Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review of TERMINATOR: DARK FATE: Failed the Franchise

October 31, 2019

The "Terminator" franchise had been going strong since the first film debuted in 1984. It is about a future where the world is taken over by machines under Skynet, and human John Connor leads a resistance movement against them. Skynet sends an android assassin called the Terminator back to the past to kill John Connors mother Sarah to prevent him from being born. The subsequent films in the series would follow the same basic formula of Skynet sending Terminators back in time to alter history to their favor. For me, only the first two films really mattered, the next three were forgettable. 

From the year 2042 (a future where Skynet and John Connor never existed), a technically-enhanced human soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis in a breakthrough performance) was sent by the Resistance back to the year 2020 to protect a young Mexican woman named Dani (a bland Natalia Reyes) from an advanced Terminator called the Rev-9 (an even blander Gabriel Luna). Just when the Rev-9 was getting the upper hand, Sarah Connor appeared to rescue them. With the Rev-9 hot on their heels, the three women crossed the border into Texas to locate Sarah's source of information about Terminator arrivals. 

The very beginning of this sixth film followed the events of "T2" in 1998. In this version, the young John Connor was successfully killed by the T-800 assassin, and Skynet never was. So, this is yet another attempt at a franchise reboot like "Terminator Genisys," for which the planned sequels had been shelved because of poor box-office performance. Here in "Dark Fate," the filmmakers went further into the future, creating yet another AI aggressor called Legion, and the another human resistance fighting against it. 

Despite the exhilarating action CG-enhanced sequences of "Dark Fate," everything felt oddly tired and rehashed and unsatisfying. Even the Rev-9 terminator not too much of an advancement over the Academy Award winning liquid metal T-1000 which amazed us back in "T2." Its current innovation of being able to split into an exterior and its black endoskeleton was not as visually-impressive. What's worse was this Rev-9 seemed deficient in hand-to-hand fighting skills especially apparent when he went one-on-one against Grace, only to be saved by its ability to regenerate -- lame.

I felt the best thing about this film was the nostalgia factor of bringing Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger back together onscreen again in their iconic characters as Sarah Connor and T-800. Despite looking very much older, Hamilton still somehow projected the strength and fire for which remember her Sarah Connor best for. Schwarzenegger attempted to be the comic relief at first when we first see him as domesticated Carl, but of course he would also figure in big action scenes before the film ended. However by deciding to lose John Connor early on in this one made the emotional heart of the first two classic Terminator films stop beating as well. 5/10. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review of MIDWAY (2019): Turning the Tide

October 28, 2019

Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 had been the subject of many notable films in the past, like "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "In Harm's Way" (1965), "Tora Tora Tora" (1970) and "Pearl Harbor" (2001). The US turned the tide back to their favor months later in the Battle of Midway, and there had been films about it as well, like a couple of John Ford documentaries (1942), "Midway" (1976), "Dauntless" (2019) and this latest big-budget film by Roland Emmerich also entitled "Midway".

This film is a straightforward retelling of the events in the first months of the War in the Pacific beginning with Pearl Harbor and culminating in the Battle of Midway (June 1942). In between, it also touched on Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo (April 1942) and the Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942). The story was told mainly from the point of view of two American soldiers, namely pilot Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) who led his dive bomber squadron at Midway, and intelligence officer Lt. Comm. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who with his code-breaker team predicted the Midway attack. 

Along the way, we meet other famous American soldiers: Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet; Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (Dennis Quaid) who led the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise; Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (Jake Weber) who took over the Enterprise for the Battle of Midway; Best's fellow aviators Lt. Comm. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), Lt. Comm. Eugene Lindsey (Darren Criss) and Lt. Comm. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart); cryptographer Commander Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) and Aviation Machinist Mate Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas). 

The side of the Japanese Imperial Army and their unique military culture were also given fair screen time in this film.  Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Commander in Chief of their combined fleet, was portrayed with calm and quiet dignity. We also get to meet other Japanese officers and their own brands of leadership Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) who commanded the Hiryu with nobility, and Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura) whose controversial battle decisions had negative impact against the Japanese campaign. 

The execution of the critical battle scenes are the main draws to watch this film. Director Roland Emmerich will always be remembered as the man who brought us "Independence Day" (1996) and "2012" (2009). Of course, there are big explosions and massive destruction here as well. The massive scenes showing fiery exploding seacraft and aircraft were rendered with crisp cinematography and meticulous visual effects to create impressive screen spectacles. The aviation scenes, particularly the dive bomber runs by Dick Best, were excellently staged, shot and edited to elicit an exhilarating rush. 

For its 2 hours 18 minute run, the story of the crucial naval battles and the heroism of its real-life protagonists were front and center here in "Midway." There were no fictional characters or cheesy love stories like in the first "Midway" film or "Pearl Harbor." While seeing some popular young actors like Criss or Jonas can be distracting, the all-star cast generally rendered honor and respect to the heroes they portrayed. Focusing on soldiers of lesser rank allowed for some intimate personal drama in actual battle situations, perhaps with not much depth as possible. As this movie is rated PG, so do not expect to see graphic injuries at the level of "Saving Private Ryan." 7/10. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Review of ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP: Amusing Apocalypse

October 26, 2019

"Zombieland" was a hit comedy-action zombie movie back in 2009. This year, 10 years later, here comes a sequel with the same director Ruben Fleischer. The original group of characters, all named after US cities, are back -- Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock, all played by the same actors who had since then all been nominated for an Oscar or even won one. It was subtitled "Double Tap," #2 on Columbus' list of rules to survive a world overrun by zombies, which meant to always shoot a zombie twice to make sure it is dead.

Our main gang of four took over an abandoned White House to hang out after disposing of the zombie horde outside it. Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), now a young lady, decided to hook up with Berkeley, a hippie musician she met on the road going to a blissful zombie-free zone called Babylon. Meanwhile the other three picked up a ditzy new companion, a dumb blonde named Madison and met the sultry kickass Nevada (Rosario Dawson) and her friends in the Elvis-themed Hound Dog motel along their way to reunite with Little Rock at her destination. 

From the very start, we will already see zombies graphically killed in all sorts of ways in the first confrontation. After sensibilities have been numbed by that long opening sequence, there would be no more shock as the zombie death toll climbed with nearly every scene that came next, no matter how gory or messy they were. To up the challenge, this sequel featured more bullet-resistant zombies, which they called "T-800," a reference to the "Terminator" movies which Columbus loved. This meant they needed to come up with more imaginative kills against these persistent mutants. 

The rest of the time I was just enjoying the crazy comedy offered up the these funny actors. Woody Harrelson (as Tallahassee) and Eisenberg (as Columbus) were a perfect comic tag team (who looked like they did not age in 10 years), with each line they threw practically a punchline. Emma Stone (as Wichita) kept right up there with them with her dry sarcastic wit. Zoey Deutch was a riot in pink as wacky bimbo Madison. Avan Jogia's best scene as hippie Berkeley had something to do with weed. Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch (as Albuquerque and Flagstaff) were hilarious in being uncanny carbon copies.

This sequel actually followed the same format and spirit from the original movie, with Columbus narrating the story, laying out his rules and naming the "Zombie Kill of the Week". Both stories also involved a road trip across states, fighting off zombies en route to reach a safe haven. This was Pacific Playland amusement park in Los Angeles in the first movie, and pacifist hippie commune Babylon in this sequel. Bill Murray, who was a celebrity cameo in the first movie, also makes a flashback-type appearance in this one, so do not leave right away as the end credits roll. This was still very much the entertaining gross-out zombie film we enjoyed 10 years ago, and then some. 7/10. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Review of THE CURRENT WAR: Electrifying Encounters

October 24, 2019

He was the pioneer in the field of electricity whom I only know by name and by his inventions like the light bulb, phonograph and motion pictures, but honestly know very little about his life or his personality. That was why when there was this film about Thomas Edison I knew this was my chance to get a glimpse into this genius' life, and how he related to other famous contemporaries in his field, like Tesla or Westinghouse. 

It was the 1880s and Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch in another one of his stereotype portrayals of savants, like Dr. Strange, Alan Turing or Sherlock Holmes) was already a celebrity scientist. Together with his staff, Edison developed the long-lasting light bulb to much acclaim, and now going to light up entire cities using direct current electricity. George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, barely recognizable under all the heavy facial hair), wealthy from his invention of the air brakes system for steam trains, insisted that alternating current electricity can supply electricity at a much cheaper cost. 

While Westinghouse criticized the high cost and limited coverage of direct current, Edison hyped up on the riskiness of alternating current for causing deaths (and even inspired the invention of the electric chair). Edison was shown to be an obsessive technological prodigy with a flawed moral compass. He was a media darling, but his financial acumen and commitment to family were wanting. Westinghouse had a dry yet upright personality, more business savvy, and an aggressively supportive wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) behind him. Beyond the contrast in personalities, the film was about the race of Edison and Westinghouse to bid to illuminate the Chicago World Fair of 1893. 

Meanwhile Serbian immigrant and eccentric genius Nikola Tesla (a debonair and charismatic Nicholas Hoult) shuttled between Edison to Westinghouse, selling them his fantastic machines "which worked perfectly in his head" that have yet to become realities. Also prominently in on all this action was banker John Pierpoint (or more popularly known as J.P.) Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen with a prominently big red nose), whose financial support was badly needed by the competing scientists to make their ambitious projects come to life. Edison's secretary Samuel Insull (played by a mousy Tom Holland) had one moment to shine as he represented his boss at a product presentation. 

A film about the AC v. DC electricity distribution may sound dry on paper, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (with all his camera tricks) was somehow able to tell the story with a sense of simmering excitement and drama. The image of the American map gradually getting lit up was an effective device to show the progress of the "war." It was clearly evident that the more interesting Nikola Tesla and his genius deserves a movie of his own. Of course, we are wary of cinematic license use to heighten the drama (they did start with a disclaimer that this was "inspired" by true events), so further reading will have to straighten out the factual details. 7/10. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review of UNFORGETTABLE: Heartwarming Homecoming

October 24, 2019

Jasmine Mijandro Lagman had been living with her grandmother Lola Olive in Baguio City ever since both her parents passed away. She had a prodigious photographic memory which enabled her to memorize anything precisely. On the other hand, she had some behavior which others may find unusual. She was extra sensitive to loud noises. She was very honest to the point of being brutal. She would throw tantrums when she got upset.

Jasmine was in Manila with her sisters when Lola Olive's illness took a turn for the worse. She took off to find her way back to Baguio City on her own. She wanted to bring her grandmother this new dog whom she named Happy because it looked like her Lola's favorite pet dog when she was younger, believing it would help her Lola get well. However, going to Baguio was not going to be easy for a special young lady like Jasmine and her spunky canine companion.

Sarah Geronimo already proved last year that she could carry a film on her own without a love team with the huge success of "Miss Granny" last year. This time, Geronimo played Jasmine and her idiosyncrasies with so much commitment and with so much sincerity. There were nothing false or pretentious about this performance, it was all heart. Geronimo will make you feel Jasmine's fragile vulnerability so much that you will want to reach into the silver screen to protect her and help her get through her odyssey. She had an easygoing chemistry with Milo, her handsome Jack Russell terrier co-star with a cute expressive face. 

Gina Pareno played her gentle grandmother Olive who was always on Jasmine's side. Ara Mina and Meg Imperial played Jasmine's sisters Dahlia and Violet, who did not always know how to deal with her special needs. Kim Molina and Yayo Aguila appear as Chuchay and her mother Nanette, who helped Jasmine when she lost her way. All throughout the film, there would be surprise cameo guest appearances of several big stars in offbeat bit roles. The Regine Velasquez carinderia scene seen in the trailer was just one of them. Even Sarah Geronimo's father Delfin had one such quick scene. 

This was a sweet, old-fashioned idealistic little film about a girl with autism and her pet dog. When you've seen its trailer, you knew it would be a feel-good, tear-jerking family drama, and it was exactly that. Jasmine and Happy would experience some perils on their long circuitous road trip, but you somehow knew everything will turn out well eventually. You can already see the bittersweet ending from the get-go, but directorial tandem Jun Lana and Perci Intalan provided some delightful little adventures to keep the film interesting along the way. 7/10. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

Review of ISA PA, WITH FEELINGS: Solitude of Silence

October 21, 2019

Mara Navarro took sign language lessons to be able to communicate with her niece Hailey who was deaf. When she was depressed over an unexpected career setback, her deaf sign language teacher Gali Pastrano (who just so happened to also be her next-door neighbor in their condo) became her close friend. When Mara accepted Gali's invitation to be his partner for his dance recital, their friendship would seem to have blossomed into love. However, anxieties arise questioning if a deaf person can really have a serious long-term relationship with one with normal hearing?

This is the first time I had seen Maine Mendoza in a film since I knew her first as Yaya Dub on the Eat Bulaga TV show. With her famously expressive face, she nailed the various dramatic situations Mara got herself into, and she was good. However, this film was a bigger acting vehicle for her co-star Carlo Aquino than it was for her, and Mendoza fully embraced that in her supportive portrayal. Once more, Aquino proved his prodigious acting talents as Gali. He certainly rose to the enormous challenge of portraying a deaf character very convincingly, we fully empathized with his frustrations and insecurities. 

The main love story in itself was very simple. Hearing girl meets and falls in love with deaf boy. Will their relationship work or not? I don't know how commonly deaf-hearing relationships occur, but one can imagine the immense strain of coping with the impaired communications. The film presents a lot of very real difficulties encountered by both parties involved in such a special relationship, both in social and personal situations. My work exposes me regularly to people who are hard of hearing, so I really appreciated the film's effort to shine more light on their condition. 

This is a very brave Filipino to have one of its main protagonists Gali to be profoundly deaf. This meant that all his lines will have to be either in text via their mobile phones, or more frequently, in sign language. It taught us how to sign basic words, but there were entire scenes with no spoken dialogue at all. There were even some scenes in complete silence, without musical score. I appreciated those immersive scenes when all the sounds fade to mere beats and murmurs to simulate how the deaf Gali perceived the situation he was in.  

I thought this full commitment to a portray quiet disability like deafness was pretty risky for a mainstream film like this one. When Mara was signing, she would also say what she meant. However when Gali signed, we needed to read his lines off an LCD screen or off the subtitles. Merely reading a line does not have the same effect with hearing a line delivered with the proper timing and voice inflections. This may not be easy for certain viewers used to hearing their "hugot" one-liners spoken out loud. Because of this challenge, there had been very few films with a hearing-impaired protagonist, like Oscar-recognized "Children of a Lesser God" (1986) and the Ukrainian arthouse piece "The Tribe" (2014), and their posters were prominently displayed on Gali's wall. 

Director Prime Cruz was able to make us feel how it must be to be deaf, and now we know that it definitely is not easy. It emphasized the special way the deaf perceive certain things which hearing people would perhaps take for granted, especially music (like JK Labajo's sensual hit "Buwan") and dance. Over and above telling a simple love story, this film is eye-opening and educational about our deaf fellowmen as it worked to promote understanding, compassion and respect about their misunderstood disability. 8/10. 

Review of MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL: Misunderstood Martyr

October 21, 2019

The first "Maleficent" film (2014) (MY REVIEW) presented us with a re-imagined backstory behind the horned witch who was the villainess from the original "Sleeping Beauty" classic animated film (1959). Featuring Angelina Jolie as the title character with those computer-generated angular cheekbones, "Maleficent" was a big box office hit that year, hence five years later, a sequel was made and released. 

Five years after the events of the first film, Aurora was now ruling as Queen of the Moors, the realm of fairies and various other magical creatures. One day, Prince Philip suddenly came and proposed marriage, which Aurora excitedly accepted. However, her godmother Maleficent was not thrilled at the prospect as she felt humans and fairies cannot coexist in peace. When a curse suddenly befell Philip's father King John, his mother Queen Ingrith accused Maleficent to be the one responsible. 

The whole film tackled the touchy topic of world peace and unity, in this case between humans and fairies. To make matters more complicated, Maleficent discovered that there was an entire race of fairies called the Dark Fey, all winged and horned like her, who lived in an underground cave as refuge from human destruction. Warrior leader Borra (Ed Skrein) thought they should go to war with the humans, and diplomat leader Connal (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wanted to pursue more peaceful means. 

Angelina Jolie was still in great form as Maleficent, with her nice vocal inflections which liven up her lines with rich personality. The prominence of her computer-generated cheekbones went overboard in a lot of scenes in this sequel. We get to see Maleficent without her head wrap, so we see her with her long black hair down, and confirm that those were really horns growing on her head, and not part of a headdress. We also get to see Maleficent's bare shoulders and legs in some unexpected skin-revealing scenes. 

Elle Fanning was lovely and naive as ever as Aurora. Sam Riley was still very charming as the human form of Maleficent's pet crow, Diaval. Michelle Pfeiffer does a familiar turn as an over-the-top scheming Queen Ingrith. A new actor Harris Dickinson took over from Brenton Thwaites as Prince Philip, but was as bland as before. Even the animated Prince Philip was more suitor or as royal. It was great to see 80s height-challenged actor Warwick Davis back in another fantasy creature Lickspittle, the alchemist pixie. 

Apart from that fateful "meet-the-parents" dinner scene, I was only mildly enjoying the first two thirds of the film. The whole sequence of Maleficent fleeing from King John's castle all the way to the scenes in the Dark Fey caves was inordinately very dark. It  was very difficult to see what was going on or which character was talking. Thankfully, the final battle scenes were all shot in broad daylight to give the film a much-needed boost in the final act. Even then, the action and the logic there were more of the juvenile, Rated-G variety. 5/10. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

QCINEMA 2019: Review of CLEANERS: Schoolkid Sentiments

October 18, 2019

It was 2007 in Tuguegarao City in Cagayan province. Some students from Section IV-Rizal of St. Agnes Catholic School had memorable experiences during their senior year. Stephanie had her embarrassing dance number during Nutrition Month. Class president Angeli was grouped with the notorious Emo Boys to do the folk dance number for National Language Month. Francis proved to Britney he was her perfect date for the Prom. Junjun got an inside view of local politics when he ran for Youth Council president. 

The first thing you'd notice about this film was its very unique look. Director Glenn Barit chose to present his stories via 30,000 photocopied black and white images painstakingly edited together at a rate of 8 frames per second to animate them. The clothes of the main characters were colored with highlighters to make them stand out (Stephanie in green, the Emo Boys in orange, Angeli in yellow, Francis in blue, Britney in fuchsia, and Junjun in purple). This gave the whole project a sense of nostalgia as we have never seen before. 

It was quite impressive that the characters were not played by professional actors. The awkward attempts of these kids (and teachers) at acting created a most authentic vibe of high school life -- all its silliness and its frustrations.

The first two stories were light comic vignettes. Ianna Taguinod was fearless in making herself funny as Stephanie. That disastrous dance number to the tune of "Prutas at Gulay" was unforgettable. Leomar Baloran, Julian Narag and Carlo Mejia, as the Emo Boys Eman, Lester and Arnold respectively, were the audience favorites with their goth punk tough-guy looks. Gianne Emira Rivera was delightful as Angeli as she tried desperately to get her classmates' cooperation. All former class presidents will identify with her.

The latter two stories were more serious in tone. Francis (played by Allan Gannaban) faced bullying, and Britney (Charisse Mabonag) faced teen pregnancy -- both very real problems at that age. The character of Francis will forever be embedded in viewer's memories because of his daring scene with a pair of scissors. Junjun (Andrei Marquez) was the son of the current mayor Conchita (Sunshine Teodoro) and ex-mayor Alfonso (Jack Yabut). As he idealistically followed his parents' career path, he became painfully aware of all the dirty tricks behind the scenes in the process.

This remarkable indie film was a charming slice-of-life reminder of our high school days, which are said to be the best days of our lives, the years when many of our life-long friendships begin. We may not have the same coming-of-age experiences as wacky or as angsty as these characters had, but watching this will remind us of our own tricky transition from not-quite children to not-quite young adults, and make us smile and misty-eyed at the same time.  9/10. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019


October 17, 2019


Director: Zahir Omar (Malaysia)

Tailo (Sunny Pang) was a gentleman taxi driver by trade, calling himself "Chinaman." However, together with his younger brother Sailo (Fabian Loo), Sailo's close friend Gwailo (Jack Tan), and ex-con family friend Ah-soon (Eric Chen), he ran an extortion operation targeting rich people who rode their cabs. After a Dato was victimized, the police under cool, dedicated Inspector Kamal (Bront Palarae) were on their trail.

While Tailo and Ah-soon were more careful, the two younger guys were rash and foolish, trying to do little heists on their own, like one involving Reanne (Joyce Harn), the mistress of a jewelry businessman. However, when the two majorly lost money and their tempers in a gambling joint, they had the sadistic hothead mafia boss Jared (Frederick Lee) on their heels over the huge debt they owed him. 

The story is very easy to get hooked into. With the crisp visuals and eclectic music, the unfolding of one exciting event after the other was riveting to watch. There was engaging family dynamics. There was insight into Malaysian Chinese culture. There was very black comedy. There was heart-stopping motorbike chase action. There were crazy criminal characters. There was even blood-splattering Tarantino-esque violence. This is as mainstream as festival entries can get. I really enjoyed watching this film. 8/10.



Director: Mattie Do (Laos)

In the near future, an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy), known as a healer and medium who can communicate with the dead, was seen walking and talking with a pale and mute young woman(Noutnapha Soydara). The same young woman was seen appearing to a little boy (Por Silatsa) whose daily routine involved walking to market with his ill mother (Chansamone Inoudorn). It turned out that the young woman was a ghost, while the old man and the little boy were one and the same person 50 years apart.

When an old woman with dementia disappeared from her noodle store, the old man was requested by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), the old woman's city girl daughter, to look for her mother. On the other hand, the little boy grappled with his mother's failing health and his father's drunken abusiveness. The ghostly young woman eventually brought the old man back in time to help the little boy cope, bringing them face to face. However, his assistance may actually turn out to be causing more harm than good.  

I was engrossed with the complex time-traveling paranormal plot, with plenty of interesting ancient local folk practices, plus some sci-fi on the side. The cinematography was so lush and gorgeous on the big screen, such that even the disgusting was looking good. The eerie musical score built up a thick atmosphere of dread and suspense. Despite some confusing side details in the main plot, the lead performances of Chanthalungsy and especially 10 year-old Silatsa kept my attention the entire time. After two hours of this richly bizarre trip, director Mattie Do neatly cleaned up for a beautifully moving ending. 8/10. 



Director: Sheng Qiu (China)

In the suburban community of Wenjing, the land gave way and its buildings sank. The government official Jiang (Wang Xinyu) led engineers Mr. Han (Xiao Xiao) and his younger counterparts Ant (Deng Jing) and Xiahao (Mason Lee) to survey and assess the damage. Xiahao thought it was an underground water leak that caused the damages, however his boss did not agree and thought the young man was being foolish. 

In a parallel story, a pre-teen boy also named Xiahao (Gong Zihan) played around the urban debris and green woods around their city with his close gang of friends, including Fatty (Chen Yihao), Old Timer (Xu Chenghui), Coal (Chen Zhihao) and two girls Foxy (Qian Xuanyi) and Fang Tin (Xu Shuo). One day, the gang experienced a very long walk to the house of Fatty, which took a turn to the strange. 

I honestly do not know what to make of this unusual film. The seemingly unrelated stories of the two main threads both seemed to lead nowhere. Wer  the two stories were happening at the same time?. Or did Xiahao the kid grew up to be Xiahao the surveyor? This film by director Sheng Qui was more about experimental storytelling, rather than the traditional styles we are familiar with. By the time the film ended with a puzzling bird-watching scene, I realize that I did not fully understand what it was trying to say. I need more exposure to more arthouse films to gain more appreciation for their abstract style of cinematic art. 4/10.

QCINEMA 2019: Review of BABAE AT BARIL: Grooving with a Gun

October 16, 2019

The lead character was a timid salesgirl (Janine Gutierrez) in a department store. Her manager (Gie Onida), her landlord (Raffy Tejada), her roommate's boyfriend (Jess Mendoza), the sari-sari owner (Jal Galang), the drunks on the roadside, the creepy colleague at work (Felix Roco) -- everyone got on her case. One night, she decided to pick up a gun thrown in a trash pile outside her door. With the gun in her hand, this girl felt a transformative rush of power go through her.

However, the film suddenly started to flash back into the past, when this gun was assembled and given to a policeman named Sonny (Allan Paule) who took a side job as the driver for a couple of other cops whose mission was to assassinate a student leader. Sonny's son Miguel (JC Santos) became a cop himself when he grew up, but was also involved in shady extrajudicial killing operations against drug suspects. From there, the gun would eventually find itself thrown outside the salesgirl's house. 

Patrician beauty Janine Gutierrez certainly played against her usual type of role here. She was deglamorized into a mousy unfortunate underdog. By remaining unnamed, I take it that she represented the second-class manner women in general are treated in society -- as a doormat or as a sex object. While I thought it was fun to watch Gutierrez transform into a woman of volatile spunk and confidence as she was empowered by the gun she newly possessed, I am not sure I'm receiving the proper message it was saying about women or to women. 

The path the gun took during its years of existence was one strewn with violence and death in the hands of the wrong people. Its destructive power never diminished over the years. The production design people had to recreate an earlier era for its flashback scenes with the Metrocom uniform, owner-type jeeps and rotary dial phone (though the kid's basketball jersey should have been Crispa or Toyota, instead of a Lebron James #6). JC Santos exuded palpable danger in that scene he had with Elijah Canlas, who also did well as a nervous balut vendor Jun. As the neophyte criminal Steph, Sky Teotico's scenes with the gun were wrought with tension. 

One remarkable aspect of this film was the musical score which was evident from the very start of the opening credits. The score was very heavy on the percussion, creating a pulsating vibe throughout the film. The opening song about "alcohol, gambling, coffee and women" set the sleazy mood. The song "Magnanakaw" by the folk band Asin, which had lyrics indicting Filipinos to have a streak of thievery in their veins, always wanting the easier way out, fit ideally into director Rae Red's vision for this intensely relevant social commentary film.  7/10. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

QCINEMA 2019: Review of KAAWAY SA SULOD: Symbolic Singularity

October 14, 2019

Nash Bautista used to be a teacher at UP, until she decided to join the New People's Army in the mountains of Mindanao, code-named Commander Lai. Lt. Raiza Umali was an honest and dedicated officer of the Philippine Army who was assigned to lead the mission against Commander Lai's group. When Lai and Raiza finally came face to face after their encounter, everyone was stunned that the two women looked exactly like each other. 

This new film, one of only three Filipino films in the running for awards for the Asian New Wave section of QCinema 2019, was written and directed by Arnel Barbarona. He was multi-awarded for his last film, the harrowing "Tu Pug Imatuy" (2017) (MY REVIEW), which dealt with the conflict between the Military against the Lumad (or indigenous people). "Kaaway sa Sulod" dealt with the conflict between the Military and the NPA. 

This was not a particularly easy film to sit through. The script was full of old motherhood statements we have heard before, told in unnaturally long dry soliloquies. The picture quality was not polished, with dim inconsistent lighting. A lot of the action happened in darkness so it was not easy to distinguish one character from another. The sound quality was likewise uneven, especially during the fight scenes. There was even an actual accident where it looked like a stuntman fell flat on his back from a hole in the ceiling and had the wind knocked out of him, which was kept in the final print.

Dionne Monsanto was given a tough job of doing the two lead roles, but perhaps she was not yet ready as an actress for such a challenge. While I commend her daring for those graphic torture scenes, her scream after she read that DNA report was as awkward as her grimace after she ate a sour lansones. Her clothes, hair and make-up as Ka Lai were too distractingly stylish to be convincing to be rebel wear. On the other hand, her Lt. Umali had a constant scowl on her face just to prove she was dead serious about her job.

Perry Dizon played the imperious Gen, Rapatan, a senior military officer with distorted ideas about his rank, who thought torture and extortion were part of his job description. Dax Alejandro played Capt. Nunez, seemingly a good soldier, but still followed Gen. Rapatan orders blindly even if he felt "uncomfortable" with them. Jeff Sabayle gave a very weak portrayal of Lai's husband Anton, with no visible reaction on his face even as his wife's back was already being torched. Great choice of Nor Heela Macusang to play Lai and Anton's daughter Adlaw as her bright screen presence spelled hope.

Director Arnel Barabarona and writer Arnel Mardoquio tackled that age-old conflict of soldiers vs. rebels in the look-alike characters of Lt. Umali and Ka Lai. Whether these two women were indeed twins or merely doppelgangers was left open by the narrative, as there were conflicting DNA results and spurious stories. I take this as a symbolism of singularity among all Filipinos as a people. The same blood flowed through all Filipinos despite contrasting ideologies. While still harshly critical of the military organization, Barbarona was also making an appeal for national unity. 4/10. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

QCINEMA 2019: Review of Opening Film UNTRUE: Major Mind Mess-up

October 13, 2019

The QCinema Film Festival formally opened tonight at the Dolby Atmos Theater Cinema 5 of Gateway Mall with simple rites led by Mayor Joy Belmonte, who had originally conceived of this festival seven years ago. This year's festival boasts of more than 70 local and foreign films, new award-winning festival releases and revisted local classics. 

The Asian New Wave section is the main feature film competition selection, with three Filipino entries, along with five more from other Asian neighbors (Thailand, China, Indonesia, Myanmar and Laos). Previously only a line-up of all Filipino films were in competition. There is also a separate competition for local Shorts and Documentaries.

Last year, QCinema opened with "Shoplifters" from Japan, which had won the Palm d'Or 2018. This year, in recognition of the 100th year anniversary of Philippine Cinema, the organizers decided to invite a Filipino film to be the opening film of QCinema 2019 for the first time. This is "Untrue," written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, her follow-up after her mega-hit "Kita Kita" (2016).  


Two Filipinos happen to meet by chance in Tbilisi, Georgia. Mara Villanueva, 35 years old, just arrived three months ago, and was now working as kitchen staff in a resto-bar. Joachim Castro, also 35 years old, had been living in Georgia for five years now, and was an investor in a vineyard for grapes used for wine. After a whirlwind 3-month courtship, they tied the knot in Sighnaghi, Georgia's "city of love". One night, Mara, with her face swollen black and blue, showed up at the local police station, looking for her missing husband.

From the very start, Bernardo never let us feel that the match of Mara and Joachim was made in heaven. Instead of being romantic, the story of how the two met in their common apartment building was executed as if it was a crime thriller, if not an outright horror film. The foreboding musical score, the skewed camera angles, bluish color filter and dim lighting all told us that something very wrong was about to happen. The unfamiliar Georgian culture -- the Kartlis Deda statue, the Kartuli folk dance and an all-male singing quintet -- added further dramatic heft to thicken the tension.  

Cristine Reyes and Xian Lim both looked like they were having a blast playing two extremely different versions of their psychologically-challenged characters. Lim's portrayal of a heavyset, bearded Joachim and his lunacy was so over-the-top, in-your-face dark, it was entertaining despite the grim story being told. Reyes's portrayal of pixie-cut, red-haired Mara and her lunacy was more restrained in acting style, but still in complete contrast with the Mara in Act 1. Rhen Escano played the key (and very daring) role of school girl Ana, a ghost from a troubled past who persisted to haunt the present. 

The first act of the film was their story told in the point of view of Mara as she was being interviewed by the police officer. Unexpectedly, the second act also told the same story, this time in the point of view of Joachim as he was being interviewed by his therapist. By this time, the whole film took the form of a major mind game, as roles and lines were switched from one character to the other. This part was actually a lot of fun to watch. 

Up to this point, your mind would have already been all messed up, not knowing whose version was actually the truth. Then the third act unfolded to tell us what really happened before and was happening now.  After that tense build-up of Acts 1 and 2, the momentum did sag a bit here because of a rather lengthy explanatory flashback. However, as things go back to present events, the pace would eventually pick right back up and wrap the whole film up with an effectively stunning twist. 8/10.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review of GEMINI MAN: Smith vs. Self

October 10, 2019

Henry Brogan was the best highly-skilled assassin in the service of a covert government agency. After his last assignment to kill a supposed terrorist on a train, Henry wanted to retire. To prevent Henry from discovering his illicit involvement in that last hit, Clay Varis of the secret Gemini project sent his top assassin named Junior, to put Henry away. When Henry saw young Junior's face though, he noted something very familiar.

We saw and marveled at the de-aging special effects in short scenes, from films like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (for Brad Pitt) to "Captain Marvel" (for Samuel L. Jackson).  But here, this de-aging special effect is front and center for practically the whole film here, so they had to wait for the correct technology to be developed to support such an ambitious premise. This is why this project only got off the ground recently, long after was originally written back by Darren Lemke back in 1997. 

We see two Will Smiths in this film -- the older Will Smith whom we know currently and a younger Will Smith circa "Six Degrees of Separation" but of heftier build. Despite playing the hardened assassin Henry, Will Smith still gave his older character his usual easy-going swagger and charm that his fans knew and loved. Meanwhile, the de-aged Will Smith gave the seemingly invincible warrior Junior a sense of youthful vulnerability as only he could give. Smith's dual performance kept this sci-fi on solid ground. 

The first encounter between Henry and Junior, set in a colorful Colombian neighborhood in broad daylight, was the best action sequence as it turned from a running gun fight indoors to a shaky motorcycle chase scene in crowded city streets. This whole sequence ended with a crazy scene where we see a motorcycle itself being used as a weapon of assault. This motorcycle fighting was a bit of a far-fetched idea, but with Will Smith doing the scene, it actually looked cool than silly. 

Producer Jerry. Bruckheimer brought in his signature explosive high-tech action style. Director Ang Lee brought in his ability to bring out poignant emotion, from digital tiger in "Life of Pi" to digital Junior here. However, the film as a whole had a predictable story that even "Game of Thrones" writer David Benioff could not save in his rewrites of the script. It was really only Will Smith's star power and personality that kept this project afloat and still entertaining. 6/10. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Review of WARNING: DO NOT PLAY: Vile Vexing Videos

October 9, 2019

Korean horror films began to be noticed more internationally after the back-to-back successes of "Phone" (2002) and "A Tale of the Two Sisters" (2003). Since then, there had been more Korean horror films which gained acclaim like "Thirst" (2009), "I Saw the Devil" (2010), "Train to Busan" (2016) and "The Wailing" (2016). Last year's horror hit "Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum" (2018) was a found-footage film, and now this new one followed suit with found-footage but with a twist.

Mi-jung (Seo Ye-ji) was a troubled young film director who wanted to create the best horror film ever. When she heard of a 10-year old haunted horror film supposedly filmed by a ghost, she wanted desperately to get her hands on a copy and watch it. The director of the older film, Jae-hyun (Jin Sun-kyu), now looking very disheveled and spooked out of his mind, warned her to forget about his cursed film. However, the more she was warned, the more obsessed Mi-jung became about watching it, even if it meant presented a clear danger to her sanity and her life.

You know those horror films when the characters annoyed you no end by doing stupid things which no sane person would do? They hear a strange scary noise, and they go outdoors (or go down the basement or up the attic) to investigate what it was, while the audience is screaming to tell them to get out of there. Well, this movie is one whole film where the protagonist Mi-jung was doing one inexplicably crazy action after the other all for the purpose of locating and watching this one sick video.

Actually, there came a point when you already cannot tell what was reality from Mi-jung's nightmares or from Jae-hyun's paranoia. In fact, the editing was done so that events happening for real and the events in the two films (both Jae-hyun's original and Mi-jung's version) were merged into one indistinguishable continuity especially when Mi-jung included herself as a character in her film. It created a confusing illusion like that of a hall of mirrors where images play vile tricks on your brain.

At first this movie was all about atmosphere, dread and jump scares, thanks to Mi-jung's foolish decisions which led her into dangerous situations. Some pretty graphic hard-core gore would only figure in director Kim Jin-won's scare arsenal towards the end. There was a B-movie vibe to the whole affair, with the actors (even the two leads) performing rather amateurishly. While the premise might have looked good on paper, the final film did not completely deliver on its promise because of its deficient set-up and poor pacing of scares. 4/10. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review of ABOMINABLE: Momentary Magic

October 8, 2019

A young Yeti was hiding from its captors on a rooftop of an apartment building in Shanghai. A practical young girl Yi found him, gained the creature's confidence and helped it with his injuries. Naming the Yeti "Everest," Yi, together with her neighbors Peng and Jin, embarked on a major journey through China to bring Everest back to his family in the Himalayas. Meanwhile, millionaire hunter Burnish and mad zoologist Dr. Zara were hot in pursuit to get the Yeti back to their possession. 

What is notable about this movie was that the main human characters in this film were Asian. Furthermore, the Asian characters were voiced by Asian actors, which was remarkable. This has got to be the first time this happened since "Mulan" (1998) with Ming Na-Wen (as Mulan), BD Wong (as Li Shang), Pat Morita (as Emperor of China) and George Takei (as First Ancestor). Even then, some Chinese characters were still voiced by non-Asians, like Harvey Feinstein and Eddie Murphy. The excellent "Kubo and the Two Strings" (2016) had mainly Asian characters. but they were voiced by non-Asians, like Art Parkinson, Matthew McConnaughey, Charlize Theron and Ralph Fiennes. 

In "Abominable" though, all Asian characters were really voiced by Asians, which is a big deal on the levels of "The Joy Luck Club" and "Crazy Rich Asians". Chloe Bennet who voiced the lead character of Yi is half-Asian. All of Yi's friends and family were all voiced by Asian actors, like Albert Tsai as the boyish and playful Peng and Tenzing Norgay Trainor (namesake and grandson of the Nepalese sherpa who famously guided Sir Edmond Hillary on his historic 1953 climb up Mt. Everest) as the popular handsome kid, Jin. 

Non-Asian actors Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson were also in the cast. But they were playing non-Asian characters, namely Burnish and Dr. Zarah respectively. 

In just the past 12 months, there had already been two other animated movies about the Yeti. Following "Smallfoot" (by Warner) and "Missing Link" (by Laika). This latest film by Dreamworks Animation (in partnership with Chinese film company Pearl Studios) which also featured another version of the abominable snowman felt like something too much too soon. Its release as the third in a series of films tackling basically the same story line about a Yeti finding his way back to his home was its big disadvantage. "Abominable" is a madcap adventurous road trip for kids with the promise of an emotional story of homecoming, but it really tread on very familiar grounds. 

The filmmakers innovate the common story line by giving Everest magical powers which gave this movie some pretty and playful visuals, like giant blueberries rolling around meadows, and giant dandelion seedheads floating overhead. They also gave Yi the talent of playing the violin, which gave this movie some stirring musical moments of wordless poignancy and pathos. However, these brief occasional moments of animated beauty eventually give way to wacky chases and juvenile comedy that ultimately brought the whole film back down to regular levels. 6/10. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review of JOKER: Seriously Sick and Squirmy

October 6, 2019

This became a much anticipated film ever since teasers of Joaquin Phoenix's twisted portrayal of the Crown Prince of Crime hit social media. It premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival last month where it won the Golden Lion award. With the trailers, I can already see how dark, dismal and dirty this film was going to be, and I cannot say that I was excited to see it. However with the early Oscar buzz surrounding Phoenix's performance, this film simply needed to be seen. 

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lived in abject poverty with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in tumultuous Gotham City. The day he lost his job as a clown, he got harassed by three executive guys in the train and he shot them dead with a gun given to him by a co-worker. His act of violence led Arthur down the road to increasing madness, as it also inspired Gotham's poor to rise up wearing clown masks to protest against the rich. Meanwhile, Arthur was invited to be a guest in the TV show of his favorite comedian Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro), a public appearance that did not bode too well from the get-go.

There is no argument that Joaquin Phoenix completely dedicated himself to this character and transformed completely into this pathetic creature, a victim of an abusive and nasty society. His very body was deformed into a grotesque emaciated form. He projected an aura so negatively charged that it repelled anyone within his presence, including us in the audience. He was supposed to be a clown and comedian, but nothing he said or did was ever funny at all. Even his maniacal laughter was pathological. Phoenix's portrayal reveled in the irony that his character actually gained more self-worth the deeper into violent psychosis he wallowed. 

The technical aspects of this Todd Phillips film were undeniably excellent. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher was consistently plunged in a melancholic filter, with camera angles deliberately as manic and off-kilter as the personality of the title character. The musical score of Hildur Guðnadóttir and song choices in the soundtrack (notably "That's Life" and "Send in the Clowns" as sung by Frank Sinatra) enhanced the uneasy mood of the film. The make-up department was also to be commended for completing the ugly and unsettling look of Arthur as Joker. Weaving in billionaire Thomas Wayne into the narrative was a stroke of genius. 

However, having said that, I have to confess that I did not like sitting though this harrowing film because of the seriously sick and squirmy feeling it gave me throughout its 122-minute running time. Its form of art was something so unpleasant and disgusting that I would not want to watch it ever again. This was one of those movie experiences that while you recognize it was done well, but it was done so well with such palpable realism that it became totally nauseating and unnerving to the core. This is certainly not for the faint of heart nor for the weak of constitution. This was abominable anarchy on film. 8/10. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Review of ANG HENERASYONG SUMUKO SA LOVE: An Entreaty for Empathy

October 3, 2019

Writer-director Jason Paul Laxamana is really one of the busiest filmmakers in recent years. He had four feature films each year from 2016 (including "Mercury is Mine"), 2017 (including "100 Tula Para Kay Stella"), and 2018 (including "Bakwit Boys"). This year 2019, he had a 6-episode iWant series "Project Feb. 14," "Between Maybes," "About a Stranger" and now this one entitled "Ang Henerasyong Sumuko sa Love."

The story revolves around the five members of a group of friends who knew each other from childhood, and were now graduating college together. They went to a lakeside resort to camp overnight and had their final blast before facing the real world. They decided to pledge that every year that followed, on April 26, they will revisit this same location to go camping, and catch up how they were on their dream of success and changing the world. 

This film is actually a collection of four short films about five young people bookended by their reunion one year after their college graduation. 

The first one was about Ma-an Miranda, played by Jane Oineza. Ma-an resigned from her first job as PA for a local cable company because she felt it was beneath her capabilities, and became a vlogger. After seeing how popular vlogger Rachelle (Thia Thomalla) used her body to snare viewers, Ma-an thought of spicing her own vlog up with a sexy personality furthest from who she really was.

The next one was about Denzel Zapata, played by Jerome Ponce. He was the gay guy in the group, and he had a father who fully supported his gender orientation. He put up his own  resto-bar business which was doing well. However, he cannot bring himself to commit to one relationship, even if he thought his latest guy, Wesley (Anjo Damiles), may already by the right man for him. 

The third was about the couple Hadji Sarip and Junamae Quiambao played by Albie Casino and Myrtle Sarrosa. He was a hopeless romantic movie buff who lived vicariously in the rom-coms he cried buckets over. She was a pragmatic girl who did not want to label their relationship as anything. They were living together despite the different ways they viewed love, which eventually led to problems.

The last story was about Kurt Agapito played by Tony Labrusca. Right after graduation, his mother immediately gave him the responsibility to earn for his younger brother's schooling. (This was despite the fact that he had an older sister who was already a doctor!) He accepted graphic design projects left and right in order to come up with the money. He did all of this at the expense of his sleep, his social life and his mental health. 

Easily the worst character in the whole film was Kurt's mother (Chesca Inigo). She was a monstrous composite of all terribly wrong things parents do and say to their millennial children. She is a cold, uncaring scapegoat for all the psychological ills of the current generation. This was the cautionary message Laxamana to the older generation watching this film. I know that that our children may not be receive our words as we intended them, but his mother's words though were awful to hear for any generation. 

For a Gen X'er like me, this film was a revealing look into the so-called millennial generation and the problems they faced in the world today -- the social media obsession for likes and follows, the dating apps that corrupted morals and relationships, the evolving definitions and labels of romance, the amplified pressures and competitiveness of work. Explanations nor solutions were not the point here. Laxamana's film was a plea for understanding and compassion for his misjudged generation. 6/10.