Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review of THE WATER DIVINER: Elegant Elegiac Epic

June 27, 2015

War is never good. It is a needlessly violent act of pride pitting man against his fellow man. Lives are lost on both sides -- fathers, brothers and sons become mere statistics, while their families suffer the anguish of their loss.

Set in 1919 at the end of World War I, "The Water Diviner" refers to Australian farmer Joshua Connor, who had the talent of being able to locate underground water. Four years earlier, his three sons Arthur, Edward, and Henry went to serve with the ANZAC forces at the Battle of Gallipoli. They never come home and are presumed dead. Their mother Eliza never forgave Joshua for this great loss, with her despondence leading to suicide. After her burial, Joshua goes to Turkey to search for his sons bodies, determined to bring them back home to bury beside their mother.

From the very first scene, it is clearly seen that this film had a rare cinematic beauty. The cinematography of Academy Award winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie is artistically breathtaking, with amazing camera angles capturing the most memorable images. That magnificent scene of the red dust storm chasing the young boys is a masterpiece in itself. Even the horrors of war were captured so well by this camera. The costume and production design teams should be praised for their meticulous efforts for period and cultural accuracy.

Russell Crowe's career had been on a slump lately with less than stellar performances in films like "Les Miserables" (2012), "Man of Steel" (2013) and "Noah" (2014). "The Water Diviner" brings back the glorious Crowe we remember in his Oscar-winning films "Gladiator" and "A Beautiful Mind." It is hard to believe that this is only the first feature film Russell Crowe ever directed. His vision was clear and his execution of the script was sure and steady. He directed himself very well in the lead role. He had the audience's sympathy from beginning to end. 

Olga Kurylenko plays Ayshe, the woman who ran the hotel where Joshua stayed in Istanbul. She looked different from the dusky exotic Bond girl we first saw in "The Quantum of Solace." Maybe it is that beautiful smile she frequently flashes or dignified charm she exudes in this entire film, but Kurylenko never looked better. Her chemistry with Dylan Georgiades, the child actor who plays Ayshe's son Orhan, was natural and delightful. 

Two Turkish actors play important roles. Yılmaz Erdoğan plays Major Hasan, a Turkish officer whom Joshua first perceived as an enemy but later proved to be a valuable friend, and Cem Yılmaz plays Hasan's faithful Sergeant Jemal. From the way these roles were written, the underlying message of this film against wars, particularly about the humanity of the "enemy", is driven home. It indirectly hits the illogical participation of Australian and New Zealand troops in the Gallipoli Campaign that ended in tragic defeat and great human cost.

This epic film is best seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate its fantastic cinematography. It had been awarded as Best Film (in a tie with horror film "The Babadook") at the Australian Academy Awards, the AACTA, given out January this year. This is an anti-war film like no other. Its beauty and elegance set it well above its kind. 9/10.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review of POLTERGEIST: Original vs. Remake

June 25, 2015

In 1982, the first "Poltergeist" film came out. It was directed by Tobe Hooper, the same director who broke new horror ground with "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 1974.  However, "Poltergeist" is also known for its illustrious writer and producer Steven Spielberg, whose touch was also very well-felt throughout the film. There was actually a controversy back then as to who actually directed that film. 

A family of five moves into a house. It soon becomes evident that they are not alone in the house. First, the youngest daughter "talks" to someone inside the TV, and announced that "They're here." Then, the ghostly action in the house progresses from harmless pranks to increasingly more sinister activity. When the daughter got abducted into a spirit vortex inside her closet, the father decided to seek help from parapsychologists to get her back. 

It starred Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as the parents Steve and Diane Freeling, and the adorable Heather O'Rourke as the youngest daughter Carol Anne. Beatrice Straight was the mild-mannered parapsychologist Dr. Lesh. It also memorably featured the midget actress Zelda Rubinstein as the medium Tangina Barrons. 

This original "Poltergeist" was Oscar-nominated for its visual and sound effects and for its musical score by Jerry Goldsmith which included the sweet lullaby "Carol Anne's Theme." It lost out in all three categories to the more popular Spielberg film released that same year, "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial."

This year 2015, a remake of this popular horror film was released. This reboot was directed by Gil Kenan. This is only Kenan's third feature film, although he debuted back in 2006 with an animated horror film called "Monster House".

This one stars Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as the parents Eric and Amy Bowen, and Kennedi Clements as youngest daughter Madison. Jane Adams was the mousy parapsychologist Dr. Powell. This time they made the occult expert a male this time, Carrigan Burke, played by Jared Harris. The boy middle child Griffin was given a bigger role in this new film, played by Kyle Catlett. 

I felt this new cast paled in comparison to the old cast. The central family members had more chemistry with each other in the first film. Harris' Carrigan character is forgettable and annoying when put side by side with Rubinstein's Tangina. And sorry to Ms. Clements, but O'Rourke's Carol Anne was simply too iconic to be forgotten. Clements' delivery of the all-important line "They're here" lacked the sweet yet ominous factor of the original. 

I guess the main purpose was to update the film with the available CG technology available now to make a scarier movie. This new version of "Poltergeist" has been released in 3D and even 4DX to further highlight the technical advancements. The 1982 film largely looks dated now because the visual effects may look lame and unsophisticated for first time viewers by today's standards. These most memorable horror scenes in the first film were all recreated in the new film in their supposedly "new and improved versions". There were mixed results.  

The new multiple clown dolls scene was an intense improvement over the single clown doll in the old film. The climactic closet portal was more spectacular in this new film when compared to the one in the first film, where it looked like a paper-mache esophagus. One of the innovations was when they sent a flying drone into the portal, showing us how us the hell of writhing bodies it contained inside. However, it was a technically questionable though how the drone could still be controlled remotely when it was already upstairs, behind a closed door and in another dimension.

The "grabbing tree" scene may technically look better in the new film, but there was something in that scene in the first film which showed the boy being swallowed by the tree trunk (not done in the new film) that had more punch. The disturbingly strange "face-peeling" scene in the first film was replaced by a less compelling "face rotting" scene. I don't know why the new filmmakers all but abandoned the "coffins and skeletons" scenes which marked the climax of the old film. I was expecting them to go CG-crazy with that scene. However, instead we only get a bright lights and big explosion show as the "grand" finale.

If you have not seen the 1982 film before, this 2015 reboot can actually be an entertaining horror film by itself. There were a couple of neat original scare scenes not in the first film, notably the tense wall drilling scene. However, those who have seen (and were frightened in their younger days) by the first film will find themselves comparing the two films, and ultimately find this new film wanting overall.  

Poltergeist 1982: 7/10. Poltergeist 2015: 5/10.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review of ODE TO MY FATHER: Paternal Promise

June 21, 2015

Today Father's Day 2015, I brought my wife and kids to watch "Ode to My Father," a big Korean hit movie dubbed into Tagalog for local audiences. This is being shown exclusively in SM Cinemas as part of the "SineAsia Theater." That is a joint project between SM Lifestyle Entertainment, Inc. and Viva International Pictures. It kicked off March this year with the Lee Min-ho starrer "Gangnam Blues." This is the first SineAsia film that I have seen.

"Ode to My Father" has a reputation that precedes it. It is a big-budget film that cost a whopping ₩14 billion. It debuted in Korean movie houses in mid-December 2014, and remained at Number 1 for five consecutive weeks. By its 8th week of release, it became the second highest-grossing film of all time in the history of South Korean cinema with 14.2 M admissions and a $105M gross. This was second only to "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" released July 2014, which had over 17M admissions and a $132M gross.

I know my wife will like a film like this. However, my kids, especially the boys, did not really want to go see what seems to be a heavy drama film. Good that they relented to have their old man choose the film to watch on his special day. During the film, I was happy to observe that they were quite attentive during the film, and did not fall asleep as they were saying they would. In fact, they ended up really liking the film, being dubbed in Filipino notwithstanding. 


"Ode to My Father" is the story of one Yeon Deok-soo, whom we first meet as an elderly man staunchly keeping his old imported goods store open in the Gukje Market of Busan, despite all odds. He is currently living with his wife of fifty years, Young-ja. Through flashbacks, we are told about the harrowing experiences this man went through in his life. 

As a boy, he lost his father and younger sister during the evacuation of their hometown Hungnam during the Korean War in 1951. Settling down in Busan at an aunt's house, Deok-soo took it upon himself to be the man of the house, helping his mother earn money and raise his two younger siblings. Extreme financial necessities brought him abroad as a miner in Germany in the 1960s and as a non-military personnel in Vietnam in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Deok-soo tried his luck in locating his lost father and sister through TV shows who helped reunite family members estranged during the Korean War.

The movie had a "Forrest Gump" feel as we follow the life of this man through his extraordinary experiences over the decades. You can definitely see where the big budget went in the amazing production design depicting the different periods in different countries where the hero spent his life. Those scenes depicting the Hungnam Evacuation of 1951 were especially spectacular in scope and rich in details. Those scenes in the dangerous mine shafts of Germany and the war-torn villages of Vietnam were likewise made us feel the difficulty and tension of such dire situations. The drama of those footages of families reconnecting on TV felt very real and compelling.

I do not watch too many Korean films, so I am not familiar with any of the main actors. Hwang Jeong-min played Yoon Deok-soo from youth up to elderly age. He does so with much conviction and heart, so that we completely absorbed into his life journey.  

Oh Dal-su plays his very close friend Dal-gu. Oh's character is given the role of the comic relief of the film. His antics can be cringe-worthy as his hairstyles were over the years, true. But without him, this film may have been too downbeat and depressing. There were a few brief scenes of a sexual nature that may be awkward when you watch with kids.

Kim Yunjin plays Deok-soo's wife Youngja from her young days as a nurse working overseas in Germany to her old age. She plays supportive very well, but she was also given the opportunities to show that she can also speak her mind. 

Jang Young-nam plays Deok-soo's long-suffering Mother. Ra Mi-ran plays his enterprising Aunt Kkotbun. These two ladies play their characters with dignity and poise. 

With "Tidal Wave" (2009) and "Ode" under his belt, director Yoon Je-kyoon became the first direct with two films passing the 10 million ticket sales mark in South Korea. In "Ode", he plays his rich winning hand of a story with dramatic flair. The way the story was being told, tears can really flow out with not much effort. The older you are, the more you can identify with the family issues being told in the film and really get emotionally connected. 

Even if we are not Koreans, and we are not very familiar with these events in their history, we can still connect with Deok-soo's travails. We even hear the characters speaking in Filipino, yet that fact does not negatively affect our appreciation of the film as much as I feared. But yes, to be completely honest, the quality of Tagalog dubbing can be distracting at times. I would have rather watched this film with its original Korean dialogue track intact, with English (or Tagalog) subtitles.

Overall, I enjoyed the multi-decade span of this story and how meticulously the story had been told and excellently presented on screen. How I wish I had my parents with me when we watched this film. Having gone through the war years themselves, I feel they would appreciate the family story, identify with the adversities and get emotionally affected even more than I was. 8/10.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review of RETURN TO SENDER: Rape and Recovery?

June 19, 2015

Miranda (Rosamund Pike) is a nurse who's got it all it seems -- her own nice house, a loving supportive Dad (Nick Nolte), a stable career about to go the next level. One day, a lecherous stranger William (Shiloh Fernandez) gains access into her house and rapes her. As her neat little world comes crumbling down around her, Miranda embarks on a novel form of "therapy", in the hope of recovering from the brutal trauma she suffered.

A rapist is not only a sexual assaulter, but also the ultimate bully and power-tripper. A rape victim is violated not only sexually and physically, but also psychologically, mentally and even spiritually. What may be a few minutes of torture will haunt a victim for a lifetime. 

Films about this crime are very difficult and uncomfortable to watch. But being powerfully rich in dramatic pain and torment, rape and its aftermath had been the topic of hundreds of films and tv shows. Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950) and Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" (1960) are both Oscar-winning classics of World Cinema. "Johnny Belinda" (1948) and"The Accused" (1988) have won Best Actress Oscars for Jane Wyman and Jodie Foster respectively. But no, before you expect too much, "Return to Sender" does not have Oscars in its future.

Lead star Rosamund Pike shot "Return to Sender" BEFORE her Oscar-nominated turn in "Gone Girl". There is a lot of her "Gone Girl" performance here as well -- the subtle mysterious boiling under her cool-as-ice exterior. The strange script makes her do a lot of illogically unexpected, supposedly therapeutic activities, and Pike does them with her game face straight on. Seeing her make these puzzling decisions, we are as frustrated as her father Mitchell was in the film.  

Shiloh Fernandez was clearly up to no good the moment we see him onscreen. He has got a raw roguish look about him that makes him work as this vile character. Nick Nolte is now all grandfatherly and Santa Claus-like with his white beard and body heft, playing MIranda's father Mitchell. This look is so unlike how I last remember him during his prime in the 1990s in film like "Cape Fear" or "The Prince of Tides." But his effectivity as an actor remains.

Watching "Return to Sender" felt like watching three different short films which were just tenuously connected to each other. It veers away from the oft-repeated Rape-Revenge trope ("I Spit on Your Grave", "Lipstick", "Angela Markado" to name a few) by giving us an interesting head-scratcher of a second act. However, the final act was maddening because it never really showed us clearly what happened. I am sure those who have invested time to follow the movie to this point may not exactly relish this disappointing ending, as I was. 4/10.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review of JURASSIC WORLD: Dinosaurs Dominate!

June 11, 2015

In 1993, we were all awed by the first "Jurassic Park" film by Steven Spielberg. We remember that moment when our jaws dropped when we saw that first Brachiosaurus appear onscreen. We definitely felt the fearsome terror of the T-Rex and the Velociraptors as they went on their rampages. Everything looked and felt so real, fully deserving of all the technical awards it won. 

Now, 22 years later, "Jurassic World" brings us back to Isla Nublar where it all began. John Hammond's vision is now a very popular theme park, with interactive rides and activities with the dinosaurs. Claire Dearing is the park's uptight all-business operations manager. She is having a particularly hectic day when her nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) arrive for a visit. Serious problems arise concerning the park's latest, largest and most vicious hybrid creation, the Indominus Rex. Claire calls on Owen Grady, the park's onsite Velociraptor trainer, to save the day.

Despite the existence of "sequels" "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" (1997) and "Jurassic Park III" (2001), "Jurassic World" is THE true sequel to the first "Jurassic Park." It is set in the same Costa Rican island where the first film was set. We see numerous references about the first film here as characters stumble into the ruins of the original resort in this film. We still see Dr. Henry Wu (B.D.Wong), the park's chief geneticist, the only human character from the first film in this one. And of course, there is the T-Rex.

Now under the ownership of Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the dinosaurs of the park have become mere commercial assets of a big business. The initial scenes show us the shallowness of what the park has become: kids riding baby Triceratops in a petting farm, boating and safariing among the plant-eaters, watching the gigantic Mosasaurus performs like a dolphin in a pool. 

The stuffy Claire, in her stiff hairdo, designer outfit and stilettos, represents this cold corporate philosophy. It is this philosophy of wanting to be constantly ahead that led to the ill-advised splicing of the DNA of various dinosaurs and other species creating the ultimate high-IQ killing monster, which would later be the park's own undoing. Practically all the adult human characters in this film are unlikable: greedy, petty, heartless.

Lead star Chris Pratt plays probably the only likeable character in this film. His Owen is the only one we all rooted for as he badass-ly led his posse of Velociraptors on a motorbike. He basically plays his charming "Guardians of the Galaxy" character, but a smarter, less goofy, no-nonsense version. 

That her high heels get more attention than her acting does not speak too well of Bryce Dallas Howard's annoying performance as Claire. I guess her character was really supposed to be annoying so she is probably doing it right, yet she was blandly uncharismatic as a leading lady. 

The original timeless theme music by John Williams effectively evokes a sense of nostalgia as it gets played. The story telling by Steven Spielberg in the 1993 original though, remained superior over this one by newcomer Colin Trevorrow, riddled with some illogical close calls and questionable dinosaur psychology. The brotherly bonding between Zach and Grey was used as an emotional core, but it did get a bit too unrealistically sweet in the end (predictably so). Owen and Claire's love affair did not really seem to be necessary, yet they also put that in for some romance angle. The ethical and political issues about genetic bioengineering are touched on once again, just as the first did, with a bit less sting this time.

Overall, the main highlight are still the dinosaurs. The awe we felt during the first film cannot be replicated, but the thrill is still there. Every time a giant meat-eater approaches a human character, the fearful tension created is heart-pounding, as it was before. The visual effects are first rate as ever, made even more realistic by updated technology, as are the sound effects that accompany the action. We all felt we were those kids riding that cool glass gyrosphere gazing up in wonder as the vestiges of a lost world roamed around us. 7/10.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Review of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3: Evolution of Elise

June 5, 2015

The first two "Insidious" films were about how the embattled Lambert family was helped by one Elise Rainier to fight the ghosts that had latched on to them. This frail-looking, soft-spoken elderly lady is a psychic who uses her gift to help people communicate with the dead by being able to enter the spirit dimension called "The Further". Here in "Insidious: Chapter 3", we get to know Elise more as she becomes the central character and we learn how she had evolved into the demon fighter we know.

In this present episode, we go two years before the events of the first Insidious film. Elise Rainier had already retired from contacting spirits because a malevolent female ghost had been threatening to kill her whenever Elise made spirit contacts. Young Quinn Brenner sought her services to talk to her recently departed mother Lilith. After initial resistance, Elise relented and tried to help Quinn make contact. 

However, in that session, an evil spirit dubbed The Man Who Can't Breathe, a wheezy old man with an oxygen mask, seemed to have latched on to poor Quinn causing the teen to experience serious physical injuries and various other eerie manifestations. As the ghostly activity in their apartment escalate, Quinn's father Sean sought Elise's assistance again to help Quinn out of her ghostly predicament. Can Elise conquer her own ghosts in time to help Quinn conquer hers?

After having known Elise Rainier from the previous two Insidious films, I have grown fond of this brave woman. With her kind face and gentle voice, veteran actress Lin Shaye imbues Elise with a serene grandmotherly demeanor which audiences can easily root for when her character experiences adversities. Her climactic spirit battle scene here in Chapter 3 drew positive audience response when Elise uncharacteristically displayed her own brand of badass bravado.

I enjoyed the part where they showed the origin of the Spectral Sightings team of mohawked techie Tucker and nerdy writer Specs, played by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell. Like in the two previous films, these two guys effectively provide the humorous relief in the proceedings. As the victim of the ghostly attacks, Stefanie Scott was very natural and likeable in her portrayal of Quinn. She was adequately supported by Dermot Mulroney as her harassed single father Sean. 

Writer Leigh Whannell also tries on the directorial gloves for the first time for this film. Certainly he drew a lot from the original director James Wan's style to keep the distinct "Insidious" atmosphere intact. Plenty of the horror here were jump scares -- those long silent pauses that were shattered by loud blasts of music and a sudden spooky image on screen will jolt you. Despite being a prequel, Whannell also effectively injected elements which tied in with the first two films like the Bride in Black and the Red-Faced Ghost, whose unexpected appearances surely excited "Insidious" fans. 

Overall, I would suspect that fans of the first "Insidious" films will appreciate this film more. I think this sentimental attachment we feel towards Elise and the other continuing characters contributed much to my appreciation for this third chapter. Part 4 is such a welcome prospect. 7/10.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Review of OUTCAST: Crusading in China

June 3, 2015

The poster boasts of two stars whose careers have had better days in the past: Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen. I had a feeling this would be a bad film the moment I heard of this casting. Strangely though, this combination of two fallen stars still gave me an odd compulsion to see what they can come up with together.

Hayden Christensen made a big splash when he was given the role of young Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequel films. Unfortunately, Christensen proved less than capable of pulling the iconic role off, and his acting career had stagnated since then. The downward trajectory Nicolas Cage's career has been the stuff of much dismay for his fans. This was a guy who had an Oscar early in his career, but now he is just constantly wallowing in B-movie hamminess. Will their collaboration in "Outcast" help them climb out of their career ruts?

"Outcast" opens in 12th century in the Middle East where crusading knights were "doing the work of God" by mercilessly slaughtering the Islamic "infidels" who did not share their faith. They were led by the young ruthless Jacob (Hayden Christensen) and his mentor Gallain (Nicolas Cage). Jacob and Gallain had a falling out after a particularly violent encounter that involved women and children.

After title card, the scene suddenly shifts to imperial China! A sick emperor was endorsing his kingdom over to his younger, more intellectual son Qiang. Meanwhile his brash and very violent older son Shing believes the kingdom is his birthright and will not accept no other kings except himself. 

Now, how do the jaded crusaders Jacob and Gallain get themselves involved in this brotherly squabble for the throne of China? I will just have to leave that for you to watch this movie and find out for yourself.

Unfortunately, long acting hiatus notwithstanding, Hayden Christensen continues to be such a bland actor. He could not seem to connect with the character, resulting in a wooden performance with no spark at all. Here in "Outcast", a huge part of his role was supposedly under the influence of opium or alcohol, so he can use that as an excuse for lousy acting. His unremarkable acting in this will not exactly resurrect his dormant career.

Nicolas Cage wears an atrocious wig and uses an atrocious accent here. I do not know why he gets stuck with roles like this, when we know he could do so much better than this. To Cage's credit, maybe only he can pull off this relentlessly thankless and embarrassing role and give it some spunk, hammy as it may be. At least, he tries to give his role some life, cheesy as it may be.

The Chinese actors all did very well, keeping the dignity of the Chinese royal family that they play. Shi Liang played a serene dying Emperor. Andy On registered strongly as the intimidating elder brother Prince Shing. Pretty Yifei Liu played their sister Lian, to whom the Emperor entrusted to protect the heir apparent. It is just to bad that she had to also play the love interest of Jacob, but of course that was predictable from the moment they set eyes on each other.

"Outcast" is not really all that bad as it would seem. There was an effort in the area of production design to recreate the setting of the story. With Christensen underacting and Cage overacting, I was glad the Chinese cast was there to keep this film from totally capsizing. On the other hand, you can also add this film to the list of "White Savior" films where it seems other races could only settle their problems when there is a white man around to save them. 4/10.