Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review of QUEZON'S GAME: Heroic Hospitality

May 30, 2019

Just like we did with "Heneral Luna" and "Goyo," my whole family watched "Quezon's Game" together. Even if each ticket now costs P300 (a cool P1,500 for five of us), I made sure my children would watch important events of Philippine history unfold on a big screen, so that the impact and the lessons would become more indelible in their memory than when it was read off stuffy history books. 

"Quezon's Game" was set during the days of Manuel L. Quezon as the president of our country when it was a Commonwealth under the jurisdiction of the United States. In 1938,  it was brought to Quezon's attention that the Nazi government of Germany was about to send all Jews to death camps. Despite various setbacks (like his relapsed tuberculosis, resistance from colleagues and bigoted American politics), Quezon worked out how he could save as many of these Jews as he could by granting them asylum in Manila.

Raymond Bagatsing played President Manuel L. Quezon as a very charismatic man and leader. Bagatsing had obviously studied the mannerisms and speaking style of the late president in order to give his best impersonation. He was very consistent in his efforts in portraying Quezon's dignity and compassion, as well as his compulsion for poker and cigars. Rachel Alejandro played Aurora Quezon as the supportive, loving wife who knew how to speak her mind, in her homey, motherly Filipino-English accent. Indie actress Kate Alejandrino played Baby, Quezon's charming daughter.

Audie Gemora and Nor Domingo played future presidents Sergio Osmena and Manuel Roxas respectively. The way they were portrayed in this film was eye-opening for me. I hope there will be follow-up movies about the transition of power of these two politicians we hardly knew anything about aside from their names. I noted several other Filipino stage actors playing bit roles in single scenes, like Jeremy Domingo as a nervous Chinese consul, Jef Flores as a snooty maitre d' of a German club, Chino Veguillas as Quezon's doctor and Lorenz Martinez as a local politician. 

Caucasian actors from the local theater scene were cast as American characters. David Bianco played Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower, while his real-life wife Jennifer Blair-Bianco played Ike's wife Mamie. James Paoleli played High Commissioner Paul McNutt, who placed his own political career on the line to help Quezon. Paul Holme played the hatefully bigoted consul Cartwright, as Miguel Faustman played the bearded retired Gen. Douglas McArthur. Dean Rosen, Hans Eckstein and George Schultz were also cast in smaller roles.

Hollywood actor Billy Ray Galliion played the key role of Jewish cigar magnate Alex Frieder. It was Frieder who first received the news about the impending fate of Jews in Austria and Germany and brought this to Quezon's attention. Kevin Kraemer was remarkable for his chilling portrayal of SS officer Lt. Ebner. His cold icy stare gave his every scene had a sense of danger and tension. 

The film was shot in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, a resort in Bataan where ancestral houses and heritage buildings have been reconstructed back to their glory. So there can be some unavoidable inclusion of certain Spanish-era or current-era background details which may not entirely be true to 1930s Manila setting. The production designer had been very meticulous with various props and costumes, but there were still little things (like faucets, sink drains, doors, headsets or hairstyles) which were difficult to circumvent due to budget. Anyway, these little quibbles do not in any way detract from the power of the story.

Director Matthew Rosen, a British national of Jewish faith who was a veteran of advertising campaigns and music videos, told this interesting, not so well-known historical episode in a most compelling and engaging pace and manner which can readily appeal to all ages. "Quezon's Game" focused on how one noble Filipino man all the way from the other side of the world cared enough, and was brave enough, to do something to save these Jews, when all odds are against him.  This is an incredible tale of humanity which should not be forgotten, and this movie now made sure we don't. Do stay for the moving testimonial videos that accompany the closing credits. 9/10. 

Review of BRIGHTBURN: Sinister Superbeing

May 29, 2019

Living on a farm in Brightburn, Kansas, Kyle and Tori Breyer could not conceive a child. One day, a spaceship crash-landed in their premises. It contained a baby boy inside whom the Breyers adopted as their own, naming him Brandon. By the time he was 12 years old, Brandon began to show strange unpredictable behavior, becoming disrespectful and belligerent, and later, physically hurtful and violent. 

The story of Brandon Breyer was so much like Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, whose spaceship landed on the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent. However, while the discovery of superhuman abilities led Clark to good and help people, these powers led Brandon down a road of sinister behavior. This was an innovative yet very twisted take on a classic American story of ultimate good, turning it into one of evil horror. 

The evil child had always been a trope of horror movies, but this one gives it an additional layer of science fiction for more punch. Brandon looked like a typical human boy, but he had uncommon alien abilities. 15 year old child actor Jackson A. Dunn who played Brandon had that certain unsettling look on his face that worked perfectly to bring about that feeling of dread in his scenes, even without that scary mask in mundane scenes. 

The only actress I know by name in this film was Elizabeth Banks, who played Brandon's mother Tori. Being a typical mother role, Bank goes through all the stages of grief in this film when she discovered that her son was already becoming aware of his inhuman origin, for which Banks had given a most remarkable performance. She was a standout in this film where the supporting actors are merely adequate as they fall victim one by one to Brandon's growing evil, dying in ways more gory than the one before. 

Overall, I thought this was a good horror film as the director David Yarovesky (who had previously worked with producer James Gunn in "Guardians of the Galaxy") set a good pace to keep things interesting and always unsettling. There were scenes when I could not bear to look at the screen in anticipation of what may happen to his poor target, as I am not really a fan of gore films (even if these may be benign for true gore fanatics.) It is intriguing to discover how the filmmakers plan to spin this tale further with the promising ending. 6/10.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Review of ALADDIN (2019): Shine, Shimmer and Splendor

May 25, 2019

It is very remarkable that Disney had been unfolding one big project after the other this 2019. Aside from their huge Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Star Wars 9, they are also releasing "Toy Story 4" and "Frozen 2". There are also three live action reboots of animated classics like "Dumbo," "The Lion King," and this one "Aladdin." All of this surefire box office hits in one single year -- truly amazing how films by the Disney company are dominating Hollywood and the world. 

The original animated film "Aladdin" released in 1992 was an instant all-time favorite. Aside from its Disney trademarked storytelling and artwork, it featured the inimitable Robin Williams as the Genie of the Lamp with his motormouth delivery of crazy ad libs. For Filipino fans, it was very momentous that Ms. Lea Salonga provided the singing voice for Princess Jasmine in the duet "A Whole New World," a song that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and won both the Oscar for Best Original Song and the Grammy for Song of the Year. 

Just like how it was with "Beauty and the Beast" last year, I doubted that it was a good idea to recreate this classic animated film as a live-action film. Since Robin Williams had already passed away five years ago, his formidable Genie shoes will be very difficult for any actor to fill. When initial teaser featuring Will Smith as the new Genie came out, I did not like how it went. My expectations were certainly tempered down before I went to watch this, but I simply could not not watch it

Aladdin was a skillful young thief who worked in the busy marketplace of Agrabah with his monkey partner Abu. He had a serious crush on the royal princess Jasmine despite the law that says the princess can only marry a prince. Tempted with wealth, Aladdin was conscripted by the evil Royal Vizier Jafar to retrieve a magic lamp from within the Cave of Wonders. To his big surprise when he rubbed the Lamp to clean it, a big blue Genie came out in a cloud of smoke to offer him three wishes. 

The casting of Mena Massoud (Canadian actor of pure Egyptian descent) and Naomi Scott (British actress with Guarani Indian blood) as Aladdin and Jasmine was remarkable because they looked their parts and, incredibly, they could both sing their own songs. These two charming new actors had romantic chemistry working in their favor, quite evident in their centerpiece duet number "A Whole New World." Their rendition was not as refined as the Brad Kane-Lea Salonga version nor as pop as the Peabo Bryson-Regina Belle version, but so much better than the Zayn Malick-Zhavia Ward version heard in the closing credits. 

Massaoud was able to capture how a rascal street-rat can magically turn into a prince, but still kept his pure heart within intact, despite the temptations. I don't know if its all him, but I enjoyed all his dance numbers, especially that one in the palace courtyard during the harvest celebration. The camera definitely loved Scott, who looked great from all angles as she radiated the strength of her noble character. Her impassioned singing in Jasmine's new solo song "Speechless" can rival fellow Disney power belters Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato.

It was not easy to forget Robin Williams' larger than life Genie, but eventually Will Smith managed to create a Genie of his very own modern vibe and winning personality, and even a love interest angle to boot. More known as a rapper, it was surprising to hear Will Smith actually singing all those favorite songs, like "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." The live-action versions of these songs were most likely more expensive to render on screen yet could not fully match the manic energy of the animated original, but made up for it with a lot of lavish colorful costumes and fun amusing Bollywood-style dance moves. 

The original animated Jafar was a truly evil and really scary character. Drawn with an ugly long face and given a diabolical laugh, he gave young kids vivid nightmares back then. Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari was miscast as Jafar. He was just not sinister enough a villain. The entire climactic confrontation scene between Aladdin and Jafar was executed in so much darker fashion in the first film than in this new one. While it was good that we didn't have to see that disgusting kissing scene of Jafar and Jasmin, it was disappointing that this Jafar did not sing that deliciously wicked reprise of Prince Ali like the previous one did. Jafar's parrot sidekick Iago was less noisy and squawky this time around since it was not Gilbert Gottfried voicing him, and his CG rendition, especially that of his giant form, was rather rough compared to the other CG animals.

The basic story was the same, with all the main events and song numbers intact, with some significant tweaks. Being co-written and directed by Guy Ritchie, you know it won't be an exact copy. The Genie in the reboot had a human persona so he can interact with other people. In the previous film, genie was always a magical blue being throughout the film. It was also remarkable was that this new Princess Jasmine was more independent and even had high political ambitions.  These two key plot points influenced how the story would run a little differently from the first one. 8/10. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review of THE LAST INTERVIEW: The Mayor Antonio Halili Story: Curious Coincidence

May 24, 2019

I did not know who Mayor Antonio Halili was before I watched this movie. I just recalled his name as a mayor from Batangas who was shot dead during their flag ceremony at their city hall last year. It was remarkable that it had not even been a year after his assassination, and now there is a film about the life of this local politician. 

On July 1, 2018, Mayor Antonio Halili (John Estrada) was being interviewed at his house by journalist and filmmaker Caesar Soriano and his staff for a film about his life. 

They first talked about his early teens (Noel Comia, Jr.), growing up  in San Antonio, Nueva Ecija with his parents (Mon Confiado and Yayo Aguila). Then they covered his college days (Martin Escudero) in San Juan de Letran, showing his ineptness in courting his one big love Gina (Kate Alejandrino), who later became his wife. It was emphasized that since a young age, young Thony had been willing to engage in fistfights in order to help people in need. 

Thony and Gina (Ara Mina) had three children. He started from the bottom doing odd jobs, until he became a successful businessman. Because of his local popularity in Tanauan, Batangas, in 1992, he was convinced to run for city councilor, which he won. In 2013, he ran for Mayor and won. Since then, Mayor Thony launched a local war on drugs in his city. He gained nationwide attention when he began to parade arrested drug pushers in city streets.

In 2015, Mayor Thony began to experience what he felt was harassment because he shifted political loyalties. His city's anti-crime unit was dissolved by the DILG, accused of being his private army. In 2017, his name was included in President Rodrigo Duterte's narco-list, despite his ardent crusade against drugs. It was emphasized that Mayor Thony's conscience was clear and he fearlessly continued to do his job despite the persecution. 

On July 2, 2018, the morning after Soriano's interview, Mayor Halili was shot down by a sniper while he attended the flag ceremony in his new city hall. 

Director Caesar Soriano's timing for his interview was truly uncanny. He gained the biographical information from the Mayor himself. He had actual photos, videos and news broadcasts documenting the Mayor's personal and political career. There was footage of the actual assassination, as well as his funeral. Soriano was able to get the real Mayor Antonio Halili to personally speak about his fears regarding his political persecution on camera. With all this compelling material at hand, Soriano simply had to do this film. 

The whole film was a straightforward episodic recreation of events as narrated by John Estrada as Mayor Thony as interviewed by Soriano. Production values and acting performances were basic, ranging from serviceable to lazy. The storytelling was erratic, at times slow, at times corny, a lot of times given to sentimentality. To amp the drama, Soriano included scenes of an ominous nightmare Gina had, scenes showing Halili shooting automatic weapons during a drug raid, and scenes of Halili and wife on a beach at sunset.  As expected, Soriano showcased Halili as the perfect father of his family, as well as of Tanauan. 4/10. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review of BETWEEN MAYBES: Managing Maturity

May 21, 2019

Hazel Ilagan was a popular child actress whose showbiz career was on the wane as she grew beyond her teenage years. Louie Puyat was a Pinoy who lived in Japan since he was 10 years old, now making a living as a fisherman and a waiter in the outskirts of Saga City. One day, Hazel impulsively left for Japan after a major argument with her nagging mother, and fortuitously found herself in the restaurant where Louie worked. Despite their differences in interests and attitudes, Louie agreed to guide Hazel around town, and eventually, with her life choices. 

Julia Barretto had a tough role to play. Hazel as a very immature and petulant spoiled brat who believed that everyone around her is at her beck and call. Needless to say, this was one loud, annoying,, self-centered character who was quite unlikable. The script blamed her parents for raising her wrongly with their misguided intentions. But really, as she grew up to young adulthood, shouldn't she already know right from wrong? She was already aware that her popularity was sagging, yet there she was still acting like a diva.

For me, this film belonged more to Gerald Anderson. Since he grew up in Japan, his Louie had fully imbibed the Japanese way of life. He was a true gentleman who never took advantage of this rebelling girl who was practically giving herself to him. He was kind and patient, keeping a respectable distance through all her foolishness, until that moment came when he already felt that she was finally already thinking straight. His calm face and demeanor was the personification of Japanese zen. 

Gerald Anderson and Julia Barretto, being from different batches of actors, eight years apart in real life, were not predictable casting choices for a romantic pair. Louie was older and had already made major decisions in his life -- decisions that Hazel was only about to make in her life. This was why there was a need to cast someone older (and wiser) to guide this poor little lost girl to make the right choices in life. However, this is also the reason why the romance angle does not stick too well. Louie felt too much like an elder brother to Hazel rather than a boyfriend. 

In supporting roles were Yayo Aguila as Myra, Hazel's stage mother from hell, and Christian Vasquez as Jerry, her wimpy father. Aguila's characterization of Myra is a resonant cautionary message to enthusiastic parents who are pushing their cute kids into showbiz and striking while the iron is hot without regard for the child's welfare. A Japanese actress Kayoko Iwasaki played Louie's boss in Saga with the unfortunate name of Ms. Sadako (like the girl who crawled out of the TV in "Ringu"), who showed concern over his loneliness. 

The script gave Barretto some pretty awkward things to do and lines to say. During the first day she met Louie, she was also the one who broached the subject of a sexual hookup right there and then in her hotel room. Later in the film, she was also took the initiative for her to stay overnight in Louie's house, and then in his room. While I realize that sexual mores among the millennials are more liberal nowadays, these scenes did not sit well with a person my age who would be protective of Hazel as my own daughter. 

The shots by director of photography Carlos David S. Mauricio were vibrantly beautiful with amazingly bright colors, especially those scenes in the seaside village outside Saga, Japan.. The eclectic musical soundtrack went from "squammy" hiphop to cheesy 90s pop, but the main theme song was the chill and romantic “Your Universe,” as sung by Acel Van Ommen.  Overall, this film directed by Jason Paul Laxamana not only looked and sounded gorgeous, but it also delivered an important lesson about making mature decisions in life as responsible adults. 7/10. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review of A DOG'S JOURNEY: Reincarnated Responsibility

May 20, 2019

Shown two years ago, "A Dog's Purpose" (MY REVIEW) told a story about about a dog and his search for his purpose in life. This sequel is still written by W. Bruce Cameron based on his 2011 book, but Gail Mancuso had taken over the directorial duties from Lasse Hallstrom.

This new film follows the adventures of dog Bailey and his master Ethan after the events of the first film. Ethan is now an elderly man living with his wife Hannah on their farm with their cute little granddaughter CJ. However, when emotionally-unstable, dog-hating Gloria eventually left the farm bringing her daughter along with her, Ethan bid dying Bailey to protect CJ and hopefully bring her back home. 

Like in the first film, Bailey undergoes a number of reincarnations in the course of his duty. The Bailey at the end of the first film (and at the beginning of this new one) is a St. Bernard / Australian Shepherd. After he passes on, Bailey's soul transferred to a Beagle named Molly, then a Mastiff named Big Dog and finally a Yorkshire Terrier named Max. In each reincarnation, however improbable it may seem, Bailey would be able to see CJ at different points in her life.

Ethan is still played by Dennis Quaid like he was in the first film. However, his wife Hannah is now played by Marg Helgenberger, replacing the late Peggy Lipton. These two play the ideal picture-perfect grandparents. They were always thinking positively of people and never lost their cool it seemed even when being disrespected. Gloria is played by Betty Gilpin in a most one-dimensional hateful portrayal of an alcoholic, negligent and cruel mother. 

Adult CJ is played by British actress Kathryn Prescott and they cast some lookalike child actresses to play her in younger ages. For diversity sake, it was interesting to note here that CJ's best friend Trent was played by Henry Lau, a Canadian actor of Chinese (Hongkong / Taiwanese) descent who used to be a member of the boyband Super Junior-M. They each had one terrible relationship with other partners (Shane played by Jake Manley and Liesl played by Daniela Barbosa) which were obviously doomed to fail from the get go.

The best part of the film is still Josh Gad's humorous narration of Bailey's thoughts both naughty and nice, no matter how cheesy situations can get. No matter how impossible things seemed to be, everything still worked like a charm. If you have seen "A Dog's Purpose," you sort of already knew how everything was going to end, but nevertheless, the overwhelmingly sentimental and heartwarming emotions will make tears well in your eyes, especially if you are a dog-lover. 6/10. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3: Hunting the Hunter

May 16, 2019

Keanu Reeves is back in the role that placed him back into the Hollywood A-list five years ago. The first "John Wick" (MY REVIEW) has since spawned its own franchise, coming up with a sequel last 2016 and now this third installment comes along to continue the story of his fight against the High Table. Fans are expecting that all the fantastically violent stunts and fights that had us breathless in the first two films will still be there and then some more.

Following the events in Chapter 2 where John Wick is on the run after killing High Table member within the "safe space" of the Continental Hotel in New York City. The High Table declared Wick excommunicado and leveled a $14M bounty on his head which had all the assassins around the world very excited. While the Adjudicator (on behalf of the High Table) visited and threatened gang leaders who helped Wick escape, Wick sought the assistance of the Director, the ballet-loving leader of the Russian mob, for safe passage out of New York to Casablanca.

Even the most sedate places are not safe in the John Wick universe, every place could be fight arena. The first fight scene was set inside the New York Public Library against the assassin played by 7'3" Philadelphia 76er Boban Marjanovic, and that already confirmed that there would be no holding back in the ruthlessness of the fights in this film. It would be hard to unsee that scene where a book was used to bash someone's teeth in. 

This film really upped the ante on the imaginativeness of the fight scenes, giving all of them a distinctive gimmick we never saw before. The fight inside a weapons museum rapidly escalated into a major bloodbath in the most spectacular fashion, especially with all those knife exhibits at their disposal to hurl at their opponents. Even animals were used to amp up the pain factor in other fights, with kicking horses in the carriage stables scene, and those two vicious Belgian malinois dogs in the Casablanca scene.

Various types of knives and swords were also used in the fights as the film went on. A most amazing scene was that of the motorcycle chase and fight scenes featuring Wick against ten or so armored assassins each wielding a samurai sword. There were two Indonesian-looking assassins who were being played as comic relief during their fight with Wick as they were very thrilled to be fighting their idol. Sword was also the weapon of choice of the bald assassin Zero (campily played by Mark Dacascos) during his climactic fight to the death with Wick set within a museum made of glass. 

Acting is not really expected to be the strong suit of a film like this, what with Keanu Reeves in the lead. All the supporting actors played their parts over-the-top, as if they were characters of a comic book or graphic novel come alive. Returning cast members include Lawrence Fishburne (as the Bowery King), Ian McShane (as Continental head honcho Winston) and Lance Reddick (as Charon, the Continental's efficient concierge). 

It was interesting to see a couple of past Oscar award winners in the cast. Halle Berry (as Sofia, Wick former friend based in Casablanca) scintillatingly pulled off her fight scenes with an endless horde of warriors with the valuable assistance of her pets. Anjelica Huston was memorable as the Director, a member of the High Table and a perfectionist ballet teacher, who knew Wick when he was starting out in the assassin trade. 

This definitely succeeds to satisfy the bloodthirst of John Wick fans. Every fight sequence here looked and felt really more intense and more graphic than how I remembered the previous two films. John Wick was practically invincible here (as always). The director and fight choreographer Chad Stahelski will really have his hands full coming up with more extraordinary fights in more extraordinary settings and situations should this cinematic saga continue on to a fourth sequel. 8/10. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Review of KUWARESMA: Twisted Tale of Twins

May 15, 2019

For his latest film, director Erik Matti returns to a favorite genre of his -- horror. Previously, he had done "Pa-Siyam" (2004), the two Aswang Chronicles films "Tiktik" (2012) and "Kubot (2014) and "Seklusyon" (2016). When Sharon Cuneta to be the lead actress of this new project (her very first horror film of her entire career), what was supposed to have been a small film eventually grew in proportion to the magnitude of its star.

It was 1985. Luis Fajardo was called at his boarding school in Lucena City to return to their home in Baguio City because his twin sister Manuela had died suddenly. When he got there, neither his obstetrician mother (Dr. Rebecca) nor his ex-military father (Col. Arturo) would tell him exactly what happened. From his first night and every night that followed, Luis would experience one bizarre horrific event after the other, seemingly from his sister who blamed him for leaving her behind.

As proven from his previous films, Erik Matti was a master in creating a chilling atmosphere. From the very beginning, even a favorite Christmas song like "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" took on an eerie air, especially with all the whispering voices and whimpering cries that were heard along with it. The old Baguio house of the Fajardo family was built even before World War 2. Its rooms, with its antique furnishings (including a fully-equipped labor room!), seemed perpetually shrouded in shadows, even during the daytime. 

What seemed to be a simple story of a dysfunctional family at the start slowly turned out to be more and more convoluted with warped twists which revealed themselves as the film unfolded, as written by Katski Flores. Aside from the family, there was only one other side character -- a mysterious woman named Salve (Guila Alvarez), who introduced herself to Luis during the wake as someone whose preternatural talents might be of help to him. 

The biggest surprise though came midway in the film, when Rebecca dropped a big revelation bomb which was so incredibly crazy and wild, I am sure no one could ever see it coming. This scene was so insanely shocking that it will leave mouths agape in disbelief once this plot point was played out. However I personally did not think it particularly worked well, nor did it feel entirely necessary in the overall narrative, which became a bit overstetched towards the end.  

Sharon Cuneta was able to create a nebulous character mystery in her portrayal of Dr. Rebecca Fajardo. Throughout the film, we cannot really decide what sort of mother she was. She struck us first as a long-suffering martyr of spousal abuse, but later she seemed to be seamlessly becoming different inexplicable personalities, sometimes within the same scene. Cuneta was really pushed through the wringer and challenged like she had never been before with this exhaustingly maddening role. 

John Arcilla was a terrifying presence as Col. Arturo Fajardo. It initially seemed like he was channeling Vic Silayan's fearsome father character Sgt. Carandang in the film "Kisapmata" (Mike de Leon, 1981). In a while, he would be slobbering as he lisped with a demonic-sounding foreign language. Later, he would be involved in bloody torture scenes which would make you wince in pain. Still later he would be shouting out blasphemous pronouncements which will make you writhe in your seat with guilt for merely hearing them.

17 year-old acting newcomer Kent Gonzales played the plum role of Luis, the precious only son of the Fajardos upon whom his father had imposed unrealistic expectations of excellence. He was able to hold his own in his scenes with the two senior acting heavyweights he was with. There were some unexpected developments in his character which were unfortunately not explored too well anymore. In an interesting piece of casting, his real-life younger sister Pam Gonzales played Luis's ill-fated twin sister Manuela. 

Aside from the point that Manuela was interred on the second Sunday of Lent and there was a scene that recalled Ash Wednesday, I do not really get why "Kuwaresma" was the title of this film as a whole. Unlike many other Pinoy horror films, there was no overuse of spooky religious statues here, nor did it feature Filipino Holy Week practices and superstitions, despite the religious-sounding title. 

Overall, the film was technically excellent. There was fascinating mixing of music and spooky sound elements with a full wall of sound effect. The production design really worked hard with the costumes and props as the scenes jumped decades from 1944 to 1965 to 1985.  Its moody bluish-tinged cinematography plus the tight editing creating some good jump scares, with above-average ghost and monster visual effects for more frights. Fans of Filipino horror will like this one. 7/10. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of J.T. LEROY: Pseudonymous Problems

May 13, 2019

"J.T. LeRoy" was supposed to be a biographic film. However, I had never heard of this person before. Viewers who knew this personality will have their own appreciation of how the real-life people and events were portrayed in the film. I only have this film to introduce me to the individuals involved and show me the events as they transpired. I trust they should be interesting enough to be given a movie with known stars to tell the story. 

Laura Albert was an author who wrote under the pseudonym / pseudo-persona J.T. LeRoy, a teenage boy who went through a life of poverty, drugs and abuse. Her first two books were best-sellers, which led to a public clamor for J.T. LeRoy to reveal himself in public. When a movie deal was being hatched for her first book "Sarah," Laura convinced her androgynous-looking sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to assume the persona of J.T. LeRoy. 

Acclaimed authors like the Mary Anne Evans and Karen Blixen are more known as their male pseudonyms George Eliot and Isak Dinesen. More recently, Joanna Rowling was asked to use the initials J.K. as a gender-unspecific pseudonym before her first Harry Potter book was published. For Laura Albert though, her reason for creating this teenage boy J.T. LeRoy was for him to assume the abuse she personally experienced in her youth. 

So it was Laura Albert's own desire to gain more fame that led her to getting Savannah to become J.T. LeRoy in the flesh, as she (Laura) vicariously enjoyed all the media attention that her creation was receiving. But of course, Savannah was still her own person, so being J.T. LeRoy eventually became too difficult for her to pull off full time. This film was based on Savannah Knoop's memoirs so we are seeing the story told from her point of view, as the victim of Laura's manipulative ambitions. 

Kristen Stewart had matured in age, but she still portrayed Savannah Knoop in her same monotonous dry acting style, like she did her breakthrough role of Bella Swan of the "Twilight Saga" films. Stewart's J.T. LeRoy was not a likable character with her platinum wig, dark sunglasses, and mousy aloof demeanor. Stewart was bolder here, with her scenes of breast binding and sex scenes with both male and female partners.

Laura Dern was effusively over-the-top as Laura Albert, especially in her character of Speedy, J.T. LeRoy's white-trashy manager. There is something about Dern's style that made her more likable than Stewart, even if the focus of the story was against Laura. Diane Kruger played the beautiful and aggressive director and actress Eva, who competed for JT's attention and trust against Laura, and prevailed. 

JT's gender was really confusing here as presented by writer-director Justin Kelly, maybe it was meant to be. There was a point when J.T. LeRoy totally looked female already (not merely androgynous), yet no one suspected anything yet, even Eva it seemed. The pace of storytelling of the film was very slow, made even slower by Stewart's languid speaking style both as Savannah and as JT and the uncompelling style of the writing (despite the interesting premise). 5/10.  

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Review of AFTER: Tale of a Teenage Tryst

May 12, 2019

In the 1980s, there were very popular films like "Endless Love" and "Blue Lagoon" (both starring Brooke Shields) featuring a teenage girl and her first experience with sex. With the way sexual mores have evolved since then, there were hardly any dramatic movies about losing virginity that ever reached that level of popularity any more. This new film seems to want to test the waters if this type of film will work its magic on the box-office again.

Tessa Young is a college freshman. She is a serious studious type, never had been in any sort of mischief in the past. Hardin Scott was the bad boy jock who believed that he could charm any girl into getting into bed with her. One night, they met at a party during an innocent game of truth or dare. After some initial resistance, Tessa and Hardin discovered they both loved literature, and eventually could not get enough of each other. 

The 21-year old actress who played Tessa, Josephine Langford, was indeed very pretty. She reminded me of "Clueless"-era Alicia Silverstone. While watching the film, you will feel protective of her and feel sad for the unfortunate decisions she made. I identified with the concerns of her mother Carol (played by Selma Blair) about her roommates, who looked like bad news from Day 1. I would not have left my Tessa alone with those wanton-looking girls, no matter how much I trusted my daughter. 

The 21-year old actor who played Hardin, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, went for the typical brooding bad boy posturing that worked before for Hollywood teen male movie idols from James Dean all the way to Robert Pattinson. I don't think he could achieve their level of success though. Director Jenny Gage decided not to explore Hardin's personality, nor Tessa's for that matter, as individuals. The film was more concerned about their relationship together, than each of them on their own. 

The plot is very simple, straightforward and lazy plotting. There was absolutely nothing new about the story at all -- it was only based on a Wattpad novel after all. The climate for the depiction of sexuality in mainstream films these days is not anymore as bold as it was before. The sexual encounters depicted here stopped at being tame and suggestive, and nothing more. This was a film that merely depended on the attractiveness and chemistry of the two leads to sell it, and unfortunately, their combined chemistry and individual charisma were not exactly that strong. 3/10. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Review of TAYO SA HULING BUWAN NG TAON: Derailed Destinies

May 11, 2019

When I went to watch this film, I did not know that this new film by Nestor Abrogena was a sequel of a previous film of his. I never got to watch the first movie "Ang Kuwento Nating Dalawa" (2015) at all, so for me, this was a totally new story with a new cast of characters to watch. I am most probably not going to judge this new film similarly to someone who had seen the first film before. 

Teacher / photographer / filmmaker Sam was in a happy live-in relationship with his co-teacher Anna, and they were about to get married. Writer Isa was in a happy live-in relationship with pilot / illustrator Frank, and they were about to migrate to the United States. It turned out that five years ago, Sam and Isa had a serious relationship which ended up in a painful separation. When their plans crossed again now, old wounds are reopened. 

For someone who had not seen the first film, Sam (Nicco Manalo) and Isa (Vera) did not have any romantic spark between them. Their personalities and backgrounds were so different from each other, they did not seem to fit at all. On the other hand, they were very compatible with their partners in life now -- Sam with Anna (Anna Luna), and Isa with Frank (Alex Medina). This contrast made the irony of their current contentment with the present versus the elusive closure with the past even more painful. 

While there was a similarity in the way Abrogena used the LRT / MRT and other public places as settings in the first film (as seen from its trailers and music videos), the overall quality of the cinematography (by Tey Clamor) looked so much better, cleaner and clearer in this new film, in terms of lighting, color quality and shot selection. That scene in the Christmas light show in particular was spectacularly shot, with the actors' faces floating amidst the sparkling bulbs in the background, as the camera circled around them. 

In the soundtrack of the first film, Qwest's "Walang Hanggan" emerged as the big hit with the fans. Here, there are three main songs which accompany the most emotionally-heavy scenes. Elle Sebastian's “Panahon," December Avenue's ”"Huling Sandali" and my personal favorite, Urbandub frontman Gabby Alipe’s “The Fight is Over" -- were all melancholic reflections of longing for a lost love. All of them fit perfectly into the overall heartbreaking mood of this film. 

Writer-director Nestor Abrogena told his story with a very slow pace. The whole first half of the film was about Sam and Isa's current separate lives with their respective families (heartwarming performances by Peewee O'Hara as Sam's mom and Alvin Anson as Isa's dad) and significant others, Anna and Frank. If you did not know that they used to be a serious item in a previous film (like me), this part of the film would seem rather meandering (but sincere) exposition of their mundane daily lives. 

When the two exes bumped into each other accidentally during an event, then that was the only time when the story began to take shape and clear up. Even then, it felt like their full back story was not completely revealed. It got lost and was left unanswered in emotional outbursts and incomplete sentences -- all within one single scene. I guess that answering that question was not the point of this film at all. 7/10. 

Review of POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU: Fanboying over a Fuzzy Furball

May 10, 2019

21-year old insurance guy Tim Goodman returned to Ryme City (a city where humans lived in harmony with their Pokemon pets) when he receiving news of his father Harry's car accident. There he meets his father's pet Pikachu, whose speech he could unexpectedly comprehend (even if others simply hear him say "pika pika").  Together with junior reporter Lucy Stevens and her Psyduck, they set out to investigate Harry's disappearance, and the dangerous case he was working on. 

I only know Pokemon on a casual basis, not a huge fan. Of course, I knew Pikachu, along with the rest of the world. But I was also familiar with a few other Pokemon like Charmander, Snorlax, Jigglypuff and Psyduck, although I needed help with the name recall. My son, on the other hand, was gleefully naming each and every Pokemon that appeared onscreen, like Cubone, Bulbasaur, Mr. Mime, Snubbull, Lickitung, Tortera, Squirtle, among many others. This film is definitely more fun if you are familiar with Pokemon and their lore.

The best part of this film is the amazingly adorable way they CG-animated the 3D Pikachu. Knowing him only as a 2D cartoon character, I did not expect him to be furry and fuzzy which further added to his cuteness. He was cute happy, he was cute sad -- so good. In addition, Ryan Reynolds' voice fit the character so well, giving him a winning and delightful personality.  He can even sing the Pokemon theme song -- so endearing! All through the film, I'm sure everyone in the audience would like to bring a little Pikachu home with them. 

The acting of the human cast, like Justice Smith (as Tim) and Kathryn Newton (as Lucy), was serviceable, taking a backseat to the Pokemon characters. Even the senior actors in the cast, like Ken Watanabe (as Detective Yoshida), Bill Nighy (as Ryme City creator Howard Goodman) and Chris Geere (as Howard's son Roger), portrayed their roles in a campy manner, maybe to appeal to the younger target audience. 

There were some cartoonish violence in some scenes, like the Pokemon battle arena scenes pitting a vicious Charizard against our Pikachu and those climactic outdoor fight-action sequences involving a very powerful Mewtwo, which earned this live-action Pokemon movie a PG rating. Overall, this Rob Letterman film was quite a fun and entertaining video game-based movie to watch even for those with limited Pokemon knowledge. 6/10 (but an 8.5/10 for my Pokemon fanboy son). 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review of LONG SHOT (2019): Political Priorities

May 8, 2019

When US Secretary of State Charlotte Field was a 16-year old teenager, she baby-sat a nerdy 13-year boy, Fred Flarsky, who is now a daring radical journalist. When the two met at one function, Charlotte invited Fred to be her speech writer as she sought to become the first woman President of the United States. The relationship between the gorgeous, graceful Charlotte and uncouth, unkempt Fred take a turn towards romance, much to the chagrin of her campaign staff.

Charlize Theron of course was statuesque and svelte, certainly one of the world's most beautiful women. Smart and confident, she pulled off her presidential candidate role of Charlotte very credibly. Seth Rogan was his typical dorky loser character, but this time his Fred was a tough nut to crack, unwilling to compromise on his principles, even for his friends. This incorrigible attitude of his coupled with his sharp profane tongue tended to make him a very annoying guy.

Improbable as it may sound, there was actually chemistry between Theron and Rogan even if their characters looked and behaved miles apart and their love scenes can make some viewers cringe. I don't buy it that this starkly odd mismatch of a relationship could stay afloat in real life, but hey this is Hollywood, so happy endings are always possible. The writers though make sure enough roadblocks, some pretty far-fetched, are thrown their way to make things more challenging for them. 

O'Shea Jackson as Fred's best friend Lance, and June Diane Raphael as Charlotte's campaign manager Maggie, both did their supporting roles well. There were amusing cameos from Randall Park (as Fred's boss), Lisa Kudrow (as Charlotte's poll taker) and a longer one by Alexander Skaarsgard (as the dashing Canadian prime minister). Bob Odenkirk played the US President Chambers, a former TV actor who was portrayed as incompetent chief executive. As a departure from his CGI characters, Andy Serkis played a human character here, portraying the unscrupulous businessman, Mr. Wembley. 

This film followed a time-tested formula for romantic comedy of going for someone beyond your league, but this time, it was the beautiful girl who had to face a tough fight for the man she loved. The romantic angle of the plot was made more unpredictable by the implications of Charlotte's decisions and actions on her lofty political ambitions. The raunchy factor, especially with that scandal video, was over the top. Also I don't know why a drugged-out moment was always in films like this, I'm not a fan of that kind of humor. Filipino viewers will be struck by the choice of Manila as the place where Charlotte and Fred begin their romance.6/10. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review of THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA: Malevolent Mexican Mother

April 23, 2019

La Llorona is a figure from Mexican folklore. She was a woman who drowned her two children in rage after her husband left her for another woman. When she died, her soul was condemned to search for the souls of her children. Her soul was said to have remained as a mournful ghost, eternally trapped in limbo causing injury or death to the living children who had the misfortune of encountering her. 

It was 1973 in Los Angeles. Anna Tate-Garcia was a social worker investigating a case of possible child abuse in the household of Patricia Alvarez. Finding Patricia's two sons locked in a closet, Anna took them into protective custody. However, that same night, the boys were found dead drowned in a river nearby. Patricia blamed Anna for their deaths, and then cursed that Anna's own two kids will now be the next target of the La Llorona.

James Wan (of "The Conjuring" franchise) heads the production team behind this film about La Llorona.  Actually, there is an appearance of the priest from the first "Annabelle" film, Fr. Perez (Tony Amendola), as one of Anna's advisers about her spectral problem. Since this film is considered as part of the "Conjuring" universe, the upcoming third "Annabelle" film scheduled to show later this year will be the second film of that franchise for 2019. 

After 'A Simple Favor" and "Green Book" last year and as Clint Barton's wife Laura in "Avengers: Endgame," it is great to see Linda Cardellini is getting more roles in prominent films again. She played the troubled lead character Anna here. I first knew of her as Velma in the "Scooby Doo" films (2002, 2004). I'm guessing that the scene in this film where a child was watching a "Scooby Doo" cartoon on TV was a reference to that fun fact. 

Anna's children Chris and Samantha were played by Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen. This whole Garcia family behaved like typical horror film characters who boldly go where they obviously shouldn't. That was why this film was full of anticipated jump scares. The setups were very obvious, but that is not to say they were not good. I particularly liked those two scenes that involved Samantha -- one with the clear umbrella at the pool and that one very tense bathtub scene. 

The comic relief in this moody film was provided by Raymond Cruz as the priest-turned-faith healer, Rafael Olvera. He has a grim face and he looked like he was very serious with his spells, but those scenes with the eggs were really laugh-out-loud funny for me. Everyone in those scenes were keeping their faces straight, but I am sure those were fun scenes to shoot, especially for the kid actors. 5/10.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review of MALEDICTO: Possession Politics

May 1, 2019

From the first frame, my attention was immediately caught by seeing Fox Network Group as the main producer of this film (together with Cignal Entertainment and Unitel). Realizing that this is Fox's first locally-produced film, this fact heightened my eagerness and excitement for watching this new horror film, expecting a higher quality output than usual.

Fr. Xavi Lavezares (Tom Rodriguez) is an exorcist who trained in Rome. Being a medical doctor (a practicing psychiatrist) before going into priesthood, Fr. Xavi was eager to debunk cases of alleged demonic possessions as medical cases. However, his first major case which involved the nephew of the Cardinal did not go too well, which did not help Fr. Xavi's reputation as a brash young skeptical exorcist.

Agnes Villacorte (Miles Ocampo) was an outstanding student in St. Mary's Academy. However, she suddenly experienced an inexplicable personality breakdown, causing her to have violent outbursts against people around her. Sister Barbara Vergel de Dios (Jasmine Curtis Smith) sought the help of Fr. Xavi. At first, Fr. Xavi dismissed the case as induced by illegal drugs, but later factors would point him otherwise.  

To be completely honest, this was just a film about a rather straightforward case of demonic possession, much like the classic one we saw as far back as "The Exorcist". The appearance and behavior of the possessed Agnes in the final showdown with Fr. Xavi mostly followed the "Exorcist" template. Only, there was a touch of Philippine folklore introduced, with the involvement of a mysterious cult led by Manang Sisa (Liza Lorena).

Another angle introduced by this film was the stand of the local Church authorities regarding these exorcism cases. There was the character of Cardinal Delfino (Eric Quizon) who sought for the "modernization" of the Church. He wanted to stop attributing so-called cases of possessions to the Devil, and instead explain them as psychiatric or drug-induced mania. This was an interesting twist to the usual supernatural narrative of these films.

There seemed to be an effort to lighten the horror by some unexpected comedy. Tom Rodriguez's Fr. Xavi was an irreverent priest, cocky and assertive. He acted like one of those hotshot American crime show detectives -- drank cognac, smoked cigarettes, tactless of tongue. Miles Ocampo's portrayal of Agnes was rather over-the-top, coming off as unintentionally funny than scary. Jasmine Curtis-Smith was a perfect Sister Barbie personality-wise, but she looked unhealthy and gaunt here compared to her previous films. 

The cinematography seemed to be using a hazy filter to add to the mystical atmosphere. In some scenes, the camera was focusing and defocusing on the characters while their conversations were going on. Special visual effects, like the floating of Agnes' body or the lengthening of her tongue, were cleanly executed for a local film. There was actually a mid-credit extra scene which seemed to promise a sequel, making this film seem like the pilot episode of a TV series. I liked that final surprise. 6/10.