Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review of BIRTH OF THE DRAGON: Why the White?

September 28, 2017

This film was supposed to be about a young Bruce Lee  and his fight with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man in the mid-1960s. Just like the excellent "Ip Man" and its sequels, I was excited to watch how this Asian martial arts film would play out. Bruce Lee is a martial arts legend, and I would really like to know more about his life before he entered the heady limelight of show business. 

It was 1964. In Henan, China, there was an exhibition fight between Shaolin master Wong Jack Man and his counterpart from the Tai'chi school that ended badly for his opponent. Meanwhile in San Francisco, USA, Bruce Lee was gaining prominence teaching white men kungfu fighting as he also aspired for a career as an actor. One of his white students was Indiana farm boy Steve McKee.

McKee befriended Wong when he arrived in San Francisco to make amends for his grave sin by becoming a dish washer. He got to see the more philosophical view of kungfu espoused by Wong, as opposed to the physical kick-ass kungfu taught by his sifu Lee. The two masters agreed to fight each other only when McKee convinced them that it was the only way to free his Chinese girlfriend Xiulan from the clutches of the Chinatown mob.

It was exciting to see the story build up from the contrasting points of view of Wong and Lee. However, the plot took an unexpected turn when the focus shifted to the problems of Steve McKee. Here we were watching a film supposedly about two of the most important Chinese martial arts personalities of the 1960s, and then it turns out that the focal point of the story would actually be about some fictional white dude and his forbidden romance. Nevertheless, as long as the story was centered on the two masters, I was totally on board. 

I enjoyed listening to the beautifully phrased pearls of wisdom dropping from the lips of Wong Jack Man (as played with serene calm by award-winning actor Xia Yu). He spoke of needing to restore balance in his soul which was displaced when his pride overcame his discipline. His lines were written with eloquence expected from a Master. Xia Yu was also elegant in his smooth and ethereal moves in his fight scenes. He reminded me of Donnie Yen in "Ip Man."

On the other hand, in total contrast, Philip Ng was all brash bravado as Bruce Lee. This actor is already 40 years old in real life (same age as Xia Yu coincidentally), but he still manages to pull off a credible portrayal of the youthful Lee. Odd that Bruce Lee's name is in the title, but the film is clearly not about his good side. In fact, it seemed to be showing him in a rather bad light. Ng is very charismatic, but Lee's characterization is mostly negative, much like the way the bad white sensei was portrayed in "Karate Kid." It felt disrespectful to Lee as an icon of this field.

The controversial character of Steve McKee is portrayed by Billy Magnusson. It was an earnest performance by the actor to be fair. It is just that the character, ostensibly someone for whom the Western audience can identify with, did not feel right as the pivot on which the story turned. His damsel in distress and love interest Xiulan is played by pretty Qu Jingjing. Playing the role of ruthless mob boss Auntie Blossom is Chinese dancer and actress Jin Xing, notable for being one of the first transgender women recognized as female by the government in China.

What Chinese martial arts film does not have a fight scene in a Chinese restaurant? This was the chosen venue of the final series of fights, and this indeed was the best fight sequence of the whole film. It showcased the best of both Wong Jack Man's and Bruce Lee's fighting styles. McKee also figured somehow in this finale, but his participation is almost comic relief, maybe the filmmakers' way of restoring the film to its proper leads.

This film is by George Nolfi in only his second directorial effort since "The Adjustment Bureau (2011) (MY REVIEW). The white incursion in this film was distracting, true. It was not at all that bad as an action film, but still disappointing for those expecting more of Bruce Lee, as the title and poster clearly purports. I felt it would have been more entertaining if he never diverted the focus away from the two real-life iconic kung-fu masters his film was about, especially Bruce Lee. 5/10. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review of KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: Slapdash Sequel

September 23, 2017

I considered the first Kingsman movie "The Secret Service" (MY REVIEW) to be one of the best films of 2015.  That film had just the right combination of cool action, wry humor, and graphic violence for great entertainment. It introduced us to a rising young star named Taron Egerton who played Eggsy Unwin, a 17 year old bloke who was trained by Kingsman Harry Hart to be a super spy in his organization. 

This sequel takes place a year after the events in the first film. While Eggsy was a having dinner with his girlfriend Princess Tilde of Sweden and her parents, the entire Kingsman organization gets wiped out by a major attack from Poppy Adams, who runs a major covert international illegal drug operations from Cambodia called the Golden Circle. 

Following their "doomsday protocol," Eggsy and fellow survivor Merlin find their way to Kentucky, USA and connect with a parallel spy organization based in a whisky factory there called the Statesman, which had agents named after various types of liquor. Meanwhile, Poppy announced that she held all junkies of the world hostage with a fatal toxin to pressure the US President to legalize drugs. 

While this sequel still had the moments of slick action and British humor which made the first film a lot of fun to watch, I felt that the plotting and writing was not as sharp as the original. I thought it was too early in the series to decimate the Kingsman organization just like that, when we barely knew them yet and would like to see them in more adventures. Now they introduce us to a new set of American agents with different quirks and weapons, as if they could not come up with anything more to tell about the Brit agents. 

Taron Egerton (as cocky and sentimental Eggsy), Mark Strong (as the ever-efficient and ever-loyal Merlin) and ever-reliable Colin Firth (back to life with one eye here as Harry) delivered as expected. Their scenes with their dashing fashion flair and gravity-defying moves are the best in the movie, very distinctly British. 

Their American counterparts played it Western style (complete with John Denver songs in the background). Jeff Bridges role as the big boss Champagne was practically a glorified cameo. Pablo Pascal had visually potent fight scenes as Whiskey with his lasso and whip moves. Channing Tatum had an unexpectedly abbreviated screen time as Tequila, but they felt the need to show a scene of him being frozen in a pod in his underwear. Halle Berry was so plain and mousy as the neglected aide Ginger Ale, I felt sorry for her being cast in that thankless demeaning role.

The introduction of Poppy Adams and her elaborate 50s-inspired theme park headquarters, with its makeover salon, burger grill and robotic guard dogs (Bennie and Jets), took a lot of time to set up. The performance of Julianne Moore as the sweet, sinister and sadistic Poppy felt cartoonishly familiar. Elton John was such a campy actor even if he played himself, but in a hilarious way dressed in his outrageous 70s outfits.

Poppy's grand plot with the toxin-laced drugs was over-the-top but felt very current, with the real-time war on drugs issues lately. The ulterior plot of the fictional US President (played by Bruce Greenwood) to rid society of drug addicts wholesale sounded like it came straight out of the TV news, especially meaningful for Filipino viewers. 

For me, this film should have been rated an R-16 at least, and not R-13. It had graphically violent scenes (a man pushed into a meat-grinder shot from the top view!), sexy scenes (a close-up view of Eggsy's finger entering a girl's fuschia silk panties in order to insert a tracking device which we even follow inside her "vaginal vault"!), as well as many scenes of drugs and alcohol consumption. 

Overall, this film directed and co-written by Martin Vaughn was still an entertaining film to watch, even if it had some pretty messy excesses as symptoms of its "sequelitis". I also had misgivings about the premature demise of the Kingsman group in just the second film in the series. I felt this one would have been better as the last film of the trilogy, before transitioning to a planned separate Statesman franchise. 6/10. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review of MESSAGE FROM THE KING: Search for Sister

September 20, 2017

This film had a trailer which practically told you the gist of its story about a man searching for his missing sister. I immediately felt the intensity and intimacy of the film from that simple but compelling trailer. I wanted to know what happened to the sister and how he will find her, or maybe not. The story may be common, but the moody treatment by its Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz looked different and interesting.

From South Africa, Jacob King arrived in LAX planning to stay in Los Angeles for only a week with only $600 in cash and no credit cards. He wanted to look for his younger sister Bianca who sent him a cryptic distress call. From the get go, he discovered that Bianca fallen with the wrong people, mostly drug dealers and sex fiends. He knew then his search may not lead to anything good.

The story was told in a most straightforward manner. The events of Jacob's search were in linear order, with a few flashbacks of Jacob and Bianca's childhood playing in their home country to establish their closeness as siblings. As the search story unfolded though, it was not as simple as I initially thought it would be. 

There were three major bad guys that Bianca got herself involved with. These were the gangster Zico (Lucan Melkonian), the dentist Dr. Paul Wentworth (Luke Evans) and the filmmaker Mike Preston (Alfred Molina). There were also some druggies, like Bianca's slutty roommate Trish (Natalie Martinez) and their slimy dealer Frankie (Tom Felton). I thought the connections among these people were very well-written and plotted. 

At the end though, I I thought the all-important reason behind Bianca's fate in the film was not too clearly explained. There was an SD card among the clues Jacob found among Bianca's things, and we do see the video file in it was all about. However, I could not tell how the contents of that video could have led to what happened to Bianca. The director decided to let us imagine how it happened, instead of showing it to us. 

Chadwick Boseman was very good both in the intense physical and emotional aspects of Jacob King. We already saw him hit the box office big time as King T'challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther, in "Captain America: Civil War" (2016). Before that in 2014, Boseman played real life personalities like Jackie Robinson in "42" and James Brown in "Get On Up". He is also playing Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice of the US Supreme Court, in the upcoming film "Marshall". Things are indeed looking up for this actor's career.

Luke Evans plays it very smooth as Wentworth, even if he had to mouth some pretty silly dentist lines about teeth and personality. Alfred Molina can really milk everything out of even the shallowest characters like Preston, maximizing his every emotional moment to come up with a memorable three-dimensional portrayal. 

Teresa Palmer was deglamorized here to play Kelly, Jacob's next door neighbor who helped him out. Zimbabwean actress Sibongile Mlambo did not have a single line of dialogue as Bianca King, but her exotic vibe beauty made her stand out.

I liked the way the character of Jacob King was developed in the story. Right up to the very last scene, we learn something new about him. The way he used a bicycle chain as a deadly weapon was an original touch. While this was still a B-action revenge film at heart, but it done with artistic vision and flair. 6/10. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of MOTHER!: Struggling for Sense

September 21, 2017

Of all the movies released this year, this film had been the most polarizing, dividing critics who really loved it from those who really hated it. This controversy over this film's quality of course made me more curious to go see it in order to judge it for myself. This is director Darren Aronofsky's seventh film. Like "Requiem for a Dream" and "Black Swan," "Mother!" is also a surreal psychological drama. Like "The Fountain" and "Noah", "Mother!" also had biblical overtones.

The characters have no names. There is a famous middle-aged poet (called Him) and his much younger wife who lived in an isolated house. While the poet struggled to write a new masterpiece, his wife spent the days building up their house from ruins of a previous fire. Even if they loved each other, they did not have any children.

One day, a Man suddenly visited their house and confessed to be a big fan of the poet. Later, a nosy Woman came, whom the Man introduced as his wife. From there, the peaceful life of the poet and his wife was shattered with a series of increasingly bizarre intrusions. While the poet seemingly welcomed all the attention, the whole situation became a living nightmare for his wife.

As the wife was struggling to make sense of all the terrible madness that was going on in her own house, the audience too will be struggling to make sense of all the terrible madness that was going on on that big screen. You can pick up some Aronofsky's biblical inspirations in the jumble of scenes, like Cain and Abel in the first half, or the Paschal sacrifice in the second half (a most disturbing scene!). But some details defy simple explanation, like the yellow calming tonic, the secret room in the basement or the recurrent bloodstain on the rug.

The dynamic cinematography, especially those closeups and those crazy angles, was so "in your face" such that you cannot simply look away. Aronofsky and his "Black Swan" cinematographer Martin Libatique were definitely in the zone as far as the camera was concerned. The visual effects were also well done and kept the images on screen exciting.

Jennifer Lawrence really went through the wringer for this as her character was pushed to the brink of madness especially in that harrowing second half. The onslaught of physical exertion and emotional breakdown for her was relentless, plus she even had to give birth to a child! I could hardly breathe even as I am only watching her. I can only imagine how exhausting shooting this film was for her. 

Javier Bardem's character was such a paradox. He was loving and forgiving, but at the same time, he was so egotistical and narcissistic. For me, his was the most unsettling and potentially offensive character in the whole film. I dread to imagine what sort of symbolic message Aronofsky wants to say about God the Father with this character.

Ed Harris played the Man charismatically, the adoring fan who sought the poet out because of his mortality. Michelle Pfieffer though was downright nasty in her role as the Woman, so meddlesome and pushy, so hateful and hypocritical. Their two sons were played by the two Gleeson brothers, Domhnall playing the angry elder son, and Brian the favored younger son. There was no time to get to know them better as they went in and out of the scene with such shocking suddenness. 

Overall, the film works well to get us all thinking, confused and riled up. You cannot not react. It is not boring. It is supposed to be uncomfortable. It may astound you. It may irritate you. It will incite you to feel something about it - be it positive or negative. People behind the film intimate that this film was about the abuse of Mother Earth. It could be about how husbands can be so selfish in their relationships with wives, or of poets and their muses. For me, it could mean any form of abuse that will eventually head for disaster.  

It is not hard to see why people will either love or loathe this film. It is a piece of modern art which is very open to any interpretation by its various viewers. Mainstream viewers who look for a clearly-told story in the films they watch will not see it here. They will hate this film for wasting their time. However, people who like picking the brains of the director will enjoy the challenge of figuring out what the hell this film meant or was trying to say. 

As the credits roll up, it will be the viewer to decide whether he liked it or not. I personally may not agree with all the director's seemingly atheistic sense of religious allegory. However, as a film, I cannot deny that "Mother!" was a fascinating audacious piece of art cinema. 7/10. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review of THE MIMIC: Vocal Vagaries

September 17, 2017

It has been a long time since I had seen a truly creepy Korean ghost movie, and that was "A Tale of Two Sisters" way back 2003. "Train to Busan" (2015) had all those zombies but it was more of an action film, than horror. "The Wailing" (2016) had a malevolent demon, but it was more a gory murder film than ghostly. There are plenty more, but I do not get enough chances to see more of them. 

This latest K-Horror flick "The Mimic" is said to be the latest box-office winner in South Korea, and the first one to notch more than a million tickets sold in four years. I guess it was this proven box-office appeal that led it to be distributed in more Asian, European and American countries. I am always up for these foreign horror flicks especially those stories which employ unique local legends.

A young couple had moved into an isolated old house near the mountains with their daughter and the wife's demented mother. The wife Hee-yeon is still having a hard time dealing with the disappearance of their little boy a year or so ago. Her husband, who ran a dog shelter, Min-ho, tried very hard to keep normalcy in their household. 

One day, a disheveled little girl in a dirty red dress knocked on the door of their house. Hee-yeon decides to take her in but tarried in reporting her to the police. At first mute, the girl eventually called herself the name of their daughter Jun-hee, and actually sounded a lot like her as well, causing Hee-yeon to grow attached to her. Since then though, various familiar voices began to be heard around the house, then people began to disappear. 

The big portion of the film's uncomfortably creepy horror was thanks to the riveting performance of cute 8- year old child actress Shin Rin-ah as the mysterious little girl from the woods. She has an innocent lovable face, so you cannot blame Hee-yeon's impulsive decision to adopt this girl. This must have been a harrowing shoot for this child actress with all those traumatic scenes she had to do -- like getting stuffed into a porcelain jar, or sitting between two dogs holding a shard of mirror glass as protection, etc...

Yum Jung-ah, who played the spooked mother Hee-yeon here, was the same actress who played the spooked stepmother Eun-joo in "A Tale of Two Sisters". She has this thing she does with her eyes and that long black hair that make her perfect for looking scared in these horror flicks. Her Hee-yeon does the most illogical decisions given her circumstances, but then what horror film does not have a lead character who does not do these outrageously stupid decisions?

Park Hyuk-kwon portrays the father Min-ho. He basically plays supportive husband here, nothing much more. Heo Jin is the senior actress who plays Soon-ja, the grandmother with Alzheimer's disease. Her scenes where she was hearing voices of her older siblings were very unsettling. Gil-Hae-yeon played a blind neighborhood psychic who figured out what was wrong with Hee-yeon. I thought she should have used a wig to cover her modern hairstyle which did not fit her character. 

Lee Jun-hyeok (the actor who played Eunuch Jang in K-drama "Love in the Moonlight") was intimidating as the Middle Age Man possessed by the "Tiger of Mt. Jang" and was thus able to mimic voices to haunt people. Those scenes where he was trying to smash out of mirrors and crawling out of caves were the outright scariest scenes in the whole films that kept you at the edge of your seats. I wish they delved more about the Jangsan Tiger legend for the benefit of those unfamiliar with it. 

Overall, this film had all the horror elements done right especially in the sound effects mixing department. The acting of the two lead actresses Shin Rin-ah and Yum Jung-ah also drew us into the dramatic aspects of the story. However, I thought it had many loose ends in its storytelling for me to appreciate it more. I particularly did not like what happened inside the cave in the third act when a previously lost character suddenly came back out from out of nowhere. The unconventional ending may not be to everyone's liking. It did not work too well for me. 6/10.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of LOGAN LUCKY: Heist by Hicks

September 16, 2017

"Logan Lucky" is director Steven Soderbergh's comeback film since he temporarily "retired" from feature films last 2103 with "Side Effects" (MY REVIEW). The frenetic trailer made sure we are reminded us that he was the director of "Oceans 11" (2001) and its two sequels (2004 and 2007). This new film is clearly going to be a fun caper flick like those three were.

Unemployed father Jimmy Logan and his one-armed brother Clyde decide to stage an ambitious heist of the vault in the Charlotte Motor Speedway for much their needed cash. They conscript the services of convicted robber-explosives expert Joe Bang and his techie redneck brothers Fish and Sam for their expertise. However, they somehow have to spring Joe out of the penitentiary first before they can pull off their elaborate plans.

Because of the very rustic American flavor of life in rural West Virginia, this joyride of a film may not be that easy to get into at the start. There were also many characters involved, all with their thick accents, so it be confusing. However, once you get into that groove of Soderberg's style with this one and what he wanted to do, it does become engaging. The execution of the heist proper was tense, though it ended oddly. Surprisingly, the aftermath in Act 3 gives it heart. 

Channing Tatum looks heftier and more mature here as Jimmy Logan. He is an ex-football player, career cut short by a football injury. He is now a down-and-out father who desperately wants keep his close ties with his cute little daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), even when he was already divorced from her mother Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). This family dynamic gives the film its emotional core.

Adam Driver plays his stoic bartender brother Clyde. He lost his arm during his tour of dury as soldier in Iraq, so he currently wears a prosthetic arm. Driver seemed to only have one stern look on his face the whole film. Riley Keough played their accomplice sister Mellie, who was one mean, fast driver despite what her big hair and thick make-up would suggest.

The biggest transformation seen in this film is that by current James Bond himself Daniel Craig. Craig sports a short shock of platinum blonde hair and spouts an outrageously over-the-top accent to create a totally new character previously unseen from him. The trailer hilariously indicates Craig's name with the word "Introducing." How you like Craig's unconventional casting as this redneck bloke will most likely dictate how you like the film as a whole. It's one of those polarizing love-it-or hate-it things.

Bang's deceptively dimwitted brothers were played by up-and-coming second-generation actors Jack Quaid (son of Dennis) and Brian Gleeson (son of Brendan).

There are other minor characters who figure in the story, all played by name actors as well. Katherine Waterston played Sylvia Harrison, Jimmy's classmate back in high school who now runs a volunteer mobile clinic that runs on donations. Country music star Dwight Yoakam played Warden Burns, who would deny anything wrong that happened in his jail. 

An unrecognizable Seth McFarlane played a very annoying businessman named Max Chilblain, a minor comic villain in the story. Sebastian Stan played NASCAR champion Dayton White, a paragon of clean living. In the final act, Oscar-winner Hillary Swank makes a late appearance as Officer Sarah Grayson, who led the investigation of the heist.

The appreciation of this film depends on how you appreciate its redneck humor. There was random Game of Thrones joke thrown in there somewhere that felt out of place. The heist plot was straightforward enough, but Soderbergh and his mysterious new scriptwriter Rebecca Blunt had to stuff the film with all of these small supporting characters with sub-stories which may or may not go anywhere. 

This was not as slick or smooth as the Ocean's capers, but for me, it was still fun to watch unfold. We all like it when a plan comes together, but there were unbelievable scenes which would need you to suspend disbelief or overlook logic to get through them. 7/10. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review of AMERICAN MADE: Cruising with the CIA

September 14, 2017

This is one of the rare times I am seeing Tom Cruise with a smile on his face on a movie poster. The last time I remember he was smiling on a movie poster was "Jerry Maguire" and that was way back 1996! Even if I did not exactly know what this movie was about, I thought it would be interesting to see Tom Cruise in a happy, light-hearted role again. 

It was 1978 and Barry Seal was an outstanding pilot for TWA. Agent Monty Schafer convinces Seal to junk his stable job and work for the CIA. From taking overhead recon photos of terrain, Seal took on more dangerous CIA missions, like covert meetings with General Noriega in Panama and supplying arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. 

During these missions, Seal was also conscripted by the Medellin drug cartel composed of Ochoa, Rangel and Escobar to smuggle drugs into the USA. Because of these highly profitable but blatantly illegal activities, cash was literally bursting out of the seams of his house, hangar and banks in Mena, Arkansas. 

It was very good to see Tom Cruise as a hotshot pilot again, long after he took the skies 30 years ago in "Top Gun" (1986). He did his own flying and his own stunts in this new film as well. This was best seen in that hair-raising scene in his small airplane on auto-pilot while flying low over some Louisiana marshes, and Cruise was at the back throwing down packages of drugs leaving the cockpit totally empty.

In fact, it was great to see him in a role where he was totally relaxed and having fun again, unlike his intense grim personas in "Mission: Impossible" and "Jack Reacher". Cruise looked and felt like he was having the time of his life, flashing his famous toothy smile almost the whole 115 minute running time. I am sure Cruise's winning performance here wipes off any bad taste left by his "Mummy" reboot earlier this year.

Willowy Sarah Wright played Seal's wife Lucy Seal, a former fast food waitress. We get a hint of her redneck background when we meet her extremely trashy brother JB (annoyingly played by the pale and freckly Caleb Landry Jones), though she seemed to have outgrown it quite well. Domhnall Gleeson was rather unconvincing as Seal's CIA contact Monty Schafer, but understandable in the light of this film\s humorous attack on the subject.

The story of drug courier/gun-runner Barry Seal was dead serious, but the treatment of the film by director Doug Liman was light and breezy. Liman, whose previous box office hits were "The Bourne Identity" (2002), "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (2005) and "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014, also with Cruise), has once again proven his ability to tell an entertaining story. 

While it may feel a bit long towards the third act, my attention was held to the end. I found it is quite educational about the controversies during the Reagan years in recent American history. I have heard of Manuel Noriega, Sandanistas and Contras, Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Iran-Contra affair in my youth, but I confess that I did not really much about these foreign issues. Watching this film cleared up a lot of the historical connections of these entities. It sparked my interest to read more about what really went on in these unbelievable (yet true) events depicted in the movie. 8/10. 

Review of THE LAST FACE: Romance Among Refugees

September 13, 2017

The two lead stars are both winners of acting Oscars -- Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, two of the best actors now who could not seem to go wrong with anything they do. The director also has an Oscar to his name -- Sean Penn. The combination of star power in this film is just so potent it is difficult to resist the temptation to go watch it.

Dr. Wren Petersen is now the head of an aid organization called "Medecins du Monde". The film looks back to 2003, when Wren worked as a physician among the refugees in West Africa which was in the throes of civil war. She met and fell in love with Dr. Miguel Leon, another doctor working in the same war-torn fields. The harrowing nature of their risky career advocacy would take a toll on their relationship. Can their love pull them through? 

I'd like to think that Theron and Bardem did the best with the roles they're given, but even their talents and good will could not pull their film out from being a boring and unengaging 132 minute affair. Disappointingly, the two actors did not have much chemistry with each other, so scenes about their relationship tend to feel forced and tedious. 

To his credit, Bardem did look convincing as a brave and very dedicated doctor. His Dr. Miguel was confident in his surgical skills even in the direst of emergencies, and Bardem acts believably so.  On the other hand, Theron was uncharacteristically awkward, both in her scenes as a sensitive field medic, or in the glamorous charity dinner she was hosting. It was so unlike her.

The film only becomes interesting when the story shifts to the refugees and the violent horrors they experience. These scenes of senseless brutality against the villagers jolted my senses as a medical professional as I try to see myself in the shoes of the medical volunteers (I frankly couldn't). The peak was this intense father-and-son scene just before the second hour which was a terrifying shock to witness. 

The initial scene compared the brutality of their love to that of the wars in Africa itself, which started the film on a rather absurd note. Director Sean Penn was trying hard to make their love story look and feel more important than it was by using various "artistic" camera techniques. He was telling their love story by flashing back and forth different times and places, which only succeeded in making it more confusing. 

You have all the turmoil and suffering of war going on, yet the film focuses on a pair of "white saviors" falling in love. The whole scenario and underlying premise of the film just felt wrong. Even the Oscar pedigrees of its stars and director could not save it. 4/10.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review of THE BEGUILED (2017 vs. 1971): Suppressed Sexuality

September 10, 2017

"The Beguiled" gained prominent critical buzz earlier this year when its director Sofia Coppola won Best Director in the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. She was only the second female director ever to win Best Director at Cannes since Russian Yuliya Solntseva won in 1961 for "Chronicle of Flaming Years". This week, this film is being showed commercially in only Trinoma and Greenbelt 1 malls as a very limited Ayala Exclusive.

The setting is during the Civil War in Virginia, in a girls school run by Ms. Martha Farnsworth. At that time, there were only seven ladies in the school, namely Ms. Martha, a teacher Ms. Edwina Morrow, and five students Alicia, Jane, Amy, Emily and Marie.  One day, while out picking mushrooms for dinner, little Amy came across a Yankee soldier Cpl. John McBurney who had a severely injured leg. 

Ms. Martha decides to take him into her house and nurse his leg wound before turning him over to Confederate authorities. However, all the ladies begin to show fondness for the handsome and charming soldier to the point that they were actually competing for his attention. Things take a more serious turn one night when John decides to visit one of them in her bedroom, and set off a complicated chain of unfortunate events in the school.

The setting of the stately Southern mansion with its expansive gardens provided the steamy atmosphere required for this 19th century female sexual politics. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd seemed to have filmed this with a smoky filter to enhance that sultry air. The slow genteel manners and beautiful gowns of the period heighten the tension and actually provide some delightful humor along the way, especially in the second act. 

Nicole Kidman played the practical headmistress Ms. Martha. Kirsten Dunst played the naive virgin Ms. Edwina. Elle Fanning played the sensual teenager Alicia. Colin Farrell played the man of their fantasies John McBurney. All of them portray their roles very restrained but effectively, engaging the audience into their complicated story of frustration and jealousy during a conservative time when a lady was expected to be prim and proper when it comes to matters of sex. 7/10. 


2017 Sofia Coppola film was all good. However, there is the matter that it is actually a remake of a 1971 Don Seigel film of the same title. No less than man's man Clint Eastwood played John McBurney. Geraldine Page played the pragmatic Ms. Martha. Elizabeth Hartman was the virtuous Ms. Edwina. Jo Ann Harris was the lusty teenager named Carol (renamed Alicia in the new film). 

The Coppola remake made some significant changes from the original film. As much as each one is an individual work of cinematic art, one can also not help but compare the two interpretations of the same story. 

First of all, the original film had one black slave Hallie (Mae Mercer) in the mansion with the white ladies. I think the dynamics around the household was more realistic that way. Her opinion of McBurney as a black woman was interesting.There was significant talk between John and Hallie about being prisoners in the house. 

Nicole Kidman's Ms. Martha was more glamorous looking than Ms. Page's. However, Ms. Page was given much more to do than Ms. Kidman. Compared to Ms. Page's Martha, Ms. Kidman's Martha had limited interaction with John McBurney, which was unfortunate as the sexual tension between these two characters was an important aspect of the story. I wonder why Ms. Coppola abbreviated and weakened Ms. Kidman's Martha significantly when compared to the original.

The previous Ms. Martha had an uncomfortable back story of incest. There was a scene when Ms. Martha actually lied to protect John from patrolling soldiers who saw him. Both of these were absent in the new film. A very tense scene of Ms. Martha talking to lecherous Southern soldiers was muted in the new one. Ms. Martha's horrific surgery scene in the dining table was surprisingly more graphic in the old film than the new. The idea of how to deal with McBurney came from one of the girls in the new film, not Ms. Martha.

Similarly, Colin Farrell could not hold a candle to Clint Eastwood's portrayal of John McBurney in terms of raw machismo. Coppola's decision to keep Farrell covered up with dressing gowns did not help his cause. Eastwood's John was more the manipulator, while Farrell's John felt more manipulated. 

The 1971 film was more frankly sexual than the 2017 one. There was even a psychedelic menage-a-trois sex scene between Eastwood, Page and Hartman (complete with a glimpse of two females kissing) which ended in a tableau similar to that of a religious painting on Ms. Martha's wall. This was totally absent in the new film. 

The main story of Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel of the same title about one Union soldier trapped in a Southern mansion full of ladies (could it be Stephen King's inspiration for "Misery"?) was basically the same in both films. However, I found the screenplay of the original film, credited to John B. Sherry (Albert Maltz) and Grimes Grice (Irene Kamp), to be clearer and more detailed in its storytelling compared to Sofia Coppola's more ambiguous adaptation. 8/10.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Review of THE VAULT: Haunted Heist

September 8, 2017

The poster was haphazard Photoshop montage of cheesy images. I did not know any of the actors except for one -- James Franco. However, I chanced upon part of the trailer, and I thought it had a story which actually looked interesting despite the obvious B-movie vibe. I decided to give it a chance. 

A gang of bank robbers (2 females and 3 males) stage a daring heist in Centurion Bank. Frustrated by the small loot they got , the robbers argue among themselves what to do next. Unexpectedly, an intrepid bank employee directs them to go raid the main vault located in the basement because that is where the bulk of cash was stashed. When the robbers break into the old vault, then diabolical events begin to happen. 

Well, as could be expected, the acting was so-so, really B-movie level. Taryn Manning was really over-the-top as the more violent, more redneck sister Vee. But to give her credit, her Vee would be scary to encounter at any time. Francesca Eastwood played the total opposite character, cooler and calmer as the fairer sister Leah. You knew their combination was going to explode big time with their latent dislike for each other. 

Scott Haze played their sensitive brother Michael for whose debts this whole heist had been planned to pay off. His Michael was very soft-spoken and kind, you can feel why the sisters are doing this for him. However, it did not connect well to why they are doing this at all. There was not enough back story for us to know these siblings better to care about them. 

James Franco played the employee Ed, who knew everything about the bank. Franco portrayed the mysterious character relaxed and convincing, as he should. You can tell that Franco knew this was a B-film, and was playing it with cheesy glee. I can't say I did not see the ending coming, but the build-up to the surprise revelations was not bad. 

The bags on the head of the hostages do give an unsettling vibe throughout. There are schlocky gory horror parts that can make you look away from the screen. Director Dan Bush was able to give the whole thing a sense of urgency and tension with the camera angles, editing and sound effects mixing. Not that bad as you may think, but undeniably does not rise above being a B-horror flick. 5/10. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review of IT (2017): Fed by Fear

September 7, 2017

Stephen King is one best-selling author whose every book it seems gets turned into a movie, with varying results. His novels "Carrie", "The Shining" and "1408" have been turned into horror classics. "Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile," and "Stand By Me" are examples of dramatic gems that also came from his writings. This new film based on another King novel will probably be added among the best for both horror and drama genres.

It was 1988 in the town of Derry in Maine. Many kids have gone missing and cannot be found. One of them was Billy's younger brother Georgie whom we saw being attacked by a carnivorous clown who lived in the town sewers named Pennywise. All the other kids in the town, including Billy and his gang "The Losers Club" (bespectacled joker Richie, health nut Eddie and nervous Jewish boy Stanley) all begin to see their worst fears coming true. 

Together with other bullied kids in the neighborhood who also see ghastly visions of their own -- obese newcomer Ben, sheep farm boy Mike and troubled redhead Beverley -- Billy went to search for his brother in an old abandoned Well House where all the sewer tunnels converge. Pennywise himself is inside, eagerly waiting for all of them to come in so he can swallow them all up one by one.

The terrifying performance of 27-year old Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown realistically looked and felt like evil incarnate. I had seen some of Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise in the two-part 1990 TV version of "It" and that cemented my queasiness for clowns (if not outright coulrophobia). Because of the darker and more elaborate visual and sound effects at the disposal of this new film version, Skarsgård's Pennywise looked, sounded and felt even more sinister and diabolical than ever.

Aside from Jaeden Lieberher whom I had seen before doing excellent work in the film "Midnight Special" (2016) (MY REVIEW), all the rest of the kids are all unfamiliar to me. Despite this, all of them do very effectively in their roles to convey complex emotions, not only of fear and horror, but also teenage angst and individual character quirks. Unlike many child performers in other films, they never came across as annoying and cloying. For me, their group chemistry felt like that from "Stand By Me." There was also a Steven Spielberg vibe in the treatment of the children's stories.

Lieberher, as Billy, gave an impressive restrained portrayal of a loving, grieving brother. Also standing out was 80s Molly Ringwald-lookalike (a fact the script also acknowledged) Sophia Lillis as Beverley, whose "Carrie" moment was the stuff of intense nightmares. Cute chubby Jeremy Ray Taylor who played Ben, the Derry historian and secret admirer, was also remarkable for his subtle acting. Nicolas Hamilton, who played the violent neighborhood bully Henry Bowers, also made an impact with his moments of severe psychosis in this film's most upsetting scenes.

I will not spoil the gory details but I personally will rate this R-18 or For Adults Only. Even if the kid characters in the film are from 13-15 years old, the things some of them did were extremely unsettling and downright unspeakable. Speaking as a parent, I would not want my kids to watch these very disturbing scenes played out between these kids and their parents, all of whom were given pretty unflattering portraits, from cold to controlling to corrupt. More terrible was the frightening way how these kids actually settled this score with their folks. 

Even if I fully knew what it meant for the story, there was one particular scene between Billy and Georgie that for me is totally for mature audiences only. Seeing the absolutely adorable Jackson Robert Scott in that scene, I confess I could not bear to look at the screen, knowing fully well what was going to happen next. I was still aghast when it actually happened. I am afraid younger kids might take this sensitive scene the wrong way, especially because it dealt with two children who happened to be brothers. 

 Argentine director Andy Muschietti, whose only previous film was "Mama" (2103) (MY REVIEW), blurred the line between real evil and imagined evil. The real life horrors experienced by the kids were actually more dangerous here than the fantastic ones. Or were they all real? This film tells us that there was a difference between a child's reality and an adult's reality. In one scene, a child sees an entire bathroom splashed up with blood, but an adult does not. Which is real and which is imagined then? 

Such nebulous distinction of reality, coupled with the engaging performances of the kids, kept the suspense and tension afloat and made the whole story interesting to the very end, despite those disquieting elements I've stated above. Count this among the well-made Stephen King book turned movies. This film felt like it had closure, but it is just Chapter I. I am looking forward to see the promised Chapter II. 8/10. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review of THE BATTLESHIP ISLAND: Suspense and Symbolism

September 3, 2017

There is another Korean movie released in local cinemas this week, and it is their latest blockbuster. This film had reportedly already overtaken the box-office take of the big 2015 hit "Train to Busan." One of the big reasons why this Korean war movie is being released locally is that popular Korean heartthrob Song Joong-ki, breakout star of the phenomenal K-drama "Descendant of the Sun" stars in it. My daughter made sure we go watch it.

The film is set during the homestretch of World War II. In February 1945, a group of Koreans from Gyeongsong were captured by Japanese forces. The men, including the gregarious band leader Lee Kang-ok and the street gangster Choi Chil-seong, were sent to work in the forced labor coal mine camp of Hashima (Battleship Island). The females, including Lee Kang-ok's precocious daughter So-hee and the jaded Mallyon, were herded to the comfort women station there. 

By July 1945, a skilled young Liberation Party soldier Park Moo-young was sent to infiltrate the island in order to rescue Mr. Yoon Hak-chul, a revered leader of the Korean independence movement, being held captive there. In the course of his mission, Park uncovered big anomalies perpetrated by the island's manager Shimazaki. This led to his decision to deviate majorly from his original plan and organize the grand escape of all the Koreans prisoners out of there.

Like "The Age of Shadows" (MY REVIEW), this film also touches on another tragic episode of Japanese atrocities against Koreans during World War II. This film was very graphic in showing the dangerous conditions inside the cramped mine shafts, as well as the inhuman living conditions in the camp. The injuries sustained were all very graphically depicted, with gore and broken bones exposed. The Japanese were portrayed to be one-dimensional villains here, led by the slimy Shimazaki and his fanatical second-in-command Yamada. 

Song Joong-ki mainly played it purely heroic from beginning to end as Park Moo-young. You know his character is as noble as it can get, straight as an arrow. His looks and carriage distinguish him clearly from all the other Koreans despite the thick grime on their skin. His plans all work. His body is invincible. He can do no wrong. 

The other Korean characters were given more dimensions by the script. Lee Kang-ok, a father who would do anything to protect his daughter, is played by prolific actor Hwang Jung-min, whom I had seen before in "Ode to My Father" (MY REVIEW). Lee's daughter So-hee, the song and dance attraction of his nightclub act, was played by Kim Su-an, the same child actress who played Gong-yoo's daughter in "Train to Busan" (MY REVIEW). As before, she was given a lot of dramatic scenes with copious tears flowing to get the audience to cry along.

Choi Chil-seong, a gangster with a tough exterior but a heart of gold, was played by So Ji-sub, who had starred in K-dramas "Master Sun" and "Oh My Venus." Mallyon, a gutsy comfort woman with sharpshooter skills, is played by Lee Jung-hyun, a popular actress and K-pop singer. Yoon Hak-chul, a respected leader figure with some serious secrets, is played with cool dignity by Lee Kyoung-young, a veteran character actor. 

The highlight of the whole film was the fantastic, though totally fictional, escape of the Korean prisoners by climbing up and crossing via a long metal scaffold to land on a waiting ship to safety. From a logical point of view, the escape of more than 400 Koreans this precarious way looked like a total impossibility, especially at the rate they were doing it. All of this while an explosive gunbattle was going on under them! We need to suspend all disbelief throughout this scene to appreciate its suspense and symbolism.

The history lesson is interesting, though it was hard to tell fact from fiction. They did tie in the end to the dropping of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki to ground the story in fact. The film attempted to squeeze in a lot of subplots which made it seem too complicated. Also, the melodrama may have been a bit too much at the end as director Ryoo Seung-wan went all out to milk it. Nevertheless, it is always heartening to watch films from any country that expresses patriotic sentiments. 7/10. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Review of PAUWI NA: Pedaling from Perdition

September 1, 2017

There had been a lot of good word of mouth about this film when it won six major prizes in the first ToFarm filmfest last year, notably Best Actor for Bembol Roco and Best Actress of Cherry Pie Picache. Two weeks ago, this was chosen as one of the featured films during the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Both times I missed this. Fortunately, the PPP films had extended showings in selected SM cinemas as part of its Cine Lokal program. Luckily, I was finally able to see it on  the last day of its extended run.

Pedicab driver Mang Pepe made a living delivering various loads around in the big market place. His family lived a miserable dead-end life in an urban slum area To help augment their financial requirements, his wife Remedios accepts laundry, his daughter Pina sold cigarettes, his son JP worked in construction but did petty thefts on the side. JP had a blind pregnant wife Isabel, who can see the resurrected Jesus Christ with her in their hovel.

One day, Mang Pepe was able to get his hands on a big amount of money but kept this secret from his family. Instead he tells them all that he wants to pull out of the slum life they've led for the past 10 years, and go back home to their (unnamed) province. So the next day, all five of them and their pet dog Kikay rode two pedicabs and embarked on a very long, dusty, difficult road trip back home. 

There have been a number of parallelisms made about this movie and another PPP movie "Patay Na Si Hesus". Both films have a family going on a long road trip with their pet dog. Both films had Chai Fonacier playing the daughter (but two very different characters). Both films also have a character named Hesus (one is the dead husband, the other is supposedly the real one). Their similarities though end with those similar elements. At their core, these are two very different films. 

Unlike "Patay" which is a black slapstick comedy first with dramatic elements, "Pauwi" is a serious drama first with occasional dark humor. The exhausting road trip of "Pauwi" was fraught with problems, frustrations and troubles day after day. Since they were only riding open pedicabs, they are constantly exposed to dangers of traffic, the elements, hunger and unsavory people. They just have their guts, wits and sense of humor to get them through, and of course, there is Jesus Himself traveling with them.

Bembol Roco plays the father Mang Pepe and Cherry Pie Picache plays the mother Aling Remy. These two veteran actors really gave sincere and moving performances. Not only were their roles physically demanding, it was also very emotionally draining for both of them. That one scene where Aling Remy was asking Mang Pepe about this bad cough was probably enough to win them the awards by itself. Roco did not say anything in that scene, but his face and tears bared his very soul. 

Jerald Napoles plays the lazy rascal JP like it was second nature to him. Of all the characters, his was rather one-dimensional and not too well-developed as written. It was also hard to believe that he was the son of Picache when they looked like they were the same age (in reality Picache is 13 years older), especially in that apology scene at the church. 

Chai Fonacier also plays Pina very naturally, like how we saw her in in "Patay na si Hesus" and "Respeto". We feel her internal struggle here -- stay loyal to family or to break free and claim her future. Her scene waiting out the rain under a shed with the priest was wordless yet it was so effectively unsettling.

As Isabel, Meryl Soriano was a breath of fresh air amidst all the dirt and grime of this film. She was the one who looked clean the whole time. The film did not really introduce how she developed such a personal tactile relationship with Jesus, but we just accept the situation that it was out of the purity of her heart. 

Jess Mendoza may have played sinners in "Baconaua" and "Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig", but he played Jesus Christ himself here. It was puzzling when he was first introduced looking through the nail hole in the palm of his hand, wearing a crown of barbed wire on his head, but we get the drift soon enough.  He intervenes at the most opportune moments and makes the most intriguing commentary about religion and about life. 

The topic of abject poverty and what it pushes people to do is not easy to watch. Director Paolo Villaluna wisely breaks the harrowing street scenes with fantasy scenes of the family in finery and ballroom dancing. This potentially depressing film redeems itself by promoting family unity and bonding against all odds. Seeing the family smiling in the face of such hardship gives us pause to reflect about our own lives and our relatively petty concerns compared to theirs. 7/10.