Saturday, August 31, 2019

iWant: Review of ABANDONED: Security Scares

August 30, 2019



Simone was a security guard whose record was besmirched when a violent robbery happened at the bank she was guarding. Desperate for a job, she accepted the night shift post to guard a creepy old abandoned building. She had strict instructions to make rounds of the premises every midnight and 3 am just when the ghostly activity is at its height. Meanwhile, Simone grappled with memories of the bank holdup, financial constraints and the strange behavior of her son. 

As writer-director Kip Oebanda wrote it, "Abandoned" did not only apply to the old building Simone was assigned to guard-- a former hospital where kid patients and the nursing staff were reportedly burned to death in a big fire. Simone was abandoned by the American father of RJ who impregnated her as a high school student, leading to her lack of a diploma. Simone abandoned her post for a while to answer a call from RJ just when the bloody robbery happened at the bank, causing her guilt and post-traumatic stress. Simon's psychological makeup was as damaged and unstable as the condemned structure she was supposed to guard. 

Beauty Gonzalez played the lead role of the tormented Simone. Left alone to fend for herself from a very young age as a single mother, Simone was toughened up by her challenging life circumstances. But behind that brave facade, she was full of frustration with the bleakness of her future. While she was probably doing her best in the lead role, Gonzalez did not exactly have a varied palette as an actress. She seemed overwhelmed by the production here like she is overshadowed by co-star Dimples Romana in their hit afternoon TV soap "Kadenang Ginto". On the other hand, that sense of "weakness" may be the rationale for her casting. 

In his first movie role, former Pinoy Big Brother Otso housemate Seth Fedelin actually did well to create the confusing character of RJ. You never really knew what RJ was up to behind his mother's back. Fedelin managed to effectively portray a mysterious character who was apparently a good son at home, but who could possibly be up to no good when he was out of the house, certainly stirring up more stress in Simone's and the viewer's minds. This was a promising film debut for this young actor. 

Successful horror is all about developing the proper atmosphere. The old building was certainly creepy enough in the dark, but the production design people messed it up some more with details to make it look creepier. The cinematography and lighting were just right, not too dark. Then it was up to the director Oebanda to oversee his editing, sound, music and special effects technicians to create the palpable dread and sudden jumps in the final product. Beyond the scares though, Oebanda's twisted script gave the audience a bit more substance to chew on. 6/10.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: Theoretical Tales of Tinseltown

August 29, 2019




Quentin Tarantino's latest opus (and his films are always major cinematic events) is his ode to old Hollywood in the end of the 1960s. Tastes in film and television are changing fast, so many actors from the old system are losing roles to the more current "hipper" crop of actors. The hippies are taking over Los Angeles with their rebellious counterculture. 

In August of 1969, a cult of brainwashed drug addicts called the Charles Manson Family committed a notoriously heinous crime of murdering actress Sharon Tate and her friends. Tarantino decided to set this film to depict that critical time of transition leading up to that fateful night of violence which shocked not only Hollywood, but the whole country.

Rick Dalton used to be a lead star in the TV Western called "Bounty Law" in the 1950s. However, during the 1960s, after his show closed shop, Dalton had been limited to playing the main villain in various TV pilots launching the careers of new action stars. His depression about his sagging career led to alcoholism, which later affected not only his driving record, but his film performances as well.

Leonardo DiCaprio went all-out with his peculiarly eccentric, yet deeply emotional portrayal of Rick Dalton on the wane of his career. The highlight of his performance here was from that sequence when Dalton was shooting the pilot of the TV series "Lancer" where he was playing the "heavy" (the villain). His scenes with 8 year-old child actress Trudi Fraser (played by 10 year-old Julia Butters) and his breakdown scene in the trailer after flubbing a number of lines were of definite Oscar caliber. 

Cliff Booth used to be very active as the stunt double of Rick Dalton in his TV and movie career. However, as the big roles diminished, so did Dalton's need for Booth. Therefore later, Booth would serve as Dalton's driver, bodyguard and best friend. Booth was the one character of this film which was signature Tarantino. He lived alone with his pitbull and rumored to have killed his wife. He was fearless, tactless, reckless.

Brad Pitt went against type to play Cliff Booth, shedding off his glamor boy looks and image, looking older with his sun-damaged skin on face and body, wearing thrift shop clothes. He had to dim down his own megawatt star power to be credible as DiCaprio's inferior, if that's at all possible. It was Booth that had direct interaction with the hippie members of Charles Manson's Family, so Pitt was the one who got to do the film's most tensely suspenseful, breathtakingly violent and darkly hilarious scenes. 

As a whole, there seemed to be no definite unifying plot for the film. Tarantino was expounding on how Hollywood was evolving in the 1960s -- the actors and the films. He was taking his sweet time following three separate stories: Dalton and his plummeting career path, Booth crossing paths with the Family, and a third one following Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie) on a day out to the city to watch her own film "The Wrecking Crew". These three threads only merge together in one extended, super-intense, wildly outrageous sequence of savage events in the last 20 minutes of the film or so. 

For a long 161-minute film like this, there will be those who would not see the point of it all, only seeing disjointed segments that don't come together and feeling how self-indulgent Tarantino was. Regarding that controversial Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) segment, Tarantino was being funny, but I can how the lines Lee was saying can be offensive to loyal fans of the Asian martial arts icon. 

However, if you share Tarantino's love affair with old Hollywood, you will enjoy this long but potent ride, with all the nostalgic pop culture references from that era being dropped left and right for the similarly-inclined audience members to lap up. There were several name actors in cameo roles (like Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, and others) which was also exciting to take note of. The meticulous period production design and energetic musical soundtrack clearly deserve award-consideration. 8/10. 




Review of WEATHERING WITH YOU: Deliverance from the Deluge

August 28, 2019



Back in 2016, the Japanese movie of the year was an animated romantic fantasy drama entitled "Kimi no Na wa"( or "Your Name"). That film, about a teenage boy in Tokyo swapping bodies with a teenage girl in rural Japan, was written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. As of now, "Your Name" is second only to "Spirited Away" in the list of highest grossing Japanese films in Japan and worldwide.

This year 2019, the Japanese movie of the year is yet again another animated romantic fantasy drama, also written and directed by the same man Makoto Shinkai. Thanks to Shinkai's reputation, "Tenki no Ko" (or "Weathering with You") actually passed the record of "Your Name" in box-office receipts in its first three days, and is now in 9th biggest Japanese films of all time only in its first month of release. Critical acclaim has led to it being selected as Japan's submission for Best Foreign Language Film (now to be called Best International Feature Film) at the Oscars this season.

Japan was suffering the longest continuous spell of rain in its history. Hodaka Morishima is a 16 year-old boy who ran away from his home. He struggled to survive in scary Tokyo, until he started working for Keisuke Suga, a writer of sensational subject matter, to whom Hodaka owed his life by rescuing him from a near-accident at sea. Hina Amano is an independent 18 year-old girl who was raising her young brother Nagi on her own after their mother passed away. After going through a mysterious shrine gate on the rooftop of a old rundown building, Hina developed the ability to make the sun shine through the rain.

The constant rain was most probably a metaphor for Hodaka's miserable life, until Hina came along and became the sunshine in his life. The artwork was beautifully conceived and animated to reflect these themes of coming of age, young love and idealistic sacrifice against the harshness of the world around. It was imaginatively executed how raindrops rose like swimming little fish when Hina was around, and how the sun broke through the gloom to provide empowering warmth. The art can make you actually feel the weather and the emotion through the screen, and mind you this was in 2D. Amazing. 

There was violence in this one, more than I remember seeing in "Your Name."Hodaka and Hina had critically dangerous encounters with sleazy gangsters and strict policemen which further pushed their interdependent relationship closer with each other.  I wish there did not have to be a gun in the story, as it felt very much out of place. There was a high-speed chase between a motorbike and the police which was totally improbable, but a lot of fun. 

The specter of "Your Name" can still be felt in this follow-up with its blend of young lovers in a calamitous science fiction situation, infused with Japanese religion and culture. There were also funny and poignant moments involving younger kids and the elderly. What thrilled "Your Name" fans more (and they cheered loudly!) were the unexpected individual cameos of Taki and Mitsuha, now looking more mature and assured, in this world of Hodaka and Hina as well. 8/10. 


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review of THE DIVINE FURY: Fiery Fighting

August 26, 2019




Because of a psychologically-traumatic childhood experience following the death of his father, undefeated mixed martial arts world champion Park Yong-hoo (Park Seo-joon) harbored a deep resentment against God. Every time he would see a crucifix, he would flare up in rage. One night after winning a fight, he suddenly had a disturbing nightmare which left a bleeding wound on the palm of his right hand when he woke up. 

Because medical doctors could not help him about the mysterious wound, Park consulted a local blind shaman, who in turn referred him to a senior Catholic exorcist priest, Fr. Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), currently in Seoul from the Vatican. After Park helped Ahn perform a tough exorcism rite on a powerfully possessed man, Fr. Ahn realized that Park's stigmata actually gave him the power to cast away demons. 

Popular Koreanovela actor Park Seo-joon ("Hwarang","What's Wrong with Secretary Kim") was a charismatic lead actor who held well in the action, horror, as well as the dramatic aspects his character Yong-hoo went through in this film. He has matured much since his first feature film lead role as the foolish police trainee in "Midnight Runners" (2017, also by Kim Joo-hwan). Yes, there were scenes which were obviously put in there to delight and thrill his female fans. He looked good with his leather jacket, his sports car and his cool motorcycle. He was looked dapper and well-groomed even during his most brutal fights. 

Ahn Sung-ki is a veteran actor in Korean cinema, with numerous acting awards won since the 1980s to the present. He gives an empathetic performance here as Fr. Ahn, giving the priest credibility as the Vatican-sanctioned exorcist, and the warmth to be the father figure that Park badly needed. With those harrowing exorcism scenes, this was a physically exhausting role for an actor in his late 60s, and Ahn was giving it his 100%. 

Woo Do-hwan was immersed in Satanistic darkness for this role as Ji-shin, owner of a stylish club called Babylon, who was also the new Dark Bishop, the main conduit who brought the demon via the altar pool in the cellar. His lack of background or motive was glaring. Park Ji-hyun (as Soo-jin, a rich young woman who lived in a posh condo) and child actor Jung Ji-hoon (as Ho-seok, a bullied little boy in an orphanage run by nuns) figured in their respective imaginatively-staged demonic possession sequences. 

Choi Woo-shik makes a special appearance as Fr. Choi. This is interesting because Park Yong-hoo also made a special appearance in Choi's current film "Parasite." We see Choi first as the young exorcist apprentice who was scared out of his wits in his first case. However, we would see him again towards the end tending to an injured Fr. Ahn, and then again at a mid-credits scene which dropped a hint at a sequel entitled "The Green Exorcist" which will feature Fr. Choi. 

I give props to writer-director Kim Joo-hwan for thinking up of an original plot for familiar subject matter like this. There had been numerous films about exorcism over the years from many countries all over the world, and I had seen many of them, particularly Hollywood and Filipino ones. Many still follow the style set by "The Exorcist" more than forty years ago. The traditional Catholic exorcism elements of Latin prayers and holy water are also seen here. 

But this latest Korean iteration managed to find and develop a different angle of depicting battles between man versus devil with more physical excitement. Of course it still had that signature poignance we have come to expect in Korean films. It may feel a bit long at 129 minutes with a slow buildup at the start and stretched out middle act, but the sinister story and some eerie special effects will hold your attention. 6/10. 



Sunday, August 25, 2019

3 Mini-Reviews: THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2, STUBER, UNPLANNED

August 25, 2019


THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2

Director: Thurop Van Orman

When ice cannonballs from Eagle Island landed and caused damage on Piggy Island and Bird Island. King Leonard (Bill Hader) of the Pigs sought to form an alliance with Red (Jason Sudekis) of the Birds to form a team to stop the Eagles' crazy vindictive leader Zeta (Leslie Jones) from launching further attacks. Bomb (Danny McBride), Chuck (Josh Gad) and his engineering genius sister Silver (Rachel Bloom) made up Red's team. Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) initially joined Red's group, but he withdrew at the last minute because of deeply personal reasons. 

This is another one of those movies where the overly-revealing trailer sapped the full enjoyment of the actual film by featuring practically all the best gags. Those hilarious silly moments will still make you chuckle but you've seen them before already so the impact was considerably less funny. The eclectic musical soundtrack went from "Axel F" to "Baby Shark," and old-school pop hits by Bonnie Tyler, Eric Carmen, Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Survivor and Europe in between. That breakdance showdown scene was too hilarious. The humor and story may be annoyingly juvenile for adults, but the animation (especially of the hatchlings and piglets) was cute and the voice work of the all-star comedian cast was on point. 6/10. 

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STUBER

Director: Michael Dowse

Stu Prasad (Kumail Nanjiani) was a guy bullied in career and in love. He sidelined as an Uber driver. LAPD detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) finally got a major tip about the whereabouts of the gangster who killed his partner months ago. However, it just so happened that he just had laser surgery on his eyes that morning, so he could barely see anything making driving impossible. So, Vic had no choice but to book an Uber, got Stu, taking the hapless driver along on the wildest ride of his lifetime.

Nanjiani and Bautista were both very likable actors who gave their stereotype characters (mousy Asian driver and buff alpha-male cop) personalities you'd root for. The humor was dry, dark, weird and awkward, but it mostly worked. The two stars gave it their all in those physically comic action sequences in unusual settings, like a male strip club, a vet clinic, a sporting goods store, among others. I was surprised to see in the credits that that was Mira Sorvino who played Vic's superior. Saddled with a nondescript title like "Stuber," I thought this would be a snoozer. However, this one unexpectedly turned out to be quite entertaining and fun. 6/10.

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UNPLANNED

Directors: Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman

When she was in college, Abby Johnson (Ashley Bratcher) volunteered to work for Planned Parenthood in the belief that it aimed to reduce the incidence of abortions. In the following years, Abby rose in the ranks in the PP organization to become a public relations officer to counselor and eventually clinic director. One day, Abby was called to assist an ultrasound-guided abortion. For the first time in her eight years in PP, she witnessed how a fetus got sucked into the doctor's suction tubing. This experience traumatized Abby so much that it led to a major change of heart.

From its opening credits sequence, this film already had the feel of a TV movie with its style of cinematography and music. It started pleasantly with a sweet breakfast scene in the Johnson household. But once Abby was called into the procedure room, the film wasted no time in showing us what it was really all about. What Abby saw on that monitor is more than enough drive home its point that abortion is murder. I do not know if this film's portrayal of Planned Parenthood's evil deception was accurate or not, but it surely worked for their pro-life cause. This film will no doubt be called propaganda, and yes it may be true, but this anti-abortion film is powerfully sobering and disturbing stuff which no one can ignore. 7/10. 



Friday, August 23, 2019

Review of ANGEL HAS FALLEN: Far-fetched Frame-up

August 23, 2019




After surviving a disastrous attack of explosive drones during a fishing trip, Secret Service agent Mike Banning had been framed for attempting to murder US President Allan Trumbull whom he was supposed to protect. Banning first had to escape from custody, evade pursuers, and somehow figure out a way to exonerate himself and at the same time prevent the real perpetrators from finishing the ailing President off. 

"Angel Has Fallen" is the third episode in the Fallen film series (after "Olympus Has Fallen" in 2013 and "London Has Fallen" in 2016) about Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerald Butler) and his heroic exploits against brazen terrorists out to assassinate the President of the United States. The only other cast member who appeared in all three films was Morgan Freeman as Allan Trumbull. Trumbull was Speaker of the House in "Olympus," Vice President in "London" and President in "Angel."

The rest of the cast in "Angel" are new actors. Piper Perabo now played Mike's wife Leah Banning, who was previously played by Radha Miller. Lance Reddick played the new Secret Service director David Gentry, taking over from Angela Bassett's Lynn Jacob. Perhaps to make up for Bassett's absence, they added the character of a hard-nosed female FBI agent Helen Thompson played by Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Nick Nolte created a standout character as Mike's estranged father Clay Banning. Even if the circumstances of their father-son reunion was rather far-fetched, Nolte gave the story a moving dramatic angle amidst all the hardcore action. Danny Huston played Mike's friend from his Rangers days Wade Jennings, whose eventual character arc was very obvious from his very first scene. Tim Blake Nelson played a most unpresidential-looking Vice President Kirby. 

Gerald Butler looked really grizzled here already. Banning's exploits in this film were incredible as we suspend our disbelief to accept that he single-handedly took on the SS, the FBI, the police and more than all that, even the real bad guys and all their high tech weaponry. A lot of action in this film took place in darkness and there were a number of shaky cam scenes, so it can be a strain to watch in dim theaters. 

Anyhow, as over-the-top the plot may be, this remained engrossing as an action thriller, continuing the pace set by the two previous films. Despite all these odds against him, we still root for Banning to turn things around for himself and his family, achieve his impossible mission for the President and save the day for the USA. 6/10. 


Review of JUST A STRANGER: Forbidden Fire

August 23, 2019





Sexy films of late had been exploiting the affairs between  a lonely bored older female and a buff vigorous younger male. Within this month of August alone, there had been already two other films with this basic plot, namely "Glorious," "Belle Douleur" and "Malamaya." This trend continues and had now extended into the mainstream domain with "Just a Stranger." While this one contained all the main ingredients, writer-director Jason Paul Laxamana managed to give it a spin all his own to make it stand out over the others. 

30-something Mae (Anne Curtis) is the trophy wife of a successful wealthy businessman Phil Pimentel (Edu Manzano). While sunbathing on a beach in Lisbon, Portugal, Mae met 19 year-old Jericho (Marco Gumabao), son of a Philippine diplomat. Mae took up Jericho's offer of a private tour, which led to playful teasing about their age difference, and much later, ended up in a hotel bed together for a night of lustful intimacy. After that steamy one-night stand though, higher cosmic forces had other plans for Mae and Jericho.

Anne Curtis is continuing her winning streak on the big screen which started last year with "Sid and Aya," "Buybust" and "Aurora". As the mysterious Mae, Curtis totally owned this movie with a winsome likable portrayal of a flawed character of questionable morality. Curtis's Mae was a femme fatale through and through. We actually do not know anything about her past, nor her exact age. She knew she was beautiful and sexy and she used it to dig gold, and she got what she wanted. Her best scene was that bold tirade in the church, delivered as only Curtis can, and still get away with it with class and camp. 

Marco Gumabao played Mae's boytoy Jericho. When we first met Jericho in Lisbon, he was all macho and confident lover boy. But later we discover that his bravado was all a front for an immature boy Jekjek, struggling under the collective thumbs of his controlling parents Rufi and Judi (Robert Sena and Isay Alvarez) and his sweet virginal girlfriend Febbie (Jasmine Hollingworth). Gumabao may look too mature to convince us he was only 19, but performance-wise, he did convince us that he was a lost little child inside that man.

As an onscreen pair, Curtis and Gumabao looked compatible together. There was no awkward May-December feel at all between them. With Curtis's youthful aura, she never came off as twice Gumabao's age at all, as the movie wanted us to accept. We sensed that their union, illicit as it may be, was actually good for these two attractive but lonely people. Laxamana created an ironic situation where these two trapped characters were only free when they were together, but their whole relationship itself was imprisoned in a cage of societal conventions. 

Laxamana used the device of a confessional box to narrate how Mae and Jericho's forbidden love story began and progressed. The young priest was just newly-ordained and was on his first day on the job, then here comes this classy woman, dressed all in black (hat, shades and ensemble) kneeling in front of him to confess her sins.  Josef Elizalde's portrayal as the priest was unexpectedly entertaining. His curious priest was quite nosy about the lurid details of their affair, and his side comments were very funny.

Jason Paul Laxamana is on a roll with his sad love stories “100 Tula Para kay Stella”, “The Day After Valentine” and “Between Maybes” all doing well at the box office. The technical aspects (cinematography, editing, sound, music) were all of topnotch and glossy quality. Laxamana's pride in his home province of Pampanga was evident in his expositions about the history and culture of San Fernando.  The central relationship of "Just a Stranger" did not end as open as they did in Laxamana's other films, but I wished there could have been another way out for them. 8/10.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review of MINA-ANUD: Drowning in Drugs

August 21, 2019




Mina-anud is an island included in the province of Eastern Samar. One morning, fishermen saw hundreds of uniform packages with a scorpion emblem on them which washed up on their shores. The packs contained a white powder which the islanders had never seen before Meanwhile in Borongan, Samar, a couple of down-on-their-luck surfing instructors, Ding and Carlo, got their hands on one of these packs. They discovered that the powder was in fact cocaine and saw that this may be the way out of their financial misfortunes.

Cautionary tales about how indigent people react with the sudden arrival of big wealth had been done before. Among local films, the most notable film with this theme was "Misterio sa Tuwa" (Abbo Q. dela Cruz, 1984), about villagers in a remote village gaining possession of suitcase of cold hard cash thanks to a plane wreck. In "Mina-anud," we also see how money corrupted the naive islanders. Their moral compass just went out of order in the face of all the material things they could buy with the money. The glittery end justified the means, no matter how foul these means were -- in this case illegal drugs. 

Dennis Trillo was supposed to be the more sensible friend Ding, but his deteriorating relationship with his wife and his incapacity to provide well for his family pushed him down a dark road of desperate actions. Jerald Napoles was back in familiar ground as a reckless foolish sex maniac in the character of Carlo, but this time he had a demented grandmother to keep him grounded. It would have been interesting to see if the casting of these two lead roles could be reversed so each actor could play against their usual type. 

Talking about playing against type, Matteo Guidicelli did just that. He played Paul, a homeboy who made it into show business.  He may look fit and clean-cut, but he also hosted wild parties in his condo. Lou Veloso played Cap Mario, the barangay chairman of Mina-anud. He may not have had any idea what the tide brought in at first, but he learned quickly what those packets meant. Alvin Anson played PDEA agent Enriquez who led the recovery mission in Mina-anud. This law enforcer also had a twisted streak in him. 

Once you get the drift of the story, you sort of already knew how it was going to go. At first, it was going to be all systems go, towards easy money. However, later on, the law was really going to catch up with them. Similar to the style of several recent films, director Kerwin Go decided to start his movie with a climactic event set in a diner, and then flashed back to build up to that climax. Therefore it was not really a surprise anymore what was going to happen. That might mean that this climax was not really the point of the whole film.

Amidst the vein of black comedy which ran throughout this film, there was also a potent warning against going into the illegal drug business, no matter how lucrative it may seem. This film also made strong commentary against the unfortunate prevalence of drugs in the tourist industry, in show business and in a corrupted government. The final sequence was a sobering reflection of what we all fear is happening for real.

I am not really sure if Mina-anud is a real place name, or is it a play on the words "may inanod" (Tagalog for "something got washed ashore") referring to the packages of cocaine which triggered the whole chain of events that led to ruined lives. The fact that incidents of cargo-loads of drugs in the ocean are being dumped in the ocean were in fact in the news recently makes this film very relevant and timely. 7/10. 


Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD: Childish but Charming

August 18, 2019



For eight seasons since year 2000, Dora the Explorer was one of the most popular and long-running Nickelodeon TV shows for young kids. It featured a seven year-old Latina girl who loved going on fun adventures with her little monkey Boots, her trusty purple Backpack and her Map.

During the show she would break the fourth wall to teach her audience to speak simple Spanish words or ask their help in solving simple problems or riddles she faced in her quest. Her frequent nemesis was the wily masked fox Swiper who always tried to steal her map away. Three years into the series, her 8 year-old cousin Diego joined in her adventures.

This live action version of Dora the Explorer began with how we knew her and Diego from the cartoon, as children living in the jungles of Peru. However, the two best friends were separated when Diego was brought by his mom to live in Los Angeles in the US. Then fast forward 10 years, Dora was now a teenager, but still perky and spirited as ever. 

Because her parents had to leave to search for the lost city of gold Parapata, Dora was sent to live with Diego's family in the meantime. She found it hard to fit into an American high school as her classmates found her behavior borne out of her homeschooling in the jungle to be very odd. One day, while her class was on a field trip to the museum, Dora and her group mates Diego, Sammy and Randy were suddenly abducted, setting them off on a big adventure back in the Peruvian jungle to search for her parents.

I thought this film was fun to watch, especially when it revived moments from the TV series. Yes, being ever chirpy and happy, Dora had some pretty cringey scenes for which you feel embarrassed for the 18-year old actress playing her Isabela Moner. But hey, she was right in character and she was delightful. This was how positive and excited Dora was supposed to be! Moner had been in films like "Transformers: The Last Knight" (2017) and "Sicario: Night of the Soldado" (2018). Now, she is headlining a film herself, and she gamely went all-out for it. 

Her gang of high school friends were all played by new young actors. Thin and lanky Jeff Wahlberg (his mother was of Dominican descent) awkwardly played teenage Diego. His dance moves at the end would put his uncle Mark to shame (literally). Madeleine Madden is a former Australian child actress with aboriginal lineage, making her Hollywood debut as the smart and sassy Sammy. Nicholas Coombe, who also hailed from Australia, played the introverted astronomy nerd Randy. 

Acclaimed Mexican actor and comedian Eugenio Derbez played Alejandro Gutierrez, a wacky Peruvian professor who tagged along with Dora on her quest for her parents. Michael Pena and a heftier Eva Longoria played Dora's parents, who emphasized that they were explorers, not treasure hunters. Major Latino actors Benicio del Toro and Danny Trejo lend their voices to animated anthropomorphic animal characters Swiper and Boots respectively. Sasha Toro, Backpack's voice in the original TV series, reprised his role here. 

Overall, this is an enjoyable treat for parents who had once spent endless hours watching those Dora cartoons with our babies. The memories begin when you hear that infectious theme song sung over the opening sequence. The best part of the movie for me was that nostalgic animated interlude in the middle of the film when you also get to see the other animals in the Dora franchise make a short cameo appearances. The temple puzzle they had to solve at the climax felt like Indiana Jones meets Scooby Doo. This was entertaining fare for our inner child. 6/10. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Review of 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED: Shark Snack Sisters

August 16, 2019



I was not able to watch the first "47 Meters Down" film when it was shown two years ago, but I knew the story was about two sisters who went on a cage dive in Mexico to see sharks up close, but disaster struck and the two were shark bait. This second film in the series had basically the same ingredients -- two sisters, bikinis, Mexico and sharks. However disaster struck and they became shark bait when they were doing another type of undersea adventure (hence the subtitle "Uncaged" since a cage was not in this new picture). 

The unpopular Mia (Sophie Nelisse) and her popular half-sister Sasha (Corinne Foxx) were invited by Sasha's girlfriends Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Stallone) to go diving inside the underground caves under their town in the Yucatan peninsula. It had been discovered by Mia's dad Grant (John Corbett) that there was an ancient Mayan city buried in those caves, the girls wanted to go explore the ruins. Unfortunately, some blind hungry man-eating sharks were waiting for them in there.

The strained relationship of the two half-sisters were established in the first few scenes without so much of an explanation about their family's history and dynamics.  We know Mia was shy and mousy, while Sasha was cool and cold. Alexa was adventurous but a careful stickler for rules of procedure. On the other hand, Nicole was careless and reckless, an annoying troublemaker from the get-go. 

Their risky expedition was going fine until Nicole's stupid antics would trigger a chain reaction which led to them being trapped with no where else to go but further down into the unknown. The girls would also encounter Mia's father and his two employees Ben and Carl, who were all working deeper inside the cave, along the way. The first deadly shark attack happened suddenly, jump-scare style. After that, the human characters would perish one by one to the sharks, leaving only those who were most worthy to survive. 

The four girls in the lead cast were not too familiar. Nelisse had grown up since I last saw her play the child lead in "The Book Thief" (2013). Foxx and Stallone were notable only because of their last names derived from their famous fathers Jamie and Sylvester respectively. Tju was once a child actress on the Disney Channel. A couple of 1990s TV stars were cast to play the half sisters' parents. John Corbett had grown much grizzlier since his "Sex and the City" heyday. Nia Long, as their mother Jennifer, was also much heftier since her "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" days. 

Ok, so the girls were all very flighty and shrieky throughout their ordeal in the green murky depths, but I thought this film was paced quite well by writer-director Johannes Roberts (who also wrote and directed the first movie). The blind sharks looked bigger, scarier, and were much hungrier since they had not had a good protein-rich meal for a very long time being trapped in that underground cave. The whole situation in the dark confined spaces underwater made things all eerie and claustrophobic, with the limited oxygen in their tanks adding more urgency. The twist ending sequence was very original and a lot of fun. Not serious like "Jaws" or "The Shallows," but good entertainment as shark films go. 6/10. 


Thursday, August 15, 2019

3 Mini-Reviews: SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN and AFTER THE WEDDING:

August 15, 2019


SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

Director: André Øvredal

It was Halloween 1968, in Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, three friends Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends visited an old haunted house and found a book of scary stories written by one Sarah Bellows. Stella was surprised to see that the book was writing a new story on one of the empty pages about a certain character named after one of her friends, and she realized it meant that that friend was facing serious danger.

Like "Goosebumps" and other juvenile horror films, this one is also based on a children's book series (written by Alvin Schwartz). The name of Guillermo del Toro was prominently billed as the producer and the story concept. So it was not a surprise to see his trademark scary monsters in this film. We see monsters like Harold the Scarecrow, the Toe Monster, the Pale Lady and the Jangly Man, delivering all their rated-PG scares, with the vision of Norwegian director André Øvredal. 6/10.

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THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Director: Simon Curtis

An old Golden Retriever Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner) narrated his life with his master and friend -- race car driver Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) -- how Denny married Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and had a daughter Zoe, and how Denny dealt with serious medical issues and messy legal adversities threatening his family's integrity along his journey to becoming an F1 racer. 

This year 2019 already had two dog movies in the first half of the year: "A Dog's Journey" and "A Dog's Way Home." Both of these were similar-themed, tear-jerking films about a loyal dog and his kinship with his master. Despite the absence of the word "dog" in the title, "The Art of Racing in the Rain" followed the same winsome formula that made the other two films so endearing to dog-lovers. Kevin Costner's grizzled voice gave Enzo so much heart, we can't help but be riveted by his story, even if it seems all too familiar. 6/10. 

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AFTER THE WEDDING

Director: Bart Freundlich

Isabel (Michelle Williams) managed an orphanage in Kolkata, India which was facing financial constraint. She received information that New York millionaire Theresa Young (Julianne Moore) would like to meet her in person and then give her orphanage a major donation. After their first meeting, Theresa invited Isabel to the wedding of her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn). At the wedding, Isabel realized that Theresa's husband was Oscar (Billy Crudup), a man she once knew but had not seen in 20 years.

This family drama was actually based on acclaimed Danish director Susanne Bier's similarly-titled film in 2006 which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category that Oscars season. For this remake, it decided to switch the gender of the protagonists from male to female while retaining the pertinent plot points. While Moore and Williams are competent actresses and the story was good on unfolding surprises, the direction of Bart Freundlich tended to be too slow at the start and too melodramatic at the end. 6/10.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Review of INDAK: Pernicious Protagonist

August 13, 2019




There had been plenty of dance movies from Hollywood, from the tap and ballroom (films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) to ballet ("Turning Point" and "Black Swan") to jazz ("A Chorus Line" and "All That Jazz" ) to contemporary ("Flashdance" and "Breakin'". The most recent examples would be the five "Step Up" films which spanned from 2006 to 2014.  For Filipino films, I remember only "Dance O Rama" (1963) and the various macho dancer films by Lino Brocka and Mel Chionglo in the 1980s. I could not think of another recent Filipino film that focused on dance aside from this new one called "Indak."

Jen (Nadine Lustre) was an island lass from Bantayan in Cebu province. She loved to dance, however, because of a childhood trauma, she shied away from public performance. Because of her viral dance video, Vin (Sam Concepcion), the leader of a group of dancers called Indak Pilipinas, personally went to Bantayan to invite Jen to join them on their bid to join and win the World Dance Competition in Seoul, Korea. For Jen, this was the most major decision she had to make in her whole young life  -- to leave her mother (Yayo Aguila) behind and to find courage to dance on stage again. 

No offense to Ms. Lustre, but I cannot get myself to root for her character Jen, or to even like her the way she was written. She was such a major drama queen of the most entitled, inconsiderate, selfish and toxic kind, and the script did not find it necessary for her to explain her questionable actions, so what we see stands as is. I actually found myself agreeing with the supposed antagonist Steph (Nicole Ormillo) -- Jen was really trouble for the Indak team. 

On the day of the flight to Seoul, did she really have to sit around in her bedroom so long thinking of who knows what, giving everyone stress at the airport by not showing up and making Vin wait up for her, only to finally show up after the plane had already departed? Despite of their limited funds, Vin and Jen actually had to rebook a new flight to Seoul because of Jen's irresponsible stunt. 

On the day of the competition proper, did she really have to isolate herself in one dark room by herself, again thinking of who knows what, away from her other teammates who did not even know where she was, only to join them when they were already called onstage? Jen knew pretty well that she had critical role in their group dance formations. Was she actually going to let her team dance with a gaping hole where she was supposed to be? 

In one scene, Jen picked up Vin's phone and saw in one of the photos that Vin had not told her about one truly devastating event in his life. Despite her invasion of his privacy, Jen had the temerity to be the one to feel hurt for not being told, and even just walked out to leave Vin there on the table in tears. This inexplicable diva drama of Jen was intolerable after everything Vin did for her -- bringing her into the group despite their misgivings, letting her stay in his pad with free room and board, practically babysitting her all the way. 

In the first place, her so-called childhood traumatic experience was shown to be very minor one only. I am sure all of us had lived through and moved on from even more embarrassing public moments than hers. The script really should have beefed up this trauma and made it more convincing to be of such life-changing impact to cripple her whole perspective of life. Also, the script did not make it clear where Jen got the funding to buy her sexy dance wardrobe, which looked a lot more expensive than anyone else's in the Indak group. 

The musical soundtrack was excellent with a number of exciting upbeat dance tunes and some beautiful slow dance songs for change of pace. But to be totally honest, despite the music video directorial skills of Paul Alexei Basinillo, the dance scenes did not really wow me that much. Neither the Indak rehearsals nor the foreign team finalists were impressive. Concepcion and Lustre should not have dared to dance solos with the Korean street break-dancers, as this only showed off their limitations in moves. Thankfully, the actual competition number of Indak had significant screen impact, or else this film would be a total loss. 4/10. 


Monday, August 12, 2019

Review of CRAWL: Alarming Alligators

August 12, 2019




Like there had been a number of horror films about man-eating sharks, there had also been a good number of films where it was alligators or crocodiles terrorizing humans. Perhaps the best remembered of these had been "Alligator" (Lewis Teague, 1980), "Lake Placid" (Steve Miner, 1999), "Black Water" (David Nerlich, 2007) and "Rogue" (Greg McLean, 2007). They are reviving this sub-genre of creature film again this year with "Crawl."

Collegiate varsity swimmer Haley Keller defied warnings of a Category 5 hurricane in the state of Florida to search for her father in their old house in Coral Lake. With the help of their faithful pet dog Sugar, Haley found her dad Dave injured on the floor of the crawl space under the house

However, before she can get her father up into the house, a pair of hungry alligators appeared and attacked them. They had to scramble to the safety of a tight space where gators can't fit. Trapped with nowhere else to go, they need to figure out how to get out to safety before the flood waters came in to drown them.

The story was actually a very simple one. A daughter trying to save her father from the natural calamity, but to make things so much worse -- hungry predatory reptiles crawled and swam where they needed to go. The two must rely on their wits, resourcefulness, physical abilities and resistance to pain to be able to get themselves out of danger. As they faced their common ordeal together, father and daughter got to rekindle their close relationship.

This film was practically a two-hander starring Kaya Scodelario (as Haley) and Barry Pepper (as her dad Dave). They were so committed to their never-say-die roles, even if the things they were doing were already beyond normal human capabilities given their situations and their injuries. The rest of the cast were practically just fodder for the gators to gobble up before setting up for the climactic battle of the Kellers versus the beasts.

Director Alexandre Aja is known for his B-grade gory horror films like "The Hills Have Eyes" (2006), and "Piranja 3D" (2010). For the claustrophobic horror of "Crawl," he cranked up the frightening tension caused by those insatiable alligators attacking and eating anything that moved. Aja had all sorts of exciting permutations on how gators would attack the humans and had all the best ideas for angles for effective shocks and scares. 

How "The Shallows" (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2016) raised the bar again for the shark films, "Crawl" did for the alligator films. Yes, irrational humans and alligator behavior notwithstanding, "Crawl" certainly turned out much better than I initially expected going in. 7/10. 


Friday, August 9, 2019

CINEMALAYA 2019: Review of F#*@BOIS: Sleazy Suspense

August 9, 2019




This was the one title that immediately caught attention from the time it was announced among the next batch of Cinemalaya features. It was unbelievable that the whole F-word (a spelling variation, but pronounced the same way) found itself in a local movie title. I thought it would just be a working title of sorts, but it actually made it all the way to the actual festival (although three letters would be replaced by characters in the final poster, tickets and brochures).

I guess seeing these vulgar-sounding millennial words in movie titles make them mainstream normal now. First there was "Momol Nights," now there's "Fuccbois." I admit, I still cannot say these words out loud. 

The titular "Fuccbois" were Ace Policarpio (23 years old from Macabebe, Pampanga) and Miko Ramos (18 years old from Bacacay, Albay). They work as male models joining bikini pageants in gay bars. They both aspired to be movie actors and were also popular Instagram personalities with significant fan following. One night, the two boys were blackmailed into going with a slimy politician to a private island resort for a night of lascivious carousing, or else a salacious video of them would be posted on the internet.

The two lead actors, Royce Cabrera (as Ace) and Kokoy de Santos (as Mico), were brave souls unafraid to bare their bodies in their first lead roles (their biggest break after years of small roles), as they playing a couple of guys who would do practically anything to get ahead in life. Fortunately, there was also substance in their raw acting styles, projecting a certain vulnerability in their flawed characters that still made the audience care about the very tight predicament they're in, understand why they did what they did and actually root for them to get away with it. 

Ricky Davao won a Best Supporting Actor award for quietly underplaying his character in "Paki" (CinemaOne 2017). For this Cinemalaya 2019, Davao is again on top of the shortlist for the Best Supporting Actor award, but this time for a crazy, unhinged, scary, over-the-top performance of a gay sex maniac as Mayor "Party, Party" Fernan. Hearing him sweetly say the words "Come to Mommy, boys" with that lecherous smile on his face sent all sorts of sick disgusting shivers going up and down my spine. 

This movie was like two separate movies in one. The first half was a view inside the sleazy male model industry, chronicling the gaudy glitter of one Mr. Galaxy pageant night participated in by the two protagonists. Once the two boys were with the politician, the movie shifted gears to become a dark, tense and effective suspense thriller. Director Eduardo Roy, Jr. (who had impressed us before with "Pamilya Ordinaryo" in Cinemalaya 2016) managed to smoothly transition in color, tone and mood to go beyond the exploitative nature of the subject matter. That abrupt ending felt like a grim cave-in. 7/10. 


Thursday, August 8, 2019

CINEMALAYA 2019: Review of JOHN DENVER TRENDING: Brutally Bullied

August 8, 2019




Sta. Ines Catholic High School Grade 8 student John Denver Cabungcal got into a fight with classmate Mark who wrongly accused by him of stealing his iPad while it was charging in the classroom. An incriminating video of this fight and photos of Mark's swollen face were immediately uploaded by another classmate Carlos on Facebook, complete with an angry, inciting message. The post promptly became viral locally and later throughout the country, making poor John Denver a hated nationwide villain. Only his mother Marites steadfastly stood by his side to defend his honor. 

This grim story was set in the town of Pandan in the province of Antique. The dialogue was all in the local dialect of Antique -- Kinaray-a. This was only the second such film I had seen, the first being "Tuos" (MY REVIEW) which was also an entry in Cinemalaya back in 2016. Meryl Soriano (as Marites) was the only well-known actress in the cast, everyone else were probably local actors in the area, which gave this film a very natural and realistic feel, and a much stronger impact. 

Despite what the title might suggest, this is definitely not a light film. In "John Denver," the dark serious feels were persistent from beginning to end. This film makes you feel so helpless and so furious that these cruel things were happening to a young kid. Kids should never be subject to such brutal bullying, not only from fellow kids, but also from adults, and worse, adults in authority. This high-tech era, cyberbullying is even more terrible since these hurtful words can come from all over the country and even the world.

Meryl Soriano played Marites as a very strong woman who worked very hard to raise her family of three kids on her own, while her husband was away on his military duties. She spoke Kinaray-a like a native in those long lines of her character as she stood by the words of her son John Denver as the only version of the truth she accepted. As a parent, I stand by her conviction, and wish I could match her fortitude and boldness in defending her son when the time comes. It was likewise bothering how the parent is always the last to know.

New actor 15-year old Jansen Magpusao is a revelation in the lead role of John Denver, just a regular kid given to occasional misdemeanors. His character was not one of many words. He would keep his problems to himself so as not to bother and add more concerns to his harried mother. So mostly it was only his face which had to convey the turmoil of emotions within him. Fortunately, the camera loves his expressive face, the angles and the lighting made his silent close-ups so poignant. His inexperience is occasionally betrayed by some awkward line delivery, however in this case, it actually enhanced authenticity.

Everything that could go wrong in a case like this was explored. The most maddening scene was that when the video statement of copra farmer Mang Mando (Glenn Mas) digitally manipulated to seal John Denver's fate. The most chilling scene was that one-on-one confrontation scene where police officer SPO1 Rolando Corpus (Sammy Rubido) was intimidating and coercing John Denver to confess to something he never did. 

This film was indeed a very powerful and timely statement against bullying, physically and verbally in person, or virtually online. It talked about the dangerous power of social media in shaping public perception and opinion with biased news or worse, fake news, and its unrelenting negative consequences for the victim involved. New director Arden Rod Condez approached the topic with utmost severity of focus. Several prior scenes may have been foreshadowing the ending, but it will still knock your breath away. 9/10. 

CINEMALAYA 2019: Review of MALAMAYA: Unusually Unapologetic

August 8, 2019




Nora is a 45 year-old veteran in the local art scene noted for her multi-media artwork, painting using oil with various cloth pieces for texture. She was notorious in her circle and among the millennial art students for being snobbish, not wanting to sell her paintings because she sees them as her children. She lived alone in her big house, with only her Persian cat Luna for company. 

One day, she met Migs in an art gallery, and they hit it off because of their common love for smoking. He was a 30 year-old young man, a fledgling photographer by trade. From his first scene, he immediately came across as a bad boy, lighting up a cigarette inside the exhibit hall, which of course, caught the attention of Nora, a chain-smoker herself. Their initial meeting immediately led to a romp in bed in Nora's house. 

Sunshine Cruz brought to life a Nora who was not the stereotypical image of a spinster. She was always stylishly dressed with perfectly coiffed hair. She was not deprived in the sex department, since she would have casual dalliances with the pottery teacher Jim (Raymond Bagatsing) on her call. She steadfastly stuck to her personal artistic philosophies, no matter how unpopular. She spoke frankly with pointed language. Cruz successfully pulled off that distinct "artist" temperament, as if she really was a painter. 

Enzo Pineda played Migs as an arrogant, selfish guy. He wore shades and broods to look cool, not exactly an original portrayal of a Romeo. Onscreen, Pineda did not have chemistry with Cruz at all, in my opinion. To be fair, the script never really made him likable. He was boorish and messy around the house. He watched basketball games with loud commentary and startling commentary. He did not take criticism about his photography well. He was shown not to have any integrity of character. 

Aside from "Belle Douleur," "Malamaya" was the other film from Cinemalaya 2019 which also featured a torrid May-December love affair between an older woman and a much younger man. In my review of "Belle," I suspected that these films will most probably follow the same basic formula of single older woman swept off her feet by the attention of a young hunk, which later led to a generous serving of steamy scantily-clad scenes in the bedroom. I was not wrong with this assumption, these basic plot points were all there. 

Interesting to note that both of these films were written and directed by female filmmakers, but they were not certainly told in the same way. "Belle" followed a more typical, old school style of soft romantic storytelling, with dimmed lighting and swelling musical soundtrack, that includes "La Vie en Rose." Under the hands of young experimental directors Danica Sta. Lucia and Leilani Chavez, "Malamaya" dared to tread a less-beaten pathway as it unfolded its tale, with its flawed toxic characters and decidedly hard unromantic attack. 

I commend the ladies behind "Malamaya" for bringing to fore the lively Filipino art scene. Many scenes featured a breathtakingly beautiful painting or artwork somewhere in the frame. There were scenes shot in Angono, Rizal, the so-called art capital of the Philippines, haven to many local artists and home to the colorful Higantes festival. When the directors revealed that Nora was actually based on a real-life artist, the character gained a sheen of dignified individuality.  6/10. 


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

CINEMALAYA 2019: Review of BELLE DOULEUR: Romantic Release

August 6, 2019




Ever since "Glorious" heated up the iWant screens last year with the trysts of Angel Aquino and Tony Labrusca, more May-December affair movies where the woman is much older than the man seems are coming up this year. In this Cinemalaya 2019 alone, there are two of them: this one "Belle Douleur" (with Mylene Dizon and Kit Thompson) and "Malamaya" (with Sunshine Cruz and Enzo Pineda). Next week, there will be a mainstream film "Just a Stranger" (with Anne Curtis and Marco Gumabao). 

The main gist of the stories will probably all be similar. The older woman is alone, lonely or neglected, meets this good-looking younger guy and gets swept up with his sweet words and sexual prowess. The main difference will probably be about the conflicts they will face as a couple and whether the affair will end up a success or a failure. I even feel that even these two relationship issues may actually be similar as well. There seems to be too little room to navigate with this particular trope. Let us see how they do.

Liz was a 45-year old single woman who lived with her mother, who was a retired anthropology professor. She worked as a clinical psychologist working with children with special needs. When her mother died, Liz's friends decide to post the antiques in her house up for sale on the internet. Josh, an attractive antique shop owner / rock musician 20 years Liz's junior, was her first customer. What started as cute exchanges of text message later between the two of them later escalated into a full-on YOLO love affair. 

The conflicts Liz and Josh experience were not so much from other people, but from themselves. While no one actually had snide comments about their age difference, it was Josh himself threw tantrums to rebuke Liz she was acting like his mother. It was the ending that set this particular film apart, an ending you'd never actually think of, which was good. However, the set-up going towards that ending felt a bit random and rushed.

Mylene Dizon is as usual faultless in her acting, which was mostly internal. It was her face which was revealing her varied emotions, especially the titular "beautiful pain," rather than her words. A Best Actress nomination for Ms. Dizon is inevitable. Kit Thompson was just fresh off "Momol Nights," another film where he was also the object of a woman's desires. The women in the audience were actually cheering during his sexy scenes. He was very natural in his scenes with the children. Dizon and Thompson actually had effective chemistry together, and this kept the whole film together despite the limitations of the story. 

Long-time film producer Atty. Joji Alonso finally took the plunge to direct her first feature-length film. She confessed that this film was inspired by a viral video of a French woman talking about her affair with a much younger man (LINK). This film basically just expanded on the story told in this 7-minute video which was why you can feel the awkward stretch in the second act. The man problems of Liz's BFFs Carlo (Marlon Rivera) and Lauren (Jenny Jamora), and frustrations of parents with special children, were fitted in to try to beef up the sagging middle, but were not directly contributory to the main plot. 6/10.