Thursday, December 31, 2020

3 Mini-Reviews: NOMADLAND, FIRST COW, KAJILLIONAIRE

December 31, 2020

NOMADLAND

Written and Directed by Chloe Zhao

A widow in her 60s named Fern lost her home in the town of Empire during the recession in the late 2000s. She decided to go on her van (which she named Vanguard) to hit on the road and live the life of a nomad in the American West. She went from town to town getting whatever job she could get (in Amazon warehouses, in a beet farm, etc.) to earn a living. She met different people along the way and talked to them about their families, their jobs, their illnesses, and their lives in general. 

This acclaimed film written, directed, edited and produced by Chloe Zhao was a meditative journey into slices of real life in America's heartland captured in breathtaking cinematic images. Zhao just wisely allowed real-life modern-day nomads to tell their own stories, almost like a documentary in style. As Fern, a gritty Frances McDormand blended right in with the other nomads, giving a quiet performance that so restrained, yet so starkly honest and naked, wearing her heart right out on there her sleeve. 

This quiet film may not not for everyone as there was no real plot, but the seemingly pointless, rambling nature of "Nomadland" had its own charm. The non-actors around McDormand and David Straithairn (playing David, a fellow nomad who became close with Fern) had been chosen well, remarkable in their ability to deliver lines without being self-conscious. A lot of scenes only had gentle music or even utter silence accompanying the images onscreen, but they were nonetheless magnetic and poetic. 8/10.


FIRST COW

Written and Directed by Kelly Reichardt

In the 1820s in the Oregon Territory was a place where men gathered while seeking their fortunes in the gold mines of the West. One of these men was Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro), a shy introverted cook from Maryland. One night, he helped a hide a fugitive Chinese man King-Lu (Orion Lee) who was in hiding from authorities who wanted to arrest him for murdering someone. 

Sometime later, the two chanced upon each other again in another settlement, and Lu invited Cookie to go live with him in his makeshift shack. There was a rich man Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who had brought in a dairy cow into their community. One day, Lu thought of stealing milk from the cow at night, so Cookie can bake cookies. Tasting how delicious the cookies were, Lu had the idea of selling them in the market, where the cookies became a big hit.

The dark comedy aspect came in when Chief Factor himself became a big fan of Cookie's baked goodies, while he was grumbling why his cow does not give him any milk. This was a slow-burn tale of friendship between two men as they coped with the rough life in the wilderness, as told by writer-director Kelly Reichardt. Cookie's gentle character and Lu's practical smarts shine right through the cold and dirty settings, giving the film an engaging warmth. 8/10. 


KAJILLIONAIRE

Written and Directed by: Miranda July

The Dynes are a family of petty thieves and con artists, just lived on the barest minimum . Whatever they earn out of their con jobs, they split evenly three ways, Mr. and Mrs Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their 26-year old daughter named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). The family relationship had been strictly business all this time, with Old Dolio treated as a partner in crime than as a daughter. 

Because they needed to come up with more than a thousand dollars to pay off the back rentals they owed for their living quarters, Old Dolio cooked up a major scheme to scam an airline for losing her luggage. Her parents picked up a charming fellow passenger on the plane, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), to be their accomplice. Later, Old Dolio noticed that her parents were actually being sweeter to Melanie than they had ever been to her. 

From the very start, this film will immediately strike you as being quirky, with every character quite unlikable given their behavior and the things they did for their living. The oddball character of Old Dolio was unfashionable, aloof and bizarre, but writer-director Miranda July still managed to make us connect with her emotionally. What happened the morning after Old Dolio's birthday dinner was a total "what-the-hell" shocker I never saw coming. 7/10. 



My Yearend Roundup: The 20 BEST FILIPINO FILMS of 2020 That I Have Seen

 

December 30, 2020

This year 2020 was a year not like any other in recent memory for cinephiles. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie theaters in Metro Manila had been closed since March 15, 2020. Therefore, for the past 9 months, all the movies I had seen had exclusively been on online streaming services only. 

There were limited new Filipino films offered this year via streaming apps, like iWant and Netflix. KTX also hosted premieres of new films. The PPP was held on the FDCP-sponsored platform FDCPchannel.ph. QCinema and MMFF had their screenings via Upstream and GMovies. Cinemalaya was streamed on Vimeo, but they only had short films in competition this year, no new feature films.

These are Top 20 Filipino movies I had seen and written about in 2020.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:


20. THE HIGHEST PEAK by Arbi Barbarona (My Full Review)

19. NIGHT SHIFT by Yam Laranas (My Full Review)

18. MALAYA by Connie Macatuno (My Full Review)

17. MY LOCKDOWN ROMANCE by Bobby Bonifacio, Jr. (My Full Review)

16. BLOCK Z by Mikhail Red (My Full Review)


15. MAGIKLAND by Christian Acuna (My Full Review)

14. HAYOP KA by Avid Liongoren (My Full Review)

13. KINTSUGI by Lawrence Fajardo (My Full Review)

12. LINGUA FRANCA by Isabel Sandoval (My Full Review)

11. LOVE LOCKDOWN by Andoy Ranay, Darnel Villaflor, Noel Escondo, and Emmanuel Palo (My Full Review)


10. MIA by Veronica Velasco (My Full Review)

Starring: Coleen Garcia, Edgar Allan Guzman

Dr. Mia Salazar was an MD, a "doctor to the barrio" working at the local hospital. Dr. Jay Policarpio had PhD in forestry, and enjoyed spewing random facts and statistics about the environment. Despite the huge differences in personality, especially their drinking habits, the two hit it off quite well. However, Mia's troubled past would always get in their way.



9. ON VODKA, BEERS AND REGRETS by Jason Paul Laxamana (My Full Review)

Starring: Bela Padilla, JC Santos

Jane was a successful actress as a child and through her teens. When her career waned, she took refuge under the influence of alcohol, which caused her to make destructive decisions in love and career. One day, while having another drinking binge in a bar, she was noticed and befriended by Brisom band frontman Francis who then helped her get through that night, and several other nights to follow.


8. THE BOY FORETOLD BY THE STARS by Dolly Dulu (My Full Review)

Starring: Adrian Lindayag, Keann Johnson

Dominic Cruz was a gay student from St. Francis School for boys who has yet to experience being in love. A fortune teller in Quiapo predicted that Dominic will meet his soulmate in a week. She pointed out three signs which will confirm that this guy would the right one. Luke Armada was a basketball jock who just broke up with his girlfriend. When depressed Luke decided to join the Journey of the Lord retreat, Dominic was assigned to be his sponsor.


7. GENUS, PAN by Lav Diaz (My Full Review)

Starring: Nanding Josef, Bart Guingona, DM Boongaling

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 and the calm relgious Paulo Honero; and one much younger, Andres Hanibal. On their return to Hugaw, they would made a 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. 


6. FAN GIRL by Antoinette Jadaone (My Full Review)

Starring: Charlie Dizon, Paulo Avelino

After one mall show where her screen Paulo Avelino promoted his latest film, his self-proclaimed biggest fan Jane had the impulsive idea to stow away at the back of Paulo's pickup truck, not expecting that he would be driving out of town to an old house in a remote barrio in the province. Her exciting close encounter with her movie idol was about to take a turn she never would have expected.

 

5. WATCH LIST by Ben Rekhi (My Full Review)

Starring: Alessandra da Rossi, Jake Macapagal

Tricycle driver Arturo Ramon was shot dead by "riding in tandem" killers who cornered him in one section of the slums in Barangay 120 in Caloocan City. Desperate to fend for herself and her three children, Maria volunteered herself to become the asset of police officer Ventura who headed the drug investigations. On her very first assignment with her partner Alvin, Maria realized she did not get what she bargained for.


4. ANG LAKARAN NI KABUNYAN by Kidlat Tahimik (My Full Review)

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 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.


3. ASWANG by Alyx Ayn Arumpac (My Full Review)

This documentary is about the aggressively heated war on drugs launched in 2016 in fulfillment of presidential campaign promises. Arumpac brought her camera directly to the scenes of actual crimes to tell the grim aftermath among the families left behind. We see the real people and their emotions, not mere actors. We hear their own words, not lines penned by a scriptwriter. We may have seen these families in short clips on the evening news, but here, they are given a little more time to tell their grievances.


2. MIDNIGHT IN A PERFECT WORLD by Dodo Dayao (My Full Review)

Starring: Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Glaiza de Castro, Dino Pastrana, Anthony Falcon

In a not so distant future, technically-advanced Manila had an authoritarian government that implemented extreme punishment against lawbreakers, called "blackouts."  In response to this, there were "safe houses" for people to seek refuge from police capture. Four friends got together one night because their common friend Deana had a "blackout" and disappeared. 


1. FINDING AGNES by Marla Ancheta (My Full Review)

Starring: Jelson Bay, Sue Ramirez

In her will, Agnes wanted her ashes to brought back to Morocco to be buried, so her son, wealthy businessman Brix flew her urn there to fulfill her wishes. There he met the manager Cathy Duvera, whom Agnes loved like her own daughter. Agnes further willed that Brix and Cathy return a specific figurine to a certain Regina Castor, which led him on a road trip to know his mother more. 

Aileen Kessop's screenplay 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. 


**********


** Best SHORT FILMS of 2020 that I have seen: 

5. BASURERO by Eileen Cabiling (My Full Review)

Bong was a very poor fisherman who was forced to rely on a disgusting and shady sideline to feed his family. 

4. THE SLUMS by Jan Andrei Cobey (My Full Review)

A poor family of five living in a Tondo slum were chosen by a TV show to be interviewed about their lives. 

3. PABASA KAN PASYON by Hubert Tibi (My Full Review)

This Bicolano film followed an elderly mother who sang the traditional "pasyon" during Holy Week, and her middle-aged son was her manager. 

2. UTWAS by Richard Saldavico (My Full Review)

This Hiligaynon film followed a fisherman as he trained his apprentice son the ins and outs, and tricks of their trade. 


1. HENERAL RIZAL by Chuck Gutierrez (My Full Review)

Jose Rizal's eldest brother Paciano had been a very active participant in the revolution being a close friend of Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto. However because of his reticence and introversion, his side of the story was never told --- well, until now. Here, a dying 79-year old Paciano Rizal delivered a monologue addressed to his illustrious departed brother Jose, elucidating on his frustrations about how Filipinos seems to keep losing their battles and why he thought so. 


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My Yearend Roundup: The 25 BEST FOREIGN FILMS of 2020 That I Have Seen


December 30, 2020

This year 2020 was a year not like any other in recent memory for cinephiles. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie theaters in Metro Manila had been closed since March 15, 2020. Therefore, for the past 9 months, all the movies I had seen had exclusively been on online streaming services only (except for one screening event organized by QCinema).

Oscar-winning or nominated films of 2019 which I only saw in 2020 were not included. Potential Oscar-winning films of the year 2020 which had not been uploaded on local streaming sites were also not included here. 


These are the Top 25 best movies of 2020 that I had seen and written about:

25. THE VAST OF NIGHT by Andrew Patterson (My Full Review)

24. THE PROM by Ryan Murphy (My Full Review)

23. BIRDS OF PREY by Cathy Yan (My Full Review)

22. ONWARD by Dan Scanlon (My Full Review)

21. SONIC THE HEDGEHOG by Jeff Fowler (My Full Review)


20. KIM JI-YOUNG BORN 1982 by Kim Do-young (My Full Review)

19. HILLBILLY ELEGY by Ron Howard (My Full Review)

18. I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS by Charlie Kaufman (My Full Review)

17. BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM by Jason Woliner (My Full Review)

16. THE INVISIBLE MAN by Leigh Whanell (My Full Review)


15. THE LIFE AHEAD by Edoardo Ponti (My Full Review)

14. THE OLD GUARD by Gina Prince-Blythewood (My Full Review)

13. ENOLA HOLMES by Harry Bradbeer (My Full Review)

12. THE GENTLEMEN by Guy Ritchie (My Full Review)

11. SONG WITHOUT A NAME by Melina Leon (My Full Review)


10. OVER THE MOON by Glen Keane (My Full Review)

Starring: Cathy Ang, Philippa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho

Spirited teenager Fei Fei had been in mourning for four years already following a family tragedy. However, while her family was ready to move on, she still could not accept the inevitable changes about to come into her life. She was also disappointed that legends about the Moon Goddess Chang'e she held dear in her childhood had all been forgotten at her home. Because of this, Fei Fei was determined to build a rocket to bring her to the moon to prove that Chang'e really existed. 


9. THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Antonio Campos (My Full Review

Starring: Tom Holland, Bill Skaarsgard, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan

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 from the acclaimed debut novel by Donald Ray Pollock. 


8. BAD EDUCATION by Cory Finley (My Full Review)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Alison Janney

Dr. Frank Tassone was a district superintendent of schools in Long Island, New York. Together with his able assistant of several years Pam Gluckin, Tassone had elevated Roslyn High School into becoming one of the top public schools in the country. One day in 2002, Gluckin's simpleton son Jimmy made suspicious purchases using his mom's credit card, which led to the exposure of her long history of embezzlement of school funds. 


7. MANK by David Fincher (My Full Review)

Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance

In 1940, Herman Mankiewicz or "Mank" was holed up in a small bungalow in the middle of the Mojave Desert to nurse a broken leg he sustained from a car accident. It was during this time, that Mank had been recruited by director Orson Welles to write the screenplay for his next project for which  RKO had granted him complete control. Mank would go on a write the script of what was to become "Citizen Kane," loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. 


6. SOUND OF METAL by Darius Marder (My Full Review)

Starring: Rhiz Ahmed, Olivia Cook, Paul Raci

Ruben was the drummer of his own punk band called Blackgammon, which he formed with his girlfriend and vocalist Lou. One morning, Ruben suddenly felt the hearing in both his ears become muffled and unclear. After doing audiometric tests, his doctor advised him that both his ears are suffering from sensorineural hearing loss. Whatever hearing he had left in his ears totally disappeared. Ruben could never move on from his anger, only progressing to rage. 


5. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM by George C. Wolfe (My Full Review)

Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

It was a hot sweltering summer of 1927 in Chicago. "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey was recording some of her songs at the studio of Mr. Sturdyvant as arranged by her manager Irvin. Her trusty band mates were all there: Custer on trombone, Slow Drag on bass, and Toledo on the piano. And then, there was also an arrogant and ambitious trumpet player Levee Green, whose rebellious attitude stirred up major tensions during that fateful recording session. 


4. IDENTIFYING FEATURES by Fernanda Valadez (My Full Review)

Starring: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela

Magdalena was a middle-aged woman from the central city of Guanajuato who decided to go search for her son Jesus when she learned that the dead body of Rigo, her son's 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.


3. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA by Jeff Orlowski (My Full Review)

Starring: Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, Justin Rosenstein

This American documentary was premiered earlier this year in the Sundance film festival, and has just been released on Netflix for mass distribution. This modern phenomenon of social media 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 to connect people be the same ones to tear people apart?


2. SOUL by Pete Docter (My Full Review)

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Angela Bassett

High school band teacher Joe Gardner was just about to fulfill his lifelong dream to play the piano onstage with his jazz idol. However, on his way home after his successful audition, Joe met a freak accident which caused his soul to leave his body and wind up on a conveyer belt en route to the Great Beyond. He could not accept this sudden fate so he tried to run back, but he fell off the belt and landed into a place called Great Before, where he was assigned to be the mentor of a troubled soul named 22.


And my Number 1 foreign film of 2020 is ...


1. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 by Aaron Sorkin (My Full Review)

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella

When bloody riots broke out between the protesters and the Chicago police force in Grant Park during the 35th Democratic National Convention held from August 26-29, 1968, six leaders, namely Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger and Bobby Seale, were arrested and charged as revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the American government -- the new radical Left. On September 26, 1969, the trial was underway to indict them for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite violence.

Aaron Sorkin's storytelling style would bring us back and forth in time to tell the story in seamlessly edited scenes from testimonies from witness stand to scenes in Grant Park the year before, with real news footage integrated as well. His original screenplay was a complex work of writing that dealt with multiple characters based on real life people with distinctive personalities and political motivations. Issues about freedom of speech and assembly is as relevant today as it was back then.  


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Netflix: Review of WE CAN BE HEROES: Takeover by Titanic Tykes

December 29, 2020



There was a whole armada of aliens who are making their way to attack and conquer planet Earth. All the superheroes of the Heroics organization were called into urgent action, while all their children were gathered together in headquarters for their safety. However, when all the adult heroes were taken captive by the aliens, it was up to children to take up the fight and save the world. Missy (YaYa Gosselin), the daughter sword-wielding superhero Marcus Moreno (Pedro Pascal), had no powers, but she turned out to be the natural leader.  

This film is billed as the sequel to "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D" (2005), also written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Sharkboy (JJ Dashnaw, replacing Taylor Lautner who was not available) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) are both back in this sequel as the parents of Guppy (Vivien Blair), a little girl who had her father's shark-like abilities, as well as the ability to morph water as her mother could morph lava.

Wild Card (Nathan Blair), son of Tech-No (Christian Slater) cannot focus his multiple powers correctly. Noodles (Lyon Daniels), son of  Invisi Girl (Jamie Perez) can stretch his neck and extremities like rubber. Wheels (Andy Walken), son of Miracle Guy (Boyd Holbrook), was a tech wizard on a wheelchair. Facemaker (Andrew Diaz), son of Crushing Low (Brently Heilbron), can shapeshift his face into another one.

A Capella (Lotus Blossom), daughter of Ms. Vox (Haley Reinhart) can manipulate things with the sound of her voice. Slo-Mo (Dylan Henry Lau), son of Blinding Fast (Sung Kang), was super slow, the exact opposite of his father's super-speed. ; Rewind (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) and Fast Forward (Akira Akbar), twins of Crimson Legend (J. Quinton Johnson) and Red Lightning Fury (Brittany Perry-Russell) can manipulate time to go back and forwards.

There was another little girl in the group named Ojo (Hala Finley), who would draw events on her tablet which would happen in the near future. She was introduced as the step-daughter of Ms. Granada (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the current head of the Heroics group. It was Ms. Granada's idea to gather all the kids of the heroes together in the armored room to keep them safe from the alien invaders.  

The various powers of the kids were quite imaginatively used in order to escape from captivity and to rescue their parents. Somewhere in between, they were trained to make the most of their powers by Missy's grandmother Anita Moreno (Adriana Barraza), who was the same person who trained the original superheroes. They learn important lessons as well about cooperation and teamwork to get their mission done, teaching their impressionable young viewers these vital virtues as well.

This was a colorful stand-alone action-adventure film for children, which was a lot of fun to watch even if you did not have any knowledge of the previous Sharkboy and Lavagirl movie. Just watch this film with your juvenile heart and enjoy the kiddie roller-coaster ride. It is cute, shallow and predictable for the most part, but an 11th hour twist was quite a surprise, even if it was somewhat anti-climactic. 6/10. 




Review of WONDER WOMAN 1984: Wishes Were Wild

December 28, 2020



It was 1984, a more mature Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) was working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian. She struck a friendship with the geeky newcomer to the museum, geologist Barbara Ann Minerva (Kirsten Wiig). One day, they were studying an unusual piece of yellow crystal with Latin inscriptions, which was part of the loot of a jewelry store robbery foiled by Wonder Woman at the local mall. 

Without the knowledge of the two women, it turned out that this stone could grant wishes, but these came at a hefty price. Diana got her wish to get reunited with her departed great love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Barbara got her wish to become a strong confident woman like Diana. A businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) seduced Barbara to gain possession of the stone to make a major wish he knew would turn his failed business and life around. 

Gal Gadot was the one good thing going for "WW 1984" and her presence here automatically gave the final rating one full point. She was perfect for this role, no matter whatever else was going on around her. She was no-nonsense here (maybe a bit too serious), and looked great both as Diana (with her smart intellectual demeanor) and as Wonder Woman (with her flawless fighting form). If she was made to do or say something uncharacteristic of Wonder Woman, it was never Gadot's fault, only the script was to blame.

It had been more than 50 years since the events of the first film, but Diana was still discovering new things about herself and what she can do. Only here did she realize that she could actually make a jet fighter invisible; or that she could ride the air currents to simulate flight. Her Lasso of Truth had so many additional functions here. It was, in fact, a major part of every action scene, with Diana using it to swing herself around, knock people of their feet, propel air like giant fan, and even conduct Diana's voice to be broadcast over the airwaves.

While it was good to see Steve come back to life again, how his character reentered Diana's life in the body of another man (Kristoffer Polaha) was not executed very well in that one scene that caused much confusion. In a reversal of roles from the first movie, this time it was Steve who was the fish out of water in 1984. Pine may have been a riot as Steve, trying out cheesy 80s outfits in the mall or being in awe of high escalators, but most of his parts were.not really substantial, just comic relief. 

Kristen Wiig was an unexpected choice to play Barbara, but her portrayal of this character was right up her usual comedy style. I thought that each person can only make a wish on the stone once, but Barbara was able to make a second wish to become an alpha predator. Her transformation into the Cheetah came too abruptly, and her climactic fight sequence at the hydroelectric plant against Diana was not particularly spectacular, except for the detail that Wonder Woman was wearing the shiny armor of legendary amazon, Asteria. 

Pedro Pascal played Maxwell Lord as a devious megalomaniac with full relish, much in the vein of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor in the original Superman films. His madness was at its peak when he in the TV studio granting wishes all over the world on air. In a bit of inclusive casting, he was given a young son Alistair, played by Lucian Perez, who was of Latino-Asian descent. There was one head-scratching moment when father and son were able to run into each other's arms when it looked as if they were miles apart the scene just before.

There had been an extreme hype of anticipation over Patty Jenkins's much anticipated sequel to the critically and commercial success that was "Wonder Woman" (2017), which may have caused the audience to conjure up unreachable expectations for it. Hence, "WW 1984" turned out to be a bit of a disappointment how the screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham stretched a story of wishes going wild into an unwieldy 151 minute film, marred by unsteady pacing and illogical plot details. Thankfully, it closed with an iconic surprise in an extra mid-credits scene which surely made fans very happy. 6/10. 


Monday, December 28, 2020

MMFF 2020: Review of MAGIKLAND: Virtues of Value

December 27, 2020



It was Christmas Eve. Boy (Migs Cuaderno) was spending that night in the hospital because his mom (Jaclyn Jose) was dying.  Sisters Mara (Elijah Alejo) and Kit (Princess Rabara) were eating Christmas dinner with their parents (Audie Gemora and Maricel Laxa) who had long been separated. Pat (Joshua Eugenio) was a street urchin who picked up a stolen cellphone.

While playing the special edition of the very popular mobile game 'Magikland" for that night, these four kids got together at one spot where they were forced to jump into a vortex that led them to the real Magikland. The evil Mogrodo-Or (Jaime Zabarte) was poised to take over the whole kingdom from the embattled Princess Diya (Hailey Mendez). 

The four kids were told by the wise Mama Mandalagan (Bibeth Orteza) that they were the four warriors destined to save Magikland. They were instructed to go out together and complete four different tasks for them to earn the four essential magic weapons (breastplate, bracelet, hammer and sword) which they will need to defeat Mogrodo-Or. 

This film was the third fantasy-adventure film for kids created by the team of the late Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, following "Magic Temple" (1996) and "Magic Kingdom" (1997). It was inspired by a theme park called Magikland, located in Silay City, Negros Occidental, which featured elements of Negros myths, like the four main warriors in this story: Boy Bakunawa, Mara Marapara, Pat Patag and Kit Kanlaon.

The whole film was a feat of visual effects technology, very advanced for the Philippine setting. The live action elements were merged with the digitally-animated landscapes and creatures cleaner and more seamless than they ever were before in a Filipino movie. That long final fight sequence between Mogrodo-Or and the four kid warriors was climactic highlight that brought all these various aspects together spectacularly. It is too bad that this P100M work could not be appreciated on the big screen given current restrictions.

The four lead child actors Cuaderno, Alejo, Rabara and Eugenio all did their roles well, both in the emotional and action scenes. During their perilous adventure in Magikland, the kid heroes learn important lessons about friendship, selflessness, bravery, cooperation and loyalty along the way -- valuable virtues the filmmakers want to impart to their very young audience. Too bad they did not go back to address an issue they raised at the beginning of the film, about the kids being too addicted to playing mobile games on their phones. 

However, the acting of the adult cast, including the celebrity cameos (Rowell Santiago, Jackie Lou Blanco, Noel Trinidad, Cherie Gil, Paolo Contis, Mylene Dizon, Wilma Doesnt, etc) came across as too old-fashioned, corny even. The main villain Mogrod-Or was miscast, and should have been more menacing. Those white ape-like men with long arms and those purple Kabayoyong unicorns were too silly. Granted that this movie is targeted for children less than 10, but director Christian Acuna could have pushed the envelope more to fit how this generation of kids like their movies nowadays, not back in the 1990s.

"Magikland" was nominated in 12 categories for the MMFF 2020 awards night, namely Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Orteza), Gatpuno Cultural Award, FPJ Memorial Award, Cinematography (Rody Lacap), Editing, Production Design, Sound, Original Score (Emerzon Texon), Theme Song ("Smile" by Emerzon Texon) and Visual Effects (Central Digital Lab). 6/10. 

PS: There was a short beautifully-crafted mid-credits scene which served as a moving tribute to the filmmaker who conceived of this fantasy world -- Mr. Peque Gallaga (1943-2020).


Sunday, December 27, 2020

MMFF 2020: Review of THE MISSING: Sacrificed for Safety

December 27, 2020



Architect Iris Valerio (Ritz Azul) was an expert on the restoration of old buildings to their former glory. She suffered major depressive disorder following the kidnapping for her younger sister Nicole, and had to stop work and take medications for it. On recovery, she accepted the offer from old boyfriend and colleague Job Arca (Joseph Marco) for them to work for their professor Mr. Riku Watanabe (Joe Ishikawa) to restore their 109 year-old ancestral home in the outskirts of Saga in Japan. 

Before going to the house, Iris and Job, and Job's young apprentice Len (Miles Ocampo), were already given amulets which were supposed to be able to ward off evil spirits. While working inside the old house, Iris began to see ghostly figures. At first these were only fleeting wraithes with long fingernails. Then she, along with Riku's son Aki (Seiyo Masunaga), saw a figure coming out of a certain wall of the house. Finally, the malevolent spirits (who looked like a cross between Sadako and Valak) frankly manifested in front of her, even attacking her. 

It was unfortunate that the character of Iris just so happened to have a psychiatric condition that needed medication to treat. Psychological stress and substances (either taking them or not taking them) had always been the convenient scapegoat used to rationally "explain" supernatural sightings. This was such a trite and lazy overused trope in horror movies which I thought wasted whatever genuinely creepy things "The Missing" had going for it. 

That whole sequence with Len going back to the house to search for a missing worker Daiji was most illogical. First, why should it be Len looking for Daiji when there was another worker Fumio with them? Second, she went into the house calling Daiji's name, but why was she looking through drawers and boxes as if she could find Daiji inside? Then why did she make a crazy decision to go down to look around the basement by herself? 

The chilly air of autumn, supposedly the time ghosts and ghouls visit the living, fully complemented the atmosphere director Easy Ferrer created for the film  The uniquely Japanese phenomenon of Kodokushi (old people dying alone in their homes with no one finding out for a long period of time), and practice of Hitobashira (burying a person alive at a construction site to appease gods for safety from calamities), further added to the chill. Too bad Ferrer had to resort to overused horror tropes to pull this promising premise through. 

"The Missing" had 12 nominations coming into the MMFF 2020 Awards Night. These were for: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Azul), Child Performer (Masunaga), Cinematography (Marvin Reyes), Production Design (Popo Diaz), Editing (Renewin Alano), Musical Score (Jessie Lasaten), Visual Effects and Sound. 5/10. 


MMFF 2020: Review of THE BOY FORETOLD BY THE STARS: Delivered by Destiny

 December 26, 2020



Dominic Cruz (Adrian Lindayag), a gay student from St. Francis School for boys, has yet to experience being in love. Baby R (Iyah Mina), a celebrity fortune teller in Quiapo with a 99.5% accuracy, predicted that Dominic will meet his soulmate in a week. She pointed out three signs which will confirm that this guy would the right one. 

Luke Armada (Keann Johnson) was a jock in the St. Francis basketball team who just broke up with his girlfriend Karen (Rissey Reyes). Depressed, Luke decided to join the Journey of the Lord retreat. Dominic was assigned to be his sponsor and they hit it off as good friends. As Baby R's 3 signs were happening, could Luke the fulfillment of Dominic's destiny? 

As Dominic, Lindayag was very comfortable and natural actor, very likable. Dominic was quite out as gay in school, and he jived well with his similarly gay two best friends, Timmy (John Leynard Ramos) and Miguel (John Ray Escaño). While he acted with quiet dignity in his scenes with Luke, he finally broke down his guard and lost his composure as he needed to fight for his love at that climactic crossroads moment.

As Luke, Johnson had the face and the charm to give this film a deserving leading man. He was a young man who believed in destiny as he based all his major decisions on the flip of a coin. But for that impulsive act of tenderness he did in that moonlit scene in the field of candles, there was no coin involved anymore -- a surefire fan-thrilling moment. In that one scene with Karen in the classroom, Johnson was at his most vulnerable best.

Writer-director Dolly Dulu (who had a cameo as a talk show host on TV) came up with a bittersweet story that bridged destiny with reality, making this a solid entry in the current BL genre trend. The cinematography, production design and music were all technically aesthetic. However, there were certain scenes which can be uncomfortable, like how a Catholic retreat had a reputation for being the "hunting ground" for the gay students who organized it. 

"The Boy Foretold by the Stars" leads the MMFF 2020 nominations list with twelve: Best Film, Director (Dolly Dulu), Screenplay (Dolly Dulu), Actor (Lindayag), Supporting Actor (Ramos), Production Design (Lars Magbanua), Cinematography (Marvin Reyes), Best Musical Score (Jhaye Cura), Theme Song ("Ulan" with music and lyrics by Jhaye Cura, performed by Nikka Maristela), Sound, Gender Sensitivity and Gat Puno Memorial Award. 7/10. 


Saturday, December 26, 2020

MMFF 2020: Review of FAN GIRL: Worship Without Worth

December 26, 2020



Most Hollywood films about obsessed fans like "The Fan" (1981) to "Misery" (1991) have the fan turn psycho against the object of their idolatry. The opposite seems to be true among Filipino films about such fans. In Lino Brocka's "Bona" (1980) where the titular Bona (Nora Aunor) was willing to become the personal slave of her idol, movie bit player Gardo (Phillip Salvador). Antoinette Jadaone's "Fan Girl" (2020) is more of Bona's kindred spirit. 

Jane (Charlie Dizon) was a 16 year old high school student who was an obsessed fan of movie star Paulo Avelino (Paulo Avelino). She knew every little detail about his biography and career, and she was proud of it. She admired his good looks, his acting talent (like how he could shed tears on cue, or how he could thrill his fans in romantic scenes)

After one mall show where Paulo and screen partner Bea Alonzo promoted their latest film, Jane had the impulsive idea to stow away at the back of Paulo's pickup truck, not expecting that he would be driving out of town to an old house in a remote barrio. Her exciting close encounter with her movie idol was about to take a turn she never would have expected. 

24 year-old actress Charlie Dizon may be a newcomer in films, but she did not show any nerves in her daring performance here. She was able to pull off the challenge of convincingly playing a street-smart precocious teenage girl, yet still maintaining her character's innocence and vulnerability. This film was the story of Jane's coming of age by way of a tough and traumatic experience of coming to one's senses, and Dizon had our empathy all the way.

Paulo Avelino was gutsy to play an actor with his name, trusting that the viewers will know how to distinguish the rascal Paulo Avelino onscreen from him. As expected of him from his previous roles, Avelino did not hold back from playing an unsavory character and he went all out to play this foul-mouthed drug-addict creep, the total antithesis of his public showbiz persona. Paulo was a despicable character and Avelino made sure that we hated him.

The title may have suggested a rom-com between a movie idol and his number one fan. Certainly the first few scenes felt that way, being so light and breezy as the camera followed Jane from her school to the mall show into the pickup. En route along the expressway, Paulo took a roadside bathroom break. That naughty scene involving a prostethic phallus was the first clue that this was not going to be as wholesome as one would initially think it would be. 

Rated R-16, this was an uncomfortable film to watch as it dealt with so much inappropriate behavior of an male adult towards a female minor. Writer-director Antoniette Jadaone delved full-on into disturbing psychological horror as Jane's whimsical fantasy turned into a real nightmare. By calling out abuse of all forms against women, from simple catcalling to outright rape, the film evolved further to be potent statement against misogyny. One can also expand the scope of Jadaone's commentary about blind fanaticism to idols outside show business, like in politics, for instance. 

"Fan Girl" is nominated for 9 MMFF awards: Picture, Director (Jadaone), Screenplay (Jadaone), Actor (Avelino), Actress (Dizon), Cinematography (Neil Daza), Editing (Benjamin Tolentino), Sound (Vincent Villa) and Musical Score (Teresa Barrozo). 7/10. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Netflix: Review of THE MIDNIGHT SKY: Challenge to Connect

 December 23, 2020



Young Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) devoted all his time working to prove his hypothesis that K-23, a newly-discovered moon of Jupiter with its own self-contained heating mechanism, was a prime candidate to possess the ideal conditions necessary to sustain human life. His obsession with this passion project of his had led to sacrificing his relationship with his wife Jean (Sophie Rundle).

The Aether Mission K23 under its commander Gordon Adewole (David Oyelowo) had been sent to K23 to study it closely. The crew consisted of Captain Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), two mission specialists Sully (Felicity Jones) and Sanchez (Demian Bichir), and their young flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone). After two years, Aether had completed their mission and was finally flying on their way back to Earth. 

Meanwhile back in Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle, a mass evacuation of staff was being conducted for a yet undisclosed reason. Determined to see his project through to the end, old, weak and ill Dr. Augustine (George Clooney) opted to stay behind to await word from and communicate with the Aether. One day, Augustine discovered that there was a mute little girl named Iris (Caoillin Springall) who had been left behind with him.

In its core, this film, adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton's 2016 novel "Good Morning, Midnight," was more of a serious melodrama than it was serious sci-fi. Director George Clooney decided to tell his story going back and forth in time from three settings (the Arctic, the Aether and Augustine's youth), which could be confusing at the start and cause momentum to lag at times. 

George Clooney and the rest of his cast generally gave restrained performances. He had touching moments interacting with child actress Springall, especially those tough snowbound scenes of Augustine bringing Iris from the observatory to the weather station. The dramatic highlight was that final radio conversation between Clooney and Jones, where she related what inspired her to become an astronaut. Jones's real life pregnancy was also worked into the story with meaningful effect.

Maybe since I had already seen it done too often, the space walk here in "Midnight Sky" just did not feel that special anymore. However, the use of the pop classic "Sweet Caroline" and the rendering of blood droplets in that scene did add some favorable points with me. While it may feel like an extended coda of the Netflix space melodrama series "Away," its inherent call and advocacy for environmental protection still did come across as urgent.  6/10. 


3 Mini-Reviews: LET THEM ALL TALK, AVA, BLACK BEAR

 December 23, 2020


LET THEM ALL TALK

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Deborah Eisenberg

Alice (Meryl Streep) was a famous author who won an award in London. She refused to fly so her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) booked her on a trans-Atlantic cruise trip instead. To keep her company, Alice invited her old college friends she had not seen for years, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), as well as her favorite nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges). Alice and Roberta had to come to terms with an old unresolved issue that burned between them since Alice's best-selling book came out years back.

Apparently Soderbergh conceptualized this project that his actors would be able to spontaneously improvise and ad lib through their scenes. This conceit was definitely felt as this film had an unusual feel because the conversations would sometimes feel pointless and awkward. Of course it was a joy to see Streep, Wiest and Bergen in one film. I kept wishing they would have more substantial scenes together, but this did not really materialize as the film sort of meandered, instead of being smartly focused. 6/10. 



AVA

Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Matthew Newton

Ava (Jessica Chastain) was an efficient assassin who worked for a black ops organization under her handler Duke (John Malkovich). When a mission did not go according to plans, Ava was forced to return home to Boston after her disappearance several years ago. She reconnected with her mother Bobbi (Geena Davis), sister Judy (Jess Weixler) and ex-boyfriend Michael (Common) who was now Judy's boyfriend. However, big boss Simon (Colin Farrell) was not going to let Duke and Ava go unpunished for breaking mission protocols.

Jessica Chastain did quite well in this unexpected role as a ruthlessly deadly killer fighting men much bigger than her, but she managed to convince us to suspend our disbelief for a while. I enjoyed watching Chastain and Davis as daughter and mother, too bad their interactions were brief and inconsequential. Malkovich can certainly sell any character of his. Overall, despite the big name cast, the story had nothing new to offer to its genre, and the head-scratching ending made no sense. 5/10.  


BLACK BEAR

Director: Lawrence Michael Levine

Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine

In Part 1, Allison (Aubrey Plaza) was an actress turned film director who booked a remote lake house in the Adirondack Mountains owned by Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). Their post-dinner conversation became violent as their discussion was marred by jealousy. In Part 2, director Gabe was directing a film with the same scenario as Part 1. Actress Allison was very emotionally distraught with jealousy that her husband was having an affair with Blair who played her rival in the movie.

This quirky film was as indie as indies can get. It began one way, made a sudden unexpected midway switch and ended up totally another way. The first half of the film was the more straightforward story, but the second half was the more interesting one, both story-wise and production-wise. The second half brought us behind the scenes of a film shoot, with the same three actors in the first half, but now with totally different roles. Aubrey Plaza was really the central focus and energy source of this film. Her performance in that wild second half reached a level of passion that you'd never thought this film would hit. 7/10.  


Reviews of AMMONITE and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE: Ladies in Love

December 23, 2020

In the 1840s, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was a noted paleontologist who had unearthed fossils which had been on display in the British Museum. One day, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) visited Mary at her workshop in Lyme Regis to observe her work. He then endorsed his sickly wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) to Mary's care while he went on a European tour. After a rough start caused by their numerous differences, the two women eventually develop a passionate friendship with each other. 

This film is bound to attract Oscar attention given that both lead actresses are Oscar favorites. Winslet had 7 nominations (with one win) while Ronan had 4, and perhaps an additional nomination is forthcoming for both of them for their passionate performances here. Both stars were on their A-game here as expected -- Winslet with Mary's rough arduous lifestyle and Ronan with Charlotte's delicate constitution. Their A-list stature certainly gave that certain ultra-sensual bed scene between them shock value.

There was a stark contrast between the social status of Mary and Charlotte here, and that was very much part of the bigger story here, aside from the romance aspects. The cinematography and the production design fully immersed us into the gritty circumstances where the story took place. However, it was also this same grit that somehow gave this period lesbian love story a dour and uncomfortable atmosphere, making the proceedings feel rather cold and distant, instead of warm and intimate. 7/10.


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The story of "Ammonite" called to mind a recent period lesbian romantic film, Celine Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (2019). This had been cited as one of the best films of 2019, but surprisingly it was not France's submission to the Best International Film, nor was it nominated in any category at the Oscars. It did win Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 where it had its world premiere as a Palm d'Or contender.

In 1770, an artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrived at an estate on an island in Britanny to paint the wedding portrait of the reluctant bride Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who was about to get married to a Milanese nobleman chosen by her class-conscious mother (Valeria Golino). 

At first, Heloise was aloof and refused to pose, so Marianne had to paint her only from her observations from a distance without Heloise's knowledge. However, as they spent more time together, the two eventually develop a deep and passionate friendship with each other.

The film was a clear labor of love by writer-director Celine Sciamma, imbuing this beautiful film with so much warmth and intimacy (that "Ammonite" lacked). Paralleling Marianne's occupation as an artist, Sciamma also painted her cinematic canvas with rich (mostly primary) colors and poetic imagery (particularly that haunting scene referred to in the title). The two main actresses Merlant and Haenel played their respective characters with so much restraint such that we can only feel from their facial expressions what was on their minds that they could not express in words. 8/10. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Review of SOUL: Searching for the Spark

December 21, 2020



Ever since "Toy Story" (1995), Pixar animated films are always special movie events. Even if sometimes they don't hit the spot that well story-wise, they are still above average on the whole. Among the directors at Pixar, Pete Docter would be the one who had been most consistent with the quality of his output. His previous feature films included "Monsters Inc." (2001), "Up" (2009), and "Inside Out" (2015), all three considered among Pixar's top 10 best films for many. It looks like his latest film "Soul" will be maintaining his winning streak. 

High school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) was just about to fulfill his lifelong dream to play the piano onstage with his jazz idol. However, on his way home after his successful audition, Joe met a freak accident which caused his soul to leave his body and wind up on a conveyer belt en route to the Great Beyond. He could not accept this sudden fate so he tried to run back, but he fell off the belt and landed into a place called Great Before, where he was assigned to be the mentor of a troubled soul named 22 (Tina Fey).

"Soul" continued the long Pixar tradition of pairing a couple of problematic characters forced to help each other achieve their respective dreams. Here, this road trip would involve a cosmic inter-dimensional route. Joe needed to become a serious musician but he could not given his present circumstance, while 22 needed to earn that elusive spark so she can finally be ready to go live life on Earth. This film delved into complex philosophical issues of about a person's existence issues, even going beyond the abstract concepts tackled in "Inside Out."

The animation style of the Real World radically contrasted with those of the unconventional character designs of the After World, particularly in the Great Before where the wise soul counselors were two-dimensional abstract Picasso line faces and bodies, and the new innocent souls were cute and delightful spherical 3D characters. Joe was the first African-American lead character for a Pixar film and the topical focus on jazz music reflected his cultural pride. 

Jamie Foxx's voice captured Joe's midlife frustration, exasperation and determination. Tina Fey's voice gave 22 a lively ebullient spirit and a frank yet sensible tongue. Voicing other major characters were Phyllicia Rashad (as Joe's concerned mother), Angela Bassett (as jazz saxophonist star Dorothea Williams), and Graham Norton (as Moonwind, a spirit in the Zone who guided lost souls back). Wes Studi, June Squibb and Questlove (of the Roots) are also in the cast in smaller roles. 

"Soul" is a bold and profound excursion into topics not usually tackled in a mainstream animated film, daring to expound on the very meaning of human life. It was able to balance deep yet easily accessible existential discussions with the wholesome wit Pixar is known for. Going beyond its whimsical images and heartwarming story, this thoughtful film succeeds in stimulating introspection on how close we are in our respective quests for earning that elusive spark which would complete our lives. 9/10.


Friday, December 18, 2020

Netflix: Review of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM: A Performer's Pride and Passion

December 18, 2020



It was 1927 in Chicago. "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was recording some of her songs at the studio of Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) as arranged by her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). Her trusty band mates were all there: Custer (Colman Domingo) on trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Toledo (Glynn Turman) on the piano. 

And then, there was also an arrogant and ambitious trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). His "modern" ways of doing music his way did not sit well with Ma and the rest of the band. He felt his talent deserved to have his own band and recordings. His rebellious attitude stirred up major tensions during that fateful recording session. 

Viola Davis played the impossibly imperious diva Ma Rainey who knew her voice was valuable enough for her to insist on what she wanted, while white folks tripped over themselves to keep her happy. She knew what she was worth and she demanded it. This was an empowered role that Davis totally embodied. She's played strong characters before, but this time, her eyes were literally burning out of their sockets. It had only been 3 years since Davis won her first Oscar, but this performance has got Oscar written all across it as well. 

The late Chadwick Boseman already looking very thin physically, but his acting was no less explosive. He had a powerful scene where he was telling the band about a traumatic childhood experience and another one angrily challenging God. Those two scenes may have already have that posthumous Oscar for Best Actor all sewn up for him. Too bad most of the world only knew Boseman as the Black Panther before he passed away. Seeing his performance here as Levee, Boseman clearly had so much more to offer.

The unmistakable theatrical feel of this George C. Wolfe film owed to the fact that the screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson had been adapted from the 1982 play by August Wilson, the same playwright who originally wrote "Fences," for which Viola Davis won her first Oscar in 2017. The remarkable cinematography, faithful period production design, make-up, costumes (by Ann Roth), and jazzy original score (by Branford Marsalis) were all of awards caliber. Denzel Washington wore a producer's hat here, part of his commitment to bring the plays of August Wilson about the African-American experience to the big screen.

African-American racial and cultural pride are front and center of this extraordinary film, and this was further elevated by the passionate performances of Davis and Boseman. 8/10.