Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review of PAPILLON (2018 vs. 1973): Journal of a Jailbreak

September 30, 2018

In 1933, safecracker Henri Charrière (alias "Papillon" for the butterfly tattoo on his chest) from Paris was framed and convicted for murder and was sent to a notorious penal colony in French Guiana -- Devil's Island. There, the brawny Charriere offered to protect weak eccentric counterfeiter Louis Dega in exchange for financial support. Unfazed by the harsh conditions, hard labor and solitary confinement, Charriere and Dega still persevered in their daring plan to escape this prison which prided itself for being unescapable.

There had been already been a movie version of Henri Charriere's 1969 memoirs "Papillon" back in 1973 directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who also directed "Planet of the Apes" and "Patton" before this). Written by Dalton Trumbo ("Roman Holiday", "Exodus") and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. ("The Parallax View", "Three Days of the Condor"), the original "Papillon" film starred Hollywood A-listers Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles of Charriere and Dega.  

In my opinion, Charlie Hunnam is a bland leading man. Even in good films like "Pacific Rim" (2013) and "The Lost City of Z" (2016), his performances were not really that memorable. He felt miscast in the lead role of King Arthur in last year's Guy Ritchie reboot of the legendary king. His portrayal of Henri Charriere in this film may actually be one of his best performances already, but again it will always be (fairly or not) compared with Steve McQueen's effortlessly macho portrayal, so so much for making a strong impression. 

Rami Malek gave a restrained sensitive performance here as Louis Dega. He did not pick up those autistic tics Dustin Hoffman gave his bespectacled Dega several years before he won the Oscar for playing the similiar autistic tics in "Rain Man." Malek had already won an Emmy award for his lead performance in the TV drama series "Mr. Robot" in 2016, but for many, Malek is still an unknown quantity. Things will change in a major way when we finally see him portray Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody" later on this year.

The bulk of the 20 minute difference in running time between the 1973 and 2018 version was the part about the escape. In the original, there was a more detailed depiction of the planning of their escape. The parts about that scam with the first boat, and how Henri talked to lepers to get a new one were all deleted in the remake. Later, we see Henri's idyllic life with a native tribe with topless island girls and a chief who also wanted a butterfly tattoo on his chest. He had to travel by bus later to hide out in a convent of nuns. In the remake, the islanders and the righteous nun were just condensed into one faster-paced sequence. 

In addition, the new version of "Papillon" gave us a little introduction to Charriere's life of crime prior to his incarceraton. This was merely mentioned in conversations in the original film. The depiction of Devil's Island at the final act of the film was also very different. In the original, the island looked a quiet settlement where Dega had a nice house where he can cook up a decent lunch. This made Dega's final decision more logical than in the remake, where the island only had terribly rundown buildings as shelter. 

This 2018 remake of "Papillon" by Danish director Michael Noer joined the ever-growing list of unnecessary remakes of films already considered classics. The 70s had been a particular favorite decade of these needless reworkings, the likes of "The Poseidon Adventure", "The Taking of Pelham 123", "Carrie", "Halloween", " Murder on the Orient Express", "Death Wish" -- all not doing their original versions any favors. This new "Papillon" was not bad by any means, but I felt it just did not have to be redone anymore.

Papillon 2018: 7/10. Papillon 1973: 8/10.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Review of EXES BAGGAGE: Reviving a Relationship

September 27, 2018

During the inauguration of a bar owned by their common friends Tops and Reyna (Dino Ignacio and Dionne Monsanto), exes Nix Cabangon and Pia Madrigal met for the first time since they broke up two years ago. Flashbacks would show us how they met, how their friendship grew into love, how they lived together under one roof, and later, how their relationship came to an end. Now that their roads have crossed again, is there a chance for them to get together again as a couple?

We learned about Pia's former relationship with Migz (Joem Bascon), who was a married man; as well as Nix's former relationship with Dwein (Coleen Garcia) who was his only ex whom he almost married. Encounters with these two former partners also proved problematic between Nix and Pia, especially when their idyllic romance eventually began to take a turn for the worse with time. As insecurities and jealousy reared their ugly head, they learned more about each other from the way they dealt with their previous lovers.

Director Dan Villegas is already a master with the rom-com genre. He started in 2014 with "English Only Please,"  and since then, his films, mostly romcoms like "The Breakup Playlist" (2015), "How to be Yours" (2016), "All of You" (2017), had been commercial hits at the box office. With his storytelling skill and pacing, the love story of Nix and Pia was quite engaging even when only told through the daily mundane situations and conversations between them, as written by Dwein Baltazar (who gave her unique name to Nix's ideal ex). Everything was very relatable. There were no fancy occasions here, nor any out-of-town trip to a local or foreign destination, as most romcoms nowadays tend to do. 

The life of this film was Angelica Panganiban's portrayal of the free-spirited real-estate broker Pia. She was a loud and bubbly type of person, who drank alcohol and smoked. She's not shy to make the first move on a guy to get him to go to bed with her. Angelica had the energy and humor we expect from her, as in "Here Comes the Bride" (2010) and "That Thing Called Tadhana" (2014), but it was her dramatic scenes here that can really tug at you, like they did in "One More Try" (2012) and "The Unmarried Wife" (2106). 

In contrast, Carlo Aquino gave a more restrained performance as introverted furniture designer Nix. There seemed to be nothing in common between him and Pia, and she was a world away from his very formal ex Dwein. But their mismatched relationship seemed so right as we saw it unfold on the screen, very sincere and real, which is why we were all rooting for it to succeed. That was why it also hurt us so much to see them drift apart because of lingering "ex baggage" issues that constantly intervened. 

The love theme song "Maybe the Night" certainly added more romantic thrill and emotional feels to the viewing experience. We hear the original Ben&Ben version on the radio the first time Nix drove Pia home. Then we actually hear Nix himself sing the song to Pia the first time he visited Pia's new condo. Finally, we hear the song sung by a band called Midnight Meetings in a bar where they ran into each other again. This beautiful song was an integral part of this film's story and appeal. 

As a parent of teenagers, I was surprised that the MTRCB rated this film PG, despite scenes of pre-marital sex and living together without marriage. I guess this more liberal standard of morality may actually be the norm nowadays, since the previous blockbuster film also featuring an unmarried couple living in together, "The Hows of Us," was also rated PG. For "Exes," the PG rating was justified because it "served as warning to young viewers regarding relationships." The MTRCB even waxed poetic about it: "What you see is not what you get. What you get is also not what you see." Extraordinary.

Honestly, it cannot be denied that romantic plots about exes are very common, and it had already been tackled in many different ways in both local or foreign films. The clinicher for this particular one that made it specially stand out was the casting coup of getting Angelica Panganiban and Carlo Aquino to play the roles of exes Pia and Nix. The known fact that Angelica and Carlo were actually exes in real life definitely added further vivid color into their already sizzling onscreen chemistry. 8/10.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review of PEPPERMINT: Avenging Angel

September 27, 2018

Riley North saw her husband Chris and daughter Carly gunned down in cold blood. She was able to identify the three killers in the police line-up, but the case was still dismissed because of  "insufficient evidence." Five years later, Los Angeles was the scene of a series of bizarre murders. All the victims all had one thing in common -- they are connected directly to the terrible miscarriage of justice against Riley North and her family. 

Ok, yes, it is another revenge movie. It has been a very familiar plot in action films to have a typically mild-mannered person who suffered a major crime rise up to maim and kill everyone responsible for his tragic circumstances. We see a lot of male protagonists in this type of film: from "Death Wish" (1974) to "The Punisher" (2004), from "Mad Max" (1980) to "Payback" (1999), from "Taken" (2009) to "John Wick" (2014). 

A female protagonist in a revenge film may not be that common, but they count among the best in the genre. Among the most memorable ones would be "Carrie" (1976) with Sissy Spacek, "Kill Bill" (2003) with Uma Thurman, "The Brave One" (2007) with Jodie Foster, and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011) with Rooney Mara. A new lady vigilante joins their ranks with this new film "Peppermint". 

The main reason to watch this film is lead actress Jennifer Garner who played Riley North. Garner burst into mainstream fame and critical acclaim playing the role of Sidney Bristow in the classic action TV series "Alias" which ran for five seasons from 2001 to 2006. This led to superhero films "Daredevil"(2003) and "Elektra" (2005). However, since then, she stayed away from action films, starring mainly in unremarkable romances and dramas, until now. 

At 46, Garner is much older now, but she can still kick ass like she used to do, although the there were more shadows, more closeups and more quick cuts this time around. True to the formula, the means by which she killed the bad people who victimized her and her family had to be ultraviolent and explosive. Within five years, this simple banker / housewife gained unmatched survival skills to make her invincible and unbeatable going against an entire drug gang and the LAPD. Fans wanted it that way, and we got it. 

From the very first scene we already see her killing someone, before the flashback to five years ago followed. It was an strange choice for director Pierre Morel (who also directed "Taken" nine years ago) to have kept the precise way she cornered and killed the three primary gunmen off the screen. We only saw them hanging from the ferris wheel of the carnival where the murders happened. There would have been more gratification to see exactly HOW she did this all on her own.

Aside from the seemingly trivial mention of "peppermint" as the flavor of ice cream Carly chose before she was gunned down, it was quite a mystery for me why the entire movie was entitled this way. Anyhow, we may find out some time in the future, as the possibility for a sequel was left open at the end. 6/10.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review of NAKALIMUTAN KO NANG KALIMUTAN KA: Heavy on the "Hugot"

September 25, 2018

Jaz was very devastated with the sudden disappearance of her boyfriend Migs the day after he proposed to marry her. Try as she may, Jaz could never move on from her shock and hurt at Mig's unexpected departure She even considered to undergo "heart replacement surgery" by a certain in-demand Dr. Rolex at the "Clinic of the Desperately Hurt" to forget her unendurable woes and recover her lost life.

To help Jaz move on, her best friend Kimpoy decided to bring her along to his vlogging trip to Bataan. Unbeknownst to Kimpoy, he brought Jaz to visit the same exact places (the Oriental Bataan Hotel, Sisiman Lighthouse, Five Fingers, the Ruined Bar) where she and Migs first met and fell in love a year ago. Instead of recovering, Jaz relived her happy memories with Migs, which further plunged her deeper in her sadness.

"Hugot" is the Filipino word to describe statements that carry deep emotional meaning, usually applied to a failed romantic relationship. The script of this whole movie is steeped in so much "hugot." Practically every line uttered by by the unceremoniously dumped Jaz was a major "hugot" line. Kimpoy also had his share of "hugot" lines as he nursed his ego hurt by a long unrequited love. One of the highlights of this film was Juan Miguel Severo delivering an impassioned freeverse "hugot" poem entitled "Wet Pillow" -- wet with tears, of course.

The beautiful love theme song of this film "Let Me Be the One" was written and originally recorded by pop balladeer Jimmy Bondoc in 2004. Like everything else, the lyrics of this song are also a bunch of eloquently painful "hugot" lines about letting a loved one go set to a gently heart-rending tune. In the film, we hear it sung first by Migs during a jamming session. We hear it again sung by Keiko Necesito to accompany scenes showing the events on the night Migs left Jaz. 

I know Alex Gonzaga as a vibrant comedienne on TV but we do not see her smile too much in this one, except in those happy flashback scenes. However despite this, Alex was still very funny in her exagerrated scenes where she was wallowing in self-pity. She was delivering all those "hugot" lines with a serious deadpan face, but still came across as a rib-tickling delight. There were times when all these emotional "feels" can get repetitive and tiresome, but Alex's charm can still win you over in any case, most of the time. 

Vin Abrenica was charming chap as Migs, and it was clear why Jaz fell head over heels for him. The audience was made to come up with a plausible reason why Migs did what he did because there was no scene clearly explaining his exact reason. Jerrold Napoles played a caring guy who simply could not get any girl to like him more than just a friend. The script directly made fun of his unattractive face and oily skin, but for me, there was clearly no chemistry between him and the girl of his dreams here.

This film was written and directed by Fifth Solomon, his feature film debut. Fifth first gained public attention when he and his twin brother Fourth joined Pinoy big Brother in 2014. He was noted for a controversial confession of being a bisexual, a fact that became a joke in the film. There were a number of PBB alumni in small roles, like Jason Gainza (as a janitor), Joj and Jai Agpangan (as Dr. Rolex assistants) and Loisa Andales (as herself). 

Candy Pangilinan played Dr. Rolex, who gleefully discussed for us the steps of the "Loved and Dumped" syndrome, namely: hoping for nothing, feeling alone in the world, feeling angry at the world and accepting your loss.  Some surprise cameos include Ruffa Mae Quinto (as the sexy but quarrelsome patient), Ricci Chan (as a job interviewer), Cai Cortez (the clinic endorser on TV) and Toni Gonzaga (as a tricycle driver). 

Knowing how romantic Filipinos are, this film and its plethora of mostly well-written "hugot" will definitely connect with its audience, especially those who, for one reason or the other, are not in a relationship. Maybe watching this film, seeing how absurd how getting stuck in misery over a lost love can be and getting a good laugh out of it might actually help "desperately hurt" romantics move on. 6/10. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

Review of THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS: Horological Hauntings

September 23, 2018

It was 1955. Ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt went to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan after both his parents passed away suddenly. His uncle's house was a creepy old mansion which had unusual furniture and macabre decorations. It had countless clocks hanging all over its walls to mask the unbearable ticking of a clock hidden within one of its walls. As Lewis tried to fit into his new home and school, Lewis learned about the magical nature of his uncle, their neighbor Florence Zimmerman, and the late Isaac Izard, the former owner of the house who now wanted to come back from the dead.

At first, I thought this would be a fantasy film, like "A Wrinkle in Time" earlier this year (which almost caused me to give this one a miss). I was surprised that it turned out to be a HORROR film -- for kids! When the closing credits started to roll and I saw the name of Eli Roth as director, I was taken aback. Roth was notorious for his graphic horror films like "Hostel" (2005) and "The Green Inferno" (2013). But of course, Roth gave this one a kid-friendly thrills and gore, slimy and disgusting as kids love it. Even I enjoyed that scene with the attack of the evil Jack O'Lanterns with their bright orange goo they barfed out. 

The most Rated SPG (Strict Parental Guidance) horror scene was the cemetery scene where Lewis performed a necromantic occult blood ritual to impress a popular kid at school. That scary scene was executed to give young kids nightmares. Like the Harry Potter films, there were some fantastic beasts here too, such as the topiary lion who had poor toilet training. The rest of horror techniques Roth employed ranged from sudden little jump scares to very creepy life size doll scenes. 

With his perpetual naughty little boy personality, Jack Black is really a natural for these darker kiddy films, although his casting was not really too imaginative because of he already starred in a similar-veined "Goosebumps" just three years ago. With Jack Black in the cast, this might as well have been the sequel of that kiddie horror film, only that the real sequel "Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween" will still come out later on this year (without Black). Since "School of Rock" (2003), we know Black worked well with kids, and same here.

Owen Vaccaro played Lewis, a likeable little misfit with his Captain Midnight goggles and bow tie. He had to deal with the death of his parents and getting along with his wacky uncle, at the same time trying to make friends in a new school, and learning to unleash the magic within him. Vaccaro tends to overact in some scenes though, especially the crying scenes. 

Cate Blanchett I feared might be ill-fit for her role here as a stern but friendly witch, but of course the talented actress proved me wrong. She matched Black joke for joke in the comedy department, of course, with her trademark classy finesse. It was good to see Kyle MacLachlan again playing the sinister Isaac Izard, obsessed with world destruction. Renée Elise Goldsberry, Angelica Schuyler in "Hamilton" on Broadway, played Isaac's sneaky wife Selena, who had her own special witchy abilities. 

Overall, this was old-fashioned family-friendly horror fare (based on a 1973 children's book by John Bellairs) with modern CGI flourish (some effects were very good, some not as good). More jaded adults may find the proceedings on the corny side, but hey, the target audience are younger kids who will get a kick out of the (mostly) nifty magic, (generally) tame scares, and (silly) slapstick comedy. 7/10. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review of SEARCHING: Online Ordeal

September 21, 2018

Nowadays, we beleive that the internet is a miracle in keeping us in touch with everyone around us, even oceans apart. However, more and more it has been noted that this online communication is actually making relationships more distant and less personal. People are even messaging each other within the same house. After "Disconnect" (2013) and "Unfriended" (2014), there could never be enough cautionary tales about the internet.

David Kim is raising his teenage daughter Margot as a single parent since his wife Pam passed away. Since she left home to live in a dorm on campus, David made sure they kept regularly in touch via private messaging and video calls. One day, Margot suddenly never responded to any of David's messages. He frantically searched for any possible contacts for any leads. Failing to make any progress, he reported her missing with the police, with Detective Rosemary Vick assigned to his case.

The whole story was told via various messaging apps, home videos, online photo albums, video blogging sites, security cameras, smart phone, home computer and any other gadget that uses the internet. The film "Unfriended" (2014) did this technique first for a horror story about cyber-bullying victim getting even from beyond the grave. "Searching" isa basically a family drama about a missing child, but it might as well also be a horror film, especially for the parents watching.

I first knew Korean-American actor John Cho from his stupid Harry and Kumar films from a little over ten years ago. He's gotten more respectability playing Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek films. This role as David Kim is probably his most serious one to date. He had this harassed and stressed out appearance which was so fit for the role. We share his alarm and guilt for the things he never knew about his only daughter, and feel his anxiety throughout the seemingly futile search. 

The role of Margot was played by various child actresses at ages 5, 7, 9 and finally by Michelle La as a teenager. Cast here in her feature film debut, La mostly played it downbeat and aloof, as introvert teens are wont to be. The role of Detective Rosemary Vick was played by an actress also more well-known to me as a comedian -- Debra Messing, yes, that was Grace Adler from "Will & Grace". She was dead serious here in this role, and not immediately recognizable without her bright red hair and toothy smile.  

This film will make parents reflect on how well they know their children or not. Do we really know their friends and contacts online, or not? Do we know who to call when we lose contact with them? Even the best of kids may have their online secrets. In the film, Margot had been siphoning the monthly allowance meant for piano lessons into what seemed to be a secret bank account. Do we really know what our kids are doing online? Director Aneesh Chaganty did his work so well, such that watching this absorbing film became quite a harrowing experience for a parent like me. 8/10. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review of A SIMPLE FAVOR: Friendship Foul-ups

September 20, 2018

Perky dowdy mommy vlogger Stephanie Smothers and aloof glamorous PR director Emily Nelson were worlds apart in personality. However, the two hooked up and became friends because their little boys Miles and Nicky were best friends in school. One day, Emily called Stephanie to ask a simple favor to pick Nicky up from school because she was attending to an emergency at work and her husband Sean was in London. Emily never came back to retrieve her Nicky. Stephanie used her mommy vlog to ask her viewers' help to find Emily. 

In the past years, there had been similar suburban housewife mystery films coming out in cinemas based on best-selling novels. These were: "Gone Girl" (David Fincher, 2014) from the 2012 book by Gillan Flynn, and "The Girl on the Train" (Tate Taylor, 2016) from the 2015 book by Paula Hawkins. "A Simple Favor" (Paul Feig, 2018) was cut from the same fabric, as adapted from the 2017 book by Darcey Bell. 

Unlike the previous two films which were serious dramas, director Feig gives "A Simple Favor" a distinct sense of female-centric humor. This is not surprising since most of Feig's most memorable directorial jobs  -- namely "Bridesmaids" (2011), "The Heat" (2013), "Spy" (2015) and "Ghostbusters" (2016) -- involved women in rollicking fun action adventures. His two female lead characters here were so different from each other, yet seemingly clicked as friends. Both had major secrets to hide which further added flavor to the bubbly brew.

Anna Kendrick projected that cute annoying fussbudget vibe she always had that was right up the alley of Stephanie's personality. You just imagine her "Pitch Perfect" character Becca as a housewife Youtuber sharing household tips and tasty recipes, and your expectations won't be too far from what you actually see. She is one of those hyper-active mommies you see at your kids' schools who seem to lead a perfect life of milk and cookies.

Blake Lively, on the other hand, had an effortlessly classy, gorgeous, sexy, electric and mysterious screen presence even if Emily was just standing still up there. Even in a simple scene like when Stephanie was first invited into their big house, Emily started removing her blazer and later a fake collar and cuffs -- Lively was breathtaking to watch. No wonder Stephanie, Sean and everyone else, was irresistibly drawn to her.  

Henry Golding is fresh from his big screen debut in "Crazy Rich Asians", and he plays another crazy rich person here. Sean Townsend-Nelson was not expressly labelled as an Asian, but his son Nicky was played by an Asian kid Ian Ho. Golding was not even in the initial promotional posters of this film, but was just photoshopped in local posters following the huge success of "CRA." Golding radiated a good boy feeling about him. so you cannot believe he'd do anything bad, even if he already did.

I enjoyed the twisting and turning of this mystery-thriller. It was fun, dark and ruthless all the way as a new angle comes out one after the other, so you never can tell when or how it was going to end and that kept you hanging on. It did feel a bit overstretched towards the climax, and the ending was so over-the-top, but anyhow, these did not really affect my enjoyment of the film as a whole. 7/10. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review of THE PREDATOR (2018): Gore and Gags

September 20, 2018

I have to confess at the outset that this is the first film of the Predator film franchise that I have seen. I know that the first "Predator" (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was very popular but I was not able to see it (up to now), so I never got interested in watching any of the sequels in 1990 and 2010, with two "Alien vs. Predator" films between them in 2004 and 2007. I was surprised that they were reviving the franchise again this year, so I decided to finally go see what it was all about.

The film starts with a Predator spacecraft crashed on earth just where Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) was on a mission. He was able to shoot the Predator down and grab its armor, and mailed it to his home address in the US, where his ex-wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovsky) and son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) lived. 

Meanwhile, government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) invited biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) to study the body of the unconscious Predator in a special facility. But since it is not dead, it was no surprise that it woke up, violently killed everyone in the lab (except Casey and Traeger of course), and set out to recover its lost armor. 

Boyd Holbrook and Olivia Munn were attractive lead stars and were good in their action scenes. Not sure how Munn's evolutionary biologist got her firearms training but she was gung-ho with them as the rest of the boys. They gave Sterling K. Brown a sinister twinkle in his eyes that made him look like a natural antagonist. 

I do not really know how the Predators (supposedly with human DNA in their genome) in this new sequel compared to the previous incarnations of Predators, so I cannot comment. There were even Predator dogs here which did not really matter too much in the action. However, this Shane Black film was crazy in two very different ways -- in terms of its high level of violence, and in terms of low level of comedy.

The blood and gore level of the kills of the evolved Predators was off the charts as innumerable cannon fodder extras were sliced in half, impaled into trees or walls, stabbed into the eyes, shot clean through the body or exploded into smithereens. People who love this type of extreme action will have a field day with the insanely imaginative ways they thought of how Predators could slaughter a poor hapless human being. 

On the other end, this film also had a silly streak with its raunchy offensive collection of jokes. These jokes were care of the rowdy bunch of captive soldiers that McKenna was grouped with -- Williams (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) and Lynch (Alfie Allen). Key had all the wildest wisecracks. Jane used Tourette's syndrome to be ridiculous.  

To balance things off with some drama, there was the character of McKenna's autistic son Rory, played by the child actor Jacob Tremblay, who had previously wowed us with his previous roles in "Room" (2015) and "Wonder" (2017). Some hardcore action fans may not like having a child character in the story as it may dampen the savagery (not that it affected the ferocity here), but having Rory there sort of opened up the story of the franchise to more sequels in the future.  6/10. 

Review of A.X.L.: Cyber-Canine Companion

September 18, 2018

Just last week, I watched a film entitled "Alpha" about how man and dog began their close relationship with each other during the Ice Age some 20,000 years ago. This film is also about the relationship of man and dog, but this time it is futuristic in scope. The dog in this case is a robot. It is a machine made for war, but is still programmed to be paired with one specific human master for orders.

Miles Hill was an introverted young man who had mad skills in riding motorbikes, but could not seem to get along with his more rowdy peers. One day, while trying to get home from the desert after a fall from a bike, Miles encountered a robotic dog that eventually connected with him as a friend and partner. It turned out that the dog A.X.L. was a prototype of a top-secret, top-dollar project to create a robot companion for soldiers in battle, and his developers and the military are looking for him to get him back.

Actually, aside from the obvious fact that AXL was an A.I. robot, this was a typical boy-and-his dog film given a futuristic twist. Boy and dog meet. They became friends. Their bond was threatened. They fought the threat together. The formula is followed to a T, and oddly the cliche can still work for kids and dog-lovers in the audience. I'm sure those climactic fight scenes can still be tearjerking for susceptible people even if the dog was a robot.

Ales Neustaedter (as Miles) and Becky G (as Miles' girlfriend Sara) need not really act too hard, since they know that audiences came mainly to see AXL anyway. They did play their by-the-numbers parts well-enough to be diverting. The rest of the cast though, like AXL's programmer Andric (Dominic Rains), Miles' dad Chuck (Thomas Jane), the flamethrower-wielding psycho Sam (Alex McNicoll) were totally forgettable in mediocre performances.

The screenplay by writer-director Oliver Daly was very simplistic. It asked us to accept some pretty unbelievable stuff like how Miles could ever do major repairs on a damaged AXL in his garage with basic tools. It does not even explain why AXL went out of his laboratory with damages in his armor. so we are also expecred to simply accept that. It does not really show the special abilities nor weapons AXL had that would make him invaluable for soldiers. Anyhow, this is clearly for young viewers to cheer the robot dog and his master on. No strict sense of plot logic was necessary. 4/10. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TOFARM 2018: Review of ALIMUOM: A Foreboding Future for Farming

September 18, 2018

In the distant future, farming has been outlawed in the Philippines, and growing plants has become an illegal activity. The city was enclosed in a bio-dome keeping out the toxic atmosphere of the harsh world around it. All the seedbanks had been sent to different to "off-worlds" to propagate. Filipinos still leave their families to work in these "off-worlds" as OFW, the acronym now meaning Outerspace Filipino Workers. 

Prof. Diwata Encarnacion is a leading authority on sustainable terraforming, or the technology of transforming inhospitable soil into a fertile soil capable of growing plants. Her husband Leo had been working "off-world" in a mining planet for several years, and she brought up her son Joaquin practically as a single mom. She lived with her elderly father, who was a retired plant scientist whose seedbanks were all confiscated by the government. 

One day, the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Aguirre, solicited her help to identify certain mutant seed obtained from the possession of Agent G, who was recently attacked and killed by farmer rebels ouside the dome. Accompanied by Agent K and Agent D, Diwata was able to venture outside the dome to investigate about these mutant seeds, but at the same time, she was also on the lookout for her sister Esper who had been missing for a long time. But the all-female Roses of War rebels did not allow to get far. 

I first saw Ina Feleo in an indie film "Endo" (Jade Castro, 2007) where she played a fresh-faced young salesgirl. Here she was all mature and credible as a university professor and scientist of the future. She showed off her sexy side whenever she made a video call with her OFW husband Leo (played by a bored-looking Karl Medina), since the technology at that time allowed tactile sensation via a cable connected to each other's bodies. As you can see in the poster, she also got to do some action in her red leather outfit.

Her ailing father was played by Dido dela Paz, who was still as feisty in his own cranky way about the government's interference with his seedbanks. Mr. Aguirre was played with forced aloofness by Epy Quizon. Diwata's bodyguard Agent K was played by Kiko Matos, portraying the character in a less aggressive way than other roles he is known for. Agent G's partner Agent D was played by Mon Confiado, with an attitude as badass as the long scar on his face over his left eye. Elora Espano played Esper as a mysterious amazon warrior.

Despite their obviously limited budget, I have to commend writer-director Keith Sicat and his team for boldly going for a sci-fi film. I saw some Hollywood references in the dystopic costumes and makeup (from "Mad Max Fury Road") and the terraforming setup and rust-tinted bleak external shots (from "The Martian.") Those advanced tricks they did with their computers looked really fancy good.  While the lab with cheap-looking aluminum-foil wall paper and entangled wires was a disappointment, there was that cool flying spacecraft that looked like a giant housefly -- wow! Hopefully this first step would lead to more sophisticated live-action Pinoy sci-fi in the future. 6/10.

Monday, September 17, 2018

TOFARM 2018: Review of MGA ANAK NG KAMOTE: Questioning Her Quest

September 15, 2018

It is 2048. A law had been passed RA# 30789 called the Kamote Planting Regulation Act, which made it illegal to eat, possess or grow sweet potato, or the "kamote." This law was passed because kamote had become an addicting dangerous drug, and the government is still hellbent on its war on drugs. Therefore, despite research proving that a vital chemical for the cure of AIDS had been isolated from kamote, it is still an illegal foodstuff. 

In the face of such a tough law, Leonor "Iyong" Silva and her husband Urbano "Bano" grew their own supply of kamote in a remote place out of town. One day, Bano was caught and arrested by the police for breaking the kamote law. Iyong sought the help of TV-station guy Calvin to help her locate her husband as well as to give their story airtime, as widespread public protests were being held all over to make kamote legal again. 

More than her husband's disappearance though, Iyong was also battling internal demons of her own. She seemed to have lost a significant chunk of her memories, and bits and pieces of it are coming back to haunt her. 

The year was supposed to have been 2048, but the Philippines looked exactly alike in terms of its architecture, telecommunications facilities, its transportation services, its fashion sense, etc. It was a depressing vision of no progress in our country. There were just a few small details that indicate a futuristic setting, like people wearing virtual reality goggles on the bus, or the blue neon-lined pad of Carlo, or some ultra-bright billboards on buildings. 

This was the first film I had seen of Katrina Halili, and she is in the puzzling lead role of Iyong. For the whole film, she looked scared and clueless. Her eyes seemed glazed and blank. Despite this, she was still able to find her money, ride a bus to big city, and locate a TV station all by herself. Halili does a good job of acting like she does not know what was going on around her, because honestly I do not know too.

We actually do not really know if Leonor Silva is her real name or not. Calvin was able to find another much older woman with her exact name (Lui Manansala), whose husband was also named Urbano. Who were they? We see Bano in jail in one scene pleading with her. Then later we see Bano out of jail tending kamote in the backyard. So what was real and what was not? Was the whole movie only about Iyong under the hallucinating influence of one major kamote-induced bad trip? I also do not know.

In that sense, were there really all these male characters around her? Was her husband Bano (Alex Medina) really arrested by the cops? Was there really a cruel crime lord (Kiko Matos) harrassing her? Was there really a TV guy Calvin (Carl Guevara) helping her? While talking to her husband supposedly in prison, Iyong got a sudden epiphany about a traumatic experience she suffered. If that was so, how could that shock ending even happen? Or was that what really happened? I still do not know. 

In the recent Cinemalaya filmfest, the partnership of director Carlo Enciso Catu and scriptwriter John Carlo Pacala came up with a winning dramatic gem about love among senior citizens in "Kung Paano Hinintay ang Dapithapon." However, this follow-up Catu-Pacala collaboration is not as easily accessible nor relatable. It never really answered any of the questions it posed, and in fact gave rise to even more unanswered questions. However, if you give time for post-viewing analysis, you can come up with any number of interpretations, and that could actually be a good thing. 5/10.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

TOFARM 2018: Review of 1957: Agrarian Aspirations

September 15, 2018

The year was 1957, on a corn farm in the Bicol Region. The Rosales family was composed of Karding and Aida, and their two children, a young man Lucio and a precocious girl Linda. Karding's father Lorenzo was already very old and senile. They worked as farmers in the huge corn plantation owned by Don Jose de Villa. When Pres. Ramon Magsaysay came for a visit to their farm to push his agrarian reform advocacy, Karding sought to request Don Jose for a small piece of land to call his own.

This film tackles the issue of agrarian reform, a real problem of our farmers to this day. They bust their backs working on plantations daily all year long, only to get a measly percentage of the earnings from the harvest and stagnate in poverty, while the landowners become richer and richer. In the story, landlord Don Jose wanted a lion's share of 70% for himself, and alloted the remaining 30% to be divided among the three families working for him. 

1957 was supposed to have been a turning point year for these small farmers as Man of the Masses President Ramon Magsaysay was serious about instituting agrarian reform. However, 1957 was also the year a fateful plane crash in the mountains of Cebu also crashed all of these farmers' dreams of ever owning their own land - - a dream yet to be fully realized from then till now. 

The story was told from the point of view of the eldest son Lucio. Ronwaldo Martin played Lucio to be a capable and responsible young man, who knew his way around the cornfields, but was also very dedicated to his family. Aside from his duties in the farm, he also took care of his senile Lolo ever looking for his lost amulet (Joe Gruta) and his smart and sassy younger sister Linda (Kaethe Bernales). A curious detail of his facial makeup was a seeming birthmark under his right eye that looked like a permanent teardrop. 

However, the meatier role was that of Lucio's father Karding, who had been working under Don Jose's stringent miserly rules since after the war. As Karding, Richard Quan may have looked too young to be Ronwaldo Martin's father or too fair to be a former Huk rebel. I However, those minor details would be overlooked because his performance marked by pride stifled by humility for the sake of family and harmony in scenes with his son Lucio and his boss Don Jose (an imperiously dictatorial Menggie Cobarrubias). 

Selina Grace Boucher played Aida, Karding's dutiful wife who loyally stood her husband. Rolando Inocencio played their family friend Vicente, whose daughter Gracia (Mary Cristy Anne Corporal) was the girl Lucio loved. Angelo Hulip and Ahlex Leyva played Raul and Sonia, a couple who used the cornfield for their naughty trysts, who also triggered intrigue against the Rosales family. Rene Bobsie Garote played Adonis, Don Jose's trusted bodyguard and man-Friday.

The main strength of this movie was its story, which was eye-opening as it was heart-breaking. Writer-director Hubert Tibi reminded us that there was once a Pres. Ramon Magsaysay who had positive pro-poor, pro-farmer policies, in the fervent hope that another such president will revive his advocacies. The year 1957 did not seem like a significant year in Philippine history for me before watching this film, but now I know better. This remarkable film about farmers and their plight about the land they till truly reflected the uplifting spirit of the ToFarm film festival. 7/10.

Friday, September 14, 2018

TOFARM 2018: Review of KAUYAGAN: Treasuring Talaandig Traditions

September 14, 2018

The Talaandig is an indigenous tribe from Bukidnon province. Piyo was expected to become the datu of their tribe when he came of age, like his father and his ancestors did before him. However, on the day that he was to be formally proclaimed, teenage Piyo bolted from the ceremony and disappeared. After ten years of wrongful incarceration for rebellion, an older Piyo came back to home to see his parents. Piyo was still unwilling to be datu though. All he wanted to do was to ask their permission to leave the tribe for good and try his luck in Manila as a musician.

Within the tribe, all the characters were always shown wearing their colorful red and white traditional garb. Even in his early stages of dementia, Piyo's father adamantly refused to remove his red ceremonial kerchief around his head as a symbol of his being a datu. There a long didactic scene where the tribal leaders were debating about preserving their ancestral domain versus making a commercial profit from their land. This scene alone already set the tone of cultural pride the film espoused from the very start. 

Because Piyo was a musician, these meaningful topics of achieving one's dreams and accepting one's heritage were delivered in the form of stirring songs sung throughout the film. Music, song and dance are very much a driving force in the storytelling as the film goes back and forth from past to present. 

The lead actor playing Piyo is Jefferson Bringas. He is a folk singer for real, so it was really his rich soulful voice we hear singing. He was part of an acoustic duo who won third place in the finals of Pilipinas Got Talent TV show back in 2011. (His brother/partner Kurt had since succumbed to bone cancer in 2012). Bringas actually played the guitar and sang live during the gala premiere of the film this afternoon. He may still be a little self-conscious as an actor in some scenes, but all his emotional scenes with his parents were all very moving. Melardz Sumi-og and Lalaan Saway played the teenage and child Piyo respectively.

Playing the role of Piyo's mother (Inahan) is Bayang Barrios, and of course we all know how exquisitely transcendental her singing vocal quality is. Inahan's duet with her son Piyo was such an emotional highlight of filial love. As an actress, Barrios can really own the screen with her powerful presence. Even that wordless scene where she was just picking up taro roots that fell off a delivery truck felt so heartbreaking. Even if I have not seen most of the other films yet, I already see Barrios winning as Best Supporting Actress of the festival. 

The haunting role of Piyo's prideful father (Datu Ama) is played by Perry Dizon, who also worked behind the scenes as the production designer. Samira, Piyo's abandoned sweetheart, was played by Salima Saway Agra-an, whose talent as a painter was also showcased onscreen. (Cybel Tecson played Samira as a child.) 

Luwan, Samira's older brother and Piyo's best friend with the big black birthmark on his face, was played by Oliver Asinero. (Ian Paca played Luwan as a child.) Apo, the mysterious mystic man Piyo met on the fork of the road, was played by Rodelio "Waway" Saway, who was also responsible for the music in this film along with Datu Alimuwan. 

The title "Kauyagan" is a Talaandig word meaning "way of life." The script was written in both Bisaya and Talaandig tongues. The distinction may not be so obvious for those of us not conversant in these languages, but the script makes the shifts clear as there is another important statement about cultural pride and preservation to be made with Piyo's choice of language. 

Writer-director Julienne Ilagan certainly delivered her advocacy message for indigenous people of Mindanao loud and clear with this meaningful and eye-opening film of hers. Some storytelling and technical aspects may be rough around the edges, but its passionate heart beats proud and strong. 7/10. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

TOFARM 2018: Review of TANABATA'S WIFE: Reverential References

September 13, 2018

Tanabata was a lonely Japanese farmer who immigrated from Okinawa to run his own farm in Trinidad Valley in the Mountain Province back in the 1920s. One day, he hired a young and pretty Bontoc tribeswoman Fas-ang to help him in his house and farm (cabbage and strawberries) for P4.00 and unlimited rice. Eventually, Tanabata and Fas-ang fell in love and lived together as husband and wife. Even if they soon have an infant son Kato, differences in their culture eventually crept its way into their relationship and threatened it.

From the very first frame of this indie film, I immediately felt that this would not be an ordinary film. This did not look or feel like a Filipino film at all. The angles and aesthetics of the scenes made it look and feel like a classic Japanese film, and I loved the grace and beauty of its photography (by cinematographer Nap Jamir). Those scenes of Tanabata sitting outside his house looking longingly into the distance looked and felt like Yasujiro Ozu. That scene with the tight close-up on Tanabata's face and its varying expressions into gradual fadeout looked and felt like Akira Kurosawa. 

This Japanese aesthetic was so consistent throughout the film it was impressive. Tanabata's house of straw and sticks looked so good on that big screen. Even if there were scenes with numerous unwanted insects flying around, the actors were so zen and unfazed. There were some very unique dramatic transitions between scenes (by film editor May-i Guia Padilla) that were truly remarkable, heretofore unseen in other Filipino indies I've seen before. 

Also very Japanese was the way the story was divided into three distinct sections representing the stages of Fas-ang's relationship with Tanabata, each with an introductory card with a symbolic moving image and labels in Japanese calligraphy (as well as the English translation). It was so nice how they showed the gradually progressive closeness of Tanabata and Fas-ang's relationship.  

In his portrayal of Tanabata, the Japanese lead actor Miyuki Kamimura seemed to be channeling classic Japanese film actor Toshiro Mifune himself. He registered very well onscreen and consistently came off as a good and positive person. Yoshihito Tsukasa and Yoshiro Takada, who played Tanabata's supportive Japanese neighbors Okamoto and Terada, also gave very natural and realistic performances. 

The new Filipino actors were still raw, and tended to be awkward in their acting, but were nonetheless effective in their roles.  As the title character Fas-ang, Mai Fanglayan toed that thin line very well as she portrayed a character so brave yet so naive. Her unpreparedness to be a wife and mother were seen as much by her fondness for watching comedy movies, as by the rashness of her decisions.  Kurt "Ayeo-eo" Alalag played Okdo, Fas-ang's prideful male friend from the tribe. (Alalag was also part of the film's music team together with film editor Padilla and Mark Tan.) Danilo "Guintapan" Bulanay played the loyal Tiago, the lowlander farm hand of Tanabata.

Inspired by a similarly titled short story written by Sinai Hamada, this film was directed by three directors according to the end credits. These are: Charlson Ong (who also wrote the original script), Choy Pangilinan (who helped with the screenplay along with Ong, Mao Portus and Juan Carlo Tarobal) and Lito Casaje (who also played a brief role as a stingy Japanese businessman Watanabe in one scene). While the story was seemingly simple, the screenplay was very smartly-written with lines in Japanese, Ilocano and Kankanaey, rich in provocative ideas and subtle humor. 9/10. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review of ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE LAST 49 DAYS: Remorse and Responsibility

September 11, 2018

This sequel to the 2017 hit Korean fantasy-drama film "Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds" (MY REVIEW), also directed by Kim Yong-hwa, was released last week with little fanfare. The theaters where it was released only gave it one or two screenings a day on a sliding schedule. Since I liked the first film and knew this was also going to be a visual effects spectacle, I wanted to catch the second film on the big screen as well. I had to go out of my way to find a cinema that showed it at a schedule that can fit mine, and luckily I was able to do that today.

Events pick up where the previous film ends, where the three guardians (the captain Gang-lim and his cohorts Haewonmaek and Lee Deok-choon) were lawyering for the soul of Sgt. Kim Soo-hong, a soldier who was the brother of Kim Ja-hong from the first film. Gang-lim needed to prove to the judges that Kim was murdered by his two friends Private Won Dong-yeon and Lt. Park Moo-shin, and deserved reincarnation. If Sgt. Kim gets reincarnated, their millennium-long servitude as guardians will be lifted.

The Underworld King Yeomra agreed for the case to go to trial on the condition that Haewonmaek and Deok-choon go back to the real world to hasten the ascent of old man Heo Choon-sam within 49 days. However, Heo was under the protection of Household God Seongju who requested to delay Heo's ascent until the grandson Hyeon-dong began school in 40 days. The two guardians allow this on the condition that Seongju tell them their respective histories which had been wiped out of their memories.

Like the first film, this sequel was also a long movie, running for 2 hours and 20 minutes. There were multiple story threads that were being weaved together in one complex narrative that went from the various hells of the underworld to the harsh realities of the surface world. Problems ranged from mutual fund investments in the present time, to bloody civil wars one millennium ago. I really enjoyed watching all these varied threads were all tied together very neatly and reasonably in a very rich and well-written script.

Because of this broad scope of intertwining plots, the costumes, makeup and production design were spectacular as expected, especially for the scenes set 1,000 years ago. There were even several scenes of wild animals (from tigers to wolves, from raptors to a mossasaurus) interacting with humans realistically done via computer-graphics. The various hells were as they were from the first film -- stunning and treacherous.

It was very good to see all the three main actors Ha Jung-woo (as Gang-rim), Ju Ji-hoon (as Haewonmaek) and Kim Hyang-gi (as Deok-choon) again, and especially as their mortal selves from a thousand years ago as their respective stories were revealed in flashbacks. The actors playing the three soldiers we met from the first film -- Kim Dong-wook (as Kim), Do Kyung-soo (as Won) and Lee Joon-hyuk (as Park) were also back. Lee Jung-jae is also back as the regal God of Death King Yeomra. New cast member Ma Dong-seok (Donny Lee in Hollywood) played Seongju as a lovable character, as we first knew him in "Train to Busan" (2016). 

I think it is essential to watch the first film first before watching this sequel. There were several facts about the nature of the afterlife world that have been established in the first film and were not really explained anymore here. I thought that this sequel outdid the first film in its overall impact. It was able to concentrate on telling its multiple stories without wasting much time on explanatory or descriptive expositions about things already settled in the first film. I already had an emotional connection with the guardians which made it easy for me to engage with their interesting historical backgrounds and connections. 8/10. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Review of ALPHA: Canine Companionship

September 7, 2018

This film was set in prehistoric times, 20,000 years ago. A tribe of hunters led by their chieftain Tau were going out on a hunting expedition. Despite doubts from his wife Rho, Tau decided his son Keda was ready to go on the hunt for the first time. While trying to corner a herd of bison, Keda was hurled off the edge of a cliff, and was presumed dead. 

However, Keda did not die. He had enough survival skills in him to set his own broken ankle and feed himself as he struggled to find his way back to his home before winter. One day, he was attacked by a pack of wolves. He injured one of the wolves, but instead of killing it, he decides to nurse it back to health to be his travelling companion. 

This movie is another one of those feature films where the official trailer practically reveals its entire plot line. Everything I wrote in the synopsis above was already clearly shown in the trailer. I did not have to watch the full film at all to get all of that.  This trailer was really a big spoiler for the most exciting scenes in the film. The only mystery left to watch the film for was the unexpected ending, but even a hint of that was also in the trailer. 

The language used by the characters of this film was a made-up "prehistoric" language. We will have to read subtitles in English to really know what was going on. However, because of the simple plot, you can somehow get the context of the conversations already just by watching the action onscreen. Interesting how many characters were named after Greek letters. Aside from the dog Alpha, Keda's parents were Tau and Rho, while certain tribesmen were named Nu, Kappa, Xi and Sigma.

The wolf-dog who played Alpha gave a very affecting performance. We were able to see how a wild animal slowly connected with a human being. She depended on Keda for healing and food when she was injured. But when Keda was in danger, Alpha did not back down from defending him (that saber-toothed tiger!). Kodi Smit-McPhee gave a brave, realistic portrayal of Keda, an obviously physically-exhausting (all that running in the snow), and emotionally-challenging (the struggle to survive) role. 

The beautiful images on the screen had an epic feel (hence its availability in 3D and IMAX), with those snow-capped mountains and breathtaking cliffs. However, the story told by director Albert Hughes (who was more known for dark crime movies prior to this) was straight-forward, very simple. Young audiences and dog-lovers alike will definitely feel an emotional connection with the heart-warming story and its old-fashioned familiarity. 7/10. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Review of THE NUN: Satanic Sister

September 6, 2018

This horror movie arrived with very strong anticipatory hype. Valak was one of those horror characters that made a lasting impact on its audience with her gaunt witch-like face framed by a nun's habit. We first met the creepy nun in "The Conjuring 2" (2016) (MY REVIEW). Then in "Annabelle: Creation" (2017) (MY REVIEW), her origin was the subject of a suspenseful post-credits scene. Now that little teaser is now this feature-length film at hand.

It was 1952 in an old cloistered convent in Romania. One night, an evil entity forced 
Sister Victoria to jump out of the balcony to hang herself. The Vatican then sent Fr. Burke to investigate the mysterious circumstances of her death. A young postulant Sr. Irene was assigned to accompany the priest because she was supposedly familiar with the terrain. 

When they arrived in Romania, Frenchie, the gregarious man who found the sister's hanging corpse, brought them to the rundown convent, whose nuns were not exactly very welcoming. The place was obviously being haunted by a strong diabolical presence which harassed Fr. Burke and Sr. Irene from the very first night they spent there. 

This film (directed by Corin Hardy) was so dark. I don't know if the darkness had been compounded by the dimness of the projection system in the theater I watched in, but there are scenes when I do not see anything at all. I know that darkness was supposed to be scary, but if it is too dark to see anything much, you are just relying on the loud eerie music, demonic growling and those sinister sound effects for the jump scares care of shadowy figures I see onscreen. 

The actors were quite engaging to watch. Demian Bichir (once up for a Best Actor Oscar in 2012) played the no-nonsense Fr. Burke. His scariest scene about being buried alive had already been spoiled in the trailers. Taissa Farmiga (youngest sister of "Conjuring" star Vera Farmiga) played the visionary and incredibly brave Sr. Irene. No horror film is complete without a character who could fearlessly face terror as boldly as she did. Jonas Bloquet was mainly comic relief as funny and friendly Frenchie (a.k.a. Maurice). 

Compared to the other films in the "Conjuring Universe," this had the least audience impact in terms of screams that I encountered while watching these films in a cinema. I actually heard more laughs at Frenchie's jokes than screams to horror scenes. This was despite the fact that there were quite a number of female college students in the screening I caught. With all the big hype comes big disappointment when it fails to deliver, like this one. 5/10. 


My Reviews of the other films in "The Conjuring" Universe:

The Conjuring (2013): MY REVIEW
Annabelle (2014): MY REVIEW