Wednesday, September 30, 2020

YouTube: Review of FATHER OF THE BRIDE, PART 3(ISH): Virtual Vows

September 30, 2020



"Father of the Bride" (Charles Shyer,1991) was a remake of a 1950 film of the same title. In the 90s remake, overprotective father George Banks (Steve Martin) could not come to terms with the fact that his precious daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) was about to get married to Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern). The lavish plans by the quirky European wedding coordinator Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) drove George even crazier. 

In the 1995 sequel, George underwent a midlife crisis when Annie was pregnant with her first baby. Then things became crazier when George's wife Nina (Diane Keaton) also announced that she was also having a baby. Franck was back in the picture as the coordinator of their joint baby showers and designing the nursery in his particular style. Annie gave birth to her baby boy named George, while Nina gave birth to her second daughter Megan.

Last September 25, 2020, while the world is still reeling from the Coronavirus pandemic, a third installment of this beloved film series was released for free on YouTube on Netflix's channel. The short film (only about 25 minutes) was shot and edited together in Zoom meeting style where each actor was in his own screen from his own location. According to the introduction by Reese Witherspoon, this was for the benefit of Chef José Andrés's World Central Kitchen, a charitable organization which provides meals to victims of natural disasters.

There was a montage of clips from the first two movies to set the mood and reintroduce everybody before things get going. Matty Banks (Kieran Culkin) called the members of his family together for a Zoom meeting. Nina were there first as usual, and just a little later, Annie. Megan (Florence Pugh) is now 25, as well as her birthday twin George (Ben Platt). The ever-neurotic senior George joined in with his litany of Coronavirus precautions.

Everyone noted that Matty had shaved off his quarantine beard, and now he announced to everyone the reason why. His planned wedding to his fiancee Rachel (Alexandra Shipp) had been indefinitely postponed because of the current health crisis. He decided he could not wait any longer and wanted to invite her to marry him right there and then -- on Zoom. Rachel had just gotten off her duty at the hospital and was completely unaware of Matty's big plan. 

It was really great to see the original cast back together and looking great, having great rapport with each other. Steve Martin had not been in any major motion picture or TV show lately, and judging from how he did here, you'd wonder why he was not so active as an actor anymore. Diane Keaton had that effusive motherly optimism and excitement about her, as delightful as ever. Kimberly Williams was as beautiful as ever at 49, though in contrast, George Newbern now looked much older than their 6-year age difference.

Kieran Culkin was only 9 years old in the first Father of the Bride, and 13 in the second. It was in his character of Matty that we see how 25 years had passed between the last movie and this special online show. There would be a flashback montage narrated by Steve Martin in the latter minutes which was an emotional highlight for fans of the series. Of course, the cast reunion would not be complete without an appearance of Martin Short as the still-flamboyant Franck, who was still as annoying as ever with that outlandish accent of his.  

The new members of the cast, Florence Pugh and Ben Platt, fit right in comfortably as youngest Banks with their bubbly personalities. From the dialogue, Platt's Georgie was a musician, and of course, he would wow us with his talent before this show ended. The glamorous Alexandra Shipp did not look at all like a post-duty doctor on her Zoom screen. She looked positively radiant in her pink sweater in that nice hotel room where she was supposed to be on isolation. Veteran actor Robert de Niro would make a surprise appearance as James, the titular father of the bride in this installment.

Nancy Meyer, co-writer from the first two films, returned to both write and direct this special reunion short film, and she was still very much in tune with the spirit of the original series, despite the multiple pandemic references that pepper the script in this one. Now whether Netflix will make another full-length feature with this cast, that remains to be seen. But with the 2M views of this nostalgic and heartwarming YouTube video, they sure whet up public interest in the Banks family all over again. 7/10. 


Monday, September 28, 2020

Netflix: Review of RATCHED: Notorious Nursing

 September 28, 2020



We first met Nurse Mildred Ratched in Ken Kesey's acclaimed 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as the authoritative and antagonistic head nurse of a mental ward in a hospital. The novel, which was a description of and criticism over the state of psychiatric care in the US at that time, had Nurse Ratched as the symbol of the insidious effects of the various methods employed by ward administrators over their psychologically-troubled patients. 

The novel was adapted into a Broadway play in 1963. To prove its lasting appeal, this play had numerous stagings up to the latest in 2018, including a Tony-winning revival in 2001. There was a multi-awarded film version in 1973 which would only be the second of only three films to win the top five Oscar categories in the Academy Awards, namely Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Actress for Louise Fletcher for playing Nurse Ratched. 

In 1947, former military nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) drove over to Lucia State Hospital in Northern California to be employed in its staff. The mental health facility was headed by director Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and his head nurse Betty Bucket (Judy Davis). One of the high-profile patients confined there was Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) who had been arrested for the murder of four Catholic priests.

As Mildred proceeded with her secret plans at Lucia, Mildred got herself associated with other characters outside work, like sleazy inn manager Louise (Amanda Plummer), California Gov. George Willburn (Vincent D'Onofrio) and his press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), as well as the very wealthy, very vengeful socialite Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) and Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll), a hitman under her employ.

This 8-episode series was developed by the prolific Ryan Murphy, the creative genius behind such landmark TV shows like "Nip/Tuck", "Glee" and "American Horror Story," with concept created by Evan Romansky. Just earlier this year, Murphy released "Hollywood" which was a nostalgic but flawed look-back at the film actors and studios post-World War II. Since "Ratched" was set in the same era, the glamorous style of that previous series blended fluidly into this look of this one.The inclusive race and LGBTQ aspects are also present here. 

The casting of Jon Jon Briones in the key role of Dr. Hanover is a big deal for Filipino viewers. Briones first got into the public consciousness when he made it into the ensemble of the original run of Ms. Saigon in London in 1989. He would eventually get to play the Engineer, even earning an Olivier nomination in the 2014 revival run of "Ms. Saigon" on the West End. It was very surprising to see an American series with a Filipino as a major character. He seemed so out of place at first, but with his quirky portrayal in subsequent episodes, Briones eventually convinced us that Dr. Hanover belonged in that crazy world. 

Sarah Paulson had strong screen presence in her skillful portrayal of the complex title character, whom you can't really fully figure out until tells us herself in Episode 7. We get to see a flashback of Ratched's traumatic back story in Episode 6, told with the help of puppets. However, those who have seen Louise Fletcher's Ratched in the 1973 film may find Sarah Paulson's Ratched unconnected. Judy Davis portrayed Nurse Bucket delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Sophie Okonedo's multi-nuanced portrayal of dissociative patient Charlotte Webb is also noteworthy.

There was a lot of shock value in Dr. Hanover's outlandish experimental therapeutic approaches. Those absurd lobotomy scenes, done through the temples or through the orbits, only under sedation (!), were the scenes that really made me squirm. On the other hand, there are also disgusting scenes graphically depicting murders, dismemberment or torture --  but these are not surprising anymore given the level of violence in TV shows these days. I appreciated the Hitchcockian noir aspects in both camera work and musical score here. It would be interesting to see how they would sustain the shock factor in the second season which was clearly indicated at the ending.

Right off the bat, there were elegant period production design, costumes, make-up and hairstyles to bring us back to the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The clothes of Paulson and Stone were particularly noteworthy as was the interior design of the Lucia Hospital. It is this flashy and fabulous visual style that made this series very compelling to watch. The development of Mildred's story may eventually not turn out exactly as we were expecting, especially given the strong premise of the pilot episode. However, the visual impact was always on point, and that look seemed to be priority over logic in storytelling.  7/10



Friday, September 25, 2020

HBO Go: Review of THE GARDEN OF ETERNAL MISTS: Nuggets of Nippon

September 25, 2020




As they did in various areas in Southeast Asia during World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army caused widespread damage, rape and murder in British-occupied Malaya. Teoh Yun Ling (Sinje Lee) and her younger sister Yun Hong (Serene Lim) were among the women held in captivity in an interment camp in the mountains called Golden Lily. Yun Ling worked in the mines, as Yun Hong suffered the fate of a comfort woman. After surviving the war, Yun Ling later worked as a member of the tribunal who tried and executed Japanese war criminals.

At that time, Yun Ling wanted to pay respect to her sister's memory by fulfilling her promise to create the Japanese garden Yun Hong designed. Yun Ling sought the expertise of Nakamura Aritomo (Hiroshi Abe), a Japanese expat who used to be the gardener of the Emperor of Japan before the war. Aritomo declined her offer, but instead suggested that she work for him as an apprentice so that she would gain the knowhow and skills to make her sister's garden herself. Their months together working on a garden led to a more intimate relationship between them.

Fast forward to 25 years or so later, Yun Ling (Sylvia Chang) was now a senior judge awaiting appointment into the Federal Court. However, this promotion was being held in abeyance because of her past relationship with with Aritomo, who was being alleged to be a Japanese spy. To seek evidence to clear Aritomo and secure her position, Yun Ling revisted Cameron Highlands, the estate of her old friend Frederick Gemmell (Julian Sands), son of the late Maximus Gemmell (John Hannah), the man who first introduced her to Aritomo back in 1951.

The two actresses who played Yun Ling as an angry young woman and as an esteemed elder lady were both very good in their portrayal.  Sinje Lee was may have a wide-eyed gamine look about her, but she played young Yun Ling with simmering vindictiveness and burning passion. Nothing fazed this woman, not a slave-driver master nor a fanatical communist -- she always stood solidly on her ground. With her calm demeanor and distinguished carriage, veteran actress Sylvia Chang possessed the distinguished air expected of a Federal Court candidate who fully knew what she wanted for herself. 

Hiroshi Abe gave Aritomo an air of mystery as he spoke with confounding yet oddly seductive lines about the unique philosophies of gardens, tattoos and patriotism according to the Japanese. Abe had a screen presence and voice which convinced us of Yun Ling's fascination with him despite her hate for everything Japanese at that point in her life. It was good to see Julian Sands onscreen again as the older Frederick as he entertained the older Yun Ling who came to visit, but clearly he had lost most of his "The Room with a View" charm. 

The pacing of the film was deliberately slowed down by director Tom Lin Shu-yu to try to create an atmosphere of Japanese mysticism. Despite this very laidback approach (which some viewers may not appreciate), the story telling remained compelling as the Yun Ling's arc went from the war years, to the post-war years in Aritomo's garden and later as a senior citizen. There were some details which may be a little confusing, but do not really diminish the quality of the film. The cinematography and musical score, particularly the art direction and make-up all deserve citations. 7/10. 


Thursday, September 24, 2020

iflix: Review of BAD GENIUS THE SERIES: Stretching the Story

 September 23, 2020



In 2017, the highest-grossing movie in Thailand was a film about cheating in school entitled "Bad Genius" (MY REVIEW). It was also the biggest Thai film all over Southeast Asia, plus Taiwan and China. This film was one of the rare Thai films to be shown in local cinemas and was also very popular here. The direction, editing and the musical score made it as exciting as any crime caper film. I liked the over-the-top cheating hi-jinks the film used to deliver its message for academic integrity. 

In August this year, a new TV series based on this film "Bad Genius" was released, with new director Pat Boonnitipat, and an all-new cast of attractive and charismatic young actors. Presently, all 12 episodes are already available to watch FOR FREE on the iflix platform. I was curious how this TV series was going to spin this tale of cheating in school and standardized exams, so I decided to watch this series despite my apprehension about the number of episodes. At first glance, 12 episodes seems too long to expand the story of the original movie which may mean that the creators had more surprises up their sleeves.

Lynn (June Plearnpichaya Komalarajun) was a genius student on scholarship in a prestigious high school. Her friend Grace (Sawanya Paisarnpayak) needed to pass her exam very badly to be accepted into the school play, so Lynn decided to pass her the answers to help her. Grace's rich boyfriend Pat (Ice Paris Intarakomalyasut) got the idea of paying Lynn cash to help him as well in his exams, and he later extends the offer to his other friends with low grades like him. The other genius student of the school is Bank (Jaonaay Jinjett Wattanasin) liked Lynn, but he was getting suspicious about her involvement in this cheating scheme.

From Episode 1, the story unfolded almost exactly like story of the movie, but some extra personal details put in to prolong the drama a little more. Grace was given the angle of being an aspiring actress for various school plays but can't seem to bag the lead role despite her talent. Pat was a scion of a hotel magnate Ake (Ruengrit McIntosh) who was very frustrated about his son's academic mediocrity. Lynn had a mother Wan (Rasee Wacharapolmek) who abandoned her husband Vit (Saksit Tangthong) and daughter to pursue her study in Australia, and eventually remarried there as well. Bank's mother (Ratchanok Sangchuto) was given a debilitating spine condition which was a source of his desperation for money.

The cheating techniques ranged from passing an eraser in the shoe to hand signals representing certain letters timed to the hands of the clock. There was one particularly elaborate cheating style which even involved the sound system of the school so students in different rooms can get in on Lynn's coaching. Later, they would upgrade to a higher level of exam cheating as they try to outwit the STIC international exam system by taking advantage of the time difference between Sydney and Bangkok. Like the movie, the suspense and tension of these cheating scenes was created by tight editing and foreboding music.

By Episode 10 though, the story already went beyond the movie version. They added one even more elaborate mass cheating plot for the national GAT/PAT university entrance exams where they stand to earn several million baht from more than 800 clients. This plan was just mentioned at the end of the movie, and I did not like already. When they actually pushed through with this outlandish and overtly criminal undertaking, the more I did not like what I was watching. For high school students to come up with something as heinous as this was totally absurd, even if they were corrupt geniuses. 

Overall, this series did not really add anything new to the story or the message of the original movie. While I appreciate the efforts of the cast and crew, I really did not see a good reason for the film to be remade into a series like this at all, especially since that first film was just a big hit only three years ago. 6/10. 


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Netflix: Review of CRIMINAL UK 1 and 2: Intense Investigative Interrogations

 September 22, 2020



I decided to watch this series without knowing what it was about. I thought it was going to be another typical crime drama series that we are familiar with. However, from the very first episode it was clearly apparent that this was far from being typical. We never see the crime being committed. We never see policemen at the scene of the crime. We do not see scenes with the forensic pathologist with a dead body in the morgue. 

The whole series was just set in one place, practically all in one room -- the room where investigative detectives interview suspects to a crime and determine their guilt or innocence. This interview room used as their main set was very spacious with stylishly paneled walls and ceiling. There a central table with seats for the detectives on one side and the suspect with their solicitor on the other. 

On the inner wall, there is a mirror which was actually a glass through which other detectives can view the interview in an adjoining observation room. In that second room, this one-way mirror was bordered by a frame of red light that looked very dramatic on screen. There is also intense discussions going on in this room which also had a big impact for the interview going on in the main room. 

Aside from these two rooms, we only see the corridor outside and the stairwell, as far as the elevator. There was a vending machine in that small lobby. In the short introductions and epilogues before and after the interviews, it was only then do we get some insights into the personal lives of these investigators, which is not really much. This was not the point of the show, but they serve as a connection of sorts between episodes. 

The cast members who were both in Seasons 1 and 2 are as follows: Katherine Kelly (as Detective Chief Inspector Natalie Hobbs), Lee Ingleby (as Detective Inspector Tony Myerscough), Rochenda Sandall (as Detective Constable Vanessa Warren), and Shubham Saraf (as Detective Constable Kyle Petit). Mark Stanley played a prominent role in Season 1 as Detective Constable Hugo Duffy, but would only reappear in Episode 4 of Season 2. Nicholas Pinnock was a strong presence as Detective Inspector Paul Ottager in Season 1, but was just mentioned by name in Season 2. 

However, it is the big name guest actors playing the accused, usually against the character type we know them for. Season 1 had David Tennant (The Doctor on "Doctor Who") playing a doctor accused of murdering his step-daughter; and Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter of "Captain America") as a woman who was accused for poisoning her brother-in-law. Season 2 had Sophie Okenedo as a housewife whose husband had been accused of killing young men; Kit Harrison (Jon Snow of "Game of Thrones") as a conceited boss accused on rape; and Kunal Nayyar (Raj on "Big Bang Theory") a convicted killer accused of a second murder.

It is fascinating how the truth is arrived at after 40 minutes or so of pure talk. Aside from acting, this was as much an achievement in how the director Jim Field Smith was able to intsruct his film editor and musical scorer to create an atmosphere of nail-biting suspense that led to unpredictable endings. Some times the jumps in luck and logic in George Kay's scripts may be too uncanny to be realistic, but the execution was just so classy and smart, so we stay riveted to the very end. 8/10. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Netflix: Review of ENOLA HOLMES: Sherlock's Sleuthing Sister

 September 22, 2020



Sherlock Holmes is one of the world's most famous fictional detectives. Countless spin-off novels about his side characters have come out. This new Netflix film was adapted on one such lateral spinoff from the original Arthur Conan Doyle character -- a young adult series written by Nancy Springer. These books introduced us to two women in Sherlock's life whom his followers have never heard of before -- his mother Eudoria and especially, his much younger sister Enola. 

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) was the teenage younger sister of famed detective Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) who was 20 years her senior. She grew up only with her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) around, who taught her about various knowhow and skills deemed necessary for her development. On the morning of her 16th birthday, Enola woke up to discover that her mother had left her all alone, leaving only a gift of codes and puzzles, which Enola decided to be clues to her mother's whereabouts.

Sherlock and eldest brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) came home to help Enola following their mother's disappearance. The brothers wanted to enroll his "uneducated" sister in his friend Miss Harrison's (Fiona Shaw) finishing school for young ladies. When she found out about this plan, Enola dressed up like a boy and headed to London to look for her mother as well. On the train, she met young Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge) who had also run away from his home, and had a hired killer wearing a bowler hat Linthorn (Burn Gorman) on his tail. 

With a spunky Millie Bobby Brown in the title role, this whole film rode on her energetic and spirited portrayal of Enola Holmes and she really gave it her all. This protagonist broke the fourth wall to tell the audience all her opinions and plans, something which will definitely appeal a lot to her younger viewers. The way Brown played her, this precocious teen came across as winsome and delightful even for the most jaded viewer, even as she was extremely lucky. We root for her all the way as she outwits her snooty brothers with her own style of sleuthing, and could even be one step ahead of her esteemed brother Sherlock.

This was a youth-oriented spin-off and the humor and action is clearly targeted to the young adult demographic. Of course, there was a palpable feminist vein underlying the whole story, not only because of Enola's independent streak, but also with Eudoria's all-female posse of political activists, which includes martial arts instructor Edith (Susie Wokoma). Young female viewers will find the interactions between Enola and Tewksbury cute and amusing. 

I wished that there would've more scenes between Enola and Sherlock, but they maybe they may be reserving these for Part 2, which am I certainly looking forward to. 8/10. 

YouTube: Review of THIS IS PARIS: Harrowed Heiress

September 22, 2020


The name of Paris Hilton erupted into mainstream consciousness in 2003 for two reasons. That was the year when her Fox reality show "A Simple Life" where she debuted her squeaky-voiced dumb blonde persona as she tried to live among average folk with her friend Nicole Richie. 2003 was also the year when a scandalous 2001 sex tape with her then-boyfriend Rich Salomon was leaked to the public further fueling her notoriety. 

Paris was famous for being a celebrity only by living an ostentatious lifestyle from her inherited wealth, not really for any particular talent. In the early days of social media, she was the original "influencer" as her choices in fashion and make-up would become popular trends. However, she had a mind for business and took full advantage of her glamorous brand, developing this into successful signature brands in fashion, scents and boutiques. 

She already had an autobiography entitled "Confessions of an Heiress" published as early as 2004. She had already been the subject of documentaries talking about her successes and struggles, like "Paris, Not France" (2008) and "The American Meme" (2018). However, despite everything that has been said and written about her, it turned out that Paris still had a part of her life that she never shared publicly, until now. Last September 14, 2020, Paris Hilton released the documentary "This is Paris" for free on her YouTube channel. 

This documentary started with the parts of Paris's life which we were already familiar with. She talked about her full-packed schedule as an international businesswoman, owning 19 product lines and 50 boutiques all over the world. However, early in her narrative she already gave hints that there was a dark secret she was about to reveal about herself that she had never talked about before. 

Before that revelation, the director built up the suspense with animated renditions of the vivid nightmares Paris would always have about two men running after her. She would talk about these terrifying nightmares in between real-life drama about her relationships with men, like her called-off engagement to fiance Chris Zylka or the stressful tiff with boyfriend Aleks Novakovic right before her big DJ gig at Tomorrowland 2019. The main meat (the big reveal) was only served in the final 30 minutes of this 1 hour-45 minute documentary. 

Paris alleged that she had suffered 11-months of physical and emotional abuse at a boarding school for troubled teens when she was 16 years old. This was a repressed memory that she never talked about with anyone, even those closest to her, including her sister Nicky (currently married to a Rothschild scion) nor her mother Kathy. Her testimony was supported by her fellow classmates from that same school, who all testified to the trust issues and post-traumatic stress disorder they were all going through since then. They were inviting fellow "survivors" to come forward in their initiative called Breaking Code Silence. 

The sober Paris we meet in these final 30 minutes was a total contrast from the Paris we thought we knew, even the Paris we see in the first hour of this film. She had a deeper voice and a more sensible air around her. We actually felt the burden lifted off her shoulders as she finally let go of a secret that had haunted her for several years. Her traumatic stay in that school may have actually caused her to rebel even more -- leading to the shocking behaviors which made her notorious celebrity that she was. 

It seems she had turned a major leaf in her colorful life with this dramatic confession at age 39, a reinvention of sorts. I guess we can now look forward to a more serious and mature Paris Hilton from now on. While she still needs to keep up the lavish high-end style of her brand, here's hoping that she could genuinely get through this deep emotional turmoil and finally live the normal life she had always longed for (as she works to reach her $1B goal). 6/10. 

*******

You can watch "THIS IS PARIS" on this LINK.



Sunday, September 20, 2020

ETC: Review fo EVERYWHERE I GO: Arguing Architects Attract

September 20, 2020



Dizi (Turkish for "sweeping epic") is the word used to refer to Turkish TV drama series, since they began in the 1980s.  At present, Turkey is one of the leading producers of TV drama series for export. Currently, Turkey had even overtaken Mexico, the source of famous TV soap operas like "Marimar," which was the first Filipino-dubbed foreign soap opera on local TV in the mid-1990s. Despite this status of Turkey in the industry, there has yet to be a Turkish dizi on local TV, until now. 

ETC Channel began operations in 2004 as a free TV channel for lifestyle and reality shows, targeting mainly the female demographic. This year, ETC took the major plunge to acquire three popular recent Turkish dizis and have them dubbed into Filipino for the Filipino TV audience. These are: "Endless Love" (2015), "Hayat" (2016) and this one "Everywhere I Go" (2019) which is the maiden offering of ETCerye, the nightly prime-time program block of the ETC Channel. 

"Everywhere I Go" is a story of two architects. Demir Erendil (Furkan Andic) was a serious, no-nonsense chap, very traditional in his taste, very formal in his work ethics. In total contrast, Selin Sever (Aybüke Pusat) was a lively, friendly chatterbox, trendy in style and informal at work. One day, Demir came home from after working in Japan, and found that Selin was living in his house. It turned out that they each bought one-half of that house from two sisters, Selin from Tita Leyla (Ayse Tunaboylu) and Demir from Tita Lucie (Binnur Serbetçioglu). 

Later that same day, Selin went to work at her office in the architectural firm called Artemim. She was in for the shock of her life when she found out that her new nemesis Demir was actually taking over Artemim, and not their owner's son Isaac (Ali Yagci), who was her friend. During his first staff meeting, Demir immediately imposed his strict set of rules over everybody. This included a provision that there should be no romance in the workplace, which affected Selin's newly-engaged co-workers, Bora (Ali Barkin) and Merve (Deniz Isin).


All of this situational set-up all happened within the very busy first episodes of the series. It was fun to see familiar rom-com tropes and characters in this series from a country whose Eurasian culture we are not entirely familiar with. Most of the foreign drama series we watched before are from Mexico (with whom we share historical ties being colonies of Spain) or from neighboring Asian countries, like Korea, Japan, China or Thailand (with whose cultures we share more or less similar values). 

Most of the time, the only side of Istanbul we see in movies before was Sultanahmet or the historical Old City -- the side with Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace or the Grand Bazaar. This series is set on the other side of the Bosphorus Strait, with the progressive and stylish contemporary architecture and city landscape. It was interesting to see modern Istanbul for a change, and see the lively millennial characters of this series in their carefree fashion and habits. 

Turkey has the reputation of having some of the most good-looking people in the world, but we have not really seen many of them on our side of the world. The attractive actors and actresses in this series will definitely fit in anyone's definition of beautiful or handsome. Aybüke Pusat was feisty and headstrong as Selin, as her life suddenly became topsy-turvy. Furkan Andic was very imposing as the young boss Demir in the initial episodes but we expect to see more facets to his personality in the next episodes. Ali Yagci had strong screen presence in his few scenes as Isaac, a character who was still quite mysterious at this point.

Based on the first episodes, "Everything I Go" promises to be a light-hearted and very engaging rom-com involving some very spirited characters. The two lead actors have a strong chemistry together even if they were still supposed to be antagonistic to each other at the start. The first episodes seem so full of events already, yet there are many more episodes ahead. I guess we can expect a lot of more delightful twists and turns along the way for this complicated story developing between Selin and Demir, and their friends. 

**********

"Everywhere I Go" had a three episode debut special last September 19, 2020 at 8 pm. Regular showing begins on September 21, 2020, to be shown from Monday to Friday at 8 pm. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Netflix: Review of GASPING FOR AIR, SLEEPLESS, DISTANCE: Anxious Atmospheres

 September 4, 2020

GASPING FOR AIR

Written and Directed by: Carlo Obispo

Luis and Lulu are preteen siblings who lived on a remote island fishing village. After a barrio singing contest, Lulu was approached by a talent scout from the city who promised her a bright future in show business. Because her parents never supported her dreams to be a singer, Lulu decided to join the scout. However, when there was eventually no news from her, Luis boldly went to the city to look for his sister and convince her to come home with him.

This film was a dark piece about the trafficking of children in the sex industry. Unsettling and disturbing, it was not meant to be a comfortable watch. Carlos Dala (age 16) and Barbara Miguel (age 12) play the unfortunate siblings. They both looked very much like real innocent kids from the province, so watching the fates of their characters unfold onscreen with such realism was heartbreaking. As expected, Therese Malvar stole her scenes as the perky junior "madam" Reyna. 

This film (with its original title "1-2-3") was the opening film of the 2016 Cinemalaya filmfest, and has been shown in several international festivals. It performed best at the North Virginia International Film and Music Festival in 2018 where it won awards for best director (Obispo), actor (Dala), cinematography (Carlo Mendoza) and editing (Thop Nazareno). At the ASEAN International filmfest, Miguel won the Best Supporting Actress award, proving that her Best Actress award for "Nuwebe" (2013) at the Harlem International filmfest was no fluke. 6/10.


SLEEPLESS

Directed by: Prime Cruz

Written by: Jen Chuaunsu.

Gem (Glaiza de Castro) has been a high-performing call center agent for three years, but was going nowhere in her job. Since she came from a well-connected family, her mom would rather that Gem had a better job. However, Gem preferred to stay put, claiming she was happy where she was. She was content to be the girlfriend of a rich but married businessman Vince, who brought her to fancy dinners and art museums. 

Barry (Dominic Roco, who won the Best Actor award for this role at QCinema 2015) was a newcomer to cell center gig, and was assigned to be trained by Gem. By sheer coincidence, the two also lived in the same apartment building. At first, they bonded over midnight snacks in the Mini-Stop and skateboarding on the streets. As they became close friends, Barry eventually shared with Gem his story about his estranged son taken away by his ex. 

This was a seemingly rambling film without a definite plot about two call-center agents who were both insomniacs. It was just one random conversation after another between a sleepless Gem and Barry from which we learn something more about their respective personalities and perspectives in life, but no clear story line to follow. I guess we just hold on to see whether Gem and Barry (charmingly played by de Castro and Roco), as they get to know each other better and closer, actually wind up as lovers or not in the end. Some viewers may not be that patient to care and find out. 6/10. 


DISTANCE

Director: Perci M. Intalan

Writer: Keavy Eunice Vicente 

Liza (Iza Calzado) has been living abroad, away from the family she abandoned, for five years now. One day, her husband Anton (Nonie Buencamino) came to bring her back home. Her homecoming was filled with tension as both her daughters both gave her a cold tentative welcome. Over the next days, younger child Therese (Alessandra Malonzo) began slowly reconnecting with Liza. However, elder child Karla (Therese Malvar) got more and more spiteful and angry against her mother, until one night, she could not hold things in anymore. 

Therese Malvar won a Best Supporting Actress award at the Cinemalaya film fest 2018 for her performance as Karla (as well as for her portrayal of street child Linda in "School Service"). She was the only one who was given an explosive moment in this film. Veteran actors Calzado and Buencamino were both masters of restraint in their roles as a couple trying to patch their family back together. In contrast, everyone else from the household help to their concerned sisters tend to come across as too noisy.

As hinted in its elegant poster, this was a very beautifully shot film with picture-perfect scenes. Too bad it did not win the cinematography prize, which was won by another beautifully shot film "Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang Dapithapon". The pace of Director Intalan in telling his story was very slow and deliberate, allowing the story to unfold itself with as much painful tension that it can carry. Absolute silence was a major sound "effect" throughout the film as it emphasized the simmering uneasiness of the atmosphere pervasive in that house ever since Liz came home. The ending was best choice for a story like this. 7/10. 


Netflix: Review of THE SOCIAL DILEMMA: The Algorithm is the Antagonist?

 September 17, 2020



This American documentary was premiered earlier this year in the Sundance film festival, and has just been released on Netflix for mass distribution. I had an inkling that this will be talking about social media, so I was apprehensive about what it was going to tell me. This modern phenomenon had definitely taken a strong foothold in human life these days, and it is now difficult to imagine a world without it. Could these apps that were initially conceived with the intention of connecting people be the same ones to tear people apart?

The first few scenes were spent introducing the various personalities that they filmmakers were going to interview in the course of this film. They were all former technicians and employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., who have now decided to step forward to share what they knew about the very apps they helped to develop, and to warn us about the insidious danger they are currently inflicting on human society. These "business models" have gone way beyond their original motives.

The speakers shows us how we are being manipulated by these social media apps by taking note of our likes and dislikes based on what we click in these apps. Once you express interest in an item, your feed will be inundated by ads about this item and similar products and services. Once you watch one video on Facebook or YouTube, they will then begin to recommend you to watch more videos related to that video. We get to feel this unwelcome intrusion more and more these days -- it is actually too obvious to ignore now.

To further drive home their point, director Jeff Orlowski used a fictitious family being torn apart by addiction to social media. They showed that it was usually the teenagers and children who were at most risk for this brainwashing. Once, when the mother tried to keep all their phones in a locked container for just an hour at dinner, the youngest daughter could not even hold off for that long -- even using a hammer to get her phone out. We see the negative influenced of filtered standards of beauty and the ego-boosting value of likes and comments.

They personified the algorithm into three men who were arguing how to direct the decisions made by the teenage son. They observed how his interest moved on from his sports and his crush to his current obsession about conspiracy theory videos. They then show how watching these videos like a zombie, causing him to be withdrawn from his usual routines and even getting actively involved in such movements in reality. These may seem over-the-top dramatizations, but they may not be as far-fetched as we think. 

The speakers try to convince us that these apps are actually mining our minds for our opinions and hence will be able to hold sway our future decisions. The feeds we see on our social media platforms present us the views we want to see -- our personalized versions of the truth. They admit that there is no feasible way to weed fake news out. They admit that we are now entering that phase when humans cannot agree on what is the actual truth anymore. It seems that AI cannot solve problems as human as this. They expressed that these apps are threatening the very existence of human society as we know it. 

One social psychologist from Harvard compared these social media apps to outlawed practices (like slavery) which undermine democracy and freedom. These former executives admit that they do not allow their children to have social media apps. They exhort us to shut off all notifications on our phones, as we should not be held hostage to these seemingly innocuous beeps. They would later exhort us to make that big leap of actually uninstalling social media on our phones altogether. So we have learned all the red flags and heard all the warnings, so the next move is now up to us. Are we ready for pulling out that plug? 9/10. 


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Netflix: Review of JULIE AND THE PHANTOMS: Singing with Spirits

 September 16, 2020



Julie Molina (Madison Reyes) lost interest in music since her mother died one year ago, even if it meant losing her slot in her school's music program. One day, three friendly young ghosts of boy-band musicians appeared before Julie in her mom's studio. Ordinarily, only Julie can see and talk to the boys. However, when Julie performed songs with the boys as her band, everybody can see them like holograms. The boys helped Julie back into her musical groove, as Julie helped the boys with their unfinished business. 

The three boys were members of a 1995 pop rock band called Sunset Curve who died on the night that they were supposed to debut on the stage of the Orpheum Theater. The circumstances of their death were kept light, avoiding excess morbidity. Luke (Charlie Gillespie) was the main songwriter and lead singer and guitarist. Reggie (Jeremy Shada) played bass guitar, while Alex (Owen Joyner) played the drums. They had a fourth member, rhythm guitarist Bobby, who did not die, now going by the name Trevor Wilson (Steve Bacic).

Julie lived with her supportive father Ray (Carlos Molina) and perky younger brother Carlos (Sonny Bustamante), with their mom's busybody sister, Aunt Victoria, occasionally barging in. Julie best friend at school was Flynn (Jadah Marie), still of uncertain musical talent as of now. Julie's crush was Nick (Sacha Carlson), who just so happened to be the boyfriend of her nemesis, mean girl Carrie (Savannah Mae). Meanwhile, Alex met up with a new ghost friend, skater boy Willie (Booboo Stewart) who introduced the boys to ghost celebrity entertainer Caleb Covington (Cheyenne Jackson).

15-year old lead star Madison Reyes has a distinctive singing voice with a soaring range. Acting-wise, she is still obviously awkward in some scenes, as this was her very first acting job. Gillespie is a typical teen leading man type with magnetic screen presence and a strong singing voice to boot. Shada and Joyner were there more for the comedy. Joyner's Alex was given the LGBT aspect (integrated in most scripts now) with his relationship with Stewart's Willie. Carlson's Nick was mostly a bland boy-next-door type now, but he promises to be more flamboyant in Season 2.

This was a very lighthearted teenage musical comedy based on a Brazilian television series "Julie e os Fantasmas" aired on Nickelodeon from 2011-2012. But this Hollywood version had Kenny Ortega as producer and director. Ortega was the driving force behind the "High School Musical" series, and you can feel a lot of that juggernaut here when it came to the sound and overall execution of the song numbers. Some can be cringy and campy, like those song numbers of Carrie and Caleb. But those emotional songs of Julie ("Wake Up") and Luke ("Unsaid Emily") about their mothers were the best songs for me. 7/10. 


Netflix: Review of THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME: Harrowing as Hell

September 12, 2020




This dark complex film interwove the stories of a series of depraved individuals who lived in a remote corner in the backwoods of the American Midwest, from Cook County, West Virginia to Knockemstiff, Ohio. These interconnected stories were happening for about 20 years, from after World War 2 to 1965. The screenplay was adapted by director Antonio Campos (with co-writer Paolo Campos) from the acclaimed debut novel by Donald Ray Pollock. 

Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) was a disturbed soldier who just came home from the war. When his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) fell ill, he developed a dark obsession with religion and sacrifices. Photographer Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) would meet his muse and partner-in-crime, Sandy (Riley Keough), the sister of the inept sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan). Fast forward to 1965, Willard's son Arvin (Tom Holland) was now a young man very protective of his adopted sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) in a town where a charismatic new preacher, Rev. Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), held sway over the ladies.

The cast was a gathering of A-list actors, and we definitely get what we expect. Tom Holland gives a gritty yet restrained portrayal of Arvin, a man who had experienced the devil in his life from his childhood to his young adulthood. On the other hand, Sebastian Stan and Robert Pattinson give more florid portrayals of their respective corrupt characters, in contrast with Holland's introspection. Bill Skarsgård had the internal hell Willard visible in his eyes. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough had the deceptive charm required of perverted serial killers. 

Even the character actors around these bigger names give memorably vivid performances in their shorter roles. Harry Melling was convincing as the deluded preacher Roy Laferty for whom spiders were the proof of his salvation, while Pokey LaFarge played his crippled cousin Theodore. Mia Wasikowska was homely and innocent Helen Hatton, who never would have expected her fate after she married Roy and gave birth to Lenora. Kristin Griffith was a comforting presence as Willard's mom and Arvin's grandmother. Tim Blake Nelson only had a couple of scenes as the gas station manager, but still managed to make a mark. 

The way this film was directed by Campos, you go into this world without knowing exactly where it was going to take you. You meet a series of mysterious characters as the stories went back and forth in time, not knowing exactly how they connect to each other. An unnamed narrator (author Donald Ray Pollack himself) introduced and linked the scene together. Despite how unsettling these situations we were witnessing, we still get drawn into these disturbing and disgusting acts these characters did. This was an uncomfortable and bleak 138-minute journey, with unspeakable evils strewn the way. The difficulties of adapting a complex novel into a single film were apparent, but it was a very compelling ride for most of the way. 8/10. 


Monday, September 14, 2020

Netflix: Review of CUTIES: Provocatively Precocious

 September 12, 2020



Amy (Fathia Youssouf) was an 11 year-old immigrant girl from Senegal now living in Paris. She lived with her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and her two younger brothers. They had an old religious Aunt (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who was a stickler for traditions and ceremonials. Her father was going to bring a new bride home with him to live in their apartment, and this was causing a lot of stress in their family. 

At school, Amy was attracted to join a rebellious clique of young girls her age, namely Angie (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), Coumba (Esther Gohourou), Jess (Ilanah Cami-Goursolas) and Yasmine (Myriam Hamma). They enjoyed to dress up and dance in a sexy provocative style which was very mature for their age. When they learned of a local group dance contest, they were determined to join it and win it under the group name "Cuties."

The basic story was that of Amy being confused about the strict religious conditions in their house and the freedom enjoyed by her fellow girls in their school. The better Amy knew how bad these girls were, the more fascinated she was to be one of them. Amy would eventually lie and steal and hurt others to keep up with her mates. Later on, it was even Amy who taught them the sleaziest dance moves. Much later she went overboard by brazenly posted a photo of her nether regions online. Such was the disturbing "coming-of-age" we see in this film.

This film felt uncomfortable mainly because these were actual 11 year-old child actresses who did sexually-charged scenes, like entering a men's room to take a video of a boy inside, or attempting to seduce an older boy to get his mobile phone, or blowing up a condom to make a breast. Then, there was that final dance number with the girls bumping and grinding in skimpy outfits, with cameras positioned at the most unflattering angles. Honestly, I had to fast forward through these scenes as they were hard for me to take. 

As a parent of a daughter myself, it had always been objectionable for me to see little girls wearing skimpy clothes and twerking away on a TV variety show, or online on a Tiktok video. We know these things should not be tolerated, but sadly, they still do happen in real life. Sometimes, these are even encouraged by their own parents for monetary gain or social media popularity. This happens not only in liberal France, but even in the supposedly more conservative Catholic countries. This is indeed a legitimate cause for concern.

French-Senegalese writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré made this debut feature film of hers to make a statement against this objectification of young girls in organized religion vis a vis sexualization in the mass media. She even won a Best Director prize when she premiered it at the Sundance 2020. However, now that it is reaching a wider audience via Netflix, it is very ironic that her film is being perceived to be doing exactly what she was supposed to be fighting against. Her medium had clashed with her moral message. 4/10. 



Sunday, September 13, 2020

Review of TRAIN TO BUSAN 2: PENINSULA: Shabby as a Sequel

 September 13, 2020



"Train to Busan" was my #1 movie of 2016 overall, including both Hollywood and Filipino films. It was one of the rare films which I rated a 10/10. I ranked it above Marvel films that year like "Captain America: Civil War," "Doctor Strange" and "Deadpool." When I heard that they were coming up with a sequel to "Train" this year, this got me (and I am sure most of its legion of other fans) very excited what they will come up with to surpass (or at least match) the remarkable achievement of the first film. 

When the zombies overrun the entire Korean peninsula, some people managed to escape the scourge when they were able to get on board a ship bound to Hong Kong. Four years after these events, four Koreans, including ex-Marine captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), were chosen by a Hong Kong organization to return to Incheon to retrieve an abandoned truck which contained US$20 million in cold cash. 

Despite the hordes of zombies in Incheon, they were able to find the truck and drive off with it. However, they were ambushed by a crazed militia Unit 631, led by Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae). Two young girls, the skillful driver Jooni (Lee Re) and her younger sister Yu-jin (Le Ye-won), rescued Jung-soek and brought him back to meet their mom Min-jung (Lee Jung-yun) and grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). Chul-min was captured by the insane soldiers who made him join other prisoners in their gladiator games against zombies.

"Peninsula" was more of an action movie than a zombie movie. It was heavily influenced by Hollywood hi-energy action films, like the wild car chases of the "The Fast and the Furious" films, the dystopian madness of "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015) and even the fight-to-the-death games of "Running Man" (1987). The zombies hardly mattered here as they were only  easy fodder to be blown up by automatic weapons or run down by speeding vehicles. They tried to shoehorn an emotional ending, but sorry, it felt forced. It certainly did not have the emotional depth nor connection of "Train"'s heartbreaking conclusion. No one in this forgettable new cast could hold a candle to Gong Yu and his stellar company in "Train."

Aside from the zombies, there was nothing really to connect this film with the first "Train to Busan." There was no train here. There was no Busan here. There was no one from the original film that was in the cast now. This was practically a new film about zombies. I think they should not have even announced that this was a sequel to "Train" at all. That way, people will judge it on its own merits only, and not in comparison to the revered original. As a sequel though, "Peninsula" is clearly inferior compared to "Train," and did not deserve to have the original title attached to its title at all. 4/10. 


Saturday, September 12, 2020

HBO Go: Review of WE BARE BEARS: THE MOVIE: Ursine United

 September 12, 2020



I had never seen any episode of the "We Bare Bears" animated television series on Cartoon Network. I first saw these three cute little bears as lovable plush toys in a Korean merchandise store in a mall. So when I found out that there will be a movie featuring them this year, I was curious to see what their story was going to be like. However on a sentimental note, this movie was actually the swan song of this series created by Daniel Chong first aired in 2015.

The three bears Grizzly, Panda and Ice were racing all across San Francisco trying to reach the grand opening of a Canadian food truck selling poutines. However, along the way, they leave a trail of damaged goods and disgruntled people. That night, the bears also tried to make the ultimate viral video which caused a city-wide blackout. This led the people to mount a protest against the bears living in their community. Seeing that local police officer Murphy was too lenient on the bears, Wildlife Control Agent Trout took over with an iron fist.

This was the first time I met the bears and I see why their series had mass appeal. Aside from their cute appearances, they also had endearing personalities and aw-shucks charm that make the audience root for them despite the messes they get themselves into. Grizz is the oldest of the brothers, and is the most friendly and optimistic. Panda is the more anxious middle brother and was the most concerned about his cool image on social media. Ice is the skillful and strong youngest brother who only spoke in short phrases.

The artwork of the bears themselves may look simple, but the film had plenty of scenes with complex animation. The flight of the bears to Canada will bring them though a cornfield into a private rave party featuring celebrity animals who had been viral online, like Angry Kitty, Dramatic Cow, Painting Elephant, Jacked Kangaroo and Pizza Rat. Later on, they would engage Trout and his henchmen in an exciting high-speed car chase through a maze-like industrial complex. The grand climax will be a highly dramatic escape scene set in a wildlife reserve facility amidst a forest fire.  

This was quite a fun romp kids and kids at heart will enjoy. Amidst its light wholesome humor, you can pick up that there are some pretty serious social issues being tackled in this movie, such as tolerance of diversity and family separation. These reflect issues important to its creator Daniel Chong who had experienced alienation growing up as an Asian-American. The film did present difficulties for our three beloved bears, but they remained cheerfully hopeful and positive because they had each other. You will want a bear stack of your own. 7/10. 


Friday, September 11, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN: Boisterous Bloodbath

 September 11, 2020



"The Babysitter" was a comedy-horror film on Netflix in 2017. It was about that one harrowing  night when 12 year-old high school freshman Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) discovered that his gorgeous babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving) was the leader of a satanic blood cult involved in human sacrifice of innocents. While it received mixed ratings from critics that year, it steadily gained cult status among teenagers. The demand was enough for Netflix to come out with a sequel this year, bring the whole cast back for more gory fun.  

Two years after the events of the first film, no one still believed Cole and his wild story. His parents had him seen by a psychiatrist who gave him pills to deal with his delusions. When he found out about his parents' plan to transfer him to a high school for psychologically-disturbed youths, Cole decided to ditch school to go with his friend Melanie to a party at the lake. That night, Cole never could have imagined that he would encounter that very same satanic blood cult all over again.

The first "Babysitter" film had a limited setting, practically just one night all around the Johnson home. He had overprotective parents (Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino) who left him with a babysitter Bee when they left town. The only friend Cole had at school was Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind), daughter of their car-enthusiast neighbor Juan (Chris Wylde). That night, Bee had her high-school friends, namely: the shirtless jock Max (Robbie Amell), the busty cheerleader Allison (Bella Thorne), the cool black dude John (Andrew Bachelor), and the goth Asian chick Sonya (Hana Mae Lee) to perform satanic rites with her. 

Most of the cast have come back for seconds. Lewis's Cole and Lind's Melanie had literally grown up taller and better-looking since the last time we saw them. The same four guys from the first film (Max, Allison, John and Sonya) are also joining in the mix as undead souls who still wanted a second chance at a deal with the devil. The senior actors playing the parents are all here again, though role of Marino's foolish dad Archie gets expanded, as well as Wylde's annoying Juan. Even Nurse Big Carl (Carl McDowell) had more scenes now. Of course, the big question will be if Samara Weaving's Bee will be back. What do you think?

Together with Cole and Melanie at the lake were a new set of friends: Jimmy (Maximilien Acevedo), Diego (Juliocesar Chavez) and Boomboom (Jennifer Foster), who did nothing more than just joshing with each other. There was also the introduction of a new troubled girl in school Phoebe (Jenna Ortega) who had an obvious chip on her shoulder from the very first time she was introduced to Cole's class. She mysteriously turned up at the same lakeside party, but left on her own personal mission on a jetski the moment she arrived.

Those who enjoyed the first film will definitely enjoy this sequel, especially seeing the cast all together again. The setting had been upgraded to more picturesque rustic locations, including a cabin in the woods where all the bloody mayhem main event will transpire. There would be more arms and necks being maimed, stabbed, or severed, with the expected fountain of blood erupting out of the stumps. All of this graphic and gory violence were all done in the spirit of fun, juvenile, wacky "comedy" -- so if you dig this kind of dark humor, then you won't be disappointed with this one.  6/10. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Netflix: Review of #ALIVE: Surviving the Slaughter

September 9, 2020



I really have to give it to the Koreans and how creatively they can spin a story, even for a very specific horror theme like zombies. Of course, first one that comes to mind is "Train to Busan" (2016), my #1 overall film that year. It had an animated prequel "Seoul Station" (2016), and a sequel "Peninsula" (2020) There had been a couple of projects which brought the zombies to a medieval context during the Joseon period, the film "Rampant" (2018) and the Netflix series "Kingdom" (2019). Now, there is this new one that recently debuted on Netflix, "#Alive." 

Oh Jun-u (Yoo Ah-in) was a young man addicted to online gaming. One day, as he was about to play with his friends, they tell him to check on the news. Apparently there was a sudden wave of "infected" people who were running around Seoul, aggressively attacking hapless victims and feeding on them. When these zombies have reached and overrun his condominium building, Jun-u kept himself safe by locking himself in, killing off the occasional zombie he encountered. 

However after one month, when things got really desperate and he was attempting to end it all, suddenly he was distracted by a red light from a laser pointer. It was only then that he realized that there was another survivor like him, a young woman named Kim Yu-bin (Park Shin-hye), likewise trapped in her condo on the building across the courtyard from his own. The two eventually found a way to communicate with each other and help each other continue surviving the zombie onslaught. 

Unlike the other zombie films mentioned earlier, there was practically only one location for this film, which was just in and around the Jun-u's condominium complex. We only see his own unit primarily, but later there would be times when he would venture outside into the corridors and even the parking lot in futile attempts to escape. Later we would also be seeing Yu-bin's condo unit, but still mostly also from Jun-u's point of view. It was this very claustrophobic setting that elevated the suspense of this thriller. 

There may be a lot of plot holes and lapses in logic which will arise if you think too hard about certain inconsistencies regarding utilities like water, electricity, internet, telephone signals, or about the decisions made by the protagonists. Case in point, more than a month has passed by, and Jun-u's short-cropped, platinum-blonde hairstyle remained basically unchanged in length and color throughout. Advise is, just let these little details slide, don't let them bother you and just enjoy the nail-biting tension of the ride. 6/10.


Monday, September 7, 2020

Review of MULAN (2020): Questionable Qi

 September 7, 2020



This version of 'Mulan" is another one of Disney's recent series of converting their 2D animated classics into live action films. In the last five years, we've seen "Cinderella" (2015), "The Jungle Book" (2016), "Beauty and the Beast" (2017), and the trifecta it offered last year 2019, namely "Dumbo," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King." So far, these live-action versions, technically advanced as they may be, generally did not really do much to improve the animated originals.

When it was revealed that this new adaptation of "Mulan" will have no Mushu, no Shang, no three friends, and no singing, fans of the original 1998 film became very concerned about how this could be done to their satisfaction. They would have to wait a little longer since the original wide opening date set in March 2020 had been deferred because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It formally premiered last September 4, 2020 via Disney+. 

Fa Mulan (Liu Yifei) was the spirited daughter of Fa Zhou (Tzi Ma) and Li (Rosalind Chao), whom local matchmaker (Pei Pei Cheng) thought was impossible to marry off. When China was attacked by northern invaders led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the Emperor (an unrecognizable Jet Li) issued an edict requiring all families to send a man to be part of the army. Mulan secretly went in her crippled father's name, bringing with her his sword and armor. To keep her family's honor intact, she tried her best to keep her gender a secret from her commanding officer Tung (Donnie Yen) and her fellow recruits, which included a charming fellow named Chen (Yoson An). 

The main theme of "Mulan" was about honor. During her time, a man's honor is to go to war for the country, while a woman's honor is to find a husband and get married. Mulan challenged both these traditional beliefs, which made the original animated film an early introduction to feminism for a generation of young girls. This live action version further emphasized the virtues of being loyal, brave and true (as inscribed on the family sword and as sung in the new theme song played over the closing credits). Filial devotion was also a strong theme.

When I first read about the decision to remove the Mushu character, I thought it was to make this version of Mulan more grounded in reality. It turned out that Mushu was only replaced by a plastic-looking CG "Phoenix" which helped Mulan without the Eddie Murphy wisecracks. Another bothersome concern was the corruption of the concept of "Qi" as some sort of rare magical super-power only Mulan (and a special few) possessed. My biggest beef was the inclusion of black magic in the narrative in the person of the shape-shifting witch Xianniang (Gong Li) whose powers were exploited by Bori Khan in his attack of China.  She would be used to further push the film's feministic envelope some more, but that is another matter.

In that climactic battle scene, when Mulan ran into battle as a female, her Qi literally transfigured her into a glorious warrior figure with perfect hair and radiant makeup -- yet none of her comrades seemed to see her. Then, there was that odd directorial decision of not having anyone witness how she started the avalanche that was critical in their battle against the enemy. This resulted in an awkward subsequent scene when her fellow trainees, for no apparent reason, suddenly dared to speak up on her behalf against their commanding officer who wanted to expel her from his unit out for dishonesty and lack of honor. 

I appreciated the fact that this film gathered together the very big cast of purely Chinese/ Chinese-American actors for a Hollywood film (including a cameo by original Mulan voice actor Ming-Na Wen), this film was rather a disappointment. I feel that if the director (Niki Caro) and the writers (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin) been more genuinely knowledgeable and immersed in the Chinese culture, it could have been better. Despite advances in computer effects, or maybe because of its over-use, the fight scenes still cannot hold a candle to the iconic fights in "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" (2000). The script only contained a hollow Western interpretation of Chinese precepts, but not their authentic spirit. Stick to the animated original.  5/10. 


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Amazon Prime: Review of THE BOYS Season 2: Shattering the Standard Superhero

September 5, 2020


"The Boys" (2019) was an 8-episode series on Amazon Prime about a ragtag group of vengeful vigilantes who dared to go against the multi-billion-dollar Vought International corporation and its elite stable of celebrity superheroes called the Seven. This bold premise of this genre-busting show was that it gleefully shattered the respectable veneer of popular superhero organizations, like the Avengers from Marvel or the Justice League from DC. 

Four members of the Seven were based on DC heroes: the Superman-like Homelander (Antony Starr), the Wonder Woman-like Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), the Aquaman-like The Deep (Chace Crawford), and the Flash-like A-Train (Jesse T. Usher). There was also an invisible man Translucent (Alex Hassell) and a silent masked strongman Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell). When the pyrokinetic Lamplighter retired, a new member was chosen to join them -- the electricity-absorbing girl-next door who called herself Starlight (Erin Moriarty). 

The titular Boys were a group of people who had been wronged by the actions of the Seven. Their leader was Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) whose wife Becca (Shantel VanSenten) went missing after an unfortunate encounter with Homelander. His bickering cohorts in his vigilante operations were Marvin a.k.a. Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon). The newest recruit was mousy electronic store sales clerk Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) whose girlfriend Robin suffered a grisly death in an accident involving A-Train in Episode 1.  

As of now, only the first three episodes of Season 2 have been released. So far from the first sequences, the blood and gore levels had certainly not let up, or perhaps even leveled up a notch causing me to flinch away from the screen a bit more this time around. There were more bodies and body parts being crushed, blown up and severed -- more collateral damage caused by super-powers running amuck. There was even a major shocking scene where a blue whale was involved in a literally gut-splitting incident. 

Absolutely every scene with the unpredictable Homelander in it was wrapped in gut-wrenching tension, even if it was just a quiet scene at home involving a young boy Ryan. There was a new girl in the Seven who called herself Stormfront (Aya Cash). Aside from the lightning bolts she threw out from her hands, she is cocky and fearless of authority from Day 1. The whole Vought Corporation is under fire because a major company secret has been revealed to the public, which means they would be spending the rest of the season on damage control.

Unlike the typical superheroes, the "heroes" in this dark, gory and very violent series were arrogant, slimy, manipulative, abusive, fake, ruthless, and outright sinister as they way they had never been portrayed before. While the series was addicting to binge watch, you'll feel somehow a part of your childhood was being corrupted. This scathing series would seem to be an apt antidote for anyone with goody-goody superhero fatigue, but it teetered on going overboard, hence the tendency to polarize viewers. It is bold, original, iconoclastic, yes, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. 8/10. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Netflix: Review of COBRA KAI: Karate Karma

 September 2, 2020



It had already been two years since I saw a number of people posting on social media about a web series streaming online on YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) which reunites rivals Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence from the "Karate Kid" (1984) film. The series was generating a lot of buzz back then but I never got to check that streaming site at all. Fortunately, last week this spin-off series made its debut on Netflix.

The original "Karate Kid" was set in 1984. Teenager Daniel LaRusso and his mother Lucille had just moved from Newark, New Jersey to Reseda, California. Working as the handyman in their apartment was a middle-age Japanese man from Okinawa named Mr. Miyagi. When he was being bullied by brutish jock Johnny Lawrence over the attention of a girl Ali Mills, Daniel requested Mr. Miyagi to train him in karate in order to defend himself. 

Mr. Miyagi's training had Daniel doing chores like waxing cars and painting walls, all of which turned out to be teaching him vital defense moves during fights. In the climactic All-Valley Karate Championships finals, Daniel faced Johnny (who was representing the vicious fight philosophy espoused by the Cobra Kai dojo headed by their merciless sensei John Kreese). Injured with a illegal chop to the knee by Johnny, Daniel used a "crane-style" kick to his opponent's head, to win the competition. 

In Season One of the current "Cobra Kai" series, we fast forward to 2018, 34 years after the events of the first film. Johnny was a down-and-out handyman. Daniel was a successful car dealer. Johnny decided to reopen his old dojo Cobra Kai, with its "Strike First. Strike Hard. No mercy" philosophy intact. When Daniel found out about Cobra Kai, he opposed it, but it led to his rediscovery of his old passion for karate. 

Johnny's first student was his awkward neighbor Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), who was being harassed by bullies in school. Daniel's ward was Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), Johnny's estranged son who decided to train with Daniel in secret to spite his absentee father. Caught in the crossfire was Daniel's spirited daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser). Daniel and Johnny's rivalry will again reach its climax as their students face off in the finals of the All-Valley Karate Championships.

Season 1 was practically a remake of the original film -- from the cruel bullying at school, to the menial chores in training, to the contrasting karate philosophies, the 80s pop rock soundtrack all the way to the final karate tournament. Season 2 was more about the toxic competition between Johnny's Cobra Kai dojo with the Miyagi-Do dojo that Daniel opened to give kids an alternative way to learn karate. The intense rivalry would extend to affect the dynamics of their families and their relationships with other people. 

Ralph Macchio and William Zabka (who were both executive producers of this project) were obviously middle-aged men now (Macchio was 56 in 2018, and Zabka 52). However, their general acting styles was pretty much as cheesy as how they acted as teenagers in the first film. The martial arts moves were still there of course for both guys, but may not always be as smooth-looking as before. As the role of the unabashedly un-PC and tech ignorant Johnny is now more complex than it ever was before, Zabka got to show off more acting range for both drama and comedy.

Excellent support were lent by Courtney Henggeler as Daniel's generous wife Amanda, and Vanessa Rubio as Miguel's protective mother Carmen. Randee Heller reprised her original role as Lucille, Daniel's mother, as did Martin Kove as Johnny's sinister sensei John Kreese. Ron Thomas (as Bobby), Rob Garrison (as Tommy) and Tony O'Dell (as Jimmy) guested in one episode featuring a reunion of the original '84 Cobra Kai boys.

The other main teenage characters caught up in the power play between the two dojos were played by Nichole Brown (as Samantha's former best friend Aisha), Jacob Bertrand (as insecure nerd with a cleft lip Eli and his new alpha-male persona Hawk), Gianni Decenzo (as Eli's annoying neurotic whiner best buddy Demetri) and Peyton List (as the rough kickass girl Tory Schwarber who gets involved with Miguel).

The cliffhanger ending of Season 2 clearly pointed to a Season 3, which is set for release on Netflix next year. Like it was in the first season, the final scene of Season 2 also teased the return of another key character from the original film. If you've seen the 1984 film, you can foresee how this series will go. With its light, breezy, nostalgic 80s-style vibe, the series (with its compact 30 minute episodes) is easily engaging and very binge-able. 8/10. 


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Amazon Prime: Reviews of CHEMICAL HEARTS, THE VAST OF NIGHT, BLOW THE MAN DOWN: Rustic Riddles

 August 31, 2020

CHEMICAL HEARTS

Henry Page (Austin Abrams) was a high school senior in a sleepy suburban community who aspired to be the editor-in-chief of their school paper. However, his adviser unexpectedly informed him that he was going to share the editorial chores with a new girl who just transferred into their school. She was Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), who walked to her house even if she had a limp and used a cane. She was aloof and unsociable, preferring to immerse herself in Neruda's poetry.

Smitten with her beauty and mystery, Henry purposely missed his bus to walk Grace home. She would then allow Henry to drive her car to his house since she was averse to driving a car herself. Steadily with this routine, Grace's walls slowly broke down and she began to share more of her private life with Henry. However, even as they became more intimate, Henry realized that Grace was still holding back a major secret from him. 

This was another young adult romance brimming with teenage angst that we have seen many times. The title refers to the chemicals which get activated in the euphoria of love. The damaged character of Grace was suffering from the physical and emotional effects of a terrible past trauma, and her new friend Henry was trying his naive best to help her. To make the metaphor more obvious (and cheesier), Henry just so happened to be into Kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken vases with gold.

This film worked mainly because of the chemistry between the two leads actors which make their romance believable despite some weird details, especially that part about wading in a koi pond in an abandoned building. Otherwise, it was just one of several similar-themed brooding coming-of-age teen romances, nothing really new anymore. 6/10.  


THE VAST OF NIGHT

This story happened one night sometime in the late 1950s, in the remote town of Cayuga, New Mexico. There was a big basketball game going on at the school gym that night, and almost everybody in town was there watching it. However, 16 year-old switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), and her disc jockey friend Everett Sloane (Jake Horowitz) were both working at their respective panels that night.

Fay heard a strange sound that originated from her radio as she was listening to Everett's music show. Everett asked members of his audience to call in if they knew anything about the mysterious sound. Those who called about the sound included Billy, a military man picked up to do a highly classified clean-up mission in the desert, and Mrs. Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), an old eccentric woman who lost her son in strange circumstances.

This compact 89-minute film looked very good with meticulous 1950s era production design and costumes. The crisp filtered cinematography gave a sense of old town nostalgia, as if this was a classic television program -- clearly the effect it was going for based on the bookend scenes. Debuting director Andrew Patterson employed some very long takes in certain scenes, like Fay's frantic duty at the telephone switchboard or that continuous scene where the camera went across town and through the basketball game from Fay to Everett. 

Some viewers may be turned off by all the meandering conversations in practically the whole first hour and fifteen minutes of the film when there was nothing actually happening yet. But the impressive style of Patterson with the camera and suspense building, as well as McCormick's electric lead performance, kept me hanging on to the jaw-dropping end. 7/10.


BLOW THE MAN DOWN

In the desolate fishing town of Easter Cove in Maine, the sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) are mourning the death of their mother. The late Mary Margaret Connolly was good friends with her fellow town matriarchs, Susie Gallagher (June Squibb), Doreen Burke (Marceline Hugot) and Gail Maguire (Annette O'Toole). But unlike the others, she was still friends with Enid Norma Devlin (Margo Martindale), the powerful woman who owned the local brothel. 

The night of her funeral, an emotional Mary Beth went drinking at a bar where encountered a shady character named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). When the guy started getting rough on her, Mary Beth panicked and killed her attacker with a harpoon. Instead of reporting the incident to the police, she told Priscilla who then decided to help her sister stuff the corpse in box and throw it into the sea. Priscilla then discovered that she left an incriminating clue at the crime scene.

Like "Fargo" and "Twin Peaks," this film captured the quirky idiosyncrasy of small American rural town, which was immediately apparent. From the very first scene, and for several interludes within, grizzly fishermen sing mournful songs about the sea, which set the moody tone for the whole film. The cinematography of the restless sea, the cold rain and the secretive townspeople was breathtaking in its melancholy. The unusual acting were all in sync with this cold remote atmosphere, particularly those of veterans Martindale and Squibb. 

The build-up of claustrophobic tension and suspense by writer-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy was very effective. However when it came to the abrupt ending, it felt oddly incomplete, like it was a cliffhanger of sorts. It was as if the whole 90 minute movie we watched was just the pilot episode of a mini-series, instead of a complete film. 7/10.