Friday, June 28, 2019

Review of ANNABELLE COMES HOME: Simple Successful Scares

June 28, 2019

The Warrens kept the demonic Annabelle doll inside a specially blessed glass case in the room of possessed objects in their home. One day, the Warrens had to leave their home for another investigation so they got neighborhood girl Mary Ellen to babysit their daughter Judy. Mary Ellen's guilt-ridden friend Daniela paid them an unexpected visit which eventually led to Annabelle's unfortunate release. 

The main action of this film was confined mostly within the many rooms of the Warren's house. That claustrophobic feel permeated the whole film to keep everyone watching on the edges. Every production detail needed to enhance the eerie atmosphere was employed here -- the very dim house lighting, the rolling fog outside, the labyrinthine arrangement of rooms with all those dark nooks and crannies. Like previous films in the Conjuring series, there was also a creepy game in this one, the Feeley Meeley, where you need to put your hand through a hole in the box and feel around inside.

With Annabelle serving as "a beacon for souls," practically all those spooky exhibits in the Warrens collection came to life to cause terrifying mayhem. There was a Ferryman with all those coins falling to the floor from the eyes of the dead. There was the Bride in her haunted white wedding gown. There was vicious Hellhound on the loose out in the yard. All those other things we've seen in that room before -- like the Samurai armor, the drumming monkey toy and the clairvoyant television -- all got to show off what they can do.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as Ed and Lorraine Warren, but they merely bookend the film with their presence. The bulk of the film was carried by three young actresses. 13 year-old Mckenna Grace was the withdrawn Judy Warren, who shared her mother's third eye. Madison Iseman was a responsible Mary Ellen. Katie Sarife was the curious Daniela Rios. As always, these three intrepid girls were doing everything people do in horror movies which people will not do in real life, all to make us in the audience squirm in our seats. Michael Cimino provided comic relief as Mary Ellen's nervous suitor Bobby.

The whole concept of the film was very simple yet quite effective for its objective. Long-time horror writer Gary Dauberman (who wrote all three "Annabelle" films, "The Nun," "It" and its upcoming sequel) now also sat on the director's chair for the first time. He had Annabelle and the whole Warren collection at his disposal to generate the scares for the three girls (and his audience), and he went to town with all of them. It took time for Annabelle to get started, but when she did, the scares just kept on coming. 8/10. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of BECAUSE I LOVE YOU: Fateful and Fanciful

June 27, 2019

Rael is the privileged son of the Tansingco family of shipping tycoons. He had a beauty queen girlfriend Gianna, who seemed to have more time for her modelling gigs than him. Summer is a dedicated firefighter who lived with her makeup artist, K-drama addict mother. She was one of the boys at the fire station, and had no interest nor time for beauty rituals or romance. When their divergent paths crossed three random times, Rael began to think if fate had something in store for them.

Shaira Dizon is a very effortless young actress. Even if playing a firefighter would most probably be the furthest thing from her real-life experience, Diaz was spunky and spirited as Summer, no qualms for being deglamorized for this role. Despite the heavy fireman uniforms she had to wear or the tomboyish air she had to project for her character, her radiant natural beauty still shone right through. 

David Licauco is a charming young man who looked he could actually be a Rael in real life. His clean-cut chinito good looks fit right in with the mansion, sports cars, wardrobe, and various accouterments of the rich and famous. Even the helicopter and the polo match did not look too far-fetched. He could still look a bit self-conscious and awkward in certain scenes of his first lead role, but these things made him come across as a real good boy. 

Martin del Rosario played Rael's lawyer-friend Tres, a notorious "serial-dater" who seemed to have developed a serious crush on Summer. The statuesque Michelle Marquez Dee (Melanie Marquez's daughter in her first film) played Rael's high-maintenance girlfriend Gianna. Samantha Lopez stole all her scenes because of her over-the-top yet lovable portrayal of Summer's quirky riot of a mother, Mimi. Bernadette Allyson and Monsour del Rosario played David's too-good-to-be-true billionaire parents, Vicky and Rusty.

The very generic title, which came from the classic Dave Clark 5 1964 hit "Because" (given a modern spin by Kris Lawrence for this film) does not ensure easy recall in the future. There were some factual errors. Applying make-up to cadavers is usually done in the funeral parlor, not the hospital morgue. There were some logic gaps. Usually the presence of an ongoing romantic relationship is the first reason to turn down a suitor, not class differences. Anyhow, these little nitpicks ultimately did not matter.

The basic plot line of rich boy-poor girl in this film is admittedly very simple and commonly used in local love story films. Nevertheless, veteran director Joel Lamangan was still able to give it a fresh uncomplicated spin, taking full advantage of the chemistry between his two lead actors to create romantic thrills. Even the corny lines and predictable moments actually came off quite entertaining in this wholesome, lighthearted and fun little romcom. 7/10. 

Review of CHILD'S PLAY (2019): Terrifying Toy

June 27, 2019

In 1988, the first "Child's Play" film by director Tom Holland was released. That low-budget slasher horror film about a toy doll possessed by the soul of a mad killer became a cult favorite and spun off its own franchise of 6 sequels. comic books and merchandise. This year, it joins the ever-growing list of classic films which have been remade or rebooted for the millennial generation. 

In the original "Child's Play," Chucky was a "Good Guys" doll that six year old Andy (Alex Vincent) received for his birthday from his mom. However, this Chucky had previously been possessed by the soul of a serial killer Charles Earl Ray (Brad Dourif), who was able to transfer his soul into the doll via a voodoo ritual before his human body died. Chucky would then set out and kill people who wronged him before, or stood in his way now as he attempted to transfer his soul into Andy.

With his messy shock of orange hair, big sinister blue eyes, denim overalls and rainbow-striped long-sleeved shirt, the original Chucky doll was an ugly, unsettling-looking toy which no normal child would want to own. He has since become an iconic horror figure along with fellow slashers Michael Myers (of "Halloween") and Freddie Krueger (of "Nightmare on Elm Street"). When I visited Universal Studios LA during one of their Halloween nights, seeing this little half-pint sized Chucky doll running around stabbing the air with a knife in his hand was one of the most truly chilling things I saw there.

In this new "Child's Play," Chucky was a Buddi doll, a futuristic artificial intelligence personal assistant doll for children. Instead of a voodoo ritual, the evil of this Chucky was caused by a programming malfunction caused by a disgruntled technician. With his violence control and other safety features turned off, Chucky imbibed and emulated the violence he saw around him (either actual or in movies) to hurt and kill people who either bullied or befriended his 13-year old introvert friend Andy (Gabriel Bateman).

While the face of the original Chucky can cause nightmares up to now, this look of this new Chucky was very forgettable. It had a blank, nondescript, unremarkable face that does not inspire fear or dread. That the filmmakers settled on such a mediocre facial design for their central character was, I thought, the worst decision they made.  They messed with an icon, and came up with a bland reboot image which greatly affected the scare factor. To their credit though, they gave him the voice of Mark Hamill. 

The scares delivered by this new Chucky were all technology-driven, not just all knife-stabbing this time. Since he was essentially one big general remote control, this Chucky had the electronic equipment (from lawn mowers and rotating saws, to robotic taxicabs and drone blades) around him all under the control of this fingertips to do the killing for him.  This provided some innovative high-tech updates to popular slasher film tropes, which was, to be fair, entertaining, and actually fun, if you like the gory type of horror. Therein also lay a cautionary tale about the dangers of modern technology. 6/10. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Review of ANNA: Side-Switching Spy

June 24, 2019

In public, Anna was glamorous professional fashion model; but she was also an assassin for the KGB on the side. Her recruiter was KGB agent Alex, who became her lover. After her five year service, she wanted out as per the deal upon recruitment, but KGB head Vassiliev did not agree to this arrangement. Later in a mission gone wrong, Anna was captured by the CIA, and offered to assassinate Vassiliev in exchange for retirement in Hawaii. Her CIA handler was Leonard Miller, who also became her lover. 

Female assassin movies are a very popular subgenre of action films. Arguably created by French director Luc Besson with his seminal film "La Femme Nikita" (1990) with Anne Parillaud. From there, we had "The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996) with Geena Davis, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (2003) with Uma Thurman, "Salt" (2010) with Angelina Jolie, "Colombiana" (2011) with Zoe Saldana, "Hanna" (2011) with Soairse Ronan, "Atomic Blonde" (2017) with Charlize Theron, "Red Sparrow" (2018) with Jennifer Lawrence, "Maria" (2019) with Cristine Reyes, and now this new one, "Anna," again with originator Besson.

Anna is played by Russian model turned actress Sasha Luss. Her lean physique may seem weak at first glance, which worked well during her vulnerable scenes. However, when she goes into action mode, all hell can still break loose as she single-handedly took on a multitude of men and still come out the victor -- a lot of suspension of disbelief required of course. Despite her fragile beauty, her limited acting skills still needs further honing at this point, if she hopes to reach the career levels of the actresses before her. Ironic to discover later that she was a real Russian because her Russian accent sounded so contrived. 

Her supporting actors, Luke Evans (as KGB Alex) and Cilian Murphy (as CIA Leonard), both played well as the agents on both sides of the fence who both fell for Anna's irresistible wiles and wits. Helen Mirren stole all of her scenes with an over-the-top portrayal of Anna's KGB handler Olga, in full Edna Mode (of "The Incredibles") look with the her bob hairstyle and big glasses, but with ulterior motives of her own. 

This was not exactly the John Wick-style action flick with one major action sequence after the other. There were actually only two major fight scenes in this -- one set in a restaurant and the other one in the basement of the KGB building. These were prolonged extended scenes of Anna fighting an unending stream of goons coming at her from all directions. The hardcore fight choreography was fast, slick and exciting, expertly captured with frenetic yet clean camera work. 

The best scene in the whole film for me was the final deadlocked confrontation scene at the Parisian park -- an ultimate in tense Cold War standoffs. All the major characters of the film were involved in this well-executed scene, and it was not at all predictable how things would turn out, so I was kept on edge the whole time. The whole climax and epilogue set-up was so unbelievable, yet it worked so well. 

If there was something that felt sort of off, it was Besson's storytelling style of going into multiple flashbacks to explain what really happened in a certain scene that was previously showed already. While an interesting device at times, it can be also be confusing to try to reconstruct and link the events together in order. One "Three Months Earlier" card may be alright, but seeing three of them at various parts of the film was a bit unwieldy. 6/10. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review of TOY STORY 4: Rambunctious Rescues

June 23, 2019

It had been two years since Andy donated his toys to Bonnie. Bonnie was very shy in her first day at kindergarten but because of Woody's interference, she was able to create her own little figurine from a plastic spork and called him Forky. When the family goes out on a road trip, Forky throws himself out of the vehicle, thinking he was only trash. Believing no toy should be left alone, Woody goes out after Forky to get him back for Bonnie. 

I know am not alone in thinking that the Toy Story franchise already ended perfectly in "Toy Story 3" (2010). That was why when promo ads started coming out to promote a fourth installment this year, I was apprehensive about how it might affect the beloved series. Frankly, when I saw that Forky in that first trailer, I thought it was corny and shallow. I did not think it was a good story idea at all. 

Watching the film did not improve my opinion of Forky at all, honestly. Ok, he was sort of funny in his quirky little way, I felt but did not prove himself to be worth the trouble everyone went through to get him back when he decided to jump out of the RV. Anyhow, Forky actually dropped out of the story line midway through, to be replaced by a story of Woody reuniting with his long-time crush, Bo-Peep, missing in action since "Toy Story 2" (1999).

This porcelain shepherdess doll was sold to an antique store, and had since escaped to be the leader for a group of Lost Toys. In order to rescue Forky, they had to fight off the scary "Goosebumps" Slappy lookalike puppet minions of the Gabby Gabby doll, who wanted to get her hands on Woody's voice box to replace her own damaged one. Woody's obsession about saving Forky felt needlessly dangerous for him and his friends. 

So much about my dissatisfaction about the story, but the rest of technical aspects was flawless as we can expect from Pixar. The artwork and 3D renditions with all the different textures of various objects all so meticulously done. The voice work was excellent, led by Tom Hanks (as the over-heroic Woody), Tim Allen (as an underused Buzz Lightyear), Annie Potts (as the empowered Bo Peep) and Christina Hendricks (as the selfish Gabby Gabby). 

My favorite new character in this installment would have to be Duke Caboom. He is an Evel Kneivel-inspired Canadian action figure with his stunt motorcycle. Unfortunately, he was discarded by his owner when he could not actually perform the crazy stunts promised in his TV commercial. Keanu Reeves has been lording it over various social media because of "John Wick 3" and "Always Be My Maybe," so add this funny character of his to that list.

Overall, I was disappointed with the way this new story unfolded like maybe it need not really have been done anymore. Thankfully, the colorful artwork, sense of humor and stellar voice work saved the day for this one, still making it an above-average animated film worthy of the Pixar brand it carried. However, I will rank it fourth among the four films of the "Toy Story" franchise. 7/10. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Review of ROCKETMAN: The Emancipation of Elton

June 19, 2019

Fresh at the heels of "Bohemian Rhapsody" last year which recounted for us the life of Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, here comes another film that traces the life and career of another legendary name in pop music -- Elton John. The director of this new film Dexter Fletcher, who directed "Bohemian Rhapsody" for its final two weeks of shooting, when original director Brian Singer dropped out of the project. 

I only learned about Elton John in the 1980s when he was part of the quarter Dionne and Friends singing "That's What Friends are For." From then, I went back and checked out his hit songs from the 1970s and had been a big fan of his work ever since. In my opinion, John had written and sung some of the best pop songs ever recorded. 

I had seen him in concert once in the 2000s, and even then, he was still quite an entertainer live. By that time, John's performance style had already toned down several notches than how he was performing in the 1970s with those crazy colorful costumes, as I had seen in photographs and videos. I can imagine Elton John's career may actually parallel Freddy Mercury's because of their individual flamboyant personas.

The film began with Elton John, dressed in a wild all-red devil costume, with huge feathered wings, high-raised collar and curved horns, attending a group therapy session, admitting his addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex and shopping. From there, there were flashbacks to show his family life as a child Reginald Dwight with frosty, insensitive, uncaring parents. He was a piano prodigy who can play any complex tune back even after listening to the music only once. When he hit his stride creating hit pop songs, then his phenomenal career and hedonistic lifestyle as Elton John took off. 

It was interesting that Elton John's songs were fully integrated into the script, with characters actually breaking into song at certain points in flights of fantasy. Fans familiar with John's discography will immediately notice that the songs were not presented in precise order when they were released, so this was not a cut and dried biopic where factual accuracy was foremost. Here the songs were used as the scene required them for a more emotionally-driven storytelling. 

The upbeat first song "The Bitch Is Back" (1974, #4) was sung in a flashback as a young boy Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illeslie) was gleefully prancing and dancing around their neighborhood. "I Want Love" (2001, with a memorable single-take music video with Robert Downey, Jr.) was sung by teenage Reginald (Kit Connor), along with his cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), acerbic mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and supportive granny Ivy (Gemma Jones). 

In "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" (1973, #12), John transitions from teen to young adult, played by Taron Egerton. By then, he would already call himself Elton John, derived from his Bluesology bandmate saxophone player Elton Dean, and supposedly John Lennon, whose photograph Elton just saw on the wall when he was asked for his surname. When he met Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), "Your Song" (1970, #8) and a fruitful songwriting partnership was born. "Crocodile Rock" (1972, #1) was sung at the Troubadour Club in Elton John's American debut tour.

"Honky Cat" (1972, #8) was sung as a duet between Elton and his manager/ lover John Reid (Richard Madden). Their love scene together is said to be a first for any major Hollywood production. Reid was portrayed to be the film's antagonist with the selfish abusive way he treated John. (It is interesting to note that Reid would also become Queen's manager in the late 1970s. He was played in "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Aidan Gillen.) "Rocket Man" (1972, #1) would accompany Elton John's shocking suicide attempt scene, which would dramatically transition into his memorable concert performance at the Dodgers Stadium.

More of Elton John's hits would be sung as the movie went along "Tiny Dancer" (1972, #41) "Bennie and the Jets" (1974, #1) "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (1974, #2; 1991, #1)(as a duet with his wife Renate Blauel, played by Celine Schoenmaker), "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" (1976, #6), "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (1973, #2) (as a duet with Bernie Taupin played by Jamie Bell) and of course, "I'm Still Standing" (1983, #12) as the final anthem of strength and survival. 

Taron Egerton does one better than Rami Malek (Oscar Best Actor winner last year for playing Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody) because Egerton actually does all of his singing as Elton by himself. From the animated film "Sing" (2016), we already heard Taron Egerton, at that time only known for playing Eggsy in "Kingsman Secret Service" (2014), sing his heart out as the voice of gorilla Johnny, singing "I'm Still Standing." Egerton was singing and acting immersively at the same time, and this was even more remarkable during the darker episodes of John's life. Egerton's makeup as Elton was eerily accurate, down to that little gap in his front teeth, with the glasses and costumes to complete the picture. 

This was not an ordinary or conventional biopic. While the factual events were there, psychedelic fantasy was also incorporated into the storytelling. At the Troubadour concert, there was a scene showing Elton John and his audience floating in midair with the music. At the suicide scene, Elton was shown sinking down into the swimming pool where he saw his younger self sitting at the pool floor. 

This was an abashedly florid gay parts of the movie which may not sit well with some more conservative members of the viewing public (even if they were not explicit). Anyhow, true fans will love how the film captured Elton John's unique sense of showbiz swank and sophistication which made him an unlikely pop superstar. 8/10. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Netflix: Review of MURDER MYSTERY: Inept Investigators

June 16, 2019

Adam Sandler is back with a new comedy film but this time it's on Netflix. His last films on the big screen were "Grown-Ups 2," "Blended" and "The Cobbler" were all unmemorable critical messes. Only his "Hotel Transylvania" films are doing any kind of good business at the box office. Electing to screen his next Happy Madison film on Netflix may actually be a stroke of genius on Sandler's part for a bigger audience reach. 

New York police officer Nick Spitz (Sandler) took his hairdresser wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to Europe to spend their 15th wedding anniversary. On the plane, Audrey met the elegant Lord Charles Cavendish, who invited the Spitzes to join him at a family party on their yacht. The American couple stood out like sore thumbs among the colorful rich and famous characters on the yacht. 

Billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp) was about to sign a will turning over all his money to his new wife, Suzi (Shiori Kutsuna). Aside from Cavendish (Luke Evans), the other guests on the yacht include a famed actress (Gemma Arterton), a race car driver (Luis Gerardo Mendez), a playboy maharajah (Adeel Akhtar), a sinister colonel (John Kani) and his bodyguard (Olafur Darri Olafsson) and Quince's only son Tobey (David Walliams). 

Suddenly, a murder was suddenly committed on board, and the lead French policeman Laurent Delacroix (Dany Boon) tagged Nick and Audrey as the primary suspects!

Adam Sandler was his default movie persona here -- an annoying smart-aleck loser type guy -- like how he played them in practically all his recent comedies.  He felt like he was sleepwalking through this project with very little energy in his performance, just going on autopilot for the most part. However, having said that, I cannot say he was not at all funny. He had his moments, but just felt it could have been a smarter sort of funny, rather than just a shallow sort of funny. 

Jennifer Aniston had been with Sandler before in "Just Go With It" (2011), where they also play a couple who go on a trip (to Hawaii). Aniston competing in a hula contest with her rival Nicole Kidman were the only funny scenes I actually remember from that film. Here, I also liked Aniston's character Audrey as a bored wife who was an avid reader of mystery novels. She was very excited to be in the middle of a real murder investigation, pitting her own wits against the murderer with hilarious results. 

This film brought back a lot of nostalgia from Agatha Christie mystery thriller films like "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) and "Death on the Nile" (1978), and similar films like "The Last of Shiela" (1973). In these films, a murder happens on a confined setting and the murder is among a finite number of suspects. I loved those films and that was why, despite Sandler's lazy acting, I still enjoyed watching this silly feature quite a bit, figuring clues out along the way and guess the killer, which I always found fun to do. 6/10.  

Friday, June 14, 2019

Netflix: Review of HINTAYAN NG LANGIT: Worthwhile Waiting

June 14, 2019

Four years ago, one of my favorite one-act plays in Virgin Labfest XI was "Hintayan ng Langit" (MY REVIEW). This eloquent play was written by spoken word artist Juan Miguel Severo, about two old souls of ex-lovers who meet and reconnect in purgatory while waiting for their respective turns to go to heaven. The lead characters of Manolo and Lisang were played by real-life husband and wife Nonoy Froilan and Edna Vida-Froilan, whose electric chemistry imbued the afterlife romance with so much heart and soul.

Last year, "Hintayan sa Langit" was adapted by Severo himself into a screenplay for a full-length indie film directed by romance-meister Dan Villegas. It was shown as one of the films in competition during the QCinema Film Festival which ran from October 21-30, 2018. It won the Audience Choice award, as well as Best Actor for Eddie Garcia (one of three Best Actors he won last year at the ripe age of 89 in addition to "ML" and "Rainbow's Sunset.") 

I rued the fact that I never got to see this film during the festival, and so I was very thankful that it was recently picked up to be shown on Netflix, debuting just two days ago on Independence Day 2019. However, Mr. Garcia's current critical medical condition following a work-related accident made watching this nostalgic film about death and afterlife a particularly spine-tingling experience. 

Like the one-act play, the film was also set in place called "The Middle," a waiting level for souls in transition between heaven and hell. Lisang has been in the Middle for two years because of her bad temper and quarrelsome ways. One day, a new soul Manolo was temporarily assigned to be Lisang's roommate, while waiting for a vacancy. It turned out that they were in fact ex-lovers who parted ways long ago with no closure. Will they be able to finally settle their differences before their final destinations? 

Severo's screenplay had to pad the one-act play script with interesting new details to expand it to feature length. There were additional props involved like the orange juice used to calm the distressed, keys to various rooms around the Middle like the dance hall or the library, as well VHS tapes containing events of one's past life on earth you can watch on your personal TV. The grand interior of the Manila Post Office was converted into an elegant and bustling way-station for souls.

There were a number of side characters added for more texture and exposition of various other situations souls experience while in the Middle based on what they were while alive and the manner how they died. Played by stage and indie actors, they could be staff of the Middle, like Kat Galang (as the Usher or "Tagabantay") and Joel Saracho (as the Checker or "Tagasuri"), or fellow waiting souls, like Dolly de Leon (as the politician) and Karl Medina (as a young father). During flashbacks, Jomari Angeles and Mary Joy Apostol played the young Manolo and Lisang.

But of course, the meat of the story is the connection between Manolo and Lisang. Eddie Garcia and Gina Pareno were both veterans who certainly made sure they delivered the goods in their individual performances of their cantankerous characters. Oddly though, during the course of their reunion in the Middle, I was waiting for palpable romantic tension to develop between them, but this felt a bit lacking. Towards the climax though, everything still came together quite well, especially when the killer revelation lines were delivered, still quite potent to elicit tears. 

As someone who had watched the play before, I would say that the execution of the story as a one-act play was still much better, especially with the undeniable chemistry between Mr. and Mrs. Froilan which totally enveloped the whole audience who were wiping tears uncontrollably during that same climax scene. This film version was still very good, but the expansion to full-length sort of diffused the focus on the central couple, so that the bond between Garcia and Pareno was only effectively felt towards the closing minutes, and not all throughout the film.  7/10. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review of CLARITA: Deliverance from the Devil

June 13, 2019

Among horror films, one of the more familiar sub-genres are those dealing with demonic possessions and exorcisms. For this year alone, there had already been two Filipino horror films which dealt with this very subject matter -- Mark Meily's "Maledicto" (MY REVIEW) in April and Eric Matti's "Kuwaresma" (MY REVIEW) in May. For the third month in a row, yet another such Filipino film opens in theaters again -- Derick Cabrido's "Clarita."

Unlike the other two preceding films, "Clarita" was actually based on a true story that happened in Manila in 1953. Clarita Villanueva, a young woman arrested for vagrancy claimed that she was being tormented by unseen demons. After the uncanny deaths of doctors assigned to her case, she was referred to a pair of exorcist priests -- Fr. Salvador, the grizzled senior, and Fr. Benedicto, the skeptical upstart -- to see if they can help rid Clarita of the rabid evil within her.

Jodie Sta. Maria will definitely be in contention for Best Actress come awards season next year. The role of Clarita certainly wrung extremes of acting out of her -- from unbearable melancholy to gut-wrenching pain, from pathological fear to unspeakable wrath -- and she gave it her all. There was a searing intensity in her portrayal of Clarita which we had never seen her do in all her telenovelas before. 

She might be under layers of facial prosthetics at certain scenes, but those flashing eyes of hers convey all sorts of ghastly emotions. The physical demands of this role on her was immense with all the arching, crawling, and levitating Clarita had to do under demonic influence. Sta. Maria also had to be some sort of a linguist too, as possessed Clarita had to growl out lengthy phrases in Latin, German and French. 

Stage and screen veteran actor Ricky Davao played Fr. Salvador with world-weary wisdom, with just a tinge of human pride. Arron Villaflor played Fr. Benedicto in the same dry manner how he played his character Joven in "Heneral Luna" and "Goyo." He seemed to still be underplaying even when the scene required some punch. Alyssa Muhlach held her own as persistent pioneering photo-journalist Emilia Henson, who was also carrying her own personal baggage in her crusade to cover Clarita's case. 

In smaller roles were Nonie Buencamino as Mayor Arsenio Lacson of Manila, Romnick Sarmienta as the warden of the prison where Clarita was being held, Yayo Aguila as Clarita's ill-fated traditional-healer mother Demetria, Tony Mabesa as the Archbishop who gave Salvador and Benedicto to accept Clarita's case, Angeli Bayani as a fellow inmate who dared pick a fight with Clarita, Che Ramos as the callous doctor who diagnosed Clarita's case as Multiple Personality Disorder, and Bibeth Orteza as Clarita's landlady in the city. 

The production design of the 1950s setting was commendable with the very careful selection of props, locations, costumes and hairstyle. The camera worked very well with the dim lighting in the dark scenes, no need to strain to see what was going on. There were uniquely choice camera angles to make Clarita's demonic antics even more scary, even if she was merely a peripheral image. The prosthetics and visual effects were all of topnotch quality for a Filipino horror film. There were also beautiful transitions as present events led to flashbacks of the past.

It is true that one may feel that this was one more exorcism film too many this year. We already saw floating bodies and lengthening tongue done well in "Maledicto" and an intensely heart-stopping casting of demon scene in "Kuwaresma." However, one cannot deny that "Clarita" still managed to trump them both with its excellent production values, the powerful acting performance by Jodi Sta. Maria and the eloquent storytelling by director Derick Cabrido. 8/10. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Review of MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL: Newly Neuralyzed

June 12, 2019

This sci-fi/ comedy film franchise about an organization that monitored alien activities on earth began way back in 1997 with the first film "Men in Black" starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as partner agents J and K. A sequel was released in 2002, and the third film in 2012. With this fourth film in 2019, the franchise is being rebooted with a totally new cast, no Smith nor Jones, nor their respective characters anymore. 

Molly was an inadvertent witness to a "Men in Black" operation when she was a little girl. Growing up, she was obsessed about becoming a "Man in Black" herself. So when the opportunity presented itself, she boldly grabbed it and was accepted as an agent in probation (codenamed M). For her first mission, she was sent to investigate a case in MiB UK branch in London. The popular Agent H, noted for once saving the world from the alien invaders, took her under his wing as partner. 

Chris Hemsworth continues his roll of taking on comedy roles, as he had done so in "Ghostbusters," "Thor Ragnarok" and even in "Avengers: Endgame." He's really grown quite comfortable playing this dapper, debonair, cocky jock who may or may not have all the brains to match his brawn, a ladies man even among the alien varieties. This character was like second skin to him, the comedy did not feel forced and was actually quite funny. 

Tessa Thompson played Agent M. Thompson had been with Hemsworth before as Thor's partner Valkyrie in two films. Their working chemistry as work buddies was quite evident and very entertaining in all their scenes together, with Thompson as the straight guy to Hemsworth's comic. Thompson played Agent M as the wide-eyed neophyte who was street-smart and never one to back off from a fight with alien species unknown. 

The usual cute and colorful variety of alien species for which the Men in Black was known for was still there. The audience favorite in this installment was the adorable little Pawny (voiced by Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani), a smart and sassy chess pawn who swore to serve Agent M as his queen. There were also a couple of powerful sinister aliens who took the form of human twins, played by French hiphop dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois

Several veteran British actors lend support behind the lead cast. Liam Neeson played Agent High T, who was Agent H's senior partner when they defeated the Hive on the Eiffel Tower in 2016, and was now the head of MiB UK. Rafe Spall played the annoying Agent C, always suspicious of Agent H's cavalier work attitudes. Emma Thompson played Agent O, the head of MiB USA (taking over from Rip Torn's Zed in the previous films). Rebecca Ferguson was again unrecognizable as the beautiful but deadly three-armed alien named Riza, who once had a serious fling with Agent H. 

This new film felt shallower and more juvenile than the Smith and Jones series. With this reboot film, director F. Gary Gray practically "neuralyzed" the old MiB series, with minimal sentimental nostalgia. He introduced new characters, new rules, new weapons and new settings to revive the franchise for a new generation of viewers, but without losing the fun spirit of the original MiB films.  6/10. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2: Lessons for Living Life

June 11, 2019

The events of this sequel to the first "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016) (MY REVIEW) were at first forked into three separate stories. 

In the first substory, our old friend Jack Russell terrier Max (with the voice of Patton Oswalt instead of Louis C.K.) was trying to deal with the dog cone prescribed by his pet therapist, his excessive protectiveness over his master Katie's son Liam, and their family adventures at the farm where he met the wise and courageous alpha dog Rooster (Harrison Ford).

Meanwhile, adorable white pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) was trying to retrieve Max's favorite toy Busy Bee which had accidentally fallen into an apartment of an elderly woman which was full of cats. She had to request the help of obese cat Chloe (Lake Bell) for tips on how to act like a cat in order to infiltrate the apartment. 

At the same time, superhero-mode rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his friend Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) was attempting to help the traumatized white tiger Hu from Sergey (Nick Kroll), his abusive trainer at the circus. All the pets come together for one major rescue mission in the final act which will need all their combined abilities to accomplish. 

At the beginning, the story-telling was all funny, silly, tender and sentimental, while the animal rendered to be as cute as they were before. However as the three concurrent adventures were underway, the pace become quicker and more exciting, in a very kiddie way, of course. It was fun to see all those quirky little habits we note in pets, like dogs hanging their heads out of the car window and cats chasing the red dot from a laser pointer. 

By the time the final act came along, again (like it was in the first film), there were again a number of intense action sequences that push the limits of the General Patronage rating. My pet peeve of seeing animals driving a car was back again. Not only were there ugly vicious wolves fighting with Max and his friends, the most extreme was a knife fight between Snowball and an evil monkey!

At the end, everything of course settled down perfectly as this was a kiddie animated feature anyhow. It tries to impart lessons in living like going for things as they come, and not holding back because too much carefulness. For me as a parent, this part again this requires some parental guidance when explaining this message to kids. The dangers in the real world are certainly not as cute nor as cartoonish as those they saw in this film. 6/10. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Review of DARK PHOENIX: Problematic Processing of Power

June 10, 2019

We first met Jean Grey's hyper-powered persona Dark Phoenix back in the film "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006). That time, Jean Grey was portrayed by Famke Jannsen, and the Phoenix was released when Grey sacrificed herself to save the X-Men at Alkali Lake at the end of "X2" (2003). She would meet her end at the hands of Logan (Wolverine) who was the only one who could withstand her incredible powers. 

Now over a decade later, we meet "Dark Phoenix" again in the rebooted X-Men franchise that began with "X-Men: First Class" (2011), followed by its sequels "Days of Future Past" (2014) and "Apocalypse" (2016). This rebooted timeline in this new series disconnected it from the former series, enabling the filmmakers to resurrect the "Dark Phoenix" tale and give it a totally new spin in this final installment to this franchise. 

During a rescue mission in outer space, Jean Grey survived a massive influx of radiant energy that entered her body. She would later realize that she could not rein in this enormous power within her which would hurt people around her, even causing the death of one of her X-Men friends. Meanwhile an alien race called the D'Bari, under their shape-shifting leader Vuk, was also after Jean Grey in order to absorb and possess her powers for their own dream of world domination.

Sophie Turner, fresh from the final season of "Game of Thrones," played the complex titular role of Jean Grey. While Turner portrayed Jean's inner conflicts and confusion with some measure of emotional depth, yet for some reason I was not as moved this time as I recall being moved by Famke Jannsen's Jean Grey in the original X-Men series. This may be more a problem of direction and script than the acting per se. 

The dialogue in the screenplay was unsatisfying when compared to the two films that preceded it, sounding lazy, sometimes even corny. For this reason, James McAvoy felt lackluster as Charles X. Xavier this time. Nicolas Hoult (as Hank McCoy/ Beast), Tye Sheridan (as Scott Summers/ Cyclops), Alexandra Shipp (as Ororo Munroe/ Storm) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Kurt Wagner/ Nightcrawler) all gave merely passable portrayals of their respective characters, even with new dimensions to their powers.

To his credit, Michael Fassbender still had some emotional heft despite limited screen time as Eric Lehnsherr/ Magneto. Raven/ Mystique also had some inner conflicts about Prof. Xavier's plan for the mutants, and Jennifer Lawrence tried her best to rise above the limits of how her character had been written (really, a line about "X-Women"?). Jessica Chastain was an unexpected choice to play an all-white wraith of a head-villain, Vuk. She tries her best to be sinister, but there was simply not enough backstory about their alien race.

This film, the directorial debut by writer and producer Simon Kinberg, was not totally bad as initial reviews may suggest. It was just middling, far from the levels of excellence set by "X2" or "Days of Future Past." Of the major action scenes, I only liked the climactic one on the train. There were even shades of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that final battle with the Infinity War-like dusting and the Captain Marvel-like Phoenix. Too bad the Fox X-Men franchise had to end on disappointing note like this, but still we look forward to how it will be rebooted once again within the MCU. 5/10. 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Review of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS: Cued for Coexistence

May 31, 2019

After losing her son in the big kaiju battle in San Francisco five years ago, Dr. Emma Russell developed a machine called the Orca, which can generate an alpha soundwave which can communicate and control the behavior of the Titans, ancient god-like monsters which ruled the earth way before the time of man. She wanted to use the Orca to reestablish order on earth by co-existing in harmony with the Titans. However, her estranged husband Dr. Mark Russell believed otherwise, and worked with others to stop her plans. 

This film is a follow-up to the first Godzilla reboot film five years ago, but the human story focused on a new family, the Russells. Irreconcilable differences led to the divorce of Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiga) following the events of San Francisco, with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) living with her mother. However, Emma's seemingly misguided philosophy about what's best for the future of the earth led to renewed conflict between her and Mark, and later, between her and Madison. 

Two actors reprise their roles from the first movie. Ken Watanabew as the Japanese scientist Dr. IshirĊ Serizawa, who was firmly on the side of Godzilla (or Gojira in Japanese). His faith in Gojira gave the film a big emotional moment that gave humans existence the second chance it badly needed at that point. Sally Hawkins was very much underused here, especially as her character Vivienne Graham goes out of commission early in the game. 

It was great to see the ageless Chinese beauty Zhang Ziyi is back on the big screen again, this time playing Dr. Ilene Chen, an expert on the connection between the monsters and the myths behind them. Another strong female character was that played by Aisha Hinds, Col. Diane Foster, head of Monarch military forces. "Game of Thrones" Lannister patriarch Charles Dance got to play what he played best, a ruthless man with a very radical sense of setting things into order, Col. Alan Jonah. Wait up for his extra scene at the very end of the closing credits.

However, like the first film, the main draw of this Michael Dougherty film was also those spectacular fight scenes between and among the titanic monsters. This time around there were seventeen other monsters who shared the limelight with Godzilla. The three main ones were: the Queen of the Monsters Mothra; the mutant pteranodon Rodan; and the most invincible one of them all, the three-headed arch-nemesis King Ghidorah. These exciting monster fights were indeed the lifeblood of this franchise, with the sound effects and laser light effects further adding to the exhilaration. Kaiju fanboys will rejoice! 7/10.