Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS: Music Matters!

August 31, 2016

The tagline of this film prides itself in presenting "the inspiring true story of the world's worst singer." I did not think I could enjoy watching a film which would make fun of a bad singer, even if she were going to be portrayed by Meryl Streep herself. However, because of the very effusive praise I've read about it on social media, I knew I simply had to go see (and hear) Ms. Florence Foster Jenkins for myself.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) was a wealthy socialite in New York City in the 1940s. A crippling nerve condition in her hands she contracted after she got married sidelined her career as a pianist. However, she devoted her life to financially supporting the musical arts. After hearing an intensely moving performance of a Toscanini aria by soprano Lily Pons, the eternally positive Florence decided to practice singing opera herself. 

Supported fully by her husband, the sophisticated actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), she hired an esteemed vocal coach Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and a mousy effete young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her singing. No matter how atrocious her singing sounded, the staunchly loyal St. Clair made sure Florence was encouraged and praised, even if he had to pay for her protection. Such was her innocent confidence in her talent that she decided to stage a concert in no less than Carnegie Hall itself. Can Florence pull it off?

Whenever Meryl Streep takes on a role, she really gives it her all and she rises above the limitations of the material. On the poster alone, you can already sense the eccentricity of the lady Ms. Streep is giving life to. In this film, Ms. Streep was totally steeped in her character's peculiar oddness and she was not afraid to make fun of herself. Streep's talent in singing well known, and it took talent to transform her voice into such terrible-sounding screeching and make it funny (not annoying). Her outlandish costumes completed the absurdity of it all.

Ms. Streep was able to so poignantly capture the tragic figure behind this happy optimist as only an actress of her caliber can. No matter how foolish and pathetic the situations she got herself into, the Florence we saw portrayed by Ms. Streep never lost her cool nor her dignity, which was quite a feat in itself. This early, I would already give Ms. Streep the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy. I would bet that at least an Oscar nomination for Best Actress is also a certainty. 

Hugh Grant had long been shoehorned into romantic comedies back in the 1990s. However, being more mature now, Grant was able to convincingly show unconditional love that St. Clair had for Florence. While St. Clair had his mistress Kathleen (played by the lovely Rebecca Ferguson) on the side, Grant made sure we could clearly see that St. Clair still loved Florence purely, despite this practical dalliance. 

Making a bigger splash in his showy role as Cosme McMoon is Simon Helberg. We know Helberg very well as the nerdy mama's boy and aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz on TV's megahit series "The Big Bang Theory." As McMoon, Helberg uses his expressively funny eyes and face to create hilarious moments as he tried in vain to stifle his amusement at Florence's ghastly singing or swallow his shame for accompanying this woman's embarrassing public performances. His piano playing skills were also very impressive.

This film was so lovingly directed by Stephen Frears with much respect for his subject. That love was best felt in that scene when we hear the exquisite voice Florence heard in her head. That was such a glorious yet sad moment at the same time. The look of the whole film was elegant and stylish, thanks to cinematographer Danny Cohen. The atmosphere of 1940s New York City was so meticulously recreated with such amazing attention to details of that period by production designer Alan MacDonald. This was not only in the hair, makeup and costumes, but even in the outdoor scenes with the buildings and the cars on the streets.

People who love to sing would love this film. The appreciative full house at the theater I watched in yesterday afternoon was proof of its appeal. It showed that we should never let a little matter like lack of singing talent deter us from expressing our feelings in song should we want to. Pursue your passion, no matter how ludicrous this may be for other people. Having dabbled in singing myself, I have had my own Florence Foster Jenkins moments myself. I've boldly performed in public even when I doubted my own abilities. As Florence herself said, "People may say I couldn't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." 8/10.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review of THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS: Innocuously Intense

August 30, 2016

From the makers of "Despicable Me" and "The Minions" come this new animated film about what pets do when their masters go away every morning. Frankly the trailers did not really interest me at first because it looked too kiddy, but curiosity still got the better of me. There was nothing in the trailer that told us what aspect of a master-pet relationship they were going to tackle, and I thought that would be interesting.

Max is a pampered terrier living with his master Katie. He lives in a neighborhood of apartments in New York City also with other pampered pets like him. Among them are Chloe the fat cat, Mel the pug, Buddy the dachshund, and Gidget the white pomeranian with a big crush on Max. One day, Katie brings home a huge hairy brown mutt from the pound named Duke to be Max's friend. The two don't hit it off very well and this led to a crazy day where they lost their collars, get pursued by dogcatchers, and get tangled up with a gang of disgruntled abandoned pets led by a psychotic white rabbit named Snowball.

With that summary alone, you can see that this film is just like "Baby's Day Out", a wacky adventure fraught with danger and mayhem that happens within a single day, only this is about a couple of pet dogs instead of a baby. The artwork may indeed look very cute and cuddly to appeal a young audience. However, the underlying violent theme of the storyline is not that innocent nor innocuous. This should have been rated PG, instead of G.

There was a rather scary scene of gangland cats led by a bald, scarred pink cat named Ozone bullying Max and Duke. Later on, there were even more intense scenes about a bigger gang of animals in the sewers of New York City, the so-called "Flushed Pets" led by Snowball. This ugly underground posse of angry ex-pets (which include pigs, iguanas, snakes and even crocodiles!) have a disturbing mission to destroy humans in revenge. They even have initiation rites that require a bite from a viper's fang.

There were weird trippy scenes like that when Max and Duke raid a sausage factory. The sausages were even singing a song from the soundtrack of "Grease"! Then there was also an unfortunate reprise of a scene I did not like from "Finding Dory" where animals were seen driving a vehicle in the city streets. This time there was an ensuing crash of a bus on the bridge, and a truck falling into the water below. Yet at the end, the day's harrowing events the pets went through seemed to have no effect at all for their masters. It was as if everything we saw that day was just an hour-long doggie nightmare that never really happened. 

The voice work by some noted comedians were really instrumental to give a distinct personality to the animal characters. The entitled voice of Max is by Louis C.K. The gruff voice of Duke is by Eric Stonestreet. The bipolar voice of Snowball is by Kevin Hart -- this guy can really go cutesy angelic to maniacal demon in an instant. The lovelorn voice of Gidget is by Jenny Slate. There are also some old school comic genius in the voices of Tiberius the hawk (Albert Brooks) and Pop the paralyzed basset hound (Dana Carvey). new friends Gidget met in her quest to get Max back. 

With an audacious title like "The Secret Life of Pets," I was expecting a more encompassing film exploring the relationship between pets and their masters. I liked this film when they show the interaction of people with their pets. I liked Max's and Duke's respective backstories regarding their masters. I really, really liked that final montage where they showed people coming home from work at the end of the day and how masters and pets welcomed each other's reunion. That particularly precious series of heartwarming scenes alone was worth a lot more to me than the movie as a whole. 6/10.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review of WAR DOGS: The Business of Bullets

August 29, 2016

David Packouz is a down-and-out massage therapist living in Miami who just lost all of his money on a bad investment. He was at his wit's end when he found out that his girlfriend Iz is pregnant. So when his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli comes back to town to set up his business, the desperate David was easily convinced to be his partner. 

Efraim was a War Dog, an arms-dealing businessman who made money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. Their company AEY goes swimmingly at first, getting small-time arms contracts no one else was bidding on. However, when they land a bigtime $300M contract to supply the Afghan army with 100M rounds of ammunition, they ran smack into a wall that sent them and their business reeling.

Miles Teller was a good choice for David because of the vulnerability in his face that makes the audience root for him. This actor had been acclaimed for his acting in films like "The Spectacular Now" and "Whiplash", and you can see why here (though, he won't be expecting acting nominations for his turn here). He seemed very comfortable in these roles and was convincing in both the drama and action parts. 

As with his other films, Jonah Hill is the life of this film with his over-the-top portrayal of Ephaim. It seems that Hill is already shoehorned into these kinds of over-confident, sweet-talking, drug-sniffing characters like Efraim. This performance here was reminiscent of his turns in "21 Jump Street" and "The Wolf of Wall Street." His role as Efraim was darker than his usual, reminding me of a young Joe Pesci. 

I was surprised to see Bradley Cooper in a small but critical role as Henri Girard, a ruthless veteran arms dealer that David and Efraim had to contact to supply their ammo. Ana de Armas was nothing more than a very pretty distraction in her role as Iz, David's girlfriend. 

For me, the best part of the film was that sequence when the David and Ef had to personally deliver arms from Jordan to a US base in Baghdad. I liked the way director Todd Phillips retold this adventure with humor and tension. (Ironically though, this event never really happened for real.) On the debit side, there was a crucial development in Efraim's character in the end which seemingly came from out of nowhere, thus negatively affecting the execution of the third act and how the film ended.

All clues seemed to indicate that this film was going to be a riotous comedy -- the frenetic trailer, the poster with a reference to the "Hangover" trilogy, the casting of Jonah Hill, etc. However upon watching, it turned out that this was not exactly a comedy, but a crime drama with some funny scenes to liven it up (and these were probably all in the trailer already). "War Dogs" is not a bad film, an interesting look behind the war armaments trade in the US. Just do not expect another "Hangover" or "Jump Street"-like raunch fest. 6/10.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Review of USS INDIANAPOLIS: Troubling Tragedy

August 26, 2016

Nicolas Cage peaked in the 90s when he starred in several box-office hits and even earned an Oscar for Best Actor. Of late though, even though he still gets to star in a lot of movies, his name on a movie poster ("Season of the Witch," "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," "Left Behind") does not exactly bode good quality anymore. I was wary to watch this new one for the same reason. However, the mention of the Philippines in the trailer made me curious to catch it anyway.

Set in mid-1945 during World War II, the USS Indianapolis, led by Captain Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage), was secretly tasked to deliver parts of an atomic bomb (which would later be dropped on Hiroshima) unescorted to a naval base in the Pacific. Back on open sea after its mission, the ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea. The sailors spent five gruelling days with minimal supplies floating on liferafts in shark-infested waters. Only 317 of the original 1,196 crew members survived.

The first hour of the film was quite brisk and eventful. The main storyline was laid out within the first scene. The backstory about some of the young sailors were introduced, oddly not too much on McVay himself. The USS Indianapolis embarked on its mission, delivered its cargo, was torpedoed and sunk all within that first hour. However, this meant that the entire second hour would only be dealing about the survival ordeal of the sailors among the sharks awaiting rescue. It got maudlin and repetitive after the first few shark attacks. This was definitely not the war action film people were expecting to see. 

The actors all seem to have come from the Nicolas Cage school of hammy acting. The major side story was about two friends who were in love with the same girl back home. Another side story was about a couple of sailors, one white, one black, constantly at odds with each other. There was also another side story about an arrogant young officer and his despicable attitude. All these rehashed side stories just served to fill out the rest of the running time before and after the sinking. The best actor for me would have to be Yutaka Takeuchi, the Japanese actor playing court-martial witness Commander Hashimoto, who displayed dignified subtlely in his brief role.

For its Philippine release, this film's subtitle "Men of Courage" was replaced with "Disaster at (sic) Philippine Sea." However, for Filipino moviegoers expecting to actually see some part of the Philippines or see Filipinos in action in this film, they will be disappointed. The Philippines was mentioned but was never actually shown except for scene labels to establish the locations. There was an extra card interrupting the closing credits stating how the search for the wreck of the Indianapolis was undertaken in 2001 in cooperation with the Philippine government and National Geographic. That was all about the Philippines here, nothing more. 5/10.


August 22, 2016

Thomas Kaiser is a reclusive young man who paints art for a living. His nights were regularly interrupted by a recurring dream about a goth princess sleeping in a bed. However, whenever he goes nearer to kiss and wake her, he gets an attack of severe headaches. One day, Thomas receives news of a property called Kaiser Gardens which his recently departed uncle Clive, whom he had never met before, had bequeathed to him in his will.

On the first night Thomas spent at the house, he was actually able to kiss and awaken the girl in his dreams, who introduced herself as Briar Rose.  Since then though, Thomas would be afflicted with a strange malaise whenever he stayed out of the house for too long. Furthermore, it turns out that Linda, the realtor of the property, had more than real estate interest in the Kaiser house, as she was investigating the disappearance of her brother last seen entering the house. Together, Thomas and Linda figure out a way of finding Briar Rose and finally breaking the curse that shrouded the house.

The lead actors were relatively unknown TV actors, attractive but bland. Ethan Peck, who played Thomas, is a grandson of Gregory Peck. He started acting 1996 in unremarkable film and tv roles, but only gained prominence in 2009-2010 on the TV series "10 Things I Hate About You".  India Eisley, who played the Sleeping Beauty, was most remembered for her role on tv show "The Secret Life of an American Teenager" from 2008-2013. Natalie Hall, who played Linda, had two years on long-running daytime TV soap opera "All My Children" from 2009-2011. The best known member of the cast would be Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davison ("Longtime Companion", 1989) as paranormal investigator Richard.

Despite the cheesy sounding synopsis as written, the first half of the film was actually pretty well executed by Singaporean writer/director Pearry Reginald Teo. The atmosphere, the cinematography, the special effects were all in sync to create a creepy atmosphere of mystery, which later developed to suspense and horror. However, the end game did not really fulfill the promise of the first half. It devolved into a messy climax and a rushed open conclusion. The ending made the whole film feel like a pilot episode of a potential TV series than a full movie. 4/10

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of BEN-HUR (2016): Focus on Forgiveness

August 18, 2016

When you hear the title "Ben-Hur," you would automatically think of that  spectacular 1959 cinematic epic starring Charlton Heston in the title role. That classic film won a whopping 11 Oscar awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Actor (Heston), Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Cinematography - Color and most of the technical awards. Aside from this, there had already been a silent film version of this Lew Wallace's 1880 novel back in 1925. There had also been a TV mini-series version just recently in 2010. 

These facts begged the question: why do they even need to make yet another film retelling the at all even when there was already an iconic definitive film version? This new version is directed by Timur Bekmambetov (best known for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), with a script written by Keith Clarke and Oscar winner John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave"). Despite my misgivings that this would most probably be one foolhardy, misguided and needless fiasco, I guess it was curiosity out of anything else about how they would redo some iconic scenes with modern technology that compelled me to go see it on the big screen anyway.

The story was set in Jerusalem at around the time when Jesus Christ was still alive. Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Judean prince with his mother Naomi and sister Tirzah. His best friend Massala is a Roman orphan adopted by house of Hur, so the two boys grow up as brothers. One day, Massala felt he should prove himself and redeem his family name. He left and joined the Roman army, returning to Judea years later as an officer under the governor Pontius Pilate.  When Jewish zealots attempt to assassinate Pilate, the friendship of the two brothers was put to the extreme test.

Jack Huston had the unenviable task of stepping into the huge shoes of original actor Charlton Heston. At his prime as Ben-Hur, tall and muscular Heston looked formidable and almost superhuman. Jack Huston, a scion of the famed Huston clan of Hollywood, wisely did not try to outdo Heston in the physical aspect (which was obviously impossible). He did well by playing Ben-Hur in a distinctly more sensitive and realistic manner. He stood out from the rest of the cast in terms of screen presence, especially in the first half of the film. 

Toby Kebbell was unremarkable as Messala. He played a Messala who was dour and dull throughout the film. He lacked in physical charisma and emotional conviction, especially when compared with the Messala of the 1959 film, Stephen Boyd. He was never at any point a match for Huston's Ben-Hur.

Morgan Freeman (the only A-list actor in the cast) looked terrible with those dreadful dreadlocks he was made to wear as the African sheik Ilderim. This was the same role that Hugh Griffith won his Oscar for, and in this film the role seemed to have been expanded to suit an actor of Freeman's stature. 

British-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi as Judah's wife Esther as a strong and independent woman, not simply a suffering martyr. American Sofia Black D'Elia played Judah's sister Tirzah and award-winning Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer played his mother Naomi. The scenes involving Naomi and Tirzah were among the dramatic highlights of the 1959 film, but the impact of those scenes seemed lacking in this remake.

The look and feel of the film was familiar, reminiscent of "Gladiator." The first major scene sequence one would take note of are those set on the Roman warship where Judah was condemned to be a chained rowing slave in its galley. The sea battle of Romans vs. Greek attackers was also tense and brutal. However, the CG effects employed in these scenes were very obvious. 

The centerpiece scene in all the Ben Hur films is the big chariot racing scene pitting Judah vs. Messala. For this new film, this scene was also shot in the Cinecitta studios in Italy where the 1959 chariot race was also shot. This time, there was none of the pageantry that preceded the race proper seen in the original films, only a speech by Pilate. The chariots here were more compact and less grandiose than the ones seen before, although the horses were just as magnificent. The film crew now had the technical advantages of GoPro cameras to capture more of the frenetic action from all angles. The mixing of the bone and chariot crunching sound effects was excellent. The filmmakers supposedly did more physical stunts than CG, but the overly stylistic execution of the scene, while still exciting, sort of robbed it of grit and realism, making it look CG. 

The interaction of Judah and Esther with Jesus Christ were still packed a lot of dramatic weight. Rodrigo Santoro was a magnetic presence as Jesus Christ, a role also made more prominent in this new version, when compared to the 1959 version where the actor in the 1959 film was not even credited. The ending was totally different from the previous film. This new ending emphasized more the religious message of forgiveness and redemption. When I saw the names of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (producer of "The Bible" TV series) in the credits, I then understood where this sentiment came from. 6/10

Friday, August 12, 2016

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of PAMILYA ORDINARYO: Vicariously Visceral

August 13, 2016

Of the four Cinemalaya films I had seen so far, this one has got to be the shoo-in for Audience Choice award. All its screenings at the CCP have been sold out in advance. Its screening this afternoon at the Trinoma Cinema 2 was a blockbuster. There are no big names in the lead cast so perhaps its popularity has got to be from positive word of mouth. Its trailer alone already packed quite a punch when it went viral on social media.

Aries is 17 years old. Jane is 16 years old. They live by themselves on the dingy streets of Quiapo in Manila. They are the parents of a baby boy they named Arjan, who was just less than a month old. An intrusive gay "benefactress" named Ertha entered their lives and threw them a curveball they never saw coming. The already messed-up lives of Aries and Jane were thrown into further disarray as their fledgling parenthood are put to the ultimate test.

Ronwaldo Martin is following the lead of his elder half-brother and mainstream superstar Coco Martin who also got his start in indie films. In this Cinemalaya alone, the younger Martin is in two feature films in competition, this one and "Tuos" with Nora Aunor. His previous film where he also played lead "Ari: My Live with a King" is also on being showed under the "Festivals Best" program. His Aries is brusque, lusty and rough, just as you would expect a boy living on the street to act. 

Hasmine Killip is so new that I could not come up anything about her acting background. Yet here she is carrying this whole film so ably on her shoulders as Jane. Most of the big dramatic moments were hers and she faced them boldly and nailed them head on. Those harrowing scenes of hers walking around outside the grocery, or those uncomfortable moments she had talking to the sleazy policeman, or that heartbreaking scene of her looking through the contents of a stolen bag -- all so naturally poignant as portrayed. 

The starkly realistic performances of Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in their breakthrough roles as Aries and Jane should be the frontrunners in the race for Lead Actor and Actress. Veterans like Lou Veloso, Allen Dizon, Judy Ann Santos and even Nora Aunor herself face tough competition from these two youngsters. They actually look like the street urchins we see on the grimy sidewalks everyday. It was as if they were not acting at all. I think it is safe to say we would be seeing more of them both in more indie films in the future. 

Director Eduardo Roy Jr. creates a masterpiece of cinema verite with this feature. All the while as we watch these two foolishly callow kids trying to survive on the tough streets, we feel we are right there with them, inhaling the same grime and stench and rugby with them. Those silent CCTV footage type sequences were effectively eerie and entrancing in its documentation of criminal activity. Veteran character actors Maria Isabel Lopez, Moira Lang, Erlinda Villalobos, Menggie Cobarrubias effectively portray various despicable vultures, shamelessly picking on the helpless. 

On the debit side, I thought the whole sequence set in a subdivision outside Manila made the film feel a bit too long and was unnecessarily anticlimactic in my opinion. Anyhow, overall, "Pamilya Ordinaryo" remains to be a sobering look at the plight of teenage parents on the streets. We know there are quite a number of youth out there on the real streets in the same exact boat as Aries and Jane. In this movie though, we won't be able to look away. 9/10. 

*** UPDATE (08/14/16): Congratulations for the #Cinemalaya2016 Awards won by Pamilya Ordinaryo:  Best Film, NETPAC Award, Best Director: Eduardo Roy Jr., Best Actress: Hasmine Killip and Best Editing.

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of TUOS: Mystical and Metaphorical

August 12, 2016

Even though we do not see Superstar Ms. Nora Aunor much in mainstream movie projects, she is as busy as ever in the indie scene. She had been making more than two films a year since she starring in "Thy Womb" in 2012. As ever, a Nora Aunor movie is an event local cinephiles all look forward to, and this, her latest Cinemalaya project, is no different.

In the mountainous hinterlands of Antique, there is a tribe that lives in ancient tradition. Their respected elder is a woman they call a "binukot" -- a cloistered woman who kept the oral tradition alive by memorizing their epics and singing them on special ceremonies. The current binukot Pina-Ilog, with her head of thick floor-length gray hair, is preparing her own granddaughter Dowokan as the fair maiden chosen to be the new binukot princess. Only 15 years old and in love, Dowokan had different ideas about their traditions and defied them. The titular tuos, or pact to appease nature spirits, was about to be broken. 

Nora Aunor had very few lines in this film as Pina-Ilog. Being a weak aging woman, even her actions are limited and controlled, as we see her either confined to her bed or being carried in a basket. We see her performance mostly with her expressive face and eyes. Sometimes we may feel that Pina-Ilog was not the main character. In the end though, there was no doubt that she was. 

The bulk of the acting was on the shoulders of young Barbie Forteza. Forteza was impressive when I first saw her as Ricky Davao's daughter in "Mariquina" two Cinemalayas ago in 2014. As Dowokan, on whom the film's conflict revolved, Forteza had most of the lines and most of the screen time. She holds her own against Ms. Aunor, and was also very effective in her quiet emotional scenes.

The main highlight of this film is the breathtaking cinematography by Mycko David. From the very first scene we immediately see the lush photography of the wilderness, with rich green foliage and blue skies and running waters. This would be taken literally to greater heights during the scenes during the scenes showing how some members of the tribe go down their mountain to the town below. The adventurous camera angles, the macro nature shots, the reflections in the mirrors, the use of the color red in the native costumes were all so remarkable in its beauty. 

However, I had a problem with the seemingly rushed and unrefined execution of strange climax. It was an intense fight scene but so shadowy and unclear, so starkly different from how the rest of the film looked like. It just looked uncomfortably out of place the way it was done. Of course, it can be argued that it may have been done on purpose to emphasize the contrast of the coming transition, and I can see that too on hindsight. 

The complex script about the challenge of preservation of traditional beliefs and practices in the modern times by Denise O'Hara was written in proud Kinaray-A tongue of Antique. There were segments in the film when reality dissolved into animated fantasy in order to bring the epic poetry being sung to life. It was too bad that Ms. Aunor could not sing these verse herself. Anyhow, the vocal performance of Ms. Bayang Barrios in the soundtrack was truly haunting. Director Roderick Cabrido has succeeded to create a film of vibrant visual beauty and rare cultural depth. 8/10. 

*** UPDATE (08/14/16): Congratulations to the #Cinemalaya2016 Awards won by Tuos!
Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Musical Score,
Best Sound, Audience Choice Award (Full-Length)

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of LANDO AT BUGOY: Paternal Predicaments

August 11, 2016

Father and son relationships are tricky, especially while the boy is growing up. Based on my own personal experience, a father learns how to deal with his son by trial and error. A son is never an exact miniature version of his father, despite what others may think or say. Fatherhood is a constant struggle that every father wishes to master, but simply could not. There are simply no instant correct answers nor magic formulas to paternal success. 

Set in the picturesque island province of Camiguin and told in the Visayan language, the simple title "Lando at Bugoy" refers to a father and son with those names. They live together in the same house, just the two of them only, yet they still really do not know each other, nor can they stand one another. 

Lando is 40 years old, a high school dropout who now earns a living by carving tombstones (called "lapida" in the vernacular). His rebellious teenage son Bugoy is a delinquent student who would rather smoke and drink with his gang. One day, Lando decides to go back to school and becomes Bugoy's classmate. Will their shaky relationship take a turn for the better? or the worse?

Allen Dizon is Lando. As a performer, he had been constantly improving in the indie films I have seen him in. He had already proven his acting mettle when he won many Best Actor awards for his role in the recent Kapampangan film 'Magkakabaung". His character in that movie and in this one both have occupations that dealt with death. Impressive how he now speaks in Visayan for this one. 

As a student trying to fit in with classmates more than half of his age, Dizon can be charming or cheesy, either way, his Lando was likable. I felt his sincerity and his effort. As a father, I totally feel his frustration about his son's hostile and disrespectful attitude towards him. It would really hurt a father to hear a son shouting back at him, what more cursing him.  

Newcomer Gold Azeron was very natural in his acting as Bugoy. His role was rather one-dimensional as Bugoy was just being an angry or naughty kid for most of the film. Since he was also a titular character, it was too bad his role was not as well-molded as that of Lando.

Notable among the supporting characters was Roger Gonzales as Bugoy's father, who gets to say some pretty sensible advice about fatherhood. I was hoping He could be having more scenes with Lando and Bugoy than what he had. Special mention goes to the pretty Rachel Ann Ang Rosello as the English teacher, Ms. Emma. Her flawless English was delivered with nary a Visayan accent, which felt a little off given the very rural setting. However, she is quite disarming, especially with her scenes with Dizon.

Writer/director Victor Acedillo Jr. came up with a generally delightful slice of provincial life with this film. I liked how he tackled the various predicaments Lando had to deal with as a single father.  However, after a painstakingly-executed buildup, we get a disappointingly abrupt climax that came out of nowhere. There was big development in Bugoy's character, but we do not actually see what happened to result in this change. I wish this part was not too rushed.  

It was revealed before the end credits that this was actually inspired by a real-life story of one Camiguin teacher named Silvino Bajao. This fact made the whole film more worthwhile. 7/10. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

CINEMALAYA 2016: Review of HIBLANG ABO: Shattered Secrets

August 10, 2016

The country's premier independent film festival, the Cinemalaya, started its 12th incarnation (with the theme "Break the Surface") last August 5, 2016. However, I had not been able to watch any of the films in competition until today. As much as I had certain films in mind I wanted to watch, I would have to watch whatever was showing on the time I can go to the Trinoma Mall cinema. Because of my busy schedule at work, the unpredictable weather and the ever-worsening traffic, I would not even be able to go watch anything at all in the CCP this year.

"Hiblang Abo" tells the story of four bitter old men who shared one room in a home for the aged called "Bahay ni Juan." Huse (as spelled in the subtitles, or should it be Jose?) was a writer who used to work for the vaudeville. Blas was a labor union leader. Sotero was a farmer who always thought of his daughter Victoria. Pedro was once a vagrant picked up from the streets.  These men have dark secrets behind them which they choose not to share with their roommates ... until one fateful Palm Sunday morning.

While watching the film, it really felt like a theater play set into film. The language tended to be poetic and formal, though the action was gritty and realistic. Upon doing research after watching, it turned out that my hunch was right. "Hiblang Abo (Strands of Gray)" was indeed an award-winning three-act play written in 1980 by Rene O. Villanueva. It was first staged on September 1980 by the Gantimpala Theater Foundation at the CCP. 

The four main actors in the cast were also from the theater. They are Lou Veloso as the evasive Huse, Leo Rialp as the discontented Blas, Jun Urbano as the guilty Sotero, and Nanding Josef as the paranoid Pedro. All of them bring their theatrical A-game to the ensemble. Each actor was given his own moments to shine. The role of Mark Daclan (Cinemalaya Best Actor two years ago for "Soap Opera") may be confusing at first, but ultimately a most interesting storytelling choice.

Just last year, director Ralston Jover had two acclaimed films (both of which I was unfortunately not able to see): one about an old man, "Da Dog Show" (which earned Lou Veloso an Urian Best Actor nomination); and another about street children "Hamog" (which won Teri Malvar a Best Actress award at the Moscow Film Festival). It won't be a surprise of any of his actors here would also get an acting nod for their work here. Some technical aspects may seem off, but I usually do not nitpick on these in local indie films given their budget limitations. 

As you can probably surmise, there is more talk than action. Issues of the geriatric male are rarely tackled in films, even among indie films. In recent years, I had seen only "Bwakaw" and "Hari ng Tondo" that I can recall. The pace of "Hiblang Abo" is predictably slow and the story itself is quite a downer -- not really commercial material. However, the topic is thought-provoking, and you may recognize these cantankerous old men among your elder relatives and friends. 7/10.

*** UPDATE (08/14/16): Congratulations to the #Cinemalaya2016 Award won by Hiblang Abo:  Best Supporting Actor: Ensemble of Hiblang Abo - Jun Urbano, Lou Veloso, Leo Rialp, Nanding Josef

Monday, August 8, 2016

Review of SUICIDE SQUAD: Crazy Criminal Cacophony

August 8, 2016

The anticipation for this film is really very high. The promotion was relentless leading up to its debut this month. This is the first time in the neighborhood mall cinema that we actually saw a long line for the tickets and a full house when we watched. Initial reviews were bad, which was disappointing to hear. However, this is one of those films which people will watch whatever the reviews may be.

Following the events in "Batman V Superman," CIA official Amanda Waller assembles a team of dangerously deranged criminals under the leadership of Colonel Rick Flag to fight impossibly high risk missions for the US government. This group of elite villains consisted of sharpshooter assassin Deadshot and the beautifully crazy Harley Quinn, along with Latino pyromaniac El Diablo; Australian thief Captain Boomerang; and leather-skinned monster Killer Croc. They were joined by Flag's samurai-wielding Japanese lady bodyguard Katana.

The group first saw action when a shadowy sorceress named Enchantress brings back her giant fiery brother back to life and creates her own army of magic mutant minions to overrun Midway City. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn's equally (or more) insane paramour, the Joker, gets into the picture as he plotted to spring Harley from prison.

Easily the most memorable standout performance was that of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Her character went full circle, very well developed. She gets to deliver the best lines in the whole film. Her funny little witticisms were "vexing" (as she said) but delightfully so. Robbie managed to look very good despite being manic, unkempt and disheveled. She also pulled off her fight scenes with her trusty baseball bat. I'd call this an iconic performance of this quirky comic book character. 

Will Smith (looking cool as Deadshot) and Jay Hernandez (as El Diablo) had their dramatic moments and they were able to maximize their scenes. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje lacked viciousness as Killer Croc, and he even had "cute" lines. Jai Courtenay never really fit in any of them comfortably, this one as Captain Boomerang included. I have yet to see a role that Courtenay was actually good in. Too bad we do not really get to know their criminal backgrounds more, but that is too much to ask for a 2-hour film.

Joel Kinnaman was unconvincing, flat and unremarkable as Rick Flag. hile she seemed to be the perfect choice of actor, Viola Davis oddly lacked the heartless and guiltless strength of character I expected of Amanda Waller. I thought Cara Delevingne was miscast as the Enchantress. The awkwardly funny body movements she was doing during the climactic CGI face-off made it look like a juvenile "Ghostbusters" battle, instead of the hardcore showdown we were expecting.

Jared Leto gave us a serious and brooding Joker, a different persona for the Clown Prince of Crime. It is really hard to compete with the classic interpretations of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger for this character. Leto's screen time was too short this time to develop his Joker. In fact, he was actually just a special guest character who actually took some time and focus away from the main squad. It seems to hint that maybe he will be getting his own film with Harley in the future.

As we can already see quite clearly from the ubiquitous trailers, this David Ayer's film as a whole was stylishly rambunctious and cacophonous in its colorful visuals and alt-pop-rock soundtrack. The gun battles and various fight scenes were very energetic, with the violence so cartoonishly relentless as expected. Those berry-headed minions were as generic as they came, a weak way to prolong the "action" with no real sense of danger.

The script was clean enough to let 13 year olds into the theater, not as Rated-R as "Deadpool" was, which may disappoint some hardcore fans. As for me, lowered expectations and unfamiliarity with its comics origins made it a fun enough ride, especially with Margot Robbie there as Harley Quinn. But clearly, director Ayers could have done more radical stuff with the material he had on hand. 6/10. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review of BAD MOMS: Crusade Against Convention

August 4, 2016

The sleazy local poster of this movie did not look promising at all. I don't know if Mila Kunis even knew she would wind up on such an embarrassing poster layout, wearing unflattering black lingerie like this. Anyhow, I like Mila Kunis and I watch her films. Yes, even the maligned "Jupiter Ascending," I watched and liked. So, I also watched this one even though I had my apprehensions given the title and poster.

Amy Mitchell is trying her best to be a perfect working mom. She gives all her energy and time catering to all the meals, needs, homework and busy schedules of her two spoiled kids, Jane and Dylan.  After one particularly disastrous day of failing to juggle her many responsibilities, she still had to attend a so-called emergency PTA meeting organized by the overbearing Gwendolyn, only to find out it was just about a bake sale. Frustrated, Amy walks out. Together with her new friends (liberated single mom Carla and mousy stay-at-home mom Kiki), she decided to stop being a slave to an unrealistic ideal of maternal perfection, and just be what other people may call a "bad mom". 

Mila Kunis here reminded me of Cameron Diaz and her own raunchy film "Bad Teacher" (MY REVIEW). Like Diaz, Kunis was able to rise above the craziness of her flawed character and make her delightful and likable. Of course, while Diaz's Ms. Halsey was really a lazy nutcase, Kunis's Amy was a good overly-caring mom to begin with, who just felt she needed to rebel against conventional norms and expectations of modern-day motherhood.

Kristen Bell played Kiki, a harassed mother of four toddlers, a sweet shrinking-violet easily cowed by her demanding husband. Of course, her "Frozen" fans will be surprised as to the shocking things their beloved Princess Anna would get to say in here. Kathryn Hahn played Carla, the loud and sex-starved mother of one hulking teenage boy. She's been around for a while, but I think her role here is her biggest so far. She stole her scenes with her strong screen presence and risque lines.  

Christina Applegate played Gwendolyn, a "Mean Girl" who grew up to be a "Mean Mom." I was surprised to see Jada Pinkett-Smith in a much smaller role as Stacy, one of Gwendolyn's minions. Completing their trio is Annie Mumulo as Vicky, who seemed tempted by Amy's cool hip ways, as compared to Gwendolyn's straight-laced bitchiness.

Only one man gets a positive picture painted in this feministic film. He is Jessie (played by Jay Hernandez), a good-looking and buff widower dad all the moms are fawning over. However, the other men here were shown to be jerks. They are either losers, like Amy's husband Mike (played by David Walton); or ungrateful, like Amy's boss Dale (played by Clark Duke); or controlling, like Kiki's husband Kent (played by Lyle Brocato); or wimpy, like Jane's soccer coach Craig (played by JJ Watt); or spineless, like school principal Burr (played by Wendell Pierce).

Being written and directed by the same two guys who wrote "The Hangover" (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore), there were sex jokes galore, including an entire uncomfortably prolonged scene about the uncircumcised penis. There were plenty of scenes and references about alcohol and weed. Having a lot of profanity in the script is probably the least of these naughty offenses. All in the spirit of fun, I understand, but still this type of comedy may not sit well with some sensitive folk (who should have known already what to expect from a film like this in the first place.)

However, under all of these raunchiness, this film actually had an insightful, liberating and poignant message to moms of all types. I could definitely see the connection to what my own wife goes through daily as dictated by our children's schedules in their school, their sports, their tutors, and their extra-curricular activities. If she could tolerate the spicy language and green humor enough to reach the final act, I am sure she (and other mothers) would totally identify and appreciate the female-empowering sentiments of this film far more deeply than any man or non-mom ever could. The surprise extra over the closing credits was a precious bonus. 7/10.

By the way, this one below is the US poster. As you can see, it is far less raunchy than the poster we got here locally.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review of THE SHALLOWS: Surfing with a Shark

August 2, 2016

Shark movies are a distinct film genre of its own. Of course, Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975) is a classic against which all other shark movies will be compared with. Its minimalistically suspenseful musical score by John Williams is iconic. Some, like "Deep Blue Sea" (1999) or "Open Water" (2003), were good. But many of them wind up in the "so bad they're good" category, with schlocky titles like "Sharktopus" (2010) or "Jersey Shore Shark Attack" (2012).

When I saw the first teaser of "The Shallows" earlier this year, it surprised me that they are releasing another shark film, a serious one this time. The beach scenery and Blake Lively are looking mighty fine. When they showed the full trailer in the past month, I was concerned that they might have already given the whole story away. Anyhow, because of very good advanced word about the film, I still decided to give it a go.

Nancy Adams dropped out of med school in frustration following a family tragedy. She visits a beautiful secret unnamed beach in Mexico to go surfing and chill out from the stresses in her life. By day's end, she was left alone in the open water trapped on a rock with an injured seagull to keep her company. An angry great white shark kept swimming in circles around her rock, hellbent on having her for dinner. Can she survive?

As much as this was a shark film, this was also a solo survival film in the vein of "Cast Away" (with Tom Hanks) or "All is Lost" (with Robert Redford). This film is practically a one-woman show for actress Blake Lively, who gives a remarkable performance in a role both physically and emotionally exhausting. With only the orange string bikini and rash guard she had on, Lively was able to toe that balance between helplessness and resourcefulness with credibility and realistic resolve. I liked the way she talks to herself to tell us her thoughts.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra was able to create an atmosphere of relentless action and tension, as he intercuts exhilarating surface shots and treacherous underwater scenes to great effect. The shark special effects were amazingly executed to achieve full-on terror, especially when it was on the attack. The energetically haunting musical score by Marco Beltrami contributed a lot to the suspense and dread of impending danger. "The Shallows" was a lot more than just the shark. It more than fulfilled my expectations for a film of its particular genre. 8/10.