Monday, November 30, 2020

Netflix: Review of FINDING AGNES: Meeting Mother More

 November 30, 2020



Wealthy businessman Virgilio "Brix" Rivero (Jelson Bay) was abandoned by his mother Agnes (Roxanne Guinoo) when he was still a child. 25 years later, his mother (now played by Sandy Andolong) visited him unannounced during a busy day at work. However, before they even got a chance to reconnect, Agnes passed away just as suddenly from a stroke. He discovered that his dad and stepmother Gloria had not been giving Agnes' monthly letters from Morocco, where she ran her own Brines' Bed and Breakfast in Marrakesh. 

In her will, Agnes wanted her ashes to brought back Brines to be buried, so Brix flew her urn there to fulfill her wishes. There he met the manager Cathy Duvera (Sur Ramirez), whom Agnes loved like her own daughter. As Brines was bequeathed to him, Brix wanted to quickly sell the property off so he can get back to his business in Manila. Meanwhile, Brix and Cathy still needed to fulfill Agnes' final wish to return a certain figurine to Regina Castor (Dexter Doria), which led him on a road trip to know his mother more. 

Vertically- and follicularly-challenged comedian Jelson Bay is probably the last actor you'd think would headline this film, but there he was confidently portraying a character which would usually be played by leading men like Pascual or Veneracion.  After the initial shock of seeing and hearing him as Brix, he slowly settled into the part, accent and all. Of course, there will be scenes when Bay would slip comfortably into this comedic shoes. I commend the script for not ever bringing up his physical appearance at anytime. His looks simply did not matter. 

Sue Ramirez tones down the quirks here as the devoted Cathy and, as always, she was very classy and likable with her winsome smile and kind spirit. She was delivering her Arabic lines with so much fluidity, you'd think she had been speaking this language all her life. Seeing Ramirez standing in sharp contrast with Bay in potentially romantic situations, there was a need to take a momentary pause to suspend our disbelief. Again, I commend the script for not going there to force the issue. 

There were some beautifully shot scenes here taking full advantage of the exotic Moroccan architecture and interior design, just like that dramatically-lit scene on the stairs where Brix and Cathy had their final conversation. Production design and Ramirez's costume designer also deserve commendation for providing local charm and color. There were a couple of Moroccan actresses who provided the film moving emotional moments, like the lady at the women's sanctuary and the woman celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary. 

While Aileen Kessop's previous screenplay for the Aga Muhlach-Alice Dixson Greenland-based thriller "Nuuk" (2019) felt over-dark and overwrought, this new one was marked with remarkable lightness, simplicity and no melodrama. Director Marla Ancheta took a huge risk it was to cast Jelson Bay so much against his usual type, but it actually turned out to be a most fortuitous decision. Instead of becoming just a typical foreign-set rom-coms, Ancheta imbued this project with so much refreshing sincerity and heart that it emerges as one of the year's best films. 9/10. 


QCinema 2020: Review of GENUS, PAN (LAHI, HAYOP): Animalistic Allegory

November 30, 2020



Slow cinema master Lav Diaz's latest opus "Genus, Pan" makes its Asian Premiere online during this special hybrid edition of the QCinema filmfest. Certainly notable was the fact that this new film was only a little under 3 hours long (157 minutes to be exact), a very manageable figure compared to Diaz's previous epic films which famously had running times of 5 hours or more, the longest being "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" (2004) which clocked in a little under 10 hours long (593 minutes). 

Three men from Hugaw Island had just finished their three-month contract working in the gold mines of Inawayan. Two were seniors already, the blunt cantankerous Baldomero Catabay (Nanding Josef) and the calm relgious Paulo Honero (Bart Guingona); and one much younger, Andres Hanibal (Don Melvin Boongaling). Sick and tired of working in unsafe conditions and having to "share" his salary with various officials, the rebellious Andres disclosed to Paulo this was going to be his final time to work there.

On their return to Hugaw, Baldo instructed the boatman to bring them to the far side of the island instead of the usual port. They would rather make the difficult trek through the woods for a few days to get to their homes, rather than to have them and their salaries ambushed at the barrio. Andres got to know his senior partners better during their hike, including the fact that Baldo and Paulo had a traumatic experience they had long kept secret from others, only to be revealed after they heard an unseen gecko's loud ominous calling. 

By the time the hiking scenes ended, there was still a full hour left in the film. Those final 60 minutes would be devoted to scenes in the town and the terrible people who ran it, namely Capitan Teofilo (Popo Diaz), his right-hand man Sarge (Noel Sto. Domingo) and the devil-incarnate rogue Inggo (Joel Saracho). Coinciding with the annual Catholic commemoration of Holy Week, Inggo single-handedly terrorized the poor townsfolk for whatever little money they had, violent deeds were committed resulting in several senseless deaths.

We see several unmistakable trademark hallmarks of a Lav Diaz work. The black and white photography was crisp and clear. The long arduous trek through the woods was marked with folk myths, hallucinogenic visions and acts of violence. There were interminable walks of a character from one end of the screen to the other -- and they really walked very slowly like Baldo's autistic daughter Mariposa (Hazel Orencio), or that fallen penitent Mang Melchor (whom Andres left to walk on his own the hot rocky road.) There was a scene of passionate singing, this time featuring Lolita Carbon as Nanang Mamay grieving the death of her family.

There were some lapses in continuity, like how Andres brought home only one white sack in one scene, while there was an earlier scene when he brought home three such sacks, confusing a critical detail in the story. There were lapses in names, like how Aling Quirina was given the surname of Catabay, when her husband was supposed to be Paulo, not Baldo. The non-actors who played the Hugaw townspeople were obviously very nervous and self-conscious on camera, totally wasting the dramatic potential of their scenes with their static "performances," especially that of Andres' mother and her soft, slow and strained voice.

The main point of the film was actually elucidated at length in a radio program the three men heard in the early part of their trek. An expert Dr. Nana Salinab (Sig Pecho) was being interviewed by DJ Marian (Adrienne Vergara) about how some humans still had brains which had not yet fully developed, thus putting them on the level of the primate genus Pan or the chimpanzee. Humans with fully-developed brains (like Jesus or Buddha) are altruistic with no desire for power. Those with chimpanzee brains become lying, stealing and killing dictators. No names mentioned, but his political message was pointedly frank, seemingly concluding a trilogy with his last two films. 7/10. 

*****

Other Lav Diaz films I had seen before:

ANG HUPA (MY REVIEW)

ANG PANAHON NG HALIMAW (MY REVIEW)

ANG BABAENG HUMAYO (MY REVIEW)

HELE SA HIWAGANG HAPIS (MY REVIEW)

MULA SA KUNG ANO ANG NOON (MY REVIEW)

NORTE: HANGGANAN NG KASAYSAYAN (MY REVIEW)




Sunday, November 29, 2020

QCinema 2020: Reviews of IDENTIFYING FEATURES and SONG WITHOUT A NAME: Maternal Missions

November 29, 2020

QCinema International Film Festival offers a hybrid presentation of its lineup of films this year in response to the quarantine restrictions brought about by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. There will be limited invitational screenings of three films in an open air venue at the Gazebo Royale, Visayas Ave. Quezon City. The rest of the 16 other films will be shown online via Upstream and GMovies platform. 

The first two films I chose to watch are from Latin America with things in common. They are films written and directed by female filmmakers on their feature film debuts. Both tackling the story of a mother who embarked on a search of their missing child. They have been acclaimed in multiple international film festivals this year. 


IDENTIFYING FEATURES

Director: Fernanda Valadez 
Writers: Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero 

Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) was a middle-aged woman from the central city of Guanajuato who decided to go search for her son Jesus (Juan Jesus Varela) when she learned that the dead body of Rigo, her son's best friend and companion on their attempt to enter the US illegally, was found buried in a shallow grave along the way. Her ordeal began at the terminal of the bus her son rode, and her search brought her to the remote town of Ocampo, where she met a young man just deported from the US, Miguel (David Illescas).

At first this felt like a cut and dry procedural about Mexicans who went missing while illegally crossing the US border. However, by the second half of the film, it turned out to be something else altogether, as lawless bandits who terrorized remote towns came into the picture. The shocking climax came like a gut punch from out of the blue. The denouement was sad, heartbreaking and even carried an unexpected twist. That final image of a devilish figure slowly emerging from the flames was absolutely mesmerizing. 9/10


SONG WITHOUT A NAME

Director: Melina León
Writers: Melina León and Michael J. White

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) was a 20 year-old indigenous peasant woman from a coastal town, who was in her 9th month of pregnancy. She heard a radio advertisement from a clinic in Lima that provided free services for mothers giving birth so she sought it out. However, after her daughter was delivered, Georgina was hustled out of the clinic and she never saw her child at all. Later, the whole clinic seemed to have totally closed up. Ignored by the police, Georgina desperately sought the assistance of journalist Pedro Campos (Tommy Paraga). 

This is Peru's submission for the Oscar for Best International Feature for this awards season. Leon did not rush into her main story right away. She slowly introduced us to Georgina and her peasant life in the slum community, with their ritualistic practices and celebrations. Those recurring images of Georgina and her young husband Leo (Lucio Rojas) trudging along the sandy slopes where their little house stood was quietly poignant as beautiful reflections of human drama. The way the young couple was given the runaround by the government bureaucracy was also rendered in poetic imagery, rather than the usual ugly grit we see in the usual poverty porn films. 8/10. 


Netflix: Review of THE CALL: Time-Twisting Telephone

 November 28, 2020



In 2020, 28 year-old Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) just moved into a old house in the village. Once she got the old landline phone connected, she began receiving several calls from a frantic female caller who said her mother was going to kill her. Curious for her constant calls, Seo-yoon decided to speak to the other girl, who introduced herself as Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), who was also 28 years old, but she was living in 1999. 

"The Call" is Park Shin-hye's second Netflix horror film this year, as she was earlier seen in the zombie-thriller "#Alive." Park's versatile acting skills served her well in this role of the confused and tormented Seo-yeon. Her co-star Jeon Jong-seo's career immediately rose with her debut role in the acclaimed film "Burning" (2018). As the mentally unstable Young-sook, Jeon underwent a transformation of character that kept us on the edge of our seats.

The whole concept of a phone connecting the lives of two women twenty years apart was already very interesting. When their conversations were translated into real events, then the plot further thickened into something more compelling. When Seo-yeon told of a household accident that claimed the life of her father, Young-sook went to prevent it from happening. From time-travel movies, we all know what can happen when the course of history is altered.

Young-sook lived with a sinister-looking step-mother (Lee El) who was apparently a shaman. She performed elaborate exorcism rituals on Young-sook, believing the girl was cursed. To return the favor of bringing her father back to life, Seo-yeon's online research revealed the date when a certain shaman murdered her step-daughter back in 1999. Forewarned, Young-sook was able to escape her death, now we know hell is really going to break loose.

All of this happened within the first thirty minutes of this two-hour film, which meant that there was going to be so much more time-twisting going to happen, as the present conditions of Seo-yeon would change with everything sinister Young-sook was doing at her end in the past. Director Lee Chung-hyun did well to keep the parallel two timelines distinct from each other, and delivered the multi-layered story clearly with all the chills and thrills it held in store. 7/10.


Thursday, November 26, 2020

PPP 2020 Premium: Review of ANG LAKARAN NI KABUNYAN: Avant-Garde Artistic Ardor

November 26, 2020


For the opening film of this year's 4th Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino online film festival, the organizers chose this latest film by the new National Artist for Film, Kidlat Tahimik. 

Kabunyan de Guia has decided to move his family from Baguio to Davao City. He decided to take the scenic route, driving his trusty vintage Volkwagen van Jambalaya the whole way, taking the RORO ferries from the Batangas port, through three Visayan islands (Panay, Negros and Cebu), before reaching Mindanao. Along the way, he met up with various local artists who taught him valuable informative lessons about various native arts and culture, and the efforts they do to preserve them for future generations.

It was quite fortunate that before this film, I was able to watch an earlier opus by Kidlat Tahimik (a.k.a. Eric de Guia) entitled "Balikbayan #1" (2015) which was a tribute to Magellan's native slave Enrique as the first man to circumnavigate the globe from 1519-1522. That film introduced me to the members of the de Guia family: his German wife Katrin, his son Kabunyan and his grandson Kalipay, all of whom also appeared in this new film. At this time, Kabunyan would already have a second son named Binulan. 

At first you'd think that this was basically a home video taken by someone on a long cross country road trip. However, the insights you get from the various artists Kabunyan visited were truly very interesting and eye-opening. We are more familiar about traditional Western art and artists, but this film introduced us to some fascinating artists, like Boy Masculino's bird architecture in Panay, Perry Angel's fungus art in Negros, Bambi Beltran's arnis skills in Cebu, and many more. Unorthodox and avant-garde they may be, but real patriots all. 

Also in Panay, we learned from Momo Dalisay that the original name of our country should be Mahar-Likha, as the name Philippines commemorated Spain's most cruel king. There was a visit to a school of Living Traditions in Calinog, Iloilo where traditional dances and embroidery are taught to younger generations, which may be the same one I saw in "The Chanters" (James Mayo, 2017). Negros rock artist Nune Alvarado talked about how true art is stifled by lessons and he encourages artist to set themselves free to express their artistry.

As for our central character Kabunyan, he had certainly imbibed his father's artistic lifestyle and is also passing this on to his two sons, educating them in a Woldorf school. There was a lot of focus on being one with nature and preserving its beauty.  Along with Kabunyan, we all vicariously took this trip to find Liwanag (the Light), and realize that it should be found inside each of us. Can we all reach this seemingly elusive destination?  8/10.

Postscript: In my profession as a doctor, I am disturbed by the apparent endorsement of the moma (betel nut) chewing habit, a practice which carries with it a very high risk for the development of oral cavity cancer, a most difficult and debilitating disease condition. I offer my unsolicited advice that Kabunyan would consider to stop this vice for his young family's sake.

PPS: I hope they can edit the subtitling in one scene where Kabu's word "stuff" came out as "junk" in the subtitles. Those various things in his van were gifts from the people he visited on his trip, and it felt rude that these were called "junk." 

PPP 2020 Premium: 3 Mini-Reviews: KINTSUGI, BLOOD HUNTERS, THE HELPER

 November 26, 2020

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's version of FDCP's annual flagship event, the 4th Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino will be held online via an exclusive FDCP-sponsored platform (FDCPchannel.ph), from November 20 to December 6, 2020. 

There are said to be 100 or so Filipino films in this PPP, divided into sections with various genres. I will be writing reviews of the films in the Premium section of the festival, featuring films that had limited release or have never been released to the Philippine audience.


KINTSUGI (2020)

Director: Lawrence Fajardo

Writer: Herlyn Alegre

Dante Dizon (JC Santos) was a Filipino who was working in Japan in a traditional ceramics factory. Harue Matsusaka (Hiro Nishiuchi) was the daughter of his boss who left her job as an art professor in Tokyo to devote her time to their family business. After a rough start, the two became friends which later developed into a romance. However, while Harue was being matched by her parents to marry close family friend Ryo (Makoto Yananagitsuru), Dante had been keeping a big secret about himself back home in Pampanga.

JC Santos is really typecast into playing these charming jerks lately. As we knew more about his old life he left behind, his Dante becomes more and more unlikable as he continued to deceive Harue, and even fought with his housemate Willy (Phi Palmos). Kintsugi, the unique Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics by bonding the pieces with gold to come up with another thing of beauty, is a metaphor for apology and renewal. Ironically, the main plot arc of this film went against the positivity of its title. However, under Law Fajardo's direction, the cinematography of Boy Yniguez was so aesthetically Japanese, , definitely the best aspect of this film, along with the very natural portrayals of Harue and Ryo. 6/10.


BLOOD HUNTERS: RISE OF THE HYBRIDS (2018)

Director: Vincent Soberano

Writer: Vincent Soberano

A group of soldiers called Section One was led by Commander Jun to fight the Aswangs. However, when Jun killed the Aswang Queen, he was also mortally wounded, so he decided to inject himself with the Aswang Queen;s blood, making him the first Aswang hybrid. He created his own army of aswang hybrids led by his vicious henchmen Gundra (Mekael Turner) and Naga (Temujin Shirzada) that now terrorized the countryside. A new group of vigilante warriors have joined forces to train in Grand Master Ishida's Slayers Camp to fight this new sadistic scourge.

The Slayers were led by Monte (Monsour del Rosario) and a reformed hybrid Bolo (Vincent Soberano) with their attractive lead fighters, Max (Ian Ignacio) and Kali (Roxanne Barcelo). Ex-soldier Gabriela Chen (Sarah Chang) joined the Slayers after they saved her life, and she bonded most with Bolo, who also lost his family to the hybrids like her. I had seen Soberano's previous project "The Trigonal" (MY REVIEW) and liked it. The graphic novel aesthetics and mixed martial arts fight scenes were generally good, but the over-the-top acting by most of the cast was undeniably cringy. 5/10. 


THE HELPER (2017)

Director: Joanna Bowers

Writer: Joanna Bowers

The Unsung Heroes, a choir composed of Filipina domestic workers assembled by British expat musician Jane Engelmann, were invited to sing at the Clockenflap music festival to perform their sentimental song "I Wish I Could Kiss You Tonight" dedicated to the children they left behind. Liza Avelino was a Filipina domestic worker who achieved her dream to hike up to the summit of Mt. Everest. Nurul Hidayah was an Indonesian domestic worker who was accused of theft leading to the lapsing of her working visa, legal problems further complicated by an unexpected pregnancy. 

This was a documentary made by Hong Kong-based British filmmaker Joanna Bowers, who followed the stories of a number of women who left their own families to work away from their countries in Hong Kong as domestic helpers. There were three main stories being told through its 106 minute runtime, interviewing not only the domestic helpers themselves but also the people who were helping them along the way. The documentary itself was well-made and had effective emotional connection, but it felt this was a bit out of place in a festival meant to celebrate Filipino films and filmmakers. 6/10


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Netflix: Review of HILLBILLY ELEGY: Redneck Redemption

 November 25, 2020



JD Vance (Gabriel Basso) was a law student from Yale University. He had a beautiful, smart and supportive girlfriend Usha (Frieda Pinto). One night, just as he was attending an important function which would give him an advantage for a summer internship he needed, he received a phone call from his sister Lindsey (Haley Bennett) that their mother Bev (Amy Adams) had been rushed to the hospital because of a drug overdose.

Since JD was a child (Owen Asztalos), Bev's mental status had been rendered unstable by her addiction to illegal drugs, particularly heroin. Because of her unpredictable bouts of explosive violent behavior, she could not stay in a relationship with men, nor can she hold her job as a nurse. JD chose to live with his grandmother, Bev's mother, whom he called Mamaw (Glenn Close), who was determined to see her grandson succeed in life. 

The central character is JD (as a child and as an adult), as this was based on the 2016 published memoirs of the real-life Atty. JD Vance about his roots in an Appalachian town in Kentucky. However, the highlighted performances were the delivered by the actresses who played that two women who had the biggest effects on how his life turned out -- Amy Adams and Glenn Close. These two veteran actress, both Oscars' favorite bridesmaids, went all-in their totally deglamorized portrayal of two rough and tough hillbilly women. 

This showy role of Bev checked all the boxes for an Oscar-winning role -- mentally unstable, drug addict, single mother -- and Amy Adams really ran the whole exhausting nine-yards with this. Adams' Bev went through wildly shifting emotions sometimes within the same scene. We completely felt her destructive effect over the future of her children as she went through her whole life as this crass, selfish, irresponsible, undependable and abusive mother. 

I do not know if it was the director Ron Howard's intention, but his character Bev had no redemptive value until we learned what happened to her during the closing credits. It had been said that she graduated salutatorian and she self-supported herself through nursing school, but it was too bad that her own difficulty as a child growing up with her Mamaw and Papaw was relegated to only one flashback scene. Fleshing out Bev's prickly relationship with Mamaw would probably have done the narrative much more good, but this was sorely lacking.

Whenever Glenn Close was on the scene, she owned it with her perfectly nuanced and natural performance. You know that she was miles away from this character in real life, but as Mamaw, Close can convince us that she had that lived with that redneck hairstyle, clothes and lifestyle all her life. I am sure it took painstaking effort for Close to transform into Mamaw, but most admirably none of that effort is noticeable on that screen.

The scenes of drug-induced delinquency were not easy to watch especially when the self-destructive behavior had children as collateral damage. Asztalos's winsome portrayal of young JD and Basso's sympathetic portrayal of adult JD nevertheless made us root for him to make it out of the quicksand life had dealt him. However, since the story began with JD in law school, the impact of the scenes about his abused childhood had softened, since it was already obvious that he was able to rise from all that and make something of himself. 7/10


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Review of LINGUA FRANCA: Trials of a Trans "TNT"

November 23, 2020



"Lingua Franca" is a passion project produced, written and directed by a Filipino transwoman auteur Isabel Sandoval, who was also in front of the camera portraying the lead character. From its release last year and throughout this year, it had made the rounds of several international film festivals and earned positive reviews and won awards along the way. It was picked up and shown on Netflix USA earlier this year. Finally, it is making its Philippine debut this month online via the Cinema76@Home website.  

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) was a Filipino trans-woman who worked as a caregiver to Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian lady with dementia who lived in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York City. One day, Olga's grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), who just came home from a stint at a rehab center and started working at a meat processing center owned by an uncle. Eventually, things between Olivia and Alex started off awkwardly as Alex could not change his bad habits right away, but their relationship would later progress to becoming more intimate.

The daily news about the clampdown on illegal aliens during the current administration made Olivia very paranoid of being apprehended by ICE agents. Her Philippine passport still carried her former male name Ryan. While her best friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino), another trans-woman formerly known as Karl, was lucky enough to marry an American man to gain herself a green card, Olivia had not been as fortunate yet. However, just when Olivia may have already won Alex's heart enough for him to marry her, he found out the truth about her.

This was a very reflective film about the unsecured life of an illegal alien in the US. This was a familiar story for many Filipino families who may know someone in that sticky predicament of being a "TNT" (a colloquial term that referred to their constant hiding). A paid fixed marriage is just one of the under-the-table ways they may have to resort to in order to get that precious green card. Olivia was also expected to send money to her family back home. Those frequent ill-timed phone calls from her mother back home asking for money is yet another common experience for OFWs, and Sandoval called it out. 

As a trans-woman, Olivia had to deal with another layer of discrimination and uncertainty.  Having a trans-woman as the central character in a film is a bold move, especially one that would show the sensual aspects of her life. This trans issue was thrust into public discussion six years ago when an American soldier killed a trans prostitute, and revived this year when he was released by a presidential pardon. Participation of trans-women in sport events and beauty pageants for women always spark heated arguments. They still have a long way to go to gain mainstream acceptance, and Sandoval shared the challenges they face.

Sandoval's approach was deliberately slow and serious, going more for increasing emotional connection with her audience steadily with no comic relief. Audiences will hold their breath to the very end to find out if Olivia and Alex will marry each other or not. Interestingly, Sandoval chose not to give any easy answers even for that main question, shrouding the ending with some more uncertainty. While it is a brave artistic decision, this cloudy resolution may disappoint some of her viewers who had patiently followed Olivia's journey. 6/10


*****


You can watch "Lingua Franca" by clicking on the Cinema 76 virtual theater WEBSITE. You can unlock the screening for a ticket price of P250, then you'll have 4 days to start watching. Once you begin, you'll have 48 hours to finish watching.



Friday, November 20, 2020

Netflix: Joint Review of THE PRINCESS SWITCH 1 & 2: Identical Impersonators

November 20, 2020


THE PRINCESS SWITCH (2018)

One Christmas, Stacy DeNovo (Vanessa Hudgens), a rising pastry baker from Chicago, was invited to join a prestigious Christmas-themed baking competition held in a small European kingdom called Belgravia. She was accompanied there by her best friend and assistant chef Kevin Richards (Nick Sagar) and his spirited little daughter Olivia (Alexa Adeosun). 

Lady Margaret Delacourt (also Vanessa Hudgens), who was the duchess of neighboring kingdom of Montenaro who was engaged to marry Edward (Sam Palladio), crown prince of Belgravia. When Stacy and Margaret met at the venue and noted that they looked exactly alike, Lady Margaret suggested they switch identities for the next two days in order for her to get a taste of normal life before she settled down with the prince. 

Ever since Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper," the idea of twins or people who looked identical to each other switching places had been a familiar trope in films. Most of the time, this situation would give rise to a funny comedy of errors brought about by the efforts of each twin not to give him or herself away during their masquerade as the other twin. 

Being a rom-com, this one added a further twist by having each twin switch romantic interests as well in the course of two eventful days. This turned out to be a lot of fun because Hudgens did have good chemistry with both Palladio and Sagar as she was juggling her look and accents. The whole premise was of course quite absurd, but everyone was so likable, the Christmas spirit was solid strong, and it had some very nice heartwarming moments. 7/10.


THE PRINCESS SWITCH: SWITCHED AGAIN (2020)

Following the events of the first film, Stacy was now the Princess of Belgravia after her marriage to Edward. Margaret and Kevin had broken up because of the pressure brought on by her duties in her country. That Christmas Day, Margaret was scheduled to be crowned the next queen of Montenaro following the death of her father. Stacy made a special trip to Chicago to convince the reluctant Kevin to go attend the ceremonies. 

When they all got together in Montenaro, Stacy suggested to Margaret that they switch places again so that Margaret can have private time to reconnect with Kevin. However, Margaret's shady cash-strapped cousin Lady Fiona (again Vanessa Hudgens in a third role) came up with a treacherous plot to switch herself with Margaret in order to get herself crowned as Queen, so that she transfer national funds into her bank account. 

The whole main cast is back from the first film is back in this sequel, including Margaret's staff Frank (Mark Fleischmann) and Mrs. Donatelli (Suanne Braun). Kevin's daughter Olivia is now played by Mia Lloyd, who was less charming than the original child actress. The handsome chief of staff Antonio Rossi (Lachlan Nieboer) was there to serve as Kevin's competition for Margaret's love. As with most comedy villains, Lady Fiona had two bumbling henchmen, Reggie (Ricky Norwood) and Mindy (Florence Hall), willing partners in her criminal plans. 

Here, I thought it was very reckless and unacceptable that Stacy and Margaret had to keep their switching a secret from Edward, and even used Olivia be the accomplice to keep him occupied. Later there will be a scene when Margaret (posing as Stacy) would share a kiss with Kevin, as if it was acceptable to see Stacy and Kevin kissing -- a very illogical story decision. The third switch with Fiona was a fun way to complicate the story, though I wished her subplot was not so criminal, especially since this is for young viewers. 5/10.


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE CROWN Season 4: Crises in Ceremonial Cordiality

 November 18, 2020



The historical drama TV series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II called "The Crown" had its first season in 2016. The creator of this series is Peter Morgan, who had previous written "The Queen," the 2006 feature film by Stephen Frears which led lead actress Helen Mirren to a grand slam of Best Actress awards for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II during the events following the death of Princess Diana. It was a very high profile TV series, multi-awarded on both sides of the pond for all three seasons, but I never saw it yet. 

However, with the release of its latest season on Netflix this week, I was compelled to go straight in at Season 4. This new season covered that time in Queen Elizabeth II's monarchy that already within my awareness -- the 1980s. The events covered would include the rise of Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister and the sensational relationship of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. 

The Margaret Thatcher story line began with her victory at the general election of 1979 and her long 11 years of political service as Prime Minister, constantly maneuvering within her Cabinet and her Parliament to push her uncompromising policies, like her controversial spending cuts or her aggressive stand about the Falklands crisis. Gillian Anderson got that distinctive Thatcher voice, accent, gestures and mannerisms to a perfect T. 

The scenes between Anderson and Olivia Colman (as Queen Elizabeth II) were a joy to watch as these two great actresses trade lines and attitude with remarkable skill. This matchless sparring was best seen during those tense scenes of Thatcher going against the Queen about sanctions against apartheid and the fallout that followed. But despite their differences, as the their final scene together showed, the two women did respect and admire each other. 

The Charles and Diana  story line began when Charles (Josh O'Connor) met Diana (Emma Corrin) when he was visiting her sister Sarah (Isobel Eadie). Despite his confessed love for a very much married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell), Charles was prevailed upon to marry Diana instead in a ceremony that fascinated the whole world. Despite their public fairy tale, what actually followed was a nightmare of psychological torture that ate both of them up.

Realizing that Prince Charles is still living and is very much in line to be King, this series was very brutal about how he was portrayed here.  O'Connor as Charles with that characteristic hunched posture, was veritably the big villain in this whole season; while Corrin as Diana with her sad round eyes and eating disorder, was the very much the victim. Fennell played Camilla with a measure of sympathy, but she knew what her character was up against.

Much had been said about the scene where the cynical Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham-Carter) told an anecdote about former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos in Episode 3. However, she was given her own showcase in Episode 7, when Margaret investigated about the psychiatric history of the royal family after her own mental health problems. Bonham-Carter was quite the delightful scene-stealer in everything she's in, and here is no different. 

There were several interesting side stories included in the narrative, such as how Thatcher's favorite son Mark got lost in Algeria during an off-road race, how Diana danced onstage to the tune of "Uptown Girl" as a birthday surprise, or how Charles got caught in an avalanche while skiing in Switzerland. There was even an entire episode 5 dedicated to the story of an unemployed man Michael Fagan who snuck into Buckingham Palace into the Queen's bedroom to air his complaints against the system directly to her. 

Bringing everything and everyone together is the Queen herself as portrayed with dignity and sense of humor by Olivia Colman. It was no mean feat to portray a living monarch, showing both her good side and that not so good.  Her scenes with Thatcher aside, I enjoyed those revelatory individual scenes with each of her children in Episode 3. She can be ruthless (letting a trusted employee take a fall for her) or rude (rebuffing a request to talk to feed her dogs), but as her husband Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) so eloquently summed it up, the Queen was "the only person that matters." 9/10. 

 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE LIFE AHEAD: The Legacy of Loren

 November 15, 2020



Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren) was an old woman who took under her care children from mothers who could not take care of them, like Iosif and Babu. One day, her friend Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) requested her to take on the care of a strong-willed 12-year old Muslim orphan boy from Senegal named Mohamed, nicknamed Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), and she reluctantly accepted for some additional cash. 

Rosa asked her friend Hamil (Babak Karimi) to help her instill some discipline by letting him help in his store. But unknown to her, Momo was secretly dealing for local drug lord Ruspa (Massimiliano Rossi). Momo eventually warmed up and began to get more attached to Rosa, to Hamil as well as their transgender neighbor Lola (Abril Zamora). However, Rosa's mental faculties was slowly being eroded by dementia.

The screenplay of this film was adapted from the novel "The Life Before Us" by Romain Gary. It was co-written and directed by Eduardo Ponti, as a potent acting showcase for his mother, the one and only Ms. Sophia Loren. 

As the world-weary Madame Rosa, Ms. Loren was absolute the main reason to watch this film. Her mega-wattage screen presence totally dominated the scene whenever she was on. Her Madame Rosa may have been old, exhausted, and of steadily deteriorating mind and body, but one cannot deny how Ms. Loren shone through all that. She can transcend the infirmity of her character and the poverty of her surroundings and burn Madame Rosa's plight into her audience's hearts with a mere glance or sigh. 

As the untamed urchin Momo, Ibrahima Gueye played a challenging role for a child actor. Momo was streetsmart and fiercely independent young man on the outside, but inside he was a abandoned child yearning to be loved. His dreams of a loving lioness guardian would seem to attest to this inner need. These transitions were rather abrupt and unpredictable in the course of this movie, which was a cause of much uncomfortable tension. His turning point best moment was that quiet scene with Madame Rosa after Iosif was claimed by his mother, a naturally effortless tear-jerking moment.

The tone and pacing of the film can be uneven and not too easy to watch for everyone. However, those touching moments of tenderness and transformation between Momo and Madame Rosa made the whole film worth watching. At 86 years of age, Sophia Loren still possessed that incandescent screen magnetism and fluent mastery of her craft to command our attention and admiration. An Oscar nomination for Best Actress is inevitable. 8/10.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Netflix: Review of ALTER ME: Secrets of a Seedy Subculture

 November 15, 2020



One night, call center executive Aimee Ruby Montenegro (Jasmine Curtis Smith) booked the services of @DAXXX99, the so-called "king of the alter world" who got booked by women who wanted commitment-less sex. However, when they met face to face at the motel room, it turned out that Daxxx99 was actually her college acquaintance Uno, aka Juan Miguel Dakila (Enchong Dee), who confessed that she was her first love back then. 

As she had been hot-headed at work because of her "trust issues," Aimee decided to hire Uno to be her "secret constant," someone who could help her connect back to the real world, to help her become open and trusting enough again. Uno, thrilled that Aimee wanted to "keep" him as a partner, agreed to her terms, coaching her on how to relax and project (or "flex") the best of her. Will their relationship go beyond the business deal that it initially was?

Director RC delos Reyes aimed to shock and titillate from the get-go. The opening sequence had Uno defining what the "alter world" was, how it was an underground type of social media where people remain anonymous while expressing their sexual fantasies. Totally going against type, Enchong Dee actually agreed to have scenes of his bare butt pumping away at a masked female partner, or fooling around with an older woman with only soap bubbles protecting his frontal modesty. I guess they had to do these daring scenes because merely saying that Uno was the most in-demand call-boy in the alter world would never fly. 

The female perspective of the alter world was expounded by Aimee's liberated friend Tina Morando (Via Antonio), who would extol the wondrous effects of sexual release in her stressful life. She was the one who pushed Aimee to go further than mere lurking in the alter world and actually taste what it is offering. She advised him book a man like Daxxx99 to "come to Mama," as she repurposed Meg Ryan's classic fake orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally" to teach Aimee how to emote during sexual intercourse. 

As for Jasmine Curtis-Smith, this character was such a sharp departure from her sweet image, I could not help but feel protective of her. Since this role was so offbeat for her, I winced when she delivered a raunchy line, like when she paraphrased Julia Roberts line from "Notting Hill" -- "I'm just a wild girl sitting across a f***boy asking him to tame her." Thankfully, she knew how to set her limits of onscreen decency and did not engage in anything more daring than a prolonged kissing scene with Dee. 

However for those who were in it for the sex scenes, all of this raunchiness came to an end after the first 30 minutes. The last 60 minutes was just the usual Filipino romantic melodrama, with all its cliche lines and situations. There was even an 11th hour appearance of a third party in the person of Ernest (JC Santos), Aimee's classy ex-boyfriend who returned from Paris to become their new boss, to complicate things. In fact, the word "alter"was not heard anymore until one final random remark in a climactic tell-off scene.

The aspect of this film that I liked best was the close relationship of Uno with his family. He had a teenage brother nicknamed Dos (Royce Cabrera), and their precocious youngest sister was nicknamed Tres (Rhed Bustamante). Their father (Richard Quan) owned a junk shop called "Gardo's Butingtingan" picturesquely located beside the Pasig River. This cheery family wholesomeness was a welcome oasis amidst the moral depravity of this seedy online alter world, yet another disturbing revelation about the younger generation of today. 4/10. 


KTX: Review of MY LOCKDOWN ROMANCE: Confession from the Closet

November 15, 2020



During their college days, closeted gay guy Tom Amorado (Jameson Blake) had a big crush on his jock friend Kendrick Villaverde (Joao Constancia), but never had the guts to tell him what he really felt for fear of losing their friendship. One day, Kendrick suddenly had to leave the country to migrate to Hawaii and lost all contact. Tom was left to move on with his life and would later work as a freelance accountant after graduation. 

Five years later, Tom and Kendrick rekindled their friendship via Facebook. However, their interactions were limited online video calls because of the ongoing pandemic. Kendrick was back in the country and was volunteering as an errand boy for senior citizens in his community. One day, Covid-19 hit very close to home and became a serious mortal threat. Can Tom now finally tell Kendrick about the love he really felt for him? 

The BL (Boys Love) romance subgenre began as yaoi manga in Japan which was about a romantic relationship between two boys, one masculine and one feminine, written for a female audience. This theme was later picked up by Thailand writers for their own BL books which later became mainstream enough to be produced as television series. 

Because of the immense popularity of Thai series "2gether the Series" earlier this year, Filipino filmmakers had been churning out one BL series after the other during this pandemic lockdown, starting with Ivan Andrew Payawal's "Gameboys" series (starring Kokoy de Santos and Urian best actor Elijah Canlas) which came out on YouTube in May, followed by Petersen Vargas' "Hello Stranger" (starring Troy Labrusca and JC Alcantara) in June. 

Bobby Bonifacio, Jr. wrote and directed this Star Cinema feature film which further capitalized on this ongoing BL trend. The film followed the usual formula for BL produced during the lockdown, two attractive guys who kindle a close online friendship, chatting away on Zoom while quarantined in their homes which would later bloom into something more (or maybe not). Their video calls would be chockful of "kilig" moments to delight their target audiences. 

Both leads were matinee idols who came from popular television reality series. Jameson Blake started his career on Pinoy Big Brother: Teen Edition in 2015 which later led to being a member of the Hashtags dance group. Joao Constancia was among the winners of "Pinoy Boyband Superstar" in 2016. Blake had already proven himself as a dramatic actor with an acclaimed performance in Chito Rono's "Signal Rock" (2018). 

Another usual character in a BL series also present here is a female best friend of one of the guys for him to vent his frustrations about his ongoing online relationship. Here it was Gab Pangilinan, the current it-girl of Philippine theater following her heart-breaking performance as Joy in the 2019 restaging of "Ang Huling El Bimbo," in her first major film role. She played Gad Cervantes, a girl who had a crush on Tom in college, but accepted her friendzone fate when she learned about Tom's feelings for Kendrick. 

Blake's unexpected casting and subtly nuanced performance as Tom was the highlight here. However because of the rather serious approach by the director within its 90 minute run time, the chemistry and thrill factor between him and Constancia did not feel as potent nor as cheerful as the couples in "Gameboys" and "Hello Stranger." While it told an engaging story with likable characters, being released almost six months after the BL trend exploded on the local scene made it a bit difficult for it to come up with anything substantially original anymore.  6/10. 


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"My Lockdown Romance" is streaming WORLDWIDE beginning November 13 -- for only P150 on the following CineXpress channels: KTX.ph (ktx.ph), Iwant TFC (tfc.tv), IPTV, Cignal PPV (my.cignal.tv), and Sky Cable PPV (mysky.com.ph).


Saturday, November 14, 2020

YouTube: Review of GOOD TIMES BAD: From Linear to Labyrinthine

 November 14, 2020



Blade Auto Center first ventured into making films with Roderick Lindayag's nostalgic romantic drama "Dito Lang Ako" which premiered in movie houses in 2018.  However, they decided to make their next two films streaming for free on demand on their YouTube page. These were the rom-com "12 Days to Destiny" posted last year (now with 3.5M views) and its sequel "The Next 12 Days" posted just five months ago (now with 1.5M views). 

Their first three films tackled very light love story themes, easily accessible for mainstream audiences, and starred actors who had already established a name for themselves in the industry. For their newest feature film, Blade invested in 4K technology (3840 x 2160 pixels), which has a considerably higher resolution than the typical 1080P HD videos. However, with this investment, they also took a very big risk -- a debuting director Ara Baldonado, an all-newbie cast and an experimental story and story-telling style.

Janus Paraiso (Jal Galang) lost the suitcase of his mother. Jill dela Rosa (Hasna Cabral) lost the tool box of her father. The two of them cross paths and decide to join forces to look for the thief Spanky whom they suspect was responsible for stealing both of their respective items. However, because of various misfortunes, like getting drunk, or car trouble, they kept on missing their quarry. Will the two ever be able to catch the thief and recover their lost items? 

You have to admire the dedication of the two main actors. They were made to do some outright weird and repetitive scenes which looked very exhausting to do. Their inexperience can quite evident with their awkwardness in front of the camera in certain scenes. As for the actor who played Spanky, it was not clear if he was intentionally being funny or just naturally being annoying. The "12 Days" films were referenced here, not only with the red Mini Cooper, but also the return of Akihiro Blanco as Blade salesman Daniel, but honestly I did not know what the heck he was doing here at all. 

The plot (written by Sarrah Vilar) was actually seemed simple and straightforward. However, Baldonado (who was also the editor) peppered and padded the story with the big bang theory, on top of red herrings and meandering subplots to complicate and confuse matters. What could have been a short film turned into an hour-long puzzling maze which may or may not make sense to viewers. This was really as indie as indie could get, definitely not for everyone.

This film ended with many unanswered questions. What does the title mean with respect to the story told? What did the stolen items mean, especially given those unclear, incomplete flashbacks about their respective parents? What do the peripheral references to the "12 Days" films mean? Will there be a future film to connect everything together? I guess will have to wait for Blade's next movie project to find out. 


Netflix: Review of JINGLE JANGLE: Extravagant Exuberance

 November 14, 2020



Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell) was a very successful toymaker in the town of Cobbleton. One Christmas, Jangle completed his work on Don Juan Diego (Ricky Martin), an amazing talking android toreador doll with human emotions. However, the vain Don Juan did not want to be mass-produced, so he convinced Jangle's struggling apprentice Gustaffson (Miles Barrow) to steal him, together with his book of original toy designs and ideas. After this sad experience with treachery, Jangle lost all his interest in his work and even in his family. 

One Christmas several years later, Journey (Madalen Mills), the spirited daughter of Jangle's estranged daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) visited her grandfather (Forest Whitaker). She found him to be a bitter, cranky, broken old man who could not get his new toy to work. With the help of Jangle's dorky young apprentice Edison (Kieron L. Dyer), Journey was able to make Jangle's incredible toy robot Buddy come to life, walk, talk and even fly around. However, Gustaffson (Keegan-Michael Key) was about to foil Jangle's life all over again. 

This whimsical fantasy and family film written and directed by David E. Talbert, who is now on his 3rd Christmas film out of the 5 he directed so far in his career. The whole look of this film was very rich, with bright, glittering and luxuriant colors in the dynamic sets and ornate costumes. The live action sequences were also augmented with some cleanly executed computer-generated animation, as well as impressive stop-action animation, particularly in those interludes featuring figurines of all the characters as the grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) was telling their story. It certainly looked like an extravagant, very expensive film.

This is also a musical film, with songs written by John Legend and Philip Lawrence. The  exuberant opening song "This Day," featuring the young Jeronicus Jangle singing and dancing with his wife Joanne (Sharon Rose) and daughter Jessica (Diaana Babnicova) along with all his loyal customers, was already a big showstopper. For me, this was the best song number of the film, with some of the best acrobatic dancing moves to the very catchy tune, with an unmistakable vibe from "The Greatest Showman". 

The amorous postmistress of Cobbleton Mrs. Johnston (Lisa Davina Philip) who had a big crush on old Jeronicus delivered a powerful jazzy gospel vocal performance in the song "Miles and Miles" sang in full-on, soulful "Dreamgirls" style with her own trio of male backup singers. Among the slower songs, the best one for me was "The Square Root of Possible" sung by Journey to celebrate the infinite possibilities in her life. This song best showcased the beautiful singing voice of Madalen Mills.

However, there were certain aspects which I did not like too much. The kid actors and even some adult actors, were so over-eager to please, such that their cheerfulness did not feel sincere. The pacing of the film felt leaden, which made it feel long and the middle section sag. There were many designs and scenes reminiscent of older films, like "Wall-E", "E.T.", "Mary Poppins" or "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang". It was feel-good for sure, but there was just that nagging overall feeling of holiday excess and pretense that overloaded its spirit. 6/10. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE LIBERATOR: Extraordinary Exploits in Advanced Animation

November 13, 2020




On July 10, 1953, the "Thunderbirds," the motley 157th Regiment from Oklahoma composed on Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and local cowboys led by Captain Felix Sparks began their bloody 500-day tour of duty in Nazi-controlled Europe, from the vital supplies passage of Via Anziate in Italy to the snowy Vosges mountains of France, from the German town of Aschaffenburg to the horrific concentration camps at Dachau. 

The most remarkable thing about this 4-episode mini-series (based on his story in Alex Kershaw's book "The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey" as adapted by Jeb Stuart) is its rendition of these war scenes in a novel animation technique called the Trioscope Enhanced Hybrid Animation, where digital images were superimposed on live actors. Using this advanced rotoscoping method, the exploits of Lt. Sparks and his men en route to the liberation of Germany in 1945 unfolded in compelling, and many times frightening, realistic detail.

Bradley James was in fine form in his portrayal of the legendary war hero Felix Sparks. We see his story start in 1942 when as a Lieutenant, he was assigned to whip a ragtag group of delinquent soldiers into fighting shape. With every episode, Sparks displayed unique leadership acumen with uncommon nobility as he was promoted in rank and command (he was a Colonel by the final episode). This was an extraordinary character to pull off, and fortunately, James had the charisma to do it.

Among his men, there were a couple of soldiers who stood out, and whose arcs were followed in all four episodes. One was Corporal Able Gomez, played by Jose Miguel Vasquez. Distinguished by a scar across his right eye, Gomez was of Mexican descent, fearless and loyal to the end. The other one was Sergeant Samuel Coldfoot, played by Martin Sensmeier. Coldfoot was a proud member of the Choctaw nation, an impulsive and hot-headed soldier who served as Sparks' trusted right-hand man. 

Director and animator Greg Jonkajtys may have employed his new visually-stylized animated technique to cut costs on their location and logistic expenses, but this unique look actually set this series apart from others like it. I believe they were able to execute challenging battle scenes in all types of weather and terrain with grit and realism, despite the opinion of those who may complain how this animated filter can be a distraction. The cinematography and camera-angles were impressively postcard-perfect, each scene was literally a work of art. 8/10. 



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Netflix: Review of DASH & LILY: Cute and Clever Christmas Challenges

 November 11, 2020



Dash (Austin Abrams) was an aloof young man who the enjoyed the bookstores, libraries and museums of New York City. Eight days before Christmas, he found a red hard-bound notebook among the J.D. Salinger books at The Strand. In it were written clues to follow to discover a hidden message. His interest piqued, Dash was game to enough to follow the whole game through. He would continue the challenges with the help of his best friend Boomer (Dante Brown) who worked at the pizza parlor and video rental store.

Lily (Midori Francis) was an overprotected 17-year old girl from an Asian family living in Manhattan. Rather eccentric with odd interests, she enjoyed activities with adults than her peers. That Christmas, her parents left for a second honeymoon to Fiji, leaving her with her grandfather Arthur (James Saito) and her gay brother Langston (Troy Iwata). She was that one who left the red hardbound notebook among the J.D. Salinger books at The Strand, with the help her cousin Mark (Patrick Vaill), hoping to find someone who shared her . 

Dash's rich father Gordon (Michael Park) was always away on business and had a revolving door of girlfriends. The gorgeous and gregarious Sofia (Keana Marie) was once Dash's girlfriend, but they had to split up when she had to move to Brazil, on top of personality differences. Lily was very close to her godmother and her grand-aunt, the fabulously fashionable Liliane (Jodi Long), whom she code-named Mrs. Basil E. (from her favorite E. L. Konigsburg novel). In the course of the story, Lily would run into Edward Thibaud (Glenn McCuen), a boy who had bullied her back in middle school.

I just saw Austin Abram in a recent very angsty young-adult romance entitled "Chemical Hearts," and his Dash here was more or less the same type of loner guy. As for Midori Francis, it was always refreshing to see a lead character of Asian descent in an American series. Her Lily may have a quirky fashion sense, but she was nevertheless lovable with her delightful oddness and effusive optimism. Even if the series following the usual rom-com formula, the chemistry between Abram and Francis made sure we followed their relationship all the way to finale. The dramatic snag in Episode 7 might have been inevitable, but it made Episode 8 too irresistible to miss. 

This cheerful holiday mini-series had all the trappings and tropes of a typical Christmas rom-com which was expanded to eight easy-to-digest episodes of just about 25 minutes each. What made this one very interesting was that we knew things Dash and Lily did not know, and we enjoyed following their long winding process of getting to know each other only from what they wrote in the notebook. Their challenges may seem silly, shallow and juvenile, however they were actually pushing each other to break out from their respective comfort zones. 8/10. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Reviews of THE NEW MUTANTS. LOVE AND MONSTERS, COME PLAY: Monstrous Match-ups

 November 10, 2020


THE NEW MUTANTS

Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) was the only survivor when her Native American reservation, including her father, was destroyed by a strong force that was reportedly a tornado. She was brought to a hospital run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who told her that she survived because of her inherent mutant powers, which were yet unknown. The other teenagers in the hospital with her were: Sam (Charlie Heaton) with forceful aero-propulsive powers, Illyana (Anna Taylor Joy) who was both sorceress and warrior, Roberto (Henry Zaga) whose body generated solar energy and Rahne (Maisie Williams) with her wolf-like abilities.

When I first saw the trailers of this film maybe a year or two ago felt like a horror movie. Actually, it was more angsty drama of teen mutants we have all seen before with the rebooted X-Men or other superheroes. The young actors in the cast were familiar from other very popular TV series, but only Anna Taylor-Joy looked genuinely bad-ass. Maisie Williams, in particular, looked ill-at-ease outside Winterfell, and her lycan powers looked pathetically weak beside everyone else. The CG imagery of the nightmarish past experiences the teens relived, including the final showdown with the giant bear monster, were not exactly very well-conceptualized or executed. There is limited display of their powers as these are still undeveloped at this stage, so the action scenes should be better in future sequels, should these come. 5/10.


LOVE AND MONSTERS

Because of the chemicals released by these bombs detonated to avert an asteroid disaster, all cold-blooded creatures were turned into giant monsters which soon wiped out all but 10% of the world's population. Joel Dawson (Dylan O'Brien) was in one of these survivors and he is the cook of his underground bunker community. One day, Joel was able to talk to his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) on the radio. Despite his tendency to freeze up in terror, Joel resolved to go to the surface to seek out Aimee's seaside colony to reunite with her.

Overall, the film was very entertaining and well-paced by director Michael Matthews, although for me the momentum sort of petered out a bit by the time it reached the climax. One of the cool things about this film was how they reimagined insects, crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles as man-eating monsters. 29 year-old Dylan O'Brien (best known as lead character Thomas in "The Maze Runner" films) gave a solid and engaging performance as Joel, that you'd root for him to succeed in his quest for his first love. Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), whom Joel met en route, were also very likable characters, reminiscent of Tallahassee and Little Rock in the similarly post-apocalyptic "Zombieland" films. 7/10. 


COME PLAY

Oliver (Azhy Robertson) was an autistic boy who could only used a special app on his smartphone to communicate with others. His difficult condition caused him to be bullied in school, as well raise tensiCon between his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher, Jr.). One night Oliver sees an ebook on his phone entitled "Misunderstood Monsters." It told the story of a monster named "Larry", who just wants a friend. However, when Oliver read the story, the light bulbs around him would all going out and a tall lanky shadowy figure emerged from the gadget.

There had already been previous films about young children who believe they are seeing monsters. This new film gave the boy an additional challenge -- non-verbal autism. The inability of Oliver to articulate the terrors he was experiencing definitely made his plight a lot more distressing. Despite having several horror film cliches, he techniques writer-director Jacob Chase used to set-up the scares were very effective, especially those scenes during the boys sleepover and those set in Marty's cramped booth at the parking lot. Unlike other monster films which reveal the monster entire body as it terrorized the victims, Chase wisely kept Larry's appearance mysterious for the whole the film, showing only bits and pieces of the monster's body at any one time. There is of course an underlying warning to viewers about our obsession with screens (phones, tablets, laptops, PC monitors, televisions) in our lives. 6/10. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Netflix: 3 Mini-Reviews: OPERATION CHRISTMAS DROP, MIDNIGHT AT THE MAGNOLIA, CHRISTMAS MADE TO ORDER

 November 7, 2020

OPERATION CHRISTMAS DROP

Director: Martin Wood

Writer: Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer

A photo of Cargo pilot Capt. Andrew Jantz (Alexander Ludwig) in a Santa hat using military planes to drop presents to surrounding islands on Christmas time gave Washington the impression that their airbase on Guam may be slacking. In response, Congresswoman Bradford (Virginia Madsen) sent her no-nonsense aide Erica Miller (Kat Graham) to that base a week before Christmas on a fact-finding mission to evaluate Andrew's airbase to see if their activities were wasting military funds so it can be closed down. 

As she got won over by the islands' beauty and people, Erica discovered that the Drop was an actual humanitarian mission that had been going on as an islander tradition for 70 years. This fact was the only surprise in this wholesome feel-good rom-com. An ill-timed typhoon  and a grinchy Congresswoman served only as temporary spoilers. Amid scenes of beaches and snorkeling, there were tropical Christmas parties and carols to set the holiday mood. The shout-out to the US military forces stationed in the Pacific was quite heartwarming.  6/10


MIDNIGHT AT THE MAGNOLIA

Director: Max McGuire

Writer: Carley Smale

Childhood friends Maggie Quinn (Natalie Hall) and Jack Russo (Evan Williams) were co-hosts of a successful local radio morning show in Chicago. Their families were very close friends as well, and they celebrated holidays together. When they were offered nationwide syndication, they planned a live New Year's Eve broadcast to introduce their respective significant others to the public. However, they both became single before the big day, so Jack thought it would be a good idea for them to lie to everyone and pretend to be a romantic couple themselves.

Their fathers were owners of a jazz club called the Magnolia which held an annual New Year's Eve party, making it an ideal venue for the planned broadcast. This rom-com had an interesting premise of long-time platonic friends finally realizing they were right for each other. However, it also followed the typical formula by having a major conflict come up right on the day before their big announcement, to teach the important lesson that lying is not good policy. Anyhow, you simply knew that things will iron themselves out before the film ends. 5/10


CHRISTMAS MADE TO ORDER

Director: Sam Irvin

Writers: Matt Marx and Anna White

Steven (Jonathan Bennett) was a very driven architect who was about to be named partner of his firm. Gretchen (Alexa PenaVega) was working part-time in an advertising but was launching her new business as a holiday decorator. When his parents and sister's family announced at the last minute that they were going to spend the holidays with him, Steven hired Gretchen to do the Christmas decorations in his house. Since he was swamped with work, Steven also asked Gretchen to coordinate Christmas activities to keep his family entertained.

As would be expected in a Hallmark Christmas movie, the dour and dry Steven would eventually warm up to the infectious Christmas spirit which Gretchen so cheerfully and passionately exuded.  Aside from holiday cheer, the main message of the film was about believing in one's self and following one's dreams. PenaVega and Bennett gave very likable lead performances. The bright, colorful production design was so effusively Christmassy. Even if the decisions made were realistically very risky in real life, the film's earnest and optimistic premise will win you over with its winsome holiday sentimentality. 7/10.


Friday, November 6, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE ON THE RUN: Snail Slime Sting

November 6, 2020



When he learned that his pet snail Gary is in the possession of the vain King Poseidon, a despondent SpongeBob (Tom Kenny), along with his best friend Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) rode a car driven by a robot named Otto (Awkwafina) to embark on a perilous road trip to the Lost City of Atlantic City to get Gary back.

Along the way they passed by a ghost-town called Goner Gulch, they saw a tumbleweed which contained a spirit guide named Sage (Keanu Reeves) who would guide them the rest of the way. When they get arrested by the King, Mr. Krabbs (Clancy Brown), Squidward (Roger Bumpass), Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) and Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) try to rescue them.

As always, Plankton would spark the whole thing because of his evil plan to steal the secret formula of the Krabby Patty. Goner Gulch would be populated with flesh-eating (and dancing ) pirate zombies who were held captive by the notorious El Diablo (Danny Trejo). There would also be a rapping Gambler (Snoop Dogg) in the Inferno Saloon. 

Atlantic City would be a glittering and dizzying theme park with all sorts of food, gambling and entertainment for SpongeBob and Patrick to indulge in to make them lose focus on their quest (as expected). The Master of Ceremonies of the venue was Tiffany Haddock (Tiffany Haddish). The special musical guest was a clarinet player Kelpy G, spoofing Kenny G. 

To provide the touching drama to balance the silly comedy, there would be flashbacks to the days when the Bikini Bottom gang were still little kids and how they got acquainted in Camp Coral. Of course, these cute scenes would highlight SpongeBob's timeless virtues of cheerfulness, friendliness, kindness and selflessness as lessons to the kids watching. These scenes also served to tease a reboot of the TV show with the characters as kids.

The sunny soundtrack was peppered with familiar pop hit songs like "Dreamweaver," "Take on Me," "Living La Vida Loca" and "My Heart Will Go On." There were also some grooving new songs like "Agua" (Tainy & J Balvin) and "How We Do" (by Snoop Dogg). But for me the catchiest ditty of them all would be "Secret to the Formula" (co-written by Cyndi Lauper) performed by the Cast in that fun climactic rescue scene.

I am a big fan of "The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie" (2004), a 2D animated feature film which I watched multiple times. This third movie somehow approximated the plot of the first one in which SpongeBob and Patrick embark on a risky mission that involved the King (Neptune in the first, Poseidon in the third). However, try as it may, this new fully 3D animated installment still cannot match or recapture the rich story and timeless charm of the first film. Anyhow, it was a bit better effort than the second film 2D-3D mix "Sponge Out of Water" (2015, MY REVIEW). 6/10.