Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review of MONEY MONSTER: Hostage Hysteria

May 28, 2016

If not for its headlining A-list stars, I would not even consider watching a movie with a bad title like this one. I had no idea what this film was going to be about before I went to watch it, just its stellar cast. Thankfully, I did.

(Side note:  The first time I tried to watch it in SM North EDSA on Thursday, the second day of release. I was shocked to find out that it had already been pulled out! So, it turns out not even Hollywood films, not even those with big stars in the cast, are spared from this unfortunate practice of first day-last day in mall cinemas. Fortunately, I later found out that this is still being shown in other malls other than SM.)

"Money Monster" turned out to be title of a cheesy financial TV show hosted by the obnoxiously entertaining stock market expert Lee Gates (George Clooney). He is loud, arrogant and even dances on his show. His show's director is the calm and collected Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), who was already considering a change in her employment.

One day, one of Gates' hot stock picks IBIS Clear Capital suffered a "glitch" in its trading algorithm such that its investors lost $800M. On the day that Gates was to interview IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) on his show, a disgruntled young man Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) sneaked into the studio with a loaded gun and two bomb vests to hold Gates and Camby responsible for his disastrous investment.

Even with a very unlikeable role like Lee Gates, George Clooney still manages to hold our attention and draw us into his side. He did feel like he was playing his joker self at times. Julia Roberts had been on a career slump recently, but this role as Patty was a step in the positive direction. It was interesting to read that Clooney and Roberts actually shot most of their scenes separately from each other because of their busy schedules. However, they had chemistry together on screen despite this.

However, the actor to watch in this movie is really Jack O'Connell, who played the distraught hostage taker Kyle. I had seen him before in the war film "Unbroken" where he was really impressive as Louis Zamperini, a survivor of both a plane crash and a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. In "Money Monster," O'Connell delivered a riveting portrayal of a desperate man driven to an act of crazy violence. He will be able to rally you to sympathize with his plight and fate, despite knowing the stupidity of what he was doing.

Dominic West lacked screen presence as the CEO Camby, but Caitriona Balfe (from TV's "Outlander") did better in her pivotal role as IBIS spokesman Diane Lester. Other actors made their mark with their smaller roles, particularly Emily Meade (as Kyle's girlfriend Molly) and Aaron Woo (as the Korean IT expert Won).

Props go to the skillful direction of Ms. Jodie Foster. I was surprised to see her name up there when the credits rolled as I did not know this information going in. The storytelling and the editing of the scenes were so tight and exciting even when the situations do get too unbelievable or illogical. The humor was subtle and sharp. The suspense aspect was topnotch as we are held breathless as the hostage drama unfolded real time. The aftermath scenes were on-point, recognizing how the world of mass media turns these days. 8/10. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of WARCRAFT: Virtue Amidst Violence

May 25, 2016

I only knew Warcraft as a computer video game which gained prominence in the 1990s. I never really played it, so I knew nothing about it except for its name which was part of the pop culture in those days. This year, a film version of Warcraft makes it on the big screen. I did not originally have plans to watch it. However, since there was a special screening of this film organized as a fundraiser for charity patients, I took my family to go watch it anyhow. 

Gigantic hulking beings with warthog-like fangs called Orcs had to search for a new world to settle in because their world Draenor was already laid in waste. Their ruthless enchanted leader Gul'dan opened a green magical portal into the peaceful world of Azeroth where humans lived. Faced with these invincible intruders, King Llane and his trusted knight Anduin Lothar led the seemingly futile campaign to save their world. 

However, Durotan, a thoughtful Orc chieftain and new father, and Garona, a female Orc with human features, see the evil in their leader and sought an alliance with the humans to overthrow Gul'dan. Over all these events, the supernatural Guardian Medivh was expected to intervene on the humans' behalf. However, a young magic apprentice Khadgar notices some circumstances which make him suspect something sinister was afoot.

The lead actors Travis Fimmel (as Lothar) and especially Toby Kebbell (behind the brutish exterior of Durotan) were both unknown to me, but they were able deliver their pure heroism with heart. Paula Patton took full advantage her unconventional beauty as Garona to full sympathetic effect. There are moments of humor mostly from the character of Khadgar, with the boyish wide-eyed actor Ben Schnetzer in a likeable performance. Ben Taylor has a talent for portraying characters of unclear loyalties in his films, and his Medivh here follows suit. Dominic Cooper has gone a long way from beach boy Sky in "Mamma Mia" to the regal King Llane here.

As expected from a fantasy film derived from a computer game, Warcraft was composed almost entirely of computer-generated imagery apart from its human characters. I was not really expecting much from this film, though I did like the "Prince of Persia" and "Need for Speed" films. The slow build up of the film's premise at the beginning, with all the strange names and jargon was discouraging. However, as I got into the groove of the storytelling, I actually got hooked into the heartfelt story beneath the CGI. The CGI of the Orcs may have looked over the top, but I have to give them props for painstaking details differentiating each one from another.

There were many derivative elements from the Lord of the Rings saga, with the term Orcs a prime example. The Guardian seemed to inspired by wizards like Gandalf and sorcerers like Sauron. There were minor characters who liked like the Elves and the Dwarves. The appearance of the giant eagle-horse Lothar rode called to mind the Hippogriff in classic Roman mythology, as well as the one we saw in the Harry Potter films. There was even a Biblical Moses reference thrown in the mix.

I cannot comment on how faithful this film was to the video game. I can say though that it was entertaining to watch even for someone who had no idea what the game was about. Several virtues were being extolled in this film in association with the R-13 rated violence -- nobility, loyalty, honor, sacrifice, fair play, the common good. The main drawback for me here is the length of the film, which could feel much longer than its 123 minutes at times. Since this film was subtitled "The Beginning", it was clearly laying down the groundwork for its franchise.  At least, we could expect the sequels to concentrate more on stories at hand rather than the backstory, and we look forward to that. 7/10. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review of X-MEN: APOCALYPSE: Complicated Continuity

May 20, 2016

Some may be better than others, but in general, I liked all of them for their character development and complex drama about humans-mutant relations. I particularly like this rebooted series about the X-Men in their youth which started in 2011 with "First Class" (MY REVIEW) and "Days in Future Past" (MY REVIEW). 

En Sabah Nur, a very powerful mutant from ancient Egypt, wakes up in 1983. He begins his conquest of the world by recruiting four powerful mutants to become his lieutenants, the Four Horsemen to his Apocalypse. At that time in Poland, Erik Lehnsherr's struggle to live a normal life with his wife and mutant daughter does not go too well. His depression makes him an easy target for recruitment.

Meanwhile, mutants converge at Prof. Charles X. Xavier's Institute for Gifted Youngsters, where Hank McCoy was a teacher and a young Jean Grey is a student. Mystique rescues Nightcrawler from a fight club in Berlin. Alex Summers brings in his brother Scott to control his newly-discovered powers. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert was also there to brief Prof. Xavier about her research about Nur. Just then, Nur and his Horsemen attacks the Institute. 

As this is already the third film in the rebooted series, the actors all play their characters as if the role was written with them in mind. This is most especially true with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Prof. X and Magneto with so much passion. Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique with intensity as expected, as Nicholas Hoult played Hank McCoy with charm. 

Quicksilver (Evan Peter) reprises his amazing time-slowing stunts again here, but on a much bigger scale, this time to the tune of "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics. Those comical Nightcrawler (an unrecognizable Kodi Smit-McPhee) gags can be diverting amidst the CG violence. This is the first time I have seen Sophie Turner outside "Game of Thrones" and she gets to play the awesome Jean Gray. Tye Sheridan (whom we met last year in the serious "Dark Places" and the absurd "Scouts' Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse") played Scott Summers still conflicted with his powerfully destructive ability. 

You would not really know that it was Oscar Isaac (whom we recently met as Poe Dameron on "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") hidden under the leathery face of the Apocalypse. Olivia Munn played Psylocke as a sexy leather-clad dominatrix. The new actors playing the other two Horsemen, Alexandra Shipp and Ben Hardy as young Storm and Angel respectively, fell short in the acting department amidst the formidable cast. 

The timeline of these X-Men movies are really all topsy-turvy now. Figuring out which happens first within the three films of this trilogy becomes too complicated, it is useless to try. We learn here how Storm's hair turned white, or how Prof. X lost his hair (in the movie world, at least). The production design and costumes evoke so much 80s pop culture nostalgia, it was really fun to catch them all as they flashed on screen. There is a cameo appearance of an invincible mutant in an exciting action sequence in the middle of the film, which will be referred to once again in the extra scene at the very end of the end credits. 

There are really very many instances here where the breaks of the battles obviously favored the heroes, even as the bad guys got the upper hand at first. Magneto was lifting metallic objects all over the world, while metallic objects right below his feet were still there. Apocalypse can disintegrate his human enemies into dust. Against mutants though, he chooses to just plaster them into the wall or, more incredibly, he just goes old-school and simply strangles the neck. 

Distracting as they may be, I guess that such illogicalities are to be expected in complex superhero franchises such as the X-Men. Despite this and the imposing scale of its scope, this film, again engagingly told by director Bryan Singer, entertained me as it unfolded. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy. Even if I still think "Days of Future Past" was superior, this comes pretty close to matching that one in excellence. 8/10.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review of IP MAN 3: Invigorating, Intense and Intimate

May 14, 2016

Two big Chinese language films are being shown in local cinemas this week. While "The Mermaid" is being shown in only three theaters, "Ip Man 3" is being shown in a lot more theaters. It really is not any wonder why. This is already the third film of a familiar franchise. The first two films (especially the first one) I would consider to be among the most elegant martial arts films I have ever seen. (My review of "Ip Man 1" is posted HERE. My review of "Ip Man 2" is posted HERE.)

Ip Man tries to live simply in Hong Kong with his wife and young second son. However, their son's school is being threatened by a ruthless gang of bad guys who wanted to gain the school's property for themselves. Ip and his students were asked to serve as security guards to safeguard the school, taking up a lot of his time. Meanwhile, a talented local fighter Cheung Tin-chi challenges Ip to a duel to prove who is the real Wing Chun master. However, because Ip's wife Wing-sing develops a serious health condition, he was forced to reconsider his priorities in life.

This third Ip Man film certainly brings back the fond memories of watching the first Ip Man film that started the ball rolling. It has that gentle family story to counterbalance the bone-crunching action scenes. It also had elements from the second Ip Man film, particularly in that scene where Ip Man had a three-minute intense fight scene with a brutish American real estate developer named Frank, played by boxing champion Mike Tyson. 

Instead of Sammo Hung, the fight choreographer this time is Yuen Wo-ping, who regaled us before with those sublime fight scenes in diverse films, from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to "Kill Bill" and "The Matrix," While the fights seemed to be toned down compared to the second film, they do achieve an unprecedented poignant elegance of fluid action.

Donnie Yen seemed to not age a bit since we first saw him in the first Ip Man in 2009. He is still the same neighborly good guy we admired and rooted for to win as he fights for the oppressed underdogs of society. There was really an effortlessness in his fight scenes, so cool yet so powerful. Lynn Hung is as elegant as ever as Ip's wife and mother of his two boys. She was the emotional core of this film and we suffer along with her. Zhang Jin was also very good as the noble fighter Cheung Tin-chi, who got swallowed by his pride. He also had that calm demeanor of fighting like Yen, though he got to do more violent bone-breaking moves with the bad guys. His final showdown with Yen was a fight in manifest grace.

Still under the skillful direction of Wilson Yip, "Ip Man 3" captures the best of the first two Ip Man films and adds a distinct character of its own. Unlike the first two films, this third film is more personal than patriotic. It also employed a number of artistic references to nature. This final episode is an invigorating yet emotional end to the Ip Man trilogy. Frankly though, I still want to see more of him in the future. Since his appearance here is like a cameo, maybe there could be another sequel with more of Bruce Lee? 9/10. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review of THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE: Flustered Feathers

May 13, 2016

Angry Birds is a video game franchise created by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment,  It was first released in December 2009. By July 2015, the series’ various games in all its different formats have been downloaded over three billion times the world over. It was not a big wonder that a film would eventually be made from the characters of this game.

Practically everyone has seen at least the original game with the five birds: main bird Red, yellow bird Chuck, black bird Bomb, white bird Matilda, and triple Blues. Many should be familiar with the maddening physics-laced puzzle game play of launching these angry birds to hit the green pigs hiding under various structures. Not too good with analyzing projectile motion, I admit I was not so patient with this game.

The film's storyline tells of Red as a miserable hotheaded outcast with poor people skills. A violent altercation with another bird caused him to be sentenced to attend Anger Management classes under Matilda. There, he met Chuck and Bomb, as well as quiet giant maroon bird named Terence. One day, a ship of green pigs landed on the birds' island. While the other birds welcomed their unusual guests, Red remained suspicious that the Pigs were up to no good. Unfortunately, Red's worst fears were soon confirmed, and birds have to go beyond themselves to get their precious treasures back.

The film as a whole was better than what the trailer showed. For the most part, the storytelling was very entertaining. The best part of the film was the climactic battle where we saw the birds in action with the giant slingshot, but it was too short, I felt. It was too bad we only saw the green boomerang toucan bird Hal, the tiny orange bird Bubbles and the cute pink bird Stella all too briefly. On the other hand, an inordinately long, occasionally awkward, time was spent with the iconic Mighty Eagle.

The voices come from some of the most popular comedians working in Hollywood today. Jason Sudeikis was Red. Danny McBride was Bomb. Maya Rudolph was Matilda. Bill Hader was Leonard. Josh Gad, whom we last heard as Olaf in "Frozen," was Chuck, a hyperactive voice performance I really enjoyed. Peter Dinklage did so well in his ironic casting the Mighty Eagle. It is very surprising that the first time I have seen Sean Penn's name in a film again was as Terence. Fans of the Youtube channel Smosh will be delighted that Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have cameos here as the voices of Bubbles and Hal respectively.

The comedy was rather weird to describe. The jokes can really be juvenile, shallow and silly, but there were also quite a number of adult humor (some even creepy or uncomfortable references). I liked the obvious parody of the "Time in a Bottle" scene from "X-Men Days of Future Past" or that Grady twins reference from "The Shining." I liked the cheery and cheesy retro pop songs in the soundtrack, by artists from Rick Astley to Limp Bizkit, to accompany the most unexpected scenes. 

I had fun watching it for sure, but I cannot say I completely liked this film. It was really had to put a finger on what exactly the film lacked, but my kids and I all felt it while watching. Looking back now, I think it may have been this odd sense of humor, which felt forced and flat at times. Anyhow, the small kids in the theater were giggling and laughing so much at the wacky antics of the main avian crew, as well as those little round green pigs and super-cute wide-eyed hatchlings. Because of their delighted reactions, I guess then that the film did hit their target audience right, and that is most important. 6/10.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review of THE MERMAID: Aquatic Absurdities

May 11, 2016

It is a bit surprising but we have not only one, but two Chinese films in local cinemas opening this week. One of them is the current record holder for the highest-grossing Chinese language film OF ALL TIME. This impressive distinction alone of the latest Stephen Chow film "The Mermaid" convinced me to catch it first.

A rich businessman Liu Xuan (刘轩, played by Deng Chao) buys Green Gulf for a major sea reclamation project. Sea life in those waters had to be driven away by means of sonic waves. However, merpeople who lived in Green Gulf were adversely affected by Liu's sonar, forcing them to leave the sea and hide in an abandoned shipwreck to survive. 

In order to exact revenge, the merpeople under the leadership of Octopus (八哥, played by Show Luo) plot to assassinate Xuan for his deeds. They send Shan (珊, played by Lin Yun), a beautiful mermaid who can walk on her tail fins, to kill Liu. What they did not count on was that the assassin and target would fall in love with each other, to the jealous disdain of Liu's sexy business partner Ruolan (若兰, played by Zhang Yuqi).

Those unfamiliar with Stephen Chow's signature brand of outlandish comedy may scratch their heads how an absurd movie with crude CGI like this could wind up to be such a box-office winner. Chow broke big time into the international scene via  "Shaolin Soccer" in 2001 and "Kung Fu Hustle" in 2004 with their wild characters and stories. Both films won him accolades for Best Director and Best Actor in Hong Kong and overseas. His latest work "Journey to the West" in 2013 also became the highest-grossing Chinese-language film at that time. That would show the devotion the Chinese audience have for this director.

The actors act as expected for a typical Chinese comedy film -- over-the-top and silly. This truly requires a certain acquired taste for a warped sense of humor. Deng Chao played the millionaire playboy Liu as a proud buffoon, the complete antithesis of Bruce Wayne. Lin Yun supposedly won this title role Shan after a nationwide search and her greenhorn status was quite obvious in several scenes. She was so cute that I really felt sorry for her with the indignities she had to do here, especially in that scene with the sea urchins. Show Luo had to act with his CGI-Octopus body yet was able to project his authoritative character very well. Zhang Yuqi had the only serious role in the whole film as the main antagonist Ruolan.

"The Mermaid" had a message to deliver about the environment and how man was destroying it. For what was supposed to have been a fantasy-romcom, I felt that Chow went overboard when he showed human barbarism in one disturbing scene. An unexpectedly brutal and bloody climactic scene was  too horrible to witness. It gets the serious message across, yes. However, people watched this to see a wacky comedy and have fun. The overly shocking disconnect was too startling to take in. 6/10.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review of DIYOS-DIYOSAN: Pride and Propitiation

May 5, 2016

This was an unusual week this summer. Of the films that opened, there was only one new Hollywood film and three Filipino films. Of the three, there were a couple of mainstream rom-coms starring popular actors which will definitely hit it big. And then, there was this other odd man out. I was drawn to watch this film that dared to go against what is popular.

"Diyos-Diyosan" starts its story in 1986, just after the EDSA Revolution. It is a story about a teenager Bernard Mojica and his favorite teacher Ms. Estrella Subido. Ms. Subido, while admirable for her intense love of country, was cynical about anything religious. She taught her students that only they themselves determine their future. 

Ms. Subido quit teaching and joined an NGO supporting rebel causes. Later because of tragedy, she has a complete change of heart and becomes a deeply religious advocate and catechist. Bernard graduated Valedictorian, then bucking his poverty and broken family, he went to UP Law, became a Governor, a Senator and then ultimately mounted a campaign for the Presidency. 

They cross paths again in the present time during the 30th year anniversary of their high school class. As they catch up on each other's lives, the teacher finds out just how deeply her star student had imbibed the secular philosophy she had ingrained in them before. 

This is a long film, with a 2-1/2 hours running time. It follows thirty years in the lives of two people, and the various experiences that molded their lives into their present statuses. I felt it could have actually been a miniseries or tele-novela on television than just one long movie. It tried to capture so many issues -- negligent parents, college fraternities, armed insurgency, dirty and deadly politics, corrupt government officials, religious renewal. This is a very busy and ambitious film indeed, albeit with mixed results.  

Princess Punzalan had not lost her touch for drama even after her long absence in films. Her portrayal of Ms. Subido was sincere and heartfelt, very touching in her delivery of lines. John Prats tried his best, but his physical disconnect with the role tended to work against him. Because he did not really look poor, he was obviously wearing unevenly-applied darkening makeup on his face during his high school scenes. He would eventually look right for his role when he was already a rich (probably Belo-fied) politician. However by then, he would look too young to be running for president. 

This film by Cesar Evangelista Buendia is not abashed with their religious intentions as it was clear from its poster and opening credits. On one hand, it could feel like a pastiche of Lenten specials of noontime shows promoting repentance for our sins.  However, on the other hand, one could also look at it as an admirable effort to shake the jaded populace back to their senses by making us clearly see what is wrong with our society nowadays. Its script, editing and cinematography may be occasionally roughshod, but its intentions, message and heart are definitely in the right place. 6/10.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review of MY CANDIDATE: Cultivating Charisma

May 3, 2016

The heated national elections are already set on Monday next week. The news is filled with news about all the candidates, both positive (from their camp) and negative (from opposing camps). Director Quark Henares tackles a romantic comedy with a political flavor obvious from its title -- "My Candidate." 

Sonny Suarez (Derek Ramsay) is a rare breed of congressman who really seriously worked with and for his constituents. As a promise to his father on his deathbed, Sonny reluctantly agreed to throw his hat in the race for Senator. However, while he is good-looking and had a clean reputation, he was a socially-inept. He lacked the personality and charisma needed to launch a successful national campaign. 

His overeager chief of staff Coco Mikael (Nico Antonio) hired popular communications coach Billie Pono (Shaina Magdayao) to make Sonny over in order to make him more appealing to the voters by making more effective speeches in public. It did not help that his closest rival for that last Senate slot just so happened to be his ex-girlfriend Congresswoman Vera Sanchez (Iza Calzado). 

Honestly the story felt very familiar to me. With Derek Ramsay also starring as the "student" being trained by a ditsy "trainer" who had a problematic private life of her own, "My Candidate" seemed to be a retooling of the plot of the very successful Metro Manila Filmfest 2014 2nd Best Picture winner "English Only Please." Only now, Shaina Magdayao takes over the teacher role from Jennylyn Mercado.

I was hoping that it would go more for the political angle as it was the unique selling factor in this film. While watching the first half, I thought I was going to see a "Our Brand is Crisis"-type story set in the colorful Filipino electoral circus. Ultimately though, it focused more on the rom-com scenes in the second half, which I found rather distracting to the light-hearted yet sensibly effective socio-political commentary this movie was making. 

Of course, it was not that easy to believe that the epitome of Filipino macho-hood Derek Ramsey would be lacking in self-confidence. He had to convince us that his character was such, as he was actually quite successful doing so. In those scenes where he was learning to let go and dance, Ramsey looked as if he was absolutely uncomfortable with what he was doing, which fortunately translated very well as a geeky lack of confidence.

This film is supposedly Shaina Magdayao's first rom-com, and she delivered very charmingly with her erratic character Billie. She came across better in the dramatic parts than the comedy parts, which I guess was not really her comfort zone. I just wished they did not have to make Billie strike all those which hip-hop moves did not look very natural on the demure Ms. Magdayao. I also did not like those tattoos she was made to sport on her arms. Despite being the lead character, we do not know much about Billie. We see Al Tantay's name apparently as Billie's dad, but I do not even recall seeing him onscreen.

Iza Calzado made the most of her smaller role, shining most in that political ad video of her character which was hilarious. Nico Antonio is scene-stealing as Coco in this familiar effeminate persona of his. His sidekicks, Adonis (Jay Ignacio) and Marga (Happy Ferraren), were equally scene-stealing albeit not necessarily funny. Ketchup Eusebio, playing Billie's scandalous friend Jofer, was overused. He overstayed already after his role in the beginning. Ricci Chan and Jun Sabayton, playing a couple of bitchy showbiz TV reporters, were misused and underused. The critical role of the press could have been developed more.

The light satire approach it employed was alright actually, as it did not really have to be so hard-hitting or serious to get its message across. I felt "My Candidate" could have been more interesting if the filmmakers decided to explore the local election culture more. This film was good when it was about the election and politics (though they only scratched the surface), but it became generic when it was about the individual characters. The romance part (which was not really necessary) could have been just a minor side-issue at the very end maybe if they really wanted it to end that way. Well, it is a rom-com first after all. 5/10.