Friday, October 30, 2015

QCinema 2015: Review of APOCALYPSE CHILD: Bitterness in Baler

October 30, 2015

Last night, the 3rd QCinema International Film Festival held its award night. The Best Picture prize went to a film called "Apocalypse Child". This film also won Best Director for Mario Cornejo, Best Supporting Actress for Annicka Dolonius and Best Film Editing. If you only had the chance to catch only one film before this festival ends this Halloween weekend, "Apocalypse" is that film. 

In the late 1970s, some scenes of US movie "Apocalypse Now" were shot in Baler. Rumors say 14-year old Chona allegedly got pregnant by the director himself. Her son Ford is now a thirtysomething surfing instructor in the beaches of Baler. His current student and part-time lover is 19-year-old Fiona. Ford's old childhood friend Rich returns to Baler after a long absence, now as its congressman. He brought home with him his fiancee Serena. To give her something to do while he is working, Rich encourages Serena to take surfing lessons from Ford. These lessons trigger a cascade of events that lead to explosive revelations and bitter betrayals.

Sid Lucero plays the American bastard Ford, which was essentially a surfer-type variation of his hot-headed philosopher character from his other acclaimed indie film "Norte."  The legend around the circumstances of his conception was such an interesting backstory for a film. Ironically, for the champion surfer and veteran surfing instructor that his character was, we never actually see him up on the board surfing. 

RK Bagatsing plays the hotshot, hearing-impaired congressman Rich. It was the long-repressed hostility between these two characters Ford and Rich that will hold us riveted to the story to the end. However, one gets the feeling that we do not really get the whole story at all. The way these two guys were glaring at each other was so intense and pregnant such that you can cut the thick tension between them with a knife. The explanation the ending gave us for their conflict did not seem to be complete.

Ana Abad Santos was so delightful and charming as Ford's young mother, even when she was high on pot or alcohol. Her denial about her past, devil-may-care attitude for the present and sense of hope for her future were poignantly portrayed. Gwen Zamora is the beautiful future trophy-wife Serena, who has deep secrets of her own. Archie Alemania manages to make a strong impression despite his limited screen time as Ford's wacky good friend Jonas.

Annicka Dolonius made a bold impression in last year's controversial indie film "Ninja Party". She shows us more of what she can deliver acting-wise in this film as the young yet jaded free spirit Fiona. Dolonius had two gripping scenes in this film for which it is clear why she fully deserved the Best Supporting Actress award she won in this film is truly deserved. That quiet scene with Ford where she was asking him to hold her was heart-breaking in its poetry.

Writer-Director Mario Cornejo had created very rich web of interesting characters. All of them were very well-rounded real people who had a stories that could be individual films in themselves. I wanted to know them all more. One hour and a half of this film is not enough. Cornejo captured the beauty of Baler in breathtaking vistas and compelling close-ups to frame and enhance his characters. It is such a mystery for me that the beautiful cinematography of this film was not cited for an award. The images we see were powerful and symbolic as they were imaginative and energetic. 9/10.

QCinema 2015: Review of MATANGTUBIG: Bizarre Batangas Barrio

October 29, 2015

From only three films in its maiden year in 2013, this currently running 3rd QCinema International Film Festival now boasts of 60+ films in 13 categories, shown in six cinemas in three Quezon City malls -- Gateway, Trinoma and Robinson's Galleria. There are eight films in competition called the Circle, each with a P1M grant. I was only able to catch two of these eight films.

Matangtubig is a remote and sleepy town in the province of Batangas proud of its zero crime rate. Two high school senior girls Natalie and Melody were abducted by some men. The next day, Natalie was found raped and killed with a blow to the head. Melody was never seen again. A man witnessed their abduction but he did not know if he should report what he has seen. Meanwhile, this sensational case attracted attention from the public, everyone vying to weigh in with their opinions and interests.  

From the very first scene, director Jet Leyco created a suffocatingly dark and uncomfortable atmosphere. The horror of the whole situation was very palpable. However, heinous as the initial crime was, it was just set up for the filmmaker to offer commentary about various aspects of society.

There were sharp barbs against netizens (ever complaining on social media without actual physical effort to help), the mainstream press (those stupid prying questions, the fakeness of their coverage), the police (going out of post to escort businessmen, long and lousy investigating), the politicians (shortcut briefings right before interviews, smiling at funeral photos), etc. The lines by scriptwriter Brian Gonzales were pointedly critical as they were funny. Some scenes were simply visually striking even without words, like how a funeral march and a marching band for a fiesta met in an intersection. 

Aside from Miles Kanapi who played Natalie's mother, I did not recognize anyone else in the cast. The anonymity of the actors worked in this film's favor to add to the strange mysterious feel of the events. 

Instead of the traditional structure of climax and resolution about the crime in question though, the film took a turn to the increasingly bizarre to actually create more unanswerable questions. Who were the naked couple in the woods? Who were those two policemen speaking with a robotic voice? Who was that giant figure wading in the lake? What were those red flashing lights while the witness was running? Where did that annoying male reporter disappear to? Who or what did Melody's brother really see in the distance? 

What is this baffling and bewildering film really about? Was this a supernatural phenomenon? Was this science fiction with aliens? The movie ends without us knowing. Maybe because of time constraints, the filmmakers seemed to have rushed the ending with some weird editing choices that negatively affected the overall quality of the film. I hope a proper director's cut comes out in the future to maybe show us better what he really wanted to convey. 6/10.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of GOOSEBUMPS: Hilarious Halloween Hoopla

October 28, 2015

I have seen "Goosebumps" books on display during Scholastic book sales. This is a series of children's horror fiction stories by R.L. Stine published in the 1990s.  My kids never thought of buying them, so I also have not read them myself. This year, the "Goosebumps" books get the movie treatment. The fun trailer suggests that it should be very interesting viewing for the Halloween season this week.

Zach with his mom Gale moved into a small sleepy town of Madison in Delaware from New York City. He made friends with the pretty girl Hannah next door. However, Hannah's strict dad would hear nothing being chummy with neighbors and was apparently beating her. One night, together with new friend Champ, Zach broke into Hannah's house in an attempt to rescue the girl from her dad. However, the locked Goosebumps books in the living room bookcase were opened, unleashing every monster known to terrorize and wreak havoc on the town. Zach had to team up with Hannah's dad to get those monsters under control.

Jack Black is right in his element here in the role of the over-protective father with a deep dark secret. He is the only big name in the cast and he does not disappoint in his wacky performance. Later in the closing credits, I would find out that it was also Black who would voice a couple of memorable monsters in the books, namely the sinister Slappy, the evil ventriloquist dummy, and the naughty Invisible Kid.

Zach and Hannah were played by teenage newcomers Dylan Minnette and Odeya Rush respectively. Minnette had that boy-next-door look, charming and wholesome. His acting was very natural and effortless in his first major film role. Rush is a pretty face and good actress. I have seen her previously in another young adult film "The Giver" where she showed promise as an actress. She should be someone to reckon with in the future. Minnette and Rush look good together, and they have very good chemistry together. 

Minette also has very good chemistry with Ryan Lee, the actor who played the goofy nerdy friend, Champ. Their scenes when they were trying to break into Hannah's house were really sidesplitting hilarious. The last time I saw this actor it was in "Super 8". With the way he looks, it seems he may be stuck in sidekick or best friend roles for a while. 

While the comedy was very good, the best reasons to see this film are the special visual monster effects interacting seamlessly with the human actors. The very first monster to come out of the book was a giant one right away, the Abominable Snowman. Much later, all mayhem will break loose, and all the monsters will be released from their books. We will get extended views of the fast and furious Werewolf, the destructive Giant Preying Mantis, and the pesky Garden Gnomes, which were all very well-executed.

Overall, this film was very entertaining, a lot of laughs to be had. The scare level is just mild, as it was tempered by the film's sense of humor. Watch out for the cameo of "Goosebumps" author R.L. Stine in the school as a teacher. This is highly recommended as the perfect Halloween film for the whole family to enjoy together. 8/10.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review of BLACK MASS: Despicable Depp

October 23, 2015

This new decade had not been good to Johnny Depp. So far, the only one with positive feedback he got was for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (2011), but that was an old character from a known successful franchise. But Depp's fate with stand-alone feature films he bannered was something else. It all started with a debacle called "The Tourist," (2010). This was followed by middling to poor reception for "The Rum Diary" (2011), "Dark Shadows" (2012), "The Lone Ranger" (2013), "Transcendence" (2014) and just earlier this year "Mortdecai".

In the poster of his latest film "Black Mass," we see a barely-recognizable bad-ass and balding Johnny Depp. You know he really means serious business this time. And he definitely did.

It is Boston in the 1970s. James "Whitey" Bulger was the kingpin of the Irish Mob. His childhood friend John Connolly was an agent in the Boston office of the FBI. Connolly reached out to Bulger to forge a sneaky under-the-table deal to trade information that would lead to the arrest of Boston's Italian Mafia. In exchange, Bulger would receive perks as an FBI informant. However, Bulger and gang went overboard unmitigated string of ruthless murders, drug dealing, gun-running and gambling such that the FBI could not just simply give them a pass anymore.

Based on his look in the poster alone, you can already see how Johnny Depp has transformed himself for this cold-blooded role as Jimmy Bulger. He was totally chilling whenever he talked with someone, you never knew if that person would be alive in the next scene or not. His scenes were very unsettling and heinous. You would be at the edge of your seat the whole time, like waiting for a lion to kill its unsuspecting victim. His "fatherly" conversations with his young son were very disturbing. No one could argue that this would be Depp's best work in several years.

Joel Edgerton is really on a roll with these effective portrayals of these characters with questionable morals. He can really get under your nerves in his role as John Connolly. Listening to him bend all the rules in trying to protect his friend will make you want to give him a punch to the face. You'll hate his guts when he was defending Bulger with his boss McGuire (Kevin Bacon). You'll love that precious look on his face when he was confronted by the new prosecutor, Wyshack (Corey Stoll). 

Unexpectedly, the only member of the cast which I would call miscast was Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Whitey's younger brother William. Billy was able to become a successful politician, winning the election for state Senate in spite of his brother's unsavory reputation in Boston. Despite his reputation for quality work for most of his career, Cumberbatch simply did not feel or even look right for this particular role. 

Overall, this was a seriously sinister biographical film, not exactly the entertaining sort for most mainstream tastes. Johnny Depp's unusually scary portrayal of a despicable and ruthless killer is the centerpiece attraction of this film, and alone would make the price of admission worth it. 7/10.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review of THE LAST WITCH HUNTER: Derivative Diesel

October 22, 2015

In ancient times, Kaulder was a fearless witch hunter who was able to kill the Queen Witch herself. However, before she died, the Queen cursed Kaulder with immortality. Cut to modern times, Kaulder is the last witch hunter of his kind. A congregation of priests called the Axe and Cross were commissioned to help Kaulder over the centuries in his sworn mission to incapacitate and incarcerate all the bad witches. Loyalists of the Queen though are working feverishly to resurrect her, setting up a major confrontation between good and evil to decide the fate of mankind.

As predicted, Vin Diesel's acting was as one-dimensional as ever. His look was as unchanging as ever too. He looks the same whoever character he played -- Riddick, Toretto, now Kaulder. They should have kept the ancient Kaulder look which would have set the character apart. As predicted also, Diesel's pervasive good guy vibes are very apparent no matter how tough or violent he gets. These good vibes saved the day, making this derivative and CG-laden witch adventure more bearable and entertaining. Of course, we would root for him to destroy the queen and her minions as good should triumph over evil.

Michael Caine and Elijah Wood play priests of the Axe and Cross, who were Kaulder's personal assistants, advisers and bodyguards, Dolan 36th and Dolan 37th respectively. However, their roles were not as big as their names would make you expect. Caine was as cool as you'd expect, acting like he was Alfred or any of the recent Caine roles you can recall. His performance was always a respectable effort even though he may only be just phoning this one in, being so short. Elijah Wood looked very wrong in this role. The way he looked with a priest's collar was very awkward. His acting was so stiff, as if he knew how wrong he was for that role.

I was expecting the priests to be Kaulder's sidekicks in his battle against the Witch Queen, but it turns out they would be out of the scene for most parts of the film. Kaulder's companion would be a young female witch named Chloe played by Rose Leslie. Leslie, who gained popularity as Wildling Ygritte in TV's "Game of Thrones," is a polarizing actress, either you will like her or you won't. I like her, so I liked that she has moved onto Hollywood, and she gives a strong feisty performance as her TV character did.

I did not think this film "The Last Witch Hunter" would be anything very original, and it was not. The poster was generic, looking like it could be a poster of one of Vin Diesel's "Riddick" films. Even the title was generic, as "Witch Hunter" had been just used in a recent Jeremy Renner-Gemma Arterton film called "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." Still I went in to watch this film because it is a Vin Diesel film. As consistently one-note his tough guy roles were, at least Diesel knew how to entertain his audience. And that he did. 5/10.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review of KNOCK KNOCK: Risque and Ridiculous

October 21, 2015

When I saw the name of Eli Roth as director of this film, I should have taken that as a warning that this was probably going to be a bad movie. Roth's previous work either as director or writer were mostly crazy violent and gory just for the sake of being gory. Unlike his other films though, like the dreadful "Hostel" or the awful "Aftershock", this one had a known movie star in the lead role -- Keanu Reeves. It was because of Reeves that convinced me that I could give this film a chance.

Successful architect Evan Webber is an ideal husband of an artist wife and a model father of two. One day (ironically it was Father's Day), Evan was left behind at home because of work while the rest of his family went on a beach vacation. That night, two sexy young ladies show up at this door lost and soaking wet from the rain. Evan kindly admits them into his house so they can get dry and call for a cab. However, these two liberated girls had kinky shenanigans in mind for Evan, and then some.

In spite of the fact that the script and the acting were already pretty cheesy from the very start, the premise of the film actually seemed promising at first. Things do get interesting when the girls came into the scene and turned on their charms in an attempt to seduce the faithful family man. After that key scene though, the rest of the film turned south and just got more and more ridiculous up to the very end which unfortunately did not come right away.

Keanu Reeves is one enigmatic star whose career definitely had its ups and downs. In the beginning, he was able to balance his comedy ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"), romance ("A Walk in the Clouds"), drama ("My Own Private Idaho") and action ("Speed" and "Matrix"). Since the turn of the millennium though, his career turned for the worse, with no really memorable roles to speak of. His last two films, "47 Ronin" and "John Wick," brought his name back up for the better. However, "Knock, Knock" knocks him down again with a performance so dismal it will be long-remembered for all the wrong reasons. 

Keanu Reeves' wretched portrayal of Evan Webber is simply beyond embarrassing. Reeves playing monster with his family at the start was just the first of many cringe-worthy scenes for him in the whole course of this film. As his character was threatened with death later in the film, Reeves' impassioned appeal for his life was so hilariously delivered with the craziest of words, it actually had me laughing out loud in spite of myself. Finally, when a scene came when we see Reeves' head on the ground with only his comical facial emoting, I totally lost it laughing. I cannot fathom how a star of his stature could have allowed himself to suffer such shameful indignities.

We can't really expect much from the other relatively unknown actors in the cast who also came up with similarly ludicrous performances. Lorenza Izzo (Eli Roth's wife in real life) and Ana de Armas (the hotter blonde vixen) played the two seductresses Genesis and Bel with such loony, over-the-top abandon. Aaron Burns played the gay friend Louis, who was more concerned about the artwork than people. They did look like they were having a lot of fun doing their inane scenes (even though the situations were not supposed to be funny).

What was on Eli Roth's mind when he wrote and directed this? Were all the outrageous scenarios and lousy hammy acting done on purpose to somehow make this film stand out? Was this all an elaborate warning about logging out of Facebook once you are done with it? Anyway, everything was so exaggeratedly bad it was actually uproariously funny. It was definitely not what I expected going in, but I did get a good laugh out of it so I won't call it a total disaster. 3/10.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review of REGRESSION: Satanic Suggestions

October 20, 2015

For a long time, Alejandro Amenabar has been one of my favorite writer-directors for the twisted suspense thrillers. He was quite prolific at the turn of the century -- "Thesis" (1996), "Open Your Eyes" (1997) and his English-language debut "The Others" (2001). His biographical drama "The Sea Inside" won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. Since then though, his output had been sparse. That was why when I heard that he will be releasing a new film this year entitled "Regression," I made sure I went to watch it.

17-year old Angela Gray accused her father of sexually abusing her. Detective Bruce Kenner was assigned to her case. The father meekly admitted to the crime, but did not actually recall doing it. Kenner sought the help of Psychology professor Kenneth Raines to elicit his repressed memories, as well as those of the other members of the Gray family, via hypnotic regression. What was revealed from these sessions were diabolical confessions of such disturbing nature that Kenner himself could not get them out of his own mind.

Ethan Hawke is such a good actor, really. From his feature debut in "Dead Poet's Society", then "Before Sunrise" (and its series), "Gattaca", "Sinister" to his Oscar-nominated performances in "Training Day" and "Boyhood," this guy can really portray the most ordinary characters and wind up making them very memorable. His intense take of the obsessed Bruce Kenner was riveting and infectious. His visions become our visions, his beliefs our beliefs. He had a flawless interactive rapport with Amenabar's camera, registering and conveying the anger, paranoia, confusion, and fear of his character so well onscreen. 

Emma Watson returns on her trajectory to becoming a serious movie actress after being sidelined by unfortunate roles in "This is the End" and "Noah". The talent and the promise are there, but the connection with her role as the troubled Angela was not as convincing as that of Hawke's. Her best performances were still those for Hermione Granger. Her young adult performances in films like "Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "The Bling Ring" had a certain unnatural stiffness in them, as it was again here as well. 

A credible supporting performance was given by David Dencik as Angela's conflicted repentant father John. I wished David Thewlis was given more to do as Prof. Raines. Going a bit over the top was Dale Dickey and her exaggeratedly demented performance as Angela's grandmother Rose. The strangest casting decision was that of Lothaire Bluteau as the priest Reverend Murray. He exuded such a creepy vibe, which of course may be the director's intention.

While "Regression" was still not on the same level of excellence as "Open Your Eyes" or "The Others", but Alejandro Amenabar returned to form with this comeback project of sorts. The script, though weak and flawed in certain aspects (like motive, for one important example), was still logical and grounded despite dealing with controversial religious and psychological matters. The storytelling engages you despite the dark unpleasant topics and relentlessly morbid atmosphere. I am looking forward to the next Amenabar opus. I hope it does not take so many years anymore. 7/10. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review of THE WALK: Breathtaking Brashness

October 18, 2015

Back in 2008, I was able to watch a documentary entitled "Man on Wire," directed by Phillip Marsh. Based on "To Reach the Clouds," the memoirs of French daredevil Philippe Petit, it told of the time when he crossed the gap between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City back in 1974 on a high wire. That film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for that year.

One of the disappointments I recall about that amazing documentary was that there was no actual vintage film footage of Petit's epic WTC crossing itself. That big moment was only shown by way of dramatic still photographs. This year, "The Walk," a new feature film based on the same memoirs, will recreate the whole life story of Philippe Petit building up to that memorably historic walk.

It was 1974. Philippe Petit was a struggling street-wise juggler/high wire artist in Paris. When he comes across a magazine article about the newly-costructed World Trade Center in New York City, he made it his life dream project to lay a wire between the two towers and walk across it. He apprenticed with a noted circus highwire master, whom he affectionately called Papa Rudy. Together with his loyal friends Annie, Jean-Louis and Jeff, Petit planned and executed his daring caper painstakingly, by fair means or not. The film culminates in his thrilling and breathtaking crossing itself, 15 minutes of pure adrenaline rush 110 stories up in the sky.

A lot of the success of this film hung on the shoulders of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his performance as Philippe Petit. At first I had my doubts, but as the film went along, Gordon-Levitt had us all hooked in Petit's delusional ambition with his delightful "French" charm. I read he actually learned how to walk wires in eight days, under the tutelage of Petit himself, which was impressive. Although everything he did in this film must have been done in front of a green screen just a few feet off the ground, Gordon-Levitt confidently convinces us that he was actually walking across all those high wires throughout the film. The balance of gritty determination and Zen calmness on his face during the final walk added so much to the thrill of that scene.

Ben Kingsley can really do anything with even the smallest roles. His Papa Rudy was only in a few scenes but all of these really made an impressive mark. Standing out among his accomplices were Charlotte Le Bon because of her character Annie's pretty face, and Cesar Domboy because of his character Jeff's fear of heights. 

As both Writer and Director of this film, Robert Zemeckis told the story of Petit with a childlike wonder, a quality of fantasy with which he also imbued his most famous films like "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future". It was this light and fanciful treatment of the material that made the film engaging and entertaining even for young viewers, despite the insane and illegal nature of the caper itself. Zemeckis is really a master of special effects in films. The sad fact that the real WTC towers are not really there anymore makes the visual effects of the walk in this film even more amazing and poignant.

Predictably, everyone will watch the film mainly for the titular walk itself. Zemeckis was able to create such palpable suspense from all those little bumps that happened on the night before, effectively building up the tension for the fateful walk itself. During the walk itself, it would be safe to assume that the whole audience hung on hardly breathing, with their hands tightly holding on to something or someone. We had butterflies in our tummies even if we only watched it in 2D. I can just imagine how much depth those scenes must have had when seen in 3D, or more so in 3D IMAX! 8/10. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review of CRIMSON PEAK: Gorgeous Ghoulish Gothic

October 16, 2015

Ever since his dark fantastical Spanish-language films "The Devil's Backbone" (2001) and "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), we have come to expect a certain signature look and quality among the films of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro.  While he has had success with mainstream Hollywood films like "Hellboy" (2004) and "Pacific Rim" (2013), we still look forward to his next Gothic-themed film, a genre which he does so well. Now, here comes "Crimson Peak."

Edith Cushing was an introverted bookish daughter from a wealthy New York family. She was swept off her feet by a charming British aristocrat Thomas Sharpe, who literally waltzed into her life. Despite her father's suspicions, Edith hied off to marry Thomas and live with him (and his mysterious sister Lucille) in their cold rundown estate located on a remote field of red clay. There, Edith was continually tormented by ghoulish phantoms drenched in blood. 

The pale, delicately unorthodox beauty of Mia Wasikowska has made her a favorite choice for the classic title roles, like "Alice in Wonderland" (2010), "Jane Eyre" (2011) and "Madame Bovary" (2014). Here in "Crimson Peak", she was the perfect choice to play the young heroine Edith Cushing. She projects herself as weak and wan on the outside, while she was actually feisty and fiery on the inside. 

Tom Hiddleston has that roguish look that gives the immediate initial impression that he is up to no good. His Thomas Sharpe will be suspect from the first time you see him. Fresh from her recent success as an astronaut in "The Martial," Jessica Chastain displays her versatility here with a dark maudlin character unlike any role she has played before. Her  Lucille Sharpe was one big question mark from her first piano solo to her last. Charlie Hunnam plays a rather nondescript role here as Edith's doctor friend. Jim Beaver registers a strong presence as Edith's protective father.

The way Guillermo del Toro wrote and tells the story as director was really fascinating in the first half during the build-up of the case. However, once they were already at the Sharpe estate, you kind of get the drift how the rest of the story will be going by then, with just a few mild surprises revealed at the end. 

However, the main draw of the film is not really the story, it is the spectacular visuals and visual effects. There is simply that unique way Del Toro designs his ghosts and creatures that really make them extra-creepy and memorable. This film is a winner in terms of its resplendent cinematography care of Dan Lausten. The beautifully photographed scenes of Edith in the house or in the fields were reminiscent of classic Gothic films like "Rebecca" or sweeping romances like "Wuthering Heights". 

The whole mansion and grounds of the Sharpes is likewise a monster of its own, with its damaged roof that lets leaves and snow into the house, sinking floor boards, creaky pipes, stairs and elevator, and black fat moths that fly all around it. The red clay soil upon which the house stands is likewise very much a character on its own. 

The use of the color red is simply incomparable here as it is practically in every scene, on the floor, on the walls, in the water, on the ghosts, in the basement vats, on the snow. The bloody violence here was unflinching as well, contributing to the scarlet obsession in the film's palette, as well as its R-16 rating. 

The film has an oft-repeated line that goes "This is not a ghost story, but a story which just happened to have ghosts" referring to the manuscript Edith was writing. That line could also be applied to the film itself. The basic story could stand even without the ghosts, albeit less interesting. With his ghosts though, del Toro added a further dimension of visual flash and terror, creating a unique masterpiece all his own. Del Toro can make gory gorgeous. 8/10.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review of BRIDGE OF SPIES: Engaging Espionage

October 15, 2015

The names on the poster of "Bridge of Spies" alone makes this a must-watch: Steven Spielberg as director, Ethan and Joel Coen as writers and Tom Hanks in the lead role. Whatever the topic may be, this simply has to be a film of possible Oscar-merit.

The year is 1957, at the height of the Cold War, James B. Donovan is a top-notch insurance lawyer based in New York City. He was conscripted by the government to perform a thankless duty-- to defend Rudolf Abel, an elderly Russian artist accused to be a spy. Public disdain did not stop Donovan from fighting for the rights of his client. He even agreed to go on his own private capacity to negotiate a trade of prisoners in East Berlin -- Abel in exchange for two young Americans caught in the crossfire.

The whole look of this movie is very clean and well-made. The cinematography was flawless with beautiful images and angles. The production design, with the settings, props, costumes, hair and makeup, were all in perfect period details. The special effects spent on that plane stunt were spectacular to behold. All of these technical elements already have Oscar nominations written for them. 

Watching Tom Hanks as James Donovan made the 2-1/2 hours running time of this film worth its while. Despite his very distinctive face, the versatile Hanks can really inhabit any character very well (with the notable exception perhaps of Robert Langdon, but that is another matter). His Donovan was a lawyer with uncommon nobility, going above and beyond the call of duty, barring any harsh criticisms, in order to fulfill the duty he felt he had for his client. With Hank's everyman charm and appeal drawing us in, we will root him on.

Mark Rylance plays opposite Hanks as the gentleman Russian prisoner Rudolf Abel. This guy is cool and calm and as innocent-looking as you'd expect a spy to look like. Also making remarkable supporting performances were Dakin Matthews (as the "practical" American Judge Byers), Mikhail Gorevoy (as the Soviet official Ivan Schischkin) and Sebastian Koch (as the East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel).

Previous Spielberg masterpieces of a similar nature, like "Schindler's List","Saving Private Ryan" and "Munich," had us all on the edge of our seats with suspense. "Bridge," however, in spite of the precarious situations involved, did not really give you that overwhelming sense of danger or urgency. Everything in the storytelling felt neat and calculated to build up to an ending we can all foresee (even if we did not know a thing about the life of James Donovan). But that is not exactly a bad thing for a biopic. 

Overall, it was a very engaging dramatic film, an outstanding biopic of a remarkable man of extraordinary principles. Just don't expect an edge-of-seat thriller too much or you may be disappointed. 8/10.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review of PAN: Hookless Hijinks

October 10, 2015

I do not know what is it about Peter Pan that filmmakers keep wanting to make films about him. The animated 1953 Disney classic was quite enough. I did not really like the live action films made about him, including the generally well-reviewed "Hook" (1991) and the generally panned "Peter Pan" (2003). I certainly did not expect that another Pan film would be made again after that last disastrous attempt, but here it is.

This new "Pan" tells us an original origins story that preceded the adventures recounted in the J.M. Barrie book and the Disney animated film. Peter was a feisty orphan in an institution run by an obese monstrous nun. One night during World War 2, Pirates from the sky started snatching young boys up into their ship. Peter and the boys were transported into another world led by a vain, flamboyant, Nirvana-loving leader named Blackbeard, and made to work in his fairy-dust mines. 

When Blackbeard suspected that Peter may be the young boy foretold to overthrow him from power so he was promptly imprisoned. Of course, Peter would escape with the help of fellow inmate James Hook. From there begins his swashbuckling battles against the Pirates. His adventure would also involve other familiar elements of the Pan legend, like Natives (no mention of Indians here), Mermaids, Fairies and a giant Crocodile.

The best thing about this film was the totally charming performance of child actor Levi Miller as Peter Pan. His Peter was charismatic without being overly cutesy or annoying, unlike how other child actors may have played the spirited character. I liked his no-nonsense attack on his role, with a genuine and infectious sense of juvenile excitement. Unfortunately for Miller though, the rest of the adult cast fail to support his valiant efforts to keep the film afloat. 

Hugh Jackman overacts with madman glee to make his Blackbeard pop. However, his gothic leather costume with ruffled skirt comes off as trying too hard. Is he supposed to be funny? I felt it came off as rather desperate. Only Jackman's star power kept that caricature of a role from totally collapsing into a complete embarrassment.

Rooney Mara plays a Tiger Lily with no personality. The makeup on her face and the clothes on her body literally burst with the most vivid colors. Unfortunately it was ironic that the person who wore the most color would turn out to be the one most utterly colorless. 

The most disastrous performance of them all was that of Garrett Hedlund as James Hook. Hook (before his pirate days) was supposed to be Peter's Indiana Jones (in fact he was even annoyingly dressed like Indy), the hero Peter can depend on to get out of the tightest spots with street-smarts and fighting skills. However, Hedlund with his bland looks and wooden acting, had absolutely no screen presence. His lack of chemistry with anyone else really hurt the film badly.

Strangely, despite the breathtaking visual spectacles of giant sky pirate ships and the bright colorful costumes, the film as a whole felt turgid and joyless. There is no spark of magic or wonder at all, as would be expected in a fairytale adventure like this.  Director Joe Wright had done so much better work before in films like "Atonement" and "Anna Karenina". Maybe the CGI extravaganza got into his usually efficient way of storytelling, or maybe Jason Fuchs' script was simply unremarkable in the first place. More buckle than swash. 5/10.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review of FELIX MANALO: Idealized Icon

October 8, 2015

I have known of the Iglesia ni Cristo even as a child. Who could miss those grand churches with their distinct color and architecture? But even at my age now, I do not know much about this religion. My knowledge about them is limited to certain leaders I read about in the news. The rest of what I know are only hearsay from people who were also not INC so I could not verify their veracity.  

The INC just recently celebrated their 100 years of existence in 2014. I see this as a testament to the stability of their fundamental tenets among their believers. When this biographical film about their founder Mr. Felix Manalo was announced, I really wanted to watch it to learn more about this homegrown religion.

"Felix Manalo" is a film by veteran mainstream director Joel Lamangan. The three-hours of this film closely followed the life of Manalo from his birth in 1886 to his death in 1963. We first see him as an inquisitive young lad who was already bothered by questions about his Catholic faith at a young age. 

As he grew into a young man, he felt his uncle, who was a Catholic priest, could not give satisfactory answers to his questions about Catholic practices and their biblical basis. He therefore set forth to learn the doctrines of various Protestant sects in Manila at the time, like the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Misyon Kristiyana, the Seventh Day Adventists, and even the Freethinkers. 

His wife Honorata loyally and patiently stayed by his side as they moved their residence from town to town during all this time of her husband's soul-searching, even if she were heavy with their first child. One night in 1913, Felix locked himself up in his room meditating on his bible, not coming out until after the third day. It was during this self-imposed retreat that he had his epiphany to create his very own Iglesia ni Cristo, the perfect church which he believed was completely based on the words of the Holy Bible.

The film would then show the growth of Felix's family as well as the birthing pains of this new church. There was special mention about the birth of his fifth child Erano, who would eventually be elected to succeed him. Recounted in much detail were the stiff resistance the INC met from other religious sects and among the populace it was trying to reach, internal strife among his staff, the Japanese persecution during World War II, as well as the growth of the INC after the war. The concluding scenes would show us the elderly Felix with his health in decline, until his death. 

Dennis Trillo was very passionate in the lead role of Felix Manalo. His Felix had perfect decorum and composure, ever dapper and formal in any attire. His Felix was the idealized icon, with nary any personal flaws, yet somehow Trillo comes up real.

This film has a lot of scenes where Felix was delivering long soliloquies, expounding on various religious issues by citing Bible verses behind his interpretations. Yet, most of the time, he was also restrained in his attack on the role, with grace under pressure. This was best seen in that heated debate scene which addressed the biggest issues hurled against the INC, with cameos by Philip Salvador and Ryan Eigenmann as the rival pastors. 

The only time when Trillo's portrayal of Felix did not come across too well was that very awkward scene when the role of the his son Erano as an adult was taken over by Gabby Concepcion. Father and son looked the same age. Just the scene before that, set only five years before, Erano was played by a teenager! 

Bela Padilla played a paragon of humility and wifely virtue, Mrs. Ata Manalo, always in full support of her husband without question. The makeup in her scenes as an elderly lady specially suited her very well. 

From his childhood, we see Mylene Dizon (as his mother), Yul Servo, Jimmy Fabregas (as his priest-uncle), Jaclyn Jose and Sheryl Cruz. Later, we will see Richard Cunanan (as an American pastor), Arci Munoz (as Felix's first wife Tomasa) and Ricardo Cepeda (as Ata's father). Lloyd Samartino played the lawyer who helped them get the INC registered. Wendell Ramos and Richard Quan played INC pioneers whose envy at not being ordained first caused early strife within their organization. 

Tonton Gutierrez, Joel Torre, Bembol Roco, Alfred Vargas, Christopher Roxas, Elizabeth Oropesa, Bobby Andrews, Raymond Bagatsing, Alice Dixson, Joem Bascon, Mon Confiado, Ejay Falcon and Richard Yap played various INC ministers and members. Eddie Gutierrez and Tony Mabesa played ministers of other Protestant sects. Heart Evangelista, Gladys Reyes and (very briefly) Rey Abellana played members of his family. Lorna Tolentino played his final doctor.

The production design team of Edgar Martin Littaua, Joel Marcelo Bilbao and Daniel Red obviously worked very hard to make sure the set and costumes remain true to the time period, which was impressive since this film covers from late Spanish period all the way to the 1960s. The cinematography of Rody Lacap was also very clean in its sepia tones. The meticulous hair and makeup by Juvan Bermil was also noteworthy.

The whole movie had the sedate and serious tone of a documentary with an episodic enumeration of highlights in the life of Felix Manalo and the INC, with the characters portrayed by an all-star (all-network) cast for mainstream appeal. The focus was mainly on Felix Manalo's search for the perfect completely bible-based religion. Religious discourse and debate would dominate the screenplay by Bienvenido Santiago. Historical and personal events would play in the background, but religion is always in the foreground. 

I think a movie like this is important because it could foster better understanding about the Iglesia ni Cristo sector of our society and the basis of the existence of their church. (I would have liked more information about how Manalo developed their rites, practices and activities within their church, but maybe those details would be too didactic for a feature film.) The running time of nearly three hours worth of religious philosophizing may be formidable (especially if you are not a member of that faith), but the epic scope, solid production values and Dennis Trillo's central performance do make this film worth the while. 7/10.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Review of THE MARTIAN: Scintillating Science

October 4, 2015

Mark Watney is an astronaut member of NASA's Ares III mission to Mars. After a freak accident in a Martian storm, Mark gets knocked out cold and was left behind as dead in the emergency evacuation of his crew off the planet. As it turned out, Mark was still alive. Left to survive on his own resourcefulness, skills and expertise in Botany, Mark had to keep himself alive while waiting for NASA back home to make contact with him and perhaps send a mission to rescue him off Mars.

The story is just like any shipwrecked story where a man is left alone on a deserted island. In this film though, the perils and the problems are upped hundredfold because the island on which this man is marooned is another planet altogether. Mars is nearly a hundred kilometers away from Earth, with no water nor vegetation that could sustain life. In his own words, Mark Watney had to 'Science" his way out of this big predicament.

He needed to create water and fertile soil for his sustenance. He needed to figure out an efficient way of travelling to the target point of the future Mars mission given the limited battery life of his roving vehicle. He needed to figure out a way to communicate with Earth to coordinate any possibility of rescue. Mark Watley was a McGyver of space survival.

Being the only man on Mars, Matt Damon was practically a one-man show here. He was responsible for keeping audiences engaged what could have been a boring 2-1/2 hour film of solitude. As his character Mark was keeping his spirits up by his humorous video log entries, he was keeping us entertained as well with his never-say-die optimism. His positivity draws us to root for him to get out of this alive and well. If that physical transformation of his was not a special effect, it was also a haunting proof of Damon's dedication to this project.

However, unlike "Gravity" where Sandra Bullock was alone for practically the whole film, "The Martian" also tells us about the NASA staff (played by Jeff Bridges, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean) and their efforts to rescue Mark once they realized he was still alive. We will also see Mark's teammates on the Hermes (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan) who grapple with their consciences about leaving Mark behind on Mars and be impressed with the critical decisions they make. 

Humor also came from the kind of anachronistic yet undeniably infectious musical soundtrack. These were mainly disco songs from the 1970s, supposedly the favorite music of mission commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain), like "Turn the Beat Around," "Don't Leave Me This Way," "Hot Stuff" and "Waterloo". Just wait for when the cast credits roll up at the end, another surprising but appropriate disco hit will play which may have you singing along.

The scientific principles may not be fully understandable to laymen or even be completely accurate for scientists, but they all seemed logical, and that is what's essential in good science fiction. Various jargon in rocket science and astrodynamics were used, which may literally fly above our heads, but these did not really hamper enjoyment of the film. No matter how complicated the science involved in the situations we see onscreen, writer Drew Goddard (adapting from the 2011 novel of Andrew Weir) and veteran director Ridley Scott made the proceedings very engaging and easy to follow. 

After "Gravity" and "Interstellar," I think I may have another science fiction film on top of my year-end list again this year. 10/10.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: Ghetto Gumption

October 3, 2015

I am not really a fan of the gangsta rap genre, so at first I was not really planning to watch this film about gangsta rappers. However, it had a 2-week run at number 1 in the US box-office. It eventually became the highest grossing music biographical film all-time worldwide, as well as the highest domestic grossing film from a black director all-time in the United States. It was difficult to ignore such achievements. I needed to watch this film to see why.

This film was not just about any ordinary gangsta rapper. It was about N.W.A., the seminal rap supergroup that brought gangsta rap into mainstream consciousness in 1988 with the release of their debut album entitled "Straight Outta Compton". Three rap superstars trace their solo success from N.W.A., namely Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The film shows us their rise to fame and their falling out as a group, as well as their individual personalities. I just knew these rappers by name and by their hits, this is the first time I actually witnessed the circumstances from which they drew the inspiration for their brand of music.

Incredibly, the young actors in the cast actually resemble the rap stars they were portraying. The easy standout is O'Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube. Of these three rappers, Ice Cube was the more showy and outspoken one, never afraid to speak his mind or defy authority. Jackson, Jr. is actually the son of Ice Cube in real life, so the similarities in look and attitude were uncanny. This film debut of his was surely a star-making performance.

Corey Hawkins fully captured the cool, calm and class of Dr. Dre, whose demeanor did not seem to belong to this group. Jason Mitchell was remarkable in his understated performance as Eazy-E, the founder of N.W.A. whose own life would crumble after his group broke up. 

Like his other roles, Paul Giamatti was again totally transformed here into Jerry Heller, N.W.A.'s Jewish manager and co-producer. R. Marcos Taylor was a chillingly terrifying presence as Suge Knight. I enjoyed the cameos of other superstar rappers like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, played by look-alikes Keith Stanfield and Marcc Rose respectively.

From the beginning, you knew this would not be an ordinary biopic. The cinematography by award-winning Fil-Am Matthew Libatique was impeccable, with brilliant colors, dramatic contrast and captivating shots.  The original music by N.W.A. and the individual rap stars with their killer beats and head-bobbing grooves were perfectly chosen to enhance the atmosphere of the scenes. 

The way director F. Gary Gray told his story, audiences would find themselves immersed into their violent world of rap, women, crime and drugs as their explicit song lyrics would describe. For the uninitiated, the violence depicted is ruthless, numbing and eye-opening. 

This is not a film for everybody. People who do not approve the turbulent excesses of the gangsta rap lifestyle will likely not tolerate the the very profane language they use here or the buxom molls who hang around them (not unlike what we see in their videos). However, people who are into pop culture in general, or hip hop culture in particular, will find this film an essential watch, watching how some of rap's biggest stars came to be who they are now. Certain dramatic confrontation scenes may come across over-the-top and cheesy. Overall though, this film is brutal, unflinching, yet interesting, engaging and vital. 8/10. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Review of PAPA FRANCISCO: Dry and Disappointing

October 1, 2015

The present Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is a very charismatic man. He is also a very brave man, unafraid to voice out his views on the most controversial topics in society, with the most eloquent of words. The Philippines had just been witness to Pope Francis' all-embracing love and holiness during his recent visit here earlier this year. He had a rockstar appeal, attracting big cheering crowds wherever he went. The PhilStagers already made a very entertaining original Filipino musical about his life entitled "#Popepular". (MY REVIEW)

This year, an Argentinian film about Fr. Jorge Bergoglio's life prior to Papacy was released in local cinemas. Based on its simple and straightforward trailer, I am not really expecting too much. However, I still watched the film to learn more about this beloved man and how he rose among the ranks to be the anointed leader of Catholics worldwide.

"Papa Francisco" (also called "Francis: Pray for Me" or "Francisco - El Padre Jorge") tells the life story of the Fr. Jorge Bergoglio (Darío Grandinetti) from Argentina, from his boyhood to his election as Pope in 2013. These were told alongside the fictional story of Ana (Silvia Abascal), a agnostic Spanish lady reporter (with an Argentinian mother) assigned to cover the Papal election of 2005. Ana met Padre Jorge when they sat across each other on a train going to Rome, and from then became lifelong friends. 

The Ana character may have been based on Elisabetta Pique, an Argentine journalist and friend of Padre Jorge, who wrote the biographical book "Pope Francis: Life and Revolution" upon which this film was based. The book was said to be based on interviews on more than seventy people who knew the Pope very well. While individual stories may have read well as a book, but these same stories may also have led to the rather disjointed nature of this film. 

The film, written and directed by Beda Docampo Feijóo, told the Pope's story in bite-sized episodes, flashing backwards and forwards in time. These scenes just seemed like simple renditions of the highlights of his life, with no effort to connect them into one cohesive whole. There were scenes about controversies, but these were executed with no tension at all. The best example would be this confrontation scene with a lady politician who wanted him to lay off on his crusade against corruption. Padre Jorge says a few eloquent words, and the scene was over, no more follow through on what happens next. 

There were good episodes, like the one where the young Jorge (Gabriel Gallichio) met a beautiful lady at a wedding reception where they danced the tango, exchanged books and phone numbers. Unfortunately, we never hear of her again after she left on a bus. In fact, that would be the way this film treated most of the other characters from Padre Jorge's past, like his mother or his friends. They were never mentioned again when Padre Jorge was already cardinal.  The only exception would be Padre Jorge's book about St. Francis. We saw it given to Jorge by his grandmother when he was a young man, and we would see that book again before he was announced as Pope.

Award-winning Argentinian actor Dario Grandinetti plays the senior Padre Jorge. His last film of note was "Wild Tales", an Argentinian film which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year. While he may look sincere, Grandinetti did not really capture the charisma of Padre Jorge. The delivery of his lines were so stiff and lifeless. There was no passion that could be felt nor inspiration that can be drawn from his dry performance. Grandinetti's Padre Jorge did not smile much nor exude warmth, so unlike the person he is portraying. 24 year-old Argentine actor Gabriel Gallichio certainly had more charm in his few scenes as the young Jorge during his student days. 

This was a simple biographical film with no high artistic aspirations. It was just a plain retelling of various events in the present Pope's lifetime with no unifying concept or focus. This film does not have cinematic artistry nor wide audience appeal of other biopics like "Gandhi," "The Last Emperor," or even "Romero". It would probably appeal only to Catholics who simply want to know more about their present leader. But even with those modest expectations, this uneven film would probably still fall short. With his growing worldwide popularity and influence, I trust Pope Francis will have a better film about him in the future. 5/10.