Monday, March 29, 2021

Netflix: Review of A WEEK AWAY: Christian Camp Chronicles

March 29. 2021

Will (Kevin Quinn) was a teenage delinquent whose last misdemeanor was stealing a police car. At the risk of being sent to a juvenile detention facility, he reluctantly accepted an invitation to go to a Christian summer camp with Ms. Kristin (Sherri Shepherd) and her son George (Jahbril Cook). Upon arrival, Will felt the activities were corny and not really his thing. But when he met Avery (Bailee Madison), the daughter of the camp director David (David Koechner), she encouraged him to participate more actively.

Being a teen musical film, comparisons to High School Musical and Camp Rock are inevitable. But the songs in this one are from the Christian genre. There were a number of catchy original songs with words and music by Adam Watts, Alan Powell and Cory Clark, best of which was the infectious final song "Best Thing Ever." However, there were also some familiar 90s hit songs from the Billboard Christian and Hot 100 pop charts, like "Baby Baby" by Amy Grant and "Place in this World" by Michael W. Smith. 

There were a lot of fun pop culture references peppered throughout the script. Aside from the namedropping of classic movies like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and many more, there was a major adaptation of the sorting hat ceremony from the Harry Potter books and films. Here, there was a Tribunal night where the new campers were divided into three teams, namely the Crimson Hearts (with Avery), the Azure Apostles (with Sean) and Verdes Maximus (with George), but this one had "Pitch Perfect"-like jamming afterwards. 

As Will, Kevin Quinn had Troy Bolton vibes, looks and voice-wise, though at 23, he frankly did not exactly look like a teenager anymore. Bailee Madison is a pretty and winsome young lady, and her singing voice was beautiful, especially when she led in the singing of Rich Mullin's "Awesome God" in the campfire. As George, Jahbril Cook was awkward and nerdy as his character required, but he also nailed his solo on Amy Grant's "Baby Baby," dedicated to his crush Presley, coyly played by Kat Conner Sterling. 

This film was generally lighthearted and very wholesome, given that it had a religious theme. There were bible lessons dropped along the way but things never became too preachy, with the spirit of fun still dominating the mood. It did had its serious moments at its climax as certain characters make rash decisions and actions, and the emotions in these scenes do connect well. You can easily foresee how things were going to work out at the ending, with the whole cast singing an uplifting song of togetherness. 6/10. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

KTX: Review of DITO AT DOON: Challenges in Communication

March 28, 2021

Eight days into the quarantine, graduating education major Arlene "Len" Esguerra got into an argument with a certain Carlo "Caloy" Cabahug on social media. That night, she invited her good friends Jo (Yesh Burce) and Mark (Victor Anastacio) for an online drinking session to rant about her online experience. Mark had a friend with him that time, and by sheer coincidence, the new guy turned out to be exact Caloy whom Len was complaining about.

The story and script by Alexandra Gonzales and Kristin Parreno Barrameda tackled the development of a possible romance amidst the limitations imposed by the quarantine restrictions brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Len was on her final semester, and had online classes. Caloy was not able to buy a ticket for Cebu to be with his mom (Shyr Valdez) and siblings, and was now working with motorcycle delivery company.

Several activities which people engaged in during the lockdown were shown in the course of the story. Aside from the "e-numan," Len and Caloy also had cooking lessons and music jamming all via video calls. Len also engaged in various popular pandemic trends like Dalgona coffee and home gardening, and also had an online graduation ceremony. We can identify with these things as we most likely did them ourselves during the past year.

The basics of infection control during the pandemic were also weaved into the script, with reminders of using face masks and face shields, and social distancing. The plight of health care workers was also incorporated into the story with the character of Len's mother Aileen (Lotlot de Leon) who was a dedicated nurse who still worked double shifts despite her seniority of age and her ominous coughing fits.

Janine Gutierrez easily drew us to her side with her winsome portrayal of Len, despite the supposed flaws of her woke character. JC Santos turned on his signature charm as Caloy to sweep the NBSB Len off her feet. His Caloy may have his faults, but these were more subtle than the rascals JC played before. Yesh Burce and Victor Anastacio worked well as Len's comical sounding boards. Lotlot de Leon and Shyr Valdez were at their motherly best.

Despite the social isolation of these characters from each other and the palpable loneliness they were all experiencing at that time, the innovative idea executed here by director JP Habac here was having those involved in the video call to be in the same frame together, as if they were actually together in one room. In this way, the rapport, chemistry and the emotions shared remained to be real, relatable and genuinely moving. 

As with many recent Filipino romantic films, Ben & Ben gives a beautiful song "Nakikinig Ka Ba sa Akin"  to accompany the film's key moments about challenges of communication during crisis situations. No matter how miraculous technology is in getting people in touch during isolating times, nothing can beat the authenticity of a face to face conversation especially when in came to expressing emotions. That ending was just wow.  8/10. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

VivaMax: Review of BIYERNES SANTO: Spiritualistic Standoff

March 26, 2021

Married couple Roy (Gardo Versoza) and Lia (Andrea del Rosario) and their daughter Aurora (Via Ortega) were attacked in their provincial mansion by an unknown entity (Mark Anthony Fernandez). This caused the death of Lia who sacrificed herself to keep her family safe. A year later, Roy invited his spiritualist niece Grace (Ella Cruz) to help keep his house safe. With each passing day, everyone experienced more and more eerie occurrences until the climactic confrontation of good vs. evil.

Director Pedring Lopez is just coming from the critical and commercial success of his action film "Maria" (2019), so I was looking forward to this follow-up. He did try his best to keep things tense and spooky with his interesting camera angles and mirror reflections. However, the story was spread out so thin for five days before the events culminated on titular Good Friday. There was not really much the director can do to stretch the limited substance out to fill the 90 minute run time. 

I admired Ella Cruz in her award-winning performance in "Edward" (2019). Here as Grace though, Cruz seemed half-hearted in her acting, never really getting fully into her character.  She did not look convincing when she was doing her Native American smudging or Tibetan singing bowl rituals, or even when she was supposed to be reading books. Cruz's very casual choice of wardrobe may be an effort to break the stereotype of people with such abilities, but these clothes only made Grace even less credible.

Gardo Versoza can get quite over-the-top hammy whenever his character Roy gets angry or scared, or chopping a cucumber. Mark Anthony Fernandez did look very sinister, but then again anyone with white upper eyelids will have that effect. Via Ortega is being in introduced this film but her Lia did not really have much to do for much of the film but look glassy-eyed or panicked. She was taller and bigger than the petite Ella Cruz so their scenes together looked rather awkward. 

The production design and visual effects consisted mostly of the usual scare tactics in Filipino horror films. Events happening during Holy Week, check. The big, darkly-lit mansion in the province, check. Spooky paintings on the walls, check. The creepy religious icons all over the house, including a number still draped in white cloth, check. Quaint folk rituals to ward off evil spirits, check. The number 666, check. Ominous music and jumpy sound effects, check.

However, just when I was about to write this one off, a big shocker of an un-Catholic twist came at the climax on Good Friday. I may not like its ultimate message, but I have to admit that was quite a daring, out-of-the-box ending for a Filipino horror film. 4/10

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Netflix: Review of NIGHT IN PARADISE: Gangster's Gambit

March 24, 2021

Devastated after a terrible family tragedy, gangster Park Tae-gu (Uhm Tae-goo) exacted revenge on Chairman Doh, the boss of rival Bukseong gang he deemed responsible for the ambush. Grateful, Tae-gu's own boss Yang Do-soo (Park Ho-san) arranged for him get away and hide out to Jeju Island for a week, en route for an escape to Vladivostok. 

Tae-gu went over to stay at the house of weapons dealer Kuto (Lee Ki-young) while in Jeju. Kuto's niece Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been), who picked Tae-gu up from the airport, was a young woman who had a death wish. Meanwhile, Director Ma Sang-gil (Cha Seung-won), who took over Bukseong from Doh, was hellbent on revenge on Tae-gu and the whole of Yang's gang.

Park Hoon-jung's first unanimous critical success and box-office as a writer-director was also a crime drama about gangsters, entitled "New World" (2013). A solid 9/10 for me, "New World" starred big stars like Lee Jung-jae ("Il Mare","The Thieves"), Choi Min-sik ("Oldboy","I Saw the Devil") and Hwang Jung-min ("Ode to My Father","The Wailing"). Its main plot was about intricate gangland politics with an integrated angle about police infiltration. 

I've seen lead actor Uhm Tae-goo before, in "The Age of Shadows" where he stole scenes as sadistic Japanese officer Hashimoto. With his cheekbones creating prominently dramatic shadows on his face, Uhm's got the brooding part down pat, but he was certainly no slouch in the action scenes as well, be it foot chase in the airport, or car chase on the highway.

Jeon Yeo-been basically had that one expression of extreme annoyance on her face the whole film, it worked for her depressed character here. It was quite a departure from her role as spirited lawyer Ms. Hong Cha-young on the ongoing K-drama series "Vincenzo" where she was made to do some slapstick comedy routines. 

Cha Seung-won played the brutal gang lord Director Ma with the dangerous slickness of an Italian Mafia don. Park Ho-san had a different approach to his being a gang lord, projecting a fatherly image as a front. Lee Ki-young played the bug-eyed Kuto with that jaded air around him, but this guys was clearly not heartless. Versatile veteran actor Lee Moon-sik played the brash Captain Park who tried to mediate peace between Ma and Yang.

In this new film, Park tackled a gang war from the inside, among the gangsters themselves. He played with the genre with evident inspiration from old-Hollywood noir artistic styling. His gangsters here were always impeccably dressed, even in semi-tropical Jeju. His lighting and camera choices had a particular poetic elegance, despite the occasional violence and gore. 

The pacing can feel too sluggish at times, which may tempt you to hit the fast-forward button, This contemplative film seemed to have been meant more as an art-house piece, than a mainstream action film, like "New World" was. However, those fiery shootout scenes had mortality counts so high, you can never predict who will survive at the very end. 7/10. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Netflix: Review of THE YINYANG MASTER: Frenzied Fantasy

March 20, 2021

A mystical red gemstone called the Scale Stone had been stolen from its Sealing Chamber in the Yin Yang Bureau, by evil spirits under the control of the Snow Queen (Cici Wang). However, the stone was intercepted by the magical ferrets of exiled half-human, half-demon Yin Yang Master Qingming (Chen Kun). Current Bureau Chief Baini (Zhou Xun), Qingming's old friend, led the recovery efforts.

Along with impish street urchin Shenle (Shen Yue), disgraced City Guard Captain Yuan Boya (Qu Chuxiao) was also looking for Qingming to recover the imperial tribute which had earlier been stolen from him by the mischievous master and his animal minions. The three meet in the Red Tower in the Monster Realm where the legendary Tushan Sword had been hidden away by the Port Master. 

Earlier this year, there was just another film with a very similar title, "The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity," directed by Guo Jingming. This was based on the 1986 Japanese novel series "Onmyoji" by Baku Yumemakura. This new one directed by Li Weiran, entitled simply "The YinYang Master" is a totally different film, and was based on a 3D RPG strategy game also called "Onmyoji" by NetEase Games. Both had protagonists named Qingming and Boya, but that was just about all they had in common. 

There were some notable actors in the cast. Regarded in the same level of acting excellence as her contemporary Zhang Ziyi, Zhou Xun achieved a rare grand slam as Best Actress for her role in "The Equation of Love and Death" (2008). Chen Kun has also had an acclaimed film career behind him, with films like "The Knot" (2004). Among the younger cast members, the most popular is the pretty and charismatic Shen Yue, who played Dong Sanchai in the 2018 reboot of "Meteor Garden."

Like the previous Yin Yang Master film, this film was also a rich showcase of the progressive state of special visual effects in China. The main locations, namely the Yin Yang Bureau, the Red Tower and Qingming's garden, were all beautifully designed and executed. Most remarkable here were the Disney-approximate computer-animated three-dimensional creatures which were in close interactive scenes with the human characters, particularly the naughty ferrets and the delightfully cute Red Ghost. 

The climactic battle on the bridge across what looked like the natural stone pillars of Zhangjiajie was also a breathtaking spectacle, even if the designs of the grotesque multi-tentacled giant hand monster and the bizarre make-up of Cimu (William Chan) were not too well-done. It was just a bit of a disappointment for me that the special effects of Qingming's encounter with the head demon Xiangliu felt rushed and was not at par with the rest of the film. However, overall, it was a colorful and engaging fantasy entertainment for all ages. 7/10. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Netflix: Review of YES DAY: Parental Purpose

March 14, 2021

Allison (Jennifer Garner) and Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) were two people who enjoyed extreme adventure activities growing up and as a young couple. "Yes" was their favorite word. However, when they got married had three kids: Katie (Jenna Ortega), Nando (Julian Lerner) and Ellie (Everly Carganilla), they became more cautious and very protective. Much to their kids dismay, their favorite word had become "No."

During a parent-teacher meeting, teachers told Alison how Katie and Nando had portrayed her in their recent homework to be a very restrictive dictator in their house. A fellow parent Mr. Deacon (Nat Faxon) advised them that his secret to having a harmonious relationship with his own six children was to allow them to have a "Yes Day"-- a full 24 hours when the parents say Yes to all their kids' wishes (provided they stay within predetermined ground rules).

The first Yes Day of the Torres family was all planned out by the kids as an elaborate five-event fun fest from morning to night. After dressing up the parents in wacky outfits, their first activity was a sweet breakfast in a Korean restaurant. This was followed by a visit to the car wash with a crazy twist. After a rough and messy paintball flag activity, they went for rides at an amusement park. That was where the well-laid plans began to spin out of control.

Jennifer Garner had always been a favorite actress of mine ever since her "Alias" (2001) days. I first saw her comic chops in "13 Going on 30" (2004) and she was delightful there. In fact, her character Allison here was reminiscent of Jenna in "13" where she threw all caution in the wind as acted as juvenile as she could. However, that cat fight over a pink giant gorilla plush toy was just too overlong, forced and unfunny, despite Garner's charms. 

Edgar Ramirez is a Venezuelan actor who broke through internationally as Carlos the Jackal in "Carlos" (2010). None of his subsequent films proved as big as that big break. He had two films on Netflix last year "Last Days of American Crime" and "Wasp Network" both of which had mediocre reviews. His Carlos here was a huge departure from all the tough guy characters he had played before, and he still seemed awkward goofing off here.

The concept of this film about a day when kids' wishes were granted by their parents was good, but the execution of director Miguel Arteta was farcical and over-the-top, all for the gleeful amusement of kids less than ten. Yet ironically there may be mixed messages. Some of the stunts pulled off in that climactic nerd science party here looked dangerous, despite looking like a lot of fun and easy to clean up. Parental guidance definitely required. 4/10. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

KTX: Review of LOVE OR MONEY: Choices and Consequences

March 12, 2021

Leon (Coco Martin) was a man with simple dreams who worked various small jobs in Dubai to have money to send back home to his father (Dante Rivero) and brothers. Angel (Angelica Panganiban) was the owner of an events company she ran in Dubai with her Tita Faye (Gelli de Belen) and Mima (Matet de Leon). One night, their paths crossed in the fancy restaurant where Leon worked as a waiter. Against all odds and danger, the two fell in love. 

Angel turned out to be the mistress of a elderly Spanish billionaire Enrique (Norm McLeod) who just so happened to be an extremely possessive type and would resort to cruelty when he got jealous. However, Angel just endured his abusive behavior because it was his wealth that supported her business, as well as the money she sent back home to her ailing mother (Teresa Loyzaga). As the title asked, will Angel choose love or money?

By simply reading the synopsis above, you can already realize how old this plot had been overused and rehashed in Philippine cinema. It had been countless times that we have seen this conflict between love and money played out in Filipino films of various genre over the years, from serious drama to slapstick comedy. This new one, written by Crystal Hazel dela Cruz and directed by Mae Cruz-Alviar, took the middle ground and played it as a rom-com. 

As with many Filipino films set abroad, it also made a statement about the lives of Filipino overseas workers. It showed how OFW's barely have any money saved up for themselves as relatives at home become fully dependent on their income. This one showed how hard it can be for OFWs to keep up with the constant requests for signature branded gifts or tuition in expensive universities. 

With the second lead couple of Juniver (Ketchup Eusebio) and Cat (Cai Cortez), this film also tackled complicated romantic relationships between OFWs. Along with scenes which celebrated successful Pinoy entrepreneurs in Dubai, there were also scenes that depict dangerous "sidelines" they may have to resort to in order to keep up with the urgent financial demands back home. 

Aside from the beautiful tourist spots and exciting activities of Dubai, the only aspect that kept this film effective as entertainment were leads Coco Martin and Angelica Panganiban, delivering romantic thrills even when they're well into their 30s. Sure, we've seen them play similar characters before in other films, with other screen partners. Even if they can practically phone their performances in familiar roles like these, these two stars still knew how to tickle their target audiences. 5/10. 

HBO Go: Review of ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE: Expanded Exhilaration

March 21, 2021

In May 2017, Zack Snyder stepped down as director of "Justice League" in the post-production stage for personal issues brought about by the death of his daughter Autumn. When Joss Whedon (director of rival camp Marvel's "The Avengers") took over, he reshot existing scenes and shot new scenes, editing them in a way that led to a final cut that was said to have significantly deviated from the original vision Snyder had for his film (even if Snyder still retained the sole directorial credit).  

Despite the generally negative critical consensus for this film, I did enjoy the film nonetheless (MY REVIEW). It was able to fairly give each hero more or less equal screen time as badass fighters, but also gave each one some scenes with humor to break the overall seriousness of the plot about the plan for world domination by Steppenwolf by gathering three powerful motherboxes.  The DC fan in me was just too happy to finally see the Justice League come together in a live-action film.

Apparently however, many other DC fans the world over were dissatisfied with Whedon's work. Ever since then, they had been petitioning that Zack Snyder to release his own original version of "Justice League," the so-called Snyder cut. Warner Bros. invested additional funds for shooting new scenes, as well as fresh visual effects and musical score. It was first conceived as a four-part mini-series on HBO Max, but it was later decided to release it as a single 4-hour long epic film, with six chapters.

The big difference can be seen from the very start in the Prologue with the squarish aspect ratio of 4:3, with black spaces on both sides. No more Superman was being interviewed by kids, Batman hunting parademons or Lex Luthor's notes referring to three squares. This time in Part One ("Don't Count on It, Batman"), it begins with Superman in the throes of death, his screams of anguish activating three cubes located in Gotham City, in Atlantis and in Themyscira. This, along with a good number of restored scenes, were actually already revealed in the recent trailer that took the internet's breath away.

The introductory scenes of Aquaman (unsuccessfully being recruited by Bruce Wayne in a remote bar in Iceland) and Wonder Woman (fighting terrorists holding kids hostage in a London building) were intact, but longer with noticeable differences in the details and the lines. We see the new, improved, shinier, more menacing design of Steppenwolf with bristling metallic scales, as he attacked Themyscira to get the first motherbox in their possession. 

In Part Two ("Age of Heroes"), we see that Steppenwolf was only answering to a higher evil, called Darkseid. We get the longer version of Diana's history lecture about Darkseid's first invasion of earth and how the tribes of Earth, alien Green Lanterns and the gods of Olympus fought against him. It turned out that Steppenwolf was not even in that epic battle scene at all in the original cut. We also see Diana's exploration of the temple where the burning arrow of Artemis landed and Arthur's talk with Vulko (Willem Dafoe) about his kingship of Atlantis. 

Only in Part Three ("Beloved Mother, Beloved Son") do we fully meet the Flash and Cyborg. We first see Barry Allen was a goofy young man from Central City whose first display of powers was a dramatic time-stopping rescue of a young woman (Kiersey Clemons). Victor Stone was a university football star who was left him half dead in a car accident. Guilt drove his scientist father Silas (Joe Morton) to make Victor into a powerful half-machine being. By the end of this chapter, Steppenwolf got possession of the second motherbox from Atlantis.

In Part Four ("Change Machine"), the fledgling team of heroes engage Steppenwolf in a fight for the first time, while rescuing abducted scientists, as we saw in the first film. Cyborg revealed how he was in possession of the third motherbox, and how it was capable of changing anything back to their original form, hence their idea of resurrecting a dead person. However, the biggest surprise actually happened when Martha Kent stepped out of Lois Lane's apartment. Now, you'll understand why Martha used "thirstiest" to describe Lois.

In Part Five ("All the King's Horses"), the team put into action their plan to bring Superman back to save the world. In the first version, it was Alfred who brought Lois (you only saw her feet step out of the car) in to calm the confused Clark down. However, in this new cut, Lois was actually at the monument at that time for a visit. Another new development was the recognition of the character of Silas Stone and his efforts to help Victor and the protect the third motherbox. Silas was never given this vindication in the Whedon's version.

In Part Six ("Something Darker"), the team fought Steppenwolf and his parademon army while at the same trying to keep the three motherboxes from synchronizing their union. Unlike the first version, there was no more token Russian family who were shown trying to escape the chaos. Superman was in resplendent black this time. Flash would play a critical role in the final resolution of the crisis, far more interesting than the way it happened in the first film. Unity was so close that a portal to Darkseid with Dresaad and Granny Goodness was opened for a while. Steopenwolf's end was not as simple as being carried off by parademons.

There was still a 30 minute Epilogue ("A Father Twice Over") that tied down individual stories, like Cyborg's reconciliation about his father, as well as Aquaman's return to his father. There was a scene where Stone's assistant Ryan Choi was promoted to chief of nanotechnology at S.T.A.R. Labs, perhaps as a suggestion that the Atom may be in a future film. It also included that post-credits scene of Lex Luthor and his guest Deathstroke. The final scene featured the surprise guest first seen in Part Four signifying to Bruce his intention to join the team.

The whole dramatic final narration in the first film by Lois Lane about darkness, which ended with "Look up in the sky," was not there anymore. It was replaced by Silas Stone's recorded advice to his son Victor, that told him to take his place among the hero's of the world, and that the time is now. But the highlight of this epilogue was Batman's haunting nightmare shot in sepia filter, that featured a post-apocalyptic Justice League with the taunting Joker (who did not really say "We live in a society.." like he did in the trailer). 

There was still a sense of humor in the mix, but Snyder was generally more subtle than Whedon. The memorable scene where Aquaman was waxing poetic about his thoughts while sitting on Diana's lasso was not there. The scene where Diana says "Children, I work with children." or Cyborg exclaiming "Booyah!" were also not there anymore. I was actually surprised that Lois Lane's cringy "You smell good" remark and Clark's "Did I not before?" was actually in the Snyder cut, as I thought that was a more Whedon type of thing. 

This new version of "Justice League" is no longer about the story or the acting (since most already watched the 2017 cut), but about the storytelling style. The longer setup of scenes in this cut of course led to a more logical progression of the various individual threads of each hero. Whedon limited the story when he decided to make Steppenwolf the only villain in his cut, but it turned out that Snyder had bigger plans for the DC Expanded Universe given all those exhilarating future films promised by that substantially abundant epilogue. Now my DCEU appetite is definitely whet, and I want more. 9/10.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON: Tough to Trust

March 6, 2021

The evil Druun spirits overrun the land of Kumundra and turned all the people and dragons into stone. The last dragon Sisu used a magical blue gem to drive the Druun away and bring people back to life. However, since then Kumundra had been divided into five different factions: Fang, Talon, Heart, Spine and Tail. The guardian of the gem is the Heart tribe, which caused the other tribes to be jealous of its status.

500 years later, Princess Raya, daughter of the Chief Benja of Heart, was deceived into revealing the secret location of the blue gem. As a result, the gem broken up into five fragments, with one piece winding up with each tribe. This leads to the return of the Druun and the disaster it brought. For the next six years, Raya had been in search of the long lost Sisu with the hope of bringing her back to set things right again. 

The computer animation of Disney continues to progress here, coming up with stunning images, especially when it comes to depicting humans (faces, expressions, hair and fight movements), the cute animal sidekicks (particularly Tuk-tuk the rolling armadillo) and nature scenes. The animation of water and its various forms was a key aspect of this story because Sisu was a water dragon (with four feet and fur). The territory of each faction had its own distinct topography and culture, each approximating a different Southeast Asian country of inspiration. Aside from arnis and the kris sword, there was hardly anything distinctly Filipino in there, not even the much-publicized first Filipino Disney theme song. 

The voice work of the mainly Asian-American cast certainly added to the entertaining quality of this film. The most distinct work here was by Awkwafina who gave Sisu a warm and generous personality. Sisu's human form had her face, which was delightful. Kelly Marie Tran (best known as Rose Tico in "The Last Jedi") imbued Raya with bravery and singularity of purpose, while Gemma Chan (best know as Astrid in "Crazy Rich Asians") matched her grit as her nemesis Namaari. Daniel Dae Kim (as Raya's dad), Sandra Oh (as Namaari's mom) and Benjamin Wong (as the gentle giant Tong) were the other familiar names in the cast. 

The plot followed the typical Disney formula a little too closely so that the story became quite predictable. Naive lead character commits a major blunder that leads to a major problem which she then needs to solve. Raya's father shared the same fate as other Disney parents. There was a quest to locate and collect items in order to put them back together again. The lead character met new friends (a boy boatsman from Tail, a cute baby con artist from Talon, a one-eyed warrior from Spine) along the way to help with her mission.

The lesson of this new Disney film was a very idealistic one for the world today. It pushes for trust in one's fellow man, not exactly an easy thing to do these days. However, the way they do it made this aim difficult to achieve. The film depicted the disastrous result of innocent trust of a child, something that causes the loss of her loved one and the ruin of her entire tribe. This created an uneasy sense of distrust in Raya, and likely, also in its young audience. How could you put utmost trust in someone who had betrayed you big time? Parental guidance is definitely required for this, but even for parents, this is a very tough call. 7/10.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Amazon Prime: Review of COMING 2 AMERICA: Royal Revisitation

March 6, 2021

The first "Coming to America" (1988) was a rom-com starring Eddie Murphy who played Prince Akeem, son of King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) from the fictional African nation of Zamunda. Akeem traveled to Queens in New York City with his friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) to find himself a bride. While working a menial job at a local fast food, he met and fell in love with Lisa (Shari Headley), daughter of his employer Cleo McDowall (John Amos). 

This sequel opens thirty years later after the royal wedding. Akeem was still the crown prince of Zamunda. He and Lisa had three spunky daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy) and Tinashe (Akiley Love). When King Jaffe was on his deathbed, Semmi revealed that Akeem actually had a bastard son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) in New York with a random woman Mary Junson (Leslie Jones) during one drugged night of passion. 

Lavelle was brought to Zamunda to train for his role as the heir to the throne, much to the dismay of Princess Meeka, who could not be Queen because of ancient traditions to the contrary. Meanwhile, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) of Nexdoria was pressuring Lavelle to marry his daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) to unite their nations. However, Lavelle was falling for the charms of his personal hair groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha). 

Given the 33 long years between the release of the first and second films, this sequel banked a lot on its nostalgia factor. Murphy and Hall are back, not only as Akeem and Semmi, but as all their side characters with prosthetics. Aside from Headly, Amos, and the great James Earl Jones, we also see Paul Bates as royal servant Oho (who gets to sing again here), Louie Anderson as Maurice (still a McDowell's employee) and even Vanessa Bell as Gen. Izzi's sister Imani (whom we last saw hopping on one leg and barking like a dog). There were also several fun surprising cameo appearances which are better left unspoiled.

The story of this sequel followed the same general theme as the first one, about deciding to follow one's own dreams despite what others dictate. Original writers Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield along with Kenya Barris to create a new spin on the basic story, adding elements to address current issues of woman empowerment. Under the direction of Craig Brewer, best known for "Hustle & Flow" (2005), this new film basically redid the best comic moments of the first film, but it did have some effective heartwarming moments. 6/10.

Friday, March 5, 2021

VivaMax: Review of TILILING: Into the Insane

March 5, 2021

Three nurses interns went on duty at the Home of the Healing Heart, a mental institution with 50 patients, under the care of head nurse, Miss Divina (Cai Cortez), bedecked in her green velvet gown. The three were assigned patients in the Solitary Alley, which had the most unique patients with no signs of improvement despite advanced therapy and medications. If they would be able to diagnose their patients correctly, they will pass their course. 

Maricel (Candy Pangilinan), 38, had already been an nurse intern for 7 years, but she still could not pass her practical exams to graduate. Her patient was Socorro (Gina Pareno), an elderly woman who was sexually-abused during the Japanese times. Socorro constantly knocked on doors, calling out the name of her husband Felipe and looking for her lost child.

Jessa (Yumi Lacsamana), 25, was an obsessive-compulsive sort, who labels her underwear with the days of the week. Her patient was Peter Pan (Baron Geisler), who suffered child abuse under his drug addict father (Rex Cortez). Since he had the mentality of a child obsessed with Peter Pan, Jessa pretended to be Tinkerbell to get him to talk.

Espie (Donnalyn Bartolome) 25, was the ambitious and selfish sort, one who had it easy all her life. Ironically, a clean freak like her got assigned Bernie (Chad Kinis) an angry man who played with his feces. After they ran out of crap to throw at each other, she was able to get Bernie to admit about his shady job and how he caused the death of his parents.

That night, the guard had a heart attack while chomping on his chicharon midnight snack, and hit a switch that released all the inmates out of their cells and locked down the main gates. This led to pandemonium within the institution premises. However, the three poor intern nurses still had to figure their patients in order to pass.

The acting prowess of Pareno, Geisler and Kinis playing difficult, unstable patients could be said to be the main highlight of this project. Each were given emotionally-heavy monologues to deliver which detailing the ordeals they experienced which messed up their minds so much that led to their confinement in this mental institution. Each actor took their respective challenge head on to deliver soul-bearing performances. 

Writer-director Darryl Yap already stirred controversy when its poster showing the mentally-disturbed "patients" with their mouths open and tongues out. This, the film explained, was how nurses made sure the patient swallowed their medication. However, likely to court more controversy was Yap's decision of having nurses Jessa and Espie unnecessarily run around among the patients only in their brassieres and panties for a good 2/3 of the film. 

The serious message Yap wanted to convey was summarized by the voice-over narration during the last final montage sequences. The rest of the film, however, Yap subjected his viewers to crazy antics of the patients and the nurses, the creepy haunted house vibe of the set, and his rapid-flashing style of rewinding and fast-forwarding of scenes in time. This is a noisy, profane, triggering film, definitely not for viewers with a sensitive constitution. 2/10. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Netflix: Review of MOXIE: Freshman Feminism

March 2, 2020

Vivian Carter was a timid introvert high school girl who mostly kept to herself and her best friend Claudia. On the first day of school, she was impressed when she saw new student Lucy Hernandez bravely stand her ground against the bully football team captain Mitchell Wilson . Inspired and emboldened, Vivian anonymously published her own newsletter called Moxie to voice out her thoughts about the rampant instances of sexism that went on in her school, and call her fellow girls into action against the disturbing status quo.

After small roles in recent films like "Little Women" (2019) and "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" (2020), Hadley Robinson finally broke through to play the lead role in this new teen film. She was spirited, perky and charming as Vivian, a typical teen starting to discover more aspects to her life. I was not completely in favor with all her decisions and actions along the way, especially her testy relationship with her mother Lisa (Amy Poehler), as she displayed churlish behavior which seemed uncalled for. 

In the past, Asian teens were not usually included in ensemble high school flicks like this. However, the trend had fortunately been improving lately, with "To All the Boys" series (2018-2020) and "The Half of It" (2020) having Asian leads. Here, pretty Lauren Tsai played Vivian's best friend Claudia, a straight-laced Chinese girl a strict, Mandarin-speaking tiger mom. Nico Hiraga played Vivian's love interest Seth Acosta, an Asian boy with mad skateboarding skills and a compassionate soul. 

The female schoolmates who warmed up to Vivian's revolutionary initiative were played by Alycia Pascual-Peña (as outspoken new girl Lucy), Sidney Pascal (as soccer team captain Kiera), Anjelikka Washington (as Kiera's BFF Amaya), Sabrina Haskett (as Kaitlynn, whose sexy figure caused dress code issues) and Josephine Langford (as cheerleader Emma). The main antagonist Mitchell, the standard issue athletic jock we see in all high school films, is played by a young actor with a very familiar surname, Patrick Schwarzenegger. 

Under Amy Poehler's direction, "Moxie" was as much a coming-of-age movie, as it was about young people, particularly girls, learning about and acting on social consciousness. Inclusivity is really part and parcel of the film's message, and the mixed-race casting made sure we see that. I thought the film may have tried to take on too much, got confused in focus and felt slow at certain points. While there was a cathartic ending as would be expected, there were some sentiments expressed that did not resonate positively and felt anti-climactic. 7/10.