Friday, July 31, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY SEASON 2: Superhero Siblings in the Swinging 60s

July 30, 2020

The first season of "The Umbrella Academy" came out around February of last year. However, despite the positive word of mouth surrounding it, I did not really watch TV series at that time, so I never got to see it at all. However this year, ever since the quarantine was imposed and an excess of free time opened, I relented and began to watch various TV series streaming on Netflix as well, English language or otherwise. 

"The Umbrella Academy" was a series based on a Dark Horse comic book series written by Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Bá. This TV series version was created for Netflix by Steve Blackman and developed by Jeremy Slater. 

The members of the academy were: Number One was Luther (Tom Hopper), who had super strength. Number Two was Diego (David Castaneda), who had mad skills with knives. Number Three was Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), whose voice can order and control behavior. Number Four was Klaus (Robert Sheehan), who can communicate with spirits of the dead. Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who was left unnamed, had the ability to teleport himself in space and time. Number Six (Justin H. Min) was Ben, who had four powerful tentacles for fighting. Number Seven was Vanya (Ellen Page), who had been excluded from the group exploits, for her apparent lack of powers.

In the first season began in 1989, when Sir Reginald Hargreeve (Colm Feore) adopted seven children with special abilities and trained them to become a group of superheroes, with the help of his chimpanzee assistant Pogo (Adam Godley and Ken Hall) and their android mother Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins). The kids lived under Sir Reginald's draconian rules, which later led to rebellion and disbandment when they grew up. 

Years later, they reunite as adults (except Five who remained a 13-year old boy as time traveling messed up his growth) to solve the  death of their father and how it related to a major event which was about to destroy the earth in 10 days. However, hot on their heels was a pair of ruthless assassins Chacha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton) who had been sent by the mysterious Handler (Kate Walsh) to foil their plans. 

After the cataclysmic event which ended Season 1, this second season finds the brothers and sisters thrown into the tumultuous early 1960s in Dallas, Texas, before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The season starts with a high note as Five dropped in to witness a colossal fight of his siblings against Russian soldiers threatening a nuclear end of the world. As the episodes went along, the siblings all get involved with several other important issues of that day, like false religious cults, homosexuality, autism, the Vietnam War draft, and specially, the black civil rights movement. 

The second season still featured the same aspects I liked about the first. There was still that tense dysfunctional family dynamics going on among the siblings, which can be as funny as they were exasperating. The special effects of the fight scenes seemed to have been upped a few notches upwards as the action became more violent and destructive, with those scenes set in a board room and on a dental clinic being the bloodiest. This new season also brought back those eclectic choices of pop songs (ranging from jazz standards to rock & roll, from 80s New Wave to Billie Eilish) which appropriately accompanied key scenes. 

This series cannot really escape comparison with the X-Men and their mutant superpowers. Similarities between Seven and Jean Grey, or Five and Nightcrawler may certainly seem uncanny. However, their characters and their powers were given their own additional twists and dimensions to make them fresh. One's dim-wittedness, Two's hero complex, Three's seductive grit, and Four's flamboyance will lead them to their own individual adventures with new colorful characters. Time travel scenarios usually result in big plot holes, but this one had no obviously glaring ones unless you nitpick. 

Since Season 1 already settled all the heavy backstory of this family, Season 2 was able to have more fun with the siblings' characters. Every episode ended with a cliffhanger which made it irresistible to go on and watch the next show right away to see what happens, making this engaging series easily binge-able. Season 3 could not come too soon. 8/10

Thursday, July 16, 2020

iWant: Review of BEAUTY QUEENS: The Glamorous and the Gaudy

July 15, 2020

Ever since the American occupation, the Philippines has an undying fascination, if not outright obsession, for beauty pageants. There was always a beauty contest held in every school, parish, barangay, town, city, province for its special days. Before, there were only pageants for single young women. Later, there would be pageants for all ages and status of females, as well as gays, transgender and even males. 

The passion was further fanned by the success of the Philippines in international beauty pageants. This wave of success happened from the 1960s to the 1970s, with the likes of Gloria Diaz and Margarita Moran winning Miss Universe, and Gemma Cruz, Aurora Pijuan and Melanie Marquez winning Miss International. This winning streak was revived in the past 10 years, with Megan Young copping the first Miss World crown for the country, and Pia Wurtzbach and Catriona Gray bringing home the Miss Universe crown after a long drought. 

This new iWant series directed by Joel Lamangan capitalizes on this national preoccupation among Filipinos and brings us into the lives of a family who had lived a multi-generational tradition of beauty and glamour, and drama. 

Former Miss Universe Mrs. Dahlia Rodriguez-de Veyra was preparing for an intimate family dinner party to celebrate the centennial birthday of her mother Tarsila Zamora Rodriguez, the last Manila Carnival Queen crowned in 1939. Dahlia wished this occasion would reconnect her with her three children who all had past issues with her. Her eldest daughter Daisy became a nun against her wishes. Her second daughter Tingting was now separated from her husband. Her youngest son Rico has become a transgender woman named Rica. 

Our country's first Miss Universe winner in 1969 Gloria Diaz headlines this new mini-series playing Dahlia. Like Diaz, Dahlia won her Miss Universe title also in 1969 and married a much older millionaire who was the president of Metro Manila University. Miss Diaz was given a character who is not easy to like -- so overbearing, demanding, scornful, petulant and hot-headed. Her opinion about the Miss International pageant, among other things, was hilariously tactless. Ms. Diaz is clearly having a good time playing this flawed character. 

For further authenticity, the actresses playing her two daughters are also beauty queens themselves. Maxine Medina, Bb. Pilipinas- Universe 2016, played the eldest child Daisy. Her full story had already been told in Episode 3. Wynwyn Marquez, Reina Hispanoamericana 2017, played the seemingly well-adjusted middle child Tingting. Theater actor Ross Pesigan played the flamboyant and indignant youngest son Rico. Their backstories will likely be featured in the next episodes. 

Since the stories told involved many years, the production used different filters to delineate the timeline. The story of Tarsila from 1939 into the 1950s were rendered in sepia. Played by Maris Racal, Tarsila was a miserable trophy wife of an abusive ambitious politician played by Rafa Siguion Reyna -- a typical trope of Filipino melodrama. The story of young Dahlia from 1969 into the 80s was rendered in scratchy faded colors, with special bright red highlights (like the sportscar or the jewelry box). For Dahlia's Miss Universe victory moment, Nella Marie Dizon was styled exactly as how Miss Diaz was styled in her actual pageant.

The behavior of the family during the dinner party are fraught with over-the-top antics (lascivious necking right at the dinner table) and unrealistic dramatic fireworks (forcing someone to change into a ballgown in front of everybody). These exaggerated conflicts were conjured up to shock and discomfit the viewer, and they work in that sense. Ever since soap operas like "Wildflower" made these wild parties of the rich and famous practically standard TV fare, Filipino audiences have enjoyed to lap these contrived scandals up. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Netflix: Review of JAPAN SINKS 2020: Sacrifice for Survival

July 14, 2020

First off, I would like to disclose this the first anime series that I had completed. Previously, I had only seen the occasional feature film anime, like "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) or "Your Name" (2016); or live action films based on anime, like "Attack on Titan" (2015) or "Your Lie in April" (2016). Of the several anime series being streamed on Netflix, this was the one that caught my attention to watch because of its catchy title and its short length of only ten 30-minute episodes.

It was Sept. 2020, just after the Tokyo Olympics were held. Just after 4 pm one afternoon, a very strong earthquake hit Japan causing a widespread swathe of devastation and death. 

The four members of the Mutoh family all met each other under a purple-lit tree beside a hilltop shrine. Father Koichiro was first to arrive from his construction site. Mother Mari survived a crash landing of her plane into the river.  Elder daughter Ayumu ran all the way from her track practice. Youngest son and avid gamer Go was brought from their home by their friend Nanami. Their aloof young track star neighbor Haruo was also with them. 

News came that more earthquakes were coming and that almost the whole Japanese archipelago was sinking into the Pacific Ocean. When the water from the tsunami begin to flood the area below their hill, they all decide to go search for a safer location. Along their way, they encounter several other people (a sensational YouTuber Kite, an old chain-smoking morphine addict Gramps, an cheerful Englishman Daniel, a paralyzed submarine pilot Onodera, etc..) who would join them along this quest towards a safe haven. However, their perilous uncertain journey will be fraught with a series of danger and deaths. 

Following the ordeal of the Mutoh family during this series was like following the ordeal of the Stark family in "Game of Thrones." Everyone, be he a main character or a side character, was fair game here, no one is spared from a harrowing death. Several times, the manner of death came very suddenly, startling at times. Some of the deaths you can see coming from how the scene was playing, and these were the more emotional ones. The animation did not shirk from showing the gory or disgusting as it dealt with death.

There were a couple of episodes mid-series when the Mutohs found themselves in the idyllic community of Shan City who welcomed them with open arms, giving them much needed shelter and food. However, the people in there seemed to belong to a mysterious cult led by a female medium who could contact the dead. The purpose of this weird interlude was puzzling as to its metaphorical significance to the story as a whole. The unnecessary presence of a gratuitous sex scene in Episode 5 just made things more bizarre.

Overall, this anime series was easy and engaging to follow all the way through in a viewing binge. There was an inclusive effort by making the characters diverse (case in point, the mother Mari was a Filipina from Cebu.) Directed by animator Masaaki Yuasa, this anime series was based on a science-fiction disaster novel written back in 1973 by Sakyo Komatsu. Several film and TV adaptations over the years attest to its timeless message. That this latest updated version is being streamed on Netflix during an international pandemic further gave its story of family and selflessness even more dramatic heft. 7/10. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Review of ASWANG: Bracing for the Bully

July 11, 2020

During this Covid-19 quarantine, three controversial, internationally-acclaimed documentaries about Philippine politics had been shared by their filmmakers online for Filipinos to watch for the first time. 

Last May, Lauren Greenfield's "The Kingmaker" was streamed, laying bare Madame Imelda Marcos' enduring belief from the Martial Law days up to the present time -- that "perception is real, truth is not" -- straight from her own mouth. In June, on Independence Day, Ramona Diaz's "A Thousand Cuts" was streamed for free on YouTube for 24 hours, two days before a local court found its embattled subject, Rappler founder Maria Ressa, guilty of cyber-libel. 

This weekend, a third hard-hitting political documentary by an intrepid female filmmaker is being shared online. "Aswang" by Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam last November 2019 where it won a major award. Since then, it had also been screened in a couple of big human rights film festivals, and won the Amnesty International award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival held virtually last May.

"Aswang" is about the aggressively heated war on drugs launched in 2016 in fulfillment of presidential campaign promises. Various tragic stories during this drug war among the urban poor had been tackled by several filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza, Erik Matti and Lav Diaz in the past couple of years. The most recent one was Ben Rekhi's gritty "Watch List" released in cinemas just a month before the quarantine. 

In contrast to these works of fiction, Arumpac brought her camera directly to the scenes of actual crimes to tell the grim aftermath among the families left behind. We see the real people and their emotions, not mere actors. We hear their own words, not lines penned by a scriptwriter. We may have seen these families in short clips on the evening news, but here, they are given a little more time to tell their grievances. 

Children who live in these grim slum conditions were highlighted by Arumpac. Her narrative began with the death of teenager Kian Lloyd de los Santos allegedly at the hands of cops. From there, Arumpac picked one of Kian's much younger friend Jomari to serve as a focal point of her film. Left to fend for himself while his parents were both incarcerated, the precocious, street-smart urchin Jomari had prematurely jaded pronouncements, which were in stark contrast with his innocent glee in shopping for superhero slippers and basketball jerseys to wear. 

In between stories of the drug war, the director and her editors also factored in some side stories to further drive home her point against the dire conditions suffered by the urban poor. There were scenes from a fiery street protest against the leadership, with the presidential Visage used as the basis of a satanic effigy. There was also a detour to describe the case of how human rights officials freed a number of male and female inmates who were kept sealed in a dark, humid, putrid cell hidden behind a filing cabinet. 

We may say we have heard all of these things already from the news, perhaps ad nauseam for some. However, when these painful scenes are compiled together in a documentary like this, the tragic human drama is amplified a hundredfold. It aimed to jolt us out of our privileged seats of comfort and direct our eyes to these "invisible" socio-political tragedies happening right under our line of sight. 

How coincidental that it would be streamed to the Filipino public just days after the anti-terror bill was signed into law, and the day after a one-sided congressional vote took down a mass media giant. The timing could not have been more uncanny. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE OLD GUARD: Tough Theron Thriller

July 10, 2020

Andy (Charlize Theron) led a group of skilled mercenaries: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). They had the extraordinary ability to repair themselves from any injury and had been living as immortals across many centuries.  Despite that her group was being pursued by a ruthless big pharma CEO Merrick (Harry Melling) to study their unique physiology, Andy went out of her way to help US Marine officer Nile Freeman (Kiki Layne), who sustained a fatal injury while on duty, but somehow completely recovered.

Andy is actually Andromache of Scythia, who had discovered her immortality for several years before Christ. She encountered Joe and Nicky during the Crusades, and they all met Booker during the Napoleonic Wars. Over the centuries, this adaptive crew had continued to gain in combat skills and technological expertise to fight for what they believed was right. To preserve some sense of danger for these characters, there was apparently a random expiration date to their immortality, but they would never know when this day will come.

Back in 2005, fresh from the Oscar Best Actress win for "Monster" (2003), Charlize Theron showed us that she also had action in her repertoire in the sci-fi film "Aeon Flux". However, she really showed off her full grit and abilities as a hard-core action star in "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015), and then again in "Atomic Blonde" (2017). This year, fresh off her Oscar Best Actress nomination for "Bombshell" (2019), Theron further pads her resume in the action genre in this new Netflix film based on the 5-part graphic novel from Image Comics, written by Greg Rucka, art by Leandro Fernández.

As the most senior immortal warrior Andy, the statuesque Theron wows us again with her grace and strength in all her brutal, bone-crunching fight scenes. She looked great with her short smart hairstyle, tank tops and trench coat. She looked convincingly proficient with any weapon she used, be they automatic firearms, the battle axe or her bare hands. She had that no-nonsense air of confidence which tells everyone that she is the leader (and mother-figure) of this elite group, there was certainly no doubting that. 

Aside from their complex fight scenes, Theron's supporting cast were all given their own dramatic storylines. Kenzari's Joe and Marinelli's Nicky were given a very long-term bromance relationship, developed as they killed each other several times over before. Schoenert's Booker saw his whole family die one by one, which imbued him with a great sense of guilt. Layne's Nile found it difficult to accept her new kind of existence and separation from her family. Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave") lent some additional prestige as CIA agent Copley whom the group had worked with previously. 

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood effectively incorporated stylish visuals, breathtaking fight choreography, and rock music to tell her story. At the end, there was a not-so-subtle hint that this could be a continuing series. This could be very interesting time to go back into various times in history to get to see Andy and the other guys in action over time. The show's premise may feel like they were just this new set of X-Men composed of all immortal self-healing Wolverines (sans the claws). However, it was Charlize Theron's outstanding star power that made all the difference here. 8/10. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: CLASSIC AGAIN, ONE-WAY TO TOMORROW, SERGIO: Captivating Couples

July 7, 2020


Director: Thatchaphong Suphasri

Writers: Apichet Kamphu, Kiat Songsanant

Bota (Ranchrawee Uakoolwarawat) went through the diary of her mother Dalah that recounted her 1967 love affair with a shy writer named Kajorn (Thitipoom Techaapaikhun), complicated by his best friend Tanil who was also courting her.  Bota used this story to write a romantic play which will star the campus heartthrob Non (Gee Sutthirak Subvijitra), who just happened to be her crush as well as the crush of her best friend Poppy (Meiko Chonnikan Netjui). 

This Thai film is a remake of a 2003 South Korean film called "The Classic" which starred  Son Ye-jin (of "Crash Landing on You" fame). From the get-go, this movie gave such positive vibes, it was impossible not to give in to its charms. I did not know any of the young actors in the cast but they were all attractive and smiling so brightly, such that it was not difficult to like them all. While there were some overly sentimental scenes or contrived plot points, this was generally feel-good and wholesome, a very pleasant watch with generous doses of sweet romantic thrills. The beautiful Ranchrawee Uakoolwarawat gave such distinctive portrayals of Bota and her mother Dalah, you'd think two actresses had played them. 7/10. 


Director: Ozan Açiktan
Writers: Drazen Kuljanin, Faruk Ozerten

By chance, a young man Ali (Metin Akdülger) and a young woman Leyla (Dilan Çiçek Deniz) share a private compartment on a train going from Ankara to Izmir. After some initial hesitation, the two strike up a conversation. They discovered that they were both on their way to attend the same wedding. They both tell their stories about the reason why they were attending, and in the process get to know each other quite well.

This was a very talky Turkish movie, the whole story happening only one night on a train. Accidental seatmates Ali and Leyla just go from one topic to another, much like Jesse and Celine did in "Before Sunrise." Once you get into the drift of their conversation, this was not actually as boring as it may sound. The two lead actors Akdulger and former Ms. Universe-Turkey 2014 Deniz both gave engaging portrayals which make you care about who they are and what they were about to do. There could have been ways to expand the story some more but the director decide to keep things between the two of them, which limited his options towards the end. I imagine it would have been more interesting to see their past experiences actually played out on screen than just heard in conversation. 5/10. 


Director: Greg Barker

Writers: Craig Borten, based Samantha Power's book "Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World"

In 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq and United Nations' Special Representative Sérgio de Mello (Wagner Moura) was in Baghdad to assure human rights were maintained during their transition to true independence. One day, their hotel headquarters was bombed and Sergio trapped in the basement. While awaiting to be rescued, Sergio thought back to how he met and fell in love with Carolina (Ana de Armas) three months earlier in East Timor when he represented the UN during their revolution, and she was a member of his staff.

I first met Wagner Moura when he played a charismatic Cuban pilot and defector in "Wasp Network" just recently. Using that same charisma, Moura played another charming real-life gentleman, the titular Sergio, in this film. In "Wasp," his wife was played by Ana de Armas, who also played his mistress here. I was interested more in the parts about his work as a UN Special Representative, than in those parts about his relationship with Carolina.  I felt that this love story angle distracted from the more intriguing and challenging UN diplomatic experiences and decisions of Sergio which could have been told in more detail. 6/10.