJA PARTY: Cautionary Tale for Parents!

March 19, 2015

There is a new local indie film festival that debuted yesterday at selected SM malls (Megamall, MOA, North EDSA, Fairview and Southmall) called SINAG MAYNILA. This film fest is a project of Solar Entertainment CEO Wilson Tieng and internationally-acclaimed film director Brillante Mendoza. All five entries were given carefully chosen and given a P2M grant to make their projects.

Of all the five entries, "Ninja Party" immediately draws attention because it sought to expose an urban legend about secret immoral parties organized by Catholic school girls. This controversial film is directed by filmmaker Jim Libiran, a man who was first known as Xerex, the writer of lurid stories for the Abante tabloid. Interestingly, the script was written by a couple of Chinoys, one of them female: Iris Lee and Dominic Lim.

"Ninja Party" is about a clique of four graduating high school seniors at the St. Maria Goretti School, an exclusive all-girls school run by nuns. Their leader is Alexa Gonzales, a top student running for valedictorian. In her gang are Sasha (promiscuous Fil-Am), Carla (overweight and gregarious) and Nicki (studious and conservative). Because of a fiasco about a bold school play, the principal Sister Teresa cancels a planned school-sanctioned soiree. Dejected, the girls plan a secret party instead with scandalous activities no school would ever sanction.

The daring young actresses who played the four friends are all not known to me but they were really very natural in their roles. They were indeed very brave to take on these sexually-adventurous characters at the risk of their own reputations. Annicka Dolonius played Alexa. She was totally effective and convincingly realistic as an honor student whose path was going awry. Bea Galvez, a total showbiz newcomer, played Carla. She was very relaxed and fearless. Julz Savard, who was once a contestant on Pinoy Big Brother Teen Edition, played Sasha. Her bad-girl character was most obvious with her tattoos and smoking. All of these girls actually look and speak like snooty cool high school girls.

The odd-man-out Nicki was played by odd-man-out Elora Españo. That Nicki never really felt like part of the gang was a point of weakness in the story-telling. She felt out of place based on the way she conducted herself. What was she hanging around these mean girls for? This question was never really addressed in the film. That an actress who looked and spoke so unlike the other three was cast in Nicki's role exposed the conflict in the film quite early on. This made the endgame predictable.

From when I knew her since I was a child, Odette Khan really possesses that face that can strike fear in anyone she stares at with those big penetrating eyes. Her Sister Teresa had the unenviable task of running the school, disciplining her girls and answering to the parents concerns. In her limited scenes, Ms. Khan makes her mark.  Teresa Loyzaga made the most of her few scenes as a busy doctor mom of Alexa.  Alexa's dad was played by theater director/actor Dennis Marasigan. His outburst at the end is a big question mark. The part of Carla's dad could have been better cast since he had some important scenes to play.

These revelatory stories of the girls in this film would strike concern, even fear, for parents of teenagers girls. Apparently, no matter how exclusive or expensive the school is, run by nuns or not, strict parents or not, honor student or not, rich, middle-class or poor, these factors are not assurances that your daughter is safe from exposure to prurient or unwholesome influences from their classmates. The strength of self-control and self-discipline of kids is still rooted in values formation at home in early childhood.

The film took its time telling the story of each individual girl, but ended up not telling us what happened to them after the scandal. I am all for open endings, but in order to succeed as a cautionary tale for the young people going to watch this film, I wish they showed the consequences of their rash thoughtless actions. In this way, the film only titillated young people more about this dangerous practice, instead of discouraging them.  Thus ultimately, it only succeeds as a cautionary tale, not for the kids, but for the parents. 5/10.

Review of INSURGENT: Satisfyingly Spectacular Sequel

March 18, 2015

"Insurgent" picks up right where the first film of this series "Divergent" left off. The tense peace inside the walls of dystopian Chicago is shattered when the Abnegation faction was invaded and destroyed. Tris and Four are rebels on the run, seeking refuge among the other factions. Ruthless Erudite leader Jeanine needs a perfect Divergent in order to unlock a certain box which contains an important message about their current existence, which Jeanine wants to suppress. This special Divergent is, of course, is Tris.

The first film "Divergent" was a pretty good film interpretation of the book. I found this second film to be even better than the first film. I did not get to read the second book so I could not assess its faithfulness to the original material. We get to see better the rest of the other factions, like Amity (with Octavia Spencer as their leader Johanna), Candor (with Daniel Dae Kim as their leader Jack Kang), and the Factionless (with Naomi Watts as their leader Evelyn). I can see the same limitations of the first book here, especially with the unusual behavior and decisions of Tris. But hey, she is a special girl, the chosen one. 

I thought Shailene Woodley did very well to play Tris, with her guilty conscience, disturbing nightmares and the reluctance as a heroine. Theo James though is less noticeable here than before, as Four is seemingly relegated to be Tris' consort in this installment. Ansel Elgort looked very ill at ease and awkward in his scenes as Tris' confused younger brother Caleb. Making more of an impact were Miles Teller as the snake-like turncoat Peter and Jai Courtney as the vicious Dauntless officer Eric. Kate Winslet owns every scene she is in with her strong screen presence.

A new director Robert Schwentke (known for previous mainstream hits like "Flightplan" and "RED") took over from Neil Burger (who directed "Divergent"). Schwentke guides us through the criss-crossing web of events, building up effectively to the climactic five Faction simulation that Tris had to hurdle. The simulations in this film looked more sophisticated and complicated, with over-the-top visual effects, especially in that exciting Dauntless "sim" where Tris had to rescue her mom from a burning house hurtling in the air. 

This film is rated PG, but there are pretty intense violent scenes, including point-blank shooting of defenseless people, imperilled small kids, and a character pointing a gun directly at his temple. There was also a scene showing prolonged kissing between the leads, with clothes being removed. This had the young kids around me squirming uncomfortably, covering their eyes 

I thought this film fully satisfied expectations for the second episode of this Victoria Roth book/film franchise. It was thematically and visually grand, with mind-blowing computer-generated action effects. It stands very well on its own, even if you have not yet seen the first film. It tells a complete story, with a defined resolution of events. It ends with a cliffhanger which makes you anticipate the next film. The last book in the series "Allegiant", in true Hollywood style, will again be split into two parts to make more money. Schwentke is already on board to direct Part 1, due out next year already. 8/10.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review of THE COBBLER: Uncertain and Uneven

March 16, 2015

Max Simkin is a shoe repairman in New York City, the latest of many generations of cobblers in his family. Aside from their old shop, he also had an old shoe stitching machine that had been handed down from his father and his grandfathers before him. One day, Max discovered that this family heirloom had magic that enabled him to be transformed into any other man who owned the shoes. After having some goofy fun with his new powers, Max decided that he could do something good with his ability.

This is a film starring Adam Sandler. But this is not a typical Adam Sandler film. Sandler has been on a prolonged slump in his comedy career in recent years with clunkers like "Jack and Jill" and "Grown Ups 2". This movie is not really what he needed to recover, but he did it anyway. "The Cobbler" is not a slapstick comedy like those that made Sandler famous, like "Happy Gilmore" or "Billy Madison". It is also not one of those romantic comedies that were a hit at the box-office for him, like "The Wedding Singer" or "50 First Dates." These hits were more than 10 years ago.

In fact, it is hard to identify what kind of film "The Cobbler" really is. It starts as a family drama, then it was a fantasy, then a crime action drama, then a light romance, then a social drama. In fact there is no comedy worth talking about. The attempts at humor were pathetic and even disturbing. all of them falling desperately flat. The fantasy angle was interesting with so much potential. However, I felt it was wasted on shallow situations. The best part of this film is the family drama angle. Those touching scenes with Max's mother and father were very well-done.

"The Cobbler" could have been a fascinating film, but unfortunately, the execution was spotty and boring. I don't think it was Adam Sandler's fault this time. Writer-Director Thomas McCarthy made Max do some really odd things that did not seem to be consistent with his character's personality -- an introverted loner who lived with his mother. The side tracks to violent and sexual situations were misguided. The plotting was rather messy with all the various characters Max was changing into, but I did not really care to figure out all the holes. I enjoyed the supporting performances by Dustin Hoffman and Steve Buscemi, but I wished they had more screen time. Overall, this was an uneven film experience that could have been better. 4/10.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of WILD CARD: A Stretch for Statham

March 14, 2015

Jason Statham is the only active movie star these days who ONLY does action films and nothing else. Whenever we watch a Jason Statham movie, we only expect to sit back and be regaled with his martial arts skills. We certainly do not expect any deep story or insightful conversations, just raw and bone-crunching action.

"Wild Card" is set in Las Vegas. Jason Statham plays Nick Wild, a jaded bodyguard who has a gambling addiction problem. The whole film is just a series of encounters of Nick with various Vegas characters about a variety of random topics. These anecdotal scenes were tenuously connected together by a thin story about Nick helping a prostitute Holly avenge the sadistic assault she suffered under the hands of gangster Danny DeMarco. 

There are still those awesome fight scenes we all want to see. There are some pretty interesting fights where Jason uses unlikely everyday objects from a spoon to a credit card to inflict considerable bodily harm on his enemy. The choreography and execution of these fights were breathtaking. We can feel the impact of every punch and wince with every bloody stab we see. 

I felt there were fewer of these fight scenes though. Statham got to do more dramatic acting here. The script after all was by no less than William Goldman (Oscar Award winning screenwriter in the 1970s for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All the President's Men") adapted from his own novel. Several name character actors make short appearances to interact with our hero, like Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Anne Heche, Sofia Vergara and Michael Angarano. There were a lot of blackjack scenes, which in fairness, were quite exciting. It was actually good to see Statham attempting to add some more depth and variety in his acting range.

However, since we do look for more violent fight scenes in Statham films, "Wild Card" may disappoint hardcore action film fans who may not have patience to sit through some of these serious talky scenes. Jason Statham is not exactly Liam Neeson or Sean Penn yet at this point in his career to credibly pull off the drama. 5/10.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

Review of CINDERELLA (2015): Faithful and Fantastic

March 13, 2015

The Disney studio had a long tradition of mining the trove of fairy tales and turning them into animated films which have been childhood classics for several generations. Lately, it is now mining its own trove of beloved animated classics and turning them into live action feature films.  This year, one of Disney's most iconic princesses gets the live action treatment, "Cinderella."

We see young Ella growing up in a happy family with the virtues of courage and kindness deeply inculcated in her. We see her orphaned and left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother Lady Tremaine and her two lazy foolish stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia. We see how Fairy Godmother magically help Cinderella go to the ball. We see how she danced with the Prince, but had to run off by midnight, leaving one of her glass slippers behind in her haste. We see how the Prince uses the slipper to find her and live happily ever after. We see everything as we knew it by heart, but this version brings the oft-told tale to spectacular life with vivid imagery and touching emotion.

The script written by Chris Weitz faithfully follows the well-known animated Disney version of the tale released in 1950. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, there was very minimal re-imagining done here, compared to Tim Burton's version of "Alice in Wonderland" or Angelina Jolie's portrayal of "Maleficent". This film is so unabashedly targeted for the ladies and girls of the romantic type. This is a major big-production chick flick that goes all out for the all the sweet and thrilling moments it can squeeze out of the story. The charisma and chemistry of the young leads were more than sufficient to achieve this end.

I thought Lily James perfectly embodied Cinderella with her delicate face, long flowing hair, kind demeanor and natural elegance, which shone through even as a kitchen maid. Unlike when I thought Lily Allen and Kristen Stewart were totally wrong actresses for Snow White in those two separate live-action versions of that other fairy tale, I totally accept Lily James as Cinderella. Since I did not watch "Downton Abbey" (where James was a cast member), I am seeing her as a totally new movie actress having her career breakthrough with a successful portrayal of a very iconic character.

Prince Charming has a name here, Kit, and he is played by Richard Madden, Madden is quite clean cut and totally charming here, complete with that princely twinkle in his eyes. He was not immediately recognizable as his previous character of Robb Stark from the popular TV series "Game of Thrones." Fortunately for Madden, the character of the prince was expanded from how we know him from the cartoon, so we (and Cinderella) get to meet him even before the ball itself. He is no mere consort here, but also a young man with substance and humility.

The scene-stealing role of Lady Tremaine was portrayed by the always scene-stealing actress Cate Blanchett. With her over-the-top, green-hued haute couture gowns, Blanchett is definitely an eye-catching sight. The bitter cruelty of her character was given a lot more depth than how the cartoon stepmother was portrayed. Blanchett played the role with wicked delight, dripping with hateful acidity. 

The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is so vibrant with a bright color palette that pops out of the screen. The production design of Daniel Ferretti was so opulent and grandiose in scale. The costumes of Sandy Powell were so richly designed and meticulously detailed. The musical score by Patrick Doyle envelops the film and brings us to a fairytale time and land. The visual effects of the magical transformation of pumpkin and animals to the coach, horses and staff were delightfully done in grand fashion (with the ever-quirky Helena Bonham-Carter as Fairy Godmother). 

The remarkably beautiful moment where Cinderella entered the castle and danced with the Prince is a perfect scene which highlights all these masterful and award-worthy technical aspects. Her shimmering blue ballgown had a life of its own. I can see future debuts and weddings where ladies will be wanting to recreate this wondrously glorious waltz for real.

This is how a fairy tale should be told. Despite all the familiarity, they still managed a nice little surprise for the ending. Highly recommended. 9/10.


Review of the pre-feature short:  FROZEN FEVER

This animated short is a trip back to Arendell on the occasion of Anna's birthday. Queen Elsa goes to all lengths to try and pull off a perfect birthday surprise for her sister. It was good to see all of the characters back. But ultimately, it basically just served as a vehicle to introduce those cute little snow critters that appear whenever Elsa sneezed. I can hear the "kaching" of the toy shop cash registers now. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review of EXISTS: Bothered Bigfoot

March 11, 2015

Director Eduardo Sanchez broke into public consciousness in a big way back in 1999 via his collaboration with Daniel Myrick "The Blair Witch Project." Love it or hate it, that low-budget indie film revolutionized the way horror films were done in Hollywood. Using "found footage" shot by the victims themselves by their handheld cameras, the audiences were brought through the horrific experience from a first hand perspective. This year, Sanchez goes back to the technique he helped spawn to tackle the Bigfoot legend in "Exists." 

Five friends go out of the city for a weekend in a remote hunting cabin in the woods. While driving among the trees at night, their car seemed to have hit an animal, but they went on their way when they could not see anything. At the cabin though, the friends were terrorized by the unrelenting attacks of an unseen growling monster who did not want to stop until they were being killed off one by one.  What was this angry menace? Could this creature indeed be the legendary Sasquatch of Indian lore? 

I really liked the way those chase scenes with the Bigfoot were shot, with the monster being barely seen as a blur becoming clearer and clearer as it comes nearer. Those scenes were very well-shot and angled, and were actually quite exciting to watch.  The final resolution though would turn out to be very cliché-ish, a predictable theme which had used over and over already in various horror and action films. There was closeup of the Bigfoot's face at the end, but I thought it would be have been better to have just left its face more to our imagination. 

I confess I did not like "Blair Witch Project" at all. I could barely look at the screen because of the very shaky camera work which caused me to experience severe nauseating vertigo. I stayed on (with extreme discomfort) to see how it ended, but it would have to be my most unpleasant movie watching experience of my life. "Exists" is not that dizzying despite also having several shaky camera sequences. Overall, despite the casting of unknown and unremarkable actors, this was actually quite a satisfying horror feature, not as bad as one would think. 6/10.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review of KIDNAPPING FREDDY HEINEKEN: Tedious Thriller

March 10, 2015

"Kidnapping Freddie Heineken" is just as its title tells us. It is about how a group of five down-and-out young men who pulled off the kidnapping of a noted beer magnate Alfred "Freddy" Heineken in 1983. They were able to demand 35M Dutch guilders (about 16M Euros), the biggest ransom ever paid for a kidnap victim. Will their sudden windfall help them with their most cherished dreams?

This British-Dutch production gathered Hollywood stars to portray the characters in this crime drama. For the kidnappers, they have gathered a group of twenty-something actors who had previously top-billed a number of films on their own already. For the victim, the producers went all out and got a revered senior Oscar-winning actor to play him.

Jim Sturgess is an actor who deserves to break into the big time. He is a chameleon able to disappear into any role he plays. Since his big break in "Across the Universe" in 2007, he has been consistently turning in remarkable performances in films like "21", "Upside Down" and "Cloud Atlas". In this film, he plays the charismatic Cor van Hout, the mastermind behind the Heineken kidnapping. He was able to show more acting depth than the rest of the younger cast, especially since he was also given a pregnant girlfriend to worry about.

Sam Worthington is an Australian actor who came on strong in 2009 to 2010 with the lead roles in major productions like "Avatar" and "Clash of the Titans". His career never really progressed too much in subsequent films after his auspicious Hollywood debut. His star power always felt secondary to the special effects of his big films. In this smaller, quieter, character-driven film, Worthington's screen presence as Willem Holleeder is obviously weaker than those of his co-stars Sturgess and Kwanten.

Ryan Kwanten is another Australian actor. He broke into mainstream consciousness as a regular cast member of the HBO vampire-themed TV series "True Blood" which ran for seven seasons before concluding last year. Kwanten also registers strong on the big screen with punkish charm as Cat Boellaard, who owned the boat house where they hid Heineken.

Those scenes where Sir Anthony Hopkins would be talking to the kidnappers individually were the best of all. The tension in those scenes were so thick with Hopkins  chewing into their conscience with his masterful performance as Freddy Heineken. The scenes were definitely the saving moments for this film. Too bad there weren't more of them. 

On paper, this sounded like it could be a very interesting crime film. Five complete amateurs in crime dream big, kidnap a multimillionaire and earn a huge payback and then some. How did they pull it off? How did they treat their victim who was their goldmine? What was the aftermath of their actions? Unfortunately, the script by William Brookfield, adapted from the books by Dutch investigative reporter Peter de Vries, was more turgid than exciting. The uneven direction by Daniel Alfredson also failed to make the weak script fly. 

The setting is obviously Amsterdam, but the kidnappers talked and behaved like they were London punks. The abduction scene per se was not shot with much cinematic imagination nor verve. Everything was done so seriously, with hardly any sense of humor (except maybe for the Bang Bang chicken scene). The chase action scenes were well-executed, but too few and far between. Ultimately, the filmmakers were not able to create any moments to really remember it by. In fact, this movie even felt tedious despite its brevity.  5/10.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review of CHAPPIE: Angering an Automaton

March 6, 2015

In Johannesburg in a future time, robots called Scouts have replaced the human police force. These efficient Scouts were developed by the young genius Deon Wilson. His rival in the company is war-freak ex-soldier Vincent Moore who is trying to push his own creation, the big, mean fighting machine he calls Moose. Moore wanted nothing more than to discredit Wilson by fair means or by foul.

One day, Wilson and a damaged Scout #22 (which Deon had enhanced with his experimental human-like artificial intelligence) were abducted by drug-dealers who desperately needed to pay off a $20M debt. Much to Wilson's annoyance, the low-lifes call #22 the undistinguished name Chappie. Worse, they train him in the violent ways of the 'hood in order to help them pull off a major heist.

Like director Neill Blomkamp's previous film "District 9", his latest film once again highlights his home country of South Africa. Aside from the Johannesburg setting, his favorite actor Sharlto Copley is again in the cast. This time Copley is playing the titular Scout Chappie via motion capture. Copley tended to exaggerate the child-like demeanor and the innocent voice by which he communicates his thoughts. Some of his scenes were cringe-worthy in their over-sentimentality, too cutesy for comfort. That scene where Chappie was left to fend for himself in the "real world" for the first time was disturbing yet heart-rending.

Moreover, for the key roles of the husband-and-wife gangsters whom Chappie learned to call his Daddy and Mommy, Blomkamp casts members of the local hip hop group Die Antwoord, even using their real names Ninja and Yolandi. I felt this was a major misstep as these two neophyte actors obviously were not up to the challenge their roles demanded. The way these two were delivering their dialogues were clearly and distractingly amateurish.

Hollywood actors Dev Patel (as Wilson) and Hugh Jackman (as Moore) were given pretty one-dimensional characters. Patel was at home playing a character we have seen him play before, an idealistic good guy. The way Wilson was written can be nonsensical for many of his decisions and actions. Jackman on the other hand, was clearly enjoying his rare chance to play bad guy, and was overacting to the hilt with evil relish. Sigourney Weaver was hardly even seen as Michelle Bradley, the CEO of the weapons company these two guys worked for, so casting her was inconsequential.

The story draws from several other Artificial Intelligence films we have seen before, especially those where the robot actually becomes human-like. The storytelling here was rather messy, riddled with improbable coincidences, and weighed down by its tendency for melodrama, which became mawkish many times. The Scouts, including Chappie, looked rather undistinguished, only marked by red "ear"-like flaps (of uncertain purpose) on both sides of the head. The Moose felt like a cross of the "Real Steel" and "Pacific Rim" robots, derivative design and concept.

Though the science was not convincing and it seemed impossible for them to get away with what they had done, the ending was OK with me. The importance of adult influence and proper education in the development of children's behavior are also underlying lessons, and I liked that as well. 6/10.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Review of SERENA: Logjammed Love

March 5, 2015

Of all the new releases this week, this film caught my attention because of the powerhouse casting of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles. This is already the third film with Lawrence and Cooper together after "Silver Lining Playbook" and "American Hustle", both of whom gained Oscar recognition. I had no idea what this film is going to be about, but I had very high expectations about its story and quality because of the stars. Unfortunately, I was wrong on both points.

Set in the forests of North Carolina during the Depression. "Serena" tells the story of George Pemberton and his burgeoning lumber business. One day, he met and married firebrand Serena in a whirlwind. Serena is not your typical wife who was happy just minding the house and cooking for her husband. She started off confident and savvy, getting involved with how the business was run and getting her hands dirty in the field with the lumberjacks. But after a tragic personal misfortune, Serena would teeter at the edge of madness.

I thought Bradley Cooper should have been well-cast as George Pemberton. He had the right look and temperament for the role. Strangely though, it somehow felt like he was embarrassed and lazy to do certain scenes such that the passion for acting we know him for was missing. This was especially true for the third and final act where he seemed like he was just going through the motions. His performance was lukewarm at best,and that was unfortunate since we know he can do much better.

Jennifer Lawrence was miscast as Serena. She looked ill-at-ease the whole time. She was overacting most of the time and it was not comfortable to watch. Her childbirth scene alone was shrill and unbearable. When I saw the mountain and forest setting, I thought of the film which launched Lawrence to popularity, "Winter Bone". Unfortunately in "Serena", Lawrence had none of the subtle nuance she showed in that film which earned her an Oscar nomination at a very young age. Everything she did in "Serena" was so loud, practically shouting at the audience.

The overstuffed script by Christopher Kyle tried to incorporate so many sub-themes into the main story, making the film feel so much longer than its 109 minute running time. It was so heavy, you can feel the extra weight all around. While some scenes were going on for too long, others felt too abbreviated and rushed. The whole film wallowed in melodrama so thick it was a chore to wade through.

This was disappointing because director Ms. Susanne Bier had the distinction of being the only female Danish director who had two films nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, "A Better World" (2010) and "After the Wedding" (2006). With "Serena" though, she was unfortunately unable to tame the unwieldy script efficiently. She failed to whittle down the excesses to create a more streamlined and coherent film. The story was certainly there, but it was storytelling that did not deliver. 4/10.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review of BIG EYES: Domestic Denigration

March 4, 2015

"Big Eyes" was nominated under Comedy & Musical category during the last Golden Globe Awards. Lead actress Amy Adams even won the Best Actress prize for starring in it. While I was watching this film though, it turned out to be furthest from what I had in mind for a comedy. The topic of this film was actually disturbing and depressing. However, being a Tim Burton film, there was certainly dark humor to be had.

This film is a biopic of 1950s novelty pop artist Margaret Keane (formerly Ulbrich, nee Hawkins). She developed a series of haunting acrylic paintings of kids with big dark round eyes. Walter Keane, her rascal salesman of a husband, took advantage of the rising popularity of her paintings. He claimed and mass-marketed them as his own. 

Meanwhile, timid Margaret was forced to conform to his web of lies. She was locked in her workroom in their home to paint even more Big Eyes, away from the prying eyes of the public, and even her own daughter. Will Margaret be able to break free from the prison she has trapped herself into?

Amy Adams quietly carried this film capably on her shoulders. There was nothing funny about what she had to do here as Margaret. Her character was the victim of a most cruel crime. Her husband stole not only her art, but also her confidence, and her very freedom. Adams played a weak character, but as an actress, Adams was anything but. With her wise underplaying, Adams successfully won our empathy and compassion for her difficult plight.

Christoph Waltz, on the other hand, was over-the-top, one-dimensional, practically cartoonish, as the manipulative con-man Walter. From his very first scene, you already knew this smooth-talking guy was up to no good. Up to his very last scene in that courtroom, Waltz's Walter was a manic caricature, never really coming across as a real person at all. This may well Tim Burton's direction in play, as this character Walter was the source of most of this film's black humor. Waltz's fiery interaction with Terence Stamp's harsh NY Times art critic character is most memorable as well.

This film's narrative was simple and straightforward. Yet because of Amy Adams' riveting and heart-rending performance, we will be held until the compelling end. The technical aspects of the film, particularly the pastel color palette of the photography, as well as the period production design, costumes and makeup, all contribute to the overall charming look and nostalgic feel of the film as a whole. 7/10.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review of COMET: Cosmic Convergence

March 3, 2015

This film is about the relationship of Dell and Kimberly, a young couple from Los Angeles. "Comet" follows their six year love affair in good times and in bad, with random scenes of private conversations set in various locales. The main pride of this project is its insightful and witty script brought to life by two sensitive actors.

The script is written by director Sam Esmail. It is amazing as a debut script for a debut film. His ambition seemed modest, but the final product can be enchanting. The script was full of memorable quotable quotes and eloquently-worded sentiments throughout its 90 minute running time, like the following:

"He called himself a Bob Dylan song and proceeded to call me a Britney Spears song. I don't know what it means, but it sounds insulting." 
"You're a now person. I'm a 5-minutes from now person."
"You said you believe in love. I don't. So let's put it to a test. Date each other, me and you, In a relationship. Let's do it." 
"I don't belong in a world where we don't end up together." 
"I never thought love was real, now I think life isn't real without it." 

Justin Long and Emmy Rossum have excellent chemistry together. That is one big reason this film worked, despite feeling pretentious at first. Those long conversations may seem like senseless 'flights of ideas" on paper, but these two actors make these lines believable and real. Glib Long plays Dell consistently throughout, the hip, pothead narcissist that his character was, around whose point of view the story is told. Beautiful Rossum plays his dream girl Kimberly going through a whole range of emotions like she was being two different women as she falls in and out of love with Dell.

Of course, we have already seen many movies like this. The "Before" series by Richard Linklater immediately come to mind. But instead of a continuous straightforward narrative, "Comet" breaks up the scenes into seemingly random order. This gives the film a more cosmic air that it aspires for. The gauzy, filtered photography and innovative camera angles also contribute to the dreamy effect. That final scene, a minute of silence as two suns rise over the horizon, packed such an emotional wallop.

This film is not literal. It leaves the audience to decide what the film means to them as individuals. You decide which was reality and which were dreams among the various events that flash before you onscreen. Dell was telling himself (and us) from the very beginning, "This is not a dream". But is it, or isn't it? Now I think I want to watch it again. 7/10.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review of PREDESTINATION: Circumvoluted Conundrum

March 1, 2015

This is a mind-boggling science fiction film with two main characters. One man is the Bartender who is secretly a Temporal Agent, a secret agent who gets sent by time travel to different times in history to prevent major crimes. The other is a male writer whose pseudonym was Unmarried Mother, who has a strangest life story to tell. 

The story jumps  through five decades of time, concluding in a major revelation which will make you want to curse at the screen, wondering what the hell you just watched. Telling you anything more will be spoiling the film too much already.

Veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays this Bartender character with his old reliable gruffness and grit. He seems to be able impart to any character he plays a sense of heart, no matter how heartless the character should have been. 

More outstanding though is the star-making, gender-bending debut performance of Sarah Snook as Unmarried Mother. Honestly, when I was watching the film unaware of who this impressive actress was, I could have sworn the male persona of Unmarried Mother was no other than Jodie Foster. I was surprised to see afterwards that Ms. Foster was not in this film at all. That unbelievably versatile, multi-textured performance of such a complex character was played by Ms. Snook alone.

The film was written and directed by the Spierig brothers, identical twin brothers Michael and Peter. I remember their 2010 sci-fi-infused vampire film "Daybreakers" which also starred Ethan Hawke. The script was a faithful adaptation of a 1959 short story entitled "--All You Zombies--" by  Robert A. Heinlein.

Given that this was a time-travel film, It demands attention to detail, even during the very slow set-up of the story at the beginning. There will be a lot of talking scenes which may need patience. There are also bound to be questionable plot points that various viewers will be picking on. In this film, characters can co-exist in the same time frame. This is usually a big no-no in most other time-travel films because it could result in a disruption of the space-time continuum, and may cause this character to cease existing. Here, not only do we see parallel characters in the same scene, they are actually actively interacting with their own selves in various times. 

So, I advise you to shuck all your other preconceptions, and just accept the new time travel rules this film sets for us. I bet you will enjoy the confusingly incredulous, yet convolutedly crazy "5-in-1" conundrum it presents us as it shuttles us in classic noir fashion back and forth from the 1940s to the 1990s. 8/10.