Monday, January 30, 2017

Review of THE GREAT WALL: Reptilian Ridiculousness

January 29, 2017

The topic of this film interested me a lot -- the Great Wall of China. I had my apprehensions about Matt Damon being one of the lead stars of a film about ancient China, but that did not stop my interest in seeing it. The fact that this was director Zhang Yimou's first English language film added to the interest. I purposely did not read up on what this movie was about, nor did I see any full trailers about it before going to watch. That ignorance about the plot turned out to be a big mistake.

English mercenary William Garin was in China looking for the fabled and precious "black powder" used to make powerful weapons. They were captured and taken prisoner by brightly color-coded Chinese troops the Nameless Order, an army who trained their whole lives to fight a massive horde of alien reptilian monsters called the Taotie which attack the kingdom every sixty years over the past 2000 years. 

Yes, you read that right -- alien reptilian monsters! I have to confess that I was totally taken by surprise by this outlandish plot.  Here I was expecting a serious historical film, and here comes something totally out of extreme left field. When I first saw those green beasts rushing towards the wall, I was in shock, in a bad way. The cartoonish computer-generated imagery of these monsters were so poorly-executed, it was comically terrible to watch. 

Matt Damon looked ill at ease during the entire duration of his screen time. I can't believe that an A-list actor of his caliber is involved in a ridiculous film like this. He never looked right as an unscrupulous murderous mercenary at all from the start. When he predictably turned hero midway, it was not surprising a bit. By then though, I was so exasperated and baffled about the things I was seeing onscreen already. Damon in heroic mode could not save it for me anymore.

OK, it was not a total bust. The Chinese aesthetics in the production and costume designs with those brightly multicolored army uniforms and display of battle skills were grandiose to witness. There were also positive Chinese ideals being espoused, particularly about trust, which was specially highlighted and reiterated. Chinese actors like Jing Tian, Andy Lau and Lu Han (formerly from EXO boyband) get big roles as heroic warriors in a Hollywood film.

However, these positives do not make up for some lousy history details (like about Chinese learning about magnets from Westerners) or that maddeningly simplistic solution to their major problem (really now --  kill one, kill all?) The big anxiety about the White Savior plot line was NOT unfounded. I am just thankful to be spared a full romantic subplot between William and Commander Lin. The hint was bad enough. 3/10. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review of ILAWOD: Scary by Sound

January 24, 2017

The career of Ian Veneracion has been on a continuous upswing since his career came back in a major way as Eduardo Buenavista to Jodi Sta. Maria's Amor Powers in the 2015 remake of the telenovela "Pangako Sa 'Yo." He is now again the most popular romantic lead actor on TV with the debut of his new telenovela "A Love to Last" with a leading lady more than 10 years his junior, Bea Alonzo. Veneracion's presence in this new indie horror "Ilawod" feature somehow gives it a sheen of prestige. 

Dennis and Kathy are happily married with two pre-teen kids Ben and Bea. Dennis is a reporter whose beat covered supernatural events. One day, after he came home from covering the exorcism of a woman possessed by an elemental in a remote rural village, strange things began happening to his family. Meanwhile, 12-year old Ben was falling for the charms of a mysterious new girl in their condo building named Isla, who was always hanging around the pool area in her white chemise. Can Dennis figure out what was wrong and reverse it before it's too late?

Having a male as the main character of a horror film is not too easy to pull off, especially if it was a macho patrician-looking guy like Ian Veneracion. He is not expected to scream or panic in the face of a ghost (and he really does not) and this could limit the sense of fear the filmmaker may be trying to build up in the audience. To his credit though, Veneracion, being a good dramatic actor, successfully conveyed the puzzled concern any father would feel in these bizarre circumstances his family is facing. He never really experienced any direct frights from the evil spirit. His horror was watching his family unravel.

As Kathy, Iza Calzado was made to do very strange things like sweat in a cold air-conditioned room, stand on the edge of the rooftop of a building and walk across her bedroom naked to romance her sleeping husband. None of these strange occurrences were even brought up ever again. The only character who actually sees a ghost was actually the youngest child Bea, portrayed by child actress Xyriel Manabat. While she did do her best to act, all the script required her to do it seems was mainly to look spooked, look puzzled or cry, which did not do her talent justice.

New child actor Harvey Bautista was actually quite effective as Ben, the target of the spirit. He had a natural swagger about him, aloof and distant, as his character should be. Isla was played by 16-year old Therese Malvar. Malvar had already won Best Actress in a filmfest over Nora Aunor, so you can imagine how powerful an actress this young lady is, even with very little dialog and only her face and eyes to do the acting. The seduction scenes between Ben and Isla were most uncomfortable to see because of an electric sexual charge that ran through them. This was very disturbing because the characters (and the actors) were minors, especially that shower scene with the toe curling bits. 

Rom-com master Dan Villegas tackles the horror genre for the first time here. There were actually only very few scenes with actual horrific images on screen. Mainly, it was the soundtrack that created the atmosphere of horror in this film. The sound work by Mikko Quizon and Jason Cunanan and the eerie musical score by Emerzon Texon were responsible for giving that distinct tone of horror into what was basically a family drama with supernatural aspects. The character onscreen may simply just be walking around, sleeping or typing on a computer, but the creepy score was relentless in its atmosphere of foreboding even if there was nothing really happening.

As I understood from that single line that defined what an Ilawod was, it was an elemental from the undertow of a river, as opposed to Ilaya from the surface flow. It was a bit disappointing that there was not much information about the Ilawod folklore apart from that definition. Dennis did not seem to do anything overtly wrong that made the spirit so mad at him. I could only surmise that probably in that moment when he made eye contact with her during that exorcism scene, the Ilawod was smitten with him -- and you know how irresistible Ian Veneracion's penetrating gaze could be for any woman. 6/10. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review of LIVE BY NIGHT: Stoic and Staid

January 22, 2017

As I have mentioned before, I am not a fan of Ben Affleck's acting. I thought his best performance when when he played a BAD actor in "Shakespeare in Love". He has had better luck as a director with excellent results in "Gone Baby Gone" (2007), "The Town" (2010) and especially "Argo" (2012) which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. I was almost discouraged by the long running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, but the period look of the trailer looked very intriguing so I took the bait.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, "Live By Night" tells the turbulent life and times of Joe Coughlin, a young man of Irish descent who chose to lead a criminal life despite being the son of a Boston police captain. The film recounts his run-ins with various gangster lords, their henchmen, the police as well as his establishment of his own crime organization in Florida under threat from the Ku Klux Klan and religious fanatics. Amidst this criminal activity, Joe had romantic liaisons with the spirited moll Emma in Boston and the elegant Cuban lady Graciela in Ybor City.  

There is no doubt that the whole film looked great on the big screen. The cinematography by Robert Richardson had that nostalgic filter to augment the period atmosphere in which this film was set. The excellent period production design, costumes and hairstyles definitely brought us back to the the roaring 1920s. The technical aspects of those graphic scenes of mayhem and violence were also very realistically executed. These frenetic action scenes were really the life of this film.

I felt Ben Affleck falters not only as actor (not really a surprise); but disappointingly, also as director (especially coming from an acclaimed film like "Argo"). As director he was not able to make the long story more engaging for the audience to follow. The film tread on familiar gangster grounds and offered little more than the additional viciousness of the violence. As actor, Affleck was as dull as his stoic monotonous character. His supporting actors -- Brendan Gleeson (as his father), Chris Messina (as his sidekick) Sienna Miller (as Emma), Zoe Saldana (as Graciela) and Elle Fanning (as a zealot) -- get to liven things up more than Affleck did. 6/10.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Review of xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE: Trifling Thrills

January 22, 2017

The first "xXx" film was shown in 2002. We got introduced to Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), a skilled professional athlete of multiple extreme sports who gets recruited into being an operative for the National Security Agency by Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) under the xXx program. Reviews about this film was mixed, but it was a box office success.

The second film in the series was shown in 2005, with the subtitle of "State of the Union." However, Diesel dropped out of the project because he did not like the script. This resulted in the cinematic death of his character Cage and the introduction of a new xXx spy Darius Stone (Ice Cube). This sequel was a major disaster both critically and at the box office. 

So it took 12 long years and getting Vin Diesel back again to resurrect the franchise this year. By this time now, Vin Diesel had already generated significant goodwill in his other action film franchises, so I am sure his stunts here will be very good. That Caramoan was mentioned as a featured location is a plus. For me though, it was the casting of my favorite Asian actor Donnie Yen made it imperative for me to catch this one. 

A device called "Pandora's Box," which was capable of causing satellites to crash back into earth, was stolen from the CIA. One of these crashed satellites caused the death of Augustus Gibbons. CIA agent Jane Marke found Xander Cage, who apparently just faked his death and was hiding in exile in the Caribbean, and convinced him to get the box back from the thieves, led by rogue spies Xiang and Serena. 

Vin Diesel may look and act the same way in all his films, but his presence is a guarantee of awesome stunts and action scenes. "Return of Xander Cage" is no different. Cage would be skiing and skateboarding in separate breathtaking sequences within the first twenty minutes. Then throughout the rest of the film, we would also see him top those with even cooler stunts hanging ten in a pipeline wave on a motorcycle and free-falling out of a crashing cargo jet without a parachute. Unbelievable, yes, but because it's Vin Diesel, we believe it!

I am so happy to see Chinese superstar Donnie Yen in his second consecutive Hollywood blockbuster after "Rogue One." As Xiang, Yen of course gets to figure in several scenes doing what he does best -- elegant, rapid-fisted martial arts, among other stunts. I wish he got to do more though. Indian superstar Deepika Padukone played Serena, a beautiful and dangerous gunfighter. This is Padukone's Hollywood debut and I thought her turn here is very strong, even if her role was not too challenging for her talents, and she even had to fall for Diesel's irresistible charms.

Three more actresses play notable female characters. Nina Dobrev plays Rebecca "Becky" Clearidge mostly as comic relief, and she is indeed a nerdy delight. Ruby Rose was badass as the lesbian sharpshooter Adele Wolff with the sharp witty tongue. Toni Collette was a very bossy Jane Marke, campy arched eyebrows and all. Everyone in the cast all knew that they were playing over-the-top characters and they knew well to play them with tongue in cheek, all in the spirit of fun.

This film does not claim to be intellectual and it should not be judged for its shallow script. You do not even need to see the first two xXx films.This is pure adrenaline-powered fun so it essentially succeeds in its modest aims. Compared to the other major Diesel-led franchise, "Fast and the Furious", this one should be its poorer cousin, played entirely for brainless entertainment and nothing else. Those obviously special-effects aided action scenes may well be too ridiculously impossible to be real, but don't let that bother you. Simply suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the ride.   7/10.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review of SPLIT: Dangerously Dissociative

January 18, 2017

M. Night Shyamalan earned phenomenal success writing and directing "The Sixth Sense" in 1999, which even earned him Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. Since then though, he never quite achieved the same kind of excellence again. Even if his name still generated interest, his last six films all earned generally lousy reviews. His latest film though had a striking and promising trailer with potent acting by James McAvoy. I simply had to check it out.

Three teenage girls,  Claire, Marcia and Casey were abducted in broad daylight after a party. Their captor Kevin (James McAvoy) terrorizes them as he transforms into different personalities every time he sees them -- a obsessive-compulsive fellow, a fussy female, a a 9-year old Kanye West fanboy. The girls need to escape before the impending appearance of his most dangerous persona about to take over Kevin totally.

The dungeon scenes were interrupted with scenes showing Kevin consulting his psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher. She was played by a wonderful Betty Buckley, whom I have not seen onscreen since her days as the stepmom on TV's "Eight is Enough" in the late 1970s. There were also some bizarre scenes about Casey (an emo Anya Taylor-Joy) recalling her experiences as a five-year old girl (Izzie Leigh Coffey) learning how to hunt with her father. They mainly serve to establish Casey's distant personality and unusual capabilities, as well as add further tension.

As can be predicted for a film about Dissociative Identity Disorder, the role of Kevin Crumb is an acting showcase for James McAvoy. This psychological condition had already resulted in acting awards and nominations for several actors like Joanne Woodward ("Three Faces of Eve"), Sally Field ("Sibyl") and Edward Norton ("Primal Fear"). McAvoy played these personality shifts distinctly and smoothly, without really going overboard -- until the beastly chaos in the climax. There was an amazing scene where McAvoy was changing from one personality to several others in one long continuous take.    

M. Night Shyamalan definitely recovers a lot of lost ground with this eerie claustrophobic masterpiece of dread and suspense. He makes full use of his underground maze of dingy windowless rooms to create heart-stopping tension; with skillful editing (by Luke Franco Ciarrocchi) and atmospheric musical scoring (by West Dylan Thordson). Stay up to the very last frame for one last surprise before the credits roll. 

Admittedly, the pacing and length could have been more streamlined in the second act as things may tend to feel a bit repetitive. But overall, this was a step in the right direction for Shyamalan which I hope will be sustained in his next projects. 7/10.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review of PATRIOTS DAY: Boston Brave

January 12, 2017

This film was called "Patriots Day" because it was on this holiday that the Boston Marathon is held, and on a particularly fateful one in 2013, a deadly bombing marred the festivities. For us on this side of the world, all we know just the basic facts. Bombs were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon causing multiple casualties and deaths. It turns out that there was so much more about that event to tell.

Before Patriots Day, we get to meet the various characters who would get involved in the drama of the coming events. The role of the several policemen was obvious. There were a couple of suspicious looking guys you immediately recognize as the bombers. You can surmise that maybe the others would be the victims. However as the film went along, there were some characters introduced would not even be in the vicinity of the bombs at all. That was part of the engaging appeal of this narrative style -- how these various pieces of the puzzle fit into the story.

Mark Wahlberg can really play these working class heroes very well. It is quite apparent that Wahlberg's character Officer Tommy Saunders is not based on a real person, because no person with that name was shown in the montage of survivors shown at the end. In fact, he is the lead actor yet he plays a fictional character, which was odd for a true-to-life film. I don't know why there was a big focus on his bad knee as it did not really matter in the whole scheme of things.

JK Simmons, John Goodman and Kevin Bacon play the other true-to-life officials in this drama, leading the efforts to get to the bottom of things. These veteran actors know this territory like the back of their hands. Alex Wolff and Georgian actor Themo Melikidze play the Tsarnaev brothers. These two actors eerily looking like the real bombers, it was uncanny. A surprise was the hardly-recognizable Melissa Benoist plays Katherine Russell, the wife of the elder Tsarnaev brother. No trace at all of how we know her as Supergirl on TV. Her highlight was that high-tension interrogation scene with an intense female officer played by Khandi Alexander. 

Director Peter Berg shows the brutality of the bombs in terms of blood and injuries, just enough to make you flinch away. He then pays tribute to the quick response of the police and paramedics. The area was secured and the ambulances were bringing victims to the hospital within an incredible five minutes after the blast. Berg makes full use of the suspense during the investigation phase of the various cooperating agencies, with the analysis of the various CCTV footage from the stores around the explosion site. 

I never knew that the two suspects hijacked the Mercedes SUV of Chinese immigrant Dun Meng as their getaway car. I also did not know that there was a major gunfights with bombs thrown right there on a street in Boston between the police and the two terrorists. I did not know that the Mayor of Boston actually shut down the whole city keeping everyone indoors during the manhunt. These were the aspects were the most exciting part of the film, building up to the cornering of the bomber who was hiding inside a tarped rowboat, the conclusion I knew from before.

My thoughts raced to another Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg disaster film that I just watched recently -- "Deepwater Horizon." I thought this one would be similar in the sense that there is going to be one destructive explosion at one point and Wahlberg gets to play the hero to save the day. However, I was wrong to judge this new one too quickly. There was so much more in store for us who do not know the complete story. The whole story about the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath turned out to be very rich, tense, exciting, dramatic and emotional.  7/10. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review of LA LA LAND: Dreams and Disenchantments

January 11, 2017

This is one of the most acclaimed films for the awards season of 2016. It had been topping various critics lists for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress and even most of the technical awards, like Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Musical Score and even Original Song. During the Golden Globe Awards given out just two days ago, it won all seven of its seven nominations. I am very excited to watch this.

The trailers of this original musical film have been truly mesmerizing. There was one with a beautiful song sung by Ryan Gosling, and then one with a another beautiful song sung by Emma Stone. Still I had no idea what the story was going to be about, except that it was probably going to be a love story, and with the images you see, you get the feeling that this was going to be really good. Great trailers really tease like this -- they get you very interested in a film, without giving the whole story away. 

We get a song and dance number about "Another Day in the Sun" right off the bat at the opening scene set in a traffic jam along an LA freeway. Mia Dolan is an aspiring actress and writer, who works as a barista in a cafe inside the Warner Brothers lot. Sebastian Wilder is all about jazz, being a down-an-out but talented jazz pianist and jazz memorabilia collector. After a rough start, the two eventually fall in love. Their relationship would face challenges as their respective careers each get opportunities to prosper.

The basic love story may be very simple, but the script of director Damien Chazelle was written so richly in both humor and emotion. As we have seen in his previous critically-acclaimed film "Whiplash," Chazelle's love for jazz music is still very much evident here. The jazzy musical score by Justin Hurwitz can very moody yet invigorating at the same time, and I am not exactly a fan of this musical genre. There was a throwback feel in the dancing scenes (by choreographer Mandy Moore) like it was one of those 1950s musicals, with tap-dancing in "A Lovely Night" and ballroom dancing in "Planetarium."

Emma Stone imbues her Mia with just the right amount of quirkiness and verve. She is able to make us feel for her with her face and eyes alone, from that first humorous audition scene, that scene in the concert of "The Messengers" band, right up to that final closeup of hers. Her singing voice is airy and light, just right for the songs given her to sing, especially her musical highlight "The Fools Who Dream" in her second audition scene.

Ryan Gosling charmingly brings the frustrated serious jazz artist Sebastian to life. He certainly looked really fantastic in those intense piano playing scenes. Co-star pianist John Legend (as Seb's friend Keith) remarked in an interview that he was jealous how Gosling became so good in piano in such a short time. Gosling carried himself off like Gene Kelly in those romantic dance scenes. He gets to sing the award-winning song "City of Stars" which can seriously give you last song syndrome. Multi-talented guy indeed.

Stone and Gosling had been together onscreen before in "Crazy Stupid Love" (2011) and "Gangster Squad" (2013), and the chemistry between them was simply electric this third time around. This whole film depended on their romantic chemistry to work and fortunately it did so wonderfully. It is difficult to imagine the original casting choices of Miles Teller and Emma Watson as Seb and Mia because of their younger ages and still unproven chemistry

At first, the title sounded so odd for me. But after watching, you'd realize that it not only refers to Los Angeles the setting, but also to the dreams of the characters detached from tough realities of show business. Chazelle did well to create a nostalgic classic feel even with a current story line, with a refreshing lack of sex and violence and the spectacular use of the CinemaScope lens system (which had its heyday in the 50s and 60s). The dramatic contrast of "what is" and "what could have been" was eloquently addressed in a sparkling montage with the smoldering backdrop of "Mia and Sebastian's Theme". 

Admittedly there were some cliched situations in the story, but I thought these were forgivable in the overall view. The look and the music were really what made this film special. I really liked it a lot, and I am ready to watch it all over again. This is indeed a serious contender for the Best Picture Oscar 2016 and I am looking forward to its win. 9/10. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

My Yearend Roundup: The BEST FILIPINO FILMS of 2016 That I Have Seen

January 9, 2017

For the year 2016, I was able to watch 28 Filipino films (up from 17 in 2015).  However, it had not been easy for me to catch the difficult screening schedules of the various indie film fests this year. I totally missed the CineFilipino in March, the Sinag Maynila in April and the ToFarm in July. I saw only 1 out of the 6 entries in the World Premieres in June; 4 out of 9 in the Cinemalaya in August; only 3 out of 8 entries from the QCinema in October; only 2 out of 7 entries in the CinemaOne Originals in November; and 4 out of the 8 entries from the December MMFF. (There are a couple of films in this year-end list which had their premieres in 2015 film festivals, but I only caught their commercial runs in 2016, and these are noted accordingly.)

Honorable Mentions:

15. Malinak Ya Labi (My Full Review) - directed by Jose Abdel Langit

14. Echorsis (My Full Review) - directed by Lemuel Lorca

13. Saving Sally (My Full Review) - directed by Avid Liongoren

12. Women of the Weeping River (My Full Review) - directed by Sheron R. Dayoc

11. Tandem (My Full Review) - directed by King Palisoc 
(** premiered at the MMFF New Wave 2015, but I caught its commercial run in 2016)

Counting down my Top 10 Filipino Films of 2016 that I have seen:

10. Hinulid (My Full Review)

What we saw on that big screen was a complex masterpiece of abstract film art. Nothing was simple about this film, everything seemed on an otherworldly plane, only occasionally resting on solid ground for us to get our bearings straight. The whole film felt like a vivid dream floating in the subconscious of a mother struggling to deal with the death of her only beloved son. Spoken in Ms. Nora Aunor's native Bikol language, the whole script by director Kristian Sendon Cordero was written like poetry. It sounded like poetry the way the lines were delivered in very deliberate and measured manner. There was never a shallow line, as everything seemed to have a deeper meaning.

9. Die Beautiful (My Full Review)

Writer-director Jun Robles Lana tried to stuff all the issues faced by transgenders from as children, teenagers and adults. These include father conflicts, sibling apathy, sexual assault, shallow relationships, child adoption, and plastic surgery. In addition, there loads and loads of hilarious inside stories behind gay beauty pageants. To top it all off, there were those scenes featuring the fantastic makeup sessions of Paolo Ballesteros as his famous viral photos of celebrity transformations come alive. His Angelina, Julia, Britney, Mariah, and Regine are all so vividly recognizable and gorgeous. 

8. Ma' Rosa (My Full Review)

The story about corrupt policemen and drug addicts may be old-hat, but the performances were not.  Jaclyn Jose won Best Actress at Cannes with such a controlled performance. There was no big, typically award-bait hysterical scene. In fact, her best scenes were wordless. Ms. Jose imbued these seemingly ordinary scenes with uncommonly deep and passionate underlying emotion so well-communicated by her eyes. She raised the commonplace and prosaic to a higher level, and with her, up went the rest of the film. The well-chosen images of Brillante Mendoza realistically establish the squalor, the apathy, the greed and the desperation in which his film was set and where his characters wallow.

7. Seklusyon (My Full Review)

Eric Matti deserved his Best Director award, his second in a row after last year's "Honor Thy Father". He created the perfect atmosphere of dread and demonic presence with the impressive and award-winning cinematography and production design. Anton Santamaria's award-winning script did waver a bit at certain points when it comes to story telling. Even without its supernatural elements though, this film's cautionary message about false prophets and how they work insidiously within our midst is always pertinent among the common masses easily swayed by superstition and fanaticism.

6. Tuos (My Full Review)

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. Nora Aunor could not sing these verses 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. 

5. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (My Full Review)

This film is 8-hours long. As with the previous Lav Diaz films I have seen, I thought the main story of this film could have been told in maybe a couple of hours, even with all those separate threads. Apparently, merely telling the story is not what Diaz had in mind. We spent interminable minutes were spent simply staring at an injured Simoun trying to get up, or Isagani meditating on a cliffside, or Oryang searching through debris in a pond, or Karyo's non-stop coughing fits, or Hule crawling in the mud (a most beautiful scene for which Ms. Africa should be cited for an award), or Basilio's fruitless digging (even Diaz forgot about him when the film ended). What I am sure of though is that I have witnessed a film masterpiece unfolding brimming with symbolism I am unable to grasp all at once. 

4. Pamilia Ordinario (My Full Review)

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. The starkly realistic performances of Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in their breakthrough roles as Aries and Jane actually look like the street urchins we see on the grimy sidewalks everyday. It was as if they were not acting at all. The film is 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.

3. Ignacio de Loyola (My Full Review)

Writer-director Paolo Dy had written an excellent distillation of life highlights based on the autobiography of the saint himself. The first half may feel slow on the build up, but it escalated its pace steadily and surely. By the second half that detailed his spiritual transformation, the words were so beautifully written and so inspirational to listen to. You may worry a religious film like this may be boring, but this was not. It was engaging, and got better as the film went on. Dy did very well for his ambitious directorial debut for a film of such epic scope. His telling of this sprawling story managed to be generally clear in its focus. The second half is very wordy and philosophical, but Dy was able to execute and present this part in a fascinating manner, which was a very pleasant surprise. 

2. Ang Babaeng Humayo (My Full Review)

This was a more accessible Lav Diaz work being just under four hours. It had a clear-cut and concrete story line about social injustice, the initial premise of which was inspired by Leo Tolstoi's short story entitled "God Sees the Truth But Waits". I think this film could probably have gone on for a few more hours if Diaz wanted to since there could still be some issues to explore, but he chose not to anymore. This story could have been done as an outright revenge thriller, but in Lav Diaz's hands it became film art.  Ms. Charo Santos as the tomboyish Renata clearly channeled the iconic action star Fernando Poe Jr., which was quite delightful to watch. John Lloyd Cruz's performance as the damaged transgender Hollanda was truly riveting. 

And my #1 Filipino movie of 2016 is... (** premiered in QCinema Filmfest 2015, but I only caught its commercial run in 2016)

1. Anino sa Likod ng Buwan (My Full Review)

The year is 1993, in a place called Marag Valley, where there was a civil war between soldiers and militant rebels. Nardo and wife Emma are among those forcefully uprooted from their homes and brought to live in another place by the military. However, they eventually met and made friends with a genial soldier named Joel. One night marked by a lunar eclipse, Joel visited Nardo and Emma. They start by playing card games. As the night progressed, the visit eventually progresses to comparing notes and surprise revelations, leading to philosophical discussions about the armed conflict, charismatic leaders, their friendship and sex. 

Writer-director Jun Robles Lana reaches an artistic peak with "Anino." The three play poker in the first act, foreshadowing the element of cunning and strategy which will be expertly unfolded in the course of the film. The notorious 15-minute sex scene may seem gratuitous, yet it was also symbolically necessary on hindsight. Despite the uncommercial look and language, the audience will definitely be riveted into this tale of charades and conspiracy within this triumvirate of flawed and duplicitous characters. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review of PASSENGERS: Expediency and Ethics

January 8, 2016

There are 5000 people from planet Earth hibernating on board the spaceship called the Avalon. They are going to wake up in 120 years on another planet, a utopia colony called Homestead II. Thirty years in its journey, the Avalon collides with a comet in its path. The damage causes a system malfunction causing one unfortunate passenger, engineer Jim Preston, to wake up 90 years ahead of schedule. A year later, by circumstances of a different nature, a writer Aurora Lane also wakes up.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are proven lead actors who have massive box-office hits under their respective belts. There is no doubt about their charisma as movie stars. Here in "Passengers," they have the unenviable task of carrying the whole movie practically all by themselves as they are the only people awake on board a spaceship headed for doom. We have seen this space castaway scenario very recently in films like "Gravity" and "The Martian" so this is not really a film concept anymore.

What made "Passengers" unique was the remarkable production design of a futuristically-designed spacecraft which floats through space like a intergalactic self-contained cruise ship with all the luxury comforts on board, all at a push of a button. The hologram hostesses were mouthing pre-recorded lines but were also seemingly capable of answering questions when asked. The congenial android bartender Arthur (played by Michael Sheen) would seem to be a good adviser and listener, and a source of gossip.

As in previous sci-fi films, there will be physics majors who may be watching out for scientific accuracy. While I am not that nitpicky about the science, the scene which made me think is when the ship lost gravity and the whole swimming pool contents floated out as one big blob of water with the person swimming trapped inside unable to break through to the surface and breathe. I have no idea if that is actually what happens or not, but anyhow that scene looked fantastic!

The film as whole had a languid pace and a lot of talking. It may feel too slow and dragging at certain points. The final act was exciting to watch, even though it can be predictable and annoyingly too conveniently good to be true. The ethical dilemmas encountered by the characters were excruciating to contemplate upon. Frankly, it is just the good will and charm of the two lead stars that keep the audience interest going until the end. 7/10. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review of SING: The Concert's the Charm!

January 6, 2017

The Moon Theater owned by koala Buster Moon is facing financial troubles. To save the theater, Buster thought of a singing competition. Because of a major clerical error on the amount of prize money on the fliers, the contest attracted a huge number of auditionees representing various musical genres. From the auditions, Buster chose a varied cast of talented performers. 

Rosita is a housewife sow who is chosen to sing and dance in a number with the flamboyant boar Gunther. Mike is a gambling street musician mouse who sang jazz standards. Johnny is a gangster-in-training gorilla who sang with silky smooth soul. Ash is a rock princess porcupine who broke up with her less-talented and two-timing boyfriend to perform solo. Meena is a timid elephant Meena who had a voice like a diva, but suffered from crippling stage fright.

This new film from Illumination gives us yet another world of anthromorphic animals, like "Kung Fu Panda 3", "Angry Birds Movie" and "Zootopia" did earlier this year. Compared to the quality of the illustrations in similarly 3D computer animated "Zootopia," the artwork of "Sing" was rather more simplistic and less textured. Anyhow, there were impressive work on the background artwork on the theater and the stage. That squid tank scene was spectacular to behold.

Matthew McConaughey was an optimistic shyster businessman as Buster, but too bad we only heard a brief hint of him singing a Carly Rae Jepsen ditty. Reese Witherspoon played Rosita as a harried but efficient mother of 25 piglets, with her rhythm hidden by her fastidiousness. Seth McFarlane had the tough guy attitude we knew about his as raunchy teddy bear Ted, but I was pleasantly surprised by his slick Sinatra vocals. 

Taron Egerton never gave us a clue in his breakout film "Kingsman" that he can sing like Sam Smith and Elton John -- amazing singing voice really! I was also unaware that Scarlett Johannson can also sing so well, and with that sexy rock growl to boot. 2010 American Idol reject-turned-2015 Grammy Best New Artist nominee Tori Kelly was another welcome discovery for me with her powerful rendition of soul classics. 

Jennifer Hudson had a small but remarkable role as the singing voice of Nana Noodleman, the glorious black sheep diva who inspired Buster to develop a lifelong love for theater. Ms. Nana's speaking voice was done by Jennifer Saunders, who did not get to sing here even if she already showed off her singing talent as the evil Fairy Godmother in "Shrek 2". Veteran actor John C. Reilly took on a smaller role as Eddie, Nana's grandson and Buster's business partner, also non-singing, even if he already showed that he can sing in "Chicago". 

Despite all these good things about the film, I did not really like a big part of it. I don't really mind the childish foolishness for which Illumination films are known for. But there were a lot of mean-spirited crime going on throughout the first two-thirds-- fraud and racketeering, bank robbery, casino cheating, thuggery and gangsterism -- unpleasant fare for me in a Rated G animated film. I did not like this aspect of the film.

Frankly, I only truly loved the film during its final one third -- the concluding concert! Those song numbers were really very well-executed and this part certainly saved the whole film for me, making everything else worthwhile. Rosita and Gunter's "Shake It Off" was so delightful, with her cute piglets and romantic aftermath. Johnny's "I'm Still Standing" was electrifying and that moment with his Dad was precious. Meena's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" left me breathless in awe, I wanted to stand up and applaud. Really, for that concert scene alone -- bravo!  7/10. 

MMFF 2016: Review of SAVING SALLY: Freedom from the Friendzone

January 7, 2017

The last animated film that I recall from the MMFF was "RPG Metanoia" back in 2010 and that was very good. For being a live-action animated film, it was no big surprise that "Saving Sally" was met with much excitement and anticipation when it was announced as one of the entries in the current Metro Manila Filmfest. 

"Saving Sally" is a labor of love 10 years in the making in terms of filming by director Avid Liongoren, but the concept by writer Charlene Sawit began 5 years earlier in 2000. Funding and technical problems hounded the film until a grant from the French government resuscitated the project. There was also French technical assistance in the sound department, but everything else (including the 2D animation) was all Filipino.

Marky is an amateur comic book writer-artist. He is head over heels in love with the eccentric techie beauty Sally. However, she is in love with a hunky older man, Nick, whom Marky called "The Dick". Pushed into the dreaded friend-zone, Marky continues to pine for Sally's affection by constantly being there for her, especially when she needed to be saved from her physically abusive parents. 

Marky sees everyone whom he does not like as monsters, which of course includes Nick, which is drawn as a pea-brained musclebound cyclops. There were lots of hidden pop references in the background, not everything I could catch in one sitting. Batibot and Sandara Park were the most obvious ones. All those still drawings by Marky's hand all looked so cool in their distinctive style. I want to see and read a copy of the "Book of Sad" that Marky gave Sally, and that wonderful pop-up "Book of Happy" given by Sally in return.

The most magical moment of animation for me was in that scene when Sally inadvertently uncovers the wall where Marky posted all his drawings of Sally. The interaction of the individual drawings with the live actors in that scene was just enthralling, beautiful and moving in its sweet and emotionally-rich execution. 

Enzo Marcos channels his inner Jesse Eisenberg or Joseph Gordon Levitt in his portrayal of the talented, earnest but painfully shy geek Marky. Rhian Ramos is gorgeous as Sally even if she tried to look butch and nerdy. TJ Trinidad was so slimy and vain as Nick. I wish he did not have to say those bad words though, not cool. I really liked the portrayal of Carme Sanchez as Marky's delightfully supportive mom. 

The story is a simple teenage romance. The poster did say it was a "very typical love story." It is really the radical and humorous artwork that sets this film apart from the others of the same genre. The quality of Filipino animation is still in progress, and "Saving Sally" is a step in the right direction. The major characters spoke in English which was refreshing for a Filipino film, with the supporting characters occasionally piping in a line in Filipino to remind us that this is still a Filipino film after all. 7/10. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review of COLLATERAL BEAUTY: Connecting with Catharsis

January 5, 2017

This film had been receiving very bad reviews since it was shown Stateside last month. It was notoriously the worst opening weekend box office performance of any Will Smith film. However, when I got to the mall this afternoon, this was the only film that fit my limited schedule, so reluctantly I went in to give it a chance.

Howard Inlet is a very successful New York advertising executive. When a tragedy struck his family two years ago, he could not accept his loss, and withdrew from usual routines, much to the dismay of his close friends and colleagues, Whit, Claire and Simon. When Howard wrote and sent complaint letters to his core essentials of Love, Time and Death, he actually gets a personal response from each of them in the form of Aimee as Love, Raffi as Time and Brigitte as Death.

OK, the script by Adam Loeb can be preposterous with so many improbabilities and cliches. The very title itself sounds so pretentious. On top of that, I am not exactly a Will Smith fan by any means. But for some odd reason and much to my own surprise, I was actually moved to misty-eyed sentimentality by this film, cheesy words and contrived situations notwithstanding. If you watch this without the jaded cynicism we generally have against dramas like this, I believe you can connect with its message.

Will Smith played Howard stoically and seriously down to that very emotional twisty ending. Aside from worrying about Howard and their company, Howard's friends were also worried about their own personal problems. Kate Winslet was very earnest as Claire, who was also worried about her biological clock. Ed Norton played the guilty philanderier Whit, who was worried about his relationship with his daughter. Michael Pena was the secretly suffering Simon, who was worried about leaving his family penniless.

I really, really liked Helen Mirren's whimsical portrayal of Bridget/Death. She was so funny in her delivery of lines and as scene-stealing as her character was. In contrast, Keira Knightley's melodramatic portrayal of Aimee/Love tended to be so maudlin. However, her second scene with Howard had so much punch, I wanted to memorize that killer line of hers word for word. The only new name in the main cast for me was Jacob Latimore who played Raffi/Time like a young streetwise punk. He had too much anger and angst going on though.

I guess you also have to be in the proper state of mind to appreciate the lines of dialogue, which may sound eloquent, well-conceived for some, but which admittedly may, at the same time, also sound corny and presumptuous for others.The "angels" are another potential source of ridicule if you consider them the wrong way, instead of a source of inspiration as the filmmakers intended. I might have been in just the right mood when I watched it then. I actually liked this film, despite all the negative press about it. 7/10. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

MMFF 2016: Review of DIE BEAUTIFUL: Travails of a Trans-woman

January 5, 2017

"Die Beautiful" earned a lot of pre-festival buzz because it won Audience Choice and Best Actor for star Paolo Ballesteros at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Ballesteros also received a special Jury Prize for Acting at the Kerala International Film Festival in India. At the MMFF awards, it also won Audience Choice and Best Actor, as well as Best Supporting Actor. Despite its R-13 rating and black comedy style, this film ended up as the festival topnotcher in ticket sales in Metro Manila theaters. 

Since he was a child, Patrick always fancied himself joining and winning beauty contests. Disowned by his strict father who was repelled by his sexual orientation, Patrick morphed into a beautiful transwoman named Trisha Echevarria. Together with his best friend and make-up genius Barbs, Trisha made a living joining beauty contests. He was so obsessed about his beauty that he endorsed to Barbs that if ever he died, he wanted to be made up as a different celebrity on each night of his wake.

Jun Robles Lana's name attached to a film as writer and director can now be seen as a guarantee of a good film. So far, his most recent films "Bwakaw" (2012), "A Barber's Tale" (2013) and "Anino sa Likod ng Buwan" (2015) all gained top critic nods and respectable box office takes. "Die Beautiful" now joins that illustrious list and is remarkably the most colorful and flamboyant of all his films. 

Lana tried to stuff all the issues faced by transgenders from as children, teenagers and adults. These include father conflicts, sibling apathy, sexual assault, shallow relationships, child adoption, and plastic surgery. In addition, there loads and loads of hilarious inside stories behind gay beauty pageants. To top it all off, there were those scenes featuring the fantastic makeup sessions of Paolo Ballesteros as his famous viral photos of celebrity transformations come alive. His Angelina, Julia, Britney, Mariah, Gaga, and Regine are all so vividly recognizable and gorgeous. 

I did not really know much about Paolo Ballesteros until the Aldub phenomenon had me watching some episodes of the Eat Bulaga kalyeserye out of curiosity. Ballesteros' "beauty" as the glamorous Lola Tidora was a standout among the three funny Lolas. Playing the stunning Trisha from teenage to mid-adulthood, Ballesteros gave his all in his very demanding starring role. He convinced us he was Trisha, a real person. He never once became corny in his colorful and robust portrayal. He deserves the Best Actor accolades he has received here and abroad.

New actor Christian Bables went toe to toe with Ballesteros as Trisha's best friend Barbs. He practically had the same screen time as the lead, stealing scenes with his sassy lines all the way. His Best Supporting Actor trophy was well-deserved. Veteran actors Joel Torre and Gladys Reyes both give able support in their roles as Patrick's unsupportive father and sister. Albie Casino seems destined to play bad guys for life. The whole subplot with Luis Alandy felt long and unnecessary in my opinion. Those cameo episodes featuring Iza Calzado and Eugene Domingo were riotous fun. 

The story telling may not have been not linear, but the continuity was never confusing. This was a very entertaining and eye-opening film. I have to take exception though to the inclusion of graphic scenes of sexual violence, not once but even twice in the film. Not only did it earn the film an R rating, I felt these scenes were so out of place in the generally wholesome scheme of the film. Frankly, since certain suggestive scenes were already sufficient to tell us what happened, they need not have to be shown at all. 8/10.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

MMFF 2016: Review of SEKLUSYON: Tortured by Temptations

January 4, 2017

Based on the trailer alone, this was the first choice of the eight entries in this year's Metro Manila Filmfest that I wanted to watch. The whole look of the film was something else with its dark sepia palette of colors and period production design. The horror angle of the story also looked intriguing, especially with the disturbing presence of a young girl in a role of indeterminate nature of good or evil.

It was 1947. Four deacons, Miguel, Carlo, Marco and Fabian, were sent to an undisclosed location in order to resist the temptations of the devil a week before their ordination. Meanwhile in San Ildefonso, Quezon, Fr. Ricardo was investigating the mysterious healing powers of a child faith healer Anghela Sta. Ana, who was under the care of the equally mysterious Sister Cecilia. When Anghela finds her way into the deacons' seclusion site, the young men experienced extreme tests of their faith they never could have anticipated. 

Eric Matti deserved his Best Director award, his second in a row after last year's "Honor Thy Father". He created the perfect atmosphere of dread and demonic presence with the impressive and award-winning cinematography (Neil Derrick Bion) and production design (Ericson Navarro), along with the lighting design and musical score (Francis de Veyra). The credits font, with the color palette and the bloody gore all echo the feel of the 1995 American film "Se7en". In addition, Catholic religious imagery is laced with touches of blasphemy and evil to add a further sinister air. 

Child actress Rhed Bustamante deservedly won a special jury prize with her sublime performance of a role with central significance in the story. She should have been considered for Best Actress. Phoebe Walker won Best Supporting Actress as the creepy Madre Cecilia with her penetrating gaze and unsettling whispering. Elora Espano played a ghost speaking through a statue of the Virgin Mary, the most disturbing of all the ghastly imagery seen in this film. 

Hashtag member Ronnie Alonte had strong screen presence in the lead role of Miguel. However, he felt oddly miscast, especially with his modern hairstyle looking out of place for this period role. Young actor Dominic Roque (as Fabian with his mother issues), national volleyball team player John Vic de Guzman (as Carlo with his siblings issues), and model JR Versales (as Marco with his perverse fetish issues) possessed more authentic looks as deacons for that era. Neil Ryan Sese also did well in the role of the doggedly obsessed investigator Fr. Ricardo, as did Lou Veloso as the cantankerous retired priest and retreat caretaker Sandoval.

Anton Santamaria's award-winning script did waver a bit at certain points when it comes to story telling. However, its theme is definitely daring and radical in the face of the Catholic majority in this country. Even without its supernatural elements, this film's cautionary message about false prophets and how they work insidiously within our midst is always pertinent among the common masses easily swayed by superstition and fanaticism. It is a warning that needs to be told and heard. 8/10.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

MMFF 2016: Review of SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN: Diaries of Domestics

January 3, 2017

This current Metro Manila Filmfest is different from those of the recent past because the selection committee decided to give priority to actual film quality rather than commercial viability. Because of this, the eight films chosen to participate in this year's filmfest had casts of lesser box office clout and story lines with more challenge and depth. 

Of the eight, one film clearly stood out because it was a documentary that had absolutely no stars to speak of. Frankly, as I had ranked my preferences in a previous blog article, it was the last film on my priority list to watch. However, during the first week of showing, the positive word of mouth was very strong. Come Awards Night, "Sunday Beauty Queen" walked home with the Best Picture Award. Therefore, it simply had to be the first film for me to catch once I got back into town.

Unusually for a Best Picture winner, there were only less than 10 of us in the cinema I was in. This was despite the long lines queuing outside at the box office. A documentary is really a hard sell commercially, despite awards already won. Just having a regular run in mall cinemas like this is already unprecedented.

"Sunday Beauty Queen" by director Baby Ruth Villarama (whose mom used to work as a domestic helper as well) is about a group of Filipina domestic helpers working in Hong Kong who spent their Sunday rest days participating in beauty pageants among themselves, with the aim of raising funds meant for assisting their fellow helpers in need. The documentary lets us peek into the lives of five ladies who are active participants in these pageants.

Trans-man house manager Leo Selomenia has his own flat and has been organizing weekend pageants for eight years. Rudelie Acosta was terminated when she missed her curfew and only had 14 days to get a new employer. Cherrie Mae Bretana spent her whole day taking care of her ward Hayden in place of his absent parents. Hazel Perdido had to content herself watching her son's graduation online, while she watched over her employer's dog. Mylyn Jacobo took care of a sick elderly man for his children.

The presentation of the subject matter was done very well to give us a deeper glimpse into the lives of these women who sacrificed being away from their families for several years in order to earn more than double of what they earned at home. To make matters more entertaining, the grim lonely realities were set in perfect contrast with the colorful beauty pageants they hold on Sundays as a respite from their jobs. The treatment of the topic was generally light and positive, nothing too sordid.

The stark reality shown in this film, while eye-opening, can be too honest. It was sad to note the poor quality of English spoken by college graduates. One of them was even an AB English major. It was also very unflattering to see the pile of litter that had to be swept up by HK street sweepers following those picnic-like weekend gatherings in the plaza. 

To be completely honest, aside from the novel pageant aspect and a couple of powerful soundbites, I found the stories told to be rather predictable and familiar. We have seen these tales told in various TV magazine shows before. After reading several reviews saying how tear-jerking this film was, I was expecting a crescendo of emotion towards the end, but I did not experience such. This film was not a complete letdown by any means, but maybe I was just expecting too much. 6/10.