Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review of ANG PAGSANIB KAY LEAH DELA CRUZ: Jagged and Jarring

June 28, 2017

Once in a while, a Filipino horror film comes along that manages to exceed all expectations. This is not a common thing as many just fall short of even the most modest of expectations. I can't say exactly why, but I like Filipino horror films. I try to catch most of them when they are shown on the big screen, and so far I had been lucky with those I do get to watch. Despite the giveaway title, count this new film as one of those that passes muster.

Police officer Ruth Liwanag has relocated to Barangay Dalisay. She is not on active duty due to the tragic aftermath of a case gone wrong. While walking home from church with Gabriel, the charming young son of the caretaker of her new house, they passed by the house of pretty Leah, a girl on whom Gabriel had a huge crush on. Just then, Leah suddenly stepped over the railing of their balcony and jumped down and landed in a crumpled heap on the concrete below. This basic premise leads to a nightmarish 90 minute exploration of evil in a small town. 

I know her name, but I had never seen lead actress Sarah Labhati act before, until now. She is certainly statuesque and fiercely beautiful in this role. She was very no-nonsense in her attack, so brave, and we believe it. This gimmick was new for a local horror film. Instead of a ghostly figure chasing a damsel in distress, this time the fearless policewoman was boldly approaching and chasing the ghost down through that spooky old library building. The ghost was actually running away from her, not the other way around. Her screen presence was that strong and that intimidating.

I totally did not know who Shy Carlos was until this film in which she took on the title character Leah. She has that type of angelic innocent face that screen demons want to possess. She nailed that difficult scene when the camera was focused tight on her face as she was reacting to different voices she was hearing in her head. In that single scene, Ms. Carlos ran the entire gamut of emotions in both subtle and florid psychotic display. 

Julian Trono was quite charming as Leah's puppy love Gabriel. The story required him to to establish a brotherly bond with Ruth, and he makes this angle work. Again playing one of her quirky weird roles is Angelina Kanapi in the pivotal role of Leah's guidance counselor Sister Eloisa. They should have chosen a younger actress to play her character in the 1989 video. Jim Paredes interestingly gets cast to play the parish priest Fr. Lucas. 

Leah's parents, the secretly lusty Marite and her unsuspecting husband Oscar, were played by Olive Nieto and Michael Rivero. They felt awkwardly miscast in these important roles, and it was not only because they look nothing like their daughter here. Micah Munoz played a libidinous security guard Mario. His death scene (no big surprise) was disappointing, and could have been more interesting than what was shown.

My one beef about the script (written by Charlene Sawit-Esguerra) was that the major clue to the mystery was revealed within a scene with a major error. An intubated person cannot produce a voice because the breathing tube goes between his vocal folds. The patient was even on a ventilator at that time. This was an unfortunate lapse in factual accuracy in a very key scene which could have been easily avoided by asking any medical doctor.

With a heart-pounding musical score and suspenseful editing decisions, the story by Erik Matti was told by director Katski Flores in a style so engaging in its relentless tension. The sound design immersed you in the whispering voices the characters were hearing in their heads. That cult footage and backstory was eerie and sickening. Unlike most Filipino horror films, this one is dead serious from beginning to end, with hardly any leeway given to humor. But despite that, it did not fall flat, with the threads all fitting in place. I was completely hooked in. 7/10. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review of TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT: Overlong and Overstuffed

June 22, 2017

The initial reviews for this film are very very bad. Its approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is only 16%, worst of the whole franchise. Rolling Stone Magazine even gave it a zero-star rating! Word of mouth from people who had seen it on opening day yesterday were likewise giving it a big thumbs down. Anyhow, this is the only major movie opening this week, so I still went to watch it, but with really very low expectations.

This one starts all the way back to the time of King Arthur, when we see powerful staff given by a Cybertronian knight to the magician Merlin. Then, the setting then shifts to the present day after the events of the last movie. Optimus Prime is corrupted by his Maker, the sorceress Quintessa to destroy Earth so their own damaged planet of Cybertron can be revived. Meanwhile, Cade Yeager and his Autobots are in hiding from the international forces tasked to destroy them. 

When Yeager gains possession of an ancient talisman, he also becomes the target of Megatron and his Decepticons. Yeager was spirited away to the United Kingdom by Sir Edward Burton of the Witwiccan Order, who updates him about the long history of the Transformers on Earth. Also along for the adventure is the sexy (but of course) British professor Vivien Wembly, supposedly the last living descendant of Merlin, who is the only one who could activate the staff given to Merlin, which is the only thing that can bring Cybertron back to life to destroy Earth. 

As if the main storyline was not complex enough, we also get side stories about Izabella (a 14-year old orphan kid, about Jimmy (Cade's cowardly assistant), about Seymour Simmons hiding out in Cuba, about Col. William Lennox and his new assignment, about the various antics of the surviving Autobots (like Bumblebee, Hound, Drift, Crosshairs, Hotrod, plus Grimlock and other Dinobots) and the Decepticons (like Onslaught, Mohawk, Nitro Zeus, Dreadbot). Knights of the Round Table, a flying three-headed dragon, and even the Excalibur sword make guest appearances.

This whole film was one big mash-up of Michael Bay's various testosterone-infused dreams, with trash-talking robots snapping heads off each other, snazzy sports cars and trucks, soldiers and military combat operations, medieval knights on horses with swords, and non-stop explosions, explosions, explosions. The leading man gets to show off his abs (during a nonsensically rapid outfit changes in three succeeding scenes) as well as get a kiss on the lips from a much-younger woman with a British accent and body-hugging black dress.

Mark Wahlberg is likable whatever he does, even as the frustrated inventor Cade. However, those two kids Izabella and Jimmy (played by Isabela Moner and Jerrod Carmichael) and all the boisterous robots around him are all too hyper and uppity, really loud and annoying. Optimus Prime is really in a league of his own among the Transformers. His voice by Peter Cullen is capable of evoking incomparable pathos. Too bad his dramatic story arc here got messed up in the cacophony of everything else happening at the same time.

His new leading lady Laura Haddock (whom we just saw earlier this year as Peter Quill's mother Meredith in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2") was made to look uncannily like former Transformer leading lady Megan Fox. The role is sexist for sure, but Haddock gave it more dignity than Fox ever could.

I was surprised to see Anthony Hopkins involved in a film like this, but it was clear that he was having fun with his outlandish role as expert on Witwiccan lore. I don't think I had never seen him so loose and gleeful in a role before. That scene wherein he was laughing in the speeding car and that one telling off the British Prime Minister were delightful enough to save this whole film from a more dismal rating.

I had previously written about two Transformers films: "Dark of the Moon" in 2011 (MY REVIEW) and "Age of Extinction" in 2014 (MY REVIEW). For both films, I had assessed them to be lavishly overstuffed and overblown. Director Michael Bay does not change his formula a single bit for this fifth installment of the franchise. In fact he even ups his ante further this time, making his new 149-minute (practically 2 hours and a half) film is the most overstuffed and overblown of them all. 4/10.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review of THE RECALL: Abduction Absurdities

June 20, 2017

Wesley Snipes was first noted in the music video of Michael Jackson's number one hit "Bad" in 1988. From there, he went on to become one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1990s, starring in films like "New Jack City" (1991), "White Men Can't Jump" (1992), "Demolition Man" (1993), and his biggest role as "Blade" (1998).  He got embroiled in an income tax evasion case that took its toll on his career in the late 2000s. He went to jail from 2010 to 2013, and this film is only one of the few films he has had since he was released.

Five young people go for a weekend getaway in a house located in a remote forest area. While they were there, their vacation was interrupted by the arrival of aliens who had been abducting people all over the world. As the alien invaders kill or capture their friends one by one, Charlie and Annie rely on their wits and a scary guy they met called The Hunter to survive their terrible ordeal. 

If there are any Wesley Snipes fans who are hoping that their former idol can recover some of his lost glory with this film, they would be very disappointed. He had a very hammy turn as an eccentric ex-soldier who was once abducted by these same aliens before. It seems he might be going the way of Nicolas Cage, John Travolta or Bruce Willis starring in B-movies of sketchy quality just to get by financially. 

The main characters of this film are young unknown actors who seemed to have been cast because their faces and bodies looked good, rather than for their acting talent. Just like a typical horror film, the ones we do not get to know too well get killed off first. Other typical B-horror scenarios like sexy time in a hot tub on the first night and inexplicable foolhardiness to go out investigating in the dead of night are also there to be seen.

Curly-haired Charlie was given a little back story dealing with the recent death of his girlfriend, which accounted for his aloof behavior. Annie was a friendly girl who was trying to connect with him. She was made to be dependent on her miraculous inhaler for her asthma attacks, so you know that would play a role later for suspense purposes. Unfortunately, despite being cast in the lead roles, these two actors Jedidiah Goodacre and Laura Bilgeri really need more acting workshops to improve their performances.

There was only one point of this film where I felt palpable tension and that was when one of the characters woke up inside the alien spacecraft after being sucked up into it. But those few heart-pounding minutes would later give way to more absurd scenes like the ones before it. Furthermore, the bright orange jellyfish-like creatures were hardly intimidating and did not work as scary alien pets.  

Anyhow, there was a plot point that was reminiscent of "Arrival" which was not bad. However, the director Mauro Borrelli (who previously worked as a concept illustrator of big films like two "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, "Captain America:The First Avenger" and even the upcoming "Star Wars: The Last Jedi") elected to play this one up more for shallow jump scares. silly gunfights and senseless gore, than to work on elucidating the more intellectual potential of its story. 2/10.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE: Drugs, Dames and a Dog

June 17, 2017

Bruce Willis had been a star ever since he broke through big time via the TV show "Moonlighting" for which he won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama in 1987. He eventually transitioned to feature films, starring in big box-office hits like the "Die Hard" franchise, "12 Monkeys," "The Fifth Element," "Armageddon" and "The Sixth Sense." In the turn of the millennium though, Willis' career went south like other senior actors, notably Nicolas Cage or John Travolta, who still get cast in lead roles, but only in cheap-looking B-movies, many direct to video stuff. This is one of them.

The Venice in the title is not the Italian city of canals but the California beach town. Steve Ford is a disgraced ex-cop who now works as a private eye. When his niece's house was broken into, Ford's precious little Jack Russell terrier Buddy was stolen and taken to drug lord Spyder. To get Buddy back, Ford was forced to retrieve the drugs spirited away by Spyder's two-timing girlfriend Lupe. 

In other minor side stories, there was Dave, Steve's best friend who is going through a rough divorce. There was John, Steve's bumbling assistant eager to work on a real case. We also get to meet a real estate broker harassed by a mysterious graffiti artist, a ruthless loan shark who demanded his money back after one day, a support group for sex addicts, a couple of Samoan thugs and their promiscuous sister, a gang of cross-dressing macho men in a seedy motel, among other bizarre types in Steve's neighborhood.

I had never seen an actor of Bruce Willis' stature stoop so low as to doing some really embarrassing scenes (like skateboarding in the streets totally nude or running around a building in a ginger wig and red dress) in such a forgettable film. John Goodman, Famke Jannsen, Jason Momoa are all here too in roles beneath their talent. I was surprised to see Kal Penn and Christopher McDonald in the mix too. Well, they are here for a paycheck, and I guess this will get some of their bills paid off.

There were so many things going on in this film to disguise how shallow everything was. However on the plus side, Australian swimsuit model Jessica Gomes and Mexican Bond girl Stephanie Sigman are both very easy on the eyes. Looking back, being occasionally funny in its own odd way, this may actually be good for some senseless laughs on a lazy day. Afterwards though, nothing will stick. 3/10.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Review of DESPICABLE ME 3: Fraternal Follies

June 15, 2017

This current film is the third feature film of the Despicable Me franchise that carried its name since the first film in 2010 and its sequel in 2013. There is a spin-off prequel about the lovable Minions in 2015. I admit that I am not exactly a fan of the Minions, or the franchise itself as a whole. For me, they can be occasionally cute, but oftentimes exasperating. 

Gru is now a member of the Anti-Villain League and was tasked to apprehend Balthazar Bratt, a mullet-sporting ex-child star of the 1980s who turned to crime when his showbiz career went south. But when Bratt escaped capture, Gru and wife Lucy were unceremoniously fired from AVL by their new boss. Gru receives an invitation from his richer, more easy-going, long-lost twin brother Dru to visit his house. There, Dru tempts Gru to return to his villainous ways.

Steve Carrell does double time work in this film voicing both Gru and his twin Dru. Of course, there is an extra challenge to give each brother a distinct personality. Gru is as efficient and no-nonsense as ever. Dru, on the other hand, is new at the heist business so we have fun watching him bungle up Gru's carefully laid out plans. Some times I felt they are trying to hard to be funny in these scenes, leading to an overstuffed middle section.

Gru's relationship with his daughters was my favorite aspect of the first two Despicable Me films. However, in this one, it takes a back seat to Lucy's efforts to become a mother to the girls. I am not really feeling any chemistry between Gru and Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig). In fact, the girls themselves do not get to do much here, but the danger they faced in the endgame can be very scary for young viewers, hence the PG rating. I did find dear little Agnes' quest for a real unicorn cute and delightful.

The new villain Balthazar Bratt (voiced by "South Park" co-creator Trey Parker) is very annoying in the way he acts and the way he looks, but I actually enjoyed his pathologically anal attachment to the music and fashion of the 1980s.  This caused the film's soundtrack to be replete with 1980s pop hits, like "Bad," "Take On Me," "99 Luftballons," and "Into the Groove," all infectiously primed to be sang-along to by the parents in the audience. 

In this film, the Minions become bored of being goody-goody so they stage a walk-out of sorts against Gru. In so doing, they will be featured in their own story arc apart from Gru and Dru as they seek out their own criminal adventure and land in prison. The kids in the audience could not stop snickering when they hear the Minions' absurd language. For me though, I can't help but feel that this joke was being stretched out too long. I know I am in the minority with this unpopular opinion about those yellow sidekicks.

I personally feel that the story of Gru has already run its course, and is on its last legs. This installment was just okay, and you can feel that they tried hard to cram in a lot of odds and ends just to liven up the comedy but with mixed results. With a sequel coming up in 2020, I guess the Minions will be outliving Gru in popular culture, whether I like them or not. 6/10.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mini-Reviews: 7 KOREAN Films on ASIANA Airlines (May 2017)

June 10, 2017

Last month, we rode Asiana Airlines for the first time for a long-haul flight. Since Asiana is a Korean airline company, I immediately looked for the Korean film selection they had on their in-flight entertainment system. During our time in the airplane flying to our destination and back home, I was able to watch all seven of the Korean films they were offering. 

In the order I watched them, these are the seven films and my mini-review of each one. I disclose that I know very few Korean actors. I am not a K-drama nor K-pop fan. However, I do enjoy watching Korean movies for their unique stories and distinct style of storytelling, with always that heart-warming hook. We see this hook even in zombie films, like "Train to Busan", my #1 film of 2016.

1. MASTER (2016)
Director: Cho Ui-Seok: Writer: Cho Ui-Seok, Kim Hyun-Duk

Jin (Lee Byung-hun) is the head of One Network, a complex financial scam network. He is being investigated by a team of operatives against fraud headed by Kim Jae-myung (Kang Dong-won). Kim's approach was to pressure Jin's close associate Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin), the young hotshot IT of the One Network. When the authorities close in, Jin fakes his own death and transfers his operations to Manila (!).

This was the first one I chose to watch because it had a good reputation preceding it. In fact, this was the only title I had previously heard of in the list. All three main actors portrayed their roles very well. I know Lee Byung-hun had already made the jump to Hollywood films, like in the recent remake of "The Magnificent Seven." I am pretty certain that the tall and dapper Kim Woo-bin would have a horde of adoring female fans. Kang Dong-won matches them both in strength of screen presence and acting intensity. With such a stellar cast, interesting story and exciting action scenes, it was no wonder that this film is one of the biggest box-office hits in Korea last year. 7/10.

2. LUCK-KEY (2016)
Director: Lee Gye-Byeok
Writer: Kenji Uchida, Jang Yoon-Mi

Jae-sung (Lee Joon) is a wannabe actor who can't seem to get his life in order. One fateful day at the public bath, a rich man accidentally slipped and lost consciousness, Jae-sung stole the man's keys and proceeded to live that man's high life suspiciously tinged with dangerous characters. On the other hand, the other man Hyung-Wook (Yu Hae-Jin) lost his memory after the accident and upon recovery, went on to take over the miserable life of Jae-sung, but makes significant improvements on it along the way.

Despite some violent aspects, this film turned out to be quite a delightful surprise. This is mainly due to the very charming performance of uncharacteristically homely lead star Yu Hae-jin in the role of the amnesic hit man. It was his character that carried this film and gave it so much heart and soul. Those scenes in the restaurant with his new adopted family, the scene in the barbershop with the father, those romantic scenes in the TV dramas he was shooting -- all emotionally on point. 8/10.

Director: Kwon Soo-Kyung, Writer: Yoo Young-A

After a bad flip and slam on the mat at an international judo competition, young Doo-young (Do Kyung-soo) damaged both his optic nerves and becomes permanently blind. His con-man older step-brother Doo-shik (Jo Jung-suk), despite being estranged from Doo-young for more than 10 years already, takes advantage of this unfortunate event to get himself paroled from prison  supposedly to take care of his younger brother. Of course, their reunion was not good.

Despite the funny-sounding title, as you can surmise from the short summary above, this is not a comedy, but a family drama. The performance of Doo-young as the blind younger brother is the heart of the film. As can be expected, the two brothers will clash when they first live together after all those years of estrangement, but will eventually build a brotherly bond between them. The ending twist though can't be said to be entirely surprising, but it still packs a strong emotional punch. 7/10.

4. WILL YOU BE THERE? (2016) 
Director: Hong Ji-Young; Writer: Guillaume Musso (novel), Hong Ji-Young

During a medical mission in the mountains of Indochina, a mysterious old man gives senior surgeon Soo-hyun (Kim Yun-seok) receives 10 golden pills which allowed him to travel back into his past. He meets and interacts with his younger self (Byun Yo-han) who by then was still a doctor starting out in practice, just about to marry his girlfriend, a vivacious dolphin trainer named Yeon-a. Given his knowledge in the future, can tragedies that happened in his past still be prevented?

The time travel story is very intriguing and engaging with all the possibilities it opened up. Meeting and actually talking with your younger self is a story concept that will make everyone reflect on their own youth and what changes you may want to make in your past. Of course, the fact that the main character was a surgeon earned extra points for me. The two actors playing the surgeon at different stages in his life (Kim Yun-seok and Byun Yo-han) both gave powerful performances. 8/10.

5. VANISHING TIME: A Boy Who Returned (2016)
Director: Uhm Tae-Hwa; Writer: Uhm Tae-Hwa, Jo Seul-Ye

Soo-rin (Shin Eun-soo) is a reclusive 14-year-old girl who develops a close friendship with a 13-year old orphan boy from school named Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je), exchanging notes coded in symbols known only to the two of them. One day, Soo-rin joins Sung-min and two other boys to explore a cave in the mountain and discovers a pool with a glowing egg inside, which the children brought out. While Soo-rin was still inside the cave, the three boys decided to crack the egg, and when it did, they all mysteriously disappeared. When Sung-min finally comes back, he is already an adult (Gang Dong-won).

The plot conundrum where the world froze in time yet the boys continued to age is the main draw of this film. The filmmakers gave this segment of the film a very strange ethereal quality, dreamlike usually, nightmarish in parts. The scenes when Sung-min actually comes back as a grown man of 30 while Soo-rin was still half her age may send some creepy vibes to some. But as this was a Korean fantasy drama, the treatment was light and bittersweet for its teenage audience. 7/10.

Director: Kim Sung-Hoon, Writer: Yoon Hyun-Ho

Ex-North Korean army officer Cha Ki-seong (Kim Joo-hyuk) brought his US dollar counterfeiting operations to South Korea. Im Cheol-ryung (Hyun Bin), a deadly serious North Korean special investigator, was sent down to apprehend Cha. South Korean police detective Kang Jin-tae (Yoo Hae-jin) was given the confidential assignment to be Cheol-ryung's temporary partner, even providing his guest a room in his own humble family home.

Yoo Hae-jin, whom I first saw in "Luck-Key," is here again in another action-comedy role. This guy seems to be someone audiences can relate to easily. His handsome co-star Hyun Bin is elegant to watch in all those death-defying action stunts, all executed in his cool unruffled style, with moves like an Asian James Bond. The contrasting political, military, police and domestic cultures of the two Koreas was also very interesting to see. 7/10.

Director: Park Kwang-Hyun; Writer: Park Kwang-Hyun, Oh Sang-Ho

Kwon Yoo (Ji Chang-wook) is an unemployed bum who spends his time playing online video games in a local internet cafe, where he is acknowledged to be a topnotch gamer. One day, he was suddenly arrested by the police and later wrongly convicted as the rapist and murderer of a young girl. When he was able to escape from prison, he sought the help of fellow gamers to clear his name and destroy the real perpetrator of the crime.

The whole intricately meticulous remote-control "murder and frame" crime scenario presented in this film is very outlandish and original. Within this cold framework of futuristic crime, the filmmakers still manage to inject a dose of maternal and prison melodrama. Lead star Ji Chang-wook gives an intense performance as his character goes through physical and emotional wringer. Oh Jung-se was Min Chu-sang, an over-the-top Joker-like mastermind antagonist. Kim Sang-ho, whom I also saw as the surgeon's best friend in "Will You Be There?," was menacing as a prison kingpin Ma Deok-soo, but also funny when he tries to shoot a gun. 7/10.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review of BAYWATCH: Beach Bummer

June 9, 2017

"Baywatch" was one of the most popular TV series back in the during the entire decade of the 1990s. It had been touted to be THE most popular TV shows worldwide. Lead star David Hasselhoff, despite receiving a lot of beef about his acting style, is an international superstar. Several sexy female starlets donned those signature red bathing suits and became pinups in many bedrooms -- such as Erika Eleniak, Nicole Eggert, Alexandra Paul, Yasmine Bleeth, Carmen Electra and of course, Pamela Anderson.

I don't know why Hollywood can't leave these hit TV series well enough alone. I cannot honestly name a popular TV series that was actually done better when adapted for the big screen. A lot, if not all, of these feature film adaptation fell way short of expectations and in so doing, marred the fond memories audiences have of their favorite shows. "Baywatch" was by no means an award-winning series with awe-inspiring acting. However, it had its own distinct hook that I felt was not going to be easy to replicate.

Mitch Buchanon is a popular lifeguard team leader on the beach of Emerald Bay in Florida. One summer, during the tryouts for new lifeguards, Mitch was forced by his boss to take on Matt Brodie, a two-time Olympic gold medal-winner swimmer with a big ego and bad attitude. The two never saw things eye to eye, constantly bickering about Mitch's unconventional training style. Mitch wants his team to get involved and actively aid in the investigation of crimes (from drugs to murder) on the beach, and Matt aggressively resisted.

I thought the whole main cast, while all in great physical shape, was miscast. Dwayne Johnson does the leadership role well, but he seemed too heavily muscle-bound to swim as a lifeguard. Zac Efron does the cocky jerk role well, but he already looked too old to play an immature brat. Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach both looked great in their red Speedos as Summer Quinn and C.J. Parker respectively, but it felt like they should switch roles when it came to job seniority. 

I am thinking that this film by Seth Gordon (of "Horrible Bosses" infamy) was probably made to be more of a mindless spoof than a tribute to an already campy original show. However, most of the humor, especially those by Efron (in a dress, in the morgue), were of the cringe and groan type that did not really fly for me. Even the not-so-surprise cameos of David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson were disappointing. The writers could have thought of better scenarios for them to appear.

Most of the laughs came in the beginning care of Jon Bass (as newbie lifeguard Ronnie) who had no shame getting himself in the most embarrassing comic situations in his adulation for CJ Parker. As can be expected, these gags were mostly in the raunchy "American Pie" variety. I did like some of those lower-key visual gags of the Rock using toys to fight or temping as cellphone salesman.

I have only seen a few episodes Baywatch TV series before, so I would not really know how they were able to expand the rather flimsy concept of sexy lifeguards to a decade worth of episodes. For this film, the whole script is not only a contrived stretch, but it is also a messy mishmash. Does a lifeguard really have jurisdiction to involve himself into criminal investigations independent of the police? This movie felt like cops from another TV show, like maybe the "21 Jump Street" guys, crossed over and went undercover on the beach as lifeguards. 

Daddario and Rohrbach are definitely 10s, but the film as a whole can only muster a 2/10.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Review of WONDER WOMAN: A Gorgeous and Glorious Gal

June 8, 2017

When it comes to comics, I was more of a DC kid growing up than Marvel. My favorite comic books were those about the Justice League. It is certainly odd that apart from Superman and Batman (both of whom have had multiple incarnations with different actors), no other DC superhero ever got a live-action film deal. (I will not count that terrible joke of a Green Lantern film with Ryan Reynolds. It should be expunged from movie history.) 

When it comes to excellence in superhero movies, it had always been Marvel over DC. The last one from DC that had any kind of critical acclaim was with Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which included "Batman Begins" (2005), "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). Again, it had to be about Batman. Even "The LEGO Batman Movie" shown earlier this year was excellent.

A so-called DC Extended Universe series was launched with "Man of Steel" (2013) then "Batman v Superman" (2016). These two films considerably darkened the colorful DC world I knew from the comics, but they were both met with conflicting reviews. This third DCEU offering though had been gaining nothing but positive reviews since it opened last week, being hailed the best DCEU film thus far, and good news is -- neither Superman nor Batman is in it this time, only Wonder Woman.

Diana was the daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta on the island of Themyscira, an island isolated by Zeus from the corruption of the outer world.  One day in 1918, a plane carrying a young man crashed into the ocean near her island, and Diana rescued and revived him. Under the spell of the Lasso of Truth, the man introduced himself as Steve Trevor, an American soldier and spy. Idealistic Diana was determined to go into the real world with Steve, in order to find Ares and end the destructive war outside.

Except for brief modern day bookend scenes, this whole film was a throwback origins story, set during World War I, a period film as emphasized by its sepia tone filter. The pace was slow, taking its time to tell us everything we need to know about our titular super-heroine of divine birth and abilities -- from her idyllic childhood to her initiation into the real world. 

Moments of frank action were very well choreographed, shot and edited, with slow motion and other visual effects employed for optimum drama. As conveyed by director Patty Jenkins (whose only other film before this was "Monster" in 2003, for which Charlize Theron won her Oscar for Best Actress), the violence is violence, but with an eerie elegance about it. But you will wish that there were more of these spectacular action scenes as these may seem few than expected for a superhero film. 

This film dwelt more about the horrors of war and its sad consequences on the people, and that message was told very well. However, a curve ball was thrown into the sensible narrative towards the end, and I did not really like how it came out so randomly, from out of completely nowhere. It was as if the writers were written into a corner as to how the war deity Ares was to reveal himself.

Chris Pine is such a gentleman actor here, fully aware that his character Steve Trevor is not the star nor the focus of the film. Yet Pine gives a performance so winning and charming, he will be also remembered for this film. His best scenes were those with Diana in the spring water bath at the cave ("I am above average.") and that on the boat ("I do sleep with women."), delivered in sheepish awe of his beautiful savior. And then, of course, there was his touching declaration of love, echoing what we all feel for her.

More than the whole film itself though, the most wonderful thing about "Wonder Woman" is its charismatic lead star Gal Gadot herself. We had a brief glimpse of her during the "Batman v Superman" movie last year, and boy, did she steal that film from under the feet of Affleck and Cavill! We wanted to see more of her, and now here she is in her own solo movie and she totally owned her role. 

As Wonder Woman, Gadot is gorgeous, glamorous, graceful, giving -- everything how we imagined Wonder Woman to be. She was able to carve out a Wonder Woman so distinct from the iconic portrayal created by Lynda Carter in her campy 70s TV series. Gadot's portrayal of Wonder Woman is confident and no-nonsense as it should be. Gadot's Wonder Woman felt real, warm and down-to-earth despite her divine origins and super-powers. 

Thank God, all those planned Wonder Woman films being floated since 1996 reportedly with actresses like Sandra Bullock, Lucy Lawless, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina Jolie and (yikes!) Mariah Carey to play the title role never pushed through. Destiny was waiting for the perfect timing, even if it took another 20 years before this first Wonder Woman live-action feature film to come out. The ideal actress has finally arrived worthy to play this well-loved heroine. Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. 8/10.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Review of THE MUMMY (2017): Familiar Fare, but Forward Facing

June 7, 2017

The Mummy had been a Hollywood horror film staple since Boris Karloff got all wrapped up in those burial linens back in 1932. In 1999 and 2001, director Stephen Sommers directed a couple of successful Mummy films starring the charming team of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz as Egyptian explorers Rick and Evy O'Connell who discovered the mummy of Imphotep. However, an ill-conceived third installment in 2008 which replaced Weisz with Maria Bello as it moved the action to China doomed the franchise to its extinction. This year, as if there was nothing else for Hollywood to do, there is yet another stab at reviving the Mummy as a worthy film monster. 

Ahmanet was a princess all set to be queen of Egypt, until her father had a newborn son. This bitter turn in her fate caused her to turn to the dark side and exact revenge on those who intervened with her destiny. Just as she was supposed to summon the god of death Set to be her partner in a life of evil, her spell was interrupted and Ahmanet was shackled, mummified alive and buried in a tomb in Mesopotamia. 

In the present day, a skilled but crafty army sergeant Nick Morton dabbled in illegal sales of ancient artifacts with his accomplice Chris Vail. When a bomb dropped by a plane uncovers an Egyptian tomb in Iraq, Nick, Chris and archaeologist Jenny Halsey stumble into and wake up the malevolent spirit of Ahmanet who was still hellbent in completing her original spell to unite with Set, choosing Nick (but of course) to be his human vessel.

The direction by Alex Kurtzman made for an engaging 107 minutes as he navigated the story with just the right mix of action, scares, comedy and special effects to keep things interesting. Though some plot points may feel rehashed or iffy, the script is healthy, jointly crafted by David Koepp (who wrote the box office hits "Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible", "Spider-Man") and Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote "Valkyrie" and "Edge of Tomorrow" for Cruise and won an Oscar for "The Usual Suspects" before those).

Having Tom Cruise in the lead role of course meant that his character Nick Morton would get involved with the Mummy more intimately than Brendan Fraser ever did. The whole story eventually turned to revolve around Nick's character more than the Mummy, setting up for sequels to follow. We are all so familiar with how Cruise does in these adventure roles. There is no doubt that he could nail this new role, and he did deliver as if this was another one of his "Mission: Impossible" cases with a supernatural twist and a sense of humor. Now whether a viewer will like his performance (or not) will depend on how he likes Cruise, still a most polarizing actor to date.

Annabelle Wallis is beautiful and passionate, but felt too icy as Jenny Halsey, making me miss the warmth Rachel Weisz brought to Evy O'Connell in the previous Mummy films. Jake Johnson provides much of the comic relief as Nick's sidekick, Chris -- a character whose development in this film makes him someone to look forward to the sequels. Now he's warm, even if he is undead.

The exotic Sofia Boutella fulfills the promise of her scene-stealing turns in "Kingsman: The Secret Service" and "Star Trek Beyond" in her title role of Ahmanet/The Mummy in which which she totally immersed. Russell Crowe tries his best in his role as Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that one with Mr. Hyde), but I felt that having this character in there was a case of too much artistic license by the writers. The odd inclusion of the line "This is the moment" can be annoying for some viewers, but it can elicit a smile from theater goers who recognize the lyrics of the musical.

Overall, I thought this new incarnation of "The Mummy" is a promising boot of the planned Dark Universe franchise by Universal Studios (with reboots of Van Helsing and Frankenstein in the works). The way this film ended pointed towards sequels which may go in a totally different direction from how this first film went. I am optimistic for its ability to connect with its audience because it did not take itself too seriously, knowing it is treading on very familiar ground. The effort to create an original mythology for a mysterious new character whose future is yet unknown is much appreciated and something to look forward to. 7/10.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


June 6, 2017

Walt Disney Pictures is squeezing some more juice out of its Pirates franchise, coming up with a fifth installment this year. The series began in 2003 with "The Curse of the Black Pearl," followed by "Dead Man's Chest" (2006), "At World's End" (2007), then "On Stranger Tides" (2011). This latest film has the rather generic subtitle of "Dead Men Tell No Tales" in the US, but here in our country, a more plot-specific "Salazar's Revenge" is used. 

Capt. Jack Sparrow is all washed up, with no ship, no treasure, and no crew. He even had to part with his compass with mystical powers in order to get a swig of liquor to drink. When he let go of his compass though, Sparrow inadvertently freed the cursed ship of Capt. Armando Salazar and his undead pirate hunters out of the Devil's Triangle. Salazar now sought to find Sparrow in order to exact his bitter revenge on the pirate who trapped him and his ship there in the Devil's Triangle in the first place. 

Meanwhile we are also introduced to two other new characters. Henry Turner is the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann from the first three films of the series. Henry is determined to find the Trident of Poseidon to save his father Will from the curse of his ship, the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth is a woman accused to be a witch, simply because she is knowledgeable in astronomy. She is also on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon based on the map in the diary left with her by her unknown father.

Back in 2003, Johnny Depp received a SAG for Best Actor, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his fresh portrayal of the eccentric Capt. Jack Sparrow in "Curse of the Black Pearl". With every sequel that came out over the years, his flamboyant drunkard schtick got old fast. Here in "Salazar's Revenge," he was barely funny at all, an unmemorable caricature slapstick performance. His best scenes were those enhanced by grandiose stunts, such as the elaborate bank robbery scene and the hilarious spinning guillotine scene. 

Brenton Thwaites already headlined films like "The Giver" (2014) and "Gods of Egypt" (2016). Kaya Scodelario made her film debut in the acclaimed 2009 sci-fi film "Moon" and had already played Catherine Earnshaw in a 2011 remake of "Wuthering Heights." They do well in the roles of spunky romantic young leads Henry and Carina. They seem very much in the same molds as Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who both return in cameos in this new film and maybe in future sequels, if ever.

Of course, Javier Bardem (as Salazar) and Geoffrey Rush (as Barbossa) do very well in their respective roles as can be expected from actors of their stature. However, even they could not seem to lift the sagging energy of this particular installment. Not even the supposedly spectacular visual effects in the climactic scenes provided any sense of awe and wonder. The plot development was contrived and confusing over its long 2-1/2 hour running time, aggravated by editing and direction (by Norwegian directing team Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg) that felt lazy and uninspired. 5/10.